Disclaimer: Legal claims to characters and setting; none. Desired claim to the same; significant. Conclusion; still don't own the rights, but as so many others spend the meantime toying with the characters somewhat unlawfully. ;-)

Pairing: 4x3x4
Contents/Warnings: Shounen Ai/Yaoi, angst, sap, lime/lemon.

Escaping Solitude
Part 3 - Ordeals
by kebzero

The days began to form a strange fluid monotony after that evening. Quatre made a few calls to ensure the silence of the reporter, and suggested to his sisters they invent a cover for him not being at the company, in case others started asking. They agreed on simply saying he was on a vacation - and just to neglect mentioning the length of the same. Quatre also opted for a clever disguise; a pair of black-framed sunglasses. Catherine had laughed the first time she saw it, Trowa not stretching beyond a most peculiar grin. They got over it though, and came with a few suggestions of their own to amend his disguise. Some were openly meant as a joke - at least, Quatre hoped Catherine had joked when she suggested he use one of the clown outfits and pretend to be part of the show even when just selling popcorn or tickets. It wasn't a bad idea given his objective, but he didn't feel like parading around in baggy pants with suspenders and tripping over his own huge loafers. Still, he'd taken their advice to forego his rather formal shirt and vest in favor of something more casual. When Trowa offered to lend him a few turtlenecks he'd grown out of, Quatre quickly agreed, rushed to accepting by that little imp on one shoulder, the opposing angel immediately scolding him for being so eager. Trowa didn't seem to notice, though - and so the following eve in the popcorn stand Quatre was wearing sunglasses just dark enough to hide his eyes but not obscure vision, one dark green turtleneck sweater with both neck and arms folded to size and a pair of dark blue jeans Catherine had found in a pile of old clothes - normally meant to get a second life as costumes or rags - and quickly tailored to fit Quatre. Well, almost. They were a bit tight, and he swore he saw Catherine grin when he first tried them on, and he suspected the handiwork was intentional - which was also why he didn't ask her to adjust them further. After all, she'd taken rather... precise... measurements of him before the tailoring, and it wasn't a procedure he was too eager to repeat. He felt ridiculous, but none of the customers seemed to care. Plump Sylphie grinned over in the other booth, though. Quatre suspected he'd just made himself a rumor or three in her collection, though he tried hard not to think of what their nature might be.

That same night, he fell asleep hugging the turtleneck close.

The rest of the week passed without anything notable happening. They had promised to let Trowa take the next step to solve his own problem, and they had done their best to live up to that promise. Even so, Quatre had to reassure Catherine to give Trowa time more than once during the week. At day six, the manager announced they were moving on to the next colony, and the entire circus was wrapped in the frenzy that was moving day, leaving any coaxing out of the question for a while.

Their new destination had only a gravel ground for them to camp at - not that it mattered much; as long as the poles got a decent footing, the big top could go up. In emergencies it could rise even on pavement, Joseph let him know as they rigged up the seats. They still wanted to avoid that though, as the supports and weights needed complicated the rigging immensely compared to simply slamming the tent poles and pegs into the ground.

Another three days passed, and a daily routine of the following set in; waking up to the dual cacophony of Joseph's attempts at singing and the alarm clock's attempt at suicide - Quatre had taken to slamming it pretty hard when shutting it off - working the booths at morning or eve, helping with various odd-jobs when he wasn't in any of the stands, returning to his trailer for the occasional lonely meal - Catherine had taken it upon her to invite both boys over for dinner or out to lunch at least every other day - ending the day with phone conferences with his sisters, reassuring both them and Rashid he was safe and planning to return soon, and falling asleep, arms wrapped around a single-colored sweater, and waking up in the morning - occasionally with his nose close enough to catch the scents within the turtleneck fabric - to do the same all over again.

At the fourth day, Trowa intercepted his sister and friend immediately following the performance, herding them to his trailer. All the curtains were drawn, and the clown took great care in locking the door behind them before putting the mask away. He motioned them to the far end, bathed in the dim light of the red-shaded lamp. Trowa took the far right corner seat, Catherine sitting down next to him, leaving Quatre the other couch. The table had been folded up against the wall so that the center space remained open. For a moment, Quatre wondered if Trowa had intentionally set this up in order to be able to get up and run away easily, should he feel a need to. That suspicion faded in a flash as he caught Trowa's tired eyes. That same empty stare fell on Catherine soon after, and minutes went by without any of them saying a word, hardly moving, barely breathing.

"I..." Trowa started, glaring down at the floor. "I wanted to tell you something. I've never talked about it with anyone, and I'm not exactly sure I should tell you now, either. I've been thinking about it ever since last week. You sent me searching for reasons I am who I am - I've always been shy and have kept my distance from others, but there was at least one event that pushed me further along that line..."

He stopped, leaving the other two waiting. Neither Quatre nor Catherine spoke; all they could do was wait for Trowa to say whatever he wanted to say - and do so without any pressure. Trowa's fingers grew restless, at last finding some temporary pause as he locked one palm around the fingers of the other hand. He looked up from the floor for a second, as if checking they were still listening.

"As you know, I was raised by a mercenary group. From what they told me, I was found in the middle of nowhere, and they decided to take care of me. I still don't know why, but from bits and pieces I got from the various soldiers over the years, they stumbled across me in the middle of fighting back Alliance forces - a battle which they won, against all odds, and that some of them considered me a good-luck charm because of that." He closed his eyes, smirked, gave a vague snort. "They were a superstitious bunch, all of them. You'd never want to be around those with compulsive thoughts over their underwear or socks."

His audience barely dared to smile, remaining careful, patient.

"Anyway... They raised me as best they could, I guess - my earliest memories are from battlefields. They taught me how to control a mobile suit when I was five - not that I was given the chance to actually control one alone until some years later - I had to grow enough to reach everything." Another short-lived smirk. "Most of them were friendly, but I didn't really consider them friends - I respected the captain, though. The ones that weren't friendly weren't all that dangerous, I just learned to avoid them. It was the overly friendly one that turned out to be the one I should have watched out for."

Again, he paused, and his free fingers tapped out of rhythm on the backside of the grasped hand, slowly settling down again.

"At first, it wasn't anything serious. The guy - I think his name was Mitchell - was just like most of them, treating me like their special prodigy, teaching me how to operate trucks, mobile suits, all kinds of weapons... Somewhere in there, they remembered to teach me how to read, write and do math too. I don't remember, but I think Mitchell and the captain were the biggest proponents for setting up that curriculum. Since I don't know my real birth date, I'm not sure, but I think I was around nine when things began to change. Mitchell started giving me these little gifts - at first, I didn't think anything of it. Some of the guys usually bought me something or other when they went to town, but most of them stopped by the time I was seven - that's when I first controlled a mobile suit alone. Guess they thought less of me as their adoptive son and more as their equal - or they just decided not to spoil me anymore." Trowa shrugged. "Doesn't really matter. Mitchell's gifts became frequent. They were just little things, a piece of candy, a small toy, a customized part for my mobile suit - that sort of thing. I accepted them all with my usual enthusiasm - an expressionless face and a nod." Vague smirk. "That wasn't what Mitchell was really hoping for."

Trowa let his trapped hand loose, feeling restless. He straightened up a little, and placed one hand on each knee, fingers occasionally trembling.

"After a few months, he went from patting my shoulder when giving me the presents to patting my cheek. The shoulder thing was sort of an unwritten agreement I made with the mercenaries at age six. I was determined not to have any of them fuzz my hair up by a patronizing pat there, so I more or less demanded they'd settle for the shoulder. It didn't seem much at first, so I didn't comment it. I thought Mitchell was an okay guy, after all. He got bolder, didn't pat my cheek as much as caress it, and he began lingering there, not just vanishing after handing the trinket over. Since I didn't care much for his gifts anyway, I reminded him about the shoulder agreement. He removed his hand as if he'd been burned, nodded and went away. For the next two weeks, I barely even saw the guy. Then, the captain informed me of a change in the duty roster. He'd given me more responsibilities, including night-time guard duty. I didn't find out until..." Trowa paused, took a clearing breath. "Well, later, that Mitchell had argued for that rather adamantly, saying I was old enough to be counted as any of the soldiers. According to him, I definitely had the abilities, despite my young age and small size."

His hands became restless again. Catherine reached out, grabbed a hold of the left one, placing it back on his knee, thumb moving in slow circles on the back of the hand and out along the fingers. Trowa looked at her, faint smile there for but a flash. His eyes returned to the floor.

"It happened on my third shift as night guard. Mitchell was to relieve me at three in the morning. He showed up a few minutes past that, which was unusual. The guy had always been punctual. That's not the only thing I found odd, though - he had a vague sway in his step. At first I thought he'd been drinking - I don't know if he really was drunk, or if he just acted. Most of the mercenaries had a stomach for alcohol, so it took them quite a lot to get seriously affected, and Mitchell wasn't known for having a stockpile of booze, or the cash to buy it with. I was considering if I should report him to the captain or not when he asked for my gun - that was the procedure; when the new guard showed, you'd pass the sidearm along. I hesitated, but gave it to him anyway - he was still my superior officer, and I had no real proof he was unfit for duty. He inspected the gun, and I stood back, waiting to be dismissed. Instead, he checked the safety and tossed the gun aside, grabbed my jaw and kissed me. Mitchell had a big grin plastered on his face, stretching the big scar on his unshaven cheek. He used his free hand to put a finger across his lips, hushing me."

Quatre leaned forward to calm Trowa's remaining restless hand. He barely noticed how his own heart had begun beating like crazy, or how Catherine appeared to nearly have stopped breathing, a 'this can't be happening' written all across her face.

"He spun me around, and placed one arm around my neck. I recognized the posture; it was a killing move. He whispered in my ear if I screamed or resisted, he'd snap my neck in two. Wasn't a doubt he could. His free hand began snaking under my sweater, tugged at my undershirt and roamed up along my stomach and chest. He kissed my temple, and let his hand out again. He - he fondled my ass for a while before he went for the pants buttons." Again, Trowa paused, jaw working a few times, soundlessly. "He-"

Catherine interrupted, squeezed Trowa's hand a bit harder, far more on the verge of tears than Trowa, albeit all three had glassy eyes by this point. She put her free hand on Trowa's shoulder, getting his attention. "God, Trowa - please don't say-"

He stared at her, faint smile returning, an equally vague sigh following. "No, Cathy. He didn't - he didn't rape me. He probably would have, but as he was struggling with the buttons on my pants, we both heard a twig snatch. He was surprised - whatever he was about to do, wouldn't look good in the eyes of the others, and he didn't want to get caught. He relaxed just a bit too much, though - I slipped out of his loosening grip, bit his arm hard and make as powerful a donkey kick as I could, playing 'Jinglebells' at full volume." He smirked. "I think I only heard Mitchell be that loud at one other occasion..."

Trowa looked to both his listeners, apparently satisfied they were still with him, though they were squeezing the blood out his hands; one each.

"I made a run for it, but fell as my pants went down. Got to my feet, hiked my pants up and ran as fast as I could back to the dormitory tent. Mitchell hissed whispers after me to come back between moans of pain. I didn't look back, didn't stop running until I was back on my sleeping bag. Wasn't until then it struck me I was in a room with all the other men of the company - men I up until then had trusted, just like Mitchell. I panicked again, but didn't dare run outside again, fearing I'd run into Mitchell - in the dormitory, he wouldn't try anything - at least, I hoped he didn't. I sat there, hugging my knees until morning. I didn't even notice when the others began waking up, didn't really notice the concerned ones that approached me. When one of them touched my arm, my fist went out on automatic, giving the poor guy a black eye. They reported me to the captain. He came later that day - I hadn't moved. The dormitory was the only place there were always more than two others, I think that's why I wanted to be there - but I didn't trust anyone enough to fall asleep, couldn't let anyone near me."

Reliving the memories was not pleasant, Trowa's own breathing became ever more erratic with each sentence, and Quatre could feel how his pulse rose unsteadily.

"I think he knew what had happened - or thought he knew. I never said a word about it. He spent the next days next to me, never getting within six feet of me, but slowly coaxing me to move, to eat, go to the bathroom, and finally to sleep. Through all that time I didn't see Mitchell once. I only saw him twice more before-" He stopped. "The captain got me to trust the group enough to function again, and I got better by time - but I've rarely been able to trust strangers again, or even just meet them. Mitchell was given a lot of high-risk positions in the next few engagements - those were normally put on rotation, as none of the mercenaries really wanted to risk their hides for anything but the payment, and they couldn't collect that if they were dead. The captain gave Mitchell five in a row, and everyone knew he was being punished for something. I'm not sure if he had confessed his actions to the captain, but he didn't quit - he took every one of the dangerous assignments, as if he sought penance. The two times I saw him - at the first, he tried to mumble something to me, but couldn't make a sound. At the last encounter, he handed me a letter, told me to read it. By the end of that day, he was dead, killed when covering the retreat of the entire unit."

Silence fell upon the trailer, none of them moving. A minute passed, then two.

"I never read the letter. The look in his eyes - I could never bear the thought of reading it. I tore it up at the burial ceremony, tossed the pieces down in the grave. We buried him, but I could never bury what had happened - not that it was so bad, I mean-"

Catherine had heard more than enough. She embraced her brother in a powerful hug, nearly squeezing the life out of him in the process, no longer able to contain the tears, letting them drip along her cheeks onto the white-and-blue-checkered shirt of Trowa's clown outfit. "Not bad? Trowa, the man nearly raped you - Of course it was bad."

"No, I - I managed to-" He choked on his own words. "I wasn't- I mean, I-"

His mask broke.

With the floodgate gone, the tears began to fall.

Quatre still clutched Trowa's right hand, uncertain of what to do - he wanted to join the hug, but the fear of repercussions from that, including Catherine thinking him to exploit the situation, kept him from it - that is, until he saw Catherine calling him over with a not-so-subtle wave of hands - behind Trowa's back, of course. Quatre gladly obliged. Trowa gave no real sign of noticing neither hand signal nor the additional arms wrapping around him. The past had a strong grip on him, and only in time did it let go. All the while, the embrace lasted, his sister resting her chin on his left shoulder, best friend doing the same on the right, their arms trapping his own. In the end, it was the impact the first tears departing Quatre's eyes made on his lower arm that brought Trowa back to the present. He took a deep breath, tried moving his right arm, Quatre immediately releasing his embrace of the siblings so Trowa could wipe clear his eyes and cheeks. The faint smile returned, Catherine also let go - though she resumed the firm grip around Trowa's left hand. He raised his eyes to meet hers, then turning to do the same to Quatre. "Thank you - thank you both." Tentatively, his free hand searched out Quatre's, ending up getting both.

The silence fell over the trailer once more. Catherine wiped her own eyes clear, the few traces of make-up long since disturbed by her tears, smudging her cheeks, and in turn the handkerchief Quatre offered her. She blew her nose. He didn't ask for the handkerchief back - nor accepted it when she offered. She looked a bit perplexed at first, then eyeing the handkerchief, and with a brief smile and an 'oh' she tucked it away in her own pocket. Unnerved by the silence that usually hadn't bothered her a bit, she was still at a loss of what to say. "Trowa... I don't know how we can help, but we will. Just-" She hesitated. "Are there any more secrets?"

Trowa smiled at her, vague sigh escaping. "No, Cathy. No more secrets like that one."

She hugged him again, though didn't linger this time.

"It's okay, sis. It's okay... Now you know."

She nodded, though couldn't brave a smile like Trowa - neither could Quatre, who had absentmindedly begun gently caressing the hand trapped between his palms. Trowa turned to him.

"It's enough for one day, don't you think?"

Quatre tried to smile, he really did. What came wasn't nearly his usual, but it was better than nothing. He nodded. "Trowa, it always helps to talk - even about bad things. We'll always be here for you, no matter what."

Trowa couldn't help but chuckle. "You two keep saying that, like it was your mantra or something."

Catherine gave him a stern look, mellowing soon after. "Don't try to joke yourself away from this, Trowa. A traumatic experience doesn't have to be serious or big to cause scars." Images of a carriage toppled and set ablaze by gunfire danced on her inner retina. She closed her eyes, shook the image away, telling herself now was not the time for flashbacks of sorrows long since processed and moved beyond - or mostly so.

"I'm not. Quatre's right, it helps to talk. At least I'm not alone in knowing about it now." Long blink, new sigh. "Look, I don't want you two to give me pity over what happened. That was a long time ago, and I'm not angry about it anymore. There's no point in being angry with the dead. I just want to forget it ever happened, but I can't."

She tightened her grasp of his hand, just for a moment. "Then don't try to. Some bad memories will be with us forever. We just have to learn to live with them - and live through them."

Again, he nodded. "You mean, try to trust people again."

She lit up a bit. "You already do that, Trowa. You trust Quatre and me, don't you?"

Another chuckle. "Yeah, I guess so."

"Wouldn't hurt if you opened up a bit to others too, you know - even strangers."

The smile turned to a mild frown of disagreement.

Catherine grinned. "I'm not pushing you, Trowa - I'm just saying it wouldn't be a bad thing if you learned how to talk to customers, that sort of thing. You can't go on believing everyone out there is out to get you, somehow."

Sigh, frown gone. "Yeah... I'll try, okay?"

Quatre placed one hand on Trowa's shoulder. "That's all we ask - and we'll help you any way we can."

Trowa couldn't help but snicker a bit. "I think I've grasped that much now."

Quatre shrugged. "Doesn't hurt to keep reminding you of it."

Faint smile, nod. "Rationally, I know people don't intend to hurt me, but ever since that night, I've had trouble trusting strangers. Whenever someone offers friendship, I search for ulterior motives."

"You learned to trust me and Quatre, didn't you?"

"Yeah - but it took a while."

"We're not expecting you to become a party lion overnight, Trowa."

He closed his eyes, gave a curt nod. "That's good, because that won't happen. Like I said, I'll try." He paused. "I think we've done enough for one day now... I think I'd like some sleep." He withdrew his hands, and stood up, stretching briefly before sticking his thumbs under his suspenders, letting them give a slight slap.

Catherine got up too, Quatre followed suit. Either maintained a vaguely worried expression.

Trowa chuckled. "Don't worry, I'll be fine. It helped to talk. At least you know one reason I shun crowds and strangers."

Quatre's right brow flagged. "There's more?"

Soft smile, shrug. "Probably. It's not like I can list every little thing that has shaped who I am, Quatre. Like I said, I've always been a bit reclusive."

Catherine rolled her eyes. "Riiiight, A bit, he says." She reached for Quatre's hand, and dragged him towards the door, speaking to Trowa's back. "Okay, Trowa. We'll leave you alone, if that's what you want. You know where we are if you need to talk more tonight, or need a hug, or-"

Trowa waved his hand, shooing them away, his voice more amused than annoyed. "Yeah, yeah, yeah - get out, would you? I need to change out of this outfit - these pants are getting incredibly uncomfortable - the damn suspenders aren't properly adjusted." Trowa tugged on his pants legs demonstratively. In reality, he was trying to get them out before they noticed how his cheeks were rapidly gaining color.

His wish was granted, though. Catherine and Quatre excused themselves, yet again repeating their desire to help - and at last leaving him alone again. Of the three, Trowa slept easily that night. Catherine spent much of the night either studying the ceiling of her trailer, or turning towards the door, half-expecting Trowa to knock on it. Quatre also remained awake for much of the night, foregoing his usual evening cell-phone conferences. Fortunately, he had cut down on those as it was; one day worth of silence wasn't going to alarm anyone - he hoped. He hugged the turtleneck closer, feeling a bit ashamed of himself for doing so amidst his ever-growing concern for Trowa's mental welfare. He knew he was probably blowing things out of proportion - both with the sweater and with his worrying. That didn't stop him from maintaining his firm grip of both, though. He even contemplated walking back to Trowa's trailer, just to check that everything was okay - but he knew Trowa, should he notice, wouldn't be happy about that if nothing was wrong, and the thought of being pushed away kept Quatre in check. Only far into the night, did the quarrel raging in his mind between himself, the little imp and cherub angel come to a draw, deciding on not feeling too guilty for hugging the substitute while waiting for a chance for the real deal, nor be too worried Trowa might be suffering that very minute.

At least, he got a few hours of shut-eye before the duet of clock and clown brutally brought him back to reality.


Trowa made good on his promise. Already the next day, he tried to smile while manning the cotton candy stand, and even mutter a few words during the trade; a little 'thank you' for the payment, and a brief 'here you go' when handing the sticks with the sweet stuff on to the toddlers. Over in the other booth, Quatre was left somewhat dumbstruck at first, and Trowa had made a genuine smile at seeing that expression. If anything, it was a motivator - though that little fact was only for Trowa to know.

Over the next few days, Trowa tried to stick with his new tricks, but Quatre noticed he still avoided physical contact. Still, the little improvement was a welcome one; Trowa was on the right track. The invisible devilish avatar on his shoulder kept asking 'okay, so where's the switch to get him on our track?' and similar questions, only to be rewarded with a mouthful of feathers courtesy of a bat of wings from his opposite, urging caution and patience. Of course, Quatre chose the latter. He had no intention of letting his desires get the better of him. As long as Trowa might not handle the questions he wanted to ask, Quatre would make good on his own promise, and remain a good friend.

In the end, the order to pack up came, and the gravel grounds were left behind. Most of the animals appeared happy with this; the gravel had been an uncomfortable foundation for the pens, even though but a very few didn't have both floor covers and layers of straw, grass or sawdust to make them better suited for paws, hoofs, flippers and big-toed feet. The relocation was as uneventful as the prior one - with two exceptions. Once aboard the space freighter, Quatre finally remembered a small set of curiosities that had bothered him for some time. When he found Trowa standing by the railing before one of the observation windows, staring blankly into the dark night that was space, he decided to ask about them.

"Hey, Trowa - what are you looking at?"

A shrug.

"Nothing in particular?"

Another shrug. "Just looking out at space. Haven't been out in space in anything smaller than these heavy-lift vehicles since the Mariemeia conflict - since the last time I piloted Heavyarms."

Quatre smiled and placed a supporting hand on his friend's shoulder. "You miss him, don't you?"

Trowa looked at him, nearly smirking. "I don't miss 'him', I might miss 'it' - unlike the rest of you, I didn't see my Gundam as anything but a machine. I know the rest of you spoke to them as if they were alive, as if they had souls."

Mock offense. "They did! - I mean, the Zero system had some circuits and subroutines that made it capable of taking individual action."

Faint grin. "Sandrock didn't have the Zero system installed for long, as I recall it."

Quatre scratched the back of his neck. "Well, the Zero system was Instructor H's concept. I think he put a scaled-down version of the 'individual action' controls in Sandrock too - Sandrock let me go when I tried to self-detonate at the Singapore spaceport."

Trowa's narrow smile endured, he returned to staring out the observation window.

"Anyway... I've been wanting to ask you something..."

"Like what?"

"What's the manager's name?"

Trowa shrugged.

Quatre raised a brow. "You mean you don't know?"

Vague smile. "That's something that's never really come up. He's an authority figure, so everyone calls him 'manager', or 'boss', or 'ringmaster'. I don't think he has any close friends, or friends that don't work for him. Even the government suits he makes arrangements with addresses him by title."

"You have got to be kidding - you've never heard his name?"

Chuckle. "Frankly, I'm beginning to wonder if he even has one. He's never mentioned it to me, and I don't think anyone else knows either. Cathy uses his titles, just like everyone else. I don't think she knows either."

Quatre closed his eyes, sighed and shook his head. "I'm wondering if I should even ask the next question..."

Trowa turned to him again, done stargazing for now. "Just ask, Quatre. Not like I'm busy right now."

"Okay - what about the name of the circus?"

Another shrug. "What about it?"

"Isn't it a little anonymous? I mean, why did-" He paused just long enough to grin. "Why did 'the manager' call his circus for 'A Circus'? What's the story behind that?"

Trowa smirked back. "I don't know the guy's name, and now you think I know why he made a decision like that?"

Quatre shrugged before briefly pressing thumb and forefinger against the bridge of his nose, fighting off an imagined headache. "It's just so frustrating - I mean, why would the man try to remain so anonymous, both with his name and his business?"

Spinning around, leaning against the railing, Trowa couldn't help but chuckle at his friend's annoyed expression. "Next thing you'll be creating some conspiracy theory on it, just like Sylphie does on nearly everything."

Quatre crossed his arms and leant towards the railing too, looking away from Trowa. "Hey, I'm not quite there yet, thank you very much."

Another chuckle. "Just face it, Quatre. Some things are supposed to remain mysteries. You can't expect every question you have to be answered, or get the answers you want if you do."

Quatre fell silent, and absentmindedly began an in-depth study of the floor plates, down to every screw, edge and thin streaks of grouting between them. In the end, Trowa began to worry, and he placed a hand on Quatre's shoulder.

"Quatre? You okay?"

Giving the hand two pats before facing its owner, Quatre mustered a strained smile. "Yeah, I'm fine. I just - I just think I'm getting a bit tired." He faked a yawn.

Trowa didn't, letting a genuine yawn slip. "You're not alone, Quatre. I think nearly everyone has gone to the lounge as it is. We should probably get going too - or we'll have to nap on the floor or something."

Quatre snickered. "Well, I'm sure we'd manage if that was the case. Let's go."

With an approving nod from Trowa, they were on their way.


The lounge was packed, most of the passengers asleep, resting as best they could in the chairs and couches dotting the room. At first, the prospect of sleeping on the floor seemed to became ever more real. Then Trowa spotted a small couch hidden in one of the corners, and waved Quatre over. On the way, he nearly stumbled in Joseph's outstretched legs. The gray-haired man was fast asleep in a recliner chair, though his hand was tightly clamped around the hand of the resident in the chair next to him - Sylphie. The plump woman was as gone to the world as the rest of the passengers, though she contributed far more than her fair share to the volume of slumber permeating the lounge. After a few more near-trips across outstretched legs in the dimly lit room, Quatre had made his way across to Trowa.

"Here," he whispered. "You take the couch, and I'll take the floor."

Quatre shook his head. "No, you found the couch. You sleep here, and I'll see if I can find something else."

"There isn't anything else, Quatre - this is all that's free. Lie down, and-"

"No - I refuse to accept that. How am I supposed to sleep if I know you have to lie on the floor?"

Trowa rolled his eyes. "Fine. Think you can sleep sitting up?"

Quatre nodded, smile of relief courtesy of the angel, though crossing over to a faint smirk, courtesy of the imp. This way, he wouldn't have a bad conscience about forcing Trowa to the floor, and he'd get a chance to be very close without suspicion. Mentally, he instructed the noble angel to keep the frisky imp in check for the night; Quatre did not want to wake up finding his hands had wandered into places they shouldn't be.

The sat down next to each other. The couch was built for two, and the cushions were as soft as the dark blue material covering them, but the back support was much too short, and the elbow rests low. There was no real way for either of them to find a decent way to rest without some rather conspicuous posturing, and neither was inclined to do that much. Quatre straightened up, and leaned backwards until the back of his head met the wall behind the couch. His arms grew restless, and he didn't know quite where to put them. Out of the corner of his eye, he glanced over at Trowa, who had also leant in against the wall, eyes already closed, neck slouched slightly forward and arms crossed. Quatre quickly mimicked the last gesture, and closed his eyes hoping to fall asleep soon - and to his credit, he didn't worry about how stiff his neck would be in the morning. As the imp was gaining power in his mind, there were other body parts he was far more concerned about, come morning.


Hours later, he woke up when someone tapped against his foot. Quatre blinked a few times, adjusting to the faint lights of the room. It took a few seconds for his blurry vision and groggy mind to identify the awakener as Catherine, who had a grin plastered on her face. He rose his right hand to rub his eyes. "Cathy, what-"

She placed a finger across her lips, shushing him. "Quiet," she whispered, "I don't want to wake up Trowa just yet."

With that, Quatre finally noticed his left hand was trapped, and an extra weight was on his left shoulder. He turned only to face Trowa, resting against aforementioned shoulder, eyes closed. Quatre nearly jumped. The imp cheered. The angel groaned. Catherine snickered, doing her best to muffle the laughter with her palm. Quatre frowned at her.

"Sorry, you guys just looked so cute. The others will probably wake up soon, though. Thought I'd warn you."

He sighed, again using his free hand to pin the bridge of his nose. "This isn't happening..."

She smiled. "Oh, you're done dreaming, mister. Looks like my little brother has decided you're good enough to act as a pillow, at least."

Another frown. "Don't tease, Catherine. This isn't funny - if he wakes up, what am I going to say?"

She shrugged. "It's not like you did anything, Quatre. If anyone's going to be embarrassed, it'll be Trowa - and you can bet I'll be here to witness it."

"That's mean, Catherine. What if-" Trowa stirred. Evidently, Quatre's steadily raising voice and gentle movement was dragging the clown away from the land of dreams, one tug at a time. In the end, Trowa blinked a few times, suddenly realizing where - and on who - he was resting, and he sat up with a start, eyes darting from Quatre's gentle smile to Catherine's outright grin, at last halting at Quatre. He looked down. "Oh, uhm... Sorry, I didn't mean to-"

Catherine snickered. Trowa began blushing. Catherine started laughing. Trowa shot her glare full of daggers.

Quatre did his best to suppress his own rising laughter, and in the end he let a brief chuckle go - but left it at that. "It's okay, Trowa. It's okay. Could just as well have been me falling over in my sleep."

Catherine wiped away a tear of laughter. "Well, we did say we'd help you any way we could, little brother - if you needed a pillow, why didn't you just say so?"

The shade of red as well as the glare intensified, adding an arsenal that'd put Heavyarms to shame next to the daggers.

The laughter had awakened a few of the other passengers too, though they were much too tired to pay attention to what took place in the far corner.

"Well, boys - I think we'd better hurry. Both the bathrooms and the mess hall will be packed before long - this is a freighter after all, not a passenger ship." With that, she walked away, still snickering.

Quatre got up, offered Trowa a hand to get up, being politely refused. Both stretched, Quatre rubbed his sore neck and shoulder. Trowa at last regained his normal coloring, though the sense of embarrassment endured. "Quatre, I'm really sorry for-"

Sunshine faced him. "I told you - It's okay. I'll always be here if you need a friend to lean on, Trowa. Never forget that."

Trowa nodded.

Quatre rubbed his aching shoulder again. "Though next time - think you could you warn me beforehand?"

Trowa couldn't help but smirk, but gave another curt nod, and led the way to refreshment.


The new colony was by far the most crowded they had visited so far, both in terms of buildings and people. There weren't any open green areas large enough to house the circus, and Quatre could hear the groans from the riggers as it became clear they'd be setting up the tent on a paved car park cleared for the occasion. The trucks containing the specialized rigging gear were brought forward, and the crew went to work, if but even more disgruntled than usual. Catherine had grabbed Quatre and brought him along to set up advertisement posters and disperse flyers, intent on not exposing the young man to the rather colorful vocabulary she knew would saturate the parking lot before long.

The asphalt jungle might not have offered A Circus the best of places to set up the tents, but it did offer a great deal of customers. The first four evenings were packed, and the manager had quickly announced they would be staying here for a bit longer, judging from the crowds up to an unprecedented two weeks more. This bit of news was taken with everything ranging from indifference to cheers - with one exception. Trowa cringed, and clenched his teeth. During those first four days, Catherine had, in tandem with Quatre, dragged him away from the fenced-in parking lot to experience at least a few bits of the cityscape surrounding them; a visit to a fast-food joint, a quick walk in one of the few tiny parks the colony had to offer, an early matinee at the movie theatre and browsing a great number of shops. Two more weeks meant two more weeks of the same, and it wasn't something he looked forward to, given the crowds and cramped areas. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Catherine smirk. He sighed, letting his shoulders and chin fall in defeat. Some times, siblings were definitely not a good thing. Still, his two helpers always asked if it was alright before dragging him along somewhere - they did so almost to the point of frustration. Trowa had gone along with nearly all their ideas, though when his sister had suggested they visit a club - which by reputation sounded like a very cramped, noisy and flashy place - he had flatly refused. He could have sworn he heard Quatre let go a sigh of relief then.

They had been a bit eager, but as long as they were with him, Trowa felt he could manage - until he was right in the middle of a line, or in an overly crowded street. He barely showed his discomfort in those situations, but one thing was clear; venturing to those places alone was not something he was likely to try any time soon.

The same evening, he was again on duty in the cotton candy stand, Quatre in the popcorn booth across the extended circus tent entrance, and Catherine walking back and forth between them, using the few quiet periods to discuss what they were going to do the following afternoon. By the five minutes to showtime mark, a consensus on a brief lunch had been reached, though Catherine was still lobbying to add a trip to an arcade she had spotted when she and Quatre dispersed posters and flyers.

The main crowd had dissipated, leaving a few stressed families herding their youngest ones along and assorted latecomers rushing through the corridor of temptations. Nearly all were walking towards the tent, except three teenage girls standing in the corner of the ticket trailer and the popcorn stand, giggling profusely and sharing a few whispers. The long-haired brunette was clearly in disagreement with the other two about something, frowning, hissing out a 'No!' before her snickering friends twirled her around and pushed her towards the cotton candy booth. The girl shot her friends an angry glare.

Trowa did what he tried to for all customers; give a polite smile - though it remained the barely-a-smile variant. "Only one, or are you shopping for your friends too?"

The girl looked away, and her left foot made small, restless circles. "Uhm... No..."

"Just one, then?"

"Uhm... I was wondering... Are you doing anything tomorrow?"

The little cogs that made the machinery of Trowa's brain came to a screeching halt. The only visible sign of this, however, was how he more or less froze.

"Because, if you're not doing anything, I was wondering if you'd go out with me."

Now, the wheels began spinning like crazy, the tiny teeth barely able to keep everything together. As mild panic set in, his jaw began working, though not a word came out.

From across the makeshift hallway, Catherine and Quatre had heard it all, Catherine faced Quatre with an expression of mild shock, but wasn't met with the reaction she had expected - Quatre had a most sinister grin, as the little shoulder-imp had planted an idea in his head. He gave Catherine a wink, before refocusing on his word-fumbling friend. "Hey, Trowa - don't keep the young lady waiting for an answer, now." The two in question both shot him a look, both beginning to display the tell-tale sign of embarrassment, albeit the girl had a more advanced case.

Catherine frowned at him, unsure of what to make of this at first, before realizing- "Test?" she whispered.

Quatre nodded.

"Alright, then. If this is what you want, I'll help."

Again, she got a subtle nod for an answer. With that, she went across to the cotton candy stand. Trowa was still struggling with the first word, at last getting out an "I..."

"Oh, he's not doing anything special tomorrow - right, Trowa?"

The brunette jumped at Catherine's sudden intervention, but turned her eyes back at Trowa, awaiting her answer.

If nothing else, the comments from his sister and friend brought the machinery of Trowa's mind back into balance, first action taken being to shoot a glare at his sibling. "Cathy..." he grumbled.

She replied with a grin. "Oh, come on. It's not like you have any duties Quatre and I can't cover for. I'm sure Fang and the others can survive a few hours without you."

Taking the time to send another glare her way, Trowa blanked his face, returning to the young woman. He sighed. "Look, miss-"

"Oh," she gasped, offering her hand, blush deepening. "I forgot - I'm Melissa."

Trowa took her hand, gave it two firm shakes. "Trowa."

She smiled. "I know. My friends and I watched the show yesterday too, and we read your name in the program."

Trowa forced his vague smile. "Look, Melissa - I'm-"

On the other side, the imp was highly busy fighting off the angel, doing his best to maintain control of Quatre's train of thought, prodding his brain with a scythe, rather than a tri-fork. Precision tools can be so much more effective... "Trowa, she's not asking for the world. Think about it - and if not, I'm sure Catherine and I can think of some other activity tomorrow. There's always that club, and-"

Trowa's visible eye flashed opened in panic, and pinned between a rock and a hard place, he chose what he thought was less of a pain. Calming down, and letting the far recesses of his mind plot vengeance on his meddling friends, he was barely able to stutter a "O-Okay."

Catherine clapped him on the shoulder. "Good boy." She beamed at Melissa. "Just be by the entrance at noon tomorrow, we'll have him ready for you."

Melissa reflected the light, nodded twice, looked to Trowa only to get a reluctant nod in confirmation, before her two giggling friends swept her along into the circus tent, where the show had just begun. The three shopkeepers watched as they vanished inside.

Once more, Trowa glared at Catherine, having selected his first target given her last patronizing remarks. It was all too clear in his mind whose undies would be flagging below the main streamer tomorrow. Now, as for Quatre-

"Don't look so angry, brother dear. She looks like a nice girl, and you'd do good mingling with people."

"Cathy, I thought I told the two of you not to take control of my life."

She snickered. "Well, we're not - we're just giving you a little push in the right direction."

His glare softened slightly, but he remained far from happy.

"Oh, come on - you know this is a good thing. At least give her a chance before hiding away."

Trowa sighed. "As if I had a choice now..."

In the popcorn booth, the angel was coming close to losing the halo, as the minute cherub had the mini-demon in a stranglehold, shaking him profusely for sponsoring such an insane plan. Fortunately, they had taken the fight behind Quatre's neck; out of sight, out of mind. Quatre was happy Trowa had agreed to - okay, agreed to be pushed into - the impromptu date, but he was far from certain he had done the right thing in forcing this issue. He wanted his answers, and he wanted to make Trowa less of a cagey individual, and for a brief moment this had seemed the best chance at getting both done. A tiny part of his mind was silently praying Trowa's discomfort with the date wasn't just due to his reclusive nature. When Trowa shot him an angry glare too, Quatre just smiled in return, eyes almost closed, acting as innocent as could be. That expression had worked on countless others in the past, though it appeared futile versus Trowa right now. Quatre sighed, and was just about to offer a vague apology when Sylphie came over, having closed her ticket stand, opening the door to the cotton candy booth.

"Off you go, son. I'll take over from here. You get ready for the show - and you too, Miss Bloom." Both youngsters nodded, Trowa with a serene expression, Catherine still grinning. She have Quatre a wink before following her brother out a small gap between the popcorn trailer and the tent. Sylphie noticed it too, and gave Quatre a curious look. "Now, what was that all about, son? Anything I might want to know?"

Quatre chuckled. "No, I don't think so."

Sylphie remained unconvinced, but shrugged it off. It was just about then Quatre realized her speech pattern had gained a new word.

"Sylphie, I think you've been spending a bit too much time with Joseph lately - He's usually the one that uses the patriarchal 'son' remark to everyone."

The plump woman grinned, began to blush and burst out in a short-lived laugh as she re-stocked the cotton candy machine. "Maybe so... Maybe so."


Later that evening, Quatre was about to do the dishes after his supper when three soft knocks on the door cancelled his plans. He opened the door to face a rather sullen-looking Trowa.

"May I come in?"

Quatre quickly side-stepped to let Trowa in, though on his shoulder, the invisible imp cried out for caution; there could be revenge in store. The angel gave better advice; a pre-emptive defense. Quatre closed the door as Trowa sat down in the left couch at the table at the trailer's end, and tried to think of the right words to say. The choice was simple. "I'm sorry, Trowa - I didn't mean to force you on a date with that girl, but it's for your own good. You need to be with other people than Catherine and the rest of us here at the circus."

Trowa sighed, chuckled. "Yeah, I know." He looked up from the table. "Sit down, would you? I have something to ask you."

Quatre obeyed, and sat down on the right-side couch, leaning in over the small table. "What was the question?"

At first, Trowa said nothing. Only the trained eye could notice he was gently biting his lower lip. "I... About the date tomorrow..."


"What do you do on a date?"

Quatre was at a loss, and couldn't help his jaw drooping a bit, or the vague snicker brewing within. He managed to limit it to a friendly smile - though it came dangerously close to a smirk. "Trowa, you have to be kidding - you have to have some idea about-"

"I'm not a social person, Quatre. I've never been on a date before. I'm not dumb, I know the concept, but I just don't know what to do - I mean..."

Quatre sighed. "I think you're just nervous about tomorrow. Don't worry, Melissa isn't nearly as dangerous as Fang, so why are you so concerned about a little date?"

"Fang I know. I don't know people. Like I've said before, beasts are easy to read because they flaunt what they think, and feel. People don't."

Another sigh, brief snicker. "Trowa, don't worry, okay? Look, I'm not an expert on this - I've never been on a real date either, only some staged events my meddling sisters arranged - but as far as I know, all you have to do is try to give her a good time, and have a good time yourself. Since Melissa asked you out, maybe she has some plans. If not, you could suggest to just take a walk in the park, or go catch a movie, or go to a diner, anything - and remember that you're there to find out more about her, and talk about yourself. That means you have to talk. I'm not saying you're to divulge your soul, just make pleasant conversation."

Trowa briefly hid his face in his hands, his voice weary. "Yeah, yeah, yeah - I got all that... I'm just-"

"Incredibly nervous?"

Trowa smirked. "Yeah."

Quatre smiled. "You'll do just fine, Trowa. Just be yourself - though answering her questions with more than 'yes' and 'no' nods would probably be nice."

Soft laugh.


"There's... one other thing."


"Yeah... I'm not sure how to ask this without making it sound really awkward, but-"

Quatre beamed, trying to stagger the butterflies in his belly, knowing it couldn't be what he wished for - not that he was entirely sure what he wished for anymore, either. "Just ask, Trowa."

"I couldn't ask Cathy, she'd just make fun of me. You did say you'd help me with anything, right?"

Affirmative nod. "Whatever it is, I promise not to laugh."

Trowa hesitated, staring into the table. "I - I need help with touches."

Quatre couldn't help but grin, but held the line there. "Touches?"

Trowa nodded, his cheeks gaining color already. Seeing Quatre's grin didn't help. "Look, I've always been a reserved person, and ever since Mitchell-" He paused. "Ever since then I've had an even harder time with close contact. It keeps triggering bad memories."

Immediately looking serious, Quatre's internal butterflies died. "You don't have that problem with Catherine, or me, or any of the other pilots."

"That'd different - I trust Cathy, and you, and the others, but if you had tried something more than a brief, gentle handshake that first day..."

Quatre nodded. "Okay. So, basically, you have some intimacy issues."

Trowa gave a few short, shy nods, making a fair impersonation of a tomato. "It sounds so stupid..."

With his gentlest smile, Quatre placed both palms on the table. "No. No, it isn't stupid at all, Trowa. For anyone who doesn't have a specific problem, that problem sounds silly - but it certainly isn't to those who have it. It's nothing to be ashamed about, Trowa." Quatre paused, waiting for another nod. "I don't think Melissa is planning to jump you on the first date, though. She looked as shy as you, Trowa - and it's not like you can't handle contact. You shook her hand, didn't you?"

"Yeah - but that's only because I was more or less forced to."

Chuckle. "Only by your good manners."

No answer, though the vague smile appeared.

"Okay - here's a suggestion. If you're really so worried, try practicing with my hands, just pretend they are Melissa's."

Trowa's serene eye met him, as if asking for confirmation.

Quatre couldn't help but smile. "I won't tell Catherine, or anyone else. I promised to help you, so if this is what you need..."

Again, Trowa nodded, and tentatively reached out for Quatre's left hand with his right, intertwining their fingers. He closed his eyes, and the grip grew tenser. Quatre winced.

"Easy, Trowa. You're not planning to crush her hand, are you?" The grip loosened, Trowa's thumb gently smoothing over the back of Quatre's. Quatre fought a blush on his own, but as Trowa kept his eyes closed, he wasn't at immediate risk.

For a few blessed minutes, that was all there was; silence except faint breaths, no movement except vague, meaningless caresses, no sensations other than the slightly agitated pulse from within the other's palm - and then it all ended. Trowa loosened his grip, and withdrew his hand, opening his eyes again at the same time, cheeks still not at their usual coloring. Quatre's own blush hadn't dissipated altogether either, and the quivering eye before him suggested it hadn't gone unnoticed. "I - I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked-"

With a smile bordering on a grin, Quatre again put both palms flat on the table. "It's okay, Trowa. It doesn't bother me at all, I'm just - I'm just happy."

Trowa flagged a brow. "Happy?"

Both angel and imp went 'Doh!', complete with wrist-to-forehead slap. Quatre's mind raced to save the situation. "Uhm - Yeah, happy for you. I mean, if you're willing to let Melissa get this close to you, you're finally opening up to the world."

Trowa glared into the table, at a spot somewhere between Quatre's hands. "Oh..."

For a second, Quatre wanted to reach out and lift Trowa's chin up, but given the circumstances, he chose another way to face him again; leaning forward enough to look up below the big bang. At this, Trowa leant back, and Quatre copied. "Look, I think you'll do just fine for a first date, Trowa. At least you can hold her hand now, if it feels right - right?"

Hesitantly, Trowa nodded.

Quatre chuckled. "Melissa didn't strike me as a taker of initiative, so you probably don't have to worry. Just try to have a good time tomorrow, okay?"

Again, he got a nod.

"And don't ever feel awkward about asking me for a favor. Catherine and I promised we'd help you with whatever you ask, remember?"

A smirk was all he got at first. "I've lost track of how many reminders I've gotten..."

Teasing sunbeam. "Need one more?"

Chuckle. "No thanks, I'm full." For a precious few seconds, Trowa brought out a genuine smile. He stood up and headed towards the door. "Thanks, Quatre."

"Don't mention it." Quatre got up too, and lifted the couch seat to bring out the sheets and blankets, preparing to convert the little couch section to a bed.

It was about then Trowa noticed something dark green sticking out in all the off-white bedlinen. "What's that?"

Quatre followed Trowa's gaze, only to see one arm of a certain turtleneck stick out from the white pile. With a quick silent curse - a mild one, of course, but vivid enough to make the angel lift a brow - and a speedier arm movement, he tucked the dark green in among all the white. "Uhm, nothing. Nothing at all - it was just- just-" His mind raced towards an answer. The imp whispered something in his ear, and before Quatre could really think it over, out of his mouth it went. "My cuddle blankie."

It was hard to tell which of the two boys had the greatest expression of surprise, but the roaring laughter most certainly belonged to the imp that had fallen flat on his butt, clutching his stomach. On the other side, the angel let a low groan go, though the halo shook as he covered up a snicker. Within, Quatre growled, mentally slapping himself for saying such an incredibly stupid thing... ...even if there was some truth in it - but that couldn't stop his cheeks from flushing. Trowa tilted his head in order to catch Quatre's downcast eyes. "Your... blankie?"

Quatre gulped. "Uh, yeah." He could feel the flush get worse by the minute. He looked up to see Trowa smile back at him. "Look, I know how it sounds, but-"

Trowa chuckled. "No - no, that's okay, Quatre." He paused a bit. "We all have our secrets, things we don't want others to know."

A nod, cheeks coming up on crimson color.

Trowa put his shoes, still smiling. "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone. You don't tell about my problems, I won't tell anyone about yours. Deal?"

Another nod, sheepish grin.

"Good night, Quatre. Sleep well." And with that, Trowa went out the door and disappeared into the oncoming artificial night.

Left all to himself - other than the invisible pair on his shoulders - Quatre fell back on the couch, sighed, and stared at his elevated left hand, as if he still felt the touch of Trowa linger on his skin. Then he buried his face in his palms, trying to rub out the intense feeling of embarrassment, silently mumbling a prayer in thanks Trowa hadn't noticed what the 'blankie' really was. In the end, Quatre couldn't help but grin at it all. His left hand went inside the bundle of blankets and pulled out the dark green turtleneck, which he promptly embraced, feeling no shame at all in doing so - it was his blankie, after all - at least for now. He closed his eyes, calmed his breathing and felt his cheeks cool. After a few minutes of rest, he decided to make the bed before falling asleep, and reluctantly put the dark green blankie aside while he did so - though he soon slumbered with it trapped in his grip, a content smile on his lips, and his unearthly conscience creation companions both watched over him as he slept - though they did exchange a few heated whispers about the eve's events.


The morning came much too soon, and although Quatre tried blocking out the dual wailing with Trowa's sweater, it didn't stop much. As one of the sleeves fell across his face, the smell tickled his nose, though. After taking a deep breath, Quatre managed to get upright, turned the alarm clock off, rubbed his eyes, and searched out some clothes in his wardrobe to replace his pajamas before sitting down again to wait for his neighbor to finish in their shared bathroom.

From nine onwards, Quatre sat in the ticket booth, selling tickets to the relatively few who wanted to buy seats in advance. In the often extensive pauses, he sifted through the stack of old magazines. None of it really caught his eye; much of it he'd read already. Boredom was well underway to overtake him when Catherine snuck up around the side of the booth and knocked on the glass, startling him. She grinned.

"Sorry, didn't mean to scare you there."

Quatre sighed into a smile. "No, that's okay. What do you want, Catherine?"

"Just wanted to let you know Sylphie will take over for you around noon. You and I have to fill in for Trowa, remember?"

"Yeah, I remember."

She leant in closer to the top little round hole in the front glass window, a streak of worry coming across her. "Are you sure this was a good idea?"

He closed his eyes, thinking about it yet again, but forming the same conclusion he had the last umpteen times. "I think so. He needs to socialize, you said so yourself."

Catherine made a brief, strained smile. "I did, but... I didn't want you to get hurt either, Quatre. I mean, you're a nice guy, and-"

"I'll be fine, Catherine. If I couldn't handle this, would I have suggested it in the first place?"

She shrugged. "I don't know, Quatre - to me, it looks like this is tearing you apart."

Quatre slumped into his chair. "It does hurt - but other than asking him directly, this looked like the best way to try to find out if Trowa is-"

"On 'your' side?"

He chuckled. "I was going for 'able to socialize', but that works too."

Return smile. "Don't give up hope, Quatre - but please don't hate me for wishing Trowa's date goes well."

Quatre sighed. "I won't. I hope it goes well too, for Trowa's sake. If he can get over all his inhibitions, I might dare ask him flat out at some point, and not fear he couldn't handle the questions."

Grin. "So, you did have an ulterior motive here."

Chuckle. "Always. I'd do anything to help Trowa - but I won't kill my dreams just yet."

Gentle laughter. "Good for you." Her eyebrows shaped an odd dangerous-looking determined furrow, and Quatre couldn't help but feel trouble was coming - last time he'd seen such a look, he'd ended up with a rapier through his side. The rapidly batting eyelashes took away the sinister of Catherine's expression, though. "You know, I'm sure you'd be a superb rebound guy for Trowa to use once this Melissa girl dumps him ruthlessly in a year or ten."

With a snort, Quatre stuck his arm out the bottom opening in the glass, just enough to give Catherine a gentle punch to the elbow resting on the short wooden counter. "No wonder why Trowa doesn't talk to people - if you're there to tease him about everything he says or does-"

She grinned and propped herself up on the side of the booth, just out of Quatre's immediate reach. "Well, he's usually so grave and unresponsive. I've given up on teasing him, unless I know it'd cause a reaction." She turned her eyes back on Quatre. "But you make a much better target, I'm afraid. You're much easier to get all flushed and flustered."

Quatre was about to make as scathing a retort as the imp could shout in his ear when the angel tapped both their shoulders, his counterpart with his hand, Quatre with his foot, notifying them they had company.

Trowa leant in against the other booth. "Am I interrupting something?"

Catherine looked at him, and gave him a quick inspection. "Going for a mundane look, Trowa? Shouldn't you be wearing green baggy pants instead of those jeans?"

A faint sigh within smile. "Very funny, sis."

She walked over to him, brushed his shoulders off and straightened his dark blue turtleneck here and there before Trowa had had enough, and with the swoop of a hand shoved Catherine's meddling fingers out of the way. She grinned back at him. "You look good, brother dear."

A vague snort. "I can't remember a single time you've called me that without wanting something."

Catherine shrugged. "There's a first time for everything, isn't there?"

Trowa looked past her at Quatre. "Be very careful around this woman, or she'll twist you around her little finger before you ever knew what hit you."

She mocked a punch at him. "Hey, don't you go telling all my secrets - that's not fair!"

Quatre snickered, but saw something that made him knock on the glass to alert the bickering Bloom siblings. They both turned to the sound. Quatre pointed down one section of the parking lot. "We've got company."

In the distance, Melissa caught sight of them too, and waved at them, approaching at a slow, insecure pace. Catherine was back at Quatre's booth, Trowa did a final straightening of his sleeves, and tried to lean as relaxed as his sister to the opposite ticket stand - failing, but not by enough for the approaching girl to notice.

She stopped at the bottom of the ticket stand trailer onramp, eyes downcast, one hand clasping the other before her. "Uhm... Hi."

Trowa smiled ever so faintly. "Hi."

Melissa looked like she was at the verge of a blush and a giggle, though neither surfaced. "Ready to go?"

He nodded, placed his hands in his pockets and took the few steps down the onramp. Without another word, the two walked side by side across the open section of the parking lot. They were halfway across when Catherine found it proper to shout after them "Make sure to bring him back before the show starts, okay?" Even at that distance, they could clearly see Melissa grin and nod, and Trowa reach for this temples with one hand, minutely shaking his head. Catherine snickered, and Quatre couldn't help but share in her glee.

Plump and ever-grinning Sylphie approached them, though her eyes were following Trowa and Melissa. When she was close enough, she broke out in a rather loud whisper. "That's so sweet - I never thought I'd see the day that boy went out with someone." She sighed. "Anyway, off you go, children. You have chores to attend to." Sylphie shooed Quatre and Catherine away in a hurry, and sat down in the booth, soon hard at work reading one of the overly dramatic stories within the magazines.

The two were well on their way to the animal cages before Catherine broke their little silence. "I don't think you have to worry, Quatre."

The words tore Quatre away from the distracting debate his two invisible conscience guardians were having over Trowa's date. "Hm?"

She chuckled. "I said, I don't think you have to worry."

Shrug. "Who said I was worrying?"

Catherine rolled her eyes. "Oh, please."

Short-lived smirk, followed by brief silence. Catherine mumbled something, but Quatre couldn't catch it. "What did you say?"

"Hm? Oh, I was just thinking about the verdict of a king."


Mild chuckle. "There's a story in the Bible - two women come before king Salomon with a baby boy, both claiming to be the mother of the child. The king asks his men to cut the kid in two, and give each woman one half. The real mother then pleads the king to award the child to the other woman, to spare the baby's life."

Quatre nodded. "I've heard that one. King Salomon then gives that woman the child, knowing she was the real mother, as she'd rather give her son up than see him die."

"Right. I think that's kind of what you've done, Quatre. You're giving up your baby to another, you love Trowa so much you'd rather see him happy than with you. That's why I think you'll get him back, too."

Faint laughter, ending in a sigh. "Maybe - but who'll be the king making that call?"

Catherine shrugged. "In this case, I think the baby and the king are the same."

Quatre's shoulders slumped just enough to make his conscience compatriots cling to his shirt collar to avoid sliding off.

She grinned at him. "Look, I told you - don't worry. I think Trowa would rather be with you than Melissa - at least right now. When the both of you are ready to talk, I'm sure it'll all work out. Things have a funny way of doing just that, you know. You just have to let them happen."

Quatre nodded again, but didn't answer.

They walked past the elephant pen, and Catherine reached out for the shovel resting against the fence, offering it to Quatre. "Here."

He eyed it suspiciously.

"We're going to share Trowa's duties, right? I'll distribute the food, and you take care of the other business."

Quatre frowned. "How come I have to do the dirty work?"

Catherine laughed. "A little dirt never hurt anyone, Quatre. I think you'd look good in work boots and handling a poop scoop - much better than I would, at least. Besides, if you deal with those duties, I'm sure I'll forget all about 'mentioning' to Trowa that cover of yours isn't entirely true."

"You wouldn't dare."

She grinned. "Want to bet?"

Quatre grumbled, but accepted the shovel anyway, and muttered a few choice words to himself as he walked over to the tool-shed trailer to fetch some sturdy boots.

"Meet me at my trailer by five, okay? I'll make us some dinner!" she yelled after him. Quatre didn't turn around, just waved his empty hand noting he'd heard. Catherine chuckled, leant in against the fence and crossed her arms. At least she'd gotten him away from thinking of Trowa's date. She felt it was better for Quatre to be angry with her and the task at hand, than brooding over Trowa. With a sigh, she pushed away from the fence and headed over to fetch the food cart, making a mental note to flat-out interrogate her brother about the little outing upon his return. Whatever would happen, it couldn't become worse than it already was... right?

Right about then, Catherine noticed a few extra pieces of thin, delicate cloth waving below the streamer above the big top.

on to part 4

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