There were no faults with the car; she drove as smoothly as James ever remembered, and he had no idea how Q had managed such a feat with nothing more than a steering column to work with. Evidently he had had a look at the old blueprints, because it looked as though the Aston was sporting all her old surprises: bulletproof glass and metalwork, headlights that could be replaced with guns at the flick of a switch, even the old eject button in pride of place on the dash. James had checked the car over thoroughly, preparing himself for the possibility of surprises and finding himself oddly relieved to find none; Q had resurrected the car in her entirety, and it was only later that James truly found himself wondering why. The amount of work it must have taken to rebuild the car from the ground up was almost inconceivable, and great effort had been taken to ensure it was the same car James remembered. Q must have spent hours and hours working on it, revising and rebuilding, his shirt sleeves rolled up and his hands dark with oil. James knew this for a fact, because sometimes, when he was getting into the car first thing in the morning or he flicked on the vents for some cool air, he got the sudden, undeniable aroma of Earl Grey tea, or one of the fruity shampoos Q had no shame in admitting he used, or – rarer, but just as strong – the sweet smell of the cigarettes Q smoked when working on a particularly difficult problem. It seemed the no matter how long her drove for the scents would remain, assaulting him in moments where he least expected it; the car made for him, but who stubbornly refused to forget the man who had brought her to life.
James wanted to forget the past but Madeleine wanted to relive it. He couldn’t blame her, but there was something increasingly depressing about driving back and forth across the continent, chasing the memories Madeleine awoke with, both of them knowing that there was no way for her to win. If they arrived at the location and it was the same, Madeleine would be consumed by grief for the father she had never had; if the location had changed, she would be consumed by grief over the fact she had lost the opportunity to grieve for him. For James, his being there felt inappropriate. He had watched her father die and felt nothing aside from an acknowledgment that it saved him a job; he had shot him and dragged him, in agony, into the boot of a car. He didn’t have any interest in who he had been as a man. He didn’t care that he might have been a father behind it all. Madeleine had been young during her time with him and her recollections were drenched in the rose-tinted admiration a daughter has for her father at that age, and despite himself, James couldn’t help but feel as though she were trying to defend her father to him. He began to stay in the car during her excursions to anonymous restaurants and isolated farmhouses; he got the impression that the decision was mutually beneficial. Madeleine needed her time to grieve, but James had never been the type to enjoy visiting the past and walking around in it, and doubly so when it came to someone else’s past, that was so at odds with his own.
“Christ,” he murmured to himself on afternoon, parked on a deserted rural Italian road. “What am I doing here?”
Sometimes he got the feeling Madeleine was asking herself the same question. He caught her sometimes, on her laptop with some medical journal open, sipping at her coffee as her eyes scanned over the information. James often got the impression that she might be working on something; when he was relaxing with a book he would hear her typing, frequent pauses while she flipped through what looked like handwritten notes. For Madeleine’s part, she noticed before James did that his reading material began to gravitate towards the likes of le Carré and Ambler, and that he was reading them at an increasingly rapid pace.
The truth was, James was bored. Deep down he knew Madeleine felt the same way. He wasn’t sure why neither of them thought to admit it – perhaps they were still committed to the idea of running away and leaving it all behind. James supposed that was his fault. He had always been a demon for it, running away on a high of triumph and love, only to find himself restless and bored after a month. It was unfair of him to drag Madeleine along with him, though it appeared as though she might be the same way; wasting time throughout the day so she could get back to their hotel and her computer, and as close to the career she loved as she could get these days.
James’s only escape were his books and his car. Sitting alone in it, in some random location, he could almost believe that he was on assignment somewhere, staking someone out and preparing for the chase. The car’s radio was optimised for communication with Q-branch, but of course when James pressed the relevant button in a haze of subconscious daring, there was no response.
Still, it was fun to pretend, and he didn’t turn it off again. The Aston became his confessional box and Q – or the thought of him – his unseen confessor, responding only in hints of freshly brewed Earl Grey and whispers of cigarette smoke.
“I wish I was the kind of person who would be able to enjoy this,” he said one say, staring guiltily down the hill to the glittering harbour below. Somewhere among the warm streets and white-painted houses, Madeleine was likely thinking the same thing. “By all means I should. Madeleine is wonderful – really, she should be everything I want. She’s intelligent, confident, gorgeous. But there’s a rift between us and we’re not who we need to be for one another. She needs someone who will help her come to terms with her past, and I need someone who doesn’t keep dragging me back into it. It isn’t my past – it isn’t mine to share with her. She keeps asking me why I spend so much time in the car and maybe I’m a hypocrite, considering. But there’s a difference. The car isn’t from my past any more, is it? The whole thing is –”
James broke off, unable to finish the sentence. It was a reminder, was what he had wanted to say. A constant reassurance that there was someone out there who would rebuild an entire car for him from the steering column up, just because he thought that it wasn’t right that James should lose everything. That there was someone in his life who understood the parts of James’s past that he wanted to keep, who knew what they were, who wanted him to have it. That this person was also intelligence, also confident, also gorgeous, but who wouldn’t be dragged from the career he loved by being with him, and who loved him rather than the idea of escape he represented; something James realised both he and Madeleine were undeniably guilty of with one another. How could he say that the car didn’t represent the past as much as it represented a potential future?
The weeks stretched on, and James and Madeleine both had moments of courage which then failed them, where they almost asked if they should call it quits, go back to work, never speak again or try again next summer. They were being cowards and they both knew it, but still they struggled on. The moments where things were suddenly, briefly, how they had been at the beginning of their elopement were the things they clung to, until the next time James was too irritable or Madeleine was too weepy and both of them were looking for comfort in the wrong place.
“It’s unfair to her,” James confessed in the car, the evening of one such fight. “She needs support and she needs purpose and I dragged her out here and deprived her of both. She can’t stand that I hate her father but I can’t stand that she loved him. To her, he’s still her father. But she knows I hate him. She knows I’m glad he’s dead. And I am, it’s true. He was a monster, and I think the more time Madeleine spends around me, the more she realises I’m the same type. The more I force her to face what her father was truly like.”
James told himself at first that he didn’t know what he needed, but eventually he accepted that he was lying. He missed the rainy streets of London and the sound of buses on the wet streets. He missed the subdued hustle of life at MI6, people hurrying back and forth with a rustle of papers and a squeak of shoes. He missed Moneypenny’s teasing, M’s faith in him, Tanner’s chatter about his kids. Above all, he missed the cardigan-wearing young man who laughed at his own jokes and carefully, lovingly, crafted the very car that James now sought refuge in.
He hadn’t realised he had been confessing this all out loud until he paused for breath, concluding with a frustrated, helpless afterthought.
“I go on drives with the windows down to get the smell of you out of the car. But it’s still there.”
The silence that followed was the loneliest James had ever known. It didn’t last long. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t considered the possibility, knowing what he knew about Q, but the soft English voice that reached him through the car’s speakers took him by surprise.
“Come home,” Q told him, gently, simply, and James realised he wanted nothing more.
Madeleine had evidently reached the same conclusion, because that evening she didn’t go to her laptop after dinner. Instead she came to James where he lay in bed reading, sitting down beside him. He lowered his book, looking at her over his glasses, and found he knew what she was going to say. For a moment he felt a pang of heartache; in the glow from the reading lamp she was a beautiful as James had ever seen her, her hair in a loose ponytail with stray strands framing her face. A longer look betrayed the exhaustion in her eyes, and he steeled his resolve.
“My leave ends next week,” she told him quietly. She had never mentioned the fact she was only on leave, but James found himself unsurprised. “I need to start thinking about going back. Sooner, rather than later.”
She looked nervous as she spoke, and the relief was evident on her face when James nodded.
“I think I should probably think about doing the same,” he said, and it was all they said on the subject.
Their remaining two days together were wonderful. The stress of their confessions off their chests, the weight of proclaimed love vanished, they acted like old friends. They messed around in giftshops and boutiques, they got too drunk at lunch, they laughed as they pushed one another, fully-clothed, into whatever body of water was convenient. They talked comfortably about their plans when they got back home, and they avoided falling into a false sense of security. On the morning of Madeleine’s departure she still rose early, still got changed and gathered her bags, and James carried them downstairs to the waiting taxi. They allowed their farewell hug to last a little longer than expected, and parted with one final kiss.
Later, James watched the sun come up above the building from the balcony, cigarettes and coffee for breakfast. After the light crept its way into the suite behind him he finally stood up, some of the heaviness lifting from him. He turned back inside and began to work on packing, his nostalgia for their earlier holiday slowly slipping into harmless memories as the room became barer.
By midday he was on the road, heading north-west towards the English Channel. The journey was made quicker thanks to Q’s voice through the radio, his constant excited chatter about all the things James had missed allowing the miles to melt away unnoticed.