~*~

The Stars Know All... by Lys ap Adin

 

Duo paused in his preparations to stare searchingly at his good friend (and, coincidentally, master). "Quatre, are you absolutely certain you want to do this?" he asked, using the prince's given name with the familiarity only the most privileged dared.

"For the last time, Duo, yes," Quatre sighed wearily.

"At least take someone with you," Duo pleaded. "Heero will nail my braid to the wall if anything happens to you!"

The blond laughed. "No he won't. He loves you too much to leave you chained to the wall like that."

"Did I say that I'd still be attached to the braid?" Duo asked gloomily, petting the gleaming rope of hair absently.

"Duo, please. You know I can't walk into this blindly," Quatre pointed out reasonably. "I have to find out for myself firsthand what he's like."

"But the stars say you'll get along fine," Duo observed. "Hell, probably better than fine."

Quatre made a face. "Heh. Well, it may be fine for you magic users to trust yourselves to the stars, but I prefer slightly more concrete evidences of my future happiness."

Duo drew himself up in mock injury, flicking his deep grey robes threateningly. "Your Highness, do you mean to tell me that you don't trust the stars to guide us in our daily lives?"

Quatre snorted in a most undignified fashion. "Oh, please, spare me, Duo. I know you don't even believe half the stuff that the stargazers tell us. I know I have trouble believing that a boy born at the precise moment I was could possibly be my soul mate, especially when, unlike you, I don't prefer other men."

"Good point, I suppose," Duo conceded. "It does all seem a little more mystical than strictly necessary, doesn't it? And the question of producing a royal heir doesn't even bear thinking about..."

"You're telling me?" Quatre sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Let's just get on with it."

"It would still make me feel better if you weren't doing this alone," Duo grumbled.

~*~

"There you are, Trowa. I've been looking all over for you." Trowa turned slightly, glancing over his shoulder at the sound of his sister's soft footsteps on the parapet behind him. "I swear, I don't know what possesses you to come out here." To emphasize her comment, she shivered at a gust of chilly wind.

"I like the view," he replied simply, gazing out across the bleak winter landscape of his father's estate. "It helps me think."

"I guess time is running out, isn't it?" Cathrine said quietly, coming to stand next to him, her skirts rustling with each movement. "By the time the new year dawns, you'll be in the Eternal City... it's such a long way away."

"Yes, it is," Trowa agreed. He turned to his sister, touching her shoulder lightly. "Don't worry so much. I'll be fine."

She smiled at him. "Always so worried for the rest of us, aren't you, Trowa? What are we going to do when you've gone away to--him?"

"Come to visit me, I expect."

Cathrine laughed, the humor banishing the tears that had threatened. "I hope His Highness doesn't mind in-laws...." She shook her head. "I don't know, Trowa... I just worry that you're not going to be happy. If it weren't for the fact that the stars are what led to all this, I'd probably drive myself to madness."

"The stars wouldn't lie, of course," Trowa replied indifferently.

"You're right. It's silly of me to doubt. Well. It's too cold to stand out here, Trowa. Let's go inside and warm up."

Trowa cast one final look south to where the Eternal City awaited him and dutifully followed his sister inside.

~*~

"When I suggested that someone ought to accompany you, Quatre, I did not mean me," Duo complained, trying to keep his horse under control. "Damn it! It's too cold. I can't even feel my fingers..."

Quatre grinned cheerily at his friend. "Well, electing you meant that I got a bonus." He glanced meaningfully at the silent warrior riding just ahead of them.

Duo's expression softened. "Oh, yeah, the only good thing about the entire damned expedition."

"Shut up, Duo, and try not to fall off your horse--again," Heero retorted.

"Yes, dear~," Duo called back sweetly.

Heero muttered something about long-haired, loud-mouthed idiots.

"Besides," Quatre added, "the two of you are much more entertaining together than apart... even if you do get a little loud at night."

Duo slowly turned red from a source other than the cold. "Uh... we thought you were asleep."

Quatre just shook his head. "Not when Heero's as loud as he is."

"Y'see, Heero? I'm not the only one who thinks you're really noisy!"

~*~

A tranquil evening spent sitting next to a roaring fire as a bitter winter storm howled outside was interrupted by an urgently whispered message from a manservant. Alacar Barton, viscount, raised an eyebrow. "Travelers? In this weather? By all means, they are welcome to take shelter with us."

"Will you wish to interview them, sir?"

"Yes, please, assuming they aren't too wearied by battling the storm." The servant hurried away. "Who on earth could be so insane as to travel through this?"

"We'll probably find out in a few minutes, Father," Cathrine murmured.

The servant returned quickly, three exhausted travelers in tow. One, a warrior with searing cobalt eyes, seemed relatively unfazed by the journey through the snow and wind, but his two companions seemed almost ready to collapse. The braided man in a wizard's grey robes leaned heavily on the third young man, who was nondescript with sandy hair and tired, muddy eyes.

"Welcome to my home, travelers," the viscount greeted them, standing and smiling. "What sort of business could bring you out on such a night?"

The warrior, seeming to realize that his companions were too tired to make the first overture, took the initiative. "I am Heero, and this is my lifebond Duo and our friend Quatre. We've traveled here on business for the Crown."

Three pairs of eyes turned to the slender young man sitting in the shadows by the fire. "May I be so bold as to ask what sort of business?" Alacar inquired.

Quatre spoke up. "His Highness the Crown Prince, being unable to himself meet the fiance to whom fate has assigned him, wishes me to become acquainted with the young man in question and then report back my impressions."

The viscount nodded. "His Highness is most gracious. I will have servants prepare rooms for you... and we place ourselves at your disposal."

Quatre inclined his head. "Thank you." He raised his head, peering through the smoky glare. "I take it, then, that he is His Highness' betrothed?"

The lanky figure unfolded himself from his seat and stepped forward. "I am Trowa Barton."

~*~

"You know, I really hope Quatre knows what he's doing, Heero."

"He's almost an adult, Duo. He'll manage."

"Yeah, but ... isn't this bad luck?"

"I thought you weren't superstitious?"

"I'm not.... ooh, you're warm."

"Then don't worry about it, and for God's sake, get your cold feet off me!"

"But you're so warm, Heero."

"I don't care." A pause. "Oh, what the hell..."

"Thank you, Heero... so, what did you think of Trowa."

"Quiet."

"I'm guessing that was a compliment, right?"

"Hn."

"Yeah, I thought so too... should be an interesting show, huh?"

~*~

Snuggling underneath several quilts, with a warming pan and a fire going in his room, Quatre finally began feeling warm again, much to his relief. The last few hours of the trek north to the Barton holdings had been an icy form of hell, the young prince decided. He was glad it was over, and sincerely hoped Duo would have some magical way to get them home, lest they face another bout of weather like that.

Slowly, he began to uncurl and relax, weariness making his limbs a dozen times heavier than they should have been. I can't believe I really did it and came up here, he thought fuzzily. At least he's not too bad-looking... And with that, he fell asleep.

~*~

Quatre shifted slightly under the silent gaze of his... betrothed. God, he was going to have a hard time with this. They had been sitting together in silence for nearly half an hour. The few conversations that Quatre had started before the silence had fallen had lurched to painful, agonizing deaths. The disguised prince was about to scream in frustration just to make a little noise. "You don't talk very much, do you?" he asked, finally, tired of playing the etiquette-prescribed game of conversational cat-and-mouse.

"I suppose not," Trowa replied, using the same mostly inflectionless tone with which he had commented on the weather, breakfast, the warm, comfortable atmosphere of his home, and the cat now lounging in his lap. He paused, and for the first time in the two and a half hours they had been sitting together, asked a question. "You'll tell that to His Highness?"

Was that--hostility? Quatre wondered, rather baffled by the green-eyed enigma sitting across from him. "I don't know, Lord Barton," he answered, smiling slightly. "I haven't decided yet if this is normal for you or if it's just my presence." And if it's me, we are in such deep trouble.

Trowa petted the ecstatically purring cat for a few moments, the long sweep of his hair covering fully half of his face--not that seeing both eyes would have provided that much of an aid to deciphering his emotions, Quatre decided. "Forgive me, I should try to be more forthcoming," he said finally. "What would His Highness like to know about me?"

Quatre floundered, even as he rejoiced to be getting somewhere in the conversation at last. "Um... well... he'd like to know everything, really."

Trowa lifted an eyebrow. "Where shall I begin?"

His mind had gone blank. Frantically, Quatre tired to think of something (anything) to ask. At length, he swore. "Damn it, I can't think of a single bloody thing."

If he had been watching, he might have seen Trowa's eyes soften slightly before the customary mask settled back into place.

At that moment, Duo poked his head into the study. "Good morning!" he exclaimed. "Mind if we join you?"

Quatre looked questioningly at Trowa, who merely shrugged. "By all means, Duo, please come in," the prince said, not without a certain sense of relief.

~*~

So... I make him uncomfortable. Trowa filed this away, wondering why the Crown Prince's emissary should be so jittery around him. It wasn't as if Quatre were the one who would have to marry him.

Duo seated himself quite happily on a low couch, smirking at his lifebond and patting the cushion next to him invitingly. Heero snorted, but took the offered seat anyway. Duo immediately rearranged himself so that he was leaning against the warrior. "So, has Quatre wormed all your deepest, darkest secrets out of you yet?" the wizard asked. "Because we were thinking--"

"You were thinking," Heero corrected him.

"We were thinking that maybe you'd like to know a little more about His Highness. Turnabout is fair play, after all, and no one knows His Highness better than the three of us," Duo continued, unperturbed by Heero's interruption. "Especially Quatre. He and the prince are so close, you might say they were inseparable."

"Duo--" Quatre said, voice hard.

The violet-eyed wizard simply smiled at him. "It's true, Quatre! The two of you are very close, and Trowa--and *can* call you Trowa, can't I?--deserves every bit as much warning about His Highness's foibles as you're going to report back to the Eternal City."

"Duo, shut up and give someone else a chance to speak," Heero snorted, taking the braid and tugging it gently.

Duo made a face. "It's not like anyone else around here was saying much," he complained. "Quatre's tonguetied, and it looks like Trowa talks even less than you do."

Heero pulled the braid again. "Duo, behave."

"All right, all right... so, Trowa, what do you do for fun around here when it storms like this?" Duo asked.

"Try to stay warm." Trowa wasn't expecting the grin that spread across Duo's face at the comment.

"Say, Heero--"

"No."

The wizard sighed heavily. "He's absolutely no fun in front of strangers," he confided to Trowa. "So, assuming one is already warm, what else is there to do?"

Trowa hesitated. "There is a weapons room where you could practice, and there is a library--it's small, but it's hard to get books this far north."

Quatre's eyes lit up. "A library?"

Duo chuckled. "You said just the right thing, Trowa. Our friend here adores reading."

Trowa looked at Quatre, interest flickering across his face. "You do?"

Quatre nodded vigorously. "Definitely. Books are one of my passions."

Trowa's mouth quirked up slightly. Well, well... "I could show you the library," he offered.

Quatre very nearly glowed. "I'd like that very much!"

Satisfied and grinning smugly, Duo snuggled closer to Heero. My work here is done.

~*~

"Wonderful..." Quatre inhaled the familiar dusty scent of books and smiled peacefully. Trowa was right, the "library" was really only a small room, but it was warm and cozy, and the books appeared to be well-loved. He nearly forgot his guide's presence, drifting over to one shelf and inspecting the titles closely. "May I?" he asked, glancing back at Trowa, who nodded. He carefully removed a volume, lovingly opening the book and leafing through the pages.

He really _does_ love books.... "That's one of my favorites," Trowa offered, almost shyly.

"Mine too... I compliment you on your good taste." Quatre sighed happily. "I would never leave this room if I lived here..."

"Thank you."

"Hmm?" Quatre looked at him curiously, still holding the book like a beloved child.

Trowa ducked his head, looking slightly embarrassed. "I take care of the books, sir."

"Call me Quatre, please, my lord. I can't stand honorifics. And you've done a wonderful job," he said sincerely, letting his eyes rove over the shelves filled with books absolutely free of dust, the comfortable, inviting chairs by the fireplace, and the abundance of oil lamps to provide clear light for reading.

Trowa found himself almost smiling. "Thank you again... and please, call me Trowa."

~*~

Thank God... common ground, Quatre thought relievedly as he and Trowa began chatting--still cautiously--about books. I'm not going to be marrying someone who's completely different from me after all... Maybe there's hope for this yet. He brought his wandering attention back to the present as he realized Trowa had asked a question. "I'm sorry, what was that?"

"Does His Highness spend much time reading?" Trowa asked again, gaze lowered to the book in his hands and the fall of his hair hiding his face.

How to be truthful and not give myself away? Quatre tried to collect his thoughts, choosing his words with care. "His Highness... does not have the time to spend on books that he wishes." That's true enough... I'd much rather read than take care of state matters.

He felt the change in the atmosphere between himself and Trowa almost immediately, as Trowa replaced the book on its shelf with a soft, "Oh."

No! Not the silence again! Quatre cast about for any possible way to keep Trowa from retreating back into his shell. He picked a book at random, made a show of examining the title, and then proclaimed, "I've never read this--is it any good?"

Trowa glanced at the book, then at Quatre quizzically. "It would probably be interesting," he replied, "considering that it's a book of erotic poetry."

Quatre nearly dropped the book, but managed to put it down safely as the color rose in his cheeks. "Oh," he squeaked.

Trowa chuckled briefly. "It's not actually that sort of book," he said. "It's really just a collection of essays about agriculture."

Quatre laughed too, at himself and the faint spark of mischief still lurking in Trowa's eyes. "Okay, you won this time, Trowa... next time you won't be so lucky." And you should laugh more often, it makes you seem like an entirely different person.

~*~

Alacar drummed his fingers on the table, openly displaying his impatience. "Where is that boy?" he demanded. He turned to Heero and Duo. "I apologize, sirs. Trowa is not usually so very late."

Cathrine stifled a giggle.

Her father ignored her. "Perhaps I should send a servant to fetch him," the viscount mused.

"The last we saw them, he was taking Quatre to see the library," Duo told him.

"Well, that explains everything," Cathrine shook her head. "If he has a captive audience, he'll keep them in that room for hours going on about his books." She rose from her seat. "I'll go remind him that it's well past time for luncheon, Father, with your permission."

"Yes, of course, please go rescue our guest from Trowa," he nodded. Cathrine inclined her head and sped from the room in search of her little brother.

"I hope it wasn't the other way around," Duo whispered to Heero. "You know how Quatre gets when it comes to books. He even makes me look like an amateur."

"What was that, sir?" Alacar asked.

"Nothing, sir, merely commenting to Heero about what a comfortable home you have here," Duo responded brightly, eyes glimmering roguishly. Beside him Heero snorted under his breath. Without changing expression as he talked amiably with their host about the decor, under the table Duo placed his hand on Heero's knee and began running his fingers up the inside of his lifebond's leg.

His hand was seized and firmly deposited in his own lap as Heero muttered, "Insatiable wizard..."

Duo merely grinned.

~*~

"...incredible! You have the complete set of manuscripts?" Cathrine heard as she opened the door. Two heads were bent close together over the same dusty folio as they reverently turned loose pages of yellowed writings. "Most collectors believe that it was lost!"

"I don't know that it's the original set," Trowa replied seriously. "But it does look authentic... see this seal? It matches what von Rauthes used consistently on other documents--"

Cathrine cleared her throat, and both young men looked up, surprised. "Trowa, it's time to put away your toys and come eat," she said, smiling. "We've been waiting for quite some time now." Turning to Quatre, she added, "I'm sorry, he gets a bit carried away at times."

Quatre looked at her blankly. "It's already time to eat? I'm sorry, Trowa, I didn't mean to monopolize your time like that."

Cathrine's face twitched. "Two of you? Oh, God, meals are going to be late from now on," she groaned.

"I'll pay better attention from now on," Trowa promised, carefully gathering the loose papers and returning them to their place in the leather folio.

"I'm sure you will," Cathrine said drily. To Quatre's confused expression, she explained, "He has a real tendency to totally lose himself in whatever he's doing at the moment. It makes things interesting when it comes time for meals and he can't be found, since Father is insistent that we wait for everyone to arrive before the meal begins."

Sensing Trowa's discomfort more than seeing it as they hurried to the dining room, Quatre smiled at Cathrine. "Ah, but I do the same thing all the time. Some things are just so fascinating that it's impossible not to immerse myself in them completely."

Cathrine winced. "As I said, meals are going to be late for the rest of your time here..."

~*~

"So, I understand my son showed you his pride and joy already," the viscount commented to Quatre over dessert. "You must have impressed him for him to have showed you so soon. He's generally much more reserved."

Please be joking about that, Quatre sighed mentally. He smiled politely at the elder Barton. "I suppose he just recognized the book-lover in me, sir."

"Trowa practically built that library of his, really," Cathrine supplied. "None of us really care too much for reading, but it's nice to have someone around who does."

Quatre shot Duo a glance that clearly begged his friend to say or do something to change the conversation. Duo smirked slightly at the sudden concern the disguised prince was showing for Trowa. Perhaps there is something to all the stars business after all, the wizard reflected, allowing his mouth to take over automatically and steer the conversation off into a new direction.

~*~

He's going out of his way to make me feel comfortable. Why? Trowa wondered, listening to the ebb and flow of the discussion around him. It could be that he's only trying to figure out what I'm really like... so he can tell His Highness...

Or was it something more? That sort of enthusiasm for books and reading couldn't be faked. Trowa knew that for certain, having endured too many years of amused toleration for his "bookish hobby." Quatre was genuine in that sense, at least... he was honestly trying to be something for Trowa. A friend, perhaps? Trowa held no illusions about what his life in the Eternal City would probably be like. As the Crown Prince's consort, he would be seen in the royal court as another way to get His Highness's ear... What better chance could an aristocrat have than to befriend Trowa before he arrived at the Eternal City? On a mission or not, there wouldn't be any sense in wasting a perfectly good opportunity.

I'm getting more cynical every day, Trowa thought clinically. He had to admit, though, Quatre was an amazing actor. His awkwardness in trying to approach Trowa seemed more than real enough, as did his desire to get to know him... As an initial court ally went, he could have been worse... much worse.

~*~

The afternoon found the four young men sitting together in a parlor staring at each other awkwardly. Duo obviously wanted to be elsewhere with his lifebond, as his wandering hands and mournful gazes at Heero indicated. Nothing about Heero's expression showed his own feelings about the matter, but he did nothing to discourage Duo, stating more clearly by action than words ever could how he felt. Quatre would have liked nothing better than to have returned to the library with Trowa to explore, but Cathrine had not-too-subtly hinted that Trowa ought to be paying greater attention to the other guests.

Thus they were all miserable, or that was what Quatre assumed, since Trowa really hadn't indicated his preferences in the matter.

Minutes ticked by like tiny eternities until Duo yawned dramatically. He stretched and winked at Trowa and Quatre. "God, I'm sleepy... Please excuse me, but I think I ought to go get a nap before supper." He stood and glanced at Heero. "Well, are you going to tuck me in or not?"

"Hn." Heero stood as well, seeming rather relieved by Duo's ingenuity. He stared at the other two. "Are you going to let someone else tell you how to enjoy your afternoon?"

"But Heero, they aren't ma--Not the braid, not the braid!" Duo yelped as Heero seized him and headed out of the room purposefully.

Trowa turned his attention to Quatre. "Are they always like that?" he asked.

"As long as I've known them," Quatre laughed. "Although they haven't always been that openly expressive."

"You've known them for a long time, then?" Trowa pressed.

"Yes. the same woman tutored both me and Duo, and Heero and I trained under the same swordmaster for a long time... we all sort of grew up together." Quatre grinned. "Believe me when I tell you that Duo hasn't changed a bit from the days when he hid snakes in Lady Une's belongings."

Trowa digested this. "They're young to be declared lifebonds."

Quatre shrugged. "Maybe. When they first got together, though, Heero's fiancee Relena had a star reading done. She was rather upset to be jilted, you see, but it turned out that while she and Heero are pretty compatible, he and Duo are an even better match... that is, if you believe in the stars, anyway."

"You don't."

The prince shook his head with a sigh. "No, I don't. I think the stars are just stars. People don't fall in love just because a few patterns in the night sky say they should... although I'll be the first to admit that what those patterns said about Duo and Heero made their life a lot easier." He looked at Trowa. "I have to admit that I'm curious--do you believe that the stars guide our destinies?"

Trowa was silent for so long that Quatre thought he wasn't going to answer. Finally, he said, "I can only hope that it's true."

Quatre nodded thoughtfully. "That's logical enough, I suppose. His Highness isn't exactly thrilled with the arrangement, either," he said drily. Although he _has_ taken certain steps...

"That's why you're here."

"Yes, definitely." Quatre smiled tentatively. Maybe I should just tell him now...?

"Duo said you were close to His Highness... what's he like?"

"Busy. Very, very busy," Quatre responded automatically, remember the escaped piles of paperwork lying on his desk in the Eternal City.

"That stands to reason," Trowa replied.

"But I--" Quatre realized he'd started with the incorrect pronoun and swiftly switched tacks. "I think he does his best to make time for everyone he can in his life... He doesn't have very many close personal friends, really. Just Duo and Heero..."

"And you."

"Ah, yes... and me." Quatre smiled faintly. There'll be time later to tell him... "Most of the people who comprise the royal court are there for their own personal gains... it's difficult to find trustworthy individuals--what?"

Trowa's face was dark. "I am familiar with the breed," he said, tones clipped.

Quatre gauged the expression. "What happened?"

Trowa shook his head. "It's not important."

Quatre lifted an eyebrow, but let it pass. He had a feeling that it would resurface eventually.

At that moment, the cat who had disappointed when Trowa had escorted Quatre to the library chose to reappear. With a plaintive cry, it wound itself around Quatre's ankles.

"She wants you to hold her," Trowa told Quatre. "Pick her up, she almost never scratches."

"Almost never? That's supposed to be reassuring, right?" Quatre lifted the cat into his lap, rubbing her ears. He was rewarded with a resounding purr and a puddle of fur as the cat went boneless, sprawling across his lap limply.

"She likes you," Trowa observed. "Smoke isn't alway so friendly with strangers."

"Now he tells me," Quatre complained to the cat. "Thanks for the warning, Trowa."

The quiet man shrugged. "I had a feeling the two of you would get along just fine."

Quatre gave him a look. "That confident, are we?"

"When it comes to animals."

"Oh, really?" The cat rolled over in his lap, inviting him to rub her exposed tummy. "You're that good with them?"

"It's a matter of listening to what they say." Trowa held out his hand to the cat, who immediately abandoned Quatre in Trowa's favor.

"I've never had much time for pets," Quatre replied wistfully. "There was always something else more important to be done."

"What could keep you so busy?"

"Duties at court, mostly... Learning about my family's office and how to execute my responsibilities properly when my father dies," Quatre explained, only stretching the truth a little.

"I suppose that's how you're tied in to His Highness?"

"You could put it that way, yes..." Quatre sighed, deciding the charade really had gone on long enough after all. "Actually, I am--"

"Pardon my interruption, but I thought that you gentlemen might enjoy some tea," Cathrine announced, bustling through the door witha tray in her hands.

Quatre closed his mouth. Maybe later. "You're too kind," he murmured as Cathrine set the tray down.

"Well, I know that Trowa would never think of it," she said cheerfully, unaware of his sarcasm. "But where are your friends?"

"They were feeling--" Quatre twitched as Trowa began his explanation in a faintly amused tone "--sleepy, and decided to take a nap before dinner."

Cathrine looked sympathetic. "They must still be tired from the travel through the storm."

Quatre hid his smirk. "Yes, well, since Heero tends to be very noisy when he... sleeps... they left Trowa and me to our own devices."

"How considerate of them!" Cathrine poured a cup of tea, and looked the disguised prince. "One lump or two?"

"One, please." He accepted the cup, saw that Cathrine was preparing two more, and realized that he wasn't likely to discover anything else about Trowa for a while.

~*~

What was he going to say before Cathrine interrupted? Trowa wondered, not for the first time since she had arrived. Something told him that it was important... very important. The other young man had seemed on teh verge of a confession, but about what? Trowa felt a faint shiver touch his spine as he hoped it wasn't anything too bad... he was coming to like the emissary from the Eternal City, all things considered. Quatre seemed almost as much a victim of upbringing as Trowa himself. Maybe he'll tell me later.

~*~

"Did you enjoy your nap?" Cathrine inquired solicitously when Duo and Heero appeared for supper. Quatre laughed silently at the off-balance expression on Duo's face.

"It was very refreshing, thank you," Heero answered, with a perfectly straight face.

Duo just shook his head and took his seat at the table.

The meal progressed smoothly, the conversation centering mostly around teh winer storm still raging outside. Duo voiced his wonder that anyone could stand a span of months containing such weather.

"I suppose it's much more temperate in the Eternal City," Cathrine commented.

Duo nodded vigorously. "Much. I can't stand being cold, really."

"And he goes to great lengths to avoid it, too," Heero muttered.

Duo smiled innocently, the gleam in his eyes telling Quatre that Duo had definite plans to stay warm later. The prince rolled his eys, agreeing with Heero's "insatiable wizard" verdict.

After supper ended, they gathered in a drawing room, enjoying the warmth of a roaring fire. "Perhaps a little music would be pleasant," Alacar remarked. "If our guests don't object, Cathrine, would you play a little, please?"

Cathrine glanced at the three young men from the south, who indicated their assent. She looked at her brother. "Trowa, will you play with me?"

"I'd rather not," came the reply.

Cathrine looked disappointed as she departed. She returned bearing two instruments. She handed the flute to Trowa. "Just in case you change your mind," she explained. Then she lifted the violin and began to play.

Not a bad player... noat a bad player at all, Duo decided, surreptitiously snuggling a little closer to Heero. He smiled slightly as his lifebond shifted, placing an arm around his shoulders. Wonder what Quatre thinks...

Cathrine played for several minutes before pausing. She flushed at the applause from her audience, and then noticed the way Quatre's gaze rested on the violin. "Do you play, too?"

"When I get the chance," he replied.

Cathrine offered the violin to him. "Would you?"

Quatre paused, then accepted the violin. "Thank you." He ran his fingers over the dark, aged wood, approving of how loved its eemed. He raised the violin and tucked it under his chin, playing a few notes and testing the feel of the instrument. He smiled, liking the results. He rose from his seat, adjusted his stance, and struck up a simple melody to warm up. He finsihed to polite applause from the Bartons, but before they could say anything, he was playing again.

I guess all those years of enduring the noise he called practice paid off, Duo thought lazily, listening to the magic being wrought as Quatre's fingers danced over the strings and the bow coaxed tumultuous waves of music from the fragile violin.

Quatre's eyes had drifted shut as he lost himself in the music. When his father had first assigned him to lessons with a musical tutor, he had been violently opposed. He would have much preferred not to be closeted five times a week with the wizened old man, but the king had insisted on it, saying that the music would be of value to Quatre as he grew older. He hadn't understood his father's wisdom until the day the master, enraged by his pupil's diffidence, had demonstrated the difference between playing music and feeling it.

Abandoning the score in his mind, Quatre drifted into his own flights of musical fancy. The notes echoed the wildness of the storm outside, dipping and soaring with the howling of the wind. His frame swayed slightly with the force of his playing, and the world fell away until all that was left was the moment and the music.

And then a flute joined in, and Quatre's eyes flew open to see Trowa was also standing, playing with identical intensity.

~*~

I can't believe it... Trowa never plays for strangers! Cathrine bit her lower lip hard to keep herself from exclaiming aloud. Instead, she watched her brother in his musical interaction with Quatre, desperate to understand why he had chosen to involve himself.

The two played on, seemingly unconcerned by how startled their unexpected duet had left the audience. Quatre's expression reflected the bliss of an artist enjoying his work. Trowa seemed to relax into the grip of the music, the tension that was unnoticeable until gone melting away from his lean frame as his fingers danced through the complex patterns of the notes he played.

It would be one thing if he played duets often... but I have to beg to get him to play with _me_!* Cathrine frowned. *I don't like this... I don't like how this Quatre has monopolized Trowa's time. I don't care if he _is_ His Highness' personal emissary, I don't like what he's doing. It's dangerous....

As the impromptu duet drew to a close, Cathrine's eyes narrowed. So help me, Quatre... if you hurt Trowa, I will kill you.

~*~

Sleep eluded him.

Restless, Trowa tossed aside the heavy blankets of the bed. It was no use tossing and turning if he weren't able to rest, so he pulled on a robe. Moving to the fireplace, he pulled a chair closer to the hearth and the banked fire, and sat.

So strange, this feeling... the comfortable sensation being with Quatre evoked. Such instant rapport with another human being...

He frowned. It wasn't like him at all. He never gave his trust easily, even to his own family. Why should it come so quickly now, with this stranger from the south?

A faintly bitter smile flitted across Trowa's face. I ought to be more careful with how I behave... a person in my situation can afford to trust no one... I'm all too familiar with that danger.

Still. Quatre simply didn't seem to wish him any harm. His sincerity in reaching out to Trowa was undeniable.

What is it about him that gets to me so much? Why did I feel so compelled to play with him tonight? After I'd sworn to myself never to play for anyone but family again?

Trowa closed his eyes wearily. Why does he have to be the first person I've met to share my interests not because of who I am, but because they are his own?

~*~

Buried under his mountain of quilts, Quatre stared up at the ceiling, collecting his thoughts.

So. He likes books. He likes music. We play well together, and not in the twisted way Duo would interpret it. He's willing to open up to me, at least a little bit. All in all, this isn't a bad beginning. I've known many marriages based on much less in common.

He snorted softly. "Yes, but how many of those marriages were happy?" he murmured to the darkness.

We share a few interests. We have a little in common. How will things change if I tell him the truth? How will he relate to me as the Crown Prince?

Quatre winced. "Maybe coming here in cognito wasn't such a wonderful idea."

Will he be angry with me, for lying to him? Will it bother him that I was so mistrustful of this betrothal that I had to investigate before committing? Or will he just shut himself off, to the way he was when we first me, cold and reserved?

Quatre paused in his thoughts.

And when the hell did I start caring?

~*~

Duo grinned brightly at Quatre, chirping "Good morning!" as the disguised prince stumbled to his seat at the breakfast table.

"Duo, you're too damn cheerful for this early," Quatre muttered. "Shut up."

The wizard blinked and smirked. "What's the matter, Quatre, not sleeping well?"

"No. Pass the coffee." Quatre glared at Duo blearily. "Just because you and Heero entertained each other last night doesn't mean you get to take it out on the rest of the world."

"Don't mind him, he's always a little cranky in the mornings," Duo told Trowa. "But I expect you can get used to that--just make sure he gets his coffee."

"Duo," Heero muttered, nudging his lifebond meaningfully. "Not everyone is as much of a morning person as you are."

His lover beamed. "I know, and you can't imagine how much pleasure I get out of that."

"Heero, can I kill him? Please?" Quatre asked plaintively.

The warrior seemed to consider it. "No. You're halfway through your coffee, the mood will pass. Then you'd regret doing it. Probably."

Quatre sighed and complained to Trowa. "They never let me have any fun."

The baron chuckled. "So, gentlemen, what are you going to do today?"

Duo opened his mouth.

"Don't even think about it, Duo."

Duo shut his mouth and sulked.

~*~

Well, while I was wondering if things were going to be different today, I have to admit this is not what I expected, Quatre thought, somewhat ruefully as he fielded another one of Cathrine's questions about the southern lands and the Eternal City.

Heero leaned over and whispered to Duo, "She talks even more than you."

"Now that's an achievement," Duo commented. He didn't add his private thoughts about the matter--Why would Cathrine be so suddenly vocal?--because he knew Heero was wondering the same. "Think it has anything to do with last night's ... performance?"

Heero snorted. "You think? Protective, maybe?"

Duo grinned faintly at Cathrine, who was ensconced between Quatre and Trowa like a zealous chaperone. "No maybe about it."

~*~

Safe. Were he given to smiling easily, Trowa would have, relieved as he was by Cathrine's presence. Perhaps it was weak of him to let her defend him against... the strange threat Quatre presented. Regardless, it was easier than facing another morning with the other, having questions tossed at him, all for the sake of informing His Highness. It was much simpler to let Cathrine ply Quatre with question after question than it was to allow the emissary to pry at him, somehow worming past his defenses.

Yes. It was much easier to let Cathrine defend him.

~*~

This won't do at all, Duo decided, as it became apparent after lunch that Cathrine intended to entertain the group of them all day long. Of course, leave it to the wizard to get you out of your messes, Quatre, he doesn't mind.

Duo excused himself briefly, the twinkle in his eyes letting Heero know that nothing was actually wrong and he was only off to cause a little mischief. A few minutes and spells later, Duo wandered back in, radiating contentment.

Heero wasn't surprised at all when, a few minutes later, a harried servant hurried in, whispering desperately to Cathrine. She seemed annoyed, but rose from her seat between Quatre and Trowa anyway. "I apologized, but it seems there is a small, er, situation... I'll be back." And she swiftly left the room.

Quatre looked at the wizard, who was smiling serenely. Oh, God, what did he do? "That was very sudden, wasn't it?"

"Yes, very," Duo said offhandedly, casually inspecting his fingernails. "I certainly hope it isn't anything that'll tie her up all afternoon."

"That would be terrible," Heero agreed. "Speaking of tying up..." He stood, pulling Duo along with him. "I just thought of something that requires my attention." He and Duo also hurried out of the room.

Quatre glanced at Trowa quizzically. "It must be something in the water up here." The line, delivered in perfect deadpan, was rewarded with Trowa's laughter. Momentarily stunned by the unexpected sound, Quatre could only gape before his own smile turned into chuckles.

"They must be interesting travel companions," Trowa observed, still smiling faintly.

"You have no idea." Quatre shook his head. "You'd think they'd wear themselves out eventually, but it never seems to happen."

Trowa hesitated. "It must be nice to be that deeply... in love."

Quatre sobered. "Yeah. I guess so."

They were quiet together for several minutes, neither having anything to say to that. Eventually Trowa spoke. "Cathrine has been gone for quite a while."

"Mmmm. If I know Duo, she'll be busy till dinner time," Quatre said absently.

Trowa stared at him. "Duo?"

Quatre nodded, looking faintly embarrassed. "He's impulsive that way. Probably thought she was keeping me from accomplishing my task and took it upon himself to 'help.' He's like that."

"How kind of him," Trowa murmured drily.

"Isn't it?" Quatre smiled sardonically. "Sometimes he forgets to ask himself how welcome his help really is."

"So you've learned all you wanted?" Trowa asked. Somehow Quatre got the sense that the noble was offended.

"No, it's not like that..." Quatre stopped, not quite able to articulate how he felt.

"I make you uncomfortable."

"...yes. A little. Sometimes I wonder what possessed me to take this trip." Quatre shrugged. "It's hard to explain."

"I tend to make many people uncomfortable." Trowa seemed distant.

"Is it ...easier... for you that way?" Quatre asked slowly.

Emerald eyes traveled around to meet his. After several heartbeats, Trowa replied. "Yes."

Quatre nodded. "I see." He looked down. "I must bother you."

"Yes. No." Trowa sounded hesitant. "A little of both. Very few people take the trouble to care about me."

"Me too... most people only see my political power, and that's the only thing they concern themselves with. They'd prefer getting closer to the throne than me."

They lapsed into silence again, thoughtful. Quatre, after a few minutes, found himself staring at Trowa, studying the soft fall of hair over his face and the fine chiseled lines of his jaw. "Beautiful," he said, unthinking.

"What?" Trowa looked at him, startled.

Quatre flushed red. "Sorry... that wasn't something I should have said." And when did I learn to appreciate masculine beauty, anyway? "I'm sorry."

"Why did you say it?"

Quatre thought about discretion, but mentally shrugged it aside. Too many lies had been told already. "Because it's true."

"...thank you." Trowa also seemed a bit pinker than usual.

Quatre blurted it out. "Have you ever thought about what it'll be like to be married to another man?"

Trowa seemed even more taken aback. "That's a very personal question."

Quatre flushed again. "Sorry. It just slipped out."

"Why?"

Quatre floundered. "His Highness... never really thought about men in ... that way. He understands the theory and mechanics, of course, but... it never seemed to move him. So I was just wondering."

"Ah." Trowa looked away. "I've tried not to think about it. Whatever my destiny is... I follow it." He was quiet, then, shyly, added, "Will I... please him, do you think?"

Quatre smiled. "Yeah, I think so."

~*~

A sort of tension seemed to seep away from Trowa's posture. "That's good to know."

"Do you... think about what it will be like often?" Quatre asked.

"Sometimes. It's hard not to, when it's all that you've been raised for." He sounded more resigned than bitter.

"Sounds like court life," Quatre said wistfully. "From the moment you're born, people start training you for the future, and there's never any room to wonder what else you might have become."

"It seems the stars have us all trapped, then. It hardly seems fair."

"I'm sorry, Trowa. Believe me, if I had any choice in the matter, you wouldn't have to listen to what the astrologers say," Quatre said softly. Then he smiled. "What would you do if you were free to do whatever you wanted?"

Trowa looked startled. "What would I do? I--don't know."

Quatre chuckled. "Surely there must be something, Trowa. So what is it?"

"What would you be?" Trowa countered.

Quatre grinned hugely, jumping to his feet. "I'd be a great warrior, like they had in ancient times--I'd roam the world, conquering evil and rescuing damsels in distress." He winked at Trowa. "The world would tremble at the merest mention of my name!"

Trowa looked at him calmly. "I think you read too many adventure novels while you were a child."

Quatre struck what he considered to be a heroic pose. "Doesn't it suit me?" He grinned, flexing his muscles dramatically, and was rewarded with a smile.

"And what would you do with the damsels you rescued?" Trowa inquired, playing along.

"I don't know, send them home, likely." Quatre flopped down next to Trowa. "How about you?"

Trowa considered it. "Being a warrior sounds... entertaining. At least, the way you describe it."

"You could be my sidekick," Quatre offered.

"Only your sidekick?" Trowa protested mildly.

"Well, every great hero needs a sidekick," Quatre enthused. "It's hard even for herores to slay dragons alone."

"But... a sidekick? That has so little dignity," Trowa murmured.

Quatre laughed. "Okay, okay, my partner, then. Better?"

Trowa nodded. "I suppose it will do. Conquering evil and rescuing damsels, then?"

"And treasure, you can't forget that!" Quatre added. "Those dragons have to have hoards, you know. It's a rule."

"But what do you do with that much treasure?" Trowa wondered.

"Uh..." Quatre pondered it. "You spend it all in taverns? I'm not sure...."

"Maybe the treasure is just a way to keep score," Trowa offered.

"Okay, I'll accept that. But how do you know you've won?"

Trowa just shrugged.

Quatre sighed. "Ah, well, I suppose it doesn't really matter. We'll never have to worry about it, right?" Trowa watched, somewhat amazed, as Quatre's expansive mood ebbed swiftly, leaving only seriousness behind. "You know, this must be the first time I've seen you open up so much," he remarked. "Why do you close yourself off so much?"

"It's... a matter of trust," Trowa said quietly.

Quatre stared at him, confused. "But you can't have ever been exposed to anything that would make you this wary," he objected. Then he looked at Trowa more closely. "Or have you?"

"I'd rather not talk about it," Trowa replied. "Please."

"All right... if you don't want to, then you shouldn't have to." Quatre bit his lower lip, suddenly and unaccountably angry with whatever it had been to make Trowa so defensive.

"Thank you." A pause, lengthy and weighty, then unexpectedly: "Why are you so interested in me?"

"Me?--"

"You. You're far more intrigued by me than anyone who's on a fact-finding mission only for another man should be."

"Er..." Tell him, just tell him and get it over with. "I, um. You see, I--" Oh, hell. "It's hard to explain."

"Obviously." Trowa's eyes were softened slightly--in amusement?

"Well, I don't think it's that damn funny," Quatre said crossly.

"Do I look like I'm laughing?" he asked innocently.

"Hmmph. I can tell you think it's funny," Quatre retorted, crossing his arms and staring at Trowa petutantly from the corner of his eye.

Trowa lifted that eyebrow. "You think you're perceptive, hm?"

Quatre uncrossed his arms and poked Trowa's shoulder with a finger. "You just don't want to admit it."

"All right, fine, I think you're funny," Trowa said, surrendering.

Quatre smiled at him. "That wasn't so hard, now was it?"

"You're persistent."

"I have to be, Trowa, it's part of my job." Uh-oh...

"Which reminds me--you still haven't explained..."

Damn it. But he deserves honesty. Quatre opened his mouth to explain. "I--you're fascinating. You're nothing like I expected, and I just want to get to know you more." Wait a minute, that's not what I meant to say! "What I mean is, I came here to find out what you were like, but now I wand to know more than just the details." That's still not what I need to say! "I'm not quite who you think I am--"

"I know," Trowa said calmly.

"You do?" Quatre's jaw dropped, and he twisted his body to sit sideways, fully facing Trowa. "I--er--I mean, how?"

Surely he didn't think I was that naive. "I could tell," the aristocrat said simply.

Quatre sighed in relief. "I'm sorry, I didn't really want to deceive you, truly I didn't. You just aren't anything like I had expected, and I wasn't quite sure how to tell you when I realized that--you aren't angry, I hope?" He looked at Trowa hopefully.

Why should I be angry? He's only taking advantage of an opportunity... "It's all right. I expected it."

Quatre cocked his head to one side and chuckled. "I'm afraid I underestimated you, Trowa. Or overestimated my own capabilities. Forgive my presumption, please."

Trowa nodded his head slightly. "If you like."

Quatre looked rueful. "I'm really only sorry that we didn't come to this understanding earlier. It could have saved us a great deal of time."

"That's a businesslike way to put it."

Quatre laughed. "But that's all that politics is. Business."

"I see." Well, this is refreshing... almost brutally direct, but refreshing nonetheless. Trowa considered the Southerner carefully. What he seemed to be offering, however discreetly, was dangerous... then again, he acted rather more honest than--well, Quatre seemed almost to really care, and it didn't require a lot of experience to know that this was a rare and priceless thing. The risk... is acceptable.

"I'm glad that I came north," Quatre was telling him, for some reason looking shy. "I was uncertain at first... and you acted as if you didn't really appreciate the intrusion."

"Perhaps I didn't."

Quatre coughed. "I apologize, then. You don't mind now, do you?"

"...no." And he meant it. He rather liked Quatre, and Duo and Heero. In another life, they might have all four been very good friends.

Moving tentatively, almost like he was afraid of what might come of it, Quatre picked up Trowa's hand. It was warm and fit comfortably with his own. "I'm glad."

Trowa looked slowly down at their loosely entwined fingers. Such a simple gesture... but it felt nice. Comforting, almost, like the hugs Cathrine tended bestow so freely. So he left his hand in Quatre's grasp. "How much longer will you stay here?" he asked instead.

"I don't really know. I suspect Duo has an alternative to traveling through the ice and snow, but even if he doesn't... I can't stay away from court very much longer," Quatre said apologetically. "A few days or a week, but not more."

"That's... not much time."

Quatre sighed. "No, it's not, but it was all we could spare." He grimaced dramatically. "You wouldn't believe how busy the palace is getting ready for the wedding. Frankly, I'm glad to have escaped, if only for a little while."

Trowa tensed somewhat at the mention of the wedding, his fingers tightening around Quatre's briefly before he relaxed. "What is it like at court?" he asked softly.

Quatre wavered briefly. "Do you want to hear the gaudy details or about what it's really like?"

"The truth, please."

The prince sighed. "It's not as pretty as it appears on the surface. Nothing is, not in the Eternal City. The palace is beautiful and the people who roam its halls are splendid, but the whole thing is rotten. The palace was built on the back of slaves, and the courtiers are all vipers, treacherous and interested only in their own gain. They lie and cheat and backstab, all with the faces of angels. They care nothing for anything beyond their own sybaritic pleasures and personal pursuits of power. The great mass of common people that they profess to represent mean nothing to them, except as an opportunity to amass more wealth or power." Quatre stopped himself and his tirade. "Sorry. I shouldn't sound so bitter. It just enrages me sometimes. There are good people, too. I'm fortunate to have Duo and Heero as friends. And there are others... others who hope that when the time comes, we can effect changes." Quatre smiled at him. "I'll bet you're sorry you asked."

"Not really. I wanted to know."

Quatre laughed, and Trowa looked at him. "Ah, you're going to amaze the courtiers--They're so used to loquacious, effusive speeches. This habit of yours of speaking simply and directly will catch them all by surprise."

"Heero isn't that talkative," Trowa pointed out.

"That's not what Duo says," Quatre smirked. "Especially when he's in the, er, right frame of mind." Trowa snorted. "Besides, everyone is used to his ways by now."

"Why speak if there's nothing to say?" Trowa asked.

Quatre smiled. "I like that... but do you really think there's so little to say?"

The other noble shrugged. "When it comes to myself... yes."

"You shouldn't be so diffident," scolded Quatre. "I think you have more of value than many courtiers I know."

"I'm flattered."

Quatre frowned. How do I make him see what I know is there? "Trowa... you're worth more than you let yourself believe," he said quietly. "I don't know how to make you believe that, but it's true."

Trowa snorted again. "You're too optimistic."

"Maybe you're just too cynical," Quatre countered.

"Maybe I have reason to be."

A long silence passed before Quatre said, carefully, "What happened?" He watched the ice flow back into Trowa's eyes, replacing what softness had just been there.

"Nothing I want to talk about."

"...are you sure?"

Trowa's eyes were two pieces of ice that refused to yield to Quatre's gentle pressure. Quatre allowed the point to pass by. "Maybe you'll tell me about it some other time."

"I doubt it."

Well, there went that talkative mood. Quatre tried to lift his hand to rub his forehead, remembering too late that he was still holding Trowa's hand like it were the only right thing for him to be doing. I'm still... heh. Who'd have thought it? He laughed silently at himself.

Trowa was looking at him again, with that expression of granite, and Quatre frowned. "You should smile more often," he announced seriously. Trowa made a noncommital noise, and Quatre plunged on. "Really, I mean it. It changes your entire face, makes you seem less stern and aloof. Still perfect, of course, but gentler." Quatre paused. What the hell has possessed me today?

Trowa lifted his eyebrow in what seemed to be his favorite expression of amusement, disbelief, and curiosity. "Perfect?"

"Mmhm. You don't believe me." With his free hand, Quatre gently guided Trowa's face around so that they were looking each other in the eye. "Even if you do hide your face behind this hair." He teasingly flicked at the fall of hair that covered half of Trowa's face, noting absently that it was shockingly soft. "I think most of it is your eyes--do you know how many women would kill to have eyes like yours?" Quatre cupped his hand around the curve of Trowa's cheekbones, the pads of his fingers grazing the skin lightly.

Trowa shivered at the bare whisper of Quatre's thumb ghosting over the plane of his cheek, coming to rest with the slightest of pressures at the center of his lower lip. The hand holding Trowa's was suddenly damp, the pulse fluttering wildly beneath his fingers. And Quatre was staring at him, eyes full of concentration... and a hint of nervousness? He's going to--

Quatre was leaning forward, face approaching Trowa's rapidly, and he pressed his lips to Trowa's in a first faltering, unpracticed kiss. He worried as Trowa failed to respond at first, his lips unyielding against Quatre's, until suddenly Trowa relaxed, allowing his lips to part slightly. Calling on all his theoretical knowledge, Quatre pressed on, darting his tongue out to caress Trowa's lips hesitantly. Emboldened, he coaxed Trowa's mouth open, exploring it hungrily. Unconsciously, he pulled Trowa closer, completely lost in the feeling of Trowa's mouth against his.

"What in God's name do you think you're doing?!"

Guiltily, Quatre recoiled back from Trowa, and they both looked at the door.

Cathrine put both hands on her hips, and glared at Quatre. Her gaze never wavering, she spoke. "You. I should have known it. Trowa. If you don't mind, I would like to speak with our 'emissary'. Alone."

Trowa rose without a word, brushing past his sister and shutting the door behind him.

~*~

Left alone to face Cathrine's wrath, Quatre winced at her glare. "I can explain."

Or can I? he wondered briefly. Now that Trowa had departed, he was able to think clearly and wonder at his own uncharacteristic behavior--how in the name of God had he ended up kissing the other man? Especially when he didn't particularly like men? Quatre shoved it aside. For the moment, he had more important things to deal with... like appeasing Cathrine.

"I'm not sure that I even care to hear it," Cathrine snapped, folding her arms across her chest. "I should just toss you and your friends out into the storm and let you stay busy trying to stay warm."

"Now wait just a minute," Quatre protested. "You're hardly being fair!"

"Fair? I don't care about fair! All I see is a court lackey taking advantage of my brother!"

"A lacky?! You have no idea who you're dealing with!" retorted Quatre, incensed.

"I don't need to! I'm not going to stand by and watch another one of you people destroy my brother again!" Cathrine yelled.

Another? Again? Quatre stared. "I don't know what you're talking about."

She sneered. "Of course you don't. Did you really think that this was an original idea? Your kind disgusts me, and you can leave my brother the hell alone."

Quatre blinked, the implications finally clicking into place.

Angry as she was with the emissary, Cathrine quailed slightly as Quatre's face went white, his jaw clenching with barely suppressed fury. Clenching his fists, he erupted from his seat angrily. His eyes went narrow, glittering slits that unnerved the woman. "Who dared?" he demanded, voice cold and sharp. "Who dared? Trowa is mine, by birth and by the stars and by destiny! Who would dare touch him?"

Cathrine railed against this. "Just who in the name of God do you think you are?"

"I am Quatre Raberba Winner, heir to the throne, and Trowa. Is. Mine. I demand to know who hurt him," Quatre snarled.

In the back of his mind, the tiny voice that was his reason struggled vigorously to quell the rage. Wait a minute, what am I saying?! Quatre exhaled sharply, most of the anger dissipating in the shock.

Cathrine stared at him, either stupified by the outrageous claim or stunned into belief by the weight of his anger. "It's ... not possible."

Quatre unclenched his fists and rubbed his eyes tiredly. "Officially I and my two close friends are in seclusion at one of the royal estates... actually, Duo placed a couple glamours on me and we're here instead."

"I don't believe you," she said flatly.

Quatre shook his head and dropped into a nearby chair. "I don't blame you. The crown prince doesn't typically go gallivanting about the country with only one bodyguard and a wizard. Nonetheless, it's true, and here I am."

Cathrine remained standing. "Assuming that this claim is true, and you are ... him... why in the name of Heaven are you here?"

"I don't--or at least I didn't--have a lot of faith in the stars, Lady Cathrine. I had no intentions of waiting till my betrothed arrived in the Eternal City to see if we were in the least compatible. I talked Duo and Heero into coming up here so that I could meet Trowa and get to know him a little bit. Besides..." Quatre paused. "Besides, I wanted him to get to know me as an ordinary person. Once we get to court, there's so much ceremony and formality... and so little time for me to just sit with anyone for a conversation."

"I still don't believe you." But she sounded less certain and her voice was much less flinty.

"I know." Quatre shrugged. "It's only my word--and Duo and Heero's--and no real proof."

Cathrine finally sat. "You... claimed Trowa."

"Yes."

"Did you mean it?"

He stared at his fingers, trying to analyze the lingering, prowling shreds of anger that stalked the corners of his mind, and the tangled knot of emotions that wove around Trowa and all his thoughts about the tall man. "I... did. What an amazing thing... He's mine..." Quatre shook his head. "I don't believe in the stars! It's not possible for them to control anything!" The protest sounded weak, even in his own ears.

"You don't sound very certain of that," Cathrine said drily. "But, if we continue the earlier assumption that you are His Highness, don't you find it rather strange that you'd geel so strongly about him after such a short time?"

"I don't know. God, what the hell's wrong with me?" Quatre shook his head. "This shouldn't be happening. I should have just stayed put at home and followed tradition blindly... at least that would have saved us all this mess."

Abruptly, Cathrine switched tacks. "Quatre, what's the one thing that worries you most right now?"

"Trowa," he answered promptly, without thinking. "I'm worried about Trowa."

She smiled faintly. "Does he know who you're claiming to be?"

Quatre opened his mouth to say yes, then changed his mind. "I don't know..." He frowned, thinking about it.

Cathrine looked confused. "How can you not know?"

"I was trying to tell him, and he said he already knew I wasn't what I seemed... and I didn't think to wonder how he could have known. What happened--before?"

"Trowa never told be all the details. But His Majesty, a few years ago, sent a tutor so that Trowa could be trained for court life. As I understand it, this man saw in my brother an easy access to the future king's ear." Cathrine's tone went cold and quiet. "Apparently, he tried a number of ways to bend Trowa to his will."

Quatre growled, almost silently. "I will find this man... and I will kill him," he promised Cathrine. Then he groaned and dropped his head into his hands. "Oh, God. I am an idiot. Trowa probably assumed that I--Damn it!"

Cathrine shook her head. "That may very well be true... how are you going to fix it, Quatre?"

Quatre looked up at her. "Does this mean that you believe me?"

"Maybe. Or perhaps I'm just unwilling to see my brother hurt again," she said evenly.

"Fair enough. I need to speak to him."

"I'll try to arrange something for after dinner." Cathrine stood, dusting her hands off crisply. "And, should Your Highness mess up royally, I will see to it that your dynasty must look to someone else to fill the throne when it becomes vacant."

Quatre winced again. "I'm so glad that don't have sisters like you. I never would have survived to adulthood."

"Of course you would have," Cathrine smirked. "It's just your enemies who would have had to worry."

~*~

Duo looked from Trowa, to Quatre, to Cathrine, and back to Trowa. What the hell happened here, I wonder? Trowa had seemed vaguely shocked to see Quatre and Cathrine arrive for dinner together. Why the shock? the wizard wondered. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to lure Cathrine away to give Quatre and Trowa a little privacy...

Quatre was fidgeting, continuously sneaking glances at Trowa, obviously fretting over something. What it was, Duo couldn't tell, but it was pressing on the prince's mind quite heavily.

Cathrine, on the other hand, seemed calm and collected, but was keeping a sharp eye on her brother and Quatre. As Duo noted, however, it wasn't nearly as harsh and worried as it had been even earlier in the afternoon.

Heero smirked at his lifebond, who was squirming in his seat. The curiosity was radiating off the man; the warrior was privately surprised that Duo's braid wasn't twitching like a tail with his need to puzzle out this mystery. "Relax," he whispered into Duo's ear discreetly as he leaned closer on the pretext of reaching for the rolls. "We're on vacation, remember? Let Quatre deal with his own problems."

"Then what am I supposed to do for fun?" Duo hissed back.

"You can leave that to me."

~*~

Regarding the wizard and the warrior, Cathrine nodded slightly to herself. The two of them would definitely not provide any obstacle to her calculations, although she did have to wonder if anyone's libido could possibly be that enduring. then again, Duo did seem to be a fount of boundless enthusiasm, so she assumed it might be possible.

Trowa had looked so shocked... shocked and hurt and betrayed. She felt guilty about that, but then, he didn't know the entire story yet, either. Perhaps he'd understand and forgive her once Quatre had talked to him.

Cathrine shivered slightly. I've always been Trowa's protector... but I don't think I'll be as necessary anymore. Whether Quatre is the crown prince or not, he _will_ take care of Trowa. There's no way to fake that deep a reaction...

At the head of the table, over the last crumbs of dessert, her father was speaking. "I...I'll just leave you young folks tonight, my old bones need their rest."

Perfect. Her father had been the major block in giving Quatre time to explain things to Trowa. And people wonder why I have such faith in the stars...

~*~

"Ah, Mr. Maxwell, just a moment of your time before we adjourn to the dining room, please?"

Duo stopped, looking back at Cathrine as Heero paused as well. "Yes, my lady?"

She waved Quatre and Trowa away. "This will only take a moment, you two go on ahead." They went, Trowa more reluctantly than Quatre. Heero moved to follow, and Cathrine stopped him. "No, no, stay, please."

Duo folded his arms. "Yes?"

Cathrine coughed, seeking a relatively delicate phrasing. "I think that the two of them need some time to speak privately, don't you?"

The wizard stared at her. "Say what?"

"They need to talk, alone. And I want us--" she indicated the three of them "--to make that possible."

Duo shrugged. "Okay, that's fine with me. Heero?"

"It's acceptable," he grunted.

Cathrine smiled. "Thank you, gentlemen."

"Since when do you care so much that the two of them spend time with each other?"

Cathrine's smile thinned. "Since His Highness made the trip north, he should have every opportunity to fulfill his mission. Good evening, gentlemen."

As she brushed past them, Duo looked at Heero. "Do you get the feeling we've missed something?"

~*~

Nervous silence, ponderous and palpable and broken only by the sound of the wind outside and the fire in the hearth, hung in the air. Trowa had retreated to the window, staring out into the darkness while Quatre curled up in a chair, shifting nervously. The minutes passed, miserably slow, until Trowa spoke. "They aren't going to be joining us tonight, are they?"

Quatre sighed, glad that the silence had been broached. "No, they aren't. Your sister thinks that you and I need a while to talk."

Trowa closed his eyes and let his forehead rest against the cool glass of the window. The storm wailed on the other side, furious about something. "So talk."

"We've already done a lot of talking, Trowa. But I don't think either of us has been listening. A lot of that is my fault... anyway. Who am I, Trowa?"

Trowa opened his eyes, slowly focusing on the reflection of the nondescript young man sitting behind him. "Who... are you?" he repeated.

Quatre nodded. "Just tell me, as completely as you can... please?"

"...your name is Quatre, you never gave a surname. You like books, and you play the violin," Trowa began. "You don't like the politics of court life, but you're preparing to someday take a high position there." Quatre's reflection frowned at him slightly. "What?"

"Nothing... for now, anyway. If that's who I am, Trowa... tell me why I'm here."

"You don't know?" Trowa asked sarcastically.

"Humor me... this will all make sense later, I promise."

"You're here because I am betrothed to the crown prince. You wanted to learn about me." Trowa paused, looking for the appropriate words.

"Is there anything else that I'm here to do, Trowa?"

"..." Trowa stared at the reflection, willing Quatre not to look so earnest and concerned. "I--you--" He stopped, frustrated.

"Let me try, Trowa... a court official, sent here on official business, taking advantage of the situation for his own purposes. does that sound familiar, Trowa?"

Trowa's jaw flexed. "Cathrine told you."

"Not really... I put it together myself while she was chastising me." Quatre shook his head. "A truly formidable lady, your sister." Trowa made a slight noise, perhaps of agreement. "Trowa... do you think that's why I'm here?"

Moving with great deliberation, Trowa turned away from the window, staring at Quatre. "Do I?" Quatre flinched slightly at the ragged edge to Trowa's voice. "Tell me, Quatre, what else am I supposed to think?"

The prince looked away. "I don't know... I'm sorry, Trowa. If I had known, I would have done this differently."

"It's not important." Trowa returned his gaze to the window.

"Yes it is. It's very important," Quatre disagreed. "What... who was it?"

"Why?"

Quatre paused. "Why what?"

"Why do you act like you care so much?" Trowa watched Quatre's reflection, the mouth opening soundlessly as Quatre fumbled for the explanation.

"Because--I do care." Quatre repeated it, a little stunned by the enormity of it all. "I do care," he said softly. "I didn't think it was possible... not so soon."

I want to believe him. Trowa closed his eyes, not wanting to see the expression of confused wonder on Quatre's face any more. "Please. Give me a little dignity, Quatre. Don't lie about--that."

"I'm not lying!" Quatre retorted. He shook his head. "I can explain all this, really I can... I'm not who you think I am."

"Haven't we already had this conversation?" Trowa asked.

"Yes. No. Just hear me out, please?" Quatre waited, then ploughed ahead when Trowa didn't move or speak. "I don't--didn't--believe in destiny. I thought that the stars had nothing to do with our mortal lives."

"You've changed your mind, I take it?"

"I don't know."

"My heart goes out to you during your crisis of faith."

"There's no need to be so snippy about it," Quatre huffed, mildly annoyed. "Anyway, as I was saying... I didn't believe in destiny. So I talked Duo into helping me sneak up here to meet you, so I could at least see you once before..." Quatre gulped nervously. "Before our wedding."

Trowa's eyes shot open, and he spun around so rapidly that Quatre was amazed he hadn't lost his balance. "What?"

"Quatre Raberba Winner... at your service." Quatre shook his head. "I just wanted a chance to get to know you--the real you, not whatever mask you would have put on to please the court and the crown prince. I really only wanted to get an idea of how well this would work... I didn't realize how complicated it was going to get. So, again... I'm sorry."

"It's not possible. He never travels outside the Eternal City--not with only two friends."

"Officially, no. Duo snuck me out... we're really supposed to be in seclusion at one of the country estates. It's a pre-wedding sort of tradition," Quatre explained. He held up empty hands. "I don't have any proof... just my word. And you have no reason at all to believe me. So maybe I should have just stayed at home, to let things take their course.."

"Cathrine believed this?"

"Maybe. She didn't say for sure. But she wanted us to talk anyway." Quatre looked away again. "I'm sorry... I didn't think it would go this far so quickly."

"I... I need to think," Trowa said quietly.

"We can leave in the morning," Quatre offered quickly.

Trowa looked back at the snow and ice lashing at the window. "Can you?"

"Duo will magic us away," Quatre replied. "If you want us to go." He took a deep breath. "I never lied to you about what I think or feel, Trowa, I swear."

"I need to think," Trowa repeated, hurrying past Quatre's chair, closing the door behind him softly.

Quatre slumped lower into his chair, stare morosely into the fire.

~*~

Listening for movement in the hall outside her door, Cathrine was acutely aware of the moment Trowa's door opened and shut almost silently. She slipped out of her own room, padding across the hall on noiseless feet and knocking quietly.

Trowa opened the door almost immediately, holding the door open for her to enter.

There was no point in pretending, Cathrine decided. "How did it go?" she asked briefly, after he had closed the door. She moved to the chairs by the fireplace, choosing a seat.

He took the opposite chair, dropping his head and allowing the fall of his hair to hide most of his expression. "You set me up."

"Sorry, Tro. I thought the two of you needed it, though. Especially after what Quatre said to me..."

"You believe him."

"I want to, yes. I'm not sure yet... It's far-fetched, but he seems pretty determined, the kind of guy who could do such a thing. And Duo and Heero seem the sort to endorse the scheme."

"Sounds like you've made up your mind." He sounded faintly accusatory.

"Maybe I have, at that. Whoever he really is, he's starting to get very attached to you, little brother. Having him on your side at court wouldn't be such a bad thing," Cathrine said slowly.

"Ah. I see."

"What do you think?"

"I don't know, Cat... not yet."

"Try to get some sleep tonight, Trowa," she said, rising. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight." Trowa listened to her departure and then permitted himself to relax into the chair, staring into space and trying to put some order to his thoughts.

~*~

"What in the name of holy hell?..." Duo groaned, as someone pounded onthe door insistently.

Heero mumbled sleepily. "'s still dark..."

"You go answer it."

"No."

"But you're the strong, brave warrior!"

"Wuzzat got to do with it?"

"The floor's too cold for my feet!"

"Idiot." Mumbling to himself, Heero staggered out of bed, only barely remembering to grab a blanket to wrap around his waist before yanking the door open. "What?" he growled.

Quatre blinked at him, looking haggard. "I need to talk to Duo."

Heero yawned. "Can't it wait?"

"Maybe," Quatre allowed, hesitantly.

"Good." Heero closed the door in his face.

"What the hell did Quatre want?" came the sleepy mutter.

"Dunno." Heero crawled back into the warm bed with a sigh of relief.Smirking slightly, he curled himself around Duo's warm body, sticking his chilled feet against Duo's bare skin.

Duo yelped. "Ack! Damn it! Get your cold feet off me!"

Heero chuckled softly. Vengeance is _so_ sweet.

~*~

On the other side of the door, Quatre shook his head, rueful. That's what I get for waiting till the middle of the night, I guess... Heturned away, shuffling down the hall. Sleep wasn't an option, not with so many worries pressing on his mind. I'll go to the library and read till I'm tired.

He had only just selected a random book from a shelf and settled himself when a small noise at the door startled him.

Trowa looked slightly put out. "I didn't realize anyone was in here."

"Can't sleep," Quatre said, lifting the book. "I thought I'd read for a while."

"Me too."

"Sorry. I'll leave the room to you, then." Quatre half-rose from thechair.

"Don't. You were here first," Trowa said shortly. He picked a book and turned to go.

"Have you listened to the wind? It's starting to die down," Quatre said suddenly. "The storm might be over by the time morning comes."

Trowa shrugged. "Maybe."

"Goodnight, Trowa."

"Goodnight, Your Highness."

Then Trowa was gone.

Quatre groaned quietly, letting his head drop into his hands.

~*~

Duo took one look at Quatre's bleak expression over breakfast and immediately abandoned any thought of teasing his liege about getting a good night's sleep. So, he tried another topic in lieu of that. "Hey, isn't Trowa going to be joining us today?"

The butler volunteered an answer. "He broke his fast around dawn, sir, and went out since the storm has passed."

The wizard blinked. "The storm...? Well, I'll be damned, it has stopped!"

"Idiot," Heero pronounced gravely.

Duo made a face at his lifebond. "You don't appreciate me enough," he sniffed. "By the way, Quatre, what did you want last night, a cantrip to help you sleep?"

"Something like that, Duo."

Duo winced at the savage way Quatre was devouring his meal and held his peace.

~*~

"Lady Ca-"

Cathrine barely looked up at Quatre. "Give him time. He needs his space to think."

Quatre stopped short. "How do you know that's what I was going to ask?"

She chuckled. "What else would you need to ask me about if not my brother?"

"Then you're saying I should be patient."

Cathrine finally looked at him. "Yes. Very patient. It's Trowa's way to draw back and think whenever new situations turn up. And this, I believe, qualifies as new."

Quatre took a deep breath. "Would you tell me about him? Please?"

She seemed surprised. "Tell you about him? Why?"

"I think we both know that he doesn't talk about himself... so I know what he's like now, but I don't know anything else about him."

"I see. I suppose I can oblige." Cathrine indicated a chair. "This may take a while."

He smiled, wryly. "I seem to have the time at the moment."

As he settled himself, Cathrine collected her thoughts. "Our mother died while we were both young, so we were more or less raised by nannies and tutors. Since Father always knew Trowa would not be the one to inherit his title, I studied with Father to learn about running the estate. It never seemed to bother Tro that I'm going to inherit what should be his title. But I doubt he'd say anything if it did.

"Let's see... what else? We always knew that Trowa was - shall we say 'promised?' - I guess that makes a difference when you're growing up. He and Father never were very close, maybe because Father distanced himself from everything once Mother died. I'm probably the closest to Trowa... and even I - Well, he doesn't tell me everything." Cathrine paused. "I think that's why he invests so much time in his books and animals, since they're ways for passing the time.

"He spends a lot of time alone. Father and I are busy a lot, making sure the estate is running smoothly. Maybe that's why he's so quiet, because he got used to the silence... so. What else do you want to know?"

Quatre leaned forward. "Tell me... about the person who hurt him."

~*~

There was something simple and uncomplicated that Trowa liked about walking through the fresh-fallen snow. Perhaps, he reflected, it had something to do with the fact that walking was the only simple thing about his life - at the moment, anyway.

Well, it had been a few years since his life had really been simple, but it had been a lot less confusing before Quatre had arrived.

In a way, Quatre's claim made a lot of sense... The rebellious streak in him explained the reason for the trip (a distrust in the stars), anyway. And his apparent dislike of court games explained the desire to escape, at least for a while. And Quatre had done something to persuade Cathrine of his veracity, certainly. Generally, she wasn't easily convinced.

He trudged onwards through the snow, thinking. If he accepted Quatre intellectually as being the heir, then what did he do next?

It wasn't supposed to happen this way.

It had seemed all his life he'd been preparing for that journey south, to the Eternal City, to the faceless, nameless man who would become his lifebonded mate. That would have been easy. He'd been cultivating the calm, expressionless detachment for years.

But, if Quatre was genuine, the Crown Prince was no longer anonymous, and had already found a way to get past his defenses. He'd already made the mistake of opening up to Quatre... maybe even gone so far as to fall a little bit into love with the stranger. Trowa didn't know if he'd be able to withdraw into his facade around Quatre... if Quatre even permitted it.

"I," Trowa announced to the silence that was disturbed only by the sounds of his footsteps, "am an idiot."

He kept walking. With any luck, Quatre would construe his absence as a tacit wish that they leave.

~*~

Note to self: I am going to stay on this man's good side, Cathrine decided.

"I am going to kill him," Quatre ground out. "Slowly. Painfully. With my own two hands."

"Perhaps. Please keep n mind that I'm sure Trowa never told me the whole story. I've only told you what I know," Cathrine reminded him.

Quatre gave himself a mental slap, forcing the fury away. "Maybe I'll have him flogged and given to Trowa for a wedding gift," he muttered darkly.

"Vicious, aren't you?"

"Only when it comes to Trowa," Quatre admitted.

She smiled. "I think you and I are going to get along just fine."

~*~

"Damn it! Heero, you asshole! Come back here with that spellbook!" Duo yelled furiously, giving chase to the warrior.

Since Quatre had left them to their own devices all day long, he and Heero had been amusing themselves in various ways... Duo was still chuckling mentally about the head cook's scandalized expression from when Heero had gravely requested a bowl of whipped cream. However, Duo had decided that, for responsibility's sake, he really ought to study a few spells...

Which was why he was now trying to chase Heero down, since his lifebond was possessed of other ideas regarding Duo's responsibilities. "Heero! You bastard. Just you wait till I get my hands on you!"

"...is that a promise?"

Well... I don't _have_ to study... "Yeah, I guess!"

Heero laughed. "Then you'd better catch me!" He put on a burst of speed, veering from the corridor into the castle's main hall.

Duo laughed and followed him, smirking as he saw Heero slowing suddenly. "You're mine, Heero!" He tackled his lifebond, sending them both sprawling and rolling across the smooth floor in a tangle of bodies. Laughing, the wizard started tickling Heero relentlessly.

A polite cough interrupted his fun, and Duo looked up slowly to the stern expression on the face of the Prime Minister. "Maxwell! Yuy! What the hell are you doing here?!"

Duo blinked. "Shit... uh... hello, Wu. You're running a little early, aren't you?"

Wufei glared at him. "No thanks to that infernal storm.... What in God's name are you two doing here?! You're supposed to be with His Highness in Forsynthton."

"Um... He told us to take a vacation for our health?" Duo tried desperately.

Wufei snorted. "I doubt it."

Duo and Heero scrambled to their feet, casting uneasy glances at each other and Wufei. "Uh... actually... it's really a pretty funny story, when you think about it."

Wufei crossed his arms, face expressionless. "Do tell."

"Ah, more visitors! Welcome to my home, my lords and lady!"

Duo could not have been more relieved by the baron's timely arrival.

~*~

"Forgive me, my lady, but there have been arrivals."

Cathrine lifted an eyebrow. "Guests? Who?"

The maid seemed awed. "The Prime Minister is here. They're with your father, in the west study."

"Wufei?! He's here?" Quatre blanched.

"We'll be joining them at once, Ilse... do see to it that the appropriate arrangements for their lodging are made." The maid hurried away. "I take it this is a problem?"

"I told you, no one knows I'm here - Wufei wasn't supposed to arrive for another week." Quatre jumped out of his seat, pacing. "Hell and damnation."

"Well, you might as well get it over with," Cathrine advised, rising.

~*~

The baron, perplexed, looked from one party to the next. "The crown prince? Here? It's impossible!"

"Well, it should be," Wufei muttered, glaring at Duo and Heero.

His wife snorted. "Remember which trio we're discussing, Wufei. It's entirely possible. Knowing His Highness, even likely."

"Meiran, because I love you, I am going to construe that as a compliment," Quatre said lightly, entering the study behind Cathrine.

The baron's face cleared. "Ah... sir, may I present my daughter Cathrine, and our other guest, Quatre?"

Wufei stared hard at Quatre, then rounded on Duo. "Maxwell! What did you do to him?"

"Relax," Duo grumbled. "It's just your basic glamour. Even you could dispel it."

Wufei looked back at Quatre. "Your Highness... if I may?"

Quatre waved a hand. "If you must. I suppose it doesn't matter at this point."

Wufei uttered a short, sharp command, returning Quatre's appearance to normal. Then he and the other members of the escort bowed.

"Oh, stop it, we're not at court," Quatre muttered.

Meiran smiled faintly. "I suppose there's a perfectly logical explanation for this."

"Isn't there always?" Wufei grunted.

Quatre shrugged and addressed the baron. "Forgive me, sir, for the deception, but I felt it was necessary at the time."

The man was struggling between shock and fear. "Your Highness - I - forgive me -"

"Nonsense," Quatre said crisply. "There's nothing to forgive. Your generosity and hospitality are faultless, and many to the south could take lessons from you. Now, if I may explain..."

~*~

Tired by his day's exertion, and having found a marginal sort of tranquility within himself, Trowa only just found the time to bathe and dress for dinner upon his return to the castle. As it was, he rushed to the dining room, prepared to apologize immediately. The words died on his lips the moment he entered, surprised by the row of strange faces at the table.

His father, with a slightly strained smile, introduced him. "My lord, my lady - my son, Trowa. Trowa, the Prime Minister, Lord Wufei Chang, his lady, Meiran..." He rattled off the names of the more minor aristocrats at the table. "And last... His Highness, the crown prince."

An unfamiliar blond winced in a completely recognizable expression at the title, and Trowa allowed himself a moment to gape. He's... he's... he's Quatre?

Numbly, Trowa bowed and took his seat, his sense of equilibrium thrown completely off-kilter once again.

~*~

How... fascinating. Wufei could feel the headache already pounding at his skull. Why does Quatre have to be so damned impulsive?

Across from him, Meiran smirked. She, obviously, was amused and at least a little bit sympathetic to Quatre's position. Of course, she was the one who would end up making a report to His Majesty.

And here he'd thought retrieving the royal fiancé was going to be an easy task...

~*~

Concepts filtered in slowly. Mostly Trowa stared at his plate, appetite gone completely away.

The Prime Minister. There to take them south. Quatre was the crown prince. It was all real.

Too fast. It was all happening much too fast.

Standing abruptly, Trowa excused himself and fled the room, needing space to think.

Cathrine immediately excused her brother. "Forgive him, he's had quiet a few surprises this evening. Normally, he's much more equable."

Meiran smiled. "I'm sure we all understand. Arranged marriages are never simple, even when governed by the stars."

"God knows you and Wu had a hell of a time of it," Duo muttered, just loud enough to be heard.

"Maxwell... I caught that. Just remember that you're in a lot of trouble right now, and that it doesn't do to antagonize your friends."

Duo grinned. "But I swear it was all Quatre's idea!"

Quatre nodded. "Indeed, I didn't give Duo or Heero any choice." He faked a yawn. "Excuse me... I didn't sleep well last night."

"Then you should rest," Wufei said instantly.

"I think I will. Goodnight, everyone." Quatre left the table, acutely aware that it was only with marginally more dignity than Trowa.

Now... what did Cathrine say? The south tower, that's where he sometimes goes to think. Quatre headed off purposefully.

~*~

He wasn't too surprised when he heard the quiet footsteps on the parapet behind him. "Cathrine."

"No, Quatre. She told me I could find you here."

"Ah." Trowa continued to stare out across the night-draped landscape and glistening snow. "I guess you really are him."

"Yeah." Quatre moved to stand beside him. "Are you still angry with me?"

"No, not really. I wasn't ever that angry to begin with."

"Well, I guess that's something. It's pretty up here."

"I like it. It's a good place to think."

"Am I intruding? I can go."

"You don't need to. I don't know what to think anymore."

Quatre shook his head. "I've messed things up pretty badly, haven't I?"

"I wouldn't say that. I always pictured you in my mind as some sort of unapproachable mortal god. I never thought you'd be real to me."

The prince laughed. "If you ask Wufei, he'll tell you I'm too real. He'd prefer that I behave like a properly decorous crown prince."

"It wouldn't suit you."

"I'm glad you think so, because you're going to be stuck with me."

Trowa shrugged slightly. "I guess that's not so bad."

Quatre smiled and changed the subject. "Cathrine spent her day telling me about you, since you weren't around to do it yourself."

Trowa blinked. "She did?"

"Uh-huh."

"That's... not fair," he protested mildly.

"Well, if you decide to even the score, Duo will probably be more than happy to help."

"I'll remember that," Trowa chuckled.

Quatre's breath caught. "I was afraid I wouldn't get to hear you laugh again"

"Don't say things like that."

"Why not?"

"You make me believe you mean it when you do," Trowa told him, his voice rough.

"Why is that such a bad thing, Trowa?" Quatre laid his hand on Trowa's arm.

"You talked to Cathrine today, you figure it out, Quatre."

"Oh... that." Quatre gritted his teeth. "When I get home, I am going to kill him. Cathrine offered to help, but I think it'll be more satisfying to do it myself."

Trowa snorted. "Right."

"You don't think I'd do it? You don't know me very well yet, then."

"I'm not worth it, Quatre, believe me."

Quatre pulled Trowa's arm, forcing the taller man to turn and face him directly. "Stop saying that," he said fiercely. "Stop believing that. You do matter, got that? People care about you, and it hurts us all to hear you say things like that."

"Us?"

"Yes, us." Quatre glared at him. "God help me, I don't know how it happened so damned fast, but I've developed a very large soft spot for you. Do you think I'd get this upset otherwise?"

"I don't know."

Quatre released his grip on Trowa. "Well, fair enough." He smiled. "Just take my word for it, okay?" He looked up at the stars, exasperated. "I wish Wufei hadn't shown up early."

"Why?"

"I just wanted a few more days to take this more slowly... assuming, naturally, that you hadn't asked us to leave."

"I wasn't planning on it."

"Oh?" Quatre looked back to Trowa's inscrutable face.

"I like having you around," Trowa confessed.

The blond smiled again. "That's good to hear, since Duo and Heero are hard to get rid of." He paused. "You know, it's really cold out here."

"I never notice it anymore."

"That's lucky for you, I guess." Quatre grimaced. "Oh well, being up here is worth it."

"I'll miss it."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be, it's not your fault. What do the stars look like from the Eternal City?"

Quatre looked up again, studying the pattern of the twinkling stars. "Not as clear, or as bright," he decided finally. "They're harder to see, because the city lights get in the way. It's funny, when you think about it... since the stars are supposed to be what guide us all, and you can barely see them."

"Why does that bother you so much?" Trowa asked curiously.

"What?"

"The idea of destiny... it really seems to annoy you."

Quatre laughed. "Blame it on being told too many times exactly how my life is going to play out, beginning to end. The consistent lack of a choice started to rankle after a while. How about you?"

"I've always tried to avoid thinking about it."

"I guess that works, too." Quatre looked at him. "You're shivering."

"It is the dead of winter, Quatre," Trowa said drily. "And we happen to be standing outdoors with the wind blowing and snow on the ground."

"I know that," Quatre retorted. "I may be from the south, but even I'm not that ignorant. What I meant was that you said the cold doesn't bother you."

"I said I never notice it," Trowa corrected him.

"Oh. I'd suggest going inside, but I don't want to face Wufei yet." Quatre grimaced. "I'm sure he's building up all sorts of lovely things to say to me about my lack of responsibility." He caught sight of the faintly amused expression on Trowa's face. "What?"

"Nothing," Trowa replied innocently.

"I don't believe you." Quatre sniffed. "You think I'm being childish, don't you?"

Trowa hesitated. "Well - a little bit."

Quatre pouted, crossing his arms petulantly. "Well... that's good, because I'm being incredibly immature." He grinned. "Everything that Wufei yells at me will be completely accurate and more than earned. Doesn't mean that I want to hear it, though."

"Then why did you do it?" Trowa asked.

"We thought we wouldn't get caught?" Quatre suggested. "Seriously? I wanted to do it. I wanted to know who Trowa Barton is. And I'd do it again, knowing that I'd get caught."

"So... what do you think of what you've found?"

Quatre smiled, reaching out and cupping chilled fingers around Trowa's cheek. "That I like what I see... and that I am going to spend a long time learning everything there is to know about you... and that maybe I ought to put a little more faith in the stars." Quatre pulled Trowa's face closer to his, kissing him.

Trowa hesitated for a moment as Quatre's lips touched his, before accepting the kiss. This... is all right. He isn't trying to hurt me or use me... Slowly, he lifted his arms, wrapping them around Quatre. He felt Quatre smile as he slid his arm around Trowa's waist.

Quatre broke the kiss for want of air, tilting his head back to smile at Trowa. "You aren't shivering as much now."

"Maybe you make me feel warmer," Trowa replied softly.

"Then... I'll make sure you're never cold again," Quatre promised him.

Trowa's voice shook slightly. "Let's go inside... I'll show you the back hallways, where no one but the servants go."

"Okay," Quatre whispered. "I'd like that."

~*~

Quatre was laughing silently at the both of them as they crept through the deserted back hallways of the castle, moving with exaggerated caution from corridor to corridor like thieves. Trowa must have caught his mood, because his eyes were sparkling with the same sense of amusement, and he was smiling faintly as he led Quatre through the twisting halls.

They had one close call, as a maid paced deliberately down the hall, turning down the lamps. Hearing her approach, Trowa pulled Quatre into one of the small, crowded storerooms, where they froze, hardly daring to breathe as she moved along. As the corridor darkened in her wake, Quatre took advantage of the moment to nuzzle his face against Trowa's neck, enjoying the moment of closeness and the way Trowa's breath was hitching in his throat. "You're enjoying this far too much, Your Highness," he whispered.

"Damn right I am ... and when did we go back to using titles, Lord Barton?" Quatre inquired, tracing the fine bones off Trowa's hand with one finger.

"I don't know. I think she's gone."

"Mm. Lead on, my lord." Quatre chuckled softly, maintaining his grip on Trowa's hand as they ventured out of the storeroom. As they reached the guest wing and Trowa peered around a corner, he asked, "Is it safe?" Trowa nodded." Then this is where our paths ought to separate," he said, offering Trowa the option.

"Only.... only if you want that." His voice was shaking again.

Quatre kissed him, slowly, pressing Trowa's back to the wall. Then he stared at Trowa. "Are you sure?"

"...yes..."

He lifted Trowa's hand, kissing the palm and each fingertip before pulling him down the hall and into his room. They both started a little guiltily as the door clicked shut behind them. "Now that I've got you, Lord Barton... what should I do with you?" Quatre traced the curve of Trowa's jaw slowly.

"I suppose... whatever Your Highness wishes." Trowa gasped a little as Quatre pulled him close, holding him tightly.

"I want to make you happy, Trowa," he whispered fiercely. "Maybe we're nothing but puppets manipulated by the stars, but I don't care anymore whether we chose this or not. I just want to make you happy."

"Quatre..." How do you do this to me? Trowa dropped his head to the other's shoulder. "I never... thought you'd be like this... so good."

"No... no, I'm not. I'm stubborn, and impulsive, and selfish... and Duo promises me that I snore. I'm not perfect, Trowa, don't let me fool you like that." Quatre kissed the side of Trowa's neck softly. "But everything that I am, faults and all... is yours."

"Quatre... if you don't' stop talking like that..." Barely more than a whisper, and muffled by Quatre's shoulder, Trowa's voice was barely audible.

"Then what?"

"If you don't stop it... I am going to fall in love with you."

Quatre smiled, even though he knew Trowa couldn't see him. "Then we'll just be even."

"You know I'm - that I - he -"

He rubbed long, soothing strokes up and down Trowa's back. "I know. It doesn't matter, not to me, except to make me angry that it happened to you. Okay? That's the only thing that's important."

"Quatre... don't ever let me go."

"Never, Trowa, I promise." Quatre kissed the corner of Trowa's jaw, coaxing the other man to look up with a trail of kisses that led to Trowa's lips. For the first time, Trowa's lips met his without hesitation, parting eagerly before the invasion of Quatre's tongue. They spent long moments standing there, taking time to memorize each other's taste and feel.

Quatre moved away from Trowa's mouth, covering all of Trowa's face with tiny kisses, pausing to nibble on an earlobe and laughing at the sound of Trowa's soft hiss of surprise, then returning to take Trowa's mouth hungrily. His hands seemed to be moving on their own accord, rising to the buttons of Trowa's shirt and working them open.

Trowa shuddered as one slender hand dipped into the open shirt, tracing idle patterns over his chest, brushing over the stiffened nubs of his nipples. "More," he choked when they paused to catch a breath.

Quatre smiled at him, dipping his head and dragging his lips down Trowa's chest, taking a moment to taste the skin at the hollow of his throat before following the planes of Trowa's chest to one peaked nipple.

A choked cry escaped Trowa's throat as Quatre's hot, wet mouth and curious tongue sent fire racing across his body. He pressed his fingers into Quatre's blond hair, silently willing him to continue the sweet torture.

Quatre pulled away, and Trowa almost protested before Quatre took his hands, leading him further into the bedchamber and gently pushing him back on the bed. Quatre pulled off their boots before slowly sliding his way up the length of Trowa's body and resuming his ministrations to Trowa's chest, alternately kissing and licking his way across its breadth.

Trowa tugged at the lacings of Quatre's shirt, fingers made clumsy as Quatre's mouth impaired his concentration. Impatiently, Quatre stopped long enough to tug the garment over his head and toss it aside before pressing himself against Trowa's chest, lavishing his fiancé's face with wet kisses.

They groaned into each other's mouths as Quatre shifted their erections together, the friction too good. Quatre went fumbling for Trowa's pants, undoing them and pushing both pants and undergarments down.

Trowa exclaimed sharply, back arching off the bed as Quatre's fingers glided over his erection, his touch too light to bring any kind of satisfaction. Quatre stroked him slowly, working one finer over the head and earning another wordless cry from Trowa. His lover did protest as Quatre lifted his hand away, until Quatre smirked and lowered his mouth over Trowa's erection. Quatre smiled as best as he could, listening to the inarticulate sounds the experimental movements were wringing out of Trowa's throat, and began memorizing this part of Trowa, too.

Trowa had his eyes clenched shut, hips lifting reflexively as he lost himself to the world of pleasure Quatre was giving him. It was more than he'd ever expected, too wonderful, spiraling higher and higher, until he was certain he would shatter like spun glass -

Trowa climaxed with a keening wail of surprise as he filled Quatre's mouth. Unprepared for this, Quatre nearly gagged in his first surprise before swallowing. He stretched out beside Trowa, propping himself up on one arm and simply watching the other man fight to regain control of his breathing.

Shocked green eyes turned to meet his. "What about you?" Trowa panted, skin gleaming in the low light from the fireplace.

Quatre leaned down and kissed him, letting Trowa taste himself. "There'll be time for me later, love."

"No..." Trowa worked his fingers quickly into Quatre's pants, the skin-on-skin contact more than enough to bring Quatre's neglected erection back to life. Quatre half-sobbed at the feeling of Trowa's fingers closing around him. "Take me," Trowa whispered into his ear.

Quatre's pleasure and need-fogged mind flashed back to every bit of advice Duo had ever given him. "I don't have anything to make it easier for you," he moaned.

"It's all right," Trowa replied, punctuating his words with movements of his fingers.

"I don't - nnnn - want to - aaaah - hurt you," Quatre gasped.

"You won't hurt me, I trust you." Trowa caught one of Quatre's hands, slipping the fingers into his mouth and suckling them.

"God... Trowa..." Quatre worked his pants the rest of the way off, sliding one leg between Trowa's. "You're too damn hard to resist." He pulled his saliva-glistening fingers from Trowa's mouth, kissing him leisurely. "For God's sake, stop me if I'm hurting you - promise?"

"I promise..." Trowa moaned as Quatre's tongue began long, lazy swipes, cleaning him and exciting him once more. Still, even distracted as he was, he felt the first tentative probing between his legs.

"Trowa - only if you're sure -"

"Do it, Quatre..." Trowa forced himself to relax, letting the first intruding digit past the tight ring of muscle.

Quatre stretched him slowly, afraid to move too quickly, and following half-remembered instructions as he probed inside Trowa for -

Trowa yelped suddenly, his hips jerking as Quatre pressed the spongy lump inside him. Quatre smiled and took advantage of the moment to add a second finger. "Like that, Trowa?"

"More," he said hoarsely.

Quatre shifted his fingers inside Trowa, brushing that spot again as he stretched the muscles.

Trowa fisted a hand in the sheets, hissing a little at the combination of pleasure and pain as Quatre added the third finger for good measure. Quatre looked at him. "We can still stop -"

"No... go on."

Quatre spit into his palm, hoping the saliva and the fluids from his own aching erection would be enough, and slowly positioned himself between Trowa's legs. "Ready?" Trowa nodded once, trying to stay relaxed.

Quatre pushed into Trowa, the pace agonizingly slow as he intently watched Trowa's face for signs of discomfort. It was so difficult to remain aware of the responsibility, though, when it felt so good to be inside Trowa... Quatre moaned as he seated himself fully inside Trowa's body.

Trowa panted, short soundless gasps for air and against the pain. Quatre snaked his hand between their bodies, pumping his erection, the wash of pleasure a counterpoint against the pain.

Quatre waited until Trowa had relaxed, the discomfort easing somewhat from his face, before withdrawing a little and thrusting shallowly, at a different angle. They both moaned. Quatre moved again, at another angle, and Trowa yelled as he hit the spot again.

Quatre smiled, seeing that the pleasure had drowned out the pain, and settled into a slow rhythm. He moaned with each thrust, listening to the soft cries with satisfaction. Although he'd been denied longer than Trowa had, he was determined to see Trowa to completion first. Accordingly, he pumped Trowa's erection harder, angling his thrusts to hit Trowa's spot each time. As the pace became more frantic, Trowa threw his head back, crying out as he came. Quatre shouted as Trowa's muscles tightened around him, pushing him over the edge after Trowa.

Gasping, Quatre collapsed by Trowa, dazed. Sleepily, he fumbled with the blankets, coaxing Trowa to move enough to slide beneath them. Quatre curled up next to him, lacing his fingers with Trowa's. "Love you," he whispered, eyes drifting shut.

Trowa's eyes flicked open, and he looked at Quatre's relaxed, sleeping face and smiled. "Love you too." Then, sighing, he closed his eyes again and let sleep claim him, noting with the last vestiges of consciousness that Quatre did indeed snore.

~*~

Quatre drifted awake slowly, incredibly comfortable without knowing why. He opened his eyes, only to find himself nose to nose with Trowa. "Good morning," Trowa said softly.

Quatre smiled at him, realizing they were completely tangled up in each other and the sheets. "Morning," he repeated.

"We're probably late for breakfast."

He laughed. "I don't care... do you?"

"Not really." Trowa traced the line of Quatre's cheek. "You're beautiful. Not what I expected."

"I can say the same, Trowa." Quatre kissed the fingertip that came too close to his lips. "You're amazing."

"Things are going to change today, aren't they?" Trowa asked abruptly, after a few minutes spent just watching each other.

"Yes. Wufei will probably insist Duo return us to Forsynthton immediately, after he rants at me... He and Meiran will probably stay here for a few days, resting from their journey while your family prepares for the trip south, and, if everyone makes good time... we'll see each other in the Eternal City in about a fortnight," Quatre said softly.

"So long... It'll be different in the south, won't it?"

"Between us? No. For us... yes. I won't be able to devote myself to you all day long - as much as I'd like to. And there will be court games played around you..." Quatre's eyes darkened. "I love you, Trowa. Remember that, even when things have changed."

Trowa kissed him in reply.

~*~

"Ah, Your Highness, so good of you to join us this morning," Wufei said sarcastically, as Quatre walked into the study where he and Meiran, along with Duo and Heero, were waiting.

Quatre smiled at him. "We're not at court, Wufei, and it's only friends here. You can call me by my given name."

Wufei scowled. "For someone in as much trouble as you are, young man, you are in much too cocky a mood."

Duo snorted, opening his mouth to comment. Heero elbowed him sharply in the ribs. "Not now, Duo." Duo sighed in disappointment.

Quatre smiled at Wufei. "Let me guess: I was childish, puerile, reckless, impulsive, idiotic, and irresponsible, right?"

"You missed 'immature,' dear," Meiran supplied.

"Thank you. I was all these things, am a disgrace to the royal family, just wait till my father hears about this, and go immediately to Forsynthton. Am I missing anything?"

Wufei glared at him. "I'll have you know I had a superb lecture on your lack of maturity all planned out."

"And think of how impressed Father will be when you deliver it to him, verbatim," Quatre replied serenely.

"Insolent bratchild," Wufei sighed, rubbing his forehead. "I can't believe we're going to let you assume the throne someday. Very well, go on, you know what's expected." He waved Quatre away.

"See you back home, Wufei, Meiran." Quatre bowed.

Duo and Heero followed him out of the room. "You're in a good mood this morning," Duo observed neutrally.

"Uh-huh."

"Could it have anything to do with Trowa?" Duo pressed.

Quatre smiled. "Maybe."

"Well, at least some good came of this trip," Heero grunted. "Duo. Let's go make sure the servants packed everything properly."

"But we already did that - oh." They moved off in the direction of their suite. Quatre smiled and turned in the direction of his rooms.

"Your Highness."

He turned. "Lady Cathrine?"

"Well?" she asked impatiently.

"Everything's fine," he said softly. "Everything is wonderful."

She nodded, satisfied. "Good. I'll see you in the south."

He bowed. "Thank you, for everything."

Cathrine smiled. "Just doing my job as Trowa's sister. Take care, Quatre."

"You do the same, Cathrine." He walked away.

Trowa was sitting on the edge of the bed when he came in. "So... are you going?"

Quatre nodded, flopping down beside him. "Probably by mid-afternoon." He leaned his head against Trowa's shoulder. "Too soon. Much too soon."

"Will you miss me?"

"I miss you already, love."

"I don't want you to go."

Quatre slipped his hand into Trowa's. "I know... I know. But it's not for long - and then we'll be together, permanently."

"The servants have already packed your things."

"How generous of them," Quatre muttered. He drew Trowa closer. "I'm going to be waiting and counting down the minutes till we see each other again."

"I love you."

Quatre kissed Trowa. "I know. I love you too."

~*~
Epilogue

Duo gave Quatre his best Glare. "Quatre! If you don't stop pacing, I am going to nail your feet to the floor!"

Quatre returned the Glare. "Need I remind you how nervous you were?" he asked acidly.

"I'd deny every bit of it," Duo said promptly. "I've never been nervous in my life."

Heero snorted. "Duo, you lie badly." Quatre resumed pacing. "Don't make me tie you to a chair, Quatre."

"Damn it, it's my wedding day, and I can pace if I please!" Quatre flared.

"He sure gets irritable when he's nervous," Duo muttered.

Wufei opened the door. "It's time, gentlemen."

"Thank God," Heero muttered. "He was beginning to make me nervous."

Quatre straightened his collar, biting his lower lip. "All right... I'm ready."

They filed out into the chapel, assembling in their assigned positions as the crowd of aristocrats hushed expectantly. The door to the rear of the chapel opened ponderously as Trowa Barton made his first formal court appearance.

He seemed to hesitate for a moment at the sea of faces, but looked ahead to the figure waiting for him at the altar. With the faintest smile to answer Quatre's, Trowa stepped forward to go meet his waiting lifebond.

~Owari~

<grins> Well, that's that I guess... <marks one fic off her To-be-written list>

Do tell me what you think, please?