+ Part 1
"Are you ready, Quatre?"
I nodded, sliding open the door joining our apartment. "Yes sir."
Instructor H looked back at me, straightening his own waistcoat and tie. "Very good. If you’ll allow me ..."
I stood patiently as he adjusted my own tie. If there was one thing I’d learned about my benefactor, it was that he was punctilious on detail. It was just one of his oddities, and, really, dressing neatly and in the best of clothes was not too high a price to pay for the sponsorship of my studies and a generous board and allowance.
"You do me a great honour by attending this dinner," H said solemnly, his finely oiled moustache quivering.
I shrugged. "It’s the least I can do. After all, you have helped me in so many ways, been a mentor to me since my father’s death—"
"Such a tragedy," H murmured, motioning me to accompany me through the door. "But we won’t think of that tonight. Now, you must meet my colleagues and learn the reason you have been brought here."
I followed him. "There is a reason to this invitation?"
"Oh yes," H said. "You are aware of my reputation as a lover of beauty?"
I nodded; it was one of the reasons he had been friends with my father. They had been fellow art collectors, H often visiting us while in search of some marble treasure or other.
"So are my colleagues. In fact, if you’ll accuse the gauche pun, collecting beauty is something of an art to us. An art which we take very seriously. Look at this."
He drew a box from his waistcoat and passed it to me.
The box, like everything H owned, was elegant styled. I slid it open to reveal one of the most beautiful objets d'art I have ever seen in my life -- a rose, intricately crafted from silver and rubies.
"Exquisite, is it not? Yet tonight it is our wager."
"Wager?" I asked, reluctantly handing the box and its treasure back to H. "Surely you don’t mean you’re giving this up?"
"My colleagues and I have a custom. We issue a challenge—to collect the most beautiful treasure of a certain kind, putting up an item of our private collections as wager. A year later we meet, the one judged to have found the fairest item takes all."
"I see." I was intrigued. The acquaintances H had told me of were among the world’s richest men, all leading art collectors. To witness a gathering of this sort—I felt strangely honoured.
"I need hardly warn you that my colleagues are inclined to be a trifle ... odd in their habits, but be assured they are harmless. Excepting of course J and O but they’ll leave you alone," H said as we neared the salon. From the sounds within, people had already arrived. "Don’t be shy."
After an admonition like that I couldn’t help but be. I followed H in to the room.
Although I was expecting my mentor’s colleagues to be different, I didn’t expect this—I politely schooled my face into an expression of greeting, hiding my surprise.
Two men stood in conversation at the other end of the dining room. One, the tallest man I had ever seen, his body well muscled, almost too muscled in my opinion, H introduced as 'O'. The other man, with a silver grey beard, was 'J'. It took all my politeness not to stare at these two men. O’s face was marked by almost unrelenting harshness, while J -- J appeared to have glasses of some type actually embedded into his face.
H nodded to him, before greeting the other. "O," he said, bowing slightly. "It is good to see you again."
"As it is to see you," O returned. "This year seems to have treated you kindly." He smirked, casting a look at H’s rather portly figure, a distinct contrast with his own.
"And who is your guest?" J inquired.
At H’s motion I stepped forward. "Quatre Raberba Winner, at your service sir."
"Well," J raised an eyebrow. "He certainly looks the part."
"I’ll admit that high society fared better than I thought it would."
I’ll admit, their words confused me. "Excuse me, sir?"
H placed a hand on my shoulder. "You’re impressed then?"
"Impressed, yes," O said, again with his cruel smile. "Worried, no." He looked to a corner of the room. "Wufei, will you join us?"
"Come where H can see you, Heero," J ordered.
There was a moment of silence then a youth my own age stepped out of the shadows beside O. I had to catch my breath. He was one of the most striking people I’d seen—well shaped face, high cheekbones, dark, intelligent eyes contrasting against warm toned skin, and a noble air. Then J’s companion stood and I was likewise startled. Heero had arresting blue eyes, a shade I’d be hard pressed to define, and his body was perfectly formed—the garments he wore left no doubt of that. Two better specimens of youth at their finest you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere ...
I caught myself, and politely smiled to each of them. "Quatre Winner. Pleased to meet you."
Wufei nodded in acknowledgement, Heero just stared as if he wasn’t sure what to make of the greeting. Already feeling uneasy in this strange setting I looked to H.
"Have a seat, Quatre. We’re waiting for S and G—has S arrived?"
J answered in the affirmative. "He’ll be down in a moment with his protégé. He’s taken a boy from a circus of all things—"
"Utter nonsense," O said. "Beauty resides in nobility—of birth and action." His hands rested on Wufei’s shoulders. The youth ignored him.
"I think you’ll find only control can produce true beauty," J said, smugly watching Heero.
His eyes fell on H and he sneered. "I suppose you’ll say that beauty is the result of soft living—"
"Not soft living," My mentor corrected mildly but firmly, "But appreciation of the finer things in life." He held out the bottle he’d selected from the sideboard to me for my approval. I raised an eyebrow at the expensive vintage. Whoever G was, he didn’t stint on his guests.
"But then, you would say that," I looked up as two new comers entered the room; one, old and grizzled, obviously belonged to my Mentor’s circle of friends. The other, a tall, slender youth who moved with almost uncanny gracefulness, just as obviously did not. "Greetings, my comrades."
"S," H murmured. "I hope the train journey was not arduous."
"It was bearable," S shrugged, looking around the room with eyes that missed nothing. "Well," he said, gaze lingering over Heero, Wufei and myself. "I see you three have had a busy year."
The suspicion that had been growing steadily was confirmed. As H poured me a glass of wine I put a hand on his arm. "This year ... we’re the collection aren’t we?"
"If you put it that way ... yes." H looked at me over his drink. "I should have told you earlier. Does this upset you?"
"No," I shook my head. "I suppose, in a way, this is all rather flattering—if bewildering. I’ve never been thought of as an objet d’art before."
H smiled wryly. "Thank-you for indulging an old man’s fancy, Quatre. Tell me—" His mouth quirked up in a slight smile. "—how your ... competition feels about this?"
I smiled into my wine. My small empathic abilities were not enough to allow me to really probe someone’s mind but I could pick up the emotions of people in the same room as me. "Heero is bored stupid," I said. "Wufei is measuring the rest of us up. He wants to win this—I think his pride is at stake."
"And S’s prodigy?"
I considered the youth, fine features half-hidden by a long jagged fringe. "Nervous," I said. "He’s not used to gatherings like this."
"And you, Quatre?" H toyed with his wineglass. "How do you feel?"
I thought a moment, accidentally catching Wufei’s eyes. The Asian youth broke the contact with a disdainful flick of his head.
"I want to win this too," I said, with a smile for H.
"Aren’t you going to introduce us to your ... guest?" J demanded roughly of S.
"Of course. Gentlemen, meet Trowa Barton." S laid a restraining hand on Trowa’s arm, as it seemed the youth might flee. "And where is our host?"
"We haven’t seen him—or his ... contribution since we got here," my Mentor answered, slowly swirling the wine in his glass around.
Master O snorted. "You heard what he said last year. He won’t be bringing a contribution."
"Last year we sought the most perfect sculptures," H explained to me. "G won—he’s a sculptor himself. He claimed that true perfection could exist only in art. We challenged that statement ... and here we are, awaiting our host."
"It’s just like G to make us wait," J complained. "He must always make an entrance."
"Now, now," a rough voice startled us. "Is that anyway to talk about your host, my dear J? I might get offended."
J snorted as we turned to our host.
H had not been exaggerating when he described his friends as ‘odd.’ G alone would have merited that description, his protruding nose and uncouth hairstyle making him stand out even amongst a gathering such as this. His eyes were sharp and piercing and I didn’t like them as they scanned the other ‘contributions’ and myself. I had to remind myself he was our host and there was no reason for me to take an instant dislike to him ... but I did all the same.
"I trust you find your accommodation satisfactory," G continued, as if daring his companions to find fault.
"They are more than adequate," H answered politely.
"Accommodation -- hah! You know what we’re interested in," J snorted.
G nodded. "All in good time, my friends. Come now. Dinner is served and you’d better appreciate it. I spent a lot of time on it."
Rebuking us thus, he led us into an exquisitely furnished dining room, lined with Venetian glass, polished sandalwood and lit by two great crystal chandeliers, hung either end of the room and festooned with softly glowing candles.
The dining table was decorated with equally good taste. A white lace cloth was covered with a dazzling array of exotic and beautiful dishes, each one a masterpiece of both art and gastronomy. Vases of fresh lilies accompanied them, creating a scene of almost picturesque beauty.
All this was nothing to the creature waiting by the head of the table.
If someone had told me he’d stepped out of a painting I’d have believed them. Never had I encountered such ethereal beauty. His face was reminiscent of the Renaissance Masters, graced with the serene smile of a Botticelli and the fine proportions and grace of a Da Vinci. His eyes put them all to shame. Likewise, his hair, pulled back into a loose plait, could have been the work of Reubens or Titian. However there was nothing of the Renaissance liking for voluptuousness about him. What was showing of slender neck and shoulders recalled Classical Greek sculpture at its finest.
He was, in a word, perfect.
"This is Duo," G said carelessly, stepping to one side so he could observe his companions. His eyes glinted at the conflicting appreciation and consternation that played over our faces.
"Well," S said finally after a long silence. "You have outdone yourself, G."
"And us too," H said ruefully.
I couldn’t blame him. While I was not bad looking, my looks were merely conventional. Duo’s, on the other hand, were exceptional.
"I’m not so convinced," J said, folding his arms.
"Nor I," Master O said darkly. "Beauty is more than appearances."
"Yes, yes, yes I know your views. Beauty is the result of control, nobility, physical grace, intellectualism, whatever. I’m sure at the end of your visits you’ll have no choice but to admit Duo is perfect."
I’d have been embarrassed to be the subject of such intense scrutiny. Duo took it calmly, as he did the sullen glare Wufei was sending him.
O’s protégé had found what he considered competition—and he was not happy at all.
His reaction was not lost on G who smirked as he led Duo to the head of the table.
"Sit here, pet, so they can all get a good look at you."
Duo complied unblushingly, as G took the seat to his left.
Heero immediately elbowed Wufei and S out of the way to take the seat the other side of Duo. The rest of us were left to find what seats we could. I was not disappointed to find myself sitting next to Trowa, by talking to him throughout the meal I hoped to dispel some of his nervousness.
I also had a good view of the head of the table where G sat smirking over his protégé. He kept sending triumphant glances down the table to J. His companion, on the other hand, was watching his own charge with a scowl. Heero was ignoring the displeasure of his benefactor, more intent on his dinner companion, slipping him the choicest of the dishes on the table and trying to engage him in conversation.
Duo smiled at him, evidently enjoying the attention.
I reached out with my mind subtly, to discover if I was reading them right. I was rewarded by discovering that Heero’s interest was no more feigned than the steady dislike radiating from Wufei opposite me. No wonder J was so cross. His pupil now had no interest in winning the competition. I smiled as I stretched out to scan Duo’s emotions; it would be ironic if the collectors' plans were disrupted because of a love affair between the items collected—
I stopped, puzzled.
My search had returned an absolute blank.
I probed further.
There was nothing there. No thoughts, emotions—if he had been a statue he could not have produced a blanker reading. I sat back, flummoxed to no small degree.