Authors: TB and Marsh
see Prologue for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Code of Conduct + Part Six

Quatre twitched at the limp plastic blinds over the window. "Well, you'd have to replace these, obviously."

"There's this place downtown where they sell these canvas things you can get dyed to match your walls. I'm leaning toward that instead of blinds. Or maybe inside shutters. Those are cute."

"A little kitschy, don't you think?" Quatre faced him. He said, "We should talk about Wufei."

Duo had extreme reservations on the matter. He did partial duty to paying attention to the apartment, giving the vents in the floor cursory inspection.

"Have you spoken to him?" Quatre pressed.

"You told me not to speak to him. And then you bring him to my door."

"Both of you needed a cooling-off. But months have gone by. Isn't it time?"

Quatre's pale eyes kept a lock on his. Quatre was annoyed, but the frustration came out of slamming his head against the brick walls in his life, and Duo was probably Wall Number One at the moment. Small comfort that Wufei was in contention for the title.

"No," he answered then. "What do you think of the closets?"

Quatre followed him into the master bedroom walk-in, standing in the door with his hands in his pockets as Duo jiggled the wooden shelves. "I'm not letting this go, Duo. It's too important."

"Is that why you're here? Did Trowa even really call you?"

Quatre coloured. Duo ignored it. "No," Quatre overrode him. "Not at all. And don't shift this to Trowa."

"All that to the side, we both know you wouldn't be here for me or for Wufei if Trowa hadn't rung you up and asked you to come."

He earned himself a short, hurt silence for that. "That's unfair, Duo."

But he was in a brutal sort of mood, between trying to be nice and pleasant to first Johnny and then Marc and Marc's ex who was all kinds of star-struck to have the Foreign Minister touring one of his apartments, sandwiching in worry about Trowa between working on the case and his newfound uncertainty over Zechs Merquise. He really didn't enjoy thinking about Zechs. He was scared about it, about putting this yoke on a man most people didn't even know was dead. Zechs hadn't been a good man, but he'd been an important one, quite probably a crazy one, but dying the way he had was a tragedy for anyone and Duo didn't really have the room inside of him to be thinking and feeling about Zechs' tragedy and that teenaged dead child's tragedy and now Wufei's ongoing tragedy on top of it.

"No shit," he said, and didn't even regret it until it left his lips. "I could use a friend once in a while."

"I haven't got a phone call from you either. In fact, Trowa is the only one who calls."

Called and invited Quatre to visits when Trowa was out of the damn country. And damn if it hadn't immediately occured to him why that might be. "I'm not ready to deal with Wufei. I'm not ready. I think maybe three months is within the acceptable time-frame for not being ready to deal with the man who turned out to be--"

He didn't finish it. Quatre did. "A liar."

Hitting the nail on the head. It came down to that being the worst of it, really.

But what did you say to someone who lied? What made one liar different from another liar? He lived with Trowa's lies. Not because he had to, because he could have left. Had left, once. Could have left again, and probably after the initial anger Trowa wouldn't even have blamed him. He could find himself a man who didn't challenge him. Friends who didn't used to pilot death machines, who didn't know that he had.

Or not. Everyone knew who he was, now. He wasn't going to be normal ever again.

He wasn't adapted for this kind of life. A secret fantasy of his was that he hadn't really been destined ever to make it out of the war, though back then he'd never so much as conceived of the thought that he'd die. Well, almost never. But he couldn't start second-guessing his entire existence, not at almost thirty years old, at the start of his second career, the start of his second major relationship with the only man he was ever going to love so much he could scream and cry in the same syllable.

He'd been doing all right, the year he and Trowa were separated. Functioning, even occasionally enjoying himself, although it seemed like no-one was talking about anything, and that included Quatre Raberba Winner in his glorious majesty, making the fast-track on the political trail and changing lives, and that included the man who was guarding the car down on the street, who had been on a private crusade that had just somehow slipped everyone's notice. No, he didn't like being surprised by Wufei at the door. He'd been doing all right when none of it was out in the open-- no, not quite the whole picture. He'd been doing all right with the forgiving and forgetting when it wasn't right in front of his face. When Wufei was safe away on L4 being taken care of by someone else for a while.

Probably an important thought, that. Probably said something important about himself. He had the occasional epiphany without the aid of a therapist, whatever Trowa thought. It just seemed like it had been a long time since any of them were good.

So what did he have to say to Wufei anyway? Nothing. Not a damn thing occurred. He'd worked through the betrayal, mostly, he'd worked through the denial in the first ten seconds after seeing that freshly dead body Wufei had made in Rene Vasquez's apartment. Worked through the guilt when Wufei had said some particularly shitty things the day of the trial, making like it was all Duo's fault for forcing his help on someone unwilling, someone set on throwing their life away.

Why were there so many people who seemed to want to do that? Who made a very competent go of trying. Himself, top of the list, right up to living with a man who was a functional alcoholic when Duo had almost tanked at age nineteen being a very unfunctional one. But add in Kelby Gerganas, who at fourteen hadn't known how bad bad could get; add in Zechs Merquise, who maybe hadn't really understood it either. Add in Chang Wufei, who had no damn reason, no god-damn reason to do it, no go-damn--

And Quatre, who was trying to take on Duo's usual job, in addition to living a very fine life Duo wished him to go on living uninterrupted by the greater darkness.

Worth a few deep breaths. He took them, head-clearing lung-filling breaths, and asked, "How big do you think this bedroom is? Twelve by nine?"

"You can shut me out, but you can't shut this out of your own heart." As reasonable as assuming hearts had doors. "Eventually you'll have to deal with this. And not for Wufei, but for yourself."

Two conversations ago. Two lifetimes ago. "And I'm telling you I've got bigger shit to deal with than you, me, or Wufei."

"Fine."

"I think the room is twelve by ten."

"It's fourteen by twelve, Duo. The paint color is deceiving you."

Quatre made a strategic exit with a not-as-strategic sigh. Duo ground his teeth against an equally obnoxioius retort. They both knew Duo was blowing him off, and it was fair, if markedly immature, to go out on a snide note. He shouldn't have said that bit about Trowa. True or not, some things shouldn't be said and it went against his own rule of leaving a very wide berth around anything having to do with Trowa and Quatre. No shit Quatre was going to come running the moment Trowa evidenced anything that looked like need. Duo didn't begrudge it. Much. There was something sweet and important and even innocent about first love, and he didn't begrudge it for them, because it had made them better men to go through it, even if it had been doomed.

God, how did he just stand there and pass judgment on anyone? It wasn't like he and Trowa had a magical guarrantee. They had good intention, they had something that was awfully close to a committment. But they had no more guarrantees than anyone alive and vulnerable and human had, and quite a lot more room for a stray gunshot than most had, and it was damn stupid to count on something blindly like that, to have--

Faith.

Faith was for people who enough security in their lives that it came naturally, or for people who had it so bad they needed the promise of a better day in the hereafter. Duo wasn't either, had never been all powerful or all powerless, and that pretty much left him with determining his own fate, and extending just enough trust to the people in his life to exercise like care.

"Sorry," Duo said, turning to look.

Quatre stood by the window, square in front of it where he had a perfect view of all the world laid out on the hills. It was a good view, Duo admitted, even with a sheen of the Bay silvering the horizon edge, the Transamerica Pyramid from the Washington Street side. Better view than what they had now.

Quatre said, "He loves you, Duo."

"I don't doubt any of you do. And I love all of you. Even when we're all being stupid and selfish and sucky."

"Is that what I'm doing?"

He gave it up to God with a smile. "I think it's what I am."

Quatre wasn't ready to let it go yet. He said, "I think you're being self-protective to the point of shutting the rest of us out."

"I'm not ready. And Trowa's not either. We-- things are-- we needed the time to ourselves, but there's still stuff to deal with."

Quatre pounced on that, turning on him with a little whirl of the heel, a glimmer of triumph lifting his chin. "When Trowa rang me," he repeated. "I thought he was calling me from home. Guess not, huh?"

As easy as that the advantage went swinging away from Duo and right into the lap of the man born to be a politician. Duo even found himself telling the truth, despite an absolute determination to run a little feint-and-distract. "He's been out on the job for a few days," he said, and finally found the strength to flee up to the third-floor kitchenette.

Quatre followed patiently. "You don't have to confide in me," he told Duo, ducking the wild swing of a overhead cabinet door. "But I hope you know that you can. And that I'd help you any way you asked."

"He's..." He occupied himself opening drawers and refrigerators. "We had a little car crash after dinner one night. He had a flashback, I think. Or a hallucination or something."

"It wasn't the only time, was it?"

"Don't use that mind-tricks thing on me. I don't like when you do that."

Quatre relented. His eyes fell to his shoes. It might have been Duo's imagination, and if some wild drunken theories were correct it might not have been, but it felt like a pressure at the back of his head vanished the moment Quatre was looking elsewhere. "I'm sorry," Quatre was saying, sincere as a mountain snowfall. "I didn't mean to be manipulative. I only meant I don't think he was in the here and now when he called me."

No, Duo very much suspected he hadn't been. A man could go mad trying not to think about it. But out went his gut, spilling all over the bloody place, because Quatre looked at him with those big dewy eyes and asked him to share. "I don't even know where he is."

"You have no way of tracking him?"

"Short of asking--" He'd very nearly let it slip the rest of the way out, Une's name and Trowa's real mission title, and horror at himself clamped him up tight. No-one outside of his lawyers and Duo himself knew Trowa's whole story. "Around. I've never tried to track him before."

"I always hated that aspect of his job. He's so secretive. It can't be safe."

"Apparently not."

"How do you stand it?"

Which, really, was kind of a silly thing to ask, coming from a man who was trailing six full-time body guards just to go apartment hunting in an admittedly more decent part of town than Duo currently occupied. And it took on a shade of the absurd when you added in the fact that there was no weapon invented that either he or Duo couldn't have shot pitch-perfect on first meeting, out of practise or not. Given that Trowa qualified as the one man amongst them who was in practise, it was actually an outright ridiculous little comment.

The kind you made to pacify a friend with a ridiculous temper. Duo had to force himself to unclench. He said, "It's actually vindicating to know I was right when I spent years bitching about it."

"Being right only takes you so far."

"Give me a minute or two to enjoy it."

Quatre met his frown, and looked away again. "I don't suppose he's willing to get help."

"Oh, I'm sure he's got a shrink on retainer. After all, Trowa's always eager to talk to people about his troubles, open himself to others. Oh, wait, I have him confused with someone."

"Duo." Quatre chided him like a recalcitrant schoolboy, folding his arms sternly over his chest. "I know it's not in character, but if anything Trowa has a sense of self-preservation."

"Yeah. That he does."

"Ought I talk to him?"

"No. He'd kill me, Quat. I'd deserve it." He shut the final drawer on the conversation, as such, and made an effort to turn back to a safe topic. "So what do you think of this place?"

"It's a wonderful investment. Great schools in the area. The clubhouse and pool are gorgeous and Anwar-Morris is the builder. They've got a good reputation for quality. You're in a liberal voting district."

"If we were a straight couple with kids, any of that would matter."

"It should matter to any couple, Duo. Well, what are you looking for in an apartment?"

Trees. This place had a few decorating the perimetre of the parking garage. A porch. This had a strip of green on the second-storey balcony, like a lot of the multi-level apartments in San Francisco, but it wasn't the same as a lawn or a garden. There were shitloads of stairs here, too, and without pictures of your wedding and your kids stairwells didn't contribute much to a home, in his experience. The downstairs kitchen was more cramped than the little kitchenette up here on the third floor. Who needed a kitchenette on the third floor? There were nice enough touches, sure. He liked this room, actually. It had skylights, he loved those, and the windows up here were diamonds, unlike the square ones below. Maybe it had been a studio, or a spare room to rent to a student or something. Sloping ceilings, space for some book cases, room for a futon or a big rug to sit on or something. He could picture sleeping in this room-- or sleeping around in it with Trowa, anyway. It had that kind of wistful romance.

Which of course meant Trowa wouldn't go anywhere near it.

"Duo, look. Straight over the Bay there. I forgot you could see them from here."

Quatre had sharp eyes. Duo followed his finger out over that beautiful city view from the little diamond window over the second-storey balcony. They were there all right, bright stars amid the fainter ghostlights. The L3 cluster, and there hovering higher in the evening sky and glowing defiantly in reflected sunlight, L2.

Yeah. There they were, all right. It might well always make his heart seize like this.

Quatre had gone quiet. They had both gone quiet, but Quatre was looking at Duo instead of the colonies up there in the Space over their heads, all that great distance away, and Quatre was the one who found his voice first. He said, "Maybe you should keep looking."

Duo had to clear his throat to get words out of it, and it still sounded like he was talking out of his stomach. "Speaking as someone who's had to actually look for a place to live several times, it's not that much fun."

Quatre regarded him patiently. "I have people who can do the preliminary leg work. If you like."

"Don't go out of your way. Seriously. It's okay." He shrugged off all the offers Quatre was capable of and ready to make. "And you know how Trowa is. He'll leap all over you about managing us."

"I know how Trowa is. You're not happy."

"It's been a long day and Wufei is sitting in your car outside."

"Let's get you home."

"Yeah. You think your burly men out there would eat Thai? We could order in."

"I can take care of them, Duo."

"You going to a hotel tonight? I don't know what they allow you to do."

Quatre leant on the windowsill. "I've booked a room at the Prince Edward," he said. "I think that's what Wufei said."

"Swanky. Maybe I should come stay with you."

Quatre broke out the grin most people saved for getting a puppy on Christmas. "Oh, I'd love that! Could you?"

Duo had to grin, himself. He'd been joking, but leave it to Quatre not to register tone or context or plausibility. It was part of his charm. "I guess it's not like anyone's waiting for me at home," he admitted. Then just took the plunge. He'd never liked being catty with Quatre, anyway. "Yeah. I can even sleep in a little. It's closer to downtown."

"I can have my driver take you into work."

"You've seriously forgotten what it's like to be a regular Joe, haven't you."

Twice in two minutes Quatre missed the joke by a country mile. He looked thoughtful, considering that far more deeply than it warranted. "I don't know if I ever was."

"You were. We beat the rich boy out of you, once." He slung his arm about Quatre's shoulder. Human contact, that was nice once in a while, wasn't it? Especially with someone who could take you over his knee one minute and spoon-feed you chicken soup the next. "Remember going to the beach that one summer? I mean the fake beach on L1."

Quatre provided the exaggerated wince that meant he was finally going along with the humour. "Yeah, I guess I do."

"I made you shop at a thrift store. With cash."

"Those clothes were so filthy."

"They wash them. And you looked good in jeans. We went to the beach and those hot babes in the thong suits were cruising you."

Quatre was still sceptical over that one. Then again, he still probably didn't know what 'cruising' meant.

"That was a good day," Duo said. "You and me."

"We should do it more often."

"You still dream big."

"Always." Quatre squeezed him tentatively about the waist. "Shall we get of here?"

"Yeah." He sneaked a final glance at that window with its loaded little view, and resolutely put his back to it. They clattered down the stairs arm-in-arm like the teenagers they hadn't been in, well, ever, really, and a strange sense of euphoria began creeping over him. They might really pull it off. Really, they might manage it. Boy's night out, and maybe he could convince Quatre to break out the feather pillows and take a few whacks at each other, for old times' sake. He could use a night like that, and God knew there wouldn't be any coming once the thing with Relena went permanent. She was perfectly all right for a girl, but girls tended to want things like no chaos in their houses, and right now Duo wanted nothing more than a little light-hearted chaos to roll around in.

"You ever play basketball? There's a lot by Prince Edwards."

"Basketball? Not since grade school."

"Good," Duo said, grinning madly. "I'll cream you."

Quatre was right there with a high-brow, "Don't get cocky, buddy," but then he was grinning too. "I play racquetball three times a week."

"Yeah, with Sion, who is paid to protect you."

"No, really, with Wufei. And you know how he is."

"Yeah, well, basketball is not a game of skill and strategy. It's a game of sweat and masterful insults and a lot of chest-thumping, so I think my chances are pretty good."

"You're on, Maxwell."

+

Given his options, Trowa chose the one least likely to get him in trouble. He slipped in the building with the pizza guy and walked down a lantern-lit lobby. There was new art on the walls, truly ugly abstracts in pastels that would have made for a particularly dreary dentistry, and didn't do any favours for a place that was supposedly livable. The paint was on the grey side of white and created long shadows under his feet, abruptly abbreviated when he halted at the door with the Complex Super sign.

When Heero answered his knock, Trowa said, "I broke the cardinal rule on my last job." And then there were just too many damn things wrong with the picture, so he started to actually laugh. "It all went to shit, and in the aftermath, I went to my dead partner's house. How fucked up is that?"

And Heero stood staring at him for a long time, as startled as Heero ever looked, which meant eyes a fraction wider than was perhaps normal and no other clues in an otherwise impassive face. Sometimes Trowa forgot that about Heero, until he was standing in front of him. Once when Duo had been angry he'd called Heero a robot. That had more than a grain of truth to it. Heero didn't have depths to his surface. It was all one level, almost a god-like absence of the need to feel. And though it had been a very long time since Trowa had been in a place this low, suddenly he was fifteen and desperately wishing he could be just that safe from his own insides.

Then Heero reached for something on his side of the door. A coat. He put his arms into it, one smooth mechanical interaction of muscle after the other, buttoned it to his collar. "Come get a drink with me," he said. "It won't be so bad then."

+

Dorothy wrapped up her lengthy and prominently one-sided conversation with a vexed, "You haven't heard a thing I've said since you saw that black dress."

Relena admitted as much as she turned the dress again in her arms to examine the tailoring at the waist. "I've heard you. I've heard you three or four different times. Is this the one about submarine nuclear attack? Or the one about how carpet bombing Dresden was the most successful campaign in history?"

"You're no fun at all when you get up on your high horse. It was the one about the breakdown in communications between the three colonial mining unions. I'll never appreciate why there need be more than one."

"You'll never appreciate why there need to be unions, dear." She gave the dress over to the personal shopper trailing them and directed herself at a dark blue organza with a daring swoop-cut that would bare almost the entire back. She held it up to Dorothy, first, but couldn't resist turning to the nearest of the standing mirrors to try it against her own figure.

"Oh, please," Dorothy interrupted. "That is neither your style nor colour."

Fair if rude. It was a good match with her friend, though, especially with the feathery curls Dorothy wore these days. Her already trim hips would all but disappear in the sleek skirt, but it would show off her slender shoulders to perfect advantage. "For you, then. You've got that hint of strawberry in your hair. It would be gorgeous on you, and certainly far more suitable than your customary mourning garb. Isn't it time to give it up?"

Dorothy's smoky eyelids went wide under pale arched brows. "I wasn't aware there was a timetable for these things," she replied tartly.

Relena let that pass with just a touch to Dorothy's cheek, and gave the organza to their shopper to send to the dressing lounge. "At least try it on. You'll be smashing, and you know you can't resist that."

"I detest shopping. Why do we always go shopping?"

The complaint was without bite. It was, in fact, quite warm. Dorothy knew the answer as well as Relena did. They had both been treasured daughters, but as teens they'd been robbed of the carefree maturation into womanhood that many of their school fellows had enjoyed. There had been no experiments with their mothers' rouge and lipstick, no giggling trips to the salon to have their nails buffed and varnished. They had both lost beloved father figures, been making decisions that ended lives, when other girls their age had been choosing nothing more dire than which dress to wear for promenades and debuts. Relena had been proclaimed a Queen and been made a political refugee in the same year she might have had her first kiss, instead. Dorothy had lost a costly rebellion and nearly lost her own life at Relena's brother's side.

Dorothy was a sober person these days, very much the image of the CEO of Winner Enterprise's Earth-side holdings. It had certainly been a surprise appointment, given the history between Quatre and Dorothy. Relena had thought it compassionate, at the time. Now she thought it shrewd. Dorothy had been scrupulously proper as the public face of WEI, but more than that, and despite her complaints to the contrary, she'd been the lynchpin in relations with the unions. WEI rated in the top five industry ranking for employee satisfaction, and it came at no detriment to productivity and expansion. Quatre had given her an opportunity to prove herself useful-- not just to the world, but to herself. She would never be a pacifist, and she might never be even the humanist that Quatre was, but Quatre had led her back to the shred of humanity she'd nearly forgotten, and she would be ruthlessly loyal to him until the day she died. If it left her little time for joy, then Relena made a point of trying to keep their visits light.

Which was why she mentioned none of that. Instead, truthfully enough, she answered, "I see you three times a year at most, and I don't like to spend that time watching you do paperwork."

"Oh, is that what it is." Dorothy took the shimmery white gown one of the assistants brought to her, but made a face as soon as it was in her hands and tossed it back. "Are we shopping for your honeymoon wardrobe, perhaps?"

Dorothy had at least waited for a moment of relative privacy to make that sally. Relena glanced about to be sure, but they'd been left in a momentary bubble of peace as the owner assembled an array of models in silk lingerie for them. "I'm ready for a marriage," she said softly. "Quatre will make a good husband. There's things attendant on it I don't like, but nothing comes free of charge, does it?"

"He's been finished with Barton for a long time. In any way that you'd find threatening, anyway."

That most certainly did not invite eavesdropping. Relena gave her companion a dark look as they took their seats on the low divan before the runway where their models would display the clothes they'd chosen. A small champagne fountain yielded two gold-rimmed goblets for them, served by a smiling young girl with an attractive dark bob. Relena watched her go, thoughtful suddenly. "It's nothing to do with that," she admitted.

Dorothy crossed her long legs and gestured for the show to begin. A thin woman floated from behind the diaphanous curtains, strutting slowly into a turn in her Basque ivory corset. "What then?" Dorothy asked. "He's met your mother. You've met the brood of harpies he calls his relations. You don't want to live on L4? You want him to convert to Catholicism first?"

"Quatre has political ambitions. And there are a large number of people who'd like him to fulfil them as soon as possible."

"Ah." Dorothy speared her with sharp eyes as a second model emerged with a barely visible chemise of lace. Both Dorothy and Relena waved her on immediately. "You don't approve ambition?"

"I haven't decided."

"Would you sway him from his destiny?"

"You and destiny." She waved off as well the La Perla bustier that followed. "Is politics ever a destiny?"

"For Treize it was. As it is for Quatre."

Oh, that did not please her. "Quatre is not Treize," she whispered tightly, concealing her the movement of her mouth behind the rim of her champagne flute. Dorothy made no such effort, but her lips never moved from their smile as she spoke.

"They're more similar than you'd guess," she said. "The Opium corset is divine. Imagine him unlacing you in the bridal bed. Oh, don't sulk. It's not as bad a quality as you seem to think."

"We'll have to continue to disagree on that point."

Dorothy laughed her rich laugh. "You know I'm right. I think that's exactly why you hate the idea of Quatre in office."

"Quatre will never be the kind of man Treize was. Quatre's never evidenced the top-heavy ego, for one thing. And it never would have occurred to him to run for President if Temple Mayfield hadn't been dripping honey in his ear for years. And he certainly hasn't agreed yet."

Raspberry chiffon replaced the creamy silks. Once again, Dorothy took charge of the selection, approving a thigh-length slip with a ruffled edge and a camisole and panty set that flounced in the thin breeze created by hidden fans. "He will," Dorothy answered. "Perhaps even if you say you object."

Relena was agitated. It was an effort to keep her expression smooth, to occupy herself with the champagne, to smile at the owner who watched anxiously from the side. "I didn't invite you along so you could sharpen your tongue on me," she murmured.

"Oh, forgive me, indeed. Stop looking at that girl. You're too old for a bob."

They were on to the gowns. Her first selection, a wine-red sheath with beaded columns at the breast, moved too stiffly on the girl who wore it, and Relena sent it off with a flick of her finger. She said, "If that's the life he chooses to live, I'll live it with him. And then he'll owe me the same favour."

"Oh?" Dorothy called for a refill of their flutes. Her full lips were curved in an almost catty smile. "That sounds positively threatening. You must tell me now."

"There are things that one can do once one had had a position of power." The young lady dripped bubbly into their glasses and retreated to her corner. The blue organza made its appearance, flowed like water about the model's knees, the soft gather at the shoulders revealing a hint of cleavage and the long white slope of spine to nearly the top of the buttocks. Dorothy would indeed turn heads in that dress. She nodded to the owner, who sent the model to stand with the other girls they'd approved. "I've done what I could with the credit I earned from the wars and from serving as Vice Foreign Minister. If Quatre does decide to run for the Presidency, we both know he'll win. And whether he serves one term or three, when he's done, we'll have the political capital to effect more, and more effective, change than any President ever could. We can open foundations, we can raise funds, we can call in more favours than any fifty senators could pocket. That's a goal I can dream of."

"A goal Quatre would happily embrace." The black dress she'd liked so looked almost aubergine under the lights, but the strapless corset bust would flatter her curves as a slimmer woman couldn't hope. It fastened with buttons, not a zip, with a slight gather at the hips to emphasise the waist, and the scarf-like drape of the single shoulder was elegant without competing with the fish-tail train. Relena approved it, and so did Dorothy, grudgingly inclining her head to Relena's taste. "I'm a little disappointed, though," Dorothy added then. "That it wasn't something more nefarious, I mean. How many children will you have?"

"I think two is reasonable."

"Reasonable." Dorothy sipped her champagne and set it aside to search the tray of truffles left for them. "That word perfectly describes you both."

She knew. There were moments where she truly wished she could be unreasonable, but those days were long past her, and it was time to be-- sensible. Rational.

She said, "If there is such a thing as destiny, this is what it is."

Dorothy sighed, very quietly. "Both of you need to be reminded what passion feels like."

Shoes, next. Relena chose a truffle for herself, using it as a prop as she had used the glass to hide her lips. "We... got something of a start on that."

Dorothy's head whipped around. "You did the deed?" she whispered sharply.

Satin sandals passed them by, and fan-back stilettos. "When he gave me the ring."

"And you didn't call me with the details?"

"There hasn't been time." She risked a transition between the models to pull the golden chain she wore from under her scarf, to show Dorothy Quatre's ring. She tucked it away when the boutique owner strained her head to see.

"My goodness," Dorothy observed. "So was it all you hoped?"

"It was-- interesting." She knew Dorothy would tease and press her, so she quickly moved on. "In all honesty I'm shocked he agreed."

"Please tell me he didn't fail to get it up for you."

"Of course that's not what I mean!" None of the season's new shoes met her approval, and she gestured the owner to move on to the jewelery. "I meant I thought he would want to wait for the wedding."

"He's a man, Relena."

"He cares about those things."

"You should care about those things too."

"I care."

"But you're disappointed?"

She almost regretted bringing it up, but at the same time there was a certain liberation in being able to verbalise it. "There was something missing from it. I don't know what."

"Technical or... emotional?"

"Emotional." She touched the ring hidden at her bosom. "There was nothing wrong technically."

"Quatre..." Dorothy's voice trailed off. Relena looked to find her friend lost in some memory, her eyes dark and abstracted. "He always holds back. Until he's ready to stop being-- polite."

"And I thought that we might have got to that point when we went to bed together." She barely whispered the last two words, wary of their surroundings. "And I don't doubt his feelings for me, but I felt like-- like--"

Dorothy reached into Relena's collar, snagging the chain. She didn't pull it free, stopping even before Relena caught her wrist, but her fingers rested on Relena's neck. "Maybe he's waiting for you to wear this somewhere else."

"We agreed we would wait to announce til he got back from his trip."

"Congratulations. The two of you are very well matched."

"Dorothy."

A frothy necklace of fresh water pearls made a slow walk past them, and Relena gave it her nod. Pepite earrings in gold settings Dorothy selected for herself, and they took a diamond and aquamarine pendant as well.

"What do I do about him?" Relena asked then.

Dorothy went straight to the point with customary nonchalance. "Do you love him?"

"Yes."

"Then love him. And teach him how you need to be loved back." Dorothy touched her hand, then squeezed it gently. "All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools."

Relena found a smile for that. "You told me you'd stopped reading Marlowe."

"I could never."

"The coral rose brooch. That's enough, thank you." Relena stood. Dorothy joined her, blotting her lips with a small napkin that she tucked away into her purse. "Allow me to buy you the organza."

"Hm." Dorothy smiled for her. "As you say, darling."

That brightened her at last. "Wonderful! Wear it to the wedding and steal all the attention away from me."

"Where else would I wear it?" Dorothy watched her in that sharp way she studied things she didn't understand. But all she said was, "It's about time he realised you're perfect together."

"Very true. Speaking of perfect, Quatre's sister Zarah will be there. When's the last time you heard from her?"

"Zarah and I are over. Don't go matchmaking."

"You made a dashing couple."

"Past tense. Give me time, Relena. Not all of us find our perfect mate the first time."

Or lost the one who might have been. Relena kept herself from twitching the dowdy pleats of Dorothy's dark suit, and let it drop. "As you like, then. But when the photographs of you in the blue make the rounds, you'll be inundated with fan mail."

"It will make the rest of the Winner hags furious. I'll enjoy that."

That, they could both laugh for. Relena had had run-ins of her own with the many Winner sisters. Not all of them were as charming as their brother.

"The two of you should visit more often once you're married," Dorothy remarked.

"We'll try. I don't always like you, Dorothy, but I do miss you when we're apart."

"I feel much the same about you. It's Quatre I wanted to see anyway."

"Oh, please, you and Quatre have nothing to speak about but reliving the good times with sharp fencing foils."

"We're kinky that way. Remember, sweetness, I had him first."

Relena tweaked her friend's slender nose. "Go try on the blue. And wear underpants this time."

+

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