Part Four … Year 4
“It was a fine report,” said the Chairman of WEI, Quatre’s father. He stood by the window of the Board room, apparently admiring its magnificent view out over the city, and nodded with satisfaction. “There were very few areas that I needed to amend. Barely twenty years old, but you show tremendous promise. You’ve done well in that Division, Quatre.”
Quatre sat on one of the special, ergonomically designed chairs that hugged the board table, and nodded back his thanks. It was a form of communication that he and his father had refined perfectly over the years. “I still have to allocate the shared management costs, but on a net contribution basis, I can see the new addition to the Winner Foundation Room making a real difference to the profile of the whole gallery.”
“Ah…” His father folded his hands carefully behind his back. Quatre knew that to be a sign that there was more to come. Maybe something not so complimentary. “You mention contribution, but I notice that the trend reports show falling attendance at the gallery. The receipts are down on last year and last quarter. Much as I commend your commitment to the gallery, I have my concerns about investing further to the levels that you suggest.”
“Father, the Board of Grants is not necessarily a profit-making arm of WEI –“
His father turned at last to face him. The features were a sterner version of Quatre’s striking looks, and the eyes were hard. People would know they were related by blood, but would maybe question whether by temperament. He walked the few steps back to the Board table and placed a hand on it as if to steady himself. It was a tactic of his, to distract any conflict; it made him appear more vulnerable than he truly was. Quatre had rarely placed the word vulnerable in any context that might also include his father.
“Please don’t presume to tell me about my own corporation, Quatre. I know that your Division has more … let us say, altruistic objectives. But I am reluctant to ally WEI to a failing organisation; to poor management; to uninspired leadership. There are other, more commercially rewarding projects that you might have considered instead.”
“No, sir,” said Quatre, and saw his father tense up with surprise at his dissent. He had a special interest in the gallery – he loved art; he cared for its future in the city; and he’d first met Duo there. He wasn’t about to desert it in a difficult year. He wondered just which – if any – of those arguments might sway his father. “Let me work on it, father. There’s potential there; it’s a magnificent building with the respect of the city and prestige throughout the state. It can only benefit WEI to be connected with it. I believe that with new exhibitions and the new wing supported by us, its fortunes will turn.”
“You can believe in Santa Claus, Quatre, but there are no projections that confirm that view.”
Quatre grimaced at his father’s cynicism. “Six months. Let me spend some time and money on a marketing review. Let our people contribute more than funds to that business – we can be partners with them, not just benevolent benefactors.”
His father was shaking his head.
“Three months, then,” Quatre urged. “You said I delivered a good report. If it needs to be supported by an upturn in the gallery, give us the chance to deliver that.”
“Why do you argue so passionately for an organisation that may fail you?”
“Because I want to work with it,” Quatre fired back. “Because I don’t have the short-term aggression of so many of your managers, the obsession with constant, unsustainable growth; the fear of stepping outside of the box.”
His father stared at the outburst. His nose wrinkled as if in distaste, and Quatre’s heart lurched inside him. It never boded well, to upset the older man. But when his father spoke again, his voice was calm. “If there’s one thing I can say about you, Quatre, it’s that you have never shown that fear – you’ve rarely shown fear at all. You can have your three months.”
“Thank you, sir,” he said. Now came the hard part … whether the gallery’s fortunes could really be improved at all!
His father meanwhile was continuing with his own agenda, flipping at a file on the table in front of him. “As regards the takeover of that local marketing agency, I have been supervising Edwards, though he appears intimidated by his own shadow, let alone those of their lawyers. I might take you from Grants and Sponsorship for a period, to give it your attention. The due diligence report will be completed next week – the proposal goes to the venture capitalists by the weekend. If we can call together the shareholders fairly swiftly, we’ll be in charge by the end of the month, in time for the half-year reporting.”
“I’m away at the end of the month,” said Quatre, softly but firmly.
His father didn’t even look up. “You will of course postpone a mere social engagement with one of your many female companions.”
“It’s not a date,” said Quatre, quite bluntly. “It’s the weekend I take annually, to go walking with the guys from college.” He’d spent little enough time there, having been tutored privately for a large proportion of his life, except for the occasional subject where his tutors were unequal to the task. “It’s been scheduled since last year. Everyone’s aware of it.” So were you, father, he grimaced inside. You just choose to dismiss it, if it interferes with your requirements.
“The guys …” his father murmured. “Your standard of language has deteriorated over the last couple of years, Quatre, and I don’t approve. It’s like the women you see. I believe you choose the most unsuitable types just to distress your mother.”
“Unsuitable types?” Quatre cast his mind over his last few escorts. A famous graphic designer; a young, attractive physicist; a daughter from a minor European royal family. He allowed the dates to be arranged by a selection of personal assistants, and found them all as pleasant – and as uninteresting – as each other. The women were lovely and friendly, and he showed them the utmost attention and respect when he was with them. He enjoyed their company for a while; sometimes even beyond dinner. He was a young man who knew how passion felt; and he could show it, too. But he sometimes wondered if he were dating for his own satisfaction or for the edification of the paparazzi. “Father, these women live in the world as we do. They have prestige and fame, very often much more than the Winner family. They are just as suitable as you or I. And it’s not as if any of them are around for long enough to distress Mother, as you put it.”
“That in itself is distressing, son.” His father had a tone of voice that made him feel ten years old all over again. “You need to consider your future; to find a suitable partner in life as well as these guys that you pursue for your transient social gratification. Your mother has introduced you to several new …companions. All of whom come from advantageous backgrounds. Maybe if you showed some commitment to such a project as that, rather than hiking through some backwoods with people who have little to offer you. I assume that Rashid will need t rearrange his schedule to cover such a nonsense expedition …”
“Rashid won’t be coming with me,” interrupted Quatre. He deliberately kept his voice calm, though it took an effort. “I can spend some time alone, I believe, without bringing WEI and the illustrious Winner family name to its knees.”
“And your insolence is offensive, too,” snapped his father. “Any such activity must be perceived as a risk to your health and safety, without proper supervision. Can you not find a more suitable hobby?”
“Such as gambling?” said Quatre, dryly. His father was infamous for his addiction to the roulette tables.
“That will be enough, boy!” snapped his father.
“I spend plenty of my leisure time in more relaxed pursuits,” sighed Quatre. It was a familiar argument. He was trying hard not to lose his temper; his father was one of the few people who could provoke him so far and so easily. “I play sport when I have the opportunity; I’ve spent a lot of time at the galleries, and attended many school events at the schools we sponsor –“
“School children,” scoffed his father. “I mean places where you’ll have a chance to network – where you’ll mix with your own kind.”
That’s enough, thought Quatre. Father, you have gone far enough.
“You know very well what time and commitment I give to this job, sir. My leisure time is mine, to spend on whatever I wish, with whomever I wish.”
“You are vulnerable when you’re away from the city, Quatre. Your mother worries – personally, I am just concerned that you outgrow these youthful rebellions as soon as possible.”
“It’s hardly a rebellion!” Quatre almost laughed with the ridiculousness of this conversation. “We organise this walking trip a couple of times a year, just a weekend away, a group of us. Dammit father, most of the guys are my own kind, as you so eloquently put it”
His father leaned over the table now, his face a little flushed. “Don’t think me a fool, just because I’m of another generation. I know what you do, Quatre – I always have. I know your diary both in and out of work. I know who you are dating; I know who you’ve refused. I know which clubs and stores and theatres you frequent, and just exactly with whom you spend your leisure time.”
Quatre met the older man’s challenge; when he stared boldly back into his father’s eyes, he saw the slightest flicker of nervousness. He wondered what his father would say if he knew that Quatre had always been aware of his scrutiny, regardless of whom he sent to carry it out. Even Rashid, whom he considered a friend as well as his bodyguard; Quatre knew that Rashid reported to his father at the end of the day, and depended on WEI for his job. Quatre knew that the big man wouldn’t part with all of his young charge’s personal secrets – but he had a job to do, and Quatre didn’t blame him for it.
He didn’t choose to reveal his knowledge of his father’s surveillance just now; but he couldn’t resist a retort. “You’re spying on me, father?”
“I don’t need to.” His father’s arrogance allowed him to avoid the direct question. “Your life is in the public domain, it’s the quid pro quo for being a child of the Winner family.”
“But I’m no longer a child, father. Or not for much longer.”
“Just remember your responsibilities, Quatre – your position! You have such a glorious future ahead of you, but there must be sacrifices made. And surrounding yourself with callow school children will serve no advantage.”
He knows about my friendship with Duo. Had Quatre thought more carefully about it, he would have known that of course his father knew about it. Though there were parts of his life that he was determined to keep private, he had never made a secret of his friends, or where he went to meet them. He looked at his father’s pursed mouth and thought that maybe he needed to change his attitude to that a little.
“I choose my own friends,” he said quietly. In all honesty, he had no desire to waste his morning in argument.
“Do what you like, then.” His father sounded aggrieved, but reluctant to push Quatre any further. He pushed himself away from the table and went back to his position by the window, looking out. “He’s a child, but he’s old enough to look after himself. If you wish to play with him, I have no objections.”
Quatre was shocked; appalled. “Father, your attitude is supremely insulting –!“
“Grow up, boy,” the older man snarled. “Do you think you’re the first to find enjoyment in another person? And no, before you ask such a crass question, it doesn’t matter to me if your playthings are male or female. They’re all just distractions, and you’ll drop them as you grow older.”
“We’re friends …”
“Maybe you are. For now. Who knows when – or if - you’ll ever beggar, bore or bed him.” The man gave an elegant shrug, emphasising his supposed indifference. “I have no care either way.”
“I realise that,” said Quatre, sharply. “You clarify that for me on a daily basis.”
Then the man at the window sighed, and tuned back again to face his son, though he didn’t move any nearer him. It was as if he needed the distance of the board table between them. “Don’t think me cruel, Quatre, though I daresay you will, regardless. Do you think I know nothing of life? And lust? I want you to enjoy your life, though I’ll ask you to spare me the details, and to have enough sense to avoid scandal for the family. But above all I want you to remember where your future lies – it’s here, at WEI. And that will be more than enough to occupy your passions as well as your prodigious brain. That, and a suitable wife and family one day.” He paused. He looked briefly at his watch. “Your weekend may go ahead, though you will be back at work at six on the Monday morning for a debriefing.” He looked back up at Quatre and his face was clear of anger; it carried a bland, controlled expression that was uniquely his.
“You may go now.”
Quatre sat with Duo in the park, though rain threatened and the wooden bench rocked perilously on uneven legs every time they moved. And Duo moved a lot; he wriggled his legs to get comfortable; he picked at his hot dog as if he expected it to resist his quick hunger; he nudged frequently at Quatre’s foot, as if forgetting that it hadn’t moved since the last time he stepped on it.
Quatre didn’t care one iota. He was here with Duo and away from WEI and he’d rarely been so aware of the relief that gave him. He’d not been very settled in his work for the last six months, though he’d continued to give it his best attention. He was more distant with his colleagues; he cancelled social engagements more frequently; and despite what his father had said to him, he had little interest in dating anyone, let alone ‘suitable companions’ from his mother’s exclusive list.
What had remained constant was the time he spent with Duo, his friend. His best friend.
He liked sitting in the park with him. There were few people to recognise or annoy him, there were passers by and amateur sports to watch and enjoy, and he also enjoyed being in the outdoors. He spent too much time in the claustrophobic board rooms and presentation theatres of WEI and other, equally generic corporate offices.
Duo fell carelessly against him, reaching to catch his teetering can of soda, and he pushed back in mock anger, demanding the younger man move back on to his own side of the bench. They laughed together.
Yes, Duo was his best friend. Quatre watched him spread his long, lean legs in front of him and stretch his arms across the back of the bench behind them. His stomach clenched with a sudden stab of discomfort.
Duo was so much more
“But what do you actually do on these weekends? What do you mean, walking? Like around the town? The park?” Duo stretched his arms again, popping the joints. Mom said he grew inches every day, or so it seemed, and he’d reached the stage where he was continually aware – and secretly proud - of his body. He worked out at the school gym, though he only confessed this to his closest friends. When he went out, he favoured shirts that clung to his torso; jeans that were snug round his thigh muscles. He liked the way that heads turned more than once to look at him.
Quatre’s sigh was heartfelt, and Duo grinned to himself. “No, Duo, I mean over the hills by the lake. A few miles a day – some gentle climbing. You’re deliberately misunderstanding me.” The food was finished and now they sat comfortably on the bench, reluctant for a while to go back to their respective homes. Duo had no work that evening; they watched the last shift of shoppers passing them on their way to and from the mall, and the kids shrieking in a lively game of baseball on the park.
Quatre had been trying to explain his weekend away and had invited Duo to go with him. “OK, don’t worry, it’s not like I’d try to drag you up Everest. I just thought you might be interested. You’re pretty fit – you’ve got stamina, too.” He hardly ever blushed – Duo knew that – but he was intrigued to see that his friend did now. “I thought we might try something different rather than sitting around town all the time.”
“Shit,” said Duo, making his eyes round and his tone mischievous. “You’re bored!”
“No!” protested Quatre.
“Yes you are,” said Duo, relentlessly. “Bored of dried-out hot dogs and rickety benches and kids screaming in your ear. Bored of my company. Bored of me.”
Quatre looked him in the eye and his expression was determined. “Never. That would never be.”
Duo held his gaze for a while. He cleared his throat carefully. “So these other guys – the friends of yours. They won’t want me hanging around, will they?”
Quatre’s eyes flickered with something like embarrassment – but Duo knew that was another thing Quatre Winner rarely suffered. This was all very interesting.
“They called me last night and changed the date – they’ll be going the following weekend instead, but there’s no way I can change my time off now. It was difficult enough to clear it with my father in the first place.” He’d intended to tell his father the weekend away was cancelled when he saw him that morning, but the older man’s bullying behaviour had changed his mind. Let the trip stand; though the companions were now missing. “I’m not prepared to give up my plans entirely.”
“There must be others you could take who are better at this sort of stuff. I’m a second choice.” Duo knew he was being awkward, but he just wanted to push a little more at this mood of Quatre’s – this uncharacteristic discomfort.
But Quatre wasn’t playing the game along with him. Instead, his head tossed back a little and he laughed aloud. “You’d never take second place, be second choice, second anything, Duo Maxwell! Look, it’s a weekend of free time, with the arrangements made and the equipment laid on, and all at a Winner’s expense.” His sparkling eyes met Duo’s again. “I’d like you to come and share it with me. Depends if you think you’re up to it, of course.”
Duo snorted. “You’re the old guy. I’m the fit young teenager.”
“Maybe,” goaded Quatre. “Or maybe that muscle’s all puppy fat.”
The insults were traded for a few more seconds, but Duo tired of it more quickly than usual. He lay back against the cold wood of the bench and played aimlessly with the remains of his can. “I’m sort of glad you planned this, Quatre. You get little enough time now, for yourself. Frankly, your hours could put a guy off going into business in the first place.”
“Having second thoughts about your future?” Quatre looked more serious and Duo smiled to himself again. Damn, but it was fun to tease him sometimes … “You’ve chosen your options now – you’ve got the college in your mind, the course too.”
“No,” Duo admitted.
“Not second thoughts. I want to
find out everything about running a business – about how the commercial world
works. The skills I need to understand
the stuff guys like
Quatre was nodding; his eyes shone. “I didn’t know whether to suggest it to you yet, but I’m creating a small marketing department of my own within Grants and Sponsorship. I need to know more about the City Gallery, and how well – or badly – it’s run. You have work experience, don’t you? I wondered if you’d spend your time this year at WEI, joining our work at the gallery?”
Duo stared at him. “Shit, Quatre.”
What did that mean? thought the blond man. He hurried to reassure Duo. “It’d be a business role, Duo, not an artistic one. And it’d just be helping out, nothing too responsible I’m afraid. However, you couldn’t fail to pick up some useful knowledge along the way, and it’d give you a flavour of business and whether it and you suit each other.”
“Working for you?” Duo was still staring, but now his cheeks were flushed from more than the cool afternoon air.
There was a sudden hesitation in their conversation – neither of them could have said what had struck them, except for the sudden, astonishing thought of them working together.
Quatre cleared his throat. “No, not directly for me, I don’t think that would be wise. But there are other places in the team that could use the support, and WEI will sponsor work experience there as well as anywhere else. The corporation is committed to developing students from all areas of education. Depends on the person’s aptitude and attitude.”
Duo’s eyes were shining now, too. He twisted round to face Quatre, the empty can bouncing off the seat and rolling on to the grass beneath the bench. He pressed a hand on Quatre’s shoulder and the grip was firm and excited. “Shit, yes! It’d be excellent! God, thanks, thanks!”
Quatre opened his smiling mouth to say more, but Duo’s conversation had skipped along like a stream of excitement from a dam that had just burst. “I’ll need some smart clothes I guess, and you have all these forms you need to fill in, well WEI does, you know. There’s insurance, and I have to go through a formal interview, will that be you? Maybe some other guy, yeah, you’re right, it’d be tough to work for you, knowing what a dork you can be sometimes and what you look like with ketchup down your shirt ‘n all… and what’s the problem with the gallery, then, that your guys are looking at it in the first place?”
Quatre swallowed, trying to keep up. He was rather too conscious of Duo’s hand on his shoulder for comfort. He only had a thin polo shirt on tonight; he could feel the warmth of Duo’s palm against his skin. “Attendance is down – I have only a few months to find some way of improving it, or Father will reconsider investing in the new Modern Art wing. I guess people just aren’t going as frequently any more, what with the other entertainments there are in the city –“
“Crap,” said Duo, bluntly. “People still want to see art, even if they can watch TV at home or go shopping instead. But loads of ‘em are just lazy, and they don’t know what’s there. They think it’s smart, intellectual stuff, not stuff for them, not stuff about their lives.”
“Sometimes it isn’t, though,” murmured Quatre. What was Duo saying? “I mean, art is meant to take them from their own lives, too, to broaden what they already know…”
“Sure, sure,” Duo rushed on. “But you need to make it part of their lives – show things that are theirs, that are from their world, artists that are theirs, too. You’ve just gotta bring it to them, make them look up, make them join in.”
Quatre opened his mouth, thought better of what he had been about to say, and closed it again. “Tell me what you suggest.”
“You shittin’ me?” Duo asked, suddenly suspicious.
“No,” said Quatre, most firmly, though he flinched slightly at the blunt expression. “But explain yourself.”
Duo flushed slightly, but he leaned forward on the bench and licked his lips. He took his hand from Quatre’s shoulder and waved it in the air for emphasis. Quatre thought what a very expressive, charismatic man he was, even at such a young age. He listened, fascinated.
“Look, I know you’ll think it’s only to do with Mom, what I think, but it’s not just that, right? I mean, her work is fantastic, but so are a lot of people’s. But none of them can get showings because the galleries only want the established stuff. But it’s fucking expensive, so no-one buys, no-one feels it’s within their grasp, no-one comes to see it often enough.” He glanced up quickly to see that Quatre was still following. “You should find a small place in the City Gallery to show a selection of local, modern, new artists, whatever. You wouldn’t have to pay them, or nothing. Just give them an opportunity – and change the line-up frequently, let people know they could see something fresh and new every time they came, as well as the special shit. The artists could submit stuff, the gallery managers could select, anyone could try out. But there’d be plenty of chances for anyone to get seen; to reach visitors. And it’d maybe encourage and excite the public too, get them interested in coming in on a more regular basis, not just once a fucking year when their granny comes to stay from out of state and needs to go somewhere quiet that’s in the dog-eared old tourist guide …” He ran out of breath then, and grimaced as he realised he’d sworn a lot, and aloud. “Sorry. Shit, I went on and on.”
Quatre was silent, but his brow was creased with thought. “But that’s an excellent idea, Duo. A populist idea – something that mixes living artists and their work with the showcase on a much more proactive basis. Turnover would be enhanced with very little additional investment in the way of indirect and product-related overheads… ”
“See?” said Duo. “That’s what I meant when I said I needed to learn the fucking jargon.” But his grin was wide and pleased.
“Let me think about it some more,” said Quatre, his mind already working towards the next day’s work. “I’ll want you to come and talk this through with the team, try to give them your views on it just like you have me.”
“So … the work experience thing is still on?”
“Of course! Well, so long as you can curb your use of the words ‘stuff’, and ‘thing’ – oh and ‘shit’, of course - around the office!” He smiled; he shook his head both with amusement and with the bubbling anticipation of something that could be very, very successful.
“Yes?” He stared back at Duo’s sudden hesitation.
“Is this work thing all dependent on me doing the walking thing?”
Quatre laughed loudly again. He stood up, because the damp from the bench was starting to seep into his pants and also because he needed to be getting back home. “No, of course not! That would have just been for us – for fun.”
Duo stood too, and his hand came back to Quatre’s shoulder, though more gently now. It rested there for quite a few seconds. “Then count me in. I want to go with you.”
“Away for the whole weekend? What about your studies?” Kira Maxwell half-turned, still distracted by her canvas, her mind full of the complexities of colour and sweeping brush stroke textures.
“All done,” said Duo, quickly. He peered at the blue swathes in amongst the
sepia strands and tried to see the progress of her creation. “I’ve been away before, Mom, haven’t I? You often let me stay over at
“School trips, Duo. Local sleepovers. Not quite the same thing.”
“I’m fifteen, Mom. Other guys have left school. Other guys are virtually living on their own. Other guys –“
“ – are not you.” She bit her lip and stopped painting. “With Quatre, you say.”
“Uh huh. He goes to this place every year, it’s all planned. You know how reliable he is, how organised. Hey, it’ll probably be really smart and loads of facilities laid on and I’ll be so busy with watching everything going on, I’ll hardly be noticed, and I’ll have loads to report when I get back.”
“Will there be others on this trip? Other walkers?”
“He goes with a group of college friends every year, that’s how they keep in touch, it’s just that he’s letting me go along this time, just to help out, just to learn the ropes. You know, Mom, it’s all planned, it’s all fine, and hey, it’s all free!” He grabbed a pack of biscuits and spun on his heel, grinning at her, but sidling quickly out of the studio to dash back home.
Kira Maxwell stood in front of the canvas for a while longer, not really seeing the work in progress, just admiring how skilfully her son had avoided her question about whether he would be accompanied by a group of walkers …
Or Quatre Winner alone.
They shrugged off their packs and sank to the ground. The grass was short, but dry and fairly soft underfoot. The hills rose behind them, illuminated as a tapestry of different coloured foliage and the shades of the warm afternoon sun. Quatre rolled on to his back with undisguised relief and groaned slightly as his joints stretched. They’d been walking steadily for an hour or so, on an incline that had increased so gradually that he’d only noticed it when the back of his calves began to protest.
“So how long have you been training for this, Mr Maxwell?”
“Me?” Duo lay back, staring at the sky. A small smile teased at the edges of his mouth. “I haven’t had time for training, have I? You only told me about it last month. No, I just put on the boots you lent me, and tried to keep up with you, Mr Winner.”
“Just that, eh?” murmured Quatre. His heartbeat was slowing now.
“Yep!” announced Duo, cheerfully. “So how much further to where we camp tonight?”
Quatre barely missed a blink, but his voice tightened. “Here looks good for tonight.”
“Right here?” asked Duo, innocently. “Sure you don’t want to put another few miles on the clock before tonight?”
“It’s good here,” repeated Quatre, his voice quite unnaturally level.
Duo grinned. “I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then,” he said, as if to himself. He rolled over slightly to face Quatre.
Quatre gazed back at the young man’s face. It was flushed, but the skin was smooth and glowing with health. His grin was wide; his strong, even teeth were showing under the full lips, and he pushed impatiently at a few stray hairs of his fringe, sticking to his forehead with sweat. You look good in my sweater, too, the older man mused. Duo’s shoulders had broadened out over the last couple of years, and the clumsiness of a teenager was passing in favour of a lanky, sensual grace that was unique to that age. His legs had always been long, but today they’d shown a strength and sureness that confirmed he’d left his gangling childhood behind.
“You wanna show me what to do with my tent?” asked Duo. His voice was a sudden break into Quatre’s thoughts. “I mean, it can’t be that tricky, can it? Modern stuff like this, almost puts itself together I bet.”
“Yes, sure,” murmured Quatre. So Duo thought he was his match for the walking, did he? But there was a lot more to camping out than striding along in pleasant weather, on fairly easy-going ground, and with a less than exhaustive pack on your back. Quatre smiled to himself. “I’ll pass you the groundsheet.”
They sat quietly in front of the tents, eating a cold supper they’d brought along with them. It was their first night out and Quatre thought it best they took it easy. The next day would be more challenging and they’d cook proper meals when they camped; they’d be further from modern facilities and other habitation.
The evening was a low, dark red stain on the horizon and there were only the sounds of insects settling and the occasional bird in the sky. They’d erected the tents on the outskirts of a tree-lined copse, in the shelter of some low bushes. There was the occasional rustle there, and several times Duo started. But they’d eaten well and shared a couple of cans of beer and were tired yet satisfied with the day’s work.
“So … “ Duo mused. “Guess I thought you’d be doing this hike with all the luxuries I’ve come to expect from the Winner touch. I thought we’d be in hotels or something – eating off china plates and having nice relaxing hot showers.”
“Rashid bringing us afternoon tea, maybe.”
Duo grinned. “Excellent thought! I don’t know, I never thought you’d be happy out in the wilds on your own with just a few bits and pieces, fending for yourself. You know – you being a guy who has everything laid on for him.”
“I know,” Quatre grinned back. “But it’s good to get away and I’ve never had trouble looking out for myself. A cousin used to take me camping a lot when I was younger, until Father put a stop to it as potentially dangerous to the son and heir. I love being in the outdoors, I love seeing the world around me by standing in among it. I’m not afraid of hard exercise and living in the rough. I don’t need it you know, all the trappings, all the money, all the easy living …”
“OK,” Duo smiled, biting off a large piece of cold pie. “I believe you.” He ate happily for a while, until he became aware of Quatre’s eyes on him. He turned his head slowly and smiled at the blond man. Quatre’s face was fading into a dusky shadow as the sun made its gradual journey down out of the sky.
Duo gasped, softly; nothing more than an exhalation of his breath. The hand holding his pie sank down to his lap again.
“Duo – what is it? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare …”
Quatre was ominously still, as if he held tightly to every breath and every movement he’d ever made.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m doing something wrong,” Duo continued, his voice very low. “Or I’ve made a fucking idiot of myself, or you just don’t know what the hell I’m going on about.”
“God, it’s nothing like that. It’s not … you’ve done nothing wrong.” Quatre’s voice was strangely stilted. “I’m so sorry.”
Duo stared at him a little longer, but neither of them said anything. Then a breeze rippled through the bushes and buffeted the edges of the tent. Duo looked down at the sudden flurry of crumbs and wrappers from his supper. He laughed, a little self-consciously. “Hey – forget it, it’s nothing. It’s the quiet up here, I’m not used to it, city boy that I am, right? It’s kinda spooked me. We’d better bed down soon, I suppose. I bet it gets cold up here at night.” He knelt up, chatting on, busying himself with gathering up all their equipment.
After a moment’s hesitation, Quatre joined him in the work.
The yell came at around 3 a.m. – the curses soon after. They were loud, angry and imaginative. Quatre opened an eye warily, wondering if wild bears had ever been spotted in this fairly quiet part of the hills, or whether there was an alien invasion, or whether …
He groaned, and dragged himself to a sitting position. “Duo?” he called, his voice thick with sleepiness. “Is that you?”
“Of course it’s fucking me,” came a muffled voice. “Who do you think it is, Davy Fucking Crockett?”
Quatre shook his head wearily, and clambered on all fours to the opening of his tent. He’d slept in sweatpants and tee shirt, and was glad of it in the chill early morning air. His progress was accompanied by the background sound of more cursing and strange squeaking noises. He peered out into the darkness, lit only by the stars. Duo’s tunnel tent was a few feet away from his.
Well – it had been when he went to sleep. Now it lay in a distorted puddle of thick, crumpled material and tangled guide ropes. There were more muffled human noises from underneath it, and limb-shaped lumps that spiked up inside it.
Quatre knelt up at the mouth of his tent and laughed himself hoarse.
Duo’s head appeared eventually from under the wreckage, his angry eyes glinting in the dark. “What the hell’s so funny? Fucking thing’s broken or something! I could’ve suffocated or been set on by wild animals or anything!”
“Guide ropes,” Quatre stuttered through his laughter.
“You didn’t check the guide ropes, I expect. The pegs weren’t secure enough. A bit of wind and one of the edges can come loose. The whole thing will start to fold back on itself then.”
“You’re saying it was my fault? I didn’t secure it well enough?”
“I’m looking at you under the collapsed mess of your tent and yes, it seems pretty clear to me you didn’t secure it well enough. Who else is here to blame?”
Duo peered at him, suspiciously. He pushed a loose bit of hair back off his forehead and pulled down his tee shirt which had twisted round his chest. “Maybe you got up in the night and released it, just for a joke.”
“Maybe I’m too tired to bother arguing with that nonsense,” grinned Quatre, and right on cue, he yawned. He stretched out his arms and turned to crawl back into his tent. “Bring your sleeping bag and you can sleep in mine tonight. We’ll fix it all in the morning.”
Duo wriggled in his sleeping bag like a thick, padded worm, laid out on the groundsheet of Quatre’s tent. He’d dragged himself in, hitching sweat pants up round his waist and trying to keep his braid from snagging under their bodies as they rearranged the sleeping bags. Then he’d crawled under cover and rolled a few times, trying to get comfortable. He’d rocked against Quatre more than twice, but finally settled.
“Plenty of room in here, isn’t there?”
Quatre laughed from his own bag, a couple of feet away. “What did you think – we’d be in the same sleeping bag, huddled away against the bugs?” He wondered at just how spectacularly badly that joke had come off, but he didn’t think Duo had noticed.
There was an uncharacteristic silence from Duo. When his voice answered, it was low and quiet.
“I wouldn’t have minded.”
Quatre was shocked into silence. He didn’t know how to react to that. He turned his head to the side, trying to hide the fire on his cheeks and the sudden, anguished ache in his body. He was beginning to think what a ridiculous idea this had been, to come away with his friend, with Duo, with the young, virile man beside him, with the body stretched out warmly in its bag, a body he was suddenly far too aware of, and only an arm’s length away…
Stupid! So very stupid! he scolded himself. The feelings he had weren’t appropriate – but they’d been underlying his whole life for as long as he could remember knowing Duo. As the boy had grown into a young man, so had Quatre’s need for him; his care for him. Stupid… he’d become so used to keeping the feelings hidden – hidden from Duo, hidden from others; hidden even from himself. But here in the quiet night, away from distractions, thrown against the one person he craved most every minute of every day…
He knew what his body told him – he knew what his heart shouted at him, for having such thoughts in the first place. But Duo? Nonsense. Duo didn’t mean anything by his comments. Duo wasn’t him. Duo had never been anything but his own man.
“Duo…” he began, cautiously. He could almost see his breath puffing out in the calm, cool air.
Duo interrupted, hastily. “Sorry, Quatre. That was a fucking poor joke. Blame my schoolboy humour, or whatever Mom calls it.”
A joke? Yes. Just what he’d thought. That was fine, of course. He could always take a joke.
The wind nestled against the flap of the tent, then brushed on by through the short grass.
“Hey Quatre? You asleep yet?” It was a stage whisper, and Quatre felt his mouth twist back into a smile.
“No need to whisper, you idiot. Who’s here to hear us?”
“Oh yeah, of course,” Duo laughed softly. They both laughed, gently, and the mood was restored. “Quatre, your father doesn’t know about this, does he?”
Quatre frowned in the dark, but of course Duo couldn’t see him. “Of course he does. I’ve been away this weekend for the last couple of years.”
“No… “ Duo was impatient with him. “I mean that it’s just you, this time. You and me. That your college friends didn’t make it.”
Quatre sighed. “It’s nothing to do with him, Duo.”
“Hm.” Duo didn’t sound convinced. He wriggled his bag even closer to Quatre and hauled his upper body out of it. He leant up, propping his head on a hand. Quatre could see his eyes glinting in the darkness. “He’s a fierce guy, Quatre. You shouldn’t piss him off. You work so closely with him, and I can’t see him giving you any preferential treatment just ‘cause you’re his son.”
“Is that how you see it?” Quatre moved too, letting his elbows fall behind him, propping up his body. He twisted to stare at Duo.
“Yep.” Duo nodded. “I hear what the other guys at work say about him.”
You do? thought Quatre. It was an eerie thought.
“I hang around sometimes when I’m waiting for you, if it’s my turn to come meet you. They sort of know me – they don’t really notice me, anyway. They talk about the company, and the managers – and your dad. He scares the shit out of them, most of ‘em.”
Quatre smiled. “It’s OK. He doesn’t scare me.”
“I know.” Duo’s voice sounded serious; measured. “You don’t seem to be scared of anything, Quatre Winner. I wish I was like you. You’ll be stronger than him one day. But he’s still your dad.”
Quatre felt a little disorientated. “Yes, I know. Look, Duo, he knows we’re here. He’s just not bothered what I do. Only if it affects the company. That’s all he cares about, to be honest. WEI ; and how we all revolve around it.”
Quatre saw it happen as if in slow motion – Duo’s hand reached out and closed over his own. He didn’t think he’d sounded too bitter – he didn’t think he’d asked for any comfort. For a second, he just stared at the slim, strong hand on his, his focus unsteady. The palm was cool, but he could feel the living warmth. He didn’t dare look up at Duo – he barely dared breathe, in case the younger man took his hand away. Don’t, he thought, as deeply as if it were a prayer. Don’t move away, Duo.
They sat there for what seemed like a long while, their fingers interlaced and their breathing a soft exhalation in the quiet night air. Quatre wondered how Duo could have guessed that this touch was all he’d ever dreamed of.
Please, he thought. Don’t ever move away.
Rashid came to collect them at the finish of their route, loading the gear into the trunk and allowing them to sink into the rich leather seats with relief, and rest on the way back. They didn’t talk a lot, but it was a comfortable silence between them. Rashid looked a couple of times into his mirror, watching the way the two bodies lay with heads tilted towards the central arm rest of the car – tilted towards each other.
“A good hike, Master Quatre?”
“Excellent, thank you, Rashid.”
“We were lucky with the weather, weren’t we?” chipped in Duo, very brightly.
“Yes,” agreed Quatre. He grinned At Duo, who grinned back. The conversation stalled again.
Rashid raised an eyebrow, unseen by the two young men, and manoeuvred a difficult corner.
They’d stayed over a few hours longer than they’d planned, to try out another walk that had been recommended, which meant that Quatre would be late back to his house. Duo wouldn’t let the car take him all the way back to his apartment and waste another half hour, so they dropped him off a few blocks away. Quatre got out of the car as well, despite Duo protesting he was fine on his own. They pulled Duo’s bag out of the trunk and stood facing each other. There seemed to be a little awkwardness between them.
“It’s been a great time, Duo,” said Quatre, quietly.
“Like I’ll agree tomorrow when my legs have seized up,” Duo muttered. He looked up then and caught Quatre’s eye. He grinned again, and his cheeks were still flushed from his time in the fresh air. “Joke, OK? I enjoyed it too. Honestly! You make me try things I never did before – push me; make me something I wasn’t before.” He grimaced, as if embarrassed. “So I guess it was a bit boring, compared to the group of guys – to your friends. All the guys who are like you, do the things you do…”
“Never boring,” said Quatre, rather too firmly. “Anyway, you gave up the weekend you could have spent with your friends, too, Duo.”
Duo frowned, as if Quatre had said something patently ridiculous. “You’re my friend, Quatre. You’re not instead of anything.”
“Well, of course, that’s given. It’s the same for me. You were excellent company.” It was true and Quatre had never been so sure of it – it had been a rare, concentrated joy to be alone with Duo for a decent period of time. He hadn’t been sure how the young man would cope; indeed, how he would. Now he just wished he’d suggested a trip much earlier.
Duo flushed at his compliment, and turned fiercely bright eyes to his companion. “So we’ll have to do it again sometime, right?”
Quatre’s eyes widened at the uncanny way they’d been thinking the same kind of thing. “Right,” he smiled. He felt light-headed. “When you’ve got time. You’ve got other things and people in your life –“
Duo was shaking his head, quite forcefully. “No, this was the best, Quatre. The best adventure I’ve had for a long time.”
Rashid looked out at them, too far away to hear the conversation and wondering why they both looked disgruntled and uncomfortable.
Quatre was reaching for the door handle to get back into the car. “I’m glad that you trusted me to arrange it, anyway.”
Duo’s laugh was loud and spontaneous. “I’d trust you with anything, Quatre Winner. I thought you knew that!”
Duo lay awake for a long time in his narrow bed. His mother had tried to joke that he was missing sleeping in the open air, but the joke fell flat. He knew she wanted to know where they’d been, what they’d done – he was also aware of some other, hidden queries in her look. But he didn’t want to talk about it – not yet. He ate supper quickly and carelessly and hid himself away in his room as quickly as was decent.
He wanted to lie on his bed and remember. He wanted to remember the ridiculous embarrassment of his collapsed tent; the smell of the night air, and the earthy soil: the night breeze in the short, sharp grasses. He wanted to remember the laughing between them and the occasional tumbles, and the sight of Quatre’s back as it strode on ahead of him. Then the sight of Quatre’s raised eyebrows as he pushed back on past him. That had been good! He liked to surprise Quatre – damned guy was sometimes just too good to be true. He was also pleasant and firm and a joker and a deep thinker – he was a mix of all sorts of stuff. And he was strong and good looking and…
He remembered most keenly the feel of Quatre’s body pressed against him as they slept at night. After that debacle with the tent pegs, he shared the same tent with Quatre the next night, too. When he heard the other man’s breathing slow down into the rhythm of sleep, he rolled his sleeping bag carefully across the groundsheet and nestled up against him. Somehow he felt safer in that position; more comfortable.
And when Quatre had talked about his father – didn’t he ever hear the break there was in his voice? The sharp edge that seemed to cut him more than anyone listening? Perhaps it had been a mad thing to do, to hold his hand like that. But Duo hadn’t thought he was mad at the time – he just did what felt good.
Duo didn’t think he’d ever met anyone like Quatre. He didn’t think he possessed any other friend who was anything like Quatre – fuck, he knew he didn’t! He’d never known anyone so well, and he rather thought he never would do again. He didn’t know why, but things his mother had said came back to him. She’d talked to him once, trying to explain to him about his father and why he couldn’t ever be with them. She’d tried to explain about the strength of feeling that persisted despite her unhappiness, a true care and devotion - a deeper feeling than having fun and making you laugh and just getting up to ‘intimate stuff’ as she’d called it.
He’d been pretty young then, he remembered. Perhaps he understood more now. She’d never returned to the subject, and they both avoided talk of his father by mutual, unspoken agreement.
A feeling that was physical – and rich – and to be treasured, she’d said. A feeling that had a strength in its own right – that you couldn’t always control.
Fuck! he thought, because he really couldn’t find any other word in his reasonably extensive vocabulary to describe how he felt.