by: Shoori

Marking it Down to Learning + Chapter 14
Seven Deadly Sinners

Quatre drew himself up to his full height, looking contemptuously around him. He let his nose wrinkle slightly in disdain as he took in the simple furnishings of the room. Gray carpet, black furniture, walls that shone with some strange sort of metallic sheen. Probably some odd type of upholstered wall covering.

"All is not to your liking, Mr. Winner?"

He turned, surprised, as the voice invaded the room. He'd been watching the one door, and noone had entered it. How then, had this person gotten into the empty room?

His eyes narrowed slightly when he met the owner of that soft, slightly mocking voice. The man was at least six inches shorter than he was, and very slight. He had silvering hair, a nondescript, faintly lined face, and dark eyes.

He looked perfectly ordinary - the sort of person you'd see on a train, or at the movies or the grocery store.

But you wouldn't expect to see that mild person as the head of an international and interplanetary prostitution ring.

"Oh, you're quite right," the man told him unexpectedly. "I'm not the leader of this organization. I'm his assistant. You may call me Adrastus."

Quatre stared at the man blankly for a moment. "Why am I speaking with you?" he asked finally, allowing the scorn he felt to just barely color the edges of his tone. "I was given to understand that I was going to speak to the head of this... organization."

"Not just anyone speaks with him," cautioned another voice.

Quatre nearly jumped, but stopped the movement in time. He turned around slowly, and there was another man, standing beside the sofa.

"I am Parthenopaues," he greeted mildly. "How do you do?"

Quatre blinked at him. Again, he was a sedate-looking middle-aged man.

"And I am Amphiarus," came a third voice.

Quatre set his jaw, turning to meet another amused smile. There were doorways in the walls. That must be the answer. One man distracted him enough to get him to turn around, and one of his fellows ghosted out of one of the concealed openings.

"It is a pleasure to meet you. I am Tydeus," a fourth voice informed him.

Quatre turned, his eyes narrowed. His tone was pleasant enough, but this man was the most outwardly unpleasant-looking of the four he had met thus far. The sallow skin of his face was marked with a long scar that ran from just beneath his right ear, across his jaw, down his chin into his neck. His black eyes gleamed unpleasantly, and his scarred mouth was twisted into a jeering sneer.

Quatre turned away from him calmly, meeting the eye of a fifth man who had appeared behind him before the man could speak. "You're Hippomedon, I suppose?" the blond man asked smoothly, surveying the enormous man standing at the edge of the room. He had to be six foot six. Perhaps more. And his powerful build made him look even bigger. He grinned in genuine amusement, nodding to Quatre as though in salute.

"And you," the blond continued calmly, turning to raise a brow at the sixth man whom he knew was standing behind him. "Are you Capaneus? Or Polynices?"

"Noone sees Polynices," the sixth man told him, the calm hazel eyes beneath his fading red hair not hiding the angry hostility that Quatre felt radiating from him. He must be angry that Quatre had understood their little game.

Too damn bad.

"I take it then that ‘Polynices' is the one that I want to see," Quatre commented easily, seating himself - without having been asked - on the supple black sofa in the center of the room. "Do fetch him, please."

"Fetch him... " Capaneus repeated tonelessly. Quatre smiled easily, belying the tension he felt coiling slowly inside him.

A laugh broke out, and Quatre turned his head to see the first man - Adrastus - approach. "Very good, Mr. Winner," he complimented, sitting in one of the chairs across from Quatre. "Noone usually manages to understand our little code."

Quatre tilted his head, smiling with an air of superior surprise. "Really?" he commented idly. "Well, my father was a bit old-fashioned. I was blessed with a classical education."

"How lovely for you," Tydeus complimented tightly, moving to stand behind Adrastus' chair.

"Yes, I suppose. I must confess I didn't think so at the time," Quatre laughed, forcing himself to lounge more bonelessly into the comfortable material of the sofa. He crossed one leg over the others, allowing his foot to wave negligently in the air. "But my tutors always insisted that no knowledge was useless, and lo and behold, you've just proved them right." He let his gaze linger on each of the men. "However," he continued slowly, as though a strange thought had just struck him, "I'm a bit confused as to why you've chosen those particular identities. The Seven Against Thebes weren't the luckiest bunch, if you catch my drift."

"Indeed," Adrastus nodded. "They were abandoned by their Gods, defeated one by one, killed and left to rot before a city far from home."

"Exactly," Quatre nodded. "They were brave and all, but still... "

"Well, it seemed to fit," Adrastus said vaguely.

"And how's that, friend?" Quatre asked mildly.

Adrastus' mild dark eyes grew heavier, the light of amusement fading from them. "You seem awfully curious," he asked slowly.

"Please," Quatre said, his tone still light and tinged with boredom, his posture still slumped and comfortable. But he allowed a little of the intensity of the feeling he was experiencing to escape. He needed to project just the right image. The Quatre Winner these men expected was a bored, spoiled rich man, yes - but he was no fool. There was no way he could have fought in two wars, worked for years as a double agent, and run a multi-trillion credit business with branches all over the solar system, and still be the effete idiot he was pretending to be. They would know that that was a facade, and that Quatre Winner would be sure to let them see a glimpse behind it.

So this Quatre Winner had to show them.

"Please," Quatre repeated. He smiled widely, letting his head tip again to the side. "As I told you, my tutors were merciless. I know that noone would adopt such aliases if there were no meaning behind them."

"A whim, merely," Adrastus murmured.

"So, explain it to me," Quatre smiled. "I'm sure I'd find it fascinating."

"I find it curious that you're so insistent, Mr. Winner," the man attempted.

"Indulge me," Quatre suggested calmly, his gaze meeting the other man's squarely.

They stared at each other for a moment, then, unaccountably, the other man relaxed slightly. "You're very persistent, Mr. Winner," he commented, but he leaned back, and some of the tension in the room drained away.

He must have passed some sort of test.

"Well, it's a bit of a melodramatic story," Adrastus confessed. "But... it amuses us."

Quatre raised an eyebrow, silently encouraging him to go on.

"Parthenopaues is our success story," Adrastus began easily, indicating the second man that Quatre had met. "He was born into the organization. He's our local boy made good," he finished, smirking at the other man. Parthenopaues stared back at him with expressionless blue eyes, then turned to smile pleasantly at Quatre. The blond felt a sudden chill run along his back at the incongruous expression.

"Amphiarus here," Adrastus continued comfortably, indicating the third man, "had a lovely wife, once. Until he discovered one day that she was selling his secrets to the police. They had offered her a great deal of money to betray him." He shook his head sadly. "She's no longer so lovely," he informed Quatre, as an afterthought.

"I visit her occasionally," Amphiarus told Quatre solemnly. The words were perfectly innocuous, but the blond man had to fight to suppress a shiver.

"Tydeus... well, he got into a bit of trouble as a young man," Adrastus confessed sadly. "We... recruited him after he got rid of one of our enemies for us. He actually just beat... Polynices... to the job," he added. "That's when they were both considerably younger, of course," he assured Quatre, smirking unpleasantly at Tydeus. "Tell him what you did to that guy, Tydeus," he urged the other man.

Tydeus' flat black eyes bored into Quatre's, sizing him up. The blond felt a strong desire to be far away. He hated this mission!

"I don't think he could handle it," Tydeus announced flatly.

"Hmmm... perhaps you're right," Adrastus conceded thoughtfully. "At any rate, Hippomedon... well, he's very tall," he pointed out earnestly.

Quatre felt his mouth twist in a genuine smile. He felt sickened by himself - how could he find amusement in anything happening in this room? He sat within the inner circle of the Order - the group they'd been investigating for weeks, the organization that ran the most ruthless and far-spread flesh ring in the world.

They weren't sure about all the group's activities, but they knew that they forced people into prostitution, imprisoned them for life, and killed anyone who got in their way. Not an amusing group of people.

Yet this Adrastus was amusing him.

He needed to work on his priorities.

"Yes, well... some parallels are more difficult to find than others," Adrastus confessed wryly. "And finally, there is Capaneus. He... "

"Let me guess," Quatre interrupted, sitting up as though eager for the challenge. "He had a perfectly luscious little life somewhere, until his own arrogance led him to disaster."

Capaneus' hazel eyes darkened, and his mouth twisted with rage. He opened his mouth to speak, but Adrastus cut him off.

"Excellent!" the small man applauded, smiling widely. "Exactly. And now... "

"And you," Quatre interrupted. The other man had introduced all of the others, sort of, but hadn't spoken of himself. "Let me guess... " Quatre frowned, pondering. "You were cheated of your inheritance," he ventured. "Your birthright. As was... Polynices. And he came to you for help in regaining what was rightfully his, and together you and he struck out and formed... all this," he finished, leaning back again and waving his hand.

The amusement fled from Adrastus' eyes and he leaned forward, studying Quatre intently. "You know your mythology, Mr. Winner," he complimented slowly.

Quatre smiled disarmingly. "My tutors," he reminded the other man facetiously. "Slave drivers. But my dear Adrastus... I still am at a loss as to understand why you would adopt this particular lot as your forbears. They ended quite messily," he reminded the other man. "All of them died outside the gates of Thebes. None ever made it home to Greece... except, of course," he finished slowly, the wide smile again spreading across his face, "Except of course for Adrastus."

"You ask a lot of questions," Tydeus interrupted nastily. "Why do you want to know so much? What... "

"Why?" Quatre interrupted with an abrupt chuckle. "I've invested the equivalent of a year's gross national product of a small nation to find you, and your very generous offer of involvement has tripled the cost of that investment," he pointed out. "Then, I finally arrive here, am not greeted in the way in which I had expected I would be greeted, and find that the people I've allied with equate themselves with mythological figures, who, though splendidly brave and all, unfortunately were defeated quite decisively. Up to this point, gentlemen, this entire experience rather resembles a very bad B-level movie," he said, allowing the expression of idle ennui to slip from his eyes, replaced by a hard irritation. "I want to be assured that I am getting an appropriate return on my investment."

Adrastus abruptly pushed himself to his feet so that he was standing before Quatre. "As you've pointed out, the Seven Against Thebes ultimately lost to the forces of Etocles, Polynices' brother," he said, and the smooth undercurrent of amusement was gone from his voice. "But examine those heroes, Mr. Winner. They were the bravest and noblest of their race, forced from their homes and positions by the machinations of those closest to them." He shook his head. "They put their faith in false gods - actual gods who betrayed them," Quatre's eyes flicked to Tydeus and Capaneus, "and in ‘gods' such as truth and justice and right." He shook his head again and began to pace around the room.

"But imagine," he breathed, "imagine what could have happened if they had placed that belief where it belonged - in themselves. What could have happened if each man had stormed his gate - broken into Thebes and taken what he wanted with no thought or care to gods or man?" He stopped, his eyes piercing into Quatre's. "What if they hadn't done the gentlemanly thing, and waited for the Thebans to exit their city? What if the animal side of Tydeus had emerged sooner? What if Amphiarus hadn't been worried about the whims and desires of his bitch of a wife? What if," he demanded, moving closer to Quatre, "What if Polynices had killed Etocles outright, in the very beginning, rather than accede to his demands to share the throne that was rightfully his?" Adrastus leaned so close to Quatre that he was almost touching him. "Imagine all that, Mr. Winner. Imagine if they took life and the world and everything in it in their own hands from the start, and let nothing interfere? Can you imagine what those seven could have accomplished?"

Quatre stared directly into the eyes so close to his own, and knew without the shadow of a doubt that the man standing across from him was insane. No normal person would confuse the world of fantasy and reality like that, no man could believe that injustices committed in antiquity excused present crimes.

Of course, Adrastus didn't exactly believe that either. He just... believed in his own right to have his life however he wanted it. And he looked to the stories of the past for... not for justification. People such as he had no need to justify their crimes. He was looking more for... glory? For eminence, to compare his own actions to, to feel that much more enhanced by them.

If this was Adrastus, the second-in-command, Polynices must be a real gem.

"The Seven were cheated of their victory," Adrastus told him softly. "They were spurned, by gods and man, and were left to die and rot before that stinking city. But we... we correct that. Our Thebes is the world, as we control it, we run it... we sit on its thrones and everyone dances to our tune." He laughed mockingly. "Most of the fools out there don't even know that they scurry to obey us, but they do. That much power... is delicious, Mr. Winner, it... "

"Adrastus." Quatre jumped, and tore his gaze away from Adrastus, as the other man too turned to frown at Amphiarus. "You say too much," the thin man warned Adrastus. "You reveal too much. You... "

"Amphiarus, really," Adrastus chided. He turned back and smiled at Quatre, and the Arab saw some of the light of insanity that had seeped into the other man's eyes fade slowly away. "Mr. Winner is our guest. He asked some perfectly reasonable questions, and... "

"I still think he's asked too many questions," Tydeus interrupted. He glared at Quatre. "He's an unnecessary risk. I don't believe that he's who he says he is... "

"Who among us is?" Adrastus demanded rhetorically. He smiled indulgently. "I think we should allow Mr. Winner to continue along... get a taste of what he paid for, so to speak. Gentleman?"

"No," Tydeus spat. "We should dispose of him. Right here and now." The man's black eyes were venomous, and Quatre watched as his hand slipped under the jacket of his perfectly tailored suit. He tensed, mentally calculating the best way to move to elude the bullet the other man so obviously wanted to fire into him.

"You can't shoot him in here, you fool," the blond Parthenopaues inserted disgustedly. "Just let him in... it'll be easy enough to see once he's in."

"No," Capaneus, disagreed suddenly, shaking his head. "I don't trust him either. We should... dispose of him, before he is connected to us."

"Let him go," Hippomedon inserted. He smiled down at Quatre, but the expression was unpleasant. He crossed his long arms. "If he's who he says he is, there's no problem. If he's not... this should be entertaining at best."

"Well. That's three for and two against. You're the deciding factor, Amphiarus," Adrastus commented.

Quatre stared at the man, and Amphiarus looked calmly back at him, assessing him. Finally, he shrugged slowly. "Bring the boy in," he said slowly. "I believe that everyone should get exactly what they asked for." Quatre felt a rush of relief move through him, but the man's words, as well as the expression in his eyes, made the Arab feel decidedly uneasy. Amphiarus looked almost sad.

Tydeus burst out with a tirade of angry words, but Adrastus stopped him with a sharp order. A door suddenly opened in the wall, a door that had blended so perfectly with the wall that Quatre had not noticed they were there.

He smiled a bit smugly to himself. Doors in the walls. He knew it.

"Mr. Winner," Adrastus addressed him formally. "If you would please come with me, I'll bring you to Polynices now."

Quatre nodded politely, and obediently stood and followed the other man out of the room. The other five leaders of the organization - for Quatre was sure now that he'd been evaluated by whatever the Order's equivalent of a Board of Directors was - seemed to be remaining in the reception room. Quatre smiled pleasantly at Tydeus as he passed him, and was pleased to see the man snarl and clench his fists in return.

Quatre followed close on Adrastus' heels as the man led him through a series of dim, enclosed corridors. He tried to memorize the succession of twists and turns, but was uncomfortably aware that he would probably not be able to reverse the order in his head clearly enough for a quick, flawless escape if it became necessary. Besides - the hallways were very narrow, with no place to duck away and evade pursuit.

It had better not become necessary to make a quick get-away.

Quatre sighed internally, his eyes narrowing slightly as he stared at the straight back of the man in front of him.

For three weeks now, they'd been investigating the Order. He'd put Rashid and Abdul in a great deal of danger, sending the two men out onto the streets to get him a connection with the Order. Heero had manipulated his financial records, planting a series of dubious accounts into his transactions.

Those records had been accessed, too. Heero had put a very subtle trace on the files he'd modified, and so had been notified immediately when an outside source had hacked into his private business.

Quatre hated it. He hated the naked, exposed feeling it gave him to know that people - evil people - were investigating him, looking into his life and background and habits and motivations to assess whether or not they would make him privy to their own nefarious activities.

He hated it even more when they'd contacted him and told him that they had judged him ‘worthy' to become part of the Order.

Some part of him had been hoping that they wouldn't. Not because he was afraid of the mission. He was nervous, of course; only a fool wouldn't be. But he'd experienced danger and fear before. He could handle that.

But what had really struck him at the deepest level was to realize that, with one clever cover story and a few paltry additions to his financial report, people were willing - and able - to believe that he was a criminal, a traitor, a predator.

He'd wanted the story to be rejected out of hand. He's wanted the Order to refuse to believe that Quatre Raberba Winner, voted one of the fifty best employers on the planet, known philanthropist, hero of the Wars, could be what he was claiming to be.

An embezzler. An extortionist. A thief. A killer. A rapist.

He was none of those things!

Yet... the Order - an essentially paranoid organization if ever there was one - believed that he was.

If they believed it... others could be brought to believe it as well.

And if it were really so credible a story as that... maybe it wasn't that much of an impossibility.

And there rested the one small doubt that terrified Quatre, that made him want to scream and protest and run as far away from this mission as he could get.

What if he was all those things?

There was an enormous potential for good in most people... a potential that was equaled by the potential for evil.

He'd blundered fully into his own potential for evil once. During the war, he'd destroyed colonies, homes, lives to get revenge for his own losses. He'd killed anyone who threatened his vengeance, to the extent where he'd nearly destroyed Trowa.

He'd wanted to kill Trowa. He still clearly remembered the rage that had pounded through his veins when Trowa had moved his suit in front of Heero.

Quatre had wanted to kill Heero too, but not... not as personally as he wanted to kill Trowa. Heero was just an obstacle, blocking his path, that regrettably needed to be removed.

Trowa... he'd gotten in his way on purpose. He was thwarting him, and Quatre was furious with him, because Trowa was supposed to be on his side. And because he wasn't, because he was messing with Quatre's admittedly confused view of how the world should be, Quatre had wanted to destroy him. He had been furious and enraged and he had wanted Trowa to die.

It hadn't happened, fortunately. But he'd never been able to forget that side of himself. He'd spent years avoiding anything that he thought might bring that part of his personality to the fore.

And now, here he was. Infiltrating the Order, the organization that specialized in the form of decadent, self-indulgent evil that appealed to the grain of corruption in everyone's soul.

His greatest fears, and the world's greatest temptations, all in one place.

When this mission was over, Quatre vowed to himself, he was taking one hell of a vacation.

Finally, Adrastus stopped in front of a large, steel door. There was a keypad beside the door, and he carefully entered a series of numbers on the pad. He pushed the door open and stepped back, gesturing at the open space, indicating that Quatre was to go in alone.

The blond hesitated for the barest of instants. Once he went into that room, it was all over, and he was committed to this pretense.

But, of course, it was already too late. He was as committed now as he would be. This pause was only an illusion of freedom, of choice.

Quatre smiled pleasantly and stepped firmly into the room, tensing as the door closed almost silently behind him. He half expected some attack, but none was forthcoming.

He blinked, looking nonplussed around the room.

This was more what he'd been expecting out of the waiting room.

The room was huge, and amazingly bright and airy. From the progression of corridors, Quatre knew that it was located in the middle of the large building he'd been shown into, but it appeared to be bathed in natural light. He peered up at the ceiling, but couldn't tell what exactly the source of light was. The room was a riot of color - red carpeting covered the floor, the walls were hung with swaths of cloth of rioting colors - reds and violets and greens and golds all fought for supremacy. A large bed was draped with gauzy, embroidered curtains in all shades of red and bright pink, and an area of floor on the other side of the room was strewn with huge, mattress-sized cushions covered in blues and violets.

The room was beautiful, but Quatre's trained eyes picked out the darker elements almost overshadowed by the explosion of color. The posts of the bed were set with hooks, off of which shackles dangled. The same devices were set into the walls behind the cushions, and Quatre would bet that there were more set into the floors among the cushions. Elaborate mechanisms dangled discreetly from the ceilings in the corners of the room.

And the people. Naked and mostly-naked people were everywhere - mostly women, the oldest of whom could be no older than in her mid-twenties. The youngest looked barely six, and was trying to hide behind the older woman. There were young men, some moving gracefully around the room, attending to tasks, others sitting obediently, waiting to be called.

In the center of all this, on a large chair set on a sort of dais in the back of the room, sat a man.

[cont]