Rattlesnakes + Part 8 (cont)

~*~

Duo's wardrobe continued to amaze Trowa. Today, he was bedecked in a black velvet jacket that went down to his knees, a black silk shirt, and black pants of some shimmering material that begged for Trowa to touch it. He did, several times, before they left their rooms, but when the afternoon started to edge its way to the evening, Trowa decided it was time to leave the protection of their rooms.

There were planned activities spanning the whole day, but naturally, they were all voluntary. Most people seemed to prefer to lounge around the many private sitting rooms in the palace and talk. Without question, there were dozens of political and financial deals being made as Trowa and Duo made their way around the hallways, looking to find someone else that they knew.

Trowa steered them to the billiards room, figuring that since the 'group' had been having such a great time there yesterday, there was a good chance that they were there again today.

Duo had his hands in his pockets as he walked, and he was whistling quietly under his breath. It was a soft, off-tune, breathy sound that annoyed and excited Trowa at the same time. He retaliated by staring straight ahead and ignoring Duo completely.

It didn't bother Duo nearly as much as Trowa would have liked, but he didn't care enough to try harder.

They got to the billiards room with little difficulty, asking only one maid for directions. As Trowa had expected, the room was occupied entirely with people from their former group of allies. Sally and Wu Fei were currently holding court at the table, and Miss Noin and Quatre were chatting politely in the corner as they watched.

Duo smiled and waved, offering a cheery hello, which was returned by Sally and Wu Fei. Quatre's gaze immediately went to Trowa in something that appeared to be reproach, and Miss Noin's back stiffened, and she made a quick exit.

Trowa watched her go without interest. Noin was someone that he never thought about, and therefore had no emotional reaction to at all. Sally scowled as she left, and Wu Fei looked honestly confused.

Quatre turned to Duo. "What was that about?"

"Why are you blaming me?" Duo asked with some amusement. "Maybe it's Trowa she objected to."

Quatre looked as if he seriously did not believe that to be possible.

Duo shrugged, moving quickly to the small bar on the left side of the room. "I don't know what her problem is. Miss Noin hasn't liked me for a while. I don't know, maybe it's because she's so protective of Relena, and she feels like, somehow, I'm a bad influence or something. Maybe she's just a bit leery, because of where I'm from. Or," Duo affected a thoughtful look as he poured himself a large glass of port. "Perhaps she's still upset about that time I gave Zechs a blowjob."

Wu Fei scuffed his cue over the green felt of the table, blowing his shot, and Sally laughed so hard she nearly fell over. Quatre cried out, "Duo!"

Trowa inched closer, intrigued.

"What?" Duo asked Quatre, innocently. "Do you think that was it?"

Quatre's face was turning beat-red, and one could have been forgiven for mistaking him for an embarrassed virgin. "Duo! How could you? Have you no shame, getting involved with someone in a relationship? That's really crude, Duo."

Duo was not affected by Quatre's assessment of his moral character, but he did make a face at the port before he continued to drink. Trowa was now standing next to Duo, his arm stretched behind Duo on the bar. Duo answered Quatre as an afterthought to his bitterly sweet drink. "Well, Q, if Zechs was really that involved, wasn't *he* the crude one, to drop his pants for the first person who came along?"

Quatre sputtered, and Trowa smirked. Leaning closer to his lover, Trowa asked casually, "So, Zechs. What was that like?"

Duo turned, a little surprise brightening his eyes. "Oh, I don't really remember that well. I was as high as a kite at the time. Why, you have a thing for the Lightning Count?"

Trowa shrugged, dismissively. "He's hot, I suppose. Just quite a conquest, really."

Duo poked Trowa in the ribs, smiling wickedly. "You just want to know if you're bigger."

Trowa examined his fingernails absently. "Oh, do you remember that much at least?"

"This is not appropriate!" Quatre sputtered, his face red and his arms shaking at his sides.

Sally stopped laughing long enough to sigh. "Ah, Lu is a really a great person, Duo, but she does tend to get a bit irrational where that man is concerned. Sorry for the trouble."

"You don't need to apologize for her," Wu Fei snapped. "If she cannot keep her head level on her own, it is her own concern. That woman..."

Sally thwacked Wu Fei on the rear, causing him to miss another shot. "That wasn't a misogynistic comment again, was it, Fei-Fei?" Her eyes sparkled as she watched Wu Fei's face bloat with rage.

"Woman, I told you to stop calling me that! And I wasn't talking about all flighty, irresponsible, emotional women, just one! Now back off!" Wu Fei's hand was clutching the cue hard enough to crack it, and the end quivered from his rage.

Duo looked them over as he finished off the nasty port, grinning. "Wow. She's really got you wound up, Chang. I mean, it's great, really. There's an age difference there, but I've heard that older women really know their stuff, right?" He winked at Sally, who winked back, choking back her laughter.

"*Maxwell*!! What are you suggesting?" Wu Fei was so horrified, he actually dropped his cue.

Trowa leaned forward and kissed Duo on the cheek. "I'm going to call Catherine. Wish her a happy Christmas."

Duo caught Trowa's wrist before he could leave. "Give her a thrill, why don't ya, and actually sit in front of the damned camera for a change."

Trowa smirked, and walked out as Quatre started to lecture Duo.

He went to find a servant, rather than a 'phone, as he didn't want to take a liberty that wasn't being offered. In the main hall, there was a butler who was able to direct him to a communications room. Trowa sat down at the desk, flicking the 'phone on, and looked around a bit nervously.

He wasn't thinking at all about the fact that he was following Duo's order automatically, but he wasn't entirely comfortable in the small room. The walls were paneled with dark wood, and the ceiling was painted a warm brown. It was confining.

He fumbled as he tried to dial the number, not remember the exchange properly because he was so used to using the programmed dial on his home system. He had to go through the directory to be sure that he was getting the right number, and he had to wait for it to ring six times before she answered.

He was so startled by her face popping up on the screen, that he didn't say anything in greeting.

"Trowa!" Catherine was stunned as well, staring at her 'brother' for long moments before she could react. "Trowa!! What a wonderful surprise! You look good; you look great, actually. Wow, you're hair has gotten long, hasn't it? How are you, are you having a good Christmas break?"

Trowa rubbed his palms over his thighs, nervous. "Catherine. Happy Christmas."

"Thank you!" Catherine was beaming brighter than the gaudy tree in the corner of her trailer. "It's so good to *see* you and hear from you, Trowa. It's been too long."

Trowa shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable. "I would have come to visit you for the holiday, maybe, but this thing came up..."

"Oh, man, would I love to be there with you! All those famous, important people... Remember that you are one of them, Trowa, and represent the colonies well. I know... I know you don't really consider them home, but we are all very proud of you here, so please remember that."

Trowa nodded, keeping his head ducked down.

"How is Duo? He's there with you, right?" Catherine leaned forward, smiling eagerly.

Trowa smiled just a little. "Yes. He's... good."

"If you had come to visit, I could have met him properly." Catherine sounded wistful. "I know that I wasn't... supportive when you first told me about your relationship, but I suppose I still remember him as the boy who tried to get you back into the fighting of the war so long ago. You'd think that I would dislike Quatre, since he was actually successful, wouldn't you?" She laughed.

Trowa wasn't amused. "It was my choice, Catherine."

"I know." She sobered instantly. "I'm sorry, Trowa. I always say the wrong things, don't I?"

He shook his head carefully. "Not always."

She smiled at him brightly. "I'm glad that you called. Ten years already... hard to believe, isn't it?"

Trowa rubbed at his forearms absently, looking off to the left. "Yes."

"The Ringmaster still won't let us perform any time near Christmas, for fear of it." She laughed again, although it was clear that she didn't find it funny. "Peace is a good thing."

Trowa bit his tongue before he could reply.

Catherine sighed, although Trowa could not tell over the 'phone line whether she was happy or not. "Thank you for calling, Trowa. I wouldn't have known how to get a hold of you myself."

Trowa nodded, and chewed on his lip. "It's... good to hear from you, too. Everything ok?"

Catherine took a deep breath as if she was preparing to launch into the whole story, and then she just let the breath out. Smiling, she replied, "Everything is great, Trowa."

He nodded. "Good."

"How are you, really?"

He didn't look at her. "Don't worry about me, Catherine. I'm taking care of myself now."

He didn't see how she responded, and it was a few moments before she spoke again. "I know, Trowa, but forgive me if I still worry about you. I love you, you know."

Trowa's chin dropped until it was nearly touching his chest. "Yes, I know."

Catherine sighed, content. "Well! We shouldn't take advantage of Her Majesty's generosity. Thank you for calling, Trowa, and I hope that you have a very happy Christmas indeed. Call me again on New Year's, all right?"

Trowa nodded, and smiled just a little for her. "Thank you. You too. And I will."

"Love you, Trowa..." Catherine waited for him to disconnect, which he did with a small amount of reluctance.

He stayed in front of the monitor until he could stand up confidently.

He wandered around the hallways a little, not heading for the billiard's room directly. It was totally by accident that he ran into Duo as he turned a blind corner.

Duo grinned, seemingly expecting to find Trowa right there. "Hey, finally. We're supposed to go to some picture thing or something." Duo rolled his eyes. "Heero came to inform us, and then throw in how disappointed he was in us for breathing." Duo rolled his eyes with a grin, taking Trowa's arm loosely.

Trowa let himself be led, although he felt as though his body was leaden. "Pictures?" Trowa wished that Duo had picked out his clothes, so that he would feel as confident as Duo looked.

Duo just sighed. "It's no big deal. Some press thing. Afterwards, there is this reception thing before the big dinner thing, and then another night of boredom thing. Hopefully, they'll have better liquor."

Trowa nodded abstractly, and followed Duo's lead unquestioningly.

It was chaos, directed by a photographer.

They were posed and positioned. There was much chatter as they each dutifully got into place, but it was the harried noise of people being shepherded into an order that was not their own. Heero scowled and held up each photograph until the photographer finally accepted the fact that he wasn't going to smile. Quatre kept making weak jokes that he expected people to laugh at, and Wu Fei's patience got thinner and thinner until the photographer feared him as much as he feared Heero.

Duo kept casually slipping his hand down the back of Trowa's pants unobtrusively.

Finally, most of them were dismissed and only Relena, Heero, and some dignitaries were left behind for more pictures, and they made their way, en masse, to the reception.

Duo went straight for the tables of champagne. Trowa trailed after him, mostly because Quatre was trying to get him to go in the opposite direction. Duo downed one glass quickly, and snagged a few more as he stepped away. Trowa took one glass, simply so that Duo didn't have to hold both of them at once.

Wu Fei had gone to join the small knot of people from the Preventors, and Trowa saw that Commander Une was there with a girl that must have been Mariemaia. Quatre had his arm around the thin waist of an extravagantly elegant young woman of strikingly exotic Arabian features.

Duo nudged Trowa with his elbow and indicated the direction of his gaze by jutting out his chin. "Is that Quatre's wife?"

Trowa did not sigh, because he clamped his jaw shut in response. "Yes."

"Hm, she's pretty." Duo sounded distracted. "Pity he doesn't feed her. I don't think that's very nice."

Trowa lowered his head to prevent any possible humor from being expressed.

"Either that, or she's a heroine addict, in which case I think it's not nice of her not to share." Duo sniffed, raising his chin and his nose in derision. "At the very least, Q could stop looking down his nose at me for enjoying pleasure."

Trowa put his hand on the small of Duo's back, and rubbed his thumb in a circle. "Let's go meet them."

Trowa had never met, or cared to meet, Quatre's wife. She was considered to be quite a prize, and a coup for the young heir to the Winner fortune to have won. She had a PhD in astrophysics, and was a beauty queen in her youth.

She was perfect for Quatre in almost every way, and Trowa resented her for every virtue.

He slipped his arm around Duo, and squeezed his hand on Duo's hip, pulling Duo closer. Duo complied easily, and Trowa imagined that Duo understood perfectly what he was thinking. They waited patiently for Quatre to have a free moment from the throng that automatically swarmed around him.

As pleased as Quatre was to have Trowa coming over to visit with him, he was overtly less pleased to see Duo there as well. Good breeding overruled poor judgment, and he treated both of his former comrades relatively the same.

"Trowa! Duo. Please, let me introduce you to my wife, Malakeh. My dear, this Trowa Barton, the first person I ever met who could pilot a Gundam excepting myself. And Duo Maxwell, another ally." Quatre released his wife's hand to Trowa with a grin, his eyes shining as brightly as a child who was hoping that an old friend and a new friend would become fast friends themselves.

Trowa took her hand, and not knowing what protocol might be in this situation, merely squeezed it as he bowed briefly. As soon as he had released her hand, Duo took it, bowing fully from the waist to kiss her hand on the knuckles.

"My lady," he murmured quietly, "it is a great pleasure to meet you. I trust your parent's feel their high hopes for you have been met."

Malakeh started, and then blushed with pleasure. "Thank you, sir." She smiled at Quatre, putting her hand on Quatre's arm demurely. "No one has ever made me feel more like a queen than my king, and husband."

"How..." Duo smiled, too brightly and too effusively to be real, and Trowa cleared his throat to keep from smirking in response to Duo's sarcasm, "sweet. Love is such a beautiful thing, isn't it?"

Quatre's eyes narrowed, but again, his ability to detect and identify mockery was impeded by his lack of experience. "Thank you, Duo. I think we are both quite lucky to have found each other."

"Oh, I know what you mean," Duo replied, looking up at Trowa in a parody of adoration.

Trowa was definitely having a good time.

Quatre started to cough, leaving a confused Malakeh to pat him uselessly on the back while Trowa smirked. Duo cleared his throat diplomatically, and offered Quatre a black handkerchief, which he refused.

Wu Fei displayed an excellent sense of timing, and showed up with Sally at his elbow just then. Quatre reintroduced Malakeh to Wu Fei and Sally, and polite, inane chatter filled up the time until the dinner bell discreetly rang.

Trowa watched as Duo managed to snag six glasses of champagne in that time. Quatre noticed too, and tried to give Trowa a sympathetic look, but Trowa purposefully did not acknowledge Quatre's glance.

The dinner was very much like the one the previous night, only the speeches were longer and more boring. Duo drank at least as much as he had before, but he was different. Whereas yesterday he had been jovial and bubbly, tonight he seemed restrained and bitter.

Trowa put his hand on Duo's thigh from time to time, squeezing gently, but he wasn't sure whether Duo found it comforting or not.

There was a grand ball as soon as the dinner was over, the music swelling loudly as the doors to the ballroom were opened. Relena and Heero ceremonially danced the first dance, although Heero looked supremely uncomfortable throughout. Halfway through the song, more couples joined them on the floor, including Quatre and Malakeh who glided effortlessly together, and the party was in full swing.

Duo would have been content to hold up a corner of the open bar with Trowa, but as soon as the first dance ended, Relena swept over determinedly and dragged Duo off for a dance. Trowa watched Relena's white sparkling gown sweep over the floor, brushed occasionally by the black of Duo's pants.

They actually made for a very attractive couple, and Trowa could see people murmuring from all around the perimeter of the dance floor, their eyes glued to the queen and her dance partner. Trowa imagined that by the time the ball was over, and they had all toasted for Christmas, there would rumors flying all the way out to L5. Perhaps when Relena was ready to retire from the public life, and break off her engagement with Heero, those rumors would resurface, and people would quietly come to the conclusion that Duo had broken up the Perfect Couple.

Trowa sipped Duo's gin and tonic nonchalantly. He considered how things might have turned out if a million little things were different. If Relena had been freer, and spent more time with Duo after his traumatic mission, if Heero had not gotten involved in Duo's life, perhaps then Duo would have fallen in love with Relena, and they would preparing for their real wedding.

The thought tied Trowa's stomach into a twisted knot, and he drank down the last of Duo's drink without pleasure.

One dance ended, and another began. Sally dragged Trowa out onto the dance floor, and it was several dances later before he was able to extricate himself from the crowds and leave the dance floor again. He scanned the floor for Duo, but he saw no sign of a long black coat or braid, so he circled the room, keeping close to the walls to avoid attention as much as possible.

His eyes caught a flash of something intimately familiar, and he fixed his attention on the far corner of the ballroom. Heero's back was facing the room, but Duo's face was visible. Duo seemed quite consternated, and he was fidgeting as if he were keeping his eyes sharp for an escape. Heero was unavoidably aware of this, however, and he kept pressing Duo back, into a nook that lead somewhere that Trowa could not see.

Trowa narrowed his eyes, and made to follow, but he found his way blocked after he took only a few steps.

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