"Kazuma! Kazuma! Kazuma!" Darkness cried his name in sheer delight and squeezed him until he could hear his bones start to crack.

"Ow! Ow! That really hurts!"

Hearing his cries of pain Darkness came back to reality and released him. Well, she at least stopped crushing him in a death grip. She instead took hold of his right arm and pressed herself against him. Her cheeks were still a bright red and there was a look of sheer bliss on her face.

"I never knew you could be so forceful, Kazuma. To just take what you want in front of the whole world."

"Huh?" Kazuma gave her an uncertain gaze as he rubbed his aching ribs.

Before she could elaborate Princess Iris had hurried up to them, a cheerful Lain and irate Claire right on her heels.

"Onii-chan! I can't believe you're so daring! To do that in front of everyone!" The twelve-year-old had her hands clasped and was twisting from side to side. "You're so bold!"

"Huh?!" Kazuma stared at her, not understanding at all.

Ignis then ran right up to him, tears flowing down his cheeks as he grabbed Kazuma's shoulder. "Welcome to the family, son!"

"HUH?!"

Kazuma was freaking out. Looking all around the room he found the entire audience staring at him with more than a few jaws hanging open. He didn't know what was going on, but he was at least smart enough to understand it was bad.

"Excuse me, I need a moment alone with Darkness!"

He rushed out of the chamber with Darkness still attached to his arm. He needed some privacy so hurried down the nearest hall to a random door. He opened it, stepped inside, and slammed it shut. Only after doing that did he notice it was a guest room with a large bed. He didn't care, so long as they could talk in private.

Seeing where they were Darkness had a different reaction.

"I s… see, you c… can't wait can you, K… Kazuma?" She strolled over the bed and flopped onto it. Darkness shut her eyes and spread her arms and legs. "V… very w… well. I w… won't resist."

It was a scene straight out of an eroge game. A beautiful eighteen-year-old blonde noble girl with a huge chest was lying in front of him on a bed asking him to have his way with her. The only two things that could make this even more perfect would be if she weren't in a dress that covered her completely and if she were a virgin.

The sight was way too stimulating, his heart began to race, and all sorts of X-rated thoughts popped into his head. But then he remembered where he was and the fact this was Darkness.

"Oi! Quit joking and get up!"

Darkness opened her eyes and raised her head to look at him. "What's wrong? I promise to do my best to not make too much noise as you have your way with me."

"Get up before someone walks in and gets the wrong idea!"

She sat up, a look of disappointment on her face. "I didn't expect you to restrain yourself after giving me this." She pointed at the collar on her neck.

"Okay, why are you and everybody else acting so weird just because I got you that? Katrina told me you'd like it."

"Katrina?" Darkness paused a bit. "Wait, do you mean the bunnygirl Aqua resurrected?"

Kazuma nodded. "She said that among her people it would be a great gift for a guy to give his girlfriend. I figured you might like it better than a Wakizashi and it would help fool people into thinking we're a couple."

"Oh," all the excitement seemed to leak out of her, and her head drooped. "I think I understand."

"Can you explain it to me then? Cause I have no clue what's going on."

"Men are stupid," she muttered.

"What was that?"

Letting out a heartfelt sigh she stood up and spoke in a patient but strained voice.

"Kazuma, I have no idea what a collar means among the bunnyfolk, but I can tell you it's not a common gift between a couple who are dating. A man giving a woman a collar has certain… implications."

"Okay, like what exactly?"

She opened her mouth to answer, then hesitated.

"What?"

Darkness swallowed and fidgeted a bit. "It's a, ah…"

"What?!" Kazuma demanded.

Her eyes locked onto his, she took a deep breath, stood tall and straight, and finally answered.

"It's a confession of true and undying love. One a man can n… never ever take back. Ever."

Kazuma stood there and began to sway from side to side as his knees threatened to fail him.

XXX

Walter was on his third goblet of wine. Normally he was quite modest in his consumption. He drank only at social events with others, never alone, and limited himself to a single cup. He felt an obligation to his father and house to always be in control of his own actions. That it was one of his responsibilities to avoid inebriation and public intoxication. Today, however, was a very different day.

"You finally loosening up a little, son?" His father wandered over to him, cup in hand. He'd never had any reluctance with drinking in private or public.

Walter glanced at the cup in his own hand guiltily. "Sorry."

His father laughed and slapped him on the back. "What's there to be sorry about? It's about time you started acting more like a grown man."

"I thought I was," his voice came out sounding more whiney than he'd expected. "I thought I behaved like a proper nobleman."

"Sure, you did," his father nodded. "But a man's allowed to have a little fun you know? There's a reason I've had so many wives."

"Why do they keep running away from you?" He'd never asked that before. His father had had five wives, not including his own mother as he was adopted. Strangely they all kept disappearing after a year or two of marriage. His father told him once that they all went crazy with love for him and just ran away as they couldn't deal with their feelings. Walter occasionally heard whispers that there might be something more to it, but there were never more than whispers. People were not about to accuse the lord of Axel of anything.

Walter was sure all the different whispers about his father and the things he did were nothing but lies. Alderp Barnes Alexei was the finest and most honorable man he knew.

"Who knows?" His father replied with a laugh. "Women can get emotional and do crazy things for no reason. Take our very own Dustiness. Do you really think accepting that sort of 'gift' from a man so far beneath her makes even a lick of sense?"

Somehow his elbow bent, and Walter found himself taking a long swig of wine.

"She hated my gift," again his voice sounded petulant for some unknown reason. "No, not simply hated, she loathed it. What was I thinking giving a proud Crusader jewelry?"

He took another drink, and the cup was suddenly empty. A waiter came past, he snatched a replacement and placed the empty on the tray.

His father smirked and twisted his mustache between thumb and forefinger. "Like I said, women get their hormones raging and do all sorts of crazy things. I mean accepting a collar like some wanton slut, she-"

"Don't call her that!" Walter snapped.

His words were loud and brought startled stares from people close by.

Despite the alcohol in his system Walter immediately regretted his words. He'd never once raised his voice to his father. Luckily, his father didn't take offense and even bowed his head in apology.

"No, no you're right my boy. Our dear Dustiness is a fine lady. I'm sure if she were in her right mind she would never toss aside your gift and let some no-name peasant put a collar around her neck like he owned her."

Walter felt compelled to take yet another swallow of wine. In the back of his head, there was a tiny voice telling him to stop and go get some water. But he discovered that the more he drank the easier it got to ignore.

"Sadly, she's obviously a victim of her own passions and not thinking straight. I wouldn't be surprised if it were that time of the month for her. Women can get quite odd sometimes."

"I don't suppose there's anything I can do about it," Walter mumbled. "They were already courting. After making such a public declaration at her own birthday party…"

He didn't want to finish that sentence and actually admit there was no hope for him. No matter how pure and virtuous his love for her might be there was no chance of his feelings ever being returned.

His father eyed him, and his happy smile melted into a sneer. "Giving up already, son? Don't be so weak. If there's a will there's always a way. I have wanted Ignis's daughter since she was a little girl and I'm not letting some peasant snatch her away from me."

It made Walter genuinely happy to see just how much his father wanted him to marry her.

"What can I do though? Her mind seems made up."

"Don't be too sure about that," his father patted him on the shoulder before walking off. "People can change, circumstances can change, and I can make them change if I need to."

Walter wondered what his father meant by that, but he was already flirting with a cute maid. He decided to just drink some more and try not to worry about it.

XXX

"A declaration of love? Seriously?"

Kazuma was the one sitting on the bed now as Darkness stood before him. His legs had threatened to collapse so she'd guided him to a seat.

She nodded and tried not to fidget. "Th… That's right. Y…You pretty much said y… you l… love me and only me."

He sat there in a daze staring off into empty space.

"Kazuma?" She was about to approach him when he suddenly jumped to his feet.

"Okay! Got it! If it's come to this, I'll just come completely clean! I'll go out there and tell everyone the absolute truth about EVERYTHING! I'll tell them nothing happened between us in the Enchanted Wood, that we never dated, and that my giving you that collar was an honest mistake. If I need to, I can even call in Katrina as a witness! When all else fails it's time to just confess and beg for forgiveness!" He started heading to the door.

Darkness hurriedly blocked him, her face paling. "Kazuma, you absolutely cannot do that!"

"Why not? Sure, it'll be embarrassing, but it's way better than the alternative."

She frowned. "Kazuma, is the thought of us being together so awful?"

He stopped and stared at her. "I like you, Darkness. I think I know you better than anyone else in this world. You're brave, you're loyal, and you're strong. In a lot of ways, you're a great girl with a rockin' bod."

"Thank you, Kazuma! I also-"

"But your personality is rotten and freaks me out."

She narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. "Kazuma, I have seen what you keep in your closet. I don't think you're in a position to judge anyone."

"Huh? When did you…" he shook his head. "Look, my hobbies aren't the point here. I don't want people thinking I'm in love with you. I'll bite the bullet and admit everything was a huge mistake."

"What's a bullet?"

"Don't worry about it." He tried walking past her, but she stepped in front of him.

"You absolutely cannot do that, Kazuma!"

"Why not?!"

"Because no one will believe you're that stupid! Well, besides me and Megumin."

"Hey!"

"Please stop and think about this. You are believed to be dating me, came to my birthday party, and before most of Belzerg's nobility including Princess Iris and my father presented me with a token of your affection, which I accepted. If you go back out there and tell them it was a mistake no one will believe it. They will all assume that being the savage you are you've simply changed your mind. Not only will your reputation be completely destroyed but at least half the noblemen here will challenge you to a duel."

Kazuma stopped and considered. "You know I've heard good things about Wallachia. I mean so long as you're okay with the occasional vampire attack."

"Please take this seriously."

"Okay, then what do we do about this?"

"Well, I've always wanted a Junlo wedding."

When Kazuma made a run for the door Darkness had to tackle him.

Eventually, they decided to just pretend that they were in love and leave things at that. They could make their contingency plans later. With that settled they left the room arm in arm and rejoined the party.

XXX

"My loli succubus uses her seductive gaze on your swordmaster," Kazuma said.

Iris turned a card with the image of the late Mitsurugi sideways indicating it could not be played.

"Onii-chan, I still can't believe what you did with onee-chan! It was so… so… wicked!"

"Trust me," Kazuma sighed. "No one is as surprised as me."

Iris tapped a card. "My weretiger attacks your spearman inflicting eighty points of damage."

"That kills my spearman and costs me thirty lifepoints," he removed the card and put it in his discard pile before drawing a new card into his hand and placing a different one on the table. "My granite golem uses sledgehammer punch to inflict sixty points of damage on your swordmaster. And that should do it."

Iris nodded and turned over all her cards not just Mitsurugi. "You've beaten me all six games. I really thought I'd gotten better." Despite her defeats, Iris was in a cheerful mood.

"You have gotten better, Iris-chan. You just have a ways to go yet to be as good as me." He gave her a wink and the princess blushed a bit.

Claire of course caught this but knew better than to say anything directly about it. Iris's blind spot had somehow gotten even wider with today's events. She could only direct her complaint in a different direction.

"Couldn't you at least let the princess win one game? As a courtesy?"

Kazuma gave her an infuriating grin. "Aw, but where's the fun in that, White Suit? Winning's only fun when you know you earned it, and just think how great it'll be when Iris really does beat me."

Claire was on the verge of yelling at him about referring to her as White Suit yet again when Iris spoke up preventing it.

"Onii-chan is right, I don't want him to let me win. I want to beat onii-chan in a fair match."

"Ah, well, that's a very noble attitude to have, Iris-sama."

"I guess that means I'm pretty noble too then, huh White Suit?"

She glared at the insufferable merchant. She knew better than to confront him in front of the princess, so instead spoke to her. "Iris-sama, many of the guests are hoping to talk to you. Haven't you spent enough time with this?"

Iris gave a regretful nod. "I guess we have to stop now, onii-chan."

Kazuma stood from the table and stretched. "No problem, thanks for the games, Iris-chan."

"Can we play again sometime?"

"Sure, just invite me to the palace or come over to my place."

"Really?!"

He nodded. "Absolutely."

"Inviting the princess to your private residence without permission from the palace is not proper!" Claire growled.

Completely ignoring her, he left and wandered through the common room and towards the buffet table. A band was playing, and many couples were dancing. The people not on the dance floor were either sitting down eating or in small groups talking. Many of them kept an eye on him, but no one came over to chat or introduce themselves. Darkness was under siege by a horde of young women. She seemed to be talking quite excitedly to them. Kazuma was worried about what she might be saying but was not about to get anywhere near that minefield.

Megumin was at a table still stuffing her face. There was one other close friend who was on their own so he went up to her.

"Hey, Chris."

"Hey, Kazuma."

With a gracious smile, he bowed and held out a hand to her. "Want to dance?"

Chris stood there and blinked. "Huh?"