A/N: Thanks to all my readers and reviewers- I'm again sorry that it's been over a week since my last update but had a disaster or two (including writers block!). Hopefully will be more regular from now on!

The Princess Diaries doesn't belong to me!

"It's not that I don't like birthdays," Clarisse said much later as they settled on the couch, Clarisse having finally wound down from her meeting, the evening stretched out before them- Mia and Nicholas were going out on a date ("a very heavily guarded date," Mia had joked earlier) as were Charlotte and Pierre, thus Joseph and Clarisse had opted to stay in their suite and have dinner on trays in front of the television ("something I never had time to do when I was Queen!" she commented, and Joseph managed to retort "Neither did I- especially when my boss was working late"). "It's just that I'm feeling my age this year."

"After everything that's happened in the past ten years, I don't blame you for feeling a little...tired."

"Thank you dear," she said wryly.

"But it doesn't mean that you shouldn't write off your birthday- it's the one day of the year that belongs only to you."

"What about everyone else who celebrates their birthday on the same day?" her mouth quirked into a small smile.

"We're not talking about everyone else, we're talking about you!"

"Yes, Mister I hated when it when people pretended to forget my birthday," she teased.

"Nevertheless, you can't ignore your birthday- this year in particular would have to be a special one."

"Yes, it will be," she said with a smile- Pierre had finally returned to the family permanently after being banished by his father years ago; Mia was now fulfilling her destiny and birthright as Queen and she was FINALLY married to the love of her life- life was definitely much better than it was, and this birthday would definitely be a special one.

"You always loved celebrating the boys birthdays- and you flew to San Francisco every June for Mia's once you reconnected, so why can't we celebrate yours?"

As soon as the words came out of his mouth, Joe realized it sounded as though he was pushing her into accepting a party against her wishes, and there was a long silence between them (the television making the only noise in the room) before Joseph started to open his mouth to apologize, to break the silence and the tension, when she sighed.

"It's not only because of the other reasons- that I want a simpler life and the way I'm feeling at the moment, but there is something else... When Mia brought up the idea of a party..." she paused for a moment as she looked down at her hands. "Do you remember one of the last birthday parties I had? This one was about ten years ago, if not a little more..." she asked quietly.

"What the...ah," he suddenly recalled the moment she was talking about... of course, he should have realized it had been a horrible evening, and the night had, as usual, ended in tears- NOT the best way to celebrate a birthday, especially Clarisse's.

0000000

The opening days of October in Genovia were generally still balmy, with a tinge of coolness gradually seeping into the weather until, by the end of the month, autumn had officially arrivaed with winter definitely on it's way.

Her Majesty's birthday was at the beginning of the month and the party that was usually held in her honour was held on a balmy evening that most people enjoyed, but this birthday party was different in that the weather was absolutely horrific- after two days of solid rain, the day of the party had cleared up enough to raise hope that it would be a nice day but, after a day that was very muggy, a major thunderstorm blew up and was unleashed just as the guests arrived- and it was this up and down weather which affected Rupert's mood so that while he would be charming to his guests, his wife and son bore the brunt of his bad mood.

No one outside his intimate circle knew it, but he wasn't very well, hadn't been for some time and the doctors were beginning to express concerns about his health. It was for this reason (and simply because she didn't want one) that Clarisse had suggested that the celebrations be kept low key.

"After all, it's hardly a milestone birthday, so I'm sure everyone would understand."

"Nonsense dear," Rupert brushed aside her argument over dinner a week before the party. "All the invites have been sent out and responded to, the catering has been arranged, as has the music, and the security detail is ready- it would be most impolite if we cancelled it all now, and we can't let outr guests down... besides," he had added, giving her what he thought was a warm smile. "What kind of husband would I be if I cancelled my wife's birthday party?"

A husband who actually listened for once she thought to herself- she had a feeling that this was going to be an unpleasant evening for all concerned- especially herself...

"Why won't it stop raining?" Rupert muttered angrily to himself as he and Clarisse made their way down to the ballroom. "We've had nearly three days of it, surely we've had enough!"

"The weather forecast for tomorrow is supposed to be fine."

"Of course, that's what they would say," Rupert sneered. "What do they or you know, for that matter? At least your party will be a success... despite the fact that everyone had to come out in the weather- pretty decent of them."
Yes, pretty decent of them to attend her party, mainly because they wanted to enjoy the palace and all they had to offer, Clarisse thought bitterly to herself.

"I hope you're happy about tonight," Rupert suddenly snapped as they approached the ballroom doors. "All this- all of them- are here for you."

"I'm well aware of that, and I'm also well aware of the fact that I suggested we downsize the celebrations to something more low key," Clarisse retorted waspishly, stung by his tone, words and implied meaning that this was all HER fault, but before Rupert could respond, they were at the doors and the two two guards on the door, as well as Michael and Joseph, their respective bodyguards, prevented any further interaction, although he glared at her for a moment before their arrival was announced withn the ballroom.

Much to her dismay (although she wasn't totally surprised), Rupert sought his revenge (and venting his mood) through, after their first offical dance (whereby he ignored her) dancing with all the attractive women present at the ball- most of them wives of parliamentarians, but some of them 'friends of friends'; while she was stuck dancing with the men and Rupert's freinds- none of her own friends had been invited and she didn't know why he had even bothered at all although she suspected why- to humiliate her and have a party with his friends.

As the evening wore on, as she danced again and again with the members of parliament and some of Rupert's friends (all of them getting drunker as the even progresses) and she began feeling more and more like a piece of meat (all of them gazing at her with varying levels of lust) and less and less in a celebratory mood (not that she had been feeling that way all evening).

It was almost a relief when, after she cut her cake (again, in front of everyone, with Rupert at her side, hanging off her waist with a funny smile on his face) and then his subsequent toast: "She's still a gorgeous woman, despite the years creeping up on her", that she was finally allowed to mingle with the rest of her guests, although Clarisse was relieved when most of them left her alone (they were mostly Rupert's friends, they tolerated her) and she was able to retreat into a darkened corner, thankfully close to a door through which she escaped from moments after she had stood there, a few seconds after she spied Rupert on the floor... with yet another woman, blatantly flirting with each other... and she knew then that she had to go.

Once she was outside, she paused to rest against a wall for a moment, thoroughly exhausted after the evening's events and relieved that she was finally alone. It had been a horrible evening from start to finish, an evening she hadn't even wanted and she didn't know why Rupert had even bothered, considering he had spent the minimum amount of time with her, blatantly flirting with other women and leaving her to fend herself against the rest of parliament. At least Phillipe had been there, and had danced with her several times, but his presence had also underscored the fact that her eldest son wasn't there, thanks to Rupert's banishment of him. She had heard from, but it wasn't the same as having him there, at her side.

Clarisse's thoughts were becoming darker and slightly muddles as she hurried down the corridor, keen to avoid seeing anyone, towards the side exit that would lead out to the gardens- she needed some air- and she had only just stepped over the threshold, the rain (she had forgotten there had been a storm raging outside) instantly saoking her to the skin before she felt a hand on her arm and then felt herself being pulled back into the warmth of the palace.

"Your Majesty, where do you think you're going?" Joseph's appalled voice broke through her thoughts.

"I neede some air... I just want to get out of here," she mumbled, avoiding his eyes.

"It's pouring rain out there- it's not safe!"

"I don't care," she said sullenly.

"I DO- it's my job to protect you and if you want to disappear outside in a storm, it's my job to convince you otherwise... I have to follow you!" he snapped, instantly stirring her up.

"Well, you know what you can do if you don't want the job anymore!" she offered belligerently, feeling the affects of the few drinks she had had, but not caring how she sounded.

He regarded her for a long moment, taking in her rain soaked dress and hair, the makeup running down her face, before he gently put an arm around her waist and led her back down the hallway, much to her horror and she struggled against him.

"Don't take me back there... do you want me to be completely humilated?"

"Don't worry...Trust me," he murmured into her ear and she closed her mouth as he walked her around the bottom of the stairs and started ascending them- thankfully they weren't seen by anyone as the ballroom doors remained closed- and she relaxed slightly when she realized that he was taking her back to her suite.

Once inside in her suite, he hustled her over to stand over in front of the fire, Clarisse, who had been shivering with cold, made a grateful noise as she stepped closer before disappearing into her bedroom and returning with several towels, two of which he tossed on the sofa and he wrapped the third one around her shoulders, rubbing firmly but gently.

"I...I'm sorry about before," she said after a moment and he paused in his rubbing to look at her seriously.

"You don't need to apologize to me for anything- after the evening you had, you deserved to vent to someone."
"But not you... never you," Clarisse said softly, reaching out and touching his cheek with her hand, Joseph stiffening at the gesture. "I... I'm sorry," she repeated, dropping her hand as she realized that he felt uncomfortable at the gesture.

"It's alright...I'm just not used to being this close to you, alone..." he trailed off as their eyes met and held for a moment before he looked away. "You're going to have to get out of that dress," Joseph said after a moment, standing back and regarding her calmly. "I'll call one of your maids..."

"NO!" she burst out and he looked at her quizzically. "It's just that... I really don't want any additional attention."

"If you want to be alone, I can go..." he said awkwardly- he was crazy about the woman, he always had been and he hated that Rupert treated her so appallingly and tonight had been no exception... she looked so vulnerable, he didn't want to leave her, but if she desired time alone...

"No, please don't," she looked at him with the faintest glimmer of tears in her eyes- she had managed to keep them to herself until now, but now that she was alone with someone she had very deep feelings for, and had saved her from going outside in the midst of a raging storm, the rest of the evening and her memories of that evening suddenly began to collapse down onto her.

"I...I..."

"Go and change out of your wet clothes," Joseph said gently, sensing that she was suddenly unable to make the simplest of decisions on her own, as he pushed her towards the bedroom. "I'll be waiting here... why don't you have a shower as well, just to warm up?"

"I will," she said, appreciating that he was allowing her keep her dignity, rather than collapsing into tears. "Could you order some tea for me... and you?"

"Yes... I won't be long, I just need to let some of the guys know where you and I are... I'll be back," he added as she was about to ask another question.

"Thank you... I don't know what I would have done..." her voice cracked and, wordlessly, Joseph pulled her into his arms and stared straight ahead as she sobbed into his shoulder, not caring that she was wet and cold.

"You don't need to ever worry about being alone... just don't go out in a storm on your own again," he said finally, once her sobs had subsided and she couldn't help but chuckle weakly as she pulled away from him.

"I won't... I don't like storms anyway..."

She was about to pull away from him- she would have a shower and he would order tea and no one else would know where she was- before he stopped and reached out to touch her tearstained cheek with a hand that had been roughened by years of training but, to Clarisse, was soft and gentle.

"Happy birthday, Clarisse... I'm sorry you had a horrific night."

"Thank you... and it's not been all that bad," she said lightly and their eyes met and held again for a long moment before they pulled away, both more than a little shaken by the connection they had felt not for the first time, but feeling that it was something special...

"I need that shower," she suddenly shook herself out of the mood and turned away. "I shouldn't be too long..." before she disappeared into her bedroom.

"Happy birthday..." he repeated softly, knowing that she couldn't hear him but wanted to say it anyway...