"You'd think he'd have an entire legion of bodyguards." The speaker had a wreath of silver hair, that gilt-color most Winner women seemed to acquire sometime in their late sixties. Her square jaw and stern nose showed a strong resemblance to the young man she watched, but she wore considerably more jewelry than Quatre. Diplomats and businesspeople, dignitaries and family, swirled around Quatre as he moved through the ballroom, greeting each person with a slight smile, a bow, a nod, as appropriate. A single man stood at Quatre's shoulder, expression unchanging. "Just that one. Quite unusual."
"He's...unconventional." The second woman's strawberry-blond hair was a sure sign she must've married into the family; she looked young enough to have married one of the eldest Winner nephews. But with her slight squint and the hints of wrinkles around her eyes, either she was older than she looked, or spent far too much time at a computer screen. Could be either.
"I was going to say, strikingly handsome, Muna, but I suppose unconventional works as well." The older women pursed her lips, eyes narrowed as though summing up whether to buy the newest luxury to catch her attention. She might look like spun sugar and glittering gold, but that one glance was enough to indicate she was as much a ruthless businesswoman as Quatre.
"Strikingly—" Muna looked confused. "I meant that Quatre is unconventional, Umm Fasal. Not his bodyguard." She fell silent for a moment, and the two women made no effort to hide their scrutiny of the crowd. They stood on the raised steps that ringed the massive room, lit from above by the indirect lighting up into each arch between the columns. Several seating areas were arranged behind them, low lamps on the tables between chairs, loveseats, comfortable intimacies for those with no wish to dance. These women paid that dark area no mind; they wished to watch, and they didn't care who knew it.
"I heard—" Shaza — most likely, since that was the mother of Quatre's only cousin named Fasal — glanced around, in a cursory manner, more focused on her own words and the view. "I heard that's not really his bodyguard."
"Not his—" Muna frowned, then shrugged. "So the scion has a lover." She sipped her wine, swirled it in the glass, and shrugged again. "I can name several cousins who'll be greatly disappoin—"
"I don't think they're lovers. I think he was..." Her voice dropped to barely a breathe, and her lips formed the words distinctly, almost melodramatically, though nothing could be heard over the orchestra or the rolling noise of the crowd. "One of the other pilots."
"No." Muna drew back, somewhere between shocked and intrigued. "That young man? Who— how—?"
"I heard something, once." Shaza looked positively smug, yet radiant. "A minute or two, no more. During the war, when that colony was attacked—" She glanced sideways, nodding at Muna's rapt expression. "The mobile dolls were broadcasting to each other, and the colony ring caught the signal."
"I would not lie, not about this, dearest." Shaza's expression turned pensive. "It was a young man, begging another not to fight. He had a soft voice, medium tenor, almost melodic, but with a most peculiar accent, like the common tongue wasn't native to him."
Muna's look had become bewildered; she glanced over the room, studying Quatre as he made his way torwards the pair on the landing. "I'm sure some people, still, speak older tongues—"
"Yes, but few retain an accent, and fewer still have hints of every dialect and none." Shaza shook her head. "I put it badly; Abu Fasal had his theories. French, some Italian, and a few dipthongs he said were only found in Korean or Bulgarian, something like that."
"Who speaks those? I thought Bulgarian's been a dead language for a century."
"Perhaps it was the other. That was my Abu Fasal, fascinated with things like that." Shaza waved off the details. "I'm quite certain that young man — bodyguard, former brother-in-arm, friend, lover, who knows — was the speaker on that broken broadcast." She nodded, sage, pleased with herself, pleased as much, perhaps, with her listener's amazement. "I wonder if that's one reason he speaks so little."
"A distinctive pattern."
"Or perhaps only recognizable to those of us who are bilingual ourselves."
Muna laughed, softly. "No wonder he's silent, then. He's surrounded by people like that, right now."
"I could be wrong," Shaza admitted. "It's been six or seven years, though that broadcast is not something I'll ever forget, the chills that went down my spine..." She shook her head. "Regardless, no matter who he is, he's clearly a bodyguard, and a good one, if he suffices where Quatre's father often had six or seven at a time."
"Maybe." Muna's attention was caught by something, and she stiffened; Shaza noticed and turned to her with brows raised. Muna relaxed, laughing a bit more freely. "Ah, auntie, that's no bodyguard."
"What?" Shaza peered at the crowd. "What did you see?"
"He's holding Quatre's wine glass—"
"He's been doing that all night. Family policy to guarantee no one can tamper with Quatre's—"
Muna laughed a bit more, breathlessly, but it was her turn to be pleased. "He had a drink of Quatre's wine."
"Of course, testing it," Shaza said, dismissively. "One can hardly carry around a lab in one's pocket—"
"No, no, auntie," Muna cut in. "Quatre accepted the wine, drank, handed it to his bodyguard, who then had a drink as well." She paused, startled. "In fact, it appears he's finishing off the—"
"He just passed it off to a waiter and got another glass," Shaza replied, mouth falling open even as her brows lowered. Both women were a study in bafflement. "What in heaven's name is that sort of behavior? We've always had the best in bodyguards, and if he's going to play the role, he should at least observe—"
She broke off, and both women stared as down on the ballroom floor, Quatre smoothly intercepted the wine glass, took a sip, and handed it over to his companion. Perhaps a word was exchanged between them, perhaps only a sideways glance, a long-familiar gesture between friends that needed no interpretation, though to outside observers it might appear nothing at all, or a momentary flash of a dead language known only to those two.
Muna stepped back, one hand on her hip, sighing as though conceding defeat, but she smiled at the same time. "I don't know. Perhaps it's Quatre who's the bodyguard."
From the one seating area where the lamp had been turned too low to see more than shadows, Heero smiled to himself, and tapped a note into his personal recorder to raise the issue of wartime broadcast-recordings. It would never hurt to be certain; if such no longer existed, then anything Fasal's mother said could be written off as inaccurate memory from a time fraught with danger and stress. Heero certainly had no interest in hearing the broadcast, himself; he'd heard it the first time, and he'd never forget a single word or intonation — though he'd never thought of Trowa having an accent. That was simply Trowa.
On the other hand, he'd rather enjoy the chance to point out that even Trowa had limits when it came to infiltration. He opened the window for the encrypted message line, and ran the stylus over the mini-keyboard, movements quick and efficient from several years' practice; for the hell of it, he blatantly cc'd the other pilots. Heads up, 03, Heero wrote, your cover's blown.
He had to wait only a minute, and leaned back on the loveseat; appearing to stretch, but angling to see Trowa's reaction, past the two women who continued to watch, murmuring quietly of other topics, ones which interested Heero little. Trowa, meanwhile, studied something in his hand, just as Quatre pulled a cellphone from his jacket, flipped it open, then shut, barely even missing a beat in his conversation. Trowa's expression would look the same to any other, Heero knew, but to Heero it was obvious Trowa was puzzled — and annoyed. Quatre, though, seemed amused, if distracted. Heero's recorder clicked, just once, no louder than the rattle of a pen-cap falling to the floor: Trowa's reply.
Heero smirked as he entered his reply. One gossip is rumor, two gossips and they'll discern the truth. He hit send, a little miffed he couldn't claim the wisdom as his own; it was something Noin had said to him, years before. He didn't have to wait long for Trowa's response. It didn't come in the form of message, but in the sudden shift of the crowd. Apparently Quatre and Trowa had abruptly changed course, and were now heading straight for the two women. Heero tucked his recorder away, and leaned back, fingers locked behind his head. He could do casually smug just as well as Duo, and tonight he had reason.
"Oh, goodness, they're both heading this way." Shaza paused, and that businesswoman's tone crept into her voice. "I daresay something seems amiss."
"I hope not." Muna, remarkably, did not look around to see if there might be some other reason for Quatre's purposeful direction, or the slightest scowl marring his bodyguard's expression. When Quatre put a foot on the first step up to the landing, he paused, staring up at the two women. Quatre's expression wasn't that far different from the one Shaza had worn, when regarding the ballroom with that assessing gaze. Then Quatre's expression relaxed into easy familiarity, and he strode up the steps to greet both women with graceful laugh and charming smile.
Trowa, of course, said nothing, hovering behind Quatre with an uneasy set to his shoulders. His gaze darted around them, past them, but Heero made no move, certain even Trowa's eyes couldn't pick up the figure back in the shadows. Just the barest touch of bewilderment passed over Trowa's features, and he glanced around again, subtle changes across Trowa's face indicating he'd gone up a notch, to outright wary. Heero's smirk only grew, along with relief he couldn't be seen, and then he heard Muna's attempt to draw Trowa into the conversation, voice too-innocent, words superficially harmless.
"My throat is quite parched. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to track down one of those waiters for another glass of wine. Mr. Barton, would you like me to bring you one, as well?"
Trowa blinked at her. Quatre choked, just enough. Heero grinned and flipped open his recorder, tapping in a new message, attention Trowa, cc all pilots: Busted. He sent the message, prepared to slink away as soon as Trowa's attention was diverted long enough to read the incoming broadcast.
While he waited for Trowa to focus his intense gaze on anything other than the darkness along the ballroom's perimeter, Heero saw no harm in a little gloating. He opened a second window only for Duo. Eat your words. He tucked the recorder away just as Trowa reached into his pocket and looked down at his own recorder. Heero didn't hesitate, getting to his feet and moving steadily away, at an angle away from Trowa, using the natural blindspot all eyes have.
It was a good evening, despite the crowds, Heero decided. He'd scored a point on Trowa — and Quatre, by association — and on Duo, and he had no compunction about feeling smug. He'd proven his ability to do silent, stealthy reconnaissance and no one be the wiser. His recorder clicked once, and he made sure to wait until he could position himself so the screen's light wouldn't reflect onto anything — or too much of himself — and give his location away. It was probably Trowa, and Heero was already formulating a quick reply. Then he actually read the message.
Not too shabby, Duo had written.
Heero could feel his chest nearly puff up in pride. Not too shabby, hell, he'd managed to stay undetected by Trowa. Even Duo couldn't top that. He didn't bother to reply, and was about to close the recorder and put it away, when it clicked a second time. This message had to be Trowa, Heero knew, but the return signal said it was another from Duo. Heero frowned and opened the message.
PS, Duo added, your fly's undone.