A/N: Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Also, "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley is totally Quatre's theme song. Enjoy.
Disclaimer: Fifty-sixth verse, same as the first.
Deadly Beautiful – Chapter 56
There were not enough good things to be said about summer vacations, Relena decided once she was awake enough to think. She stretched out, wiggling her toes, and then craned her neck to read the time on her alarm clock: almost noon. She'd probably be dressed just in time for lunch. Funny that Pargan hadn't woken her earlier, being the stickler for early rising that he was. Giving Teddy a pat—he'd gone a whole night without being knocked on the floor, how about that—she got out of bed and headed for the bathroom.
Twenty minutes later, when she walked into the breakfast room, her attention was immediately distracted by the fact that the cute gardener was there, looking very dashing as usual and drinking tea. He looked over at her and she was suddenly acutely aware that she was wearing an old pair of volleyball sweatpants and a t-shirt. She had a fast-but-furious internal struggle over what to do and then decided that running away to change would only make her look stupider, so she sat down in a vacant chair, poured herself a cup of tea, and hoped she looked at least a little bit regal even in old clothes. She looked up to see Noin staring at her. "Is something the matter?" she asked.
Come to think of it, why was the gardener drinking tea with Noin? Wasn't he supposed to be working?
Noin went a bit tense and then set down her teacup very carefully, so obviously something was indeed wrong. Relena put down the sugar pot between spoonfuls and waited.
"Things have changed," Noin said. "Regarding your personal security."
Relena shot a glance at Karl. Maybe she was still asleep and had only dreamed she'd gotten up. She hated those dreams.
"You see..." she continued, looking awkward. "Mr. Gehlen, here... is not really a gardener. I hired him to work undercover."
Relena crossed her arms to disguise the fact that she was pinching the inside of her forearm. Doing that really hurt, so apparently she was not dreaming and this conversation was actually happening. She looked more openly at Karl the Undercover Gardener, who was looking into his teacup. He really was extremely pretty for a labourer. "Undercover," she echoed.
"It was a security measure," she heard Noin say. She was still watching Karl. "And now he and I have discussed some things and we've decided that your security needs to go in a different direction. So from now on, he and a small team of his colleagues will be working here full-time as part of your protection detail."
Relena wasn't sure how to respond to this, and it occurred to her that maybe it wasn't all sinking in properly yet. She reached for her tea and took a sip, but it was too bitter. Wrinkling her nose, she added more sugar and stirred it. Okay, this was just stalling; no one else was talking and they were probably both looking at her.
She took another, more satisfying sip of tea and then looked up. "So I'm in danger, then?" she asked.
Noin's eyes went wide. "No! No, no. Well, no more than you ever were. But still, better safe than sorry, right?" She smiled. Relena wasn't buying that. Noin couldn't even sell it properly.
"All right then. Well. Okay. What kind of changes are we talking about, here? Just more bodyguards? Do I get to meet this 'small team', or are they going to be undercover painters and milkmen?"
The undercover gardener spoke up. "I'm still working out the details of their arrival," he said. "You'll meet them all when they get here, and no, they won't be undercover, at least not as far as you're concerned."
She spent a full minute just obsessing over the smooth, sexy sound of his voice before she realized he was speaking flawless English. "So you're not even German, either?" Her voice may have been a little loud.
He had the courtesy to look embarrassed, which was just charming, the bastard. "I do speak English. And my name isn't actually Karl Gehlen; you can call me Heero."
Heero. "I can't believe you faked sucking at English," she blurted. That deception actually almost hurt. She felt stupid remembering her horrible attempts at conversation, when he could have talked to her in English just fine.
"I'm sorry I deceived you, but it was part of my cover. If it hadn't been necessary, I wouldn't have done it, I promise you."
How dare he try to calm her down! "So what else have you been lying about? Are you... are you secretly going to kill me or something too?"
For some reason his gaze went to Noin for a second. "You know everything now that you need to know, Your Highness. I am here to protect you."
She stood up. She was going to go find Pargan and eat lunch. The hell with this. "My name is Relena."
She walked out of the room in a huff, but damn him anyway for being so hot that she couldn't even stay mad at him for a good reason.
At least she'd be able to talk to him a lot more now. And he said he was going to protect her and be honest, that was good, right? Optimism; that was the key.
"Today went well, don't you think?" Mr. Winner said. "Tomorrow there's an executive general meeting and I'd like you both to attend and take notes. It should be a good opportunity to really understand where the company is at these days."
Iria snorted softly from the backseat of the car. "That's as close as the Winners get to a family reunion," she muttered just loudly enough for Quatre to hear. He had to scratch the tip of his nose to hide his smile; they had five brothers-in-law sitting on the eleven-member executive board.
"Sounds fine to me, Father," he said dutifully, just in case his father actually required some kind of response to his pseudo-request. With a sigh Quatre stretched some of the day's tension out of his shoulders and slumped a little in his seat, pushing his sunglasses up his nose. The past several days may have been a little too stressful and depressing, but there were definite little perks to being back home and in his family's good graces. Like his father's favourite car, a sleek Aston-Martin convertible. Quatre wasn't especially knowledgeable about cars but any fool could appreciate the purr under the hood and the sinuous lines of this machine. His father certainly seemed to enjoy driving it; every lull in traffic had him up-shifting and displaying a little of the speed that the thing was capable of, and they seemed to be taking the scenic route back home. Quatre had no complaints and he didn't think his sister did, either, judging by what he could see of the smile on her face in the mirror.
Indulging in just a little more slouching, he adjusted the mirror again until he could see more of the road behind him. In striking contrast to their Aston-Martin, the car directly behind them was a well-travelled Volvo. He frowned suddenly; something was niggling the back of his brain. It wouldn't surface though, whatever it was, so he turned his attention back to the feel of the breeze through his hair.
Five minutes later, the Volvo was still right behind them. The sun was striking its windshield at an angle but he could make out the shapes of two grown men inside.
"Father," Quatre said, interrupting light chatter between Mr. Winner and Iria. "Would you mind taking the next right turn?" His voice came out sounding tight and nervous to him but with any luck it would help hurry things along.
As was only to be expected, his father shot him a strange look. "Why? Is there somewhere you need to go?"
For an instant Quatre was going to lie to him. "No... just... please? The next right?"
Iria leaned forward. "Is something wrong?"
Quatre's gaze kept drifting toward the mirror beside him. His fingers were itching to reach for a gun he didn't have anymore. "I..." He took a deep breath and cleared his throat. "I think we're being followed. No, Iria, don't turn around!"
She stopped herself fast enough that it just looked like she'd twitched. Their father was glancing back and forth between their faces and the rear-view mirror. "Followed?" His tone was about as skeptical as they got.
"Well, I won't know for sure until you make a couple of right turns and try to lose them. The downside of this is that if they are following us, they'll know we're onto them and I don't want to consider what might happen next."
Iria went pale. Mr. Winner's knuckles whitened against the leather steering wheel, and then he made a sudden right turn. "How many more?" was all he had to say.
"You can go right around the block or take one more right and then find a different route; it's up to you." Quatre slid down his seat a little farther and took off his sunglasses. "I wouldn't object to you putting the roof up, either."
His father pressed the button to release the roof without further comment and it clicked into place over their heads as he circled the block back to their original path. When they approached the intersection that would take them back to where they started and Quatre spotted the unmarked white van sitting at the light with its right turn indicator on, the bottom dropped out of his stomach. They were well and truly fucked.
"Hang on!" he yelled, praying wordlessly as he braced himself. He heard the roar of the Volvo behind them and saw a flash of white through the windshield before there was a wrenching, screaming, crunching lurch and his head banged off the passenger door.
The first thing he knew was that there were voices around him and he was pretty sure he recognized them. The second thing he knew was that his left arm was pinned against his chest by something heavy. The third thing he knew was that his head was being bashed with a hammer and he was about to throw up, and that this was not the first time. He heaved himself upright and a bucket conveniently appeared right under his chin. No, definitely not the first time. Surprisingly, his stomach still seemed to have something to expel. When he thought he could handle breathing again, something soft was rubbed across his mouth and chin and a cup was pressed into his right hand. Sweet, cool, lovely water. He spat the first mouthful into the bucket and downed the rest greedily. The weight of the bucket was removed from his lap and he thought opening his eyes might be worth a try.
"Don't move that too far," Quatre said as he cracked his eyelids open. His voice felt and sounded like it was clawing its bloody-minded way out of his throat. He peeked through his eyelashes and was pleased to find that the lights were turned down and he probably wouldn't need the bucket again right away. He blinked a few times and the room came into focus to reveal a nurse in the corner and five of his sisters crowded around him. He was in a hospital and his left arm was in a cast and strapped across his chest.
He'd seen happier rooms in war zones. "What..." he tried, casting his gaze around and eventually fixing on Nadia, the eldest.
She seemed to take the hint. "You're in the hospital, Quatre. You and Father and Iria were all in a car accident. Do you remember?"
Quatre thought about that for a moment. "We were being followed," he blurted suddenly. He felt about as bewildered at his outburst as most of the girls looked. Someone on his left snorted. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be Jameela, one of the younger ones.
"I didn't know you were a conspiracy theorist, little boy. It was a car accident. They happen all the time for no good reason. Crazy drivers in town."
"Shut up, Jameela," Nadia snapped. Jameela shot her sister a venomous look but obeyed; if things were still how Quatre remembered them being, it was rare for Nadia to snap at anyone like that. The next thing she did was shoo everyone out of the room with excuses that they'd all seen him awake now and he needed to rest without a bunch of silly girls crowding around him, and then Quatre knew something was very, very wrong. The nurse took this opportunity to escape too and almost before he knew it, there was only him, Nadia and Samar (the third oldest, and obviously very pregnant) left in the room.
Quatre didn't know what to say, so he just waited for someone to take away the decision. This led to a short staring contest with Samar, who eventually nudged Nadia in the ribs.
The wind had completely gone out of Nadia's sails. "So, um, there was a car accident," she stuttered.
"That was almost two days ago. You got a bad concussion, some whiplash and some stitches where there were cuts from glass, and you broke your arm in two places," Samar added helpfully.
Quatre reached up with his good hand and first felt the soft gauze on his head and then the padded brace around his neck. No wonder his neck felt stiff. They must have put me on some good drugs, he thought. "What about Iria?" he demanded. "And Father?" He couldn't deny that their father was still an afterthought as far as he was concerned.
His sisters' faces told him as much as words could have. Quatre looked down at his lap and stared fixedly at the IV coming out of the back of his right hand. It itched a bit where the needle entered the skin and he tried to focus on that for a second but it didn't work. "Both of them?" he said quietly.
Nadia answered. "F-Father died instantly. Iria... they tried to save her, but..." But. Quatre examined the plastic tube where it was taped to his wrist. Maybe he should pull the needle and the tube full of painkillers out with his teeth, grab a weapon and make a break for it. He could leave. That would be fine by him.
It felt like a year before he felt calm enough to look back up at his sisters. "Would you mind leaving me alone for a while? Please?"
They left without argument. Quatre eased himself back onto the pillows and closed his eyes.
"Enter!" came the muffled response to Zechs' knock on the Commander's office door. Rebalancing his armload of files, he walked in to find Treize standing next to the window, staring outside.
"I've brought the personnel files you requested, Commander," he said hesitantly, trying to gauge his superior's mood.
Treize didn't turn around. "Find an empty spot on the desk for them, Colonel."
Zechs pushed aside a small mountain of memos to make space for the stack. Standing at attention, he waited for his dismissal, but Treize was still mostly ignoring him. He had other things to do, dammit. He cleared his throat. "Um, sir? Is there anything else I can...?"
Treize turned around quite abruptly and went straight for his chair. "Please take a seat, Colonel."
Zechs took one, but inside he was flailing a little. Treize was watching him; should he talk? Luckily, after a moment the decision was taken away from him.
"This White Fang thing," the Commander started. "It's killing us. The casualties, the loss of resources... the entire upper ranks is in a complete panic; no one knows what to do."
Treize chuckled. "Isn't it, though. Myself, if I think about it for too long, I just start laughing and can't stop. They don't like it when I show up to organizational meetings anymore—I have to send Lady Une instead." He settled back into his chair. "White Fang has been startlingly quiet ever since I sent some men after two of their known operatives—those teenagers. I'm frankly quite worried. We never recovered their bodies, either, so there you go. Trouble is brewing on the horizon."
"What does that mean for OZ, then, sir?" Zechs couldn't help being interested by intrigue and struggle at this level, even if it was far above his pay grade.
"Well, in the short term, there are some very important puzzle pieces to be placed, and soon, if we want to continue as we are. In the long term, there is going to be conflict. A lot of it. I don't think we can avoid it anymore." He looked thoughtful.
"What kind of puzzle pieces are you talking about, sir, if you don't mind my asking?"
Treize sighed. "We know of one or two high-level political figures that are probable targets for assassination. Chaos is nearly guaranteed if they aren't protected." He gave a delicate shrug. "Sounds like a job for OZ, don't you think, Colonel?"
Zechs straightened up more in his seat. "I would be honoured to help win this war in any way I can, Commander."
The Commander smiled faintly. "That's good to hear, but you work too hard, Colonel Merquise. Tell you what: why don't you take a couple of days' leave? Go see the countryside. Catch up with Lieutenant Noin."
Zechs hesitated; he was actually being granted vacation time at such an hour of strife. His first instinct was to appeal to stay where the action was, but it had been a while since he'd been able to check up on Noin and Relena, and if things were getting difficult, then who knew when another opportunity would come? And frankly, this White Fang thing was making him feel edgy for his sister's sake. He nodded. "Thank you, sir; I believe I will."
Treize's smile got wider. "Excellent! Report back for duty on Monday morning, Colonel, and I expect you to be well-rested, eh?" He winked.
Zechs had no earthly idea how to respond to that, so he accepted his dismissal quietly.
A/N: For those of you playing the home game, I recently graduated university and am currently working on getting a job. Spare time to write will sort itself out accordingly. I think my focus for the next little while will be on my other GW fic-in-progress... and another shorter one I couldn't not start. Sigh.