The shitty thing was that Q had a boyfriend at the time – a ravishing, blond, public-school-boy wank fantasy of an actual, actual boyfriend. His name was Jeremy, he was an utter supercilious turd, and it gave Q the most massive horn.
One night they went out to the theatre in Drury Lane, picking their way across the wet cobbles with their elbows a hand’s breadth apart. Jeremy wore his charcoal herringbone with the collar turned up, and a glossy brogue with a dress sole that was slippery in the rain. Q, in his practical, rubber soles, had to make an effort to slow down and fall behind so that Jeremy could sniff and say, ‘Come on, Little Anorak’, like a house master in an indulgent mood.
Q darted sideways into his path, turned on his heel and stared at him hotly.
‘None of that, then,’ Jeremy said, and sidestepped neatly.
The rain gave up misting sideways and started to fall in earnest. Q flipped up the hood of his anorak – since Jeremy had started calling him Little Anorak, Q had been wearing it almost constantly. Jeremy sighed, opened his tall umbrella with a pointed shake, and began walking a step further away.
When the lights went down in the theatre, Q slid his knee slowly against the outside of Jeremy’s thigh. Jeremy allowed it a little while, then slowly but firmly pushed Q’s knee away with the back of his hand.
Q retreated for a minute or so, then did it again.
When the lights came up at the end, Jeremy stretched in his seat and said, ‘Has that cultured you up, Little Anorak?’
‘Oh, yes, sir!’ Q said. He pretended to have a lot of trouble climbing past Jeremy’s knees to get out.
As they pushed out through the crowded, perfumed foyer, Q was scheming enjoyably about how soon they could be alone.
‘Hello,’ a voice said from the crowd.
Q went through something like the stages of grief about it, in a split second in his mind. He replied, with cheerful surprise, ‘Hello!’
It was bloody Bond, twinkling at them both as he shouldered past in the crowd. Open-necked suit, very black and trim. His collarbones had a tan. Perhaps he’d been destroying million-pound technology in the tropics.
The roiling of the crowd would have made it hard to stop and talk, even if Q had wanted to. Bond winked, and pushed on. A woman standing next to Q saw the wink, and stood up straighter.
Outside on the cobblestones, Jeremy asked, a bit flatly, ‘Who was that?’
‘He’s just from work,’ Q said, zipping his anorak.
Jeremy arranged the collar of his coat. ‘Is he trying to pick up that woman?’ he said, amused.
Q craned over the crowd to peer back into the theatre. ‘I think he might be. He’s had half the admin girls.’
Jeremy raised an eyebrow.
Bond was leaning on the cloakroom counter, twinkling at full force at the woman attendant. If there was an operation going on in here that Q hadn’t been privy to, he would be livid.
On the tube home, Q tried to shoulder up against Jeremy slightly too much, but it was so crowded, the effect was lost.
‘What do you think it is about men like that?’ Jeremy said.
Men like Bond, he meant. Q was furious. ‘I don’t know,’ he said.
‘Of course you don’t,’ Jeremy said, with a touch of a sneer, and looked away.
They fucked desultorily over the back of the sofa at Q’s.
There was some enjoyment in imagining what they must look like: some boarding school porn. The golden captain of the cricket team, fully dressed for a night at the theatre but for the reddened cock erupting from his flies, was spearing his weedy little victim, who was stripped humiliatingly nude, his skinny body blue-veined and white.
The victim’s heavy-rimmed spectacles had fallen on the floor, an afterimage of violence.
In fact Q could not see anything, his face pressed in the seat cushions, held there by Jeremy’s hand braced heavy on the back of his neck. But these thoughts got his blood up enough that he threw Jeremy’s hand off and straightened up to get his own hand on himself.
Q really would have preferred to go back to Jeremy’s. There was a Chesterfield with a carved back that was enjoyably purgatorial against bare skin, and seemed to suggest a variety of imaginative scenarios.
Also, when you went to the other person’s house instead of yours, it was you who could decide when the night was over, by leaving.
On Sunday Q rang Jeremy’s doorbell to go out for brunch, wearing plimsolls.
‘What,’ Jeremy said, ‘are those?’
Q said, ‘How shall I be your Little Anorak if I’m taller than you?’
‘You’re not taller than me,’ Jeremy said.
‘Of course not – not when you’re wearing Cuban heels at ten thirty in the morning,’ Q said sunnily, and turned to lead the way out.
In fact, Q was perfectly satisfied that Jeremy had a good inch on him. As they passed some shop windows on the way to the brunch place, he was delighted to catch Jeremy assessing their figures next to each other in the glass.
Jeremy caught Q looking pleased.
Q wondered if he could get him to turn around and go home. He imagined Jeremy pressing him hard against something and hissing, You fucking little shit.
There was a short queue outside the place, which they joined. Immediately someone joined it after them. Q was obliged to accept that they were not going home.
Q liked to order the full English breakfast here, because it came with a fat, glossy sausage that he liked to spear and lift off the plate as if he was going to put it in his mouth whole, then look at Jeremy mildly.
On occasion, almost the whole brunch’s conversation was a silent one, in which Q interacted with his sausage, while Jeremy rolled his eyes discreetly.
They were seated, and ordered. Jeremy had what Q considered the only correct opinion about what to drink with breakfast, which was: both tea (earl grey) and coffee (café latte). They were to be ordered at the same time, so one would not have to catch the eye of the table service twice, but the tea was drunk at the start of the breakfast and the coffee towards the end. If the coffee had cooled a little by then, that was tolerable.
The tea arrived, in a pot to share. Q lifted the lid of the pot and stirred the contents briskly with a teaspoon, then replaced the lid. He poured milk in the two cups, then tea on top. Jeremy watched with approval. They were in accord on this, too: provided it was stirred to get some colour into it, an early, relatively weak cup could be enjoyed for its heat and brightness. A stronger flavour would appear in later cups.
They began drinking their first cups, gazing at each other.
One Sunday morning early in their acquaintance, Jeremy had got up to find Q with half Jeremy’s kitchen cupboards open, judgementally rejecting the teabags Jeremy left out for when he was in a hurry, and making leaf tea in a pot, unknowingly exactly how Jeremy liked it. Q was fairly sure that was the moment that Jeremy had decided he might like to actually go out with Q, rather than just text him occasionally to come over and drop his trousers.
Some children ran past across the glossy green tiles, shrieking. Jeremy gazed at them superciliously, and Q watched.
The coffee arrived, and they both set it aside without comment.
From the corner of his eye, Q saw someone stepping out of the queue of people waiting beside a brass rail to be seated, but assumed it was nothing to do with him. So he was startled when a voice said, ‘Hello! How good are the omelettes here?’
It was Bond.
‘I wouldn’t know. I’m not an omelette man,’ Q said.
‘James,’ Bond said to Jeremy, sticking out his hand.
Bond’s handshake was visibly firmer than Jeremy’s.
Bond wore slim-cut black jeans and a faux-military khaki shirt, untucked. He was given away as a real navy man by the sleeves being rolled up, regulation-style, to a deep cuff above the elbow, ironed in place. He did not look middle-aged at all, which Q had often comforted himself that Bond surely must when not dressed by the service.
‘Looking forward to Malta?’ Bond said.
‘Absolutely. Haven’t had a good sunburn in years.’ Q showed Bond his hand, which was very pale.
‘Well, you’re the brains of the operation; don’t wipe yourself out completely. Unless it’s with booze and I’m joining you.’
The food arrived. Q’s sausage glistened plumply on the plate.
‘All right, I won’t keep you from your breakfast,’ Bond said. ‘Have a good one.’
‘You too,’ Q said.
Bond edged around a few tables to join the woman he was with – they must have been at the head of the queue when Bond had stepped away, and she’d been shown to their table in the meantime. She was wearing what might be last night’s dress, with a clean face and scraped-back hair. Q did not remember the theatre cloakroom woman well enough to be able to tell if it was her.
Bond and the woman were only two tables away, so the cadence of their voices, though not the words themselves, carried over the background noise. Jeremy spoke with a lowered voice: ‘What’s this about Malta?’
‘Oh,’ Q said, with a smile that he hoped came across as silly, ‘it’s just the Wales thing. They found some money in a budget that had to be used or they’d lose it. So now it’s Malta. Should be nice. Have to find my passport.’
‘What does he mean, you’re the brains of the operation?’
‘Oh, it’s just because I have to do all the paperwork, while they get drunk and talk big.’
Jeremy tapped the butt of his knife on the table.
Q’s official cover at this time was a senior actuary, rather a boy wonder, in the London branch of a specialist Swiss re-insurance company. But he had told Jeremy he was an admin officer. Also, the upcoming conference, which was a cover for an operation, had always been in Malta. It had just seemed better to say it was Wales to Jeremy.
Jeremy ate quickly, in a business-like manner, as though he was alone. He did not look up to see whether Q was doing anything with the sausage at all.
Afterwards, they were waiting to cross the road. ‘You don’t have anything at mine you need to pick up?’ Jeremy said.
‘No,’ Q said.
The green man came up.
‘All right, then, see you later,’ Jeremy said, and walked off, leaving Q behind.
Q had not got a text from Jeremy in four days. He was livid.
It was the first day of an R&D trial with live subjects, and Q would be sitting in to observe the trial design being put into practice. He began the day with Higgins, the lead researcher, coming to Q’s office with coffee to brief him on the arrangements.
Higgins was in his late thirties, going to seed a bit. He’d been sceptical of baby-faced Q at first, but Q was used to that, and had immediately scrutinised every project Higgins had in progress, plus the last six months’ worth he’d thought he’d finished. Any scientist Q considered worth his time, he’d discovered, actually loved being corrected, once they’d had a moment to recover. Higgins had turned out to be worth his time, and they were very cordial now.
Q was impressed with Higgins’ trial design, but had some doubts about his strategy to mitigate the low sample size. Cleverly, Higgins planned to test each subject twice, in random order, with a gap of a day in between: once with the tech enabled, and once disabled as a control.
Q thought a two- or even three-day gap would give better assurance that having completed the previous test was not affecting current performance. Higgins agreed, but worried it would blow the timeline out. Q wondered if they could bring in a second, identical treadmill to test with, but neither of them knew what would be involved as far as calibration, so they agreed to revisit that another day.
They swilled off the rest of their coffees and went down to the training room they’d taken over for the trial.
Inside the training room was Bond.
Bond’s hands were shoved in his pockets with a careless vigour that would have alarmed his tailor. He was looking out the window.
Bond turned at the sound of the door. He startled affably and said, ‘Fancy meeting you here.’
‘Know each other?’ Higgins asked.
Q had not finished considering his answer when Bond scoffed, ‘Not in the biblical sense.’ He twinkled.
‘Shall I just?’ Bond said, and dropped his trousers.
‘There’s a dressing screen,’ Higgins said.
‘Oh, we’re all friends here,’ Bond said.
Bond took all his clothes off, barring underwear, then wandered behind the screen to hang them up. Emerging, he presented himself to Higgins, who had him move to the treadmill for the application of electrodes. At last, Higgins gave Bond the thing itself: it was disguised as a discreet gold signet ring. Bond put it on his little finger.
‘Right,’ Higgins said, ‘it’ll be a thirty-second walking warm-up, then off you go. I’ll set the speed – don’t touch the controls yourself, please, unless you’re in trouble for some reason and you need the stop button.’
Bond began to walk, prompted by the treadmill.
At once it occurred to Q that they’d failed to control for stride length – if the set speed was the same, the shorter-legged subjects would be working harder.
Perhaps Bond could be thrown out of the study as a methodologically spoiled result.
Bond began to run.
Bond wore low-rise, crisply black briefs with a Y-front seam piped in red and a white brand label sewn artfully off-centre on the outside – they looked like they cost a fortune. The cotton was thick; the effect of his running on the treadmill was not obscene. Also, Q suspected him of waxing. But then, age was often kinder to blond men in the body hair department.
He was a jowly old bulldog, and not Q’s type at all, but there was a certain compulsion in looking.
Did anyone really need stomach muscles that defined? Bond had a very physical occupation, yes, but he could have stopped several increments of effort sooner, if function were the objective. Jeremy did go to the gym, Q thought, but he had the taste not to rub one’s nose in it.
‘What is your cover name, in case I run into you again?’ Bond’s voice was barely strained. ‘I’ve only just got away without it so far.’
‘Why would you run into me again?’ Q said.
Bond knew very well that Q was young for the service and not a field agent, which made him unlikely to be using a cover name in civilian life.
‘Same reason I did before,’ Bond said.
This was not a denial that there had been a reason, Q noted.
Q’s question had already flirted too closely with an accusation he was not yet ready to make. He had seen Bond in public twice in a fortnight, after never seeing him before. But Bond needling him about it did not prove Bond had masterminded it.
‘Is it something dreadful? Algernon?’ Bond jogged, sprightly.
‘It’s need-to-know,’ Q said, with the voice he used to use on Higgins before they discovered they liked each other. In his peripheral vision, Higgins stiffened.
‘Well, I’ll need to know in –’ Bond checked himself with a wince and a grin. ‘In that forthcoming matter.’
He had been about to say Malta.
‘And that forthcoming matter, Bond,’ Q said, ‘is need-to-know for a group of people that does not include everyone in the room.’
Both he and Bond involuntarily glanced at Higgins. To Q’s shame, Higgins startled and looked mortified.
‘How fast does that treadmill go?’ Q asked Higgins.
Higgins looked confused.
‘And is there any chance of a pit of alligators being put behind it?’ Q said.
‘I’ve actually been in a pit of alligators,’ Bond said. ‘A certain kind of Colombian drug lord loves that sort of thing. Luckily they’re quite clumsy creatures, so when you’ve got a lot of them in a tight space, they’re pretty easy to dodge.’
‘Yes, dear,’ Q said.
‘How’s your heartrate going?’ Bond said.
On Saturday night, Q brought Jeremy out to The Stallion and Rider, which was where they had met. It was a Victorian terrace that styled itself as a nineteenth-century leather-upholstered gentleman’s club downstairs, and a sex club with a hose-able floor upstairs.
Q was at his best in a maroon velvet jacket, posing louchely on good upholstery, so never went upstairs. The night they’d met, he had been lounging alone on a studded-leather ottoman, nursing a pint and declining to bother looking at anyone.
Jeremy had sat down across from him, directly in his line of sight, and stared at him, as if in pompous distaste. A gorgeous blond arsewipe of a public-school boy, dressed like an out-of-court barrister but with breathtakingly tighter trousers.
They had stared so long, it had seemed the prelude to violence.
‘Do you want to go to mine?’ Jeremy had said, at last.
‘Presumptuous,’ Q had said.
‘Always,’ Jeremy had replied.
Q had allowed himself half a smile, before he got up, with some difficulty due to half a hard-on, and proved the presumption valid.
Tonight they sat in a booth, thigh to thigh. Jeremy stared out at the crowd.
‘Upon whom are you passing judgement?’ Q teased. ‘Do tell.’
Jeremy started. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that one.’
He meant a very twinky boy with glitter in his hair, not as pretty as he thought he was, laughing very loudly in a hideously cockney tone while sitting on someone’s lap – not entirely consensually, if the body language was anything to go by.
‘What about this one?’ Q said quietly, meaning a man at the bar who looked like he’d been slouching in a beanbag in the same suit continuously for a fortnight. ‘Do you think the iron his mum gave him for his first housewarming has ever come out of the box?’
Jeremy turned his head to smile at Q. They were sitting so tight against each other, their faces were too close for comfortable conversation. Q held Jeremy’s eye silently, and neither of them withdrew.
Anyone else would have leant in for a kiss.
Q curled his hand all the way around the inside of Jeremy’s thigh. Jeremy crinkled the corner of his eye, a little derisively, and looked away.
Q had got a horn. Jeremy was now ignoring him. It was delicious.
‘You two!’ Bond said, jolly. ‘Can I sit?’
Bond did not wait for a reply, but took the other side of the booth, sprawling, in blue jeans and a very white shirt with two buttons undone. He had a glass of white wine, which he probably thought was how you went undercover in a gay bar. Jeremy and Q were both drinking lager.
‘It was James, wasn’t it,’ Jeremy said.
‘Yes, and you were Jeremy,’ Bond said. ‘And of course I know you,’ he said to Q.
‘Anyone’d think you were stalking young Matthew, here,’ Jeremy said.
Bond looked at Q brightly. Q felt pure rage.
‘Who could resist stalking young Matthew?’ Bond said.
Jeremy looked off on the diagonal.
‘I’ve not been here before,’ Bond said.
‘No, I didn’t think you had,’ Q said. It came out combative.
‘Is it always so quiet?’ Bond went on. He swirled his wine in his glass, as if at a tasting. It was probably house white, and terrible.
‘Plenty of noise upstairs,’ Jeremy said.
‘I’ll have to check it out,’ Bond said, cheerfully.
There was a silence.
‘What line of work are you in, Jeremy?’ Bond said sociably.
Q was on a train, travelling at speed; he could not see how to get off.
‘I’m a photo-stylist,’ Jeremy said, ‘for an advertising agency.’ In fact it was a very famous advertising agency, but Jeremy did not like to name it.
‘What a pair!’ Bond said. ‘How on earth did you end up with an actuary?’
A moment’s blankness on Jeremy’s face.
‘Has he worked out when you’re going to die?’ Bond said.
‘Has he worked out when you’re going to die?’ Jeremy replied.
Bond beamed. ‘I’ll have a look in upstairs,’ he said, and got up.
When Bond was gone, Q was afraid to speak, or move.
‘Why do you keep bullshitting me about your job?’ Jeremy said at last. ‘I don’t give a toss, and I haven’t the foggiest why you’d think I would.’
Q tried to think of what to say, and did not succeed.
Jeremy scratched the back of his own head. ‘It’s just weird to lie about it, isn’t it? It makes me look like a right knob when this guy comes along.’ Jeremy gestured in the direction of Bond’s departure.
‘It is weird. It really is weird. I’m not going to tell you it isn’t weird.’ Q said.
Jeremy folded his hands.
‘I think I just came up with it the first night we were together because I thought you’d like it, for some… nebulous reason,’ Q said, limply. ‘I didn’t know we were going to see each other again, so I didn’t see any harm in it.’
Still Jeremy did not say anything.
‘Then I didn’t see how I could take it back without sounding like a nutter.’ Q was being disingenuous: he had never wanted to take it back.
‘It did put you in a weird position with him,’ Q finished, meaning Bond, ‘so: sorry.’
Jeremy was leaning his elbows on the table, staring out into the room, as if he was alone.
‘Are you fucking him?’ Jeremy said.
‘That would really be a fucked-up thing to lie about. We never said we were exclusive or whatever, so I don’t even see why you would. But I’m just telling you, that would be a fucked-up thing to lie to my face about.’
‘Before that time at the theatre, I never even saw him outside work!’
Jeremy did not speak to Q all the way home on the tube. He came back to Q’s, then gave Q a brisk hand job, verging on hostile, fully dressed and standing upright in the kitchen, his arms clamped around Q from behind. Q would normally have enjoyed it.
Q came with a weak cry into Jeremy’s rather beautiful, long-fingered hand. But Jeremy stepped away, leaving Q staggering, and went and rinsed his hand under the tap. He dried it – unhygienically, Q thought later – on a tea towel. ‘See you,’ he said flatly, and left, still with a tent in his trousers, before Q had recovered enough to speak.
Q was not sure whether he expected to see him again.
Changing the test interval in the trial meant Q had to come to work to help Higgins the next day, Sunday.
‘On my way up,’ he texted Higgins, from the front entrance.
‘Can you spell me when you get up so I can grab a sandwich?’ Higgins replied.
‘Y,’ Q texted back.
When he got upstairs, Q knocked on the training room door. Higgins emerged, said, ‘Thanks mate. Five minutes?’ and left.
Q went in.
It was Bond. He was running on the treadmill, covered in a light sheen of sweat, his hair standing up with it.
Of course it was Bond. Q had told Higgins to adjust the test interval to three days – three days ago.
‘Hello,’ Bond said.
Q did not reply. He sat on a stool and looked at the charts. He discovered that clever Higgins had not thrown Bond’s data out because they’d failed to control for stride length. Instead he had specified Bond, who was of just over average height, as the nominal normal stride length for the study.
Bond had sky-blue briefs today, with white piping and a black label. He was beginning to sweat through them.
‘Hope I didn’t drop you in it with your friend,’ Bond ventured.
‘If I’ve got my hand on his inner thigh at a gay bar – if we go out to brunch and share a pot of tea, for heaven’s sake – then he’s not my friend, Bond.’
‘Your boyfriend, then.’
Q had a sense of Bond’s game. Q was supposed to deny there was anything wrong. Bond would ignore him and continue to proffer his sympathy, buttery with concern, until Q was taunted into insisting too much.
‘You did drop me in it,’ Q said. ‘And I am extremely fucked off with you about it.’
Bond’s stride faltered slightly. ‘Sorry. Didn’t mean any harm.’
‘I’m not sure I believe that,’ Q said. ‘Why are you following me?’
‘I’m not.’ Bond looked down. ‘I can see why you’d think so. Three times in a row! But no: it was quite an accident. I just couldn’t resist saying hello.’
It sounded plausible. Q could not tell, could not tell at all.
‘Obviously it’s none of my business,’ Bond said, ‘but why did you change your cover with him? He seems to think you’re the mail boy.’
‘Not obviously enough, apparently.’
Bond gave a small smile.
Abruptly, Q found he did want to answer after all. ‘How much time have you spent as the cleverest person in the room? I assure you, it is tiresome in the extreme.’
‘You’re the princess who wants to marry the baker.’ Bond laughed.
‘I hardly think one can call a gay man a princess in the modern workplace, thank you, Bond.’
‘No, fair cop,’ Bond said.
‘What were you doing there last night, then, if you weren’t following me?’
‘What do you think?’ Bond said. It was the same smile with which he said virtually everything.
There was a knock. Higgins had returned.
They carried on a while longer, till Higgins said to Bond, ‘Sorry, do you remember the conversation we had earlier?’
‘Oh, about the?’ Bond pointed at his lower body.
‘Yes, sorry. It does seem to be messing up the readings a bit,’ Higgins said. ‘I’ll slow the treadmill down for you.’
He slowed it till Bond was at a walk, let it carry on that way about a minute, then brought it to a stop.
Bond stepped off. He hooked his thumbs into his briefs, and looked Q in the eye, cheeks dimpling.
Higgins had been sufficiently implicated in this that it did not seem possible for Q to accuse Bond of anything.
Bond lifted the waistband of the briefs over his cock, slid them down his legs and tossed them aside.
It was a pleasing cock: moderately sized, thick shaft, narrow head, neat foreskin. Q could have wished it were small, or ugly in some way.
‘For heaven’s sake,’ Q said, ‘is that a solarium tan?’
Bond faced him, hands on hips. His cock jiggled. ‘Do I seem to you to be a man who would get a solarium tan?’
In the corner of his eye, Q saw Higgins take a step towards the discarded briefs, as though to pick them up and tidy them away, but then hesitate and decide not to.
‘There are some beaches on the Mediterranean I must introduce you to,’ Bond said.
Bond got on the treadmill, and Higgins set it moving.
Soon Bond was jogging again. Q put his hand over his eyes.
‘Very sorry if you’ve not seen one before,’ Bond said.
‘Thank you, I’ve seen a few, as I’m sure you can guess.’ Q could not bring himself to remove his hand.
‘Sorry, I do need you to…’ Higgins said.
‘You do need me to look,’ Q said, ‘at the equipment.’ He took his hand away from his eyes, and looked at the equipment.
The equipment was very near Bond’s penis. Bond jogged, smiling mildly into space.
The character Q’s real name in some of the pre-Daniel-Craig canon was Major Geoffrey Boothroyd. I have rejected this history and given Q a new identity because (1) this Q is new to the job at the beginning of Skyfall, having just taken over from someone older; (2) the Craig movies are a universe reboot anyway; (3) I don’t feel, subjectively, as though Skyfall Q has a military background. Also I just like the name I chose better. :)
Amusingly, when I wrote Bond taunting Q about whether his name was Algernon, I did not know that Q’s name was Algernon in the unofficial James Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983).
The hotel in Malta was enormous, white and glass-fronted, like a giant, pristinely clean box fan, ten floors high. It had exclusive control of the eastern end of a wide, white beach like the rind on a melon. A jewel-green sea shaded gradually to peacock blue in the distance. At the other end of the beach was a pastel fibreboard jumble of tourist town, which spilled refreshment carts, umbrellas and the sweaty bodies of the downmarket public onto the sand – one might gaze at them, small in the distance, from the hotel’s white sun loungers.
The sandbar that formed the shallows was so wide that one had to walk a hundred metres or more to get deep enough to swim. Q ventured it only once in the heat of the day, and returned feeling suspiciously warm across the shoulders; his suspicions were confirmed when his skin came up pale pink overnight. Thereafter he saved his swimming for dusk, and if he had off-shift time when the sun was high, spent it at a white table beneath a twisted aleppo pine, working his way through prodigious quantities of pastizzi. Eventually he branched out and discovered a dish of squid stuffed with three kinds of shellfish in a sort of glorious seafood massacre. The local red wine, which was curiously pale, almost a rosé, arrived in carafes.
As far as work trips went, this one was getting five gold stars and a friendly suck in the gents so far.
When he was on shift, Q sat with another agent or two on a balcony on the third floor, and monitored Bond on a laptop. They drank chinotto, refraining from the wine, but showed no restraint towards the pastizzi at all.
Bond, wearing nothing but very small, very white swimming shorts and a certain gold signet ring, jogged up and down the beach, splashing in the pale-green shallows. He was either so pre-weathered he could no longer burn in the sun, or he had found someone to put lotion on his back for him. From time to time he would run in deeper and dunk himself, then carry on.
The signet ring contained an oscilloscope, a heartrate monitor, a location tracker, and a slot for a fourth chip that was mission-specific. On this mission the slot was filled by an electromagnetic scrambler – which Bond was to use to sabotage a case of guided missiles believed to be in the possession of a member of the Bulgarian mafia who was staying in this hotel. The tracker was kinetically activated, the idea being that it would cease to operate when the wearer was standing still, so that an enemy running a radio scanner over a captured agent ought not to be able to find it.
Bond was clearly in rude health just now. They saw his figure, tiny from here, cavorting about on the sand. Now he ran into the water and dipped his head, then tossed it back like a horse and ran on. The oscilloscope confirmed his speed of travel, but his heartrate never got above the aerobic zone.
Now he had stopped and was talking to some women. As designed, the location tracker stopped. The oscilloscope showed zero steps – but the heartrate escalated slightly.
The agent sitting next to Q breathed out through his nose.
Now Bond was off jogging again, and passed out of their view, towards the far end of the private section of the beach. They followed him with the tracker on their screen.
Now the oscilloscope showed him taking very large, irregular steps, with his heartrate escalating. He was probably climbing the rocks at the end of the sand, to get a look at the points of entry to the hotel grounds on that side. It was a good idea. Who, Q asked himself, would suspect a man climbing some rocks in such tiny shorts of anything but exuberance?
Now Bond was back on the beach, jogging, heartrate low in the aerobic zone. He stopped in front of the women again. Again the heartrate escalated.
Bond and one of the women were walking back towards the hotel. Step rate was low, heartrate high. They passed out of view of the balcony, and the tracker showed them entering the lobby.
Now both the tracker and the oscilloscope cut out. ‘Are they in the lift?’ said the agent next to Q.
‘Yes, I think so,’ Q said.
The tracker came online again, and the oscilloscope showed walking pace.
Now the tracker was on, but stationary. ‘They’re in a room,’ the agent said. ‘Shame we can’t tell which floor, with this thing. Surely it ought to be able to work out the height above sea level, or something?’
‘We did consider that in the design phase,’ Q said, trying not to be irritated. ‘But it’s a very small device.’
The oscilloscope showed Bond making erratic movements. Heartrate was high, above the aerobic zone now, and still escalating.
Now the oscilloscope showed swift, steady, repetitive movements.
The agent snickered.
Q looked at him. The agent had got a bad sunburn with his sunglasses on, and looked like a psychedelically photoshopped panda.
Q wished for Higgins. With Higgins, he could at least have treated this as an opportunity for scientific observation.
‘Why didn’t we just order the wine,’ Q said.
‘A cigarette would be more customary,’ the agent said.
They all had dinner in the hotel restaurant that night, in their capacity as insurance analysts on a corporate retreat. Regretfully, Q put on his most actuarial long-sleeved white shirt, and some terrible beige chinos he had always been sorry to have bought and which he had done his best to uncrumple with the iron attached to the inside of the wardrobe. Bond arrived in a much sharper white shirt than Q’s, and a beautifully fitted pair of navy flat-fronted trousers with a tan belt and shoes. A whole table of women openly elbowed each other in comment as he walked past.
Most of the agents had been turned into cubist paintings by sunburn. Bond looked at them with a smile, then reached across the table and lifted Q’s open shirt collar away from his collarbone, to inspect the skin below – which was the palest at the table. Q fought the urge to retreat. ‘Well done,’ Bond said.
Q pressed a finger for a second into the skin above his collarbone, showing Bond the spot coming up bright white against the rest, which was indeed lightly burned. ‘You just can’t tell because I’m usually pale blue.’
‘English rose,’ Bond said, and winked.
‘You are actually insufferable. Actually, actually insufferable,’ Q said. ‘Why don’t I have any wine?’
‘You’ve suffered me heroically so far,’ Bond said. He was not at the head of the table, but managed to summon the waiter with a single gesture.
‘Have you tried the girgentina?’ Bond said. This was the local white wine.
‘I only got to the pink one, and it was so good I never moved on,’ Q said.
‘Let’s have both,’ Bond said.
The others up the table wanted cabernet franc. ‘Let’s have that as well,’ Bond said.
Q ordered the rabbit stew, on Bond’s recommendation; it was excellent. Bond had the copiously stuffed squid on Q’s, and moaned aloud.
After dinner, Q got out a ledger-ruled notebook and tried to write in it in an appropriately actuarial manner. He summoned Bond to come around the table and sit beside him, so they could speak in an undertone. ‘Do you think you have our man?’ Q said.
Immediately a waiter leant past Q’s shoulder to clear a carafe, and Q started. He had not sensed anyone there.
‘Yes,’ Bond said, unconcerned. ‘I think he’s going to be the one. He’s been playing it cool, but the prestige of our name has gone a very long way, in my judgement. We should make him an offer next week.’
‘A long recruitment process, then,’ Q said, inventing wildly, ‘but a good outcome. Cheers.’
Bond lifted his glass. With misgivings, Q lifted his, too, and drank.
Q tried to check where the waiter was, without looking too concerned.
Bond clapped a collegial arm around Q, and said, ‘What I’m suggesting is…’ He leant over and wrote something in Q’s notebook. When Q looked, Bond had written, ‘It’s fine.’
‘I drank too much, I’m sorry,’ Q muttered.
Bond leant over again and double-underlined It’s fine.
Bond had drawn the attention of the agent on Q’s other side. ‘Making friends earlier, Bond?’ the agent said, suggestively, blowing red wine past Q’s face.
Q had written an observation note about the performance of the oscilloscope when Bond was in the room with the woman, which they must all have read by now.
‘I’m a friendly fellow,’ Bond said, twinkling. Bond turned to face the agent. Bond’s thigh was now pressed along Q’s, and Q, crowded, was breathed upon boozily from both sides. Q had to quash an instinct to fight free. He thought irritably of Bond sliding into the booth at The Stallion and Rider.
‘I’m hoping to spot the, uh, right friend for me, any minute now,’ the agent said. He and Bond carried on chatting sleazily in this vein.
Finally Q could not take it anymore, and shrugged his shoulders, as if casually. Bond took the hint and removed his arm.
‘Do you think I’ll drown if I go swimming now?’ Q said, to no one in particular. He could hear that his voice had a lilt of drunkenness.
‘You’re mad,’ the agent said.
‘I’ll come,’ Bond said. ‘Quarter of an hour since we ate, at least. By the time we go up and change…’
Ten minutes later, Q opened the door of his room to find Bond in the hall, wearing nothing but his white swimming shorts.
‘Bloody hell, all right, I’m overdressed,’ Q said, and withdrew back inside.
Bond followed him in, uninvited. Bond was carrying a hotel towel, which he put down on the bed, and a tall yellow bottle with two shot glasses upturned over the cap. He turned the shot glasses upright on a bedside table and sat on the bed to pour a pale yellow liquid into them.
He stood up, holding the shots, and watched Q take his shirt and trousers off.
When Q was down to his own, navy swimming shorts, he accepted the proffered glass from Bond.
‘Limoncello,’ Bond said. ‘Freshen you up.’
It was difficult to remember to be angry with him.
‘Freshen me up.’ Q looked at it. ‘We are definitely going to drown.’
‘I’ll save you, darling,’ Bond said. ‘Chin chin.’ He threw his shot back, Adam’s apple surging in his thick-tendoned neck.
Q took his, too. It was deliciously lemony, violently alcoholic and burned like fire. He coughed.
Bond patted his back, rather handsily.
Bond had tiny brown pin-prick freckles all over his shoulders and pectorals, which were otherwise camouflaged by his tan when seen from further away. Bond carried on patting Q’s back, even after he had stopped coughing.
Q stepped away. ‘Do women often slap you?’
‘You like a bit of that, do you?’ Bond picked up his towel.
Out in the hall, a large man in a dark suit nearly ran them down. ‘Skużani!’ he said, with a curious, un-Maltese accent, and hurried on.
Bond looked after him a moment.
Q was stymied for where to put his key card, now that he’d closed the door, carrying only a towel. His shorts, as close-fitting as Bond’s though more modestly cut, had no pockets. ‘All right, where have you put your card?’ Q looked at Bond’s shorts. When he raised his gaze, Bond’s eyes were waiting for him.
‘Wouldn’t you like to know,’ Bond said.
They went only rib-deep into the water, then crouched down. It was not the clear green glass of the daylight sea, but a roiling, liquid-tinfoil surface over blackness, which felt far more liable to knock you over.
Q’s wine-hot, sunburnt skin loved it. ‘All right, please do save me if required. I’m putting my head under,’ he announced. He bounced upwards slightly for leverage, then launched himself down as if to sit flat on the sandy bottom. Cold water flooded his scalp deliciously; he shook his head like a dog.
When he came up, Bond’s hand was on the small of his back, guiding. ‘All right,’ Q said, a bit critically, and shook his head again out in the air, so that Bond grunted laughingly and moved away.
They bobbed a while, skimming their arms along the surface to stay upright. Q had left his glasses on his towel and could see only a general impression of Bond’s face; the eyes were black shadows.
‘What were you doing in The Stallion and Rider?’ Q said.
‘What do you think I was doing?’ Bond said.
‘I’ve already admitted I thought you were following me, at the time. But apparently I’ve got a slightly inflated sense of my own importance.’
‘Only slightly inflated, I’m sure. You are very important.’
But Bond said nothing.
‘Oh please,’ Q said, ‘you like women like a dog likes farts.’
There was a pause. Salt was burning pleasantly in Q’s sinuses.
‘Dogs like things other than farts,’ Bond said. ‘This is a terrible metaphor, Q.’
‘Pick whatever metaphor you like.’ Q flicked a little water at Bond.
‘Do you really want to go down this road?’ Bond churned the heel of his hand threateningly through the water.
‘No! No,’ Q said. ‘Just come on. Mercy!’
‘Well, I was there looking for men to have sex with,’ Bond said, with terrible patience.
‘Oh,’ Q said, stupidly.
‘Normally I go to the Queen’s Arms but I’d heard good things about this one.’
Q swallowed carefully. ‘Did you have any luck?’
‘Honestly, downstairs wasn’t terribly sociable, and upstairs was all coked up twits with too much hair gel.’
‘Oh, I’m not saying I didn’t get my end away. Just not…’
‘In the style to which you’re accustomed?’ Q joked, weakly.
‘No.’ The humour in Bond’s voice was surely offered in charity.
‘Sorry, I’ve been a bit of an arse about this, haven’t I,’ Q said.
‘It’s all right,’ Bond said. ‘It’s a fair assumption. I don’t fuck men on the job much because people get rather weird about it. Which I imagine you’ve experienced yourself.’
‘Yes,’ Q said.
Bond stood up and tossed his wet hair out of his face. One imagined the water streaming off all the many contours of his chest in the moonlight – though alas, one could not see without glasses.
‘Still in the doghouse with that boyfriend of yours?’ Bond asked.
‘Not sure I’m in any kind of house.’
‘It’s all right. Let’s just say it was an interesting relationship.’
‘Interesting-good or interesting-bad?’
‘Let’s just say, sometimes I’d like to go and live in a hole in the ground in the woods and never speak to anyone ever again.’
Bond’s laugh was genuine, now.
‘You know, I don’t actually do boyfriends,’ Bond said. ‘So I only know what woman-trouble is like. I often wonder if man-trouble is the same, or different.’
‘I can’t really tell you, relatively speaking,’ Q said. ‘I’ve never had girlfriends.’
There were deep shadows bracketing Bond’s mouth.
‘Sometimes I’m tempted to think, oh, at least you’d get less drama from the family if you were with women,’ Q said, ‘but then I think of my brother’s girlfriend, who got drunk and groped my uncle’s cock. And then, we realised later, while everyone was arguing about it in the other room, she’d got into my granny’s purse.’
‘That’s not bad,’ Bond said, ‘but my girlfriend once joined an international terrorist conspiracy and embezzled a hundred and fifteen million dollars from the British government. Had me beaten so nastily, I was infertile for about three years.’
Vesper Lynd, Q thought with wonder. It was clear sympathy was unwelcome.
‘We’re a depressing pair,’ Q said.
‘Sing it, sister.’ Bond smiled.
A wave chucked Q under the chin.
‘Are you cold?’ Bond said. ‘Shall we go in?’
‘Yeah,’ Q said.
The next day, Q sat on the balcony wearing the least terrible pair of sunglasses he’d been able to find in the hotel gift shop, propped over the top of his prescription glasses. This had the effect of making the laptop screen fairly illegible. He would just have to trust that the agent beside him, Stephens, was on top of it. Q could not even get as far as lifting the sunglasses without feeling that he was being stabbed in the eye with a serrated steak knife.
‘Bond popped your cherry last night?’ Stephens had said, watching Q wobbling over the coffee tray at the start of the shift.
Q had tossed his espresso back like a shot, and stared at Stephens. ‘You wish he’d popped yours.’
They had spent the rest of the shift in silence.
Bond had either changed tack today, or was as under the weather as Q. He was fully dressed, in bone linen slacks and a short-sleeved blue shirt, wandering among the tables of the hotel terrace in the shade of the trees.
After lunch, Bond disappeared from the balcony’s view for a while. The general contours of the image on the laptop screen did not change much, so he could not have gone far.
Bond re-emerged into view, carrying a drink. He was standing beside a table, introducing himself to a dark-haired, pale-skinned man in a taupe suit. Bond sat down at the table. They spoke a while, Bond leaning forward on his elbows, the man leaning back, arms folded.
When Bond leant back, it marked the end of the conversation. Bond stood up, made a toasting gesture with his glass, and walked on.
Now he was further down the terrace, speaking to a woman.
Now he came back into the hotel alone, passing out of sight.
Carefully, Q removed his sunglasses. It was not as painful as he had feared – strong coffee and the passage of the day had done him good.
The tracker showed Bond in the lobby, and then transmission ceased as he got in the lift. Now he was moving laterally through the hotel. Back to his own room? Or did he have an assignation with a woman?
Or a man, Q thought.
The tracker cut out and the oscilloscope showed no movement. Gradually, heartrate declined.
‘Is he napping?’ Stephens said.
Involuntarily, Q glanced behind him into the room, where a tautly made white bed was scattered in throw cushions. Would it be terribly unprofessional of Q to nap, and ask Stephens to wake him if anything happened? He suddenly wanted to so badly, he did not trust his judgement.
Bond came on the comms. ‘Gentlemen, I’ve got a meeting set up for four o’clock this afternoon. Shall I pop upstairs and brief you?’
‘Yes, good idea,’ Q said, ‘but wait till the corridor’s empty to knock.’
‘Of course,’ Bond said patiently, and left the channel.
The line was not clear enough that his tone could be interpreted with confidence. But no doubt he had not needed to be told. Q pushed down his embarrassment, and got up to make fresh coffee from the supplies in the kitchenette. He did not care to have room service come in when they were all here.
Fairly shortly, Bond knocked.
Q let him in, saying, ‘Hello!’ Something about it was too boisterous. How had he said hello to Bond previously?
‘Hello!’ Bond said, and came in.
Bond saw the coffee. ‘Oh good,’ he said, and helped himself. He offered Q one with a questioning gesture with an empty cup.
Q said, ‘Yes, please.’
‘I don’t much care for the tea here,’ Bond said, flipping through the sachets of this and that beside the kettle. ‘I’ve been sticking to the coffee.’
‘No, me too,’ Q said. ‘I mean, it’s no worse than bad English tea. But I don’t go for that either.’
‘Is there any left for me?’ Stephens asked.
‘Oh, hello, Stephens,’ Bond said.
Stephens got himself coffee too, and they wandered to the balcony. ‘So,’ Bond said, ‘I’m pretty sure the missiles are in a room on the sixth floor. I’ve now been told this chap’s employer will see me at four, so –’
The door flew in.
The figure of $115 million embezzled by Vesper Lynd during the events of Casino Royale comes from a critique of the climactic poker game that I found on reddit. :)
You could not experience it happening while it was happening. It was too fast, too intolerable to both reason and imagination.
You could only experience it having already happened. Someone had kicked the door down and sprayed them with automatic weapon fire. Stephens was down, on his back, his torso a ruin of blood, face desperate. Q’s eyes were caught by his eyes as if by hooks.
Bond had returned fire, shot someone. Fire paused a moment; Bond shoved the laptop at Q and half threw him over the gap to the next balcony. Q fell and lost his glasses, then found them, one lens blurry now. Bond shoved the second balcony’s door open and dragged Q inside.
They bolted out into the corridor. Bond hurled his body into the door opposite, knocking it down. A woman screamed inside and they rushed in anyway, gunfire following. ‘Sorry!’ Bond managed in passing.
Out onto that balcony and leaping two balcony gaps this time. Q was with the program now, laptop under one arm, using the other to vault, heart wild, head all hot noise. When Bond stopped him by the door back to the hall in this room, and held a finger to his lips, Q was almost angry.
Bond listened at the door.
A clunk – of the next door along opening. Bond surged out of their door.
A shot sounded.
‘Q,’ Bond’s voice said.
Q darted his head around the door frame. Bond was there, in the next doorway along, lowering his gun.
‘It’s all right.’ Bond stepped back. Q understood, then: Bond had circled back on their remaining pursuer and shot him in the back.
Now Bond made a beckoning gesture and dashed back to the door of the first room. Q came to the doorway and saw Bond out on the balcony, checking for Stephens’ pulse.
Q could already tell from here. There was something about the body: it was just a bag of meat.
Bond shook his head, and came back to Q.
‘Got to get to the missiles. You destroy this’ – Bond tapped the laptop in Q’s arms – ‘and get down to the garage and hide and wait for me. Don’t get into the cars, though – they may know about them. Just hide.’
Bond took off at a run for the far end of the floor.
Q wanted to go after him.
It seemed imperative to know which way the gunmen had come from, so that Q could go the other way. But he did not know.
He ran the opposite way to Bond.
No one in the stairwell for one floor, two… then his heart stopped. There was someone below.
Not running, though. Not heavy on their feet. He peered into the stairwell, saw a soiled white jacket and apron, descending. A kitchenhand.
He looked down at himself, through the unbroken side of his glasses. There was blood spray on his clothes, spectacular. He could not let anyone see him.
He crept down to the next landing, keeping two landings between him and the kitchenhand. At last she left the stairwell – it was a woman, dark ponytail under a white cook’s toque. Now he dashed for it again, barrelling downstairs. His depth perception was off from the broken lens; it was a pell-mell rush into fog.
Ground floor landing now – let there be no health nut taking the stairs! No one: good.
Basement: no one. Their cars were at sub-basement. He rushed downwards, stumbled, and caught himself on the bannister, wrenching his arm.
At the sub-basement door, he stopped. What was within? Someone with a gun primed?
He had known this, intellectually, all the way down. But now it had become real.
He had already made all the calculations it was possible to make; there was nothing to decide. The only other way was to go up to the lobby, which would be full of people, walk out the front entrance onto the street, and enter the garage on foot via the car ramp. Covered in this blood spatter.
He had best not be rushing – not look like he was fleeing. If he was calm and businesslike, an ordinary person going to his car, perhaps any eye within would pass him over.
He put his hand on the door handle.
If he was to die now, was he happy with his life?
On the whole, yes. He had saved lives. He had taken some, too, including some he had not meant to, but the balance was in the black. He had helped the service defend Britain. He was too ironic to say so at a party, but he thought Britain worth defending.
He did feel rather sorry for his parents. They were, you might say, normal people, and he was not, and he had been incomprehensible to them at his best, contemptuous at his worst.
Curiously, when he thought of Jeremy, he felt nothing.
He opened the door.
Nothing – no sound. A silent garage full of cars. But he had not stepped through the door yet – an ambusher would surely be waiting out of the door’s line of sight.
He stepped through.
Voices, now. His heart leapt.
It was two women, come out of another entrance, chatting gaily on their way to their car.
Q hitched the laptop under his arm and took off at a moderately brisk walk towards a random car on the other side of the garage. He looked at the service’s cars out of the corner of his eye in passing; certainly there was no one lurking around them, and nothing looked wrong with them.
The women did not seem to pause, or pay attention to him. Though he could not look at them directly to tell for sure.
He reached the random car he had selected, put the laptop on the roof and pretended to fumble in his pocket for his keys.
The women were still talking, standing around their car.
He pretended to take a phone call, holding his hand to the side of his head furthest away from them.
They got in their car and started it up.
He paced back and forth, taking his imaginary call.
At last their car bounced on the speed bump at the entrance, and left.
There was a back wall that was not well lit by the central fluorescents. Now there was no one to see him, he jogged over there. A large four-wheel drive, tailgate backed to the wall, seemed the best cover. He sat down behind it, off-centre to avoid an oil stain on the concrete.
He held the laptop in his lap. He had been supposed to destroy it.
He could use it, he realised with a start, to track Bond.
He opened it up, waiting as it whirred and ticked. He craned his ears for any other noise in the garage.
The tracking program was open now. He waited to see data – sometimes it took a second or two.
Ten seconds passed.
Twenty seconds. Then thirty seconds.
He closed the program, went into Task Manager to ensure there were no rogue associated services still running, then restarted the program.
Ten seconds passed. Then twenty. Thirty.
Forty seconds. Fifty. Sixty.
Oscilloscope showed zero. Heartrate showed zero. The tracker was not transmitting.
Either Bond was not wearing the ring, or Bond was dead.
Some time later, Q heard a sound from the nearby stairwell. He tried to tell himself it was not what he thought it was. It could have been something else.
It sounded again, and there was no point pretending. It was gunfire. Distant, but becoming less so.
Q attempted to balance on the four-wheel drive’s tailgate, bracing against the wall with his hand – so that he would not be visible if someone looked under the car. It was fairly easy standing up, but he was visible above the roof and through the back window that way. He tried it crouching down instead. There was no way to position his knees that left his balance secure, so he had to put an exhausting amount of weight on his arm. Also, probably some part of his head and shoulders was still visible through the window. He got down again with a puff, and the suspension bounced back visibly – that was a worry.
He tried to strategise. There was a hot space in his mind where thought could not penetrate.
The stairwell door burst open. A shot was fired. Q, from instinct, got on the tailgate.
Sprinting feet approached, down the aisle of cars where Q was hiding. Q could not help himself: he peered through the window.
Bond bolted past, gun in hand, shirt hems flapping. Alive.
A shot fired, from closer to the stairwell. Now another shot – Bond, returning fire.
A bulky man in a dark suit stalked past at a brisk walk, handgun held in firing position.
Two more shorts, in quick succession. Then another. He thought that one further away – Bond, still alive.
Q had to see. He got off the tailgate carefully, and crept down the side of the four-wheel drive to peer over the bonnet of the next car.
The suited man was not three metres away, firing towards Bond, who was returning fire from behind a sedan.
A motor roared to life, accelerated aggressively and then shrieked to a stop. A second man, firing at Bond’s undefended back.
Bond turned to the new threat. He fired.
A one-in-a-million shot – he’d hit the driver.
Bond had had to stand up, partially, to turn around and brace to shoot. A good third of his back was exposed to the first shooter, a clear target. The man settled his stance carefully – a trained marksman preparing to fire.
Q saw it happen at a glacial speed, as if he was God and time was nothing.
He hurled the laptop at the man.
A poor throw, which would barely have bruised. But the man broke his stance, turning in surprise.
‘Bond!’ Q cried.
Bond turned. Bond saw. Bond fired once: a miss.
A second time: a hit to the leg.
A third time: a hit to the centre of mass. The man was down.
Bond grinned at Q, then adjusted his stance and fired a fourth time. At the laptop, Q realised.
The stairwell door burst open again.
‘Come on!’ Bond called. They ran for the vehicle with the dead man in the driver’s seat.
Accelerating over the speed bump at the exit ramp, they nearly bounced off the inside roof. Bullets shattered a rear light, but pinging tinnily on the panel-work.
‘Bulletproof!’ Bond said. ‘How civilised.’
By nightfall they had left town, and were bouncing along on unsealed roads.
The panic had seeped out of Q. He was tired of watching the headlit scrubland leaping as the suspension jerked, and closed his eyes. Immediately he saw Stephens’ face. The sunken well of blood where his chest had been.
Q opened his eyes and took his glasses off instead. It was better.
He brought the glasses up close to his face to inspect them. The left lens had a zany diagonal fracture and a spot of blood on it. He spat on his shirt hem and polished the spot off, very gently, to avoid disturbing the fracture.
‘Do you think you hit that laptop?’ he said at last. It was the first they’d spoken since the carpark.
‘Never mind now,’ Bond said. ‘If I didn’t, we still wouldn’t be better off dead.’
Q polished the other lens of his glasses.
‘Do you think the others made it?’
‘Their comms were dead. I’m afraid not,’ Bond said. ‘Whatever tech they had, the Bulgarians have it now. But there’ll be a phone at the safe house; we can phone it in and they’ll do a remote wipe. Hopefully the Bulgarians won’t have had time to crack anything. They’re weapons dealers, not spies, so…’
Q ought to have been the one strategising this.
‘It was that man in the hall last night who made us, wasn’t it?’ he said instead.
‘Possibly,’ Bond said.
‘Or possibly it was the waiter, and he sent the man in the hall. It’s my fault either way.’
‘You don’t know that,’ Bond said. ‘They may have already known the moment we walked in. They were organised – multiple teams to hit us in different locations. In this game, you’re a cog in a machine, trying to turn another cog – but there’re infinite other cogs that can turn you.’
Q looked at the shape of Bond’s head, fuzzy, beyond focal range.
Bond put a hand on Q’s knee. ‘I’ve been doing this since you were in nappies. Believe me, this is not even top ten on my list of cocked-up jobs. Don’t tear yourself up.’
‘Not sure the rest of our party would agree,’ Q said.
Bond squeezed Q’s knee.
There was something dark on Bond’s hand. Q put his glasses back on to look. It was blood.
‘Is your hand all right?’
‘Oh,’ Bond said, self-consciously, and took the hand back. ‘Yes. Bastard bit me. Didn’t see any foaming at the mouth, so should be fine.’
‘Where is the ring?’ Q said, with a terrible suspicion.
‘Ah,’ Bond said. ‘It’s down his throat.’
‘Fatally down his throat,’ Bond said. ‘Conveniently fatally.’
‘Was it –’
‘The three taps that gave it away?’ Bond said. ‘Afraid so. He fought me for it, and he couldn’t get it off with his hands, so he tried with his teeth.’
The electromagnetic scrambler in the ring was activated by tapping three times. Bond had complained to Higgins in the trial that the gesture was indiscreet, and would surely announce the ring as tech.
‘Did you get the three taps out?’
‘Oh yes. It was activated at the time he bit it. It’d still…’ Bond hesitated. ‘It’d still work from inside him, wouldn’t it?’
‘Should do.’ Q knocked his own head lightly on the passenger window.
‘You’ll make other gadgets,’ Bond said.
‘It was Higgins’ baby,’ Q said dully. ‘And it’s not the gadget, it’s the innovation. Which is in the hands of the enemy.’
‘In the digestive tract of an enemy,’ Bond said, ‘who’s probably going to be dropped in an unmarked grave, or a vat of acid. Pretty sure Higgins’ secrets are safe.’
‘Someone always finds a body eventually. And when they do, they autopsy it. And gold is marvellously unreactive. Comes out of classical tombs like new.’
‘We’ll just have to tell Higgins a choir of angels descended and took it away to heaven, for being too perfect. He can’t make another or God will be angry.’ There was a smile in Bond’s voice.
‘All right.’ Q took his glasses off again and leant on the window.
They left the car at the train station in the next town, then walked several kilometres on foot in the dark, choosing back streets. When they woke up some dogs behind fences, Bond threw an arm around Q and began humming the tune to That’s Amore loudly, as if drunk. Q was not sorry to lean on him in return: he could have happily lain down to sleep in a puddle.
When Bond stood up straight again, Q knew they were close to the safe house.
In the next street, Bond pulled Q aside into a lane. ‘All right, is your watch working?’ Bond whispered.
‘I don’t have a watch,’ Q said.
Q heard a click as Bond’s mouth opened and closed.
‘I don’t have a landline either.’ Q observed his own hysteria rising. He could see where this was going. Bond was about to go and get himself shot; his face would be like Stephens’ face. Q would be alone in the dark.
‘Right, well, I’m going to go and case the house,’ Bond said. ‘I was going to say wait ten minutes. Ten times sixty is six hundred. So count to six hundred slowly. If I’m not back, take the other way out of this lane and go back to the train station. You can phone-in reverse-charges from the public phone. Then go and hide somewhere – for fuck’s sake don’t stand around in plain view.’
Q could not bring himself to agree aloud.
‘You do know how to use a bloody public phone, don’t you?’ Bond said. ‘Dial 194 for the operator.’
‘Yes, fuck!’ Q said. ‘I was at the same briefing as you.’
‘All right!’ Bond chuckled. ‘See you in six hundred.’ He made for the mouth of the lane.
Q saw Bond’s head tilt. The tips of his hair were lit by the wan streetlight.
‘Try not to get shot, will you?’
Bond shrugged, a silent-film comedian. Then he rounded the corner and was gone.
At about the count of two hundred, Q was breathing very slowly and forcefully through his nose.
By three hundred, he had told himself that Bond was not coming back. He was hardening himself to it, imagining how he would manage his return to the train station. He would be a spear – hard, discrete, imporous – launching itself into the future.
At the count of four hundred and sixty-seven, he leapt as if electrocuted. Footsteps approached.
Each one turned a clockwork key in Q’s back, tightening the spring inside.
Bond appeared at the mouth of the lane. Q lost all the air in his body.
‘All right?’ Bond said.
‘Coast is clear as far as I can tell. Come on.’
The place was whitewashed and shuttered. Inside was tiled, with louvred cabinets in dark wood.
Bond fumbled under the range hood for a dim light, then banged all the cupboards open. He found a half-full bottle of dreadful-looking amaretto and some glasses, and poured them both a glass. Bond downed his in one go, grimaced, then got on the phone.
It was a museum piece of a phone, grass green and curvy, matching the enamelled grass-green taps. Q could probably operate it – probably. He battled his amaretto down; it was better taken in gulps.
Bond was saying, ‘Stephens confirmed down. Markovic, Dresden, Trent, missing in action, believed down.’
Q poured himself another amaretto, larger, and began to demolish it. It was getting easier. He looked through the cupboards. Some alarming Italian business in a jar – chestnuts? Tinned tomatoes, evaporated milk, pink jam with a yellow label – possibly quince.
He found it: a tin of English baked beans.
Bond got off the phone. ‘All right, we’re here for the night. They’ll extract us in the morning. They’ve got some local assets going back to the hotel, to see if there’s anything to be done – probably there isn’t. But nothing more from us. Can’t say I’m sorry.’
‘No,’ Q agreed.
‘Are those beans?’ Bond said.
‘Yeah. Should we…’ Q glanced towards the cupboards, thinking of a saucepan.
They poured the beans out onto espresso saucers and ate them cold with a spoon, standing up.
Afterwards, another amaretto, tossed back. Despite the booze, Q began to shiver.
Bond embraced him.
‘Oh, don’t start being nice to me now, I can’t take it.’ Q clung to him.
‘You’re all right. It’s just the adrenaline leaving you.’ Bond stroked his back.
Q was frantic as a cat. ‘Do you want to go to bed?’
A voice inside him was saying, You’ll never recover if he says no.
You fuckhead, the voice said. Oh you fuckhead.
‘Yes,’ Bond said, and kissed him with a thick surge of tongue.
Bond took Q’s shirt off in the kitchen, popping the buttons free in a series of jerks, and at once licked up his neck in one flat-tongued stroke. Q fumbled for Bond’s shirt in return, but Bond opted for efficiency and did it himself, his chest and shoulders bulging as he fought it down his arms. The meaty smell of his sweat was wild – there was gunshot and blood, too.
Q had a moment of shyness about his weediness, as he had not since he was a teenager. But Bond squeezed his arse, two-handed, deliciously hard, and grunted in appreciation.
Bond took Q’s glasses off and kissed him again, intrusively, a rushing pulse in his tongue.
In a bedroom, with a neo-rococco lamp on, Bond bullied him enjoyably down onto his back on a scratchy embroidered candlewick.
‘Thanks for asking,’ Bond said, between kisses. ‘I wasn’t brave enough.’
‘Not brave enough.’ Q huffed. ‘Yes, a common problem with you.’
‘I’d spank you but I’d have to let you up,’ Bond said.
‘Later please.’ Q sounded drunk.
They settled in, with silent and mutual urgency, to a long session of clothed frottage.
‘Do you fuck, darling?’ Bond said at last, barely aloud. The obscenity of the sound of his tongue withdrawing from Q’s mouth almost made up for the loss.
‘Fuck, yes,’ Q said.
Bond groaned frantically. If it was possible to spontaneously explode and die of self-satisfaction, Q was about to do it.
Abruptly, Bond lifted his body away from Q’s. Q made a frank cry of distress. ‘Need to go and see if there’s any…’ Bond said, abjectly, and got off him, with a quick kiss, to dart to the bathroom.
Q shimmied his trousers and underwear down and hurled them off the side of the bed. He lay back down across the covers, cock thick on his belly, intolerably aroused and generally inconsolable. He wanted his glasses back, so fetched them off the nightstand, and lay down again.
Bond came back and stared at Q as if in grievance. Q stared back. Bond threw a box on the bed. ‘Oh thank God,’ Q said.
‘There’s no lube,’ Bond said. ‘Do you mind a bit of…’ He mimed spitting in his hand.
‘Like it when it hurts a bit,’ Q said, too honestly, and spread his legs to show Bond where to put it.
‘You dirty boy,’ Bond said angrily, and fought his trousers down.
‘Show me your cock,’ Q retorted.
Bond did. It was delightfully larger, thick-shafted, when hard, at the upper end of what Q considered comfortable.
Q scrambled forward to meet him as he climbed onto the bed.
Bond’s cock was in Q’s hand, pulsing life. Q eased the foreskin back; the head was sopping wet. A zig-zagging vein down the left side. He wanted to kiss it. His one-lensed view was surreal, two-dimensional, like an old dirty movie.
‘No, no, no,’ Bond said, softly, and caught his chin as he tried to duck his head. ‘I’m very, very old – make me blow, you won’t get me up again tonight.’ Q kept shifting the soft sheath of skin up and down over the shaft with his fingers, helpless to stop.
‘No, no,’ Bond said tragically, and caught his hand.
Some seconds of staring passed.
‘I think you should lie down over a pillow and let me fuck you with this. What do you think?’ Bond said.
Q managed to nod.
Bond let him go, and Q wrenched the covers untucked to get a pillow free. He threw it down and lay down over it.
Bond’s hand on his inner thigh was like a shock. Instantly he spread his legs as wide as they would go. Bond murmured approval. Bond ran his palms up and down both inner thighs repeatedly anyway.
Q beat his hand on the mattress.
‘Don’t you come on this pillow,’ Bond warned, gravelly. ‘Or not till I’m in you.’
‘You’re killing me,’ Q said.
‘No,’ Bond said, and kissed the dip of his spine with an open mouth. There was an intricate, wet sound – Bond licking his own fingers, Q realised.
Bond slipped his wet fingers into Q’s crack, sliding them lightly up and down. They were callused, slightly scratchy – startling. The hair rose on Q’s arms. Bond gave a little wiggle to his finger as he was sliding it over Q’s hole. The muscle contracted involuntarily.
‘God,’ Bond said, ‘I’m not going to lick your little arse without protection, but please know how much I want to.’
‘Why did you tell me that if you’re not going to?’
‘Because I’m a bad man.’
‘I know,’ Q said passionately.
Bond had him over the pillow first, covering him, chest to back. Q’s sunburn zinged his nerves. Bond’s hard thighs were against the soft insides of Q’s. Q moaned into the bed, his muscles yielding and clutching in a helpless rhythm.
‘Just like that,’ Bond said. ‘There we are. Just like that.’ Bond read the rhythm flawlessly, fucking in with the yielding and out with the clutching.
Bond pulled out and rolled him over. Q grumbled like an angry child woken from a nap, but let Bond lift one ankle to his shoulder.
Bond spat in his hand with a brisk, crude sound and slicked his cock again. Q imagined, half hysterically, his mum somehow seeing a video of this.
Bond pushed his cock back in; Q’s muscles, defenceless, gave in sweetly.
Bond took him vigorously now, dictating the rhythm.
Bond’s body was absolutely fucking beautiful and Q had been being ridiculous when he’d told himself it wasn’t. The freckles, the puckered scars on the skin, the soft dryness of age; the deep-cut muscles working, clenching and releasing beneath. The spine bent in the primal posture of mating.
‘Aren’t you gorgeous,’ Bond rasped, and pinched his nipples, firm and impertinent, so that Q’s nerves twanged and he cried out.
Now Bond flipped them both over so Q was on top, and raised his knees for Q to lean back on them. Q, bleary, took a moment to remember what it was to move of his own volition. Bond’s hips coached him, Bond murmuring in complaint.
It was now a process of allowing Bond to watch him as he fucked himself up and down on Bond’s cock.
He could get the cock very deep this way. The pleasure of those deep places letting it in – the slippery bulk of it, sliding – was eye-watering.
For each time Q sat down on his cock, Bond gave Q’s cock one stroke, in unison, with the tight ring of his callused fingers. It was a game, Q realised at last, through his confusion – to coax Q to go harder.
Then Bond went quiet, breathing through his mouth, and turned his face away to look at the ceiling.
It was intolerable that Bond might get off first and then Q would have to come without a cock in him. He began to ride Bond frantically. Bond gave a pained gasp. Q took over wanking himself off, moving in a blur.
He shouted indiscreetly and blew – a lot. Some of it reached Bond’s collarbone. Bond gave a soft, baritone moan.
Q was about ready now to stop moving, but when he slowed down, Bond grabbed his hips and carried on with a shallow, rocking motion. Bond’s eyes were closed, his face slack.
In a little while, Bond slowed down and stopped. At last Q twigged.
‘Simultaneous,’ Bond slurred, half under his breath. ‘In the seventies, we’d have said it was true love.’
‘Shut up,’ Q managed to whisper.
‘Give us a kiss,’ Bond sighed.
It seemed too hard to reach, sitting on this angle with Bond’s cock still in him, and he was not ready for the squelchy tenderness of taking it out just yet.
‘Come on,’ Bond said, ‘you let me put it that far in, you can give me a kiss.’ He got himself up on his elbows, to meet Q half way.
Q bent and kissed him, glasses squashed between their faces.
‘You’re lovely,’ Bond said into his mouth.
‘So are you,’ Q said, without any particular notion of meaning to.
They found some slightly alarming towels with fringed edges, printed with baskets of wheat, and got in the shower together. Bond held Q from behind and sudsed him all over with tropical shower gel, while Q tried not to giggle and only mostly succeeded.
‘Go again?’ Bond murmured at last, soaping Q’s dick.
Q’s dick had already agreed. He murmured affirmatively.
He groped for Bond’s slippery hip. ‘It’s all right,’ Bond said. ‘If I were twenty years younger…’
So it was Q leaning back against Bond, letting Bond support him, contain him, as he wriggled. As Bond soaped up his dick very, very thoroughly. Q was vulnerable, glasses off in a strange place, naked, sunburn tingling on the edge of discomfort – and Bond not even hard himself – all of his attention on Q. It was almost too much. Could he make it more of a game?
‘Can you hold my wrists, like you’re forcing me, maybe?’ he asked, before he could think better of it.
‘No,’ Bond said, and took his hand off Q’s cock. ‘Sorry. I killed a man earlier, I don’t think I can…’ He kissed Q’s ear.
‘No, God, sorry, it’s all right,’ Q said. ‘I’m an idiot. Sorry.’
‘No, it’s fine, it’s just –’
‘No, I’m sorry –’
‘Shut up,’ Bond said, with a laugh in his voice. ‘Here, will I just…’ He slid his hand down Q’s hip.
‘No, sorry, I’ve lost it,’ Q said, and caught Bond’s hand. His hard-on, he meant.
‘Fuck, sorry,’ Bond said, and rested his forehead on Q’s shoulder.
‘No, I’m sorry.’
‘If you say that one more time, you will go the way of the Bulgarian,’ Bond said, strained.
Q turned around to face Bond. The shower jet was between them.
‘Shut up,’ Bond said again, humorously.
‘I didn’t say anything!’ Q said.
‘Can you see me from this close?’
‘No, but –’ Q stepped closer to Bond and put his arms around him. ‘I can from here.’ The shower hit their shoulders.
Bond looked very tired. His smile lines, however, were devastating.
‘Hello,’ Bond said, blinking from water spray.
‘Hi,’ Q said.
Q woke up in a bed that smelled like old-fashioned soap with an undertone of mustiness. He had no clothes on, and hurt mildly in a variety of places. There were sociable voices in the next room.
He fumbled on the nightstand and got his glasses on, to find they were not working properly. He stared at a floridly embossed plaster ceiling, uncomprehending.
Then he remembered a little bit of yesterday, and at once panicked about the voices, lurching up to sit, clutching the sheet to himself.
The remainder of his brain came online, and he remembered everything. Listening, he decided one of the voices was Bond’s. Bond did not sound afraid, or angry. But Q could not tell if this was good or bad, since Bond seldom did sound afraid or angry.
Q got up, feeling a particular, intimate twinge that he always found enjoyable.
Now he found his used underwear, and his trousers, pale khaki, brown-blood-spattered and filthy with Maltese dust up to the knee, chaotically creased from lying in a puddle on the floor. With regret, he put them on.
He looked for his shirt and shoes, then remembered: they were out in the kitchen.
The voices continued in the next room. He assessed his position. He was unarmed, half-dressed and barefoot, and unlikely to be a match for whoever owned those voices even if it were otherwise. How would he fare, jumping out a window and running for it in broad daylight?
Besides, Bond did not sound like he was playing it cool while negotiating with an enemy. He sounded like he was chatting.
Q could not see how it could really make anything worse, if he just went on out there.
He opened the door.
A short, dark-panelled hallway, opening onto the main room. Bond sat in partial sunlight on a foofy taupe-leather sofa that faced away from the kitchen, arms thrown out along the headrests to either side. He was relaxed, chatting over his shoulder to someone behind him. He noticed Q and smiled a hello.
Q came down the hall and out into the main room.
Markovic, Dresden and Trent were there, dishevelled and filthy, still with their ridiculous sunburns, standing around with coffee cups.
They all looked at Q, conspiratorial. Dresden’s eyes strayed to the carpet, where Q’s shirt lay – where Bond had thrown it last night.
‘I’ve never been pleased to see you clowns before,’ Q said. ‘Congratulations on being alive.’
Q picked up the shirt and put it on as decisively as he could. It was in utterly disgusting condition.
‘Thanks,’ one of them said, eying Q as he did up his buttons.
‘We left them the cars!’ Bond said.
‘We did it for them, did we?’ Q joked. ‘Is that why we did it? It wasn’t –’
‘It wasn’t rank incompetence, no,’ Bond replied.
‘Well, that’s a relief,’ Q said.
‘Or not just rank incompetence,’ Bond said.
‘Speak for yourself,’ Q said.
He had hoped this would distract the others. Instead they were spectators at a table-tennis tournament.
‘Is that coffee?’ Q shouldered them aside to get into the kitchen.
‘Oh, there’s only a bit left, sorry,’ Markovic said.
‘Really? Fuck you all, then,’ Q said mildly, and used his shirt hem to lift the hot caffettiera into the sink to run water on it. When it was cool enough to handle, he opened it and bashed the grounds out of the cradle into the bin.
‘Were those beans?’ Markovic had seen the empty baked-bean tin from last night in the bin. ‘No, fuck you!’
They all erupted, like insects released from a window screen. ‘There were beans!’ Dresden cried.
‘Fuck it, I’m just eating those tomatoes, I don’t even care,’ Trent said. Dresden beat his fist on the bench.
Q only just managed to get the coffee on, and to dodge his way out of there.
Bond, on the sofa, looked pleased. Also – Q’s mind had only just brought this to the fore for consideration – Bond was wearing an enviably clean, though cheap-looking, white t-shirt.
Q joined him on the sofa, now discovering that Bond was also wearing cheap but enviably clean, navy cargo pants. Awkwardly, Bond was on the middle of the three seats, so there was no way not to sit down directly next to him. Bond turned towards him, but did not withdraw his arm from along the headrest.
Q glanced back toward the kitchen, but the others were no longer interested in him. Trent and Markovic were eating whole tinned tomatoes in their fingers off a dinner plate. As Q watched, Markovic’s tomato exploded a jet of juice into the side of Dresden’s head. Dresden flinched, but did not stop to wipe it off; he was gulping the pink jam from the yellow jar with a spoon.
‘If you’re quick,’ Bond said in an undertone, ‘you can get to the spare clothes in the linen press in the hall and snag your size.’
‘Oh brilliant,’ Q whispered, and went for it.
The smallest shirt was a size large, which was too large, and the trouser situation was worse again. Whoever had stocked the clothes had anticipated field agents.
Q was about to take them into the bedroom to change, but glanced back down the hall to find Bond looking at him from the sofa with a small smile. Q met his eye, and changed in the hall instead.
He used his belt from yesterday to keep the cargo pants up. He looked like a teenager borrowing his dad’s clothes. He thought unhappily of the luggage he’d had to abandon at the hotel.
Bond got up and came into the hall, carrying a part-full garbage bag. Bond, with his bulk and classic masculine proportions, had found things that fit perfectly – in fact slightly, pleasingly, on the tight side. His nipples made points through his t-shirt.
‘You look like you’re in a navy porno,’ Q said, under his breath.
Bond did not reply, except with a deepening of his smile lines. ‘You can put your other things in here.’ He proffered the bag. ‘The clean-up people’ll burn them, or whatever they do.’
‘Do I have to?’ Q said.
‘Coffee’s perked,’ someone shouted from the kitchen.
‘It’s not safe, with the blood,’ Bond said.
‘Oh, no, fair enough,’ Q said, and thought of Stephens.
A flight – always hateful – to Milan that afternoon, then an overnight in a hotel near the airport. Q’s windows looked out onto the side of another building. He had not seen this part of Italy and had been wanting to for a while. Now he could not go outside.
After a room service dinner, he browsed soap operas on the sofa in his room irritably. Each seemed more florid and self-important than the last. The very fact that they were in Italian, which he did not speak well, felt like an insult aimed at him personally. The sheer noise of it – that staccato, aggressive noise! His misanthropy was rising to a frothing peak; it was poised at a crest, about to crash.
He turned the TV off.
He had very possibly personally fucked this mission.
Q very seldom came into the field – not all the way into the theatre of engagement, as he had this time. People had died as a result of his work before, but they had not been standing next to him at the time, their eyes on his when they fell. He’d come because the timeline had moved up, and the tech was in beta version, barely tested. He had put his hand up for it – had suggested it himself. Higgins would have been better technically, but did not have the security clearance nor, in Q’s private estimation, the street-smarts.
Q laughed bitterly about that now.
He could only imagine the response he’d get from his superiors if he put his hand up again in the future. The tact of their reply.
He did not even have a book to read. Both the ones he’d had – one about Turing he was halfway through, and another he’d been looking forward to, a reputedly homoerotic novel about nineteenth-century youths touring Europe – had been in the luggage he’d taken to the first hotel. In his naivety, he had packed things in that luggage – personal, though not identifying, things – that he had not really been willing to lose.
A knock at his door. Another sound: a man’s voice? His chest clenched.
The Bulgarians had not knocked, he reminded himself.
Q went to the door. Through the peephole was Bond, holding up a bottle of whisky.
Q opened the door. ‘Hello.’
‘Hi,’ Bond said.
Q stepped back. ‘Aren’t you clever.’
‘I do my best.’ Bond came in, carrying a plastic bag.
They had got new clothes again at the airport. Bond looked Italian in the best possible way, in short, cuffed sleeves and flat-front tan slacks. Q had acquired a loose, short-sleeved shirt with a wide texture-stripe, seemingly the best of a bad lot, that made him look like a function-room tablecloth.
Bond tossed the bag down on the coffee table. Q sat down on the sofa. Bond went to the kitchenette, where he flipped the frilly paper tops off the tumblers, and opened the whisky.
‘Can I have some ice?’ Q put his hand on his heart. ‘Big girl’s blouse, I’m afraid.’
‘By all means.’ Bond got some from the bar fridge.
Bond brought their drinks to the sofa.
‘Ta,’ Q said.
‘Cheers,’ Bond replied, and they raised their glasses.
Q did not particularly like distilled spirits neat, but at this moment did not care that he didn’t. He judged his wince on drinking was not too out of keeping.
‘How’s your evening been? Stimulating?’ Bond said.
‘Ha,’ Q said. ‘I’ve just been entertaining myself wonderfully, thinking of all the ways I fucked this, and couldn’t I have done something for Stephens as he lay there dying.’ He mimed Stephens clutching his chest.
‘Got here just in time, then.’ Bond chuckled.
Q thought of Bond’s actions in the moments after the Bulgarians broke in the door.
He swigged his whisky, and had to shake the dizziness out of his skull.
‘You’ve not done much fieldwork, have you?’ Bond said.
‘There’s no need to tell me how much it shows.’
‘That’s not what I mean,’ Bond said.
Q drank, through a surge of resentment.
‘I mean,’ Bond said, ‘this is what we do when it goes pear-shaped. We all sit here, and we think, I fucked it, it’s all my fault, and couldn’t I have done something for so-and-so who was dying. As we get more experienced, we observe ourselves saying this same thing every time, and then we realise it may not be based in reality. And then we find it easier to let it go.’
‘Hmm,’ Q said.
‘Not easy as such,’ Bond said, ‘but easier.’
Q stared into his glass.
‘I was the lead on the field team, if you recall, and I don’t think you fucked it.’
‘To be honest, I can’t even tolerate you saying that. I want to throw myself out the window and run screaming into the night,’ Q said.
‘Well, don’t do that,’ Bond said.
Bond went and got the bottle, and topped up their drinks generously.
A little while later, Q said, ‘What’s in the bag?’
‘Oh,’ Bond said, dimpling. ‘A… presumptuous purchase or two.’
‘Presumptuous.’ The whisky fizzed through Q’s body.
‘Of course, you may not get it up ever again, after that conversation,’ Bond said, apologetic. ‘In which case, I understand perfectly.’
Q seized the plastic bag. Inside was a paper bag bearing the rather fruity logo of the downstairs chemist. He uncrumpled the top of the paper bag and peered in.
‘Oh my,’ he said.
He got the first box out. ‘Well of course you’re a size magnum, darling.’
‘Vanity sizing,’ Bond said. ‘They don’t like to call them small.’
‘It’s not small, though, is it,’ Q said.
Bond shifted in his seat, with a mild smile.
‘I’ve been a little bit sore all day.’ Q shifted too.
‘Let me make it up to you.’ Bond put his hand on Q’s thigh.
‘Not yet,’ Q said. ‘I’ve not unwrapped all my presents.’
Bond subsided, nostrils flaring.
Q went into the bag, and pulled out a black and gold bottle. It was expensive-looking silicon lube. ‘Well, that’ll be nice and comfy.’
‘I like you to be comfortable,’ Bond said.
‘No, you don’t.’
‘When it counts,’ Bond said.
This was not true either, but Q did not want to get side-tracked.
The next thing was another box – unlubed condoms, this time. ‘Mmm,’ Q said, unsure, and went for the last item. It was a pair of nail scissors.
In a moment, he twigged. ‘Oh my.’
The scissors were for cutting open an unlubed condom, so that Bond could put some lube on the skin side and use it to rim Q till he quite earnestly screamed like a girl and had to be held down – which Bond, wonderfully, felt able to do today, in the heat of the moment. Q came on the chaise longue seat cushion, and giggled about it – they ought to have thought of that, but they’d been rather out of their minds.
He meant to get up and get a tissue for it. ‘No,’ Bond said, ‘dirty boy. Stay there.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Q said, still laughing.
‘Oh, don’t you sir me. You are a very bad little sailor.’ Bond pushed Q against the seat cushion, into his own mess, and spanked him, once, smartly – without, Q thought hysterically, even having to be asked.
‘Yes, sir,’ Q said, with a sob of delight.
‘Be quiet.’ Bond stroked some more lube up and down Q’s crack. Then he stroked his condomed cock up and down.
‘Oh God,’ Q said.
‘Better than sir,’ Bond said.
‘I’m not sure you know how this works. It’s supposed to go in,’ Q said, wispily.
‘Is that how it works?’ Bond said, spanking him again, lightly, just enough to warm. ‘I’d no idea. Still, it feels pretty nice like this.’ He carried on.
‘It feels nicer if you put it in.’
‘Does it?’ Bond said.
Q fumbled his glasses off, turned his face into the upholstery and moaned.
Bond put his hand on the back of Q’s neck, holding him down gently, stroking the large tendons with his thumb. Q moaned sharply.
Bond put his cock in, in one long slide.
‘Yes, on balance, I think you may be right,’ Bond said, strained.
A shorter chapter, which hopefully... satisfies. :)
It was Q’s first morning back at work. He was wearing his less-preferred glasses while the others were being repaired. The heavier bottom rim annoyed his peripheral vision.
His current favourite pen, a deep-blue gel rollerball with a soft rubber grip, lay on the blotter in his office exactly where he’d tossed it before he went away.
On the window sill below the venetian blinds was the small tea set on a tray he kept in the office. It was one of his grandmother’s stained old tea trays, with cats on it, and he had hesitated about it when he’d first brought it in. He’d had to ask Moneypenny, ‘Can I have your opinion – am I actually wearing a little name badge with this, saying Pleased to meet you: I am gay? I mean, not that I mind, but I like to know either way.’ He had held it up to his chest.
‘It’s old enough, you could just be being practical,’ had been her verdict. ‘I mean, if it were brand new and made of bamboo, I’d say, insufferable hippy with a forty-percent chance of gay. But that one’s quite ambiguous.’
‘I think I’ll take that,’ he’d said. ‘Thank you.’
He had a debrief for the Malta mission scheduled for eleven o’clock. In the meantime, he had an inbox of unread messages that scrolled and scrolled; he imagined them unspooling in a long banner that tangled on the floor. Someone had written a circular asking people to please remember to clean up after themselves in meeting rooms. Someone else had written to Q to ask him who to ask about equipment servicing, forgetting he’d been away.
He took his tray down to the tea room.
Higgins was there, queuing for the boiling water tap. Q saw him from behind first – the fluorescents were catching the shine on the thinning spot at his crown – and felt a surge of fondness.
‘Oh, hello!’ Higgins said cheerily, when he turned and noticed Q. ‘How was the’ – he paused significantly – ‘trip?’
‘Yeah!’ Q said. He joined the queue, behind the woman behind Higgins. ‘Do you have a minute to come up to my office and talk about it?’
‘Oh!’ Higgins said. ‘It’s like that, is it?’
The woman between them was looking interested.
‘Yeah,’ Q said.
Higgins waited for more, with a humorous look.
‘It’s your turn,’ Q said.
‘Oh!’ Higgins sloshed some boiling water on his teabag then, without even agitating it, sloshed some milk from the carton on the bench straight on top of it. Then took it over to the other bench to poke it with a spoon.
The woman did the same. Then it was Q’s turn. He poured boiling water in his teapot, swished it around and tipped it out. Then he measured out some tea into the pot, and filled the pot with water and put the lid on. Then he poured some milk into a small jug on his tray.
A man had joined the queue after him, and now began to rumble mutinously under his breath.
Q turned to him mildly and tilted the milk carton in a query.
‘Yeah, ta,’ the man was obliged to say.
Q left the milk out for him, and picked up his tray.
‘You’re very committed to that, aren’t you?’ Higgins said, raffish.
‘I am,’ Q said. He had been about to say glibly, Only death will part us, but his sense of humour about death was a bit under the weather.
Back in his office with Higgins, Q stirred the teapot and replaced the lid.
‘My late grandmother used to turn the pot instead of stir it,’ Higgins offered.
‘Mine was very opinionated about stirring. I would have been out on the street,’ Q said. ‘Perhaps the two of them can duel in the afterlife.’
Q poured for himself.
‘I feel as though you’re working up to some bad news,’ Higgins said.
Q could not tell if he was annoyed or relieved.
‘Yes. Thanks for… volunteering to hear it.’ Q gestured helplessly.
‘It’s all right,’ Higgins said. ‘Come on, then.’
Higgins was a good egg.
‘Right, well, I lost the ring, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh,’ Higgins said.
‘It’s actually – it’s actually down a dead man’s throat. It choked him and killed him.’
‘Christ,’ Higgins said.
‘He was trying to get it off the agent with his teeth.’
Higgins took a moment.
‘It was the bloody three taps, wasn’t it,’ Higgins said.
‘Yeah,’ Q said, apologetic.
‘That’s my fault,’ Higgins said. ‘I knew Bond was right, and I didn’t change it. Too lazy, too stupid – couldn’t think of anything to change it to.’
‘Oi,’ Q said, ‘I’m in charge here, you may remember, so it’s my bloody fault, and I couldn’t think of anything either, and I authorised it to go out anyway.’
Higgins smiled wanly. They sipped their tea.
‘The whole thing went pretty hairy, to be honest,’ Q said. ‘We lost one of ours, so I wasn’t that focussed on the ring.’
‘Well, shit, no, never mind about the ring if someone’s died,’ Higgins said.
‘I’m not even supposed to have told you that, sorry.’ Q put his head in his hands. ‘The stuff about the ring is fine, but the rest is classified. Can you pretend I didn’t say that?’
‘Yeah, all right,’ Higgins said. ‘It’s all right.’
If Higgins were a woman, Q would have feared a hug.
‘Hello,’ Bond’s voice said, at the same time as a knock on the half-open door – which Q should not have left that way.
‘Hello Bond,’ Q said.
‘Allo-allo!’ Higgins said to Bond.
Bond came in and took the second visitor chair. He was in a charcoal suit and a blue shirt and tie, clean-shaven and sprightly. ‘Sorry, I’ve just assumed I can come in.’
‘It’s all right.’ Q assessed the water level in his teapot. ‘Do you want tea?’
‘Yes please,’ Bond said.
‘Oi, you didn’t offer me tea,’ Higgins said.
‘You already had tea,’ Q said. ‘Awful tea that you made yourself, which you therefore fully deserve.’
Higgins looked pleased.
Q nabbed another cup from the window sill and poured tea for Bond, and shuffled the tray over to him so he could put the milk in himself. ‘Sorry, I don’t have a clean spoon.’
‘It’s all right.’ Bond used Q’s wet spoon to stir his milk in.
Q looked down, since it did not seem safe to look at Higgins.
‘Has he told you it was me?’ Bond said to Higgins, holding up his hand, which still had faint bite marks. ‘Who lost your lovely ring, I mean?’
‘Oh my goodness.’ Higgins took Bond’s hand in his and examined it. ‘That adds a bit of colour to the story.’
‘Totally my fault,’ Bond said. ‘Don’t let him tell you otherwise.’
‘Excuse me, Bond,’ Q said, ‘but Higgins and I have already had an argument about whose fault it was, and I won. Decisively, because I pulled rank.’
‘You’re not in my chain of command.’ Bond winked.
Q sipped his tea.
Bond drank his, too. ‘Better than the tea in –’ He stopped himself.
‘He’s got a tan,’ Higgins said, gesturing at Q, ‘so wherever it was, all I can say is, fuck you.’
‘You’re very welcome.’ Bond smiled at Higgins with extended, intense eye-contact.
Q nearly got a sympathetic horn.
It struck Q that Higgins had a crush on Bond, but was so peaceably heterosexual he did not, and probably would not ever, realise. It was enviable in a way.
‘Sorry, did you come by to…’ Q said to Bond.
‘To discuss… yeah,’ Bond said, glancing at Higgins.
‘All right, all right,’ Higgins said, ‘I can take a hint. Thanks lads.’
‘See you,’ Q said. ‘Sorry.’
Higgins saw himself out and closed the door.
‘Lads,’ Q mouthed in outrage to Bond, after the door closed.
Bond smiled – but it was a businesslike smile. He looked at his watch, then began to speak quickly. ‘Look, all I wanted to say was, you’ve not done one of these debriefs before.’
‘No,’ Q said.
‘When there’s a man down, the higher-ups have to report on who’s to blame to the Minister. And the Minister has been known to just mindlessly dismiss that person.’
‘Shit,’ Q said.
Bond swilled some of his tea hurriedly. ‘And if they can’t identify anyone on the ground, then they have to say it’s them, so they are very keen to find someone. So do not put your hand up and say it’s you, because they will take you up on that offer with joy.’
‘All right, yes,’ Q said.
‘It’s rather like a car accident. Don’t say it’s your fault. If it is, they’ll work it out for themselves.’
‘All right, yes!’ Q said.
‘Do not humour me on this,’ Bond said, officerly. ‘Just do as I say.’
‘No, I’m not. I will.’
‘All right, I’ve got to go.’ Bond got up.
‘All right,’ Q said, stupidly.
‘Oh,’ Bond said, ‘of course, we didn’t have this conversation, and we definitely didn’t compare notes.’ He winked.
Bond showed himself out.
Q observed in himself a feeling of disappointment.
The debrief was in a glossy beige conference room, around a large oval of tables that would have seated three times as many. Mallory and a couple of others were seated at one end of the oval. Q had half hoped for Moneypenny. But actually, if he was about to be dressed down, perhaps it was better.
When Bond, who was the field team lead, came in, he chose the opposite end of the oval to sit at, and everyone else on the field team joined him. With a feeling of caution, Q let the others take the seats directly next to Bond. The result was a more adversarial seating plan than the rounded table had perhaps been designed to encourage. Q’s sense, from the air of slight embarrassment coming from the far end of the table, was that management had noticed.
Q had been in this room before. Mallory and he had interviewed staff in here together a couple of times. They had been sitting on the same side of the table then, and Q had been an asker of questions. Now he would be an answerer.
Mallory was questioning Dresden. ‘And you were drinking every night?’
‘Off duty,’ Dresden said. His sunburn had unfortunately lingered.
‘It’s not exactly marvellous for the situational awareness, though, is it,’ Mallory said.
Q surprised himself with a little surge of indignation on Dresden’s behalf.
Old M had been the one to recruit Q. He’d been making a bundle in cybersecurity consulting for banks by day, and enjoying hurling botnets at the firewalls of oppressive regimes by night. She’d made him sign the Official Secrets Act so she could bring him in and show him the labs – and the size of the server room. There had been an alliance there: she had pretended to be a jolly little old lady, called him clever boy and offered him a biscuit. He had created an animated visualisation of what he was going to do to the Iranians, and she had smiled so wide all the wrinkles flattened out of her lip, and offered him the whole packet.
He’d always accepted that Mallory, who had inherited him rather than fought for him, might never feel as invested in him as old M had. But he mostly cared whether he got the money and the staff to do interesting work, so there had been no issue.
‘What attempts did you make to surveil enemy communications while this was happening?’ Mallory said to Q now.
‘I was in the field,’ Q said, confused. ‘I wasn’t in the control room. The control room had a standing order to intercept whatever it could from the hotel.’
‘Those staff report to you, don’t they?’
‘They had a temporary reporting line to your office,’ Q said, ‘because I was in the field.’
‘And you made no efforts yourself?’
‘You seem to be complaining that I failed to do something that was literally impossible given my situation,’ Q said.
‘Not at all,’ Mallory said. ‘I’m merely exploring the facts.’
Q decided to rip the plaster off. ‘I’m afraid I’m not going to be very helpful. To be very frank, the first time it even occurred to me that anything was wrong was when I looked down at Stephens and saw that he’d been shot. I’m sorry to say I really had no insight prior to that.’
Mallory leant on his elbows, silent. Several seconds passed.
Dealing with people who were trained in interrogation techniques was not Q’s favourite part of working here.
He was not the right kind of chess player for this, and resented being made to play. He gave in and said, ‘Looking back, there was a guy that Bond and I saw in the corridor, the night of the dinner, though we didn’t make anything of it at the time. I suspect he was a Bulgarian speaking Maltese – but I’d never heard that before. And possibly the waiter did pay us some attention during that dinner, though I don’t know that for sure. That’s really all I know.’
‘And you were drinking, at this dinner,’ Mallory said.
‘I was the team lead, and I arranged that dinner,’ Bond butted in to say.
‘Thank you, Bond,’ Mallory said. ‘You will have your chance to speak.’
Mallory saw the look on Q’s face. ‘Of course we don’t confer before these meetings, gentlemen, do we?’
‘No,’ Q said, and looked down.
Amid the jumble of everyone else leaving afterwards, Q lost track of Bond. When at last he located him, it was as a turned back, already some distance away.
Back in his office, Q considered writing an email. But it did not seem personal, immediate enough, for how pissed off he was.
He rang Bond’s internal phone extension instead. It went to voicemail. ‘Bloody hell,’ he said, ‘I am so fucked off with you. You set me up to not put my hand up, so you could put your bloody hand up instead!’ He hung up, hard.
He had just left a voicemail. Like his own grandmother. Like a woolly mammoth trumpeting its doom down a six-pin phone cable. The most useless, timewasting, inefficient medium of communication on the current-day planet, and he had just voluntarily used it.
He suspected the recording had captured a certain quaver in his voice.
He called back – could he delete it somehow? No, it did not look like it. Also, he accidentally didn’t hang up till after the beep.
He had just discovered that those old romantic comedy plotlines about somebody breaking into a house to steal the answering machine tape were potentially realistic after all.
That night on the tube, he got a text from Jeremy. ‘How was Malta – J’.
Did he mean the lack of question mark bitchily, Q wondered?
There was a kind of apology, perhaps, in the sign-off – it admitted the possibility that Q might have deleted his number.
When Q imagined what might come of replying, he did not know if he wanted it. So he didn’t.
At Tesco, he browsed for wine – could you get Maltese wine here? It did not look like it. He bought chardonnay, a very large bag of fancy crisps and a chicken and bacon sandwich, and went home.
He lay on the sofa, ate all the crisps and drank all the wine. Near midnight, he forced himself to eat half the sandwich, then fell back, disconsolate.
This helpless physical gratitude he felt towards Bond. The way Bond had hurled him out of the line of fire on the hotel balcony. Like a doll. In and out of doors, on and off balconies, one after the other, Q the child in tow. The unbelievable force with which Bond could use his body. The speed of his decision-making – and every decision right.
Q had built his whole adult life around the idea that certain kinds of manliness – physicality, particularly, and masterfulness – were a load of moronic nonsense.
He was getting into Peter Spencer territory.
Peter Spencer had been a sixth former at boarding school when Q was in Year 9. He was a quieter one, more thoughtful; when the other batsman was shouting at the umpire, you’d see him leaning peaceably on his bat at the other end. He was green-eyed and freckled, his hair the colour of strong white tea – he parted it on the side and there were a couple of little spikes at the crown that never properly cooperated. Sometimes Q imagined Spencer letting him fix it with a comb. He would think about touching Spencer’s hair to do it, perhaps sitting beside him and holding his head still.
Q had followed Spencer around; at cricket he came to the boundary fence to untangle his pads and hand them to him. Sometimes he came into Spencer’s dormitory and sat on the end of his bed while he was studying, and guessed which book or pen he would need next, and got it ready for him.
One day Spencer cracked and said, ‘Listen, you little poof. Give it a rest, will you?’
The thing that sent Q into a spin – a spin from which he was perhaps still in motion – was the way the whole dormitory giggled. It was their air of relief. Like they’d all been in on something for ages, and they’d just been waiting for the balloon to pop, as it filled and filled.
But Q had not been in on it at all.
What had Bond said that night, out in the water? I don’t actually do boyfriends. A statement of fact, offered as conversation. Not as though he’d even considered Q a stakeholder.
Q picked up his phone and opened a message to Jeremy. The screen was like a magnet polarised against him. He forced himself on, and wrote, ‘Wine, squid excellent. Sunburn mild. Predictions of death unfounded for now.’
‘Drinks Friday?’ Jeremy replied.
‘Why not,’ Q wrote, without punctuation.
There was an in-house service for Stephens on Wednesday – for they could not attend his real funeral. Bond had not returned Q’s voicemail from Monday. Thinking about it, Q felt a sensation like a wriggling worm under his diaphragm.
The service was in the assembly hall on the ground floor. The rostrum was draped in a Union Jack. Stephens’ mildly foolish service ID photo was blown up to A2 and displayed on an easel with an ivy wreath. You could not see if it was real ivy.
Q did not come in early enough, and had to sit beside strangers.
Mallory, his tie knotted particularly plushly, gave a speech on service and sacrifice that could have been for anyone. Then Markovic spoke in a wavering voice about the hilarious pranks Stephens had liked to pull. Q found every example exquisitely unfunny.
Afterwards he spotted Bond in the foyer and went over to him. He had failed to notice Bond was glad-handing Markovic, Dresden and Trent. Now Q had to shake all their hands and make significant, mournful eye contact, and congratulate Markovic on the speech.
Then he and Bond were alone for a moment.
‘Hello,’ Bond said, as if to start again, with a quirk at the corner of his mouth.
‘Hello,’ Q said. ‘That was dire. I feel twice as bad as before.’
‘Rather, yes,’ Bond said.
That subject seemed exhausted already. Bond had an amused look on his face, which annoyed Q.
‘I don’t think you can possibly understand how furious I have to be with someone before I leave them a voicemail,’ Q said.
Bond’s smile widened, and he looked down to hide it.
‘You set me up in that meeting!’ Q said. ‘So as to set yourself up. I don’t want to be implicated in that.’
‘Look, I don’t have much of a sense of honour left, after all these years,’ Bond said. ‘But one of the things you do as an officer is stop the shit rolling downhill. I can still manage that much.’
‘You’re not my superior, to defend me.’
‘I was, on that mission.’
‘What you say is thank you,’ Bond said.
‘I haven’t even been able to say thank you for my life,’ Q said. ‘How am I going to start with this? It’s too much, isn’t it? All I can say at this point is fuck you.’
Q had really amused Bond now. ‘Fuck you, too.’
‘What do you have to fuck me for?’ Q quipped, before he could think better of it.
‘Bond?’ a voice called. It was Mallory, from across the foyer.
‘Do you want to get a drink later?’ Bond said.
‘Sure,’ Q said, far too fast.
‘Can I have your personal number?’
‘Sure, just a sec.’ Q got out his phone
‘You don’t know it.’ Bond laughed.
‘Nobody my age knows it.’ Q found it and gave it to Bond.
‘Now that’s Matthew, is it?’ Bond said, needling.
‘Yes, James,’ Q said.
‘Bond!’ Mallory called.
Bond brought him to a pub by the river, wood-panelled and full of barristers.
‘I’d have to say,’ Q said, ‘after that debrief, I have a whole new level of insight into your bad attitude.’
‘I don’t have a bad attitude,’ Bond said. ‘I have a delightful attitude.’
They both smiled, and drank.
‘But to get shot at, and have someone die right next to you, and then have these people sitting in a room with their smarmy questions…’
‘Yes,’ Bond said. ‘That’s how it is, I’m afraid.’
‘I got along quite well with Mallory before that,’ Q said. ‘Now, I’d struggle to act if I saw him being pushed off a cliff. I wouldn’t push him myself. But I’d struggle to act.’
‘It’s always that way,’ Bond said. ‘People who weren’t there just never get it.’
‘Well, I’ve concluded your misanthropy is surprisingly moderate, all things considered,’ Q said.
They were about to finish their drinks, and it was Q’s round. He lifted his glass in question. Bond nodded, so Q got up and went and got them another.
Returning, he put their glasses down and sat. ‘Stephens, I suppose,’ he said, a little self-consciously, and raised his pint.
Bond echoed the gesture and drank.
‘Didn’t care for him particularly, personally,’ Bond said. ‘But would have taken the bullet for him if I could. Still angry with myself I didn’t see it coming fast enough.’
‘I’m going to say he annoyed me,’ Q said. ‘Actively annoyed me. But I feel like absolute hell about it. Probably worse, actually, because he annoyed me. God! That service just made it worse.’
‘Don’t know if I have it in me to feel like absolute hell anymore. I’m a bit of a withered husk,’ Bond said.
‘Oh, I think there’s still a bit of juice,’ Q said.
Bond waggled his eyebrows.
Q sighed. ‘Maybe when I grow up, I’ll be able to get away with that.’
‘Oh, there is no getting away with it,’ Bond said, house-masterly. ‘There is only doing it.’
‘I need to break free of my fear of the eyebrow police, you’re telling me,’ Q said, ‘sir.’
Bond put his lager down. ‘Did you have plans for dinner?’
‘No,’ Q said. ‘Do I have them now?’
Bond was laughing with his eyes.
‘I’m sorry, I’m not very good at playing it cool,’ Q said. ‘Would you like to fuck me somewhere tonight?’
‘Absolutely,’ Bond said.
Bond’s flat, it turned out, was a few blocks away.
It was now dark and starting to rain. They hunkered in their coats, and jostled each other a bit, exchanging glances, as they waited at a crossing.
Bond’s flat was upstairs, around an ornate dark wood bannister. But inside was white and chrome, open-plan, blinds open on the city lights. Bond kissed him in front of the window. ‘Can we be seen?’ Q said.
‘Undoubtedly,’ Bond said.
‘Oh, how nice.’ Q rubbed the short hair at the back of Bond’s neck against the grain.
Bond breathed a laugh into his mouth.
‘Can I suck your cock, please?’ Q said and kissed him again.
‘Please do,’ Bond said.
Q got to his knees.
‘I say,’ Bond said.
Q rubbed his face on the front of Bond’s trousers. ‘You smell lovely. Is it too much if I…’ He nosed the flap of Bond’s flies aside and took the zipper tag delicately in his teeth.
‘Heavens, no,’ Bond said, with a breath out.
Q took the zipper tag down, and kissed Bond’s cock through his underwear – it was those sky-blue ones. The smell was deeper, riper now – he nuzzled.
‘Q,’ Bond complained.
‘Mmm.’ Q looked up at him.
He had all of Bond’s attention – it was glorious.
‘It’s all right,’ Q said. ‘I’m torturing myself, too.’
‘It’s the part where you’re torturing me…’ Bond put a thumb to Q’s bottom lip.
Q licked it, then ducked away.
‘All right.’ Q undid Bond’s belt. Their eyes met.
Q caught a glimpse of Bond’s body, reflected in the window glass. His hips were canted forward, spine an arc.
Q unbuttoned Bond’s trousers, and let them fall to his ankles. He ran the tips of his thumbs around under the elastic of the leg holes of his underwear. Then he lifted the waistband over Bond’s cock and pulled them down. Bond’s cock sprung free, a little above the horizontal, glossy head peeking from the sheath.
Q could not play games anymore. He slid the foreskin back and sucked the precome from the tip. ‘Oh, I love this vein here,’ he said, and kissed it, open-mouthed.
‘It loves you too,’ Bond rasped urgently, and slid his hand in Q’s hair.
Q eased the cock deep into his mouth, till his throat fluttered and his saliva glands gushed.
‘You don’t –’ Bond began.
‘Hush,’ Q pulled off and said, ‘I know what I like.’ He took it deep again.
He held Bond’s plush, firm-muscled arse and made him fuck his face a while.
‘Feel like I’m going to fall,’ Bond sighed at last – and Q felt the tremble in his body.
‘Come and sit on my chest over here,’ Q said, pulling off, hoarse.
‘Oh fuck,’ Bond said.
‘Shoes off, trousers off,’ Q said.
Bond was drunk from arousal, staggering. Q offered him his shoulder to lean on.
They went to the sofa. ‘I’ll lie down first,’ Q said. ‘My throat’s all nice and relaxed, so don’t be gentle.’
Afterwards, Q wiped some of the drool off his face and said huskily, ‘Sorry, that wasn’t very safe. I couldn’t resist.’ When Bond had warned him he was about to come, Q had clutched him, so Bond’d shot straight down his gullet.
‘Oh, I wanted to, I couldn’t help it either,’ Bond said, rueful. Clumsily, he climbed off Q’s chest and sat on the floor, throwing off his tie, which he’d wrenched loose earlier.
‘I feel rather debauched,’ Bond said. ‘Can I sit on this for you?’ He groped Q’s cock in his trousers – it was an iron bar.
‘Oh, please,’ Q said.
Bond looked distressed. ‘Christ, I have to go and get –’ He scrubbed his hand over his face and got to his feet. ‘All right, come and be civilised in here, if I have to get up.’ He held out his hand to Q.
They went into the bedroom, Q waddling from his erection and trying to unbutton himself as he went. He had a flash of thinking that he liked Bond’s bedlinen: navy duvet cover, navy-on-white pinstriped sheets. Bond hurled his own shirt off and banged a drawer open. He threw a strip of condoms and a plastic bottle on the bed. ‘Nineteen fucking eighty-one was a good year for sex, I hear.’
‘No it wasn’t,’ Q said. ‘I wasn’t alive.’ He dropped his trousers and underwear.
‘Fair,’ Bond said. ‘Let me touch that.’ He held Q’s hip and clamped a hard hand around his dick.
His hand was rough and slightly chafey. ‘Shit, no!’ Q caught his hand and wriggled away.
‘You want me to do something else with it, or what?’ Q demanded.
‘I do,’ Bond said. ‘Get on the bed.’
Q kicked his trousers off his legs, pulled his socks off, and lay down, stretching out. ‘These are nice sheets, by the way.’
Bond grinned and knelt on the mattress. He put lube on his fingers and reached behind himself to put them in. It made his shoulder and chest muscles swell.
‘Bloody hell, you’re going to make me watch you do that,’ Q said.
‘It is a peculiar vacancy that the human face obtains at this moment, isn’t it?’ Bond quirked a smile then gave in, his face going blank.
Q beat the mattress with a fist.
‘All right, you,’ Bond said at last. ‘You’d better put this on.’ He threw the strip of condoms onto Q’s belly.
Q fumbled tearing the first one open, huffed in rage and threw it to the floor. He managed to get the second one out, and rolled it down.
Bond climbed over his hips, face dimpling.
‘You’re going to get, like, ten seconds out of me, I’m sorry,’ Q whispered.
‘It’s all right, it’s just a bit of fun,’ Bond whispered back.
Bond held the base of Q’s cock in his hand, and shifted his hips. Q felt the head nudge sweetly into place against the softened rim of Bond’s hole, and took a deep breath.
The tight ring descended, hot. Bond’s face was exquisite to watch. A faint surprise – strain – quizzicality.
He stopped, just as the head had passed inside – at the most excruciatingly pleasurable moment for Q. Bond’s forehead creased deeply, and he eased himself off again.
‘Sorry, I’m not in the mood for this very often, so it can take me a while,’ Bond said.
He eased down again, taking the head in. Still his forehead was creased.
‘Bear down, if you can,’ Q said.
‘Yeah,’ Bond said, ‘but everything’s in revolt, so I can’t quite…’
Q stroked Bond’s sides. ‘Breathe in deeply, then as you breathe out, try pushing down all the way through your body.’
‘Mmm.’ Bond breathed in, sitting up tall. Then he breathed out, belly swelling as he pushed down, Q stroking down his sides in time.
Q’s cock was passing through a molten vice.
‘There, that’s nice,’ Bond said, and sat slowly up, then down again. ‘That’s so nice.’
Q could only wheeze.
Bond had not been lying about dinner. He made stir-fry, while Q, hair wet from the shower, lounged at the island bench and sipped the honey and lemon tea Bond had made him for his throat.
‘Bond,’ Q said.
‘James, please, if you’ve been inside me.’ Bond – James – twinkled at him.
‘James, then.’ Q almost giggled, but was too hoarse. ‘That feels taboo.’
‘What, all the sodomy didn’t?’
‘Oh, I’m an old hand.’
‘Not so old,’ James said.
James, as opposed to Bond, wore an old blue t-shirt, faintly transparent, that was a bit too small for his biceps, and track pants whose back seam fell vertically between his buttocks, revealing his lack of underwear.
‘Nor you,’ Q said.
James rinsed green beans in a colander, shook them, then began to top and tail them on the board. ‘Is it Matthew, or Matt?’
‘Oh, Matthew, always Matthew,’ Q said. ‘Can’t bear Matt.’
James got a certain light in his eye.
‘Oh, don’t go there,’ Q said. ‘There were boys at boarding school who would not let that go. It was my own fault, really, because I kept reacting. But really, do not go there, or I will never get it up again.’
‘Well, we can’t have that,’ James said.
Q sipped his tea.
James put a carrot down on the board and sliced it in half aggressively. He waggled his eyebrows.
‘Again, I can’t get away with that!’ Q said. ‘There’s no justice in this world.’
‘Surprising, isn’t it,’ James said, droll.
‘I was going to say: you went to boarding school – or so I’ve heard?’
James gave him one eyebrow.
‘People do talk about you,’ Q said.
‘Yes, and it’s seldom to my credit, I’m afraid.’
‘Flattery will get you everywhere.’ James bashed some garlic into submission.
‘Did you used to beat up little boys like me?’ Q said.
‘No. That wasn’t my style,’ James said. ‘I used to razz them.’
In the morning at work, Q passed Bond in the hall, walking with some operations people. ‘Morning,’ Bond said, with professional cheer.
‘Morning.’ Q instinctively tried to stop to talk. But none of the other party had planned to stop, so were sent into a confusion, some of them stopping and the others nearly running into them. Q was not able to work out what to do except walk on with a nod, pretending it had never happened. He did not dare look back.
In the afternoon he found himself glazing over as he read his emails, and starting to scheme up ways to run into Bond again. Bond had probably been going to a briefing in one of the conference rooms. Where would he go after that?
He might easily have been sent out immediately on a job to outer Mongolia for seven and a half years, and unless he needed specialty equipment, Q would never even know.
At four, Q was making honey and lemon tea in the tea room – he had enjoyed it at Bond’s, and was still a bit hoarse – when a voice said, ‘Sore throat?’
‘Bond,’ Q said, as mildly as he could manage. He shuffled up to give Bond room at the sink.
Bond wore a pale grey suit today, with a deep-blue shirt that made his eyes terribly vivid.
‘Hope you gave whoever gave it to you a right telling-off.’ Bond’s tone was wholly, conventionally conversational.
Q felt himself blush – felt the sudden rush of it happening, as it had used to in his early teens.
Bond, Q thought, saw it – because he smiled gently and left.
Q could not get his face to calm down for a good forty minutes, which he spent in his office with the door closed.
A feeling of teenage stupidity, futility and impotence persisted into the evening. Q lay on the sofa at home in florid despair. How soon was it safe to ask to see Bond again? Q wanted to immediately. He wanted to be kissed and fucked and then made dinner and talked to.
He had this stupid thing with Jeremy on Friday night. Why had he agreed to it?
Arriving on the agreed corner, he looked at Jeremy, who was standing under a street lamp, gazing away. He was a good-looking man, well dressed, with something unpleasant in his body language that you could not quite put your finger on.
‘Hi,’ Q said.
‘Hello,’ Jeremy turned and said. He almost said something else, but gave a small smile and stopped himself.
Q had almost left his anorak in the office. But it had been threatening to drizzle so he had been stuck with it. Now Jeremy had perhaps taken some message from it, as he’d feared.
‘Come on, it’s down this way,’ Q said.
Some impulse had made him suggest the pub by the river.
‘New haunts?’ Jeremy asked as they trudged downhill.
‘Oh, I was here with James the other day,’ Q said, reckless. ‘It’s quite good.’
They crossed the street, between some crawling cars. Q accidentally caught Jeremy’s eye. Jeremy’s smile was supercilious. Q returned it blandly.
Inside was the same – all leather seats and barristers. Jeremy’s was not the only herringbone.
They sat down with pints. ‘So does this mean you are fucking him, now, then?’ Jeremy could have been asking about the weather.
‘What if it did?’ Q had used the subjunctive instinctively, and congratulated himself.
They drank their pints down a good third of the way in silence.
‘Why don’t we pretend to be humans?’ Q said. ‘How was your week?’
Jeremy looked at him. ‘Irritating. I’m pitching a major campaign and the designer is a lazy incompetent.’
‘More irritating or less irritating than usual? Because you’re always a bit irritated.’
‘Yes, I am,’ Jeremy said, surprised. A beat passed.
‘But yes, more irritating than usual. He emails me million-megabyte files full of junk layers from another client’s template, and he hasn’t done two of the five things I asked. It’ll take a week and a half if I send it back to him, so I just end up doing it myself. Be fucked if I approve his invoice on time, though.’
It was a window onto something Q knew nothing about. ‘Have you used him before?’
‘No. We’ve got bloody budget cuts, and you can only hire people off the approved suppliers list. Which is obviously full of low quoters. And there’s a reason low quoters are low quoters, isn’t there.’
‘Because…’ Q began to guess.
‘Because they can’t get work at a better price,’ Jeremy said. ‘Because they’re crap. Yes.’
‘That is irritating,’ Q said.
‘What about you?’ Jeremy said. ‘Back at work after that trip?’
‘Yeah.’ Now Q had to come up with something actuarial-sounding.
No – he realised he didn’t. ‘We rather borked that trip up, unfortunately. But the shit is still sitting on the top of the fan, gently rotating, and we’re not sure when it will come down or on whom.’
‘We were supposed to be setting up something in Malta. But somehow a third party knew about it, and got involved to stop us. We’re not sure if they were tipped off beforehand, or if one of us did something wrong. James actually talked me out of putting my hand up for it, and then sneakily tried to take the fall himself. So I’m annoyed with him – because I think it may have been me, if it was anyone.’
‘So there’s only one sword and you’re both trying to fall on it?’
‘Essentially, yeah,’ Q said.
‘That’s rather sweet. Never come and work in advertising. I’m afraid the sword only enters in one direction, and that’s through the back.’
‘Can’t remember the last time anyone mischaracterised me so thoroughly as to call me sweet,’ Q said, and raised his glass in a toasting gesture.
Jeremy echoed the gesture.
There, Q thought. They had done it: they’d had a sociable conversation, like normal people.
‘I think your other boyfriend thinks so,’ Jeremy said.
‘What other boyfriend is that?’ Q said with a reflexive tease, and then cursed himself.
He had discovered in the course of the evening that he no longer wanted to fuck Jeremy at all, whatsoever. It was a relief – the clearing of a long, dirty storm.
‘He just saw us now,’ Jeremy said, gesturing toward the door.
‘Just now?’ Q had sat up straight to look before he could stop himself.
‘He was with some bloke. Never saw a poof in such a terrible suit. So I’m sure it’s fine.’ Jeremy winked.
‘If I did have a boyfriend,’ Q said, ‘I’m sure it would be.’
They both took a drink. They were getting to the bottom of their pints – Jeremy faster than Q.
‘Look,’ Jeremy said rudely, in something like his old way, ‘did you want to come back to mine? Or were we just disinterring the corpse here and giving it a bit of a kick?’
‘Look, no, I won’t.’ Q tried to think of what else to say.
‘Well,’ Jeremy said, putting his empty glass down decisively, ‘fuck you for making me come all the way to the river.’ He stood up.
Q smiled wanly. ‘So long and thanks for all the…’ He gestured.
‘Right,’ Jeremy said, and left.
Q no longer even found him good-looking. It was like a magic trick. He almost had another drink by himself to celebrate.
On Sunday morning Q got his courage up, and texted Bond: ‘Got plans tonight?’
‘I do. Apologies,’ Bond replied.
Would Q feel too pitiable going out to breakfast by himself after that?
He detected that he would, so ate toast at home.
He spent his Sunday bothering the Chinese internet filter. He would have needed to organise with other people to have much of an effect, and he didn’t feel like doing that. But trying made him feel better.
He had used to have friends, he recalled. Of course he still did, technically. It was just he found it so depressing to keep his cover up with them. Did he know Moneypenny well enough to call on the weekend?
Maybe he ought to call his mum.
Now he was really losing it.
In the afternoon, he texted Bond, ‘Jeremy said you saw he and I at the pub?’
‘Yes. Took poor old Markovic out for a drink and a bit of a sook about Stephens,’ Bond replied.
‘I’m not seeing him anymore btw,’ Q tapped in, but then looked at Bond’s full punctuation and decided to spell out by the way. He pressed Send.
Waiting for a reply, he stared at the conversation on the screen. When you spelled out by the way, he saw now, it became idiotically faux-casual rather than actually casual.
Also, he had pretentiously said you saw he and I in the first message, when grammatically it was him and me.
‘No need to account to me. See you at work,’ Bond replied.
If Q’d had a fucking friend here, maybe they would have confiscated his phone before he’d started typing.
In the morning, Q was called to Mallory’s office. They had changed the layout during the rebuilding for security reasons. The view from the curved windows was now, if anything, marginally more magnificent than before, but the sheer thickness of the security glass gave it a surreal shimmer.
Bond was there, seated in a visitor chair.
‘Ah, Q.’ Mallory stood to offer his hand. Q shook it, self-consciously.
Bond had stood politely too.
‘007,’ Q said.
‘Hello, Q,’ Bond said affably.
They all sat.
‘Well,’ Mallory said, ‘I have both good news and bad news.’
Q felt a terrible facetiousness rise to the back of his throat, but was gazumped by Bond. ‘One always strives not to have a preference.’
‘It’s actually the same piece of news,’ Mallory said. ‘While my feedback on the mission in Malta stands –’
‘Yes, I have noted it,’ Bond said pedantically.
‘Thank you,’ Mallory said, even more pedantically. They stared at each other.
There was a kind of competition going on in their body language, Q noted – knees and elbows getting wider and wider, to take up more room in the chair.
‘Not withstanding that feedback,’ Mallory said, ‘I have new information, and it indicates that the Bulgarians did not make you in Malta. They were tipped off.’
‘Bloody hell,’ Q said.
‘We’ve traced their information to a probable leak in Malta. But we can’t rule out undetected surveillance.’ Mallory turned to Q.
‘The entire Chinese government can’t catch me. So I don’t bloody think so,’ Q said. ‘But if I’m wrong, by God I’ll find out.’
‘Good,’ Mallory said. ‘That’s what I was going to assign you. This is now your top priority.’ He stood and handed Q a dossier.
Q snatched it and began flipping.
‘And for you,’ Mallory said to Bond, handing him another dossier, ‘I have a mission to Malta. Have a look at this, confer with Q and come up with a plan. Have Moneypenny set up a meeting with me on Thursday at the latest for approval. For now we’ll assume you’re flying out Friday, barring contingencies.’
‘Very good, sir,’ Bond said with a smile. ‘May I tell the previous team – since they lost a man?’
‘Not while the leak is unidentified,’ Mallory said. ‘I sympathise, but this is absolute need-to-know only. Don’t tell them there’s a mission either.’
‘Of course not,’ Bond said, rueful. ‘They might want to come.’
‘All right, gentleman,’ Mallory said, leaning on the heels of his hands on the desk. ‘I look forward to your thoughts by Thursday or earlier.’
‘Sir,’ Bond said firmly in farewell.
‘Sir,’ Q said also; it seemed compulsory. He felt ridiculous.
Outside the door, Bond said with cheerful neutrality, ‘All right, check in tomorrow morning?’
‘All right,’ Q said, to Bond’s departing back.
Q spent the rest of the morning with the dossier. One part of his mind whirred over the mission comms logs. The other part whirred about Bond. Q had been weird, as usual. He had been needy with a straight man. Again. He had been sitting on Peter fucking Spencer’s bed, trying to hand him pens.
By lunch, he had found absolutely nothing to suggest the Bulgarians had ears on anyone’s comms. It looked like a pure human-factors failure: someone on the Maltese local team was either bent or sloppy. It was the worst problem to have in intelligence work, as well as the most common – and the least amenable to technological solution.
On the up side, the location of the Bulgarians’ warehouse had been discovered. The question now was, if they couldn’t trust to Maltese support on the ground, then how were they going to get at it – land a British invasion force? It was a question to put to the field operative assigned. Which was Bond.
He snapped and emailed Moneypenny. ‘Monners,’ he wrote. ‘Have you had lunch? Urgent need to complain about personal drama to someone nice(ish).’
‘Good call, prob would have been offended by nice without the (ish),’ she replied. ‘Already ate sandwich but could come sit somewhere?’
They got a coffee – and Q a sandwich of his own – and found some wan sun on a bench in the internal courtyard.
‘All right, tell me immediately,’ Moneypenny said mildly. ‘I love drama.’
‘It’s man-trouble of course,’ Q said. ‘It’s the worst, most clichéd man-trouble there ever was.’
‘You’re awful,’ he said.
‘Yes I am. That’s why you like me. Come on, tell Auntie Monners.’
‘I’ve not told you anything this personal before. Are you sure it’s all right?’
‘I love man-trouble,’ she said, swigging her coffee. ‘Do it.’
‘All right. I’ve scored myself one of these straight’ – Q made scare-quotes in the air – ‘men who want to fuck me but not talk about it and definitely not actually go out with me. Another one! How many times can I do this?’
‘And even though they’re basically complete cocks by definition, because they have to be, to do that, I still hang around and keep hoping they’ll go out with me. Because I am a fuckhead who hates myself.’ Q bit into his sandwich, took too much and had to battle to chew it.
‘Men are such whores,’ she said. ‘It’s probably not anything you’re doing. Every single gay man I know has this story.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know! Every single gay man I know has this story also. Why don’t I know better?’
‘It’s actually exactly the same thing they do to women,’ she said. ‘They pretend they want to date you to fuck you, when they don’t want to date you. It’s just they’ll say anything they can think of to get their end away. They’re just absolute whores.’
‘Do you think we should move to a desert island?’ Q said.
‘Maybe we should keep some men as slaves, though,’ she said, ‘to service us.’
‘I like how you think.’ Q ate his sandwich, more placidly now.
‘Be funny if you were talking about Bond,’ she said, mischievous.
He began to choke, and could not control himself fast enough.
‘Oh my God,’ she said.
‘I’m not –’ He began trying to protest, but was stumped.
‘Q!’ Her eyes were enormous. ‘I fucked him!’
His mind whited out.
‘Isn’t his cock nice, though?’ she said.
Afterwards, Q sat in his office with tea. His head was full of static noise. He was buoyed into hectic high spirits by Moneypenny’s sympathy. Secondly, he was a little turned on. Thirdly, he was furious with her.
She had fucked Bond well before Q’d had the faintest inkling he was interested. She had no designs on him now at all. But Q was absolutely fucking furious.
He looked at his tea. He looked at the teapot, the blotter, the pens, the keyboard – at the light coming in the window. Everything was senseless.
He picked up his phone and texted Bond, very quickly, as if someone was going to catch him and stop him. ‘Re our previous texts, the fact is, I would like to be going out with you. But you said you don’t do boyfriends. Are you negotiable at all?’
The minutes stretched. He could barely get a mouthful of tea down.
‘Please reply or I will throw myself off a cliff,’ he wrote.
‘I mean that figuratively but only because there are no cliffs around here,’ he wrote immediately afterwards.
‘Someone needs to take my phone away,’ he wrote shortly after that.
He got up and went to the window, where he put his head down on the sill. It was a bit dusty. He had an urge to pick his head up and whack it back down again, quite hard.
A buzz sounded from the desk.
‘They do,’ Bond had replied.
Q wondered if you could spontaneously contract asthma from a text message.
Bond texted again. ‘To be honest, I had not looked to be negotiable. But come by tonight if you want to discuss. I was going to ring for a takeaway.’
‘All right,’ Q wrote.
Bond answered his door barefoot, still in suit trousers, shirt open at the neck.
‘Hello,’ Bond said. ‘Come in, I haven’t rung yet.’
‘Ta,’ Q said, and came in.
‘Lager?’ Bond said, going to the kitchen.
‘Yes, please,’ Q said, following.
Bond uncapped a bottle from a shopping bag on the benchtop and gave it to him. ‘Ta,’ Q said again.
‘Here, have a look,’ Bond said, and handed him a takeaway menu.
‘Oh, these people!’ Q said. ‘They’re good. The vindaloo’s good. It’s all pretty good.’
‘All right,’ Bond said, and got on the phone. ‘Garlic naan?’ he asked, while it was ringing. Q nodded enthusiastically.
Bond ordered, while Q leant on the bench and drank.
Bond finished ordering. He picked up his lager.
‘Hmm,’ Q said.
‘Hmm,’ Bond replied, a little mischievously.
Q’s hysteria was now chokingly high. He directed his smile at the floor, to keep from laughing.
‘So,’ Bond said.
‘So,’ Q replied.
‘I’m just not sure I’m boyfriend material, I’m afraid,’ Bond said.
‘Any sane man would say the same of me,’ Q said. His voice was a little reedy from tension. ‘I’m a complete bitch, and nobody even understands what the fuck I’m on about most of the time.’
‘Not in the same league,’ Bond said.
‘You know,’ Q said, with an effort to stay conversational, ‘if you don’t want to go out with someone, it’s incredibly patronising to tell them it’s for their own good. It’s a lot better to just own up that you don’t want to.’
‘That’s not it at all,’ Bond said.
‘There’s two ways we can do this,’ Q said. ‘We can either say that you get to choose for both of us who is boyfriend material, or we can say I get to choose for me and you get to choose for you.’
Bond was silent.
‘If there’s no such thing as boyfriend material for you, because you just don’t feel comfortable dating men, that’s fine. That’s absolutely your prerogative,’ Q said.
There was the sound of them both drinking.
‘You’re very gracious,’ Bond said eventually. ‘A woman would have thrown a plate at my head.’
‘You haven’t given me a plate yet,’ Q said. But privately he thought, You have terrible taste in women.
‘That reminds me,’ Bond said, humorous. He got some plates out and put them on the bench.
‘I would say, I love a challenge,’ Q said, ‘but that’s not always true.’
‘Oh, I can’t resist one,’ Bond said.
‘Oh, I know,’ Q said. ‘Maybe I should dare you?’
‘Mercy, no,’ Bond said, and smiled.
‘All right,’ Q said, and met his eye. ‘Mercy. Let’s park this for now. I’ll leave it with you.’
‘All right, thank you,’ Bond said.
Q walked off towards the lounge. He spoke over his shoulder, so he did not have to look at Bond. ‘I’d really like to fuck you later. I’m not going to be upset or whatever, I promise. I’d just really like to carry on fucking you regardless of whatever else.’
He could hear Bond following him. When he reached the sofa, he turned around.
‘I love your directness,’ Bond said.
‘I know you do,’ Q said. ‘It’s a great boon to my courage.’
Bond’s eyes went to the sofa, where Q had lain down last time, then returned to Q’s.
The doorbell rang.
‘I had expected to be pleased when the food came,’ Bond said.
‘Me too,’ Q said. ‘But we can’t always get what we want.’
‘I seem to have been doing all right recently,’ Bond said, dimpling, and went to the door.
After dinner they fucked simply, face to face, with Q’s hips on a pillow. Bond pistoned steadily into him. The pillow tipped Q’s hips up and let him keep his knees raised without strain; he could just let his muscles melt and take it, dreamily. He got so lost in it, he forgot to make any noise. ‘Am I boring you?’ Bond joked in a murmur, at last.
‘No. Hypnotising me,’ Q sighed. ‘It’s so nice. I might come this way. Look, mum, no hands.’
‘Do you need anything from me?’
‘Spare a hand?’
Bond looked confused, but shifted his weight to one hand and offered the other. Q guided it beneath his balls. ‘Rub with your knuckles?’
Bond sat up onto his knees to give himself more dexterity, and did it harder. ‘Like that?’
‘Mmm,’ Bond said, pleased.
‘Fuck!’ Q shouted, guttural, and his cock, untouched, began to spurt.
‘Oh, look at you,’ Bond said, and milked him with his knuckles.
Q kept coming, his back arched.
‘You’re so smug,’ he managed to wheeze, as it went on.
‘Should I not be?’ Bond said.
‘Yes,’ Q said, ‘no, you should be.’ Still his cock gave another spurt.
Bond was tireless; it kept coming. ‘Oh God, stop,’ Q had to say at last, and grab his hand.
Bond soothed Q’s thighs into relaxing – he’d spasmed all over as he came. ‘Wow,’ Bond said. ‘Never seen that before.’
‘Some guys can’t,’ Q said, breathless. ‘But I highly recommend it if you can. Carry on if you want.’
Now Q lay limp and pleased, with his own come drying all over his chest, deliciously disgusting, and watched Bond’s body sweat and work as he fucked him.
Bond had finished pleasing Q and was now pleasing himself, his eyes lidded, his brow creased with concentration. Q watched his orgasm sneak up on him by stages. A flush down his neck and chest, shoulders hard. The vehemence in the face.
A cry, as if of suffering, as he started to shoot, midsection rigid and then – thrusting, convulsive.
Another cry, softer.
Bond pulled out, and shambled off heroically to toss the condom and get a warm washcloth.
At last, after that, they tossed the pillow aside and lay down to snog lazily; Q took his glasses off. He rubbed his fingers through Bond’s sweaty hair, raising the smell of his scalp. The scent of Bond’s body did something strange to him, which seemed to be located inside his own body, under the ribs; it was getting worse every time they were together and he fucking loved it.
Idly, the part of his brain that had come back online asked him if he was being weird, too intense, when they’d basically just said they were casual. But Bond seemed far from objecting. So Q’s brain moved on to something more enjoyable, namely what an obnoxiously tongue-heavy kisser Bond was, and how much Q also fucking loved that.
They broke apart eventually and lay on their backs, breathing.
‘Might have a shower, if that’s all right,’ Q said at last.
‘Course,’ Bond said. ‘Want company?’
‘Always,’ Q said.
Q wondered if he was going to get it up again in the shower, but couldn’t manage it. Bond’s shower was capacious, however, with good pressure, and his shower gel smelled far nicer than the one in Malta had. Bond was thorough in soaping Q up. Q did not feel it was particularly a loss.
Then Q soaped Bond, also thoroughly. The eye contact – very close, so Q could focus – while he did Bond’s dick and balls was electrifying.
Then they were rinsing off. Bond said, ‘About that ring –’
‘What if you made me another, and it was a decoy? Didn’t do anything.’
‘And then what?’
‘I could swan around the Maltese office with it on, so whoever’s bent will tell the Bulgarians. Then the Bulgarians’ll be so focussed on getting it off me, they won’t notice something else.’
Q began to think. ‘Such as a really big scrambler, not very well disguised.’
‘Or anything,’ Bond said.
‘Or fucking anything.’ Q laughed. ‘You’re brilliant!’
‘Oh, I know.’
Back in the bedroom, Bond pulled on just his track pants. Then he leant on the bed and watched a mildly embarrassed Q putting his full selection of floor-rumpled clothes back on.
‘Come and see me tomorrow morning about the ring thing?’ Q said, sitting to pull his socks on.
‘Yeah,’ Bond said. ‘Don’t think I’ve got anything on.’
‘I’ll send you a calendar invite when I’ve lined up Higgins.’ Q started on his shoes.
‘Got lube all over your sheets,’ he said, in apology.
‘It’s all right. I’ll throw a towel on it and sort it out in the morning.’
Q was dressed. ‘All right. Might head off.’
Bond stepped in and kissed him. Q palmed his shower-damp back. They snogged a while, wetly.
‘I really like fucking you,’ Bond said, gravelly.
‘I really like you fucking me,’ Q said, and kissed him again for good measure.
They stepped back.
‘Matthew,’ Bond said, in farewell.
Q felt something very close to anger.
‘James,’ he replied, and got out of there.
The next morning, Q had left his door open and was reading at his desk. Higgins had not arrived yet.
Bond knocked on the doorframe with a smile, carrying his mission dossier. ‘Ready for me?’
‘My answer may incriminate me,’ Q said.
Bond came in and made himself at home in a chair. He wore a red-on-white graph-check shirt today with his navy suit, fruitier than usual for him. It was pleasing.
Q supposed even if you were dating you could probably not expect to kiss hello in the office.
‘Hello,’ Bond said, shifting in his seat. He smiled again, more warmly.
Q had no immediate notion how to reply.
‘Hi everyone,’ Higgins said, popping his head around the door.
‘Hello. Come in,’ Q said.
Higgins took the other chair. ‘So what’s this about?’
‘Well,’ Q said, ‘we had another idea about the ring.’
‘We?’ Higgins said. ‘As in, you two? When did this happen?’
‘Last thing yesterday,’ Bond said. He smiled at Higgins.
‘Basically, we need to know the technical requirements to destroy or disable an arms warehouse this big,’ Q said. ‘Bond, do you have the satellite photos and the floorplan?’
Bond spread them out on the desk.
‘But you were with me all afternoon yesterday,’ Higgins said to Q.
‘Never mind that now,’ Q said.
Bond went away on the mission on Friday morning as scheduled. Q was not calendared on for the control room at all, so had the weekend off. He suspected Moneypenny had done that deliberately but thought it best not to argue.
Friday night after dinner, he got a call at home. It showed a blocked number, so he guessed it might be work but was not sure. He answered smartly, ‘Hello?’
‘Hello,’ said Bond’s voice.
‘Oh, hello, Bond,’ Q said. ‘If you need ops support, you need to call control room, sorry. I’m at home.’
‘Oh, no,’ Bond said. ‘I’ve done everything I can for the day. I’m just bored now.’
‘Mmm,’ Bond said.
‘Perhaps you need a boyfriend, James, and then you could call him.’ Q had not planned to say this.
‘Do you think?’ Bond sounded amused.
‘I do hear they’re quite good,’ Q said.
‘You’ve only heard?’ Bond said. ‘No personal recommendation?’
‘Oh, well, mine are generally terrible,’ Q said, ‘but I understand other people often like theirs.’
‘It’s a good thing I don’t have one at the moment, or he might try and ring me on the phone just as I’m about to make tea.’
‘Thank you,’ Q said. ‘I know.’
It was Sunday night. Q had refrained from calling the office to ask about the operation all weekend.
That afternoon he had caught up with a friend from university for drinks on a rooftop. She’d always been a talker, which prevented him talking too much and having to lie about himself. It had been nice; he was a little buzzy now, pottering around the house, deciding about dinner.
The call came in showing a blocked number again. ‘Hello?’ he said.
‘Hello,’ James’ voice said.
‘Oh hello,’ Q said, smiling into the air. ‘Work or pleasure?’
Something in his voice made Q tease, ‘Are you drunk?’
‘If you’re accusing me, it must mean you are.’
‘Well, yes, I am, but that hardly excuses you.’ Q went and stretched out on the sofa.
‘Oh, I’ve not been excusable a day in my life. Why are you drunk?’
‘I went out for drinks with a mate. Now I’m back again. What about you?’
‘Oh,’ James said. There was a second’s pause. ‘I was lonely.’
‘Well, we can’t have that.’
‘I thought I’d phone a nice boy.’
‘Well, there aren’t any of those here, but you can have me instead.’
‘I wish I could,’ James said, baritone.
‘Hush,’ Q said, annoyed.
There was a silence. Q scrubbed his fingers through his hair.
‘Q? I mean, Matthew –’
‘What would it be like if I were your boyfriend?’
‘Are you actually asking – or just drunk and fishing for attention? Jesus.’
‘Bit of both, I expect,’ James said.
‘Well, the drunk part is certain,’ Q said.
‘In vino veritas.’
‘It’s not nice to tease, you know. When I’ve made my position clear.’
‘It is nice to tease,’ James said, teasing. ‘But I’m not – I’m asking.’
‘God,’ Q said, ‘I feel like I need to be drunker.’
‘Sure, why not join me?’ James said.
‘You’re a terrible influence. I’m getting some shots. I’ll put the phone down a mo.’
Q went to the kitchen and got out the tequila and a shot glass. He didn’t have a lemon, and wouldn’t want salt alone. It would just have to go straight down the hatch.
He took one shot – vile.
He took a second – fractionally less vile, due to the numbing of the first.
He was not quite enthusiastic enough for a third, so took the bottle and glass back to the sofa. He picked up the phone again. ‘Hello.’
‘Hello,’ James said.
‘I drank some tequila, and I just want you to know that I blame you bitterly for whatever now happens.’
‘Fair,’ James said.
There was a silence. Q poured another shot and downed it.
‘God, that’s disgusting,’ he said.
‘Why tequila, for heaven’s sake?’ James said, sympathetic.
‘Because I drank everything else that was actually nice shortly after purchase. I mean, if it’s stayed undrunk in the cupboard, that already tells you something, doesn’t it.’
‘Yes, I see.’
‘Of course a margarita’s quite nice.’
‘Yes, they’re quite good,’ James said.
Q considered another shot.
‘You were going to tell me something,’ James said gently.
‘I might want another shot,’ Q said.
‘I think you should tell me first, and have a shot after if you want.’
‘I think you should not tease me.’
‘I’m not teasing.’
‘Because I’ve already asked, and you turned me down, and that’s really humiliating. And if you basically want me to beg now for entertainment value – that’s not very nice, is it?’
‘I don’t want you to beg,’ James said. ‘And I didn’t want to humiliate you either.’
‘You asked me if I was negotiable. I’m just looking to… open negotiations. Though I should say that I can’t guarantee the outcome.’
Q’s windpipe felt tight. He poured another shot, downed it and coughed. ‘All right.’
James was mercifully silent.
‘So, if you’re going out with a man,’ Q said, ‘as far as I can tell, it’s just the same, except sometimes you have to deal with other people being weird about it. Like if you go out in public and you look like you’re together, people can stare. Or if you go to a hotel, they’ll assume it’s separate beds and you’ll have to explain.’
He considered another shot, but decided against it.
‘And so you just have to decide how bolshy you’re feeling that day, if you want to deal with it or if you’d rather fly under the radar.’
‘Mmm,’ James said.
‘I’m out to all my family. The oldies are a bit confused and stressed, but everyone else is fine. At work sometimes I have to correct someone, and they make weird comments for a while, but they get over it.’
James made another listening noise.
‘Procedurally,’ Q dared to say, ‘when I have a boyfriend, I quite like to have a standing Saturday night date, and then a couple of ad hoc sleepovers during the week. Whatever suits the… hypothetical man.’
James was silent.
‘When he’s not hypothetically away on business,’ Q added.
He could hear James breathe.
‘Well, you’re not making it sound impossible,’ James said at last. Q could not read his tone.
‘You did call to tease me, didn’t you?’
‘I do have feelings, you know.’ This came out choked and Q did not care.
‘I know you do,’ James said.
‘Fuck, wait,’ Q said. He had remembered the blocked number on the phone screen when he picked up. He fought aside the haze of tequila. ‘Did you call through the secure relay?’
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, this is probably being monitored.’
‘Oh,’ James said, and chuckled.
‘Oh, fuck you for being this drunk,’ Q said. ‘All right, I need to hang up and call Monners and sort it out.’
‘Oh. Are you mates with her?’ Now James was anxious, Q noted meanly.
‘For fuck’s sake do not say anything else you may be tempted to say, on a monitored line, Bond,’ Q said. ‘I’m getting off the phone.’
‘All right,’ James said, rather plaintively.
Q hung up. His heart rabbited in his chest. For all he knew, the two of them had been on speaker phone to the whole control room.
‘Fuck you,’ he said to the silent phone.
‘Monners?’ he said, when Moneypenny picked up.
‘Q?’ Moneypenny was concerned – she was probably at home, off shift.
‘Sorry to ring. It’s nothing to worry about.’
‘Is it all right if I get monitoring suppressed on calls through the relay between Bond’s mission phone and my mobile?’
‘Yes…’ Her silence was leading.
‘I’m going to guess that you don’t actually need me to explain.’
It took her a moment to think this through. ‘Q. Did we not have that whole conversation –’
‘Should the time come that you need to say I told you so, I give you my full permission.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t need your permission.’
‘Noted. So it’s all right?’
‘I wouldn’t go that far.’ She was laughing at him, which he supposed he deserved. ‘But yes, you can do it.’
‘Listen, is it too much if I say, can you keep this to yourself?’
‘Um,’ she said.
‘I already haven’t kept it to myself. You didn’t ask me to last time and I was very grateful, because I wouldn’t have been able to. Sorry, mate.’
‘Fuck, so…’ Q said, squeezing the bridge of his nose. ‘Jesus.’
‘It’s fine!’ she said. ‘Mallory only knows informally, not formally. He’ll never bring it up. He’ll just never send you somewhere together where there’s a bed ever again. Which is the same deal… with me and Bond.’
‘Oh my God,’ Q said.
‘It’s all right, don’t fall down.’
‘I won’t. I’m on the sofa and already quite drunk.’
‘Of course you are.’ She was laughing again.
Q groaned at the ceiling.
‘I’m going to let you get off the phone,’ she said.
‘Wait,’ he said blearily. ‘Do you know who’s on shift for monitoring?’
‘Higgins,’ she said.
‘Of course he is.’
He ploughed on and called Higgins; stopping to think would have been fatal.
Higgins had been seconded into surveillance on this mission as a favour. Q had set it up – had got his temporary security clearance rushed through – because he’d thought Higgins would like it. It would give him some closure on the ring project. And indeed, Higgins had been delighted.
‘Hello Higgins,’ Q said into the phone.
‘Q!’ Higgins said. Did he sound anxious?
‘Listen, I’ve just got off the phone to Moneypenny, and I’ve got permission to suppress monitoring on calls through the secure relay between 007’s mission phone and my mobile. Can you put that through?’
‘Oh, sure. No problem.’ Now Higgins sounded overtly tortured.
‘Higgins,’ Q said.
‘Did you happen to be monitoring a call in that category that went through a little while ago?’
‘I didn’t hear anything,’ Higgins said.
Q took a deep breath.
He could hear Higgins breathing into the mouthpiece too. He let him do it for a while.
‘Whatever you heard, it’s fine,’ Q said. ‘I’d just appreciate you keeping it to yourself. I don’t think Bond realised about the monitoring, is all.’
‘I didn’t hear anything,’ Higgins said.
‘Okay,’ Q said, ‘thanks.’
‘Good for you, though,’ Higgins said, with a note of a giggle.
‘I never had a moment’s gravitas in this job, did I,’ Q said.
‘I was terrified of you for at least twenty minutes there, sir,’ Higgins said, with terrible gentleness.
The booze swirled odiously in Q. A column through the middle of his body had turned to fluid, which was going down a plughole.
Half the service apparently now knew that he was shagging a double-O. That he had asked him out – and the answer had not been yes. Someone had been listening while he was saying, I do have feelings, you know – in that soft and pained voice.
He could not talk to James again right now, lest he shout at him. He texted instead, ‘Monitoring now suppressed. Call control room if need it back on. Going to sleep, call me tomorrow?’
When he got back from brushing his teeth, he saw James had replied, ‘OK.’
Q spent most of the next day in the labs, getting his hands dirty and alarming various people who worked for him but had not been supervised so closely in some time. He had forgotten his phone upstairs.
He had not actually forgotten his phone upstairs. He had observed his own mind’s machinations: he had been thinking that it would be nicer if he forgot to bring the phone down, so that he could not keep checking it to see if James had called. Then he had thought, well, there’s no such thing as forgetting something deliberately. And then he had put the phone down on the desk with no particular conscious thought, but a faint, distant feeling of glee, which he did not examine closely.
Then he immediately and voluminously answered a complex email. Then he searched through his drawers for something he probably should have known was not there. Then he grabbed a reference book off his shelf and flipped energetically to check something that he suspected might be relevant to a current R&D project. Finding it, he seized his security lanyard and rushed off downstairs to the labs.
When he arrived, he observed he did not have his phone. He had never formulated any intention not to bring it; he had truly, authentically forgotten. He had voluntarily induced a cognitive paradox in himself. It was quite impressive.
Now that he had remembered again, he probably ought to go and get it. But he found himself arguing with an imaginary interlocutor. The only live mission on which he was currently briefed was Bond in Malta, and he was not a member of the control team for that. If anyone wanted him urgently, they could surely guess where he was. Or ring around Q branch – any number of people could advise.
He became absorbed in soldering motherboards, which he had not done for ages, and managed to forget lunch and not put his head up till mid-afternoon when a headache was setting in. Then he went out for a sandwich, a coffee and a paracetamol from Boots.
He had a box of paracetamol in a drawer in his office that he could have gone upstairs to get instead. But when he considered it, a defiant feeling arose.
He returned to his office well after five. Only then was the fullness of his mind’s concealed plan revealed to him. His mind had believed that if he left his phone up here all day, it would guarantee that the phone would have received a call by the time he came back for it at knock-off.
The phone had not received a call.
He went home, put the phone on the coffee table, and went to the kitchen and made toast and tea for dinner, which he ate standing up at the bench.
Eventually he returned to the coffee table and turned the phone over; he had laid it face down so that he did not have to look at the absence of a notification light. There was still no notification light.
He went to bed early, so that he did not have to continue to look at the dark space where the light should be. Luckily, he slept well.
The reason it was lucky he slept well at first was that Moneypenny called him at one in the morning.
‘Hello?’ he said. Except he was not sure it had come out like that; he suspected it had sounded like he was trying to berate the caller while also aggressively chewing something gristly.
‘Q,’ Moneypenny said, ‘are you awake?’
‘Um,’ he said.
‘Sit up for me and clear your head,’ she said.
He did better; he stood up out of bed and jumped up and down on the spot. Then he leapt back under the covers – it was cold. ‘All right. I think I’m mostly online.’
‘All right,’ she said, ‘so, no need to be alarmed –’
It came to Q that she was calling to say Bond was dead.
‘But, um, Bond did very well on his mission. He installed the scrambler and disabled the whole warehouse. And all the fritzed weapons have gone to the Maltese government for salvage, and they’re very happy with us. And we’ve got leads on the suppliers from the warehouse office. So it’s a big success all round. But…’
‘Yes?’ Q said.
‘He got in a firefight. And he shot a lot of Bulgarians. But one of them shot him.’
‘What are you telling me?’ Q could hear himself, as if he was listening from a position somewhere up around the ceiling. He sounded bitchy.
‘He’s all right,’ she said. ‘At least I think so. He’s in the air as we speak – they’re airlifting him home. He’ll be admitted wherever we can find a private bed for him, about three or four this morning.’
‘All right,’ he said stupidly.
‘I think they wouldn’t have let us evacuate him if they weren’t satisfied he was stable. So I think he must be fine.’
Q could not think what to say.
‘It was a body hit,’ she said, ‘which is obviously not something one wants. But they wouldn’t move him if they thought he was going to die.’
‘Can I see him?’ Q said.
‘Um,’ she said, as if she was thinking – and also as if she was very tired. ‘If you come in about five, I’ll still be here, and I should know where he is and what’s going on. I can get you a pass.’
I... have relocated to a secure location to avoid the mob with pitchforks.
The taxi to the hospital cost approximately the GDP of Malta. Stupidly, Q paid with all the cash he had. Then when he wanted to buy James a packet of crisps from the machine, he had to use his card. He was sure James would want something slightly medically ill-advised to eat.
What else? People James’ age read newspapers, but which one? Q was embarrassed he did not know. He stuck with the crisps and carried on.
James was in a private room. The blinds were down. It was earliest light outside, dim and blue, filtering in. The lights on the monitors were spangly like traffic at dawn.
He was asleep. He was not dead, though Q had immediately, irrationally thought so upon walking in. He was very still, the position of his body – on his back – unnatural to Q’s eye. Q had seen him sleep; he usually did it on his side.
Q’s soles squeaked on the lino when he trod incautiously. He waddled carefully to avoid making any further sound, till he was standing by the bed.
A heart monitor screen accreted its squiggle steadily.
James was in a diamond-patterned hospital gown, which one could not imagine him donning voluntarily while conscious and able to defend himself. His beard was coming in mixed blond and grey. The creases on his face were cut deep in repose, crow’s feet almost swallowing the eyes.
There was blood in his cuticles, and a faint dirtiness across the knuckles. Curiously, the drip was in his dominant hand, closest to Q.
Q craned to inspect the other hand. It was purple, and the last two fingers were strapped together. Someone had broken his fingers trying to get the decoy ring off.
Q wanted to touch his shoulder, but felt a terrible sense of taboo. Actually, as long he could be assured James was all right, he might have liked to be launched into the sun.
He had not even tried to look at the wound – to the lower torso; you could see the covers arranged not to weigh on it. It was too much like the image of Stephens in Q’s mind.
He sat in a chair.
As he sat quiet and let his ears adjust, he found he could hear James breathing, after all, over the soft shunt and bleep of the equipment.
He had never noticed before that the blond hair on James’ forearms stood directly, vigorously up for two thirds of its length, only then curling over at the top. He imagined letting that hair brush along his bottom lip.
Love was ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous.
Someone was shaking Q’s arm. The light was on. He took a moment to squeeze his eyes shut very tight, then open them again.
It had been Mallory shaking him. He had stepped away now – in his shirt sleeves and braces – and was looking at Bond from the far side of the bed.
Whatever he saw made him shake his head.
Now he leant on the footboard. Q looked down, in the hope of being passed over. But he sensed Mallory was looking at him.
Mallory was, but not unkindly.
‘I’m not sure if I should try to justify my presence here,’ Q said, in a low voice, ‘or if that’s going to lead me into a conversation I don’t want to have.’
‘I assure you, I don’t want to have it either,’ Mallory said.
‘Good. I think?’
‘If I were going to have it, all I’d have to say is: don’t balls up the work. And don’t make other people balls up the work. Other than that, I don’t care what you do.’
‘Very good, sir,’ Q said.
Mallory left, pulling the door to gently.
‘Well, that was awkward,’ James said. He sounded like a frog that had swallowed a bag of nails.
‘Hello.’ Q stood up.
James was struggling to get his eyes open properly, but still managed to look faintly humorous. He grunted in reply.
‘Do you want some water?’ Q said. There was a plastic jug on a tray, with a stack of upturned cups.
Q poured him some, then realised the next difficulty. ‘Can you get up on your elbow?’
James began to struggle up, but let out a faint cry. ‘God, sorry,’ Q said, and tried to help. He could not tell if he was actually helping, or just fluttering ineffectually.
James got to his right elbow at last, then made a pained sound again when he lifted his left hand.
‘Sorry, that hand’s broken,’ Q said, and held the cup for him to drink.
At last James withdrew his face from the cup, and said, ‘Do you know how to…’
Did Q know how to adjust the bed so he could sit up, was what he meant. ‘No, sorry. Do you want me to get a nurse?’
‘Mmm,’ James said, ‘no, not yet.’
Q helped him lie back down.
James looked ruefully at his strapped left hand. ‘So it is.’ He put it down again.
Q pulled his chair up closer and sat down.
‘Can you tell me…?’ James began.
‘I haven’t seen a report or anything,’ Q said. ‘But it’s a gunshot wound to your left side. And then just the hand. As far as I know that’s all. I mean, do you feel all right, elsewhere?’
‘I feel bloody dreadful,’ James said, gravelly, ‘but nowhere else specific.’
Q feared his returning smile verged on silly.
‘How did I get here?’ James asked.
‘Oh, you were airlifted from Malta.’
‘Oh, was that what that was?’ James said. ‘One knows something’s happening, but the details are a blur. Was I sedated?’
‘I don’t know. Do you feel like you were?’
‘Then I’m guessing you were,’ Q said. ‘I’m not very useful, am I.’
James’ eyes crinkled – charitably, Q thought. ‘Company’s all right.’
Again there was the wish to touch his shoulder, or his hand. Q felt an even worse uncertainty, now he was awake, that it would be welcome.
There was a soft knock, and a woman’s voice. ‘Hello.’ It was a nurse – young and rather attractive.
‘Hello,’ James replied.
‘Welcome back to the land of the living,’ she said as she rolled her trolley in. ‘Do you want to sit up?’
‘Yes please,’ James said.
She strode in to help him and cranked up the mechanism of the bed. Q pulled his chair back to get out of the way.
‘Now, how are you feeling?’ she said.
‘Dreadful,’ he said with a twinkle. ‘First time I’ve been awake, so can’t tell you in comparison.’
She smiled. ‘That’s no good.’
‘I’ve had worse,’ James said.
‘I hope not,’ she said, teasing. ‘I’m going to have a look at that wound and change the bandages, before your breakfast comes in. Is that all right?’
‘By all means.’
‘Sorry, did you want to…?’ she said to Q.
Did Q want to leave, she meant.
‘Sorry, yeah,’ he said, and got up.
‘Matthew,’ James said urgently.
‘Can you…’ James’ face clouded over: he was thinking, and finding it heavy going. ‘Can you get me some clothes from home?’ He plucked at the gown. ‘Think I’ll be here a while.’
‘Of course,’ Q said.
‘Flat key’s in my locker at work. Moneypenny has the combination. Alarm code’s behind the false back.’
‘All right. Will I come back –’
The nurse butted in. ‘He needs his rest. I’m going to say, short visits, maybe twenty minutes. If you come at or around dinner, he’ll be awake.’
‘All right,’ Q said, seeing James did not argue.
He had been about to leave with the crisps. He got them out and put them in the bedside drawer, then left without waiting for a reaction.
About an hour and a half later, Q was letting himself into James’ flat.
Where was the alarm control panel? He was half sure there’d be some sort of booby trap, and he was about to get the whole building blown up.
He found the panel, and got the code into it just as the warning beeps were sounding.
He was here, in James’ flat. Like he’d been let into Peter Spencer’s dormitory alone.
The blinds were down, but there was enough light to see. He walked on into the main room.
Would it be weird to make a cup of tea? He was almost falling over with tiredness. He decided he would.
The bar stools at the island bench were jumbled about in attitudes of use; one had a jogging hoodie over the back. The Sport section of The Times – which answered Q’s question from earlier – was folded open. There was a single orange beginning to look shrunken in a fruit bowl.
He remembered the chrome kettle from when James had put it on for him before. He filled it and depressed the switch. He thought he remembered which cupboard the tea had come out of – yes, he did. There was loose assam in a squashed box, but only dusty teabags of earl grey. It might be too weird to be fucking about with a pot, anyway: he would cop the teabag.
But was there milk? He ought to have checked that first. He opened the fridge. Eggs, mustard, leftover takeaway – not worse than Q’s fridge was, most of the time. There was milk, but its use-by date was today. He sniffed it dubiously. It seemed all right.
He made the tea and sipped it. A kind of relief, lifting up through his sinuses, at the scent of it. He went and sat on the sofa.
He had sat down in what was obviously James’ usual seat; the cushions were a little dented.
He finished his tea. Now he was going into James’ bedroom to open all his cupboards. Which he’d been invited to do.
He began with the built-in wardrobe along the wall. The array of suits was spectacular as expected – you could have bought quite a nice car for the same money. Next there was a chest of drawers with underwear, t-shirts and pyjamas. He found a leather overnight bag on one of the very top shelves of the wardrobe and packed things as best he could.
Did James wear underwear under his pyjamas? He had never worn pyjamas at all with Q.
Best to assume so. He selected some underwear as pragmatically as he could. He did like those ones with the piped Y-front, and they were on top of the pile, which suggested James did too.
There was only one piece of furniture in the room he had not opened. Did he dare?
There had never been any chance Q was going to resist: he opened the bedside table drawer.
A familiar bottle of lube. A pastel pink, irregularly shaped object that was probably a vibrator designed for women, which he did not investigate further. A large box of condoms; a strip of them had been pulled out of the box and thrown on the bed next to Q last week.
The strip was still the same length as it had been when Q saw it last. This was what he had wanted to know.
He was an idiot. If the strip had been shorter, it would have been his own fault for looking.
Now there were toiletries to pack in the bathroom. He sniffed all three bottles of cologne and high-handedly packed the one he preferred.
He was exhausted. Would it be weird to nap in the bed?
It would and he didn’t care.
He took his jacket and shoes off. The bed smelled glorious.
Q came back to the hospital at the scheduled dinner hour. The lights were on brightly, and the wheelie table by the bed had a tray on it with a jumble of beige plastic plates and their upturned covers. A copy of The Times was untouched on the bedside table.
The bed was in the sitting-up position. In it, James was fast asleep.
Q put the overnight bag down on the visitor chair.
James’ beard was heavier than it had been this morning. He did not look dead anymore. His head was twisted to the side awkwardly, in resistance to the bed – he had been so desperate to roll over and go to sleep, he’d been unable to wait for anyone to adjust it down flat for him.
The crisp packet was also crumpled empty on the tray, Q saw with satisfaction.
He unpacked the clothes into the wardrobe in the corner and put the toiletry bag on the bedside table, along with James’ personal phone and charger – they had been in the locker at work – then dimmed the lights down as far as they’d go without switching off.
He looked at James a moment more, then left.
Q came back the next night with a takeaway for himself. James was sitting up with his beige plate covers open, stabbing things irritably with a fork. He still hadn’t shaved, but he was wearing pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt Q had brought for him. The t-shirt was on back to front and inside out, with the label showing at the front neck.
‘Oh, brilliant!’ James said.
‘You overestimate me,’ Q said. ‘I brought it for me. But we can share.’ He added the takeaway container to the tray, then pulled the chair up and sat down. ‘What have you got?’
‘Plastic sausages. Steamed vegetables,’ James said, in the tone another man would use to say genocide. ‘Jelly! Like boarding school.’
‘Oh, I quite like that,’ Q said, and lifted the cover to look at it. ‘Makes me nostalgic.’ He wiggled the plate.
James helped himself to the takeaway. Q speared a sausage from the beige plate.
‘You liked boarding school?’ James asked, as they ate.
‘It’s a bit relative, isn’t it?’ Q said. ‘I mean, God help me at a state school, being bright, from what I understand.’
‘That sounds like no.’
‘Mixed bag,’ Q said. ‘The fact is, people worked out I was a poof before I particularly knew it myself. Had a hard time for a while.’
‘Christ,’ James said mildly.
‘Still. It’s a whole school of boys – who sleep there overnight. Isn’t it,’ Q said.
‘It’s possible I sucked a few dicks.’
‘Good for you!’ James laughed. ‘I used to chase the maids at Eton. Though there was one boy –’
‘I told him we should just find out what it’s like. It was just to find out.’
‘I like this story.’ Q stabbed his sausage with enthusiasm. ‘And did you find out?’
‘We did,’ James said, and beamed.
Q beamed back.
‘Is that sausage any good?’ James asked.
‘Bit like a breakfast sausage you’d get in a not very nice hotel,’ Q said.
‘Yes, that’s what I thought. Come on, eat this, you brought it.’ James nudged the takeaway container towards Q.
‘All right.’ Q dished out some takeaway onto the beige plate nearest him.
‘Thanks for bringing my things in, by the way,’ James said.
‘That’s all right.’ Q’s eye was caught by the tag on the outside of James’ t-shirt, again.
‘Yes, I do know it’s on backwards,’ James said. ‘It hurts to lift my arms, so I can’t be fagged.’
‘Want some help?’
‘That keen to get my clothes off?’
‘Yes,’ Q said.
James almost coughed.
‘How exotic, to surprise you,’ Q said.
‘Who says I’m surprised?’ James said. His dimples were showing.
James texted Q the next day after lunch. ‘What are you bringing tonight?’
‘Does Chinese suit?’ Q replied.
They ate together every night that week.
James was discharged on Sunday. Q came by, since he still had the flat key, and found James clean-shaven, sitting in the visitor chair, one ankle on the opposite knee, tying his shoelaces excruciatingly slowly.
‘Do you want to come to mine for a few days?’ Q said as lightly as he could. ‘Could be fun.’
James’ face did several things in a row, which Q could not read. But he said, ‘All right.’
James spent most of the next week at Q’s. During the day he dozed on the sofa in track pants and t-shirt, occasionally shambling to the kitchen to heat up some beans or soup. In the evenings Q brought something home to eat, or cooked something, and they ate on the sofa together.
The first night, James put his plate down on the coffee table and immediately tipped over and lay his head down on the sofa arm.
‘All right,’ Q said, and stood up and helped him swing his legs up along the cushions. Then he perched on the edge of the cushion beside James’s legs.
‘Sorry, not very sexy, is it,’ James rumbled.
James’ smile was apologetic.
‘To be honest, there’s a little crease that appears on the bridge of your nose’ – Q touched James’ face with his fingertip, beside the tufty bit at the root of the eyebrow – ‘when you’re in pain, that just gets me right where I live.’
James twitched and blinked.
‘You’d better stop that soon,’ Q said, ‘or I’m in danger of giving up work to devote my entire life to finding new ways to embarrass you. Because it’s so gratifying.’
James turned his face into the seat cushion, then turned it back again. He took Q’s hand and said, ‘You must let me suck your cock at some point. As soon as I can stay upright long enough.’
‘By all means,’ Q said.
The time came three days later. They tried a few different ways lying down first, but could not find a way that kept James’ wounded side and broken hand both out of play. They settled at last on Q sitting on the side of the bed, while James sat on a chair between his knees and leant forward.
The false starts had been a maddening extended foreplay. Q’s nerves zipped as James arranged him how he wanted him. James pushed Q’s trousers and underwear down to his ankles, his t-shirt up into his armpits. Q went to take the t-shirt off, but James said, ‘Leave it.’
James was very firm with his suction and grip, but exquisitely leisurely in pace. Q could run his hand all over James’ entire scalp, whining beseechingly, in the time it took James to slide the tight seal of his lips from the rim of the glans down to meet the ring of his fingers, and back again, just once.
Afterwards, they stayed in position a while, and James kissed Q’s bare belly. Q said, still holding James’ head, ‘Are you hard?’
‘What would you like?’
‘Mmm,’ James said, and rubbed his cheek, prickly, on Q’s belly, ‘do what you want with me.’
‘On your back, I think,’ Q said.
James got on the bed, shifting himself gingerly, while Q got his clothes minimally back together.
Q slipped James’ track pants and underwear to his thighs, pushed his t-shirt up, and ran his hands over his thighs and the unbandaged part of his belly. Then, vengefully – with careful eye contact that made the vengefulness clear – he withdrew right off the bed to take a really long time rummaging for the lube in the bedside drawer.
When he got back on the bed with the lube, James breathed in audibly through his nose. Q lubed his hand and began to pull James off.
James’ eyes skittered; Q kissed him. James’ mouth was soft, swollen from use; Q licked into it with pleasure, tasting cock.
‘Thank you,’ James said, laboured.
James went home the next Saturday morning. The taxi arrived, and the driver took the bags outside. James closed the door for a moment instead of following the driver out. He held his hand out to Q.
Q came to him and kissed him, perhaps a bit too thoroughly.
‘Thanks for having me. I’d have been face down in a puddle of whisky otherwise,’ James said.
‘You’re very welcome.’ Q wished to say something more but suspected it might be a bad idea.
‘All right, see you soon,’ James said, and went out.
Q went and sat on the sofa, alone. Every single object in his flat was loathsome and pointless.
He wanted very badly to text James, I miss you already. But he did not have any standing to do that. They were not going out.
His feelings about that had been in abeyance while James had been here every day, sleeping in his bed, complimenting his dubious cooking, napping on the sofa with his hair all squashed – sucking his cock. Now that abeyance was over. The lid was off the jar, and in the jar was fury.
He went for a long walk, deliberately leaving his phone behind.
Readers, who may or may not be plotting my violent death, may notice that the chapter count has increased to 9. One more to go!
- Bond was expelled from Eton for ‘some alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids’ – You only live twice (1964)
- The Times was ‘the only paper Bond ever read’ – From Russia with Love (1957). By contrast, Mordecai Richler, ‘James Bond Unmasked’, Commentary, 1 July 1968, claims that after Ian Fleming sold serial rights to the Daily Express in 1957, ‘James Bond, once only a Times reader, began to take the Express as well.’ However, I can’t seem to substantiate this via text search of the novels. In Moonraker (1955) Bond reads the Express for seemingly investigative reasons. The only other reference I can find is Bond picking it up as part of a cover for a mission in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963). But Fleming got into a contract dispute with the Express in February 1962, and Andrew Lycette, Ian Fleming (1995) seems to suggest that this book was written during the time of the dispute, which would seem to mitigate against Richler's interpretation.
FYI: in light of the content of this chapter, I have made minor additions to the sex-related content notes at the start of this work.
I also added some research-related endnotes to chapter 8, because I’d forgotten to add them earlier.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
On Monday, James was back at work on desk duty. Every time Q went to the tea room, he held his breath.
In the afternoon, finally, he went in again with Higgins, and James was there.
‘Oh hello,’ James said. A navy windowpane suit today, sharp as ever, though he was moving stiffly.
‘Hello!’ Higgins said brightly.
Perhaps Higgins could be spontaneously immolated in some sort of fireball, so that Q could say hello how he wanted to.
‘Hello,’ Q said. ‘What have they got you doing?’
‘Oh, bloody document review,’ James said. ‘Basically, piles of utter shit that may have something interesting in it somewhere. And I have to go through it all to find it.’
‘Oh dear,’ Q said.
Higgins was watching them both with a bright look.
‘What about you two? Anything interesting?’ James said.
‘Oh, probably can’t say too much if you’re not briefed, sorry,’ Q said. ‘We’re making a thing that looks through… another thing.’
‘But we’re having trouble getting it to look through the other thing,’ Higgins said.
‘Under all relevant conditions,’ Q finished.
‘What a marvellous story,’ James said, deadpan.
‘One of my better efforts,’ Q said.
Higgins laughed a bit loudly, then stopped himself.
‘All right, I’d better get back to it,’ James said. He rinsed his mug, not very diligently, and put it in the dish rack.
‘Thank me later for the entertainment,’ Q said.
‘Will do,’ James said with a twitch at the corner of his mouth, and left.
Higgins was looking at Q.
Higgins and Q came back to Q’s office. Q said, ‘Sorry, can I just make a phone call?’
‘Sure,’ Higgins said. ‘Do you want me to…?’
‘No, it’s fine, you can stay.’
They sat down in their accustomed chairs, and Higgins began flipping through the project documentation.
Q rang Moneypenny. ‘Monners, you know this passport project? Can I brief Bond on it?’
‘What on earth for?’ she said.
‘He’s stuck on document review and he’s bored.’
‘And that would be your problem – why?’
‘It’s not, particularly,’ Q said.
Higgins was looking at Q while pretending to look down.
‘For the record,’ she said, ‘he is actually reviewing important intelligence documents. It’s not like they’re sheep-breeding records. Or backs of cereal boxes that we’ve cut out with scissors for him.’
‘No, I’m sure they’re not,’ Q said. ‘But they’re not urgent, are they? Or else they would have already been assigned to someone else. And actually, we’re a bit stuck and we could use the perspective of a field agent. And he’s clearly a very experienced field agent, isn’t he.’
‘Is this how it’s going to be now?’
‘As in, I’m going to keep wanting to use under-utilised manpower to achieve something constructive? How outrageous of me.’
Higgins had given up any pretence of not listening. It had been an error to allow him to stay.
‘Oh, fine,’ Moneypenny said.
James reported to Q’s office the next morning, in mid-grey herringbone with a sky-blue tie. Higgins was not there yet.
James sat in a visitor chair. ‘Miss me?’
‘Yes,’ Q said.
It hung in the air.
‘Oh hello,’ Higgins said, and came in.
The irritation in James’ face was like the sun coming out inside Q.
They went down to the lab.
The project was a passport-chip skimmer that would work through security wallets. So far they had a fairly crap prototype that looked like a chaotic bundle of wires and circuitry larger than a human head, and if you even looked at it too sternly, it wouldn’t read.
What they needed now was to articulate what reasonable field conditions for the device would be. So they put motion-capture dots on James and recorded him showing them how he thought he would go about it, if he were going to skim the passport of an enemy operative.
Q found an empty electronics casing about the size of a cigarette packet, which he hoped would be a size they could eventually fit the device into. ‘Would it be unreasonable to have something this size in your pocket?’
‘My tailor would kill me,’ James said, ‘but I suppose Queen and country and all.’
He was very insistent on making eye contact with Q as Q put the casing in his pocket for him and stuck capture dots to the outside of his trousers. Higgins was breathing overly significantly in the background.
Q decided, vengefully, that Higgins had to be the one pretending to be the enemy operative.
There followed a long and increasingly outrageous series of events, which climaxed in Higgins face-down on the ground with James’ knee in his back, and James saying, ‘Was that good for you, darling?’
Higgins giggled into the carpet.
‘Of course I am rather stiff,’ James said. ‘Not sure how that’ll affect things.’
‘Yes, I can see that,’ Q said, refusing to take the bait – he could see James’ wound paining him in the way he was moving. ‘I think we might just speed the capture up slightly, maybe smooth it a bit, when we translate it into a real test case.’
‘There are also ramifications for Higgins’ virtue,’ James said.
‘Oi,’ Higgins said, trying to pretend he didn’t like it.
Q tried to look stern.
When they were heading back upstairs for the night, James let Higgins pass through the lab door first, then pulled it shut so that James and Q were still on the inside. ‘Do you want to have dinner Saturday night?’
‘Yours or mine?’ Q said.
‘No, I mean, let me take you out,’ James said. ‘Shall I come by at 7? Wear something nice.’ He winked.
Higgins had not failed to notice the manoeuvre with the door, and was now peering openly through the viewing window.
The task of wearing something nice was extremely nerve-racking, since Q did not actually do nice in the same way James did, at all. Finally he settled on the maroon velvet jacket with an open-necked shirt and hoped for the best.
To his great relief, James showed up open-necked as well. He was in black, his face a little stubbly.
The restaurant was on a hill with a view of city lights below. Inside there were white tablecloths and crystal. James claimed his booking, saying, ‘Bond, for two.’
They were seated at a table with a candle lit in the middle. ‘Would sir and sir –’ the waiter began.
This was a date, Q realised. This was actually the most date-like date Q had been on in his entire life.
‘Do you think white to start?’ James said to Q.
‘Why not,’ Q said.
To the waiter’s very slight confusion, quickly concealed, James ordered on Q’s behalf. Q tried to hide his smile.
Waiting for the wine, James twinkled at him in the candlelight.
‘You think you’re very smooth, don’t you,’ Q said.
‘Am I not?’ James asked with perfect serenity.
‘Yes,’ Q conceded. ‘But you should have brought me a corsage.’
‘Forgive me,’ James said. ‘I’ll consider myself corrected for next time.’
The waiter arrived with the wine and offered it to James to sample. James approved it, and the waiter poured first for Q – for the lady, he thought, amused.
When the waiter was gone, James lifted his glass. ‘A toast. Though I shan’t say for what, yet.’
‘Sight unseen,’ Q said. ‘Whatever am I getting myself into?’
‘Do you trust me?’
‘Depends on the situation.’
James mimed being stabbed in the heart.
Q touched James’ hand briefly, where it lay on the tablecloth.
They toasted silently.
‘I’ve actually got something for you,’ James said.
‘Perhaps I do have a little juice left.’ James met his eye.
‘This is very mysterious,’ Q said.
‘It isn’t wrapped, I’m afraid,’ James said. ‘But I thought you might like it.’
James passed Q a folded piece of paper.
‘You do think I’m a cheap date,’ Q said.
‘Never,’ James said.
Q unfolded the paper and turned it up the right way.
It was the results of an STI scan from a sexual health clinic.
‘Do you like it?’ James said.
‘Yes,’ Q said, a little hysterically.
All of James’ smile lines broke out.
‘I mean,’ Q gathered himself and said, ‘mine’s not up to date, and then –’
‘Best do another one in three months and all that, yes,’ James said.
They sipped their wine. Q was aware he was smiling quite manically.
Their eyes met again. James surged half out of his seat and cupped Q’s neck to urge him forward too. They kissed on the mouth.
A sound of surprise, muffled but distinct, from the next table.
They settled back into their seats.
‘Marvellous,’ James whispered. ‘I haven’t shocked anyone like that in years.’
They took their last glasses of wine out onto the terrace and leant on the railing to look at the view. James wrapped his free arm around Q’s waist quite indiscreetly. The place was full of rowdy people who looked like they’d come from a wedding, and there was a sense that several people around them were curious, checking them out – Q enjoyed it.
‘That thing you have in your bedside table,’ James leant in and said into Q’s ear, so that all the tiny hairs around the helix stood up.
‘Which?’ Q said.
‘It’s black. Silicon, I think. It has a remote control.’
‘Oh,’ Q said, ‘yes, I know the one.’ His blood was circulating more energetically than before.
‘Are its batteries alive?’
‘If they’re not, I’ll have spares.’
‘Resourceful,’ James said, breathing hot air onto his ear.
Q ran the grain of his beard delicately against the grain of James’, along the jaw.
‘Well, I think when we get home,’ James said, very softly, ‘you should confirm about the batteries. Then you should put it in –’
Someone bumped into them in passing.
‘You should put it in,’ James started again, ‘then bring me the remote. Then I’ll make you a nice cup of tea.’
‘God,’ Q said, sagging against him.
‘I told you to call me James.’
At home, Q staggered back out from the bedroom barefoot to meet James in the kitchen. He had to steady himself on the sofa on the way through. James was leaning on the bench beside a tea tray, in his shirtsleeves, watching him.
‘All right?’ he said, as Q came towards him.
‘It’s hard to walk straight.’
‘Come here,’ James said, and stepped forward and embraced him.
‘How is it?’ James said in his ear.
‘Hurts a little bit,’ Q said weakly. ‘It’s big, and I put it in quickly for you.’
James groaned and pushed him against the bench. Q felt his cock against his hip.
Q touched James’ face with shaking hands. ‘Feel what you’ve done to me?’
‘Yes,’ James said, and kissed him. ‘Not finished yet. Show me the remote.’
Q got it out of his pocket and gave it to him.
‘What are these buttons?’
‘Um,’ Q said. ‘Vibrate. Pulse. Escalate.’
‘And what do you use when you’re alone?’
Q’s spine was turning liquid. ‘Start with Vibrate, then progress.’
‘Hmm,’ James said. He slid his hand down the back of Q’s trousers and pressed his fingertips to the base of the plug, shifting it fractionally deeper.
‘Vibrate,’ James said, fingers still on the base on the plug, and clicked that button. Q clutched his shoulder. ‘Yes, I see,’ James said.
‘Pulse,’ James said. Q put his head down on James’ shoulder, panting. ‘Hmm.’
‘Escalate,’ James said. Q bit his shoulder to contain a shout. James put his hand over Q’s mouth; Q sank his teeth into the hand instead. ‘Goodness me.’
‘All right,’ James said, ‘let’s start with this, do you think?’ He set the plug back to Vibrate and withdrew his hand from Q’s trousers.
Q could not speak.
‘Let’s take our tea over here.’ James picked up the tray he’d prepared and made for the sofa.
Q’s whole pelvic floor was contracting in waves. Each step was a geological event. James reached the coffee table quickly and put the tea tray down on it, then came back to offer Q his arm.
When they reached the sofa, Q stared at it, hesitating. ‘Oh God,’ he said.
‘It’ll all right,’ James said, and took Q’s hand to brace him so he could lower himself slowly. Bending to sit was exquisitely confronting.
James poured them tea and picked up his own cup expectantly. Q took his too, with trembling hands. They drank.
‘Is the tea all right?’ James said. ‘I’m sure I’ve done it quite wrong.’
‘In a thousand ages of the earth I could not give a shit,’ Q said. He put his cup down with a wobble.
‘When I’ve gone to all this trouble,’ James said.
They stared a moment.
‘Mercy,’ Q said. ‘I may actually die.’
James put his own cup down with a small smile. ‘All right.’
James shifted closer to Q. Unhurried, he unbuttoned Q’s shirt and began to thumb his nipples. Q lay his head on the sofa back, helpless. With distant curiosity, he noted that his nipples were so small that the pad of James’ thumb made them disappear. He was so turned on it did not seem to matter what happened anymore.
‘I want to say, don’t hurt me, but I think I might really mean the opposite,’ Q said.
‘I won’t unless you want me to,’ James said with a wink.
Q had to stare at the ceiling in self defence. James kissed his neck delicately.
‘What shall I do with you, then?’ James said at last, cupping Q’s jaw.
Q felt like he was high – so wholly in the present, it was impossible to be shy. ‘Could you spank me?’
‘Hmm,’ James said equivocally. ‘Over my knee?’
‘Would you want to be held down?’
‘If I struggle, yes. I mean, only if you want to.’
‘Yes, I can do that,’ James said, and stroked Q’s cheek.
James really had the most marvellously blue eyes. Q thought he might come.
‘How far do you want to go?’ James asked.
‘I wouldn’t want bruises. But…’ Q discovered some residual shyness.
‘Mmm?’ James would not release his gaze.
‘I imagine I’ll beg you to fuck me when I’m ready,’ Q said.
‘And should I?’
‘I wish you would.’
‘I don’t think that’ll pose any difficulties,’ James said.
Q attempted to climb into his lap. James wrestled him back down and kissed his cheek. ‘Say red light if you want me to stop?’ James said.
‘All right,’ Q said.
‘Other than that, I won’t stop,’ James said.
‘Good,’ Q said.
‘You do need spanking.’
‘Yes,’ Q said.
The look in James’ eye nearly annihilated him.
‘Stand up,’ James said.
Q struggled up, first bracing himself on the sofa back, then holding James’s hand, before he could stay up on his own.
‘I think you should take your clothes off for me,’ James said. ‘Then I think you should fetch me a towel to put over my knee. Yes?’
‘Come on,’ James said.
Q fumbled his gear off, steadying himself on the back of the sofa. His underwear had soaked through; the whole front was sodden. ‘Always get all wet,’ he said, in response to James staring.
James made a pleased sound. ‘From the vibrator?’
‘Yeah.’ The entire fabric of the universe seemed to want Q to fall over into James’ lap, like a reed yielding to the wind.
‘No.’ James brought him up short with a hand to his chest. ‘Take those off.’
Q lifted his underwear off over his cock and dropped it to the floor. His cock swung out very high, close to his belly, the head exposed. At once he felt a trickle of fluid break from the tip.
James had a good, long look, and Q swayed towards him helplessly. ‘No,’ James said again, and took Q’s hip in his hand. ‘You have something to do for me, don’t you?’
‘Mmm,’ Q said, ambivalent.
‘Also, I think – this,’ James said. He picked up the remote and switched it to Pulse.
Q made a noise like he was drowning and grabbed James’ shoulder.
James let him stand there till he mostly stopped wobbling.
‘On your way,’ James said at last.
When Q came back with the towel, James had rolled his shirtsleeves up, exposing his forearms. James still had his shoes on. Q, by contrast, was entirely bare, aside from the flash of black silicon that could probably be glimpsed between his buttocks when he moved.
‘Good boy.’ James took the towel and laid it over his lap. ‘Come here.’ He took Q’s glasses off, folded them and put them on the coffee table.
Q began to fall in earnest as he was bending over James’ lap. James caught him and helped him arrange himself. ‘There you are,’ James said.
Q whimpered. James stroked the back of his neck.
‘Elbows behind your back?’ James said.
Q brought his elbows up behind him, and James threaded his arm through the crooks of them, gathering them up. ‘All right?’ James said.
‘Yeah,’ Q managed to reply.
‘What a little peach you are.’ James palmed one buttock then the other.
‘God,’ Q sighed.
‘Are you sure you want me to smack this? It’s so peachy. I’d feel terrible.’ James carried on stroking.
‘Please.’ Q’s body gave a surge of humiliation and clenched around the plug. He felt himself leak onto the towel. ‘Please.’
‘All right,’ James said, and hit him – hard.
At last James took a break for a while and cooled his hot hand on Q’s inner thigh. ‘You’re hurting my hand, you terrible boy,’ James said mildly.
‘Oh, I’d forgotten about this,’ James said. There was a pause and a small click. ‘Escalate.’
Afterwards Q lay limp, face down on the towel over the sofa. James stroked Q’s back and wiggled the switched-off plug, coaxing the muscles to let it go. At last they did, and Q’s hole stretched taut to let the widest part out.
‘Oh, look at that,’ James said, reverent, and pushed it back in. Q’s muscles closed snug around it again. Q whined senselessly into the cushions.
‘All right,’ James said. He wiggled the plug again and eased it out completely.
‘Do you want this rough or gentle?’ James said.
‘Rough,’ Q said faintly.
‘So it smacks?’
‘My pleasure,’ James said, and Q heard the condom packet rip. Then the thick nudge of James’ cock, socketed against his entrance.
A long, slow push, unrelenting. It stung a little – the cock was thicker than the plug. Q whined his encouragement.
A hard thrust, slapping James’ body into Q’s pink-spanked skin. ‘Like that?’
‘Yes,’ Q gasped.
James did it again. And again.
Each time was a violent shake to a champagne bottle. Perhaps ten shakes all up, and the cork popped. Q howled, bucked. He blew and blew.
‘Shh.’ James kissed his neck.
Q woke up in bed in the dark, with no particular memory of how he had got there. It was not particularly late – he could still hear distant traffic outside.
The mattress was tilted by another person’s weight. Q rolled over, a bit painfully. James was there, bare-shouldered, very still in a way that suggested he was awake.
‘Hello,’ Q said.
‘Hi,’ James said.
‘Can I…?’ Q got to his elbow.
‘Please,’ James said.
Q came into James’s arms and held him skin to skin, as he had not yet been able to do tonight. James rolled him over and snogged him for a bit.
They subsided at last and rolled back, so that Q lay on James’ chest.
‘Are you all right? Are you hurt?’ James asked.
‘Yes,’ Q said, smiling into the dark, ‘but I like it. So: not to worry.’ He kissed James’ shoulder.
James ruffled Q’s hair and was quiet a while. Then he said, ‘I hope you don’t let just anyone do that to you.’
‘Just boyfriends?’ James said – wonderfully, with a very slight edge of self-consciousness.
‘Only the really, really nice ones.’
‘Goodness. Why did you let me, then?’
‘The ones I trust with my life,’ Q said.
James said nothing. Q bit James’ shoulder, then kissed it. He felt James exhale into his hair.
It occurred to Q to wonder where his glasses were, so he could put the light on and look at James properly. But James was going to be available to be looked at pretty regularly from now on. So it wasn’t urgent to do it now.
He laid his head down and closed his eyes.
When both of their three-month tests came through, James took Q to Paris.
James leant him against the railing on the Pont des Arts in full view of an afternoon crowd. Past James’ shoulder, the Seine was pale green in the sun, the buttresses of Notre Dame bright white. Q feared for a moment his sense of irony could not take it; he was actually going to drop dead on the spot, or erupt in hysterical giggles.
James lifted Q’s glasses gently off his face, brought his own face within focussing distance, and stared Q down. He kissed him lavishly on the mouth.
The noises of surprise from the crowd had French accents.
They breathed each other’s air a moment.
‘I say,’ James said, with a purposeful glance in another direction, ‘do you like cheese?’
‘Are you referring to your sense of romance, or the food?’
‘Both, of course,’ James said.
James had taken to wearing the cologne Q preferred exclusively. Q nuzzled his neck.
‘Yes, wildly,’ Q said. ‘I love it.’
Sorry I was slow to post this chapter - everybody's enthusiasm gave me performance anxiety. :)
Oh my goodness, apparently I write novella-length fanfic now. With prodigious amounts of shagging in it. WHO KNEW.
Thank you to all the lovely people who have commented. I am going to be terribly bereft in another three days’ time when I don’t get to hear from you again.
Also if anyone would like to write fic about Higgins’ sexual identity crisis arising from the events of this story, I am so here for that.
ETA: if you would like to reblog this on tumblr then <3