Rattlesnakes + Part 7 (cont)

~*~

"Please be careful when opening the overhead bins, as contents may have shifted during the flight. Thank you for choosing Air Sanc for your travel needs. Please enjoy your stay!"

Duo groaned as he stood up, stretching his arms up to the low ceiling of the plane. "Man! Flying's the *worst* when you hafta let someone else manage the stick!"

Trowa curled up one corner of his lips, his eyebrow lifting sarcastically. Duo just winked at him in response.

It had been a long flight, but Trowa was wishing it had lasted a little longer. Relena's 'people' had arranged for a car, so they would be going directly from the airport to the palace. Trowa had initially hoped that he and Duo would just get a hotel room for their stay, and thus would be able to control how much time they spent in the palace, with Relena, and Heero, and Quatre... But that plan was deemed to be impossible by the ever-vigilant people who managed Relena's affairs. They insisted that Her Royal Highness would be deeply offended if they did not accept Her Royal hospitality.

They shuffled off the plane slowly, in the middle of an anxious parade to the exit. Once they got off the plane, Trowa moved in long, lingering strides, his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the ground. Duo kept pace next to him, whistling softly to the annoyance of the people in front of him. They went straight to a specially designated VIP room where they could change into more formal attire. They went to separate rooms to change, as there wasn't a great deal of space anyway.

Trowa spent a good six minutes tying, adjusting, and retying his tie. He was dissatisfied with his appearance. People born to privilege and excess were going to be there to judge him. Duo could pass in a crowd; it was what he did. But Trowa would undoubtedly stand out as a fraud.

His suit was clearly flawed in ways his uncultured eyes could not tell. Quatre would probably say he looked 'quaint' or 'provincial,' which Trowa knew meant that he looked poor. Trowa stared at his reflection until he could only see the many varied ways in which he was flawed. Sighing, he combed his bangs down a bit lower over his eyes with his fingers, and then picked up his luggage.

Duo was waiting for him, changed into a stylish black silk suit, with a black shirt and vest. Trowa smirked. He knew that Duo would find a way to assert himself even in the confines of social grace.

They wove through the crowds shoulder to shoulder, making their way to the luggage carousel with grim determination. By the time they got there, most of the crowd had dispersed, and it wasn't difficult for them to pick up their one piece of checked baggage.

The car waiting for them outside was an extravagant limousine, whose dignified driver was waiting patiently by the car holding a sign that read 'Maxwell Barton Party' over his chest. The driver kept calling them 'sirs' and he purposefully never looked in their eyes, which both men found disconcerting. It was probably intended to be a gesture of respect, but Trowa and Duo had grown up in worlds that distrusted people who appeared to be hiding something.

Duo decided that the drive to the palace would be more comfortable if they both had a quick drink from the bar, and then they used the rest of the time for making out. Trowa could not disagree with the plan as it certainly did make the miles fly by, and all too soon, the car was turning up the long drive to the main entrance of the palace.

The Palace of the Sanc People was a painstakingly detailed recreation of the ancestral home of the Peacecrafts, which had been destroyed in the war. Relena had employed only the best, using her own personal money, and funds from benefactors, to complete the work. She refused to allow the people of Sanc to spend their money rebuilding her home, as they all had their own homes and businesses to rebuild, but she gratefully accepted any time or skills the people had to offer, which was why she renamed the building after the people of Sanc.

It had been quite the news item during its construction. Trowa had never had a desire to see it in person. Buildings, in general, bored him.

Duo pulled away from Trowa reluctantly before they reached the gate of the palace. His hands moved erratically over his pant legs, his eyes darting to and fro out the window. Sanc was an equatorial country that, even in winter, was quite warm, especially compared to where they had been, so there was no snow anywhere visible, but the sky was grey and hung low over them, giving the impression of claustrophobia in an open space.

Trowa brushed his hand over Duo's. "What are you most nervous about?" Trowa spoke conspiratorially, just in case the driver was listening to them.

Duo grunted in amusement. "I'm supposed to pick? Damn. I just hope it's not a crime to fuck up at an event like this, cuz it's pretty much a given that I will. I never had the chance to go to finishing school when I was young."

Trowa snorted lightly, and traced a random arc that circled back over itself on the skin of Duo's hand.

His head turned to look out the window, Duo smiled.

The car pulled up to the front door, and when the driver came around to open the door for them, he was flustered to find that Trowa and Duo were already out of the car. A porter hurriedly walked out to meet them, his arms not moving as his legs pumped furiously beneath him. For a moment there was the confusion related to the luggage being taken away, but then another, more dignified servant, probably a butler, showed up to escort them to the front door.

Trowa could tell that Duo was uncomfortable with his things being taken away in the opposite direction, but the streetrat was clearly fighting a losing battle with the responsible adult. Discreetly, Trowa walked a bit closer to Duo, taking some small comfort in the feel of Duo's silk suit brushing against the side of his hand.

He hadn't seen Quatre since just before his first suicide attempt.

The main door to the palace was nearly three full stories tall, and made mostly of stained glass. The doors were standing open, better to greet the guests of Her Highness. The light of the afternoon sun was drifting over the marbled floor of the gigantic foyer of the palace. It was lovely to people who weren't nervous or planning possible escape routes.

Trowa and Duo walked together through the doors, but the butler stayed at the threshold, and with pompous authority, announced them to the milling knots of people who had already arrived.

Taking a deep breath, Trowa balled his hands into fists and went into the fray.

Quatre was cheerfully chatting with a small group of middle-aged to older businessmen, but at the sound of Trowa and Duo's names, he detached from them and went to greet his old compatriots.

Duo smiled at Trowa briefly before they were accosted by the small blonde tycoon.

"Trowa! It's so good to see you again!" Trowa found himself holding onto a clinging Quatre. He sighed, and closed his eyes, trying not to smell or feel the other man. "Wow, you look great! It's been too long since we've seen each other. You should come visit me on L4 sometime, Trowa."

Trowa had to gape. Quatre had actually sounded offended.

"Hi, Quatre. Nice to see you again, too." Duo slyly leaned closer to Trowa, and grinned a bit widely at Quatre.

Quatre turned visibly, and smiled politely at Duo. "Hello, Duo. Nice suit. A bit... monochromatic, isn't it?"

"It's the absence of color, really." Duo tilted his head in boredom. "Black is a chromatic void."

"Interesting." Quatre did not sound interested.

"Barton. Maxwell." Wu Fei approached, his eyes darting surreptitiously around to assess the room.

"Fei!" Duo smiled, looking genuinely surprised. "How're you doing?"

Wu Fei sighed. "This party is a nuisance. But it is agreeable to be reunited with you all again."

Trowa nodded briefly, acknowledging Wu Fei's compliment. Duo sighed, rolling his eyes dramatically.

Quatre's face pinched. "I think this is a great party. It's important, I think, to take time to celebrate our accomplishments."

"It isn't our accomplishments that are important," Wu Fei corrected with the precision of a professor. "It is the strides humanity has made that are admirable. After all, as individuals, we all make mistakes."

Quatre's eyes narrowed in annoyance. It was clear that the other man was unaccustomed to being corrected. But Trowa was already nodding, and Duo started to talk, so Quatre had no time to protest.

"Well, we can't dwell on our mistakes, either. It's good to take time to relax and be happy... Otherwise, what was the point? But, it would be easier to be happy without the damn tie. Hey, can I convert to Chinese? You actually look pretty comfortable." Duo eyed Wu Fei's traditional robes appraisingly, and Trowa took a moment to imagine Duo draped in the flowing, dark silks of a traditional Mandarin gown.
Wu Fei actually smiled. His eyes softened, and his shoulders relaxed.

Trowa felt the old stab of jealousy; it was all so easy for Duo. He wasn't even trying.

"I'm not sure you could pass the initiation, Maxwell. You seem very... American to me." Wu Fei joined his hands behind his back, obviously enjoying his little jab.

Duo hit his forehead with the back of his hand, raising his eyes to the lofty ceiling with all the requisite drama. "I'm wounded, mortally wounded!"

"For the love of god," a gravelly voice interjected, "try to contain yourself. This isn't a damn circus, you know."

Trowa narrowed his eyes at Heero, sighing disgustedly.

"Hey, Heero," Duo greeted him without enthusiasm. "Well, look, the gang's all here."

"Heero, how nice to see you again!" Quatre smiled affectionately. "I was greatly disappointed that you weren't able to join Relena on her last visit to L4. I need to find some way to lure all of you out to visit me; it's a shame that we waited ten years to catch up with each other."

Duo grinned wolfishly. "Gee, I dunno, Q, do you have an open bar policy for your guests?"

Trowa repressed a laugh poorly, earning him a betrayed look from Quatre, but Heero growled with dissatisfaction.

Taking Duo's arm roughly, but unobtrusively, Heero hissed, "You damn well better not make a fool of yourself while you are here. This is an important occasion that shouldn't be spoiled by excess trash lying about."

Wu Fei took a half a step forward, his eyes darting in confusion from Heero to Duo. "Yuy!"

"Her Royal Highness, Queen Relena Peacecraft Darlian!"

There was no trumpet blare to accompany the announcement, but it hardly required it. Relena was delicately making her way down the steps of the grand staircase, her cheeks pinked with embarrassment to have halted all the conversation in the room. Clearing her throat, she quickly began what was obviously an impromptu speech.

"Greetings to all our guests! Thank you so much for joining me in commemorating this most remarkable event. Please make yourselves home in my home, and let one of my staff know if there is anything we can do to make you more comfortable. Thank you."

A small spattering of applause followed, and Relena continued down the staircase with regal grace.

She maintained her demeanor until she caught sight of the group of former Gundam pilots, at which point she let out something that would be called a squeal from anyone but the Queen, and she rushed to join them.

"Duo!" She cried out as soon as she was close enough to do so without being too tactless. "You're here!"

If there was anyone in the group of five who was prepared for Relena to throw her arms around Duo's neck and drag him down into a warm hug, it wasn't evident. Heero glared in the direction of the decorative plants, and Quatre and Wu Fei openly gaped. Trowa watched with amazement, evidenced by his moderately uplifted brows.

Duo was barely keeping himself on his feet. "Your... your highness..."

"Oh, Duo, don't call me that," she scolded him playfully. "I'm just Relena. And you've been a bad boy!" She swatted him on the arm with all the force of a teddy bear. "You were supposed to join me for dinner in October, but you ran away. I presume you found something better to do." She grinned with lofty cheek at Duo and Trowa.

Duo sputtered, and Trowa became fascinated with the scrollwork of the ceiling.

Relena grabbed Duo's arm, and tugged him to follow her. "Well, anyway, it's about time you came to visit me! Let me take you on a private tour of the house. I can show you all the best parts. Let's go!"

The four remaining pilots stared openly at the young queen dragging the reluctant man. "But... Relena... Shouldn't you greet your other guests...? I don't want to keep you from your duty..."

"Pish! My duty will be there when we get back!" She turned and winked at the other men in the group. "Sorry to greet and run, boys, but I'm taking my chance to get this one alone while I can!"

Trowa considered shutting Quatre's mouth for him as they watched Relena disappear through a door with Duo.

"Well," Trowa drawled, "I guess Relena is fond of Duo."

Heero glared more forcefully, now in the direction of the floor before his toes, but Quatre and Wu Fei were oblivious.

"Yes," Wu Fei agreed, still staring at the door in wonder. "I thought she was always trailing after you, Yuy."

Heero grunted, crossing his arms over his chest.

"I guess her tastes have... matured," Trowa suggested off-handedly.

However Heero may have reacted to that, no one would know, because Quatre interrupted him before he could get a chance to do or say anything. "I hope Relena's security is with her at all times. I can't believe she went off alone with Duo like that."

"Quatre!" Wu Fei objected immediately, sternly looking down his nose at the source of his shock.

"Don't worry," Heero reassured ominously, "I made sure her guards were the best."

"So, Chang," Trowa said, turning to Wu Fei, ignoring the other two, "are there any other Preventors we would know? Sally? Noin? ...Zechs?"

Wu Fei snorted, still annoyed with Quatre, his eyes lingering in disapproval before they turned to meet Trowa's. "Zechs is still delusional enough to think that the population at large thinks that he is dead. I keep telling him they don't think of him at all, but he doesn't listen to anyone but ghosts. Noin and Po are here, however. I *believe* Po found a billiards room."

Trowa nodded, interested. "That sounds good."

"Oh, Trowa," Quatre placed a hand on Trowa's arm, trying to dissuade him. "I was hoping to introduce you to some people. A little networking can really help your career."

Trowa shook Quatre's hand off, his face contorted in distaste at Quatre's helpfulness. "I'd rather see old friends."

Heero sighed in frustrated disgust. "Let's go then. All these people are making me nervous. They keep staring at us."

Trowa choose not to actively agree with Heero, although he could not help it entirely. Heero started off in what must have been the direction of the billiards room, with Wu Fei and Trowa following closely. Quatre almost protested; then sighed, giving in.

"Fine!" He threw his hands up uselessly. "Let's go find the girls."

Trowa cracked the knuckles of his thumbs in irritation at the idea of Noin and Sally being called 'girls.'

~*~

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