“James, it’s some ridiculous hour,” Alec said, his voice gravelly, but not groggy.
“You never sleep, besides you’ve got to still be jet-lagged. Are you alone?”
“Considerate of you to ask. Are you well?” The clink of ice against glass sounded across the ocean. “And yes, I am. Alone. So?”
“Alec, I felt…” James took a deep breath and let it out carefully. Incoherence was not his usual style.
“What did you feel?” Alec asked with the patience born of many late-night conversations.
James got up from the edge of the bed and began to pace, the phone pressed too firmly against his ear. “Simone’s here,” he said.
“Give her my love,” Alec said and James could hear the smile.
“I think she takes it as read,” James said, “but I’ll be explicit when I see her in the morning.” He held the phone away from his ear for a moment and stared at it. He hadn’t known he was going to join her again in the morning. They had made no arrangements, but he knew he would be welcome.
On another continent, Alec took a sip of his drink. James heard him set it down.
“She’s leading a group, they’re doing something with a bunch of plays…combining them, contrasting them, I haven’t asked. I ending up fencing with them,” he finished, his hand making a thrusting gesture that Alec couldn’t see.
“Should have helped you sleep.”
“I’d just finished a run through the woods when I heard them practicing,” James continued.
“Definitely should have put you to sleep. So why aren’t you?”
“You've got your timezones muddled, it's too early. Besides, that was yesterday.” James made a circuit of the room. “Her group, they’re young mostly.” James glanced at the closed window and walked towards the opposite wall. “Lot of young ones here, Alec. I feel ancient.”
“Having any success?” James asked.
The response was immediate. “Yes. They folded. Some things have to be done in person. Any writing?”
“A bit. ETA?”
“By the weekend, I hope. Leaving here tomorrow, but I have to go to New York again. They keep fucking with the fine print. Bastards. I’m pulling our script if they keep it up. You OK with that?”
“If it weren’t for you, none of it would get produced,” James said. “I’d just stop answering their e-mails and they’d forget about me.”
Alec snorted. “Not with the money the films are pulling in and the nominations don’t hurt either.”
“You could have done it without me,” James said. He returned to the window, squinted down at the lawn. “There’re deer outside. A doe and a fawn.”
“They’re common in the woods. Almost a nuisance,” Alec said. “And no, I wasn’t doing it without you. All action, no poetry. That’s your gift.”
“Not so sure about that,” James said, tilting his head. The deer were nibbling at whatever was growing in a large urn near the terrace steps. “Sometimes I wish I’d stayed at that little university. Actually written that book of poetry I used to think was in me.” James heard Alec tapping at his keyboard.
“Before I lured you into crass commercialism,” Alec said. James heard the click of several more keys. “Fuck. Fuck. No more changes. I wish we could just shoot them like we have the characters do in our stories. I may have to go to Paris.”
“You could use some time here,” James said. “I followed you readily enough. You know I have expensive tastes.” He took another deep breath.
“Knew it. Used it. I’ll manage to join you eventually, at least for a while,” Alec said. The snap of his laptop closing punctuated the thought. “You need the time there.”
“I’m not an invalid,” James said. He didn’t sound as certain as he would have liked.
“No, but you need some time,” Alec said.
“I fenced again this afternoon. Employed every trick I know.”
“Did you win?” The tinkle of ice cubes came over the line and a smile shaped the next question. “Were you showing off for someone?”
Something spooked the deer. They bounded across the lawn into the woods. James stepped back from the window seat, huffed. “A fairy’s child.”
“Does she have a sister?” Alec asked.
“I don’t know. I shudder to think what her name would be. Existential, perhaps,” James said. He wondered if Q were smoking on the terrace.
“His name is Quintessential, but he goes by Q,” James said.
“Pen name?” Alec asked.
“Doesn’t seem so. Simone knows his parents. That’s how young he is,” James replied. “Fences well. Skilful and shrewd.”
“Once they’re legal, age is irrelevant. Did you beat him today?”
“We ended with a draw last night,” James said. “Today I beat another member of the group, mountain of a man.”
“And did,” Alec paused an instant, “Q appreciate your victory?”
“I looked for him when I won, I’m embarrassed to say. He raised an eyebrow and turned away.”
“But he was watching,” Alec said. “Seems a good sign.”
“He sees more than I might wish,” James said.
“Would you have preferred he was looking elsewhere?” Alec persisted.
“I attempted a poem,” James said.
Alec drew in a breath. “A muse.” He exhaled slowly. A double click sounded on the line. “Damn. I should take this other call. I’ll check in from Paris. Good-night, James.”
“’Night, Alec,” James replied. The line went dead.
James switched off the light and peered out the window. Q was walking in and out of the beams from the security lighting towards the woods. James grabbed his keys and ran down the stairs.
Only a glimpse of white was visible disappearing between the trees when James reached the terrace. He followed, the sickly glare of the sodium lamps giving way to the green and black shadows surrounding the moon-silvered birch of the wood.
His steps were quiet on the paved path leading to the grassy circle where Pan poured water into a small basin from an urn. James skirted the trees, staring down the trails leading away from the empty clearing. Along one to the lake, he saw a glimmer of white.
A twig cracked. James flattened himself against a tree. What am I doing? He sagged against the slender trunk. Above him, a startled bird called and the trace of white was swallowed by the dark. His chest tightened and his eyes strained after it. Without justification or plan, his feet moved down the slope. A flutter of pale cloth brought the air back into his lungs. He finished his descent.
The moon hung over the lake; its reflection bright on the water. Q stood, clearly lit, by one of the statues ringing the shore, his back to the woods. He brushed his braces off his shoulders, pulled his shirt over his head and hung it from the extended arm of a marble sylph.
Several branches snapped and Bond peered to the left in time to see Claude trot from another path into the clearing. “Q,” Claude called, “sorry I’m late. Auguste wanted a rematch. I think he missed the idea that it’s all just practice for the plays.”
James crouched in the underbrush, shaking his head. If I’d had to rank the possible candidates, Claude would have been my last choice, Q. James considered trying to slip away, but with the two of them there it seemed likely to result in embarrassment all round.
Q nodded. “No worries. I’ve only been here a couple minutes,” he said, unbuttoning his trousers and letting them drop to the ground.
Very direct, James thought.
Q caught one of the braces and hung the trousers on the sylph’s arm as well.
“I was trying to put my head in the right space for this on the way here,” Claude said. He reached out, paused with his hand curved above Q’s shoulder. “You’re so thin. I can see your bones.” Claude dropped his hand. “My instinct would be to be careful, gentle.” He shook his head.
James curled an arm around the birch beside him and shook his head as well. Of all the private moments I have to stumble upon. He sighed. The leaves near his face trembled.
Q’s hands closed around Claude’s biceps. “You’ve been big since you were a boy. Strong.” Q stepped closer. “You see weakness and think to protect it.”
Claude bowed his head. “I know you aren’t weak, Q.”
Q’s hands slid down Claude’s arms. “But if you had to fight me for something...think of anything: I was drunk and was going to drive away. You could subdue me easily.”
Claude looked up, his face angled away from James. This time when he raised his hand, it did settle on Q’s shoulder. “Not easily. You’re made of wire bands.”
Among the trees, James nodded, leaned forward slightly to catch the words.
“But you’d have no doubt that you could...subdue me,” Q pressed.
Claude shook his head. “I’d have no doubt.”
Q let go of Claude’s arms and stepped back. Claude’s hand fell away. “Focus on that certainty. I’m slight. I’m alone. I would not be able to resist you.”
Q’s voice was not loud, but the night had stilled as though listening. James parted his lips to breathe quietly.
“That excites you.” Q took another step back and Claude watched him. James saw Claude’s fist clench. “There would not be a no. You are sure. There is no one to help me. You can do what you want.” Q took another step back. “My weakness will make you feel even stronger. You will be satisfied and happy.”
Q stepped behind the statue. “No one will see,” Q said. “And if they do, they won’t interfere. You can do what you want.”
The repetition was almost hypnotic, James thought.
“You can do it right now,” Q added and Claude disappeared behind the statue, too.
James heard splashing and words he couldn’t discern. He let out a long breath, wondering whether he had time to leave undetected when Q ran from behind the statue and fell to his knees on the grass. The moonlight reflected off his mottled skin and something dark dripped off him.
James restrained himself from jumping out from the trees. There hadn’t been time for much to have occurred, but the way Q’s head hung down between his shoulders was hard to dismiss. Claude skipped into view, bending down slightly and smacked Q on the buttock as he passed. Q’s whole body shuddered forward. Claude turned to look back at Q, his broad grin clear. James didn’t know what he was seeing. He didn’t know Claude, but this leering creature didn’t seem like the man he had encountered at all.
One of Q’s hands had moved to cradle his belly. Slowly, he rose to his knees, his hand sliding lower to shield his genitals, his other hand rising to his forehead to hide his face.
Every muscle in James’s body contracted. Q was so delicately made. James’s eyes stung.
Q stood, his shoulders stooped, clots of something continuing to fall from his skin onto the grass. He turned slightly towards James, a quiver running through his narrow frame, his face still hidden.
“I want to kill him,” Claude hissed. James’s eyes flicked to where Claude stood observing Q. “I could never hold this character.”
Finally, Q’s hand dropped away as he faced Claude. “You won’t need to, those few seconds should be enough. I know it wasn’t easy. You’ll be able to do it again tomorrow?”
James could hear Claude’s sigh. “I’ll only have to do it once, right?” he asked.
“I think once will be sufficient,” Q said and walked over to pat Claude’s shoulder. “I’ll bring a pot of mud for my make-up,” Q added.
“You need help getting that off your back?” Claude asked.
“I’ll take a dip,” Q replied.
“God, Q, the water’s too cold for that,” Claude exclaimed.
Q shook his head. “Not out in the middle,” he replied.
Claude looked over his shoulder to where wisps of steam hung over the lake. “Isn’t that dangerous?” he asked, turning around completely to look.
“Not on the edges,” Q replied. “Directly over the spout would be too hot.” He glanced up at the moon. “You should get going. What time did you tell Justine? Best not to keep her waiting.”
Claude dragged his hands over his face.
“You going to be all right?" Q asked. "This wasn’t the best prelude to a date.”
“True enough,” Claude replied. “But I was planning on letting her make the first move anyway.” He let out a long breath. “Maybe all the moves.”
“Don’t tell her about this. I want it to take the others by surprise tomorrow,” Q said.
“Definitely not even thinking about this,” Claude said and tried to smile.
“Think of fireflies and shooting stars while you’re walking over there,” Q said.
Claude looked at the lake again. “You shouldn’t swim alone, you know.”
“I know,” Q answered. “I’ll just rinse the mud off. Get going now.”
“Wish me well?”
“For what wishes are worth, you have mine.” Q waved his hands towards the path. Claude ran a hand through his hair, hesitating. “Off with you.”
Claude nodded and dashed from the clearing. Q watched him go.
A faint breeze skimmed across the water and James saw Q’s answering shiver. Otherwise, Q remained motionless, gazing towards the path along which Claude had vanished. James wondered what thoughts lingered in Q’s mind. His own were a whirl of superimposed images keeping his muscles tensed to exact unnecessary revenge. The stimulus had been illusory, the reaction almost too real.
Is that what I need, someone to protect? James looked down at his hand, willed his fingers to uncurl. If I looked carefully enough, could I see what you need or would it only ever be a projection of my desires? He looked up. Q was half-way across the lake, leaping nimbly from stone to stone, until the steam from the hot spring swirled about him.
James shifted position, his knees protesting the prolonged crouch. From a distance, Q’s slender form resembled some rare waterbird hunting in the mist. Q dove off a rock. James pushed through the underbrush, halting when Q’s head and shoulders broke the surface, his arms flashing as he swam at the edge of the steam.
More than a dip, Q, James chided silently, squinting as Q rounded the far side of the fog. James held his breath until Q emerged, gleaming as he climbed up on a flat stone. He stood, arms raised to push the water from his hair. James exhaled slowly. Could I find words to describe you now? If I did, would I only be describing my wonder, not a hair’s breath nearer to seeing what you are?
James edged further behind the tree as Q regained the shore, staring as Q used his shirt for a towel before slipping back into his clothes. Such a voyeur, James thought, but he could not wrest his gaze away from the sight of the pale skin disappearing inside the paler cloth. A rapier resheathed. James waited for his breathing to slow before he followed.
From the open window, the night air flowed cool and silent. James stared at his ceiling, groping for words with which to tame the images flashing through the moonlit fog in his mind.
The phone chirped. James managed to grab it without knocking it off the night table.
Check your e-mail. I agreed to rewrite a scene. I didn’t kill anyone. In the scene or otherwise.
James attached the edited document and hit send.
Under the shower, he closed his eyes and once again saw the lake.