There are four sets of trainers, scuffed and dingy from practice, accentuated by tall, strong bodies, and they stand around him in a circle on the pavement. The boys they belong to – the young men – do not have the same prospects awaiting them at their education's end; they may be football players, or military men, or perhaps they'll check-out groceries and sweep the pavement. They are not four steps above their peers – are barely in the same step – but they will get away with the bruises on their knuckles and the blood on his jawline because they are only boys.
They are only boys and boys will do as they do. They will make mistakes and they will make poor choices, but they will be reprimanded with a slap across the wrist and little else; they won't learn – they'll never learn. If things were different, if he were different – but he's not. He's fourteen to their eighteen and they take his intellect and his accomplishments as a threat; they take his presence – his slender frame and his thin fingers and his sharp tongue – as an insult.
He will go home with purple and black ornaments; he will go home to a father who's lips will purse in disappointment, at a son who can't stand on his own two feet and fight his own battles. His mother will hug him tightly, tell him to keep his chin high and his head down, and will never, ever mention that she can't fathom why he doesn't try to make friends like his brother.
He is born a disappointment. Not intentionally, of course, but the result is there regardless. He is a tiny wisp of a thing; 'pre-mature' he hears growing up, but it means little to a boy who is acutely aware that he has no control over his biology. Even as he grows, older and smarter, it is into slender bones and lean skin. Biology doesn't gift him with the body of a soldier, or the agility of an athlete, but instead cultivates his mind into something which grows, and grows, and grows. There is no one in Great Britain who can beat him at chess, and there are a hundred universities who are desperate to have him, but there is still a strange tension in his mother's shoulders when she hugs him tightly; there's still a line of stress in her eyes, in her mouth, when she says that his father and she are proud of him.
Things might be different. He might have been born to scholars, who could appreciate the fact that their son was miles and mountains above his competition. He might have been born to engineers, or scientists, or professors, but then perhaps he might have not been born at all. He wonders if he were born a girl if anyone would notice that he does not play rugby, or learn the ins and outs of football, or care at all for busting his knuckles over a fight he started purely by existing.
There are a hundred possibilities that are not possible at all. He thinks no one would mind who he is if he were someone else entirely.
“You're meeting 007 tomorrow?” Eve asks him, and he doesn't know why she phrases it as a question when she is already certain of the answer. “Don't let him underestimate you.”
It happens, regardless. 007 thinks him a child, an incompetent child at that, and he is as reluctant as any of them to believe someone so young – someone half his age, thin and wiry – could even so much as make a claim to be his equal. 007 makes his assumptions and places his doubts on the table like a hand he is sure of. He is not the first and he won't be the last, but there is something else there that is unmistakably a challenge.
The difference with 007 is that he is not above his mistakes. Prove me wrong, he seems to say, and Q is more than happy to oblige.
Nada makes strong, perfect tea and brings it to him, night after night. Her heels click softly against the floor, and the wool of her pencil skirt sometimes brushes his arm as she leans to place the mug on his desk. Her smile is warm and friendly, her dimples endearing, and she has worked in the same branch for nearly a year's time.
He feels a fondness for her that is irrational – he barely knows her, after all – and she is beautiful and brilliant; he doesn't love her, but not for a lack of trying. Everything about Nada is unfortunate, because she is a sweet young woman who is a victim of all the social nuances he's been trying to avoid all his life.
She looks at him, and laughs, and she means nothing by it when she says any woman would be jealous of his eyelashes – of his hands, his hair – but it grates his nerves like fingernails down a chalkboard. She means nothing by it when she tells him she fancies their new mail clerk, means nothing by it when she says it's nice to have a man she can talk to who is indifferent; she means nothing by it at all when she makes assumptions about where he stands on a level of asexuality. There are a hundred things about her that strike her as different from the boys who spent their senior year shoving his face into brick, but for the life of him he can't think of any.
“If you were a woman,” she says, one night when they stay late, when she stares at a familiar face on his screen, “I would think 007 would be baffled as to what to do with you.”
If you were a woman, she doesn't say but does all the same, he would want you.
He takes it in stride, because he takes everything in stride. The jeers, and the remarks, and the bruises – he takes them all in stride.
“If I were a woman,” he says, as he adjusts his glasses and does not look up from the screen, “I would hope to have better taste.”
Savannah greets him when he enters his flat, with her whiskers against his ankles and her tail curling around his leg; sometimes she refuses to greet him until he's put his keys down, and made a cup of tea, but today she is lonely. He leaves the post on the table and bends to pick her up. Sometimes she likes him and sometimes she pretends not to, but today it is cold and dreary and she'll take the affection.
He makes tea and curls up on his sofa, his notebook across his lap and Savannah's head resting against his hip. He doesn't check the radio signal from 007, because he's at home and not at work – because there is a team on duty in his absence who are more than capable of handling a distress beacon – because forming attachments to MI6 agents who are all but disposable is an unhealthy way to live.
Forming attachments to MI6 agents who are in the habit of cheating death is unhealthier still.
“Oh, stop judging me,” he says to Savannah's blank eyes, and checks the signal again.
“There's a pool going around,” Nada tells him, without prompting, “about whether or not you're a virgin.”
“We're twelve then?” he asks, and although he keeps focused on his work he can't deny that the prickling of annoyance he feels is completely warranted. “Is there nothing more important to discuss?”
“Clare says you and she ate lunch together yesterday,” Nada says, and it sounds unrelated – sounds completely out of the blue – and perhaps it is. It's none of her business regardless.
“I have work to do,” he says, gesturing to the computer in front of him. “Could this possibly wait for a better time? Perhaps 'never'? Does 'never' work for you?”
“You would tell me if you were interested in someone,” she says. “You know you can tell me.”
He says nothing, which he supposes is an answer in and of itself.
He doesn't expect to ever see his equipment again, but when 007 brings back Silva and his computers he also returns the small radio. The skin of his knuckles is dry and bruised, fingers chapped from wind and dust, and the radio has only nominal wiring damage when he sets it upon Q's immaculate desk; the pistol isn't returned at all.
“M.I.A,” 007 tells him of the handgun, and, though he delivers the explanation in the same way another might lend sympathy, there is no remorse in his voice or face. It's strange that he watches him examine the radio, the laptop, the various wires and discs brought back from the island; he doesn't watch the curve of Nada's hips as she watches surveillance tapes, but rather scrutinizes the tapping of Q's fingers against the plastic keys.
“I'll add it to your tab,” he promises.
“Hardly a tab if you don't plan on closing it,” 007 notes.
“Perhaps I'll start taking collateral instead,” Q says, and he thinks privately that if he were someone else that this banter between them would be flirting.
“Perhaps you should,” is the reply he gets, and for the first time in his life – for the briefest of moments – Q wishes he were someone else.
There is a funeral to attend. There are things to sort through and matters to settle. There is paperwork to file and there are routines to get back to. The funeral and paperwork are easy enough things to take care of, but it is the routine that is the hardest to get back underneath his thumb.
The tube is a mess. There is a collapsed tunnel, derailed trains, and too many security stops to make it worth navigating for the stations still open. He takes his bicycle out of storage and spends an evening dusting it off, oiling the gears and parts, and pumping air into the tires; he spends far too long the next morning relearning what they say you can't forget and even longer navigating rush hour traffic to get into his office.
No one comments on the bicycle helmet he tucks underneath his desk, nor on the general state of his hair before his fixes it as best he can with the flat of his hand. No one comments on the way 007's eyes give him a once-over while he stands damn near across the room, speaking to someone else entirely; which is not to say they don't notice it, if the knowing looks they flash him are anything to go by, but they don't say anything. Q thinks his entire department is scheming against him at this point and he's not at all fooled by the way they hunch down at their keyboards and pretend like they can't feel his disapproval.
It is difficult – exhausting – to be someone you are not. It is impossible to be what someone else wants.
He ponders on who 007 – on who Bond – is when no one is scrutinizing him. He sits patiently in the chair near Q's desk, wires wrapped around his arm from the cuff strapped there; heartbeats and intakes of breath leaving numbers across Q's screen, like 007's life is a program waiting to be executed.
“Everything looks normal,” Q says, of the numbers, of the man in his care, and not at all of his own heartbeat that feels as though it has wormed its way into his throat – not at all of the pulse of blood in his wrists and fingers that is irregular and irrational. “Just a calibration issue with the pistol then. I can sort that out easy enough.”
He can't change the data on the screen – not from his end – nor can he change the eyes that watch him work, careful and calculating and altogether far too intense. The scrutiny grates across Q's nerves until they feel raw; he feels taunted, teased, and like he's the punchline of a joke that no one has bothered to start telling.
When he undoes the velcro affixing the wires and readers from 007's arm, he ignores the eyes that remain on him – staring, as though their owner has no shame whatsoever. His fingers are cold from typing, from sitting in this underground office with poor circulation, and the skin underneath the pressure wrap is warm. Q pulls away, because this is over and they are done, and then there are fingers just as warm around his wrist, pulling him back towards a problem he still hasn't thought to solve.
There is space between Bond's legs for him that hadn't been there before, and he catches himself with his other hand on the man's shoulder, where the lean muscle tenses underneath his grip. His fingers are still cold, but his face is hot and if he could catch 007 on fire with a stare then he would have done so ages ago, but as it stands all he can do is glare and pretend to be nonplussed.
“I realize this may be hard for you to understand with your head so far up your arse,” he says, and the thigh pressing against his own makes him feel weak; everything about this ridiculous, arrogant man makes him weak, and angry, “but I am not a woman. I want to make that very clear to you, as it seems somewhere along the line you became unaware.”
“And as such you are immune to any attempts at seduction or otherwise general appreciation of your body,” Bond finishes for him, with a single, infuriatingly patronizing nod in agreement. The grip on his wrist is careful, but not gentle; Q feels every callous in startling clarity against his skin. “Duly noted.”
A hand wraps around his tie, firm and unyielding, and the grip on it tugs him forward – as though there is anywhere left for him to go. Both his hands brace against Bond's shoulder, and if it weren't completely mad – if it weren't absolutely impossible for this to be happening in the middle of headquarters – he might flush harder when he is all but straddling the larger body beneath his own. Yet that can't possibly be happening – nor could it be possible that there is a mouth against his own that should not be there; lips, bruising against his own, warm and accentuated by the roughness of a five o'clock shadow.
If he were a lesser man he would let it all happen without putting up a fuss. If he were a lesser man he would find himself coming undone underneath the tongue against his own, underneath the hand on his wrist that has moved to grip his hip. He thinks, as a strong thumb presses against his hipbone and his own fingers curve tightly into well defined shoulders, that there's only the two of them in the room and neither seem particularly concerned with whether he is or is not a lesser man.
It is frustrating because he knows these tricks, and knows this dance, and he knows how this man operates; he knows the bodies left in his path. It is frustrating because his body and his mind are not on the same wavelength at all, are perhaps no longer even occupying the same vessel, because the sound that escapes him, when Bond pulls away, gives them both pause; he feels embarrassed, irritated, but there's something about the way Bond is holding him, like he isn't nearly finished with him, that sets his pulse racing.
“I am more than aware,” he says, and when he rolls his hips Q doesn't bite back a gasp, “that you are not a woman.”
“Duly noted,” Q murmurs, and he doesn't count it against himself when he takes off his own glasses and decides that his better judgment can fuck off.
If Nada notices the bruises on his neck, and the surprisingly disorganized state of his desk, then she doesn't comment on it.
Q wants to tell her that he's discovered James Bond doesn't know what to do with him regardless of his identified gender, but he's too content to start bragging.