He knows he’s in trouble as soon as he walks out of the tube station. The silver DB5 is parked on the kerb opposite. You can’t miss a car like that. It’s a statement. The man driving it means to make sure you know he’s there.
Q crosses the road reluctantly, and attempts to walk past.
Idiot. Whatever made him think he could get away with that?
The voice comes from the rolled down window of the Aston. Q stops in his tracks, steps backwards, so that he can see in. A man is stretching across the car, negotiating the gear stick, peering up at him with big, blue eyes.
‘Can I help you?’ It’s not witty, but it’s the best he can manage right now, in this much shock.
‘Can you direct me to the nearest sushi restaurant?’
It’s all Q can do not to roll his eyes. Couldn’t Bond have come up with a better line? But then, this is Bond, after all; the king of acid quips and cheesy pick-ups. Q bends down and peers in at him. His parka slumps forward on his shoulders, swamping him. Another wardrobe malfunction. Just what he needs when faced with the paragon of sartorial elegance that is Bond. Plus his glasses have slithered down his nose, and he has to push them back onto the bridge in order to focus on the man inside the car.
‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘I’m allergic to seafood.’
‘That’s a shame,’ Bond says. ‘It must be very vexing for you.’
Fuckwit, Q thinks, remembering using the word to Bond not long after they met.
‘Nobody uses the word vexed anymore,’ Bond had groaned at him, after he’d got out of the crumbling underground tunnel and saved the world from the mad Spaniard, whatever his name was. Was he even a Spaniard? Q couldn’t remember. He had the extraordinary ability to delete information that was no longer useful from his mental files. Much as he hated to admit it, this family trait had proved handy over the years, but sometimes it could be a little irritating to be unable to come up with annoying little details that other people remembered quite normally.
Anyway, vexation had become something of a code word for them after that.
‘I’m not the slightest bit vexed about not eating raw fish,’ Q said. ‘I’d be far more vexed about going into anaphylactic shock if I accidentally consumed prawns.’
‘Yes, I can understand how that would be annoying,’ Bond agrees, and offers him an impish grin. Bastard. He knows just how to press all Q’s buttons.
‘So, anyway, have you eaten?’
Q stands up and looks out across the roof of the DB5 at the street around him. It is 7 o’clock on an autumnal evening in Wandsworth. Lights from shop windows and restaurants glimmer invitingly. He has spent the last 27 hours at his desk, struggling to decrypt an Islamist terrorist’s laptop hard drive fast enough to avert a crisis in the Allied advance on Mosul. He’s tired and hungry, and his cats will have munched their way through everything their timed feed dispenser has to offer hours ago. The litter tray will need changing, he’s got a whole season of ‘House of Cards’ to catch up on, and a bottle of designer gin in the fridge.
When he finishes contemplating all this, he finds Bond has popped up on the other side of the Aston’s gleaming silver roof. He is looking at Q with that familiar smugness he has when he knows he has pulled off the impossible.
Q huffs in defeat.
‘There’s a good Italian place about two hundred yards up on the left. Try the house red while you’re waiting, its good. I have to go home and change.’
‘And feed the cats,’ Bond reminds him, shamelessly, and slides back into the car. Q watches him ease out into the traffic. God knows where he’s going to park, he reflects. But then he’s Bond. Someone will probably come out of an adjacent property and offer to take his keys and park it for him.
Bond rises from the table when he arrives. His lips are slightly red from the wine he has been drinking. The house red.
‘I didn’t think you’d listen,’ Q says, sliding onto the banquette seat in the little booth opposite Bond. Bond pours some into Q’s glass, and they both drink. Yes, it really is as good as he’d remembered it.
‘It’s good,’ Bond confirms with a wry smile. Clearly, he wasn’t expecting he’d listen either. ‘It’s not Chateau Rothschild, but it’s not trying to be.’
Of course. he’s as much an expert on wine as he is on guns. Which means if he thinks this wine is good, then it really is good. Which gives Q a little bit of a glow inside. It’s nice to be one up when he’s been so wrong-footed by Bond’s unexpected arrival.
The venue is one of those dark, glamorous restaurants that the bohemians hipsters like, more suited to Shoreditch than Wandsworth Common. Everything is deep indigo blue, even the dark mirrors that line the walls. There is a glittering tube of a chandelier over every table, each the bastard child of Swarovski and H R Giger. The seats are navy blue leather. This whole place makes him feel like he’s been trapped inside the dreams of an Art Deco peacock on speed. Q feels like he blends into invisibility in his midnight blue velvet blazer.
A ridiculous thing to wear really, but he bought it weeks ago, when the new autumn clothes lines came into the shops and for once he had chance to dawdle over the garments, instead of grabbing the first thing off the rack and dashing for the tills as he usually does. (That was how he ended up with a parka that was four sizes too big for him.) The jacket had taken his fancy. It appealed to him with the slightly silver sheen of its nap, and the way it morphed from electric blue to darkest navy depending on the way he moved. It called to the drama queen in him. Admittedly, his inner drama queen was extremely well hidden, given that self-generated drama couldn’t be allowed to compete with the kind served up by the job. He stood in front of the mirror by the door before he left the house, only twenty minutes before, and told himself that the restrained dark jeans and the navy shirt with its tiny floral print, worn open at the collar to show his skinny, vulnerable throat, probably made up for the flamboyance of the velvet. And after all, even a Quartermaster deserves a little glamour now and then.
Bond is wearing a jacket made of leather so soft that it takes everything Q has to restrain himself from rubbing his face all over it. It is a wicked jacket, and Bond knows it.
Even blunt instruments have a talent for fiendish strategy, it seems.
Other than that, he looks effortlessly stylish and perfectly pitched for a romantic téte a téte in a trendy restaurant. Q takes time to observe him as he fills Q’s water glass from a jug topped off with luridly green slices of lime.
‘So, how are you?’ he ventures.
Although the question is somewhat redundant, given that Bond is walking and talking and clearly bent on seduction, which means he must be recovered from his recent injuries in Samarkand. Still, he looks worn. His face has taken on the weathered quality that reminds Q of old photographs of Victorian fishermen, their faces mined and grooved by decades of Atlantic storms. His brush with death may be one of many in his career, but Q suddenly wonders how many more lives this cat has in him.
‘Let’s just say that the recuperation arrangements leave a lot to be desired these days,’ Bond says, setting the jug down.
‘I heard you were at Sarratt.’ Q starts to fiddle with his fork.
‘Well, budgets don’t run to luxury private clinics on the shores of Lake Como anymore,’ Q feels beholden to point out. ‘Especially given that last time they were used, somebody, who shall remain nameless, trashed one of the treatment rooms while indulging his romantic inclinations with his girlfriend.’
Bond grins, shameless to the last. ‘I had to test the equipment,’ he smirks, knowing Q will roll his eyes, which he obligingly does.
‘Did you test the equipment at Sarratt too?’
‘Everything is in full working order, I promise,’ Bond tells him with a mischievous wink. Damn the man. Now Q is getting hard under the table. To distract himself he picks up the menu.
‘So what are we having?’
‘Not the vongole, I presume? Exactly how allergic are you?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well if, say, I were to have the clams, and then kiss you?’
Q has to swallow hard. ‘If I permitted you to kiss me, you mean?’
‘Well then, my lips would probably swell up a bit, and perhaps my tongue, depending on, well, er, um-‘
‘It’s unlikely I’d end up in A&E, put it that way. But I might end up being rather uncomfortable.’
‘Well, we wouldn’t want that, would we?’
Bond leans forward very slightly, watching so carefully that Q is sure he can count every throb of his pulse in his carotid artery. Q can feel his cheeks burning, feel the flush working its way down his throat, his chest, further, under Bond’s merciless scrutiny.
‘Sorry, could you, er, could you not do that?’
‘Look at me that way.’
Bond’s smile is slow, controlled, like steaming hot caramel sliding down a chilled slab of marble. ‘What way?’
‘Like you’re the wolf and I’m the grandma.’
‘I’m surprised you aren’t used to it. I imagine plenty of people must look at you like this.’
Flustered, Q squints at the menu. He is regretting wearing his contacts now. His eyes feel runny at the corners, the lenses feel loose. It’s all rather too much for a man who is only used to the somewhat detached excitement a major computer hack of government security systems can offer.
‘I think I’ll have the wild mushroom and walnut linguine,’ he says.
‘Oh dear,’ Bond sighs. ‘Trust me to fall for a vegetarian.’
Two hours later, they stand together beside the curb, awkward with anticipation, heavy with potential. It has been a pleasant evening, Q has to admit. Bond is much easier to talk to than he expected. He wonders how much of that was just a practiced hand, reeling him in, flattering him with an attentive ear, making him feel special. Bond let him talk, after all. Let him ramble on about new ideas, pet projects, the fun inventions he pursued on the side, not the top secret stuff, of course. He even contrived to seem interested. But now they are at the end of the conventional meal, and etiquette is dumb on what to do next.
‘Well, I suppose I should let you get on,’ Q says, burying his hands in his velvet pockets, clenching his teeth against the evening chill.
Bond shuffles his feet, uncharacteristically gauche. ‘Nothing to get on with,’ he shrugs. ‘And besides, I was rather hoping for an introduction to your cats.’
‘Oh,’ Q says, stymied. ‘Well, to be honest, they’re very picky about the company they keep.’
‘I’d be on my best behaviour,’ Bond assures him. Turns those huge blue eyes on him, eyes the colour of lapis lazuli. Eyes that burn through your clothes, that scorch your skin.
Q clears his throat.
‘I’m not going to be another notch on your bedpost, James.’
‘No,’ Bond says. ‘You’re not.’
And for a moment, that weathered face is naked, and Q can see right in, into the depths, into the bitter darkness of a soul exiled from righteousness, excised from moral certainty. For the first time he sees the pain under the bluster.
‘I have a bottle of vodka,’ he finds himself saying, against his better judgement. ‘You never know. I may even be able to conjure a bottle of vermouth from the back of the cupboard. It’s a bit like that, my kitchen. Schroedinger’s cupboard. You never know whats going to be in there until you look.’
‘The Cocktail Cabinet of Uncertainty,’ Bond muses with a wry smile. ‘Now that’s one I haven’t tried before. Can’t really say no, can I?’
The bag of ice makes a crunchy thud as it drops into the sink. He’s already pulled the stainless steel cocktail shaker from the back of the kitchen cabinet. It needed the cobwebs wiping off it, proof of how long it is since he has had the opportunity to use it, but that’s just the work of a minute. There are the two bottles, one clear and glassy, one green and mysterious. He grabs a handful of ice and drops it into the cup of the shaker. And then becomes aware of a very physical presence behind him.
Bond presses his body gently but insistently against Q’s back. Q has to flatten his palms to the kitchen worktop to steady himself as hot breath caresses the nape of his neck. He clears his throat and tries to concentrate on measuring out the vodka and vermouth, tries not to think about how much his hands are shaking, tries not to think about the way Bond is nuzzling the sensitive skin behind his ear. The spirits slide over the ice, which crackles. Q takes the peeler to the pitted skin of the lemon, the thick citrusy scent of its oil filling the kitchen.
‘You know how to make a good martini,’ Bond purrs. Its like the purr of a jaguar. Q fumbles the peeler. He manages to manoeuvre the long twist of yellow peel into the shaker.
‘Student job as a barman,’ he manages to rasp. Bond has started to nibble the bony outcrop of his second vertebra. ‘I’ve mixed a lot of cocktails. Oh, God.’
‘Is it that bad a job?’ Bond breathes.
‘You are never going to get this drink if you keep doing that.’
‘Always good to know,’ Bond says, and does seem to back off a little, even if his version of backing off is to wind his arms around Q’s scrawny body.
Steeling himself, Q fixes the lid on the top of the shaker and, holding it in both hands firmly, adopts the traditional pose, feet set apart, making for a stable base. He catches sight of his own reflection in the window in front of him, a monochrome shape against the darkness of the back yard, hands blurring ridiculously, with the mountainous form of 007 behind him, pressed to his back. Bond is looking into his eyes. Those pale irises of his, the blue of Arctic icebergs, so knowing. Even in the sepia reflection of the night, he seems to look inside Q’s head and see all laid out before him.
Q pulls the two glasses towards him, cracks open the shaker and pours the clear liquid out into each, then breaks the twist in half and drops a piece into each.
‘There,’ he says.
Bond slides round him, and picks one up, holds it up to Q’s mouth. Their eyes meet. Something primal in the moment. The scent of Bond’s aftershave, its notes of spicy sandalwood and bay leaves, and the underlying raw pheromone of his body, drift across the surface of the drink, carried up on the fragrance of vermouth, spirit and lemon oil. Q parts his lips, aware that Bond is watching intently. Gently, slowly, he applies them to the rim of the glass, looking up through his eyelashes, never breaking their shared gaze. Bond tips the glass, and the alcohol touches, burns a little. The briefest of sips. He lets a drop hang on his lower lip as he draws back, watching Bond’s eyes fix upon it, watches Bond’s own lips part, breathless, anticipating.
Distantly, he hears the glass clatter into the sink, but he is too occupied with the sudden force of the kiss, the way Bond is devouring him, all that power forcing him against the work surface, bending him over backwards as he whimpers, all that muscle gripping and controlling him.
He has never felt so alive.
‘Bed,’ Bond growls into his throat, and all he can say in response is: ‘yes.’
Q has already apologised for the state of the house. It’s a three bedroomed terrace, but the upstairs has been taken over by his workshops and computer den, so he effectively lives downstairs. The front room, with its shuttered bay window, is where he sleeps. He can’t remember when he last made the bed, which is just a mattress on a platform of books. There are piles of journals and papers lining the skirtings, and a wardrobe out of which his clothing tumbles. There is only one light, a little bendy desk lamp he was given as a kid by his grandmother to study by. A sentimental affliction to hang onto it, of course, but he can’t seem to throw the ugly thing away, so it sits by the bed, lighting the long nights as he lies awake reading.
Tonight, it lights Bond dropping Q onto the bed on his back. He has carried the younger man along the hall, Q’s arms around his neck, legs tight around his waist, his big palms supporting Q’s buttocks. He stands over the bed, looks down on Q, lips apart as if he’s trying to get his breath.
‘I love it when you get all masterful,’ Q can’t help quipping at that super hero stance.
‘Not even started yet,’ Bond says, and crawls on top.
Q wakes to the rattley tick of his alarm clock. He likes the mechanical kind, favouring the sort with bells on top because when he actually does sleep, it takes the equivalent of nuclear detonation to wake him. This morning, it is not the jangling of the accursed bells that draws him out of his dreams, but the stretch of empty bedsheets beside him.
The bastard. He’s got up in the night and run off.
Q curses Bond under his breath, even as he realises that he is both disappointed and unsurprised simultaneously. He sits up in bed and sighs. The air is cold on his skin. He’d been hoping for warm hands, warm skin, and all he’s ended up with is the same as every other morning in his life. Cold sheets.
After he has hauled himself to the bathroom and donned the tartan bathrobe his mother bought him for Christmas (and which he swore on the spot that no one would ever see him wear), he plods through the back room which serves as his main living area, to the kitchen to make coffee. It is only the absence of cats tangling around his ankles that alerts him to the fact that this morning is not exactly as he pictured it.
Bond is stretched out on the sofa, his ankles crossed on its low arm. Lovelace, the calico female cat, is crouched on his chest, pretending to sleep. Babbage, the coal black male with the white bib, is sitting on the coffee table amongst more books and papers, ears pricked, watching him.
‘Guarding him, are you,’ Q grumbles, softly. ‘The bastard has been here less than 8 hours and he’s already turned you to his evil purposes. You are fair-weather friends indeed, the pair of you.’
‘Cats are happy to love anybody with opposable thumbs,’ Bond points out, his eyes still closed. ‘At least, if they have access to food. You should know that.’
Q huffs and puts the kettle on, pretending not to be pleased that his expectation of Bond’s escape has proved wrong.
‘I hoped you’d stay in bed with me,’ he pouts, coming back into the living room and leaning on the door jamb.
Bond opens his eyes and turns them on him. This morning, they are laser beams of peacock blue.
‘I was restless, and I didn’t want to wake you.’
‘To be honest, I’d every expectation that you’d have gone by now anyway.’ Q is feeling definitely waspish. Why on earth had he done this, when he’d promised himself he would never be so stupid?
Bond picks up Lovelace and places her deftly out of his way on the table in order to sit up. He looks at Q. Something unreadable in his eyes, as usual.
Q swears under his breath and flounces into the kitchen to thump about filling the cafetiere. He brings a tray back in, two mugs on it, along with a plastic carton of milk and the admittedly rather crusty sugar bowl next to the coffee. He shoves some books onto the floor to make space on the coffee table to put it down. Then he flops onto the sofa. He doesn’t want to sit next to Bond, but it is his only choice, seeing as the remaining armchair is piled high with old post, blueprints and academic journals.
The rich, toasted scent of the coffee fills the room. Babbage starts grooming his face. Lovelace, insulted at being displaced, climbs onto a pile of books and sits with her back to them to express her displeasure. They wait for the coffee to steep sufficiently.
‘Just tell me why,’ Q says in the end, desperate to fill the empty space between them.
‘Come on. Why did you come here? Why did you come back for me?’
Bond reaches out to ruffle Lovelace’s ears. He has unexpectedly beautiful hands, though the knuckles are scarred from too many violent encounters.
‘Because you knew I was on my last legs,’ he says.
‘Anybody could have deduced that.’
‘No. Just you.’
They sit there, side by side, in sober contemplation of the fact that Bond should not be here. Q finds it is a rather more unpleasant thought than he had anticipated. Significantly more unpleasant now than it was yesterday, when he didn’t know the scent of Bond’s skin, or the beautiful oval of that mole on his inner left thigh.
Bond gets up and stands at the window. He shifts his weight onto one hip, and in doing so accentuates the beautiful curve of a buttock, delicately cupped by his finely cut trousers. He has left his shirt on the floor in Q’s bedroom, and in the watery morning light, the scars on his back make a grim history.
‘I’m getting old, Q,’ Bond says. ‘The first thing M said to me was that it’s a young man’s game, and he was right. I’ve already outlived the average life expectancy of a 00 agent by a significant degree-‘
’76.23 recurring,’ Q can’t help but point out, and then mentally kicks himself when Bond glances over his shoulder with an expression of exasperation.
‘Thank you for reminding me,’ he grunts. And turns. Hands in his pockets, his magnificent physique a silhouette against the muddy grey and drab green of the garden outside. The light seems to seep into the lines in his cheeks even more deeply this morning. Deeper, now that Q has heard him moan with pleasure; deeper, now that Q has felt the pounding of his heart under his ribs, the rush of his blood under his skin.
‘The odds are against me. Sooner or later, the mark is going to be quicker than I am. Experience and cunning only go so far in this game. When you’re up against it, you’ve got to have a reason. Something to hang onto.’
‘Queen and country,’ Q nods.
‘No. You need something closer than that, something concrete. You need something to come home for.’
The words hang heavy between them. The realisation sinks in. In the end, a bleeding man needs a reason to haul himself up off the floor and keep going. The drive to survive will only take you so far. When you’ve lived on the edge as long as Bond has, the instinct to keep on living becomes fragile. The temptation to let go becomes stronger.
‘I need an anchor,’ Bond says, his voice taking on an emotional timbre.
‘The old ball and chain, eh?’ Q meant to lighten the mood, but it comes across as crass and insensitive as usual.
‘I need your voice on the other end of the link to reel me back in. To bring me home.’
Q finds himself swallowing hard. ‘If you want an anchor, as you put it, surely Moneypenny would be a better bet. After all, she’s-‘
‘Female? There is that, I suppose. But its not like I’m after a family. And besides, I think she has other irons in the fire.’
‘Oh yes?’ Q can’t help his curiosity however much he tries to hide it. Bond catches its glint and laughs.
‘I’m good at keeping secrets, remember?’
When Q gets up, Bond catches him and pulls him against his body. It is always a surprise to Q when he realises up close that Bond is not really that much taller than he is, a centimetre or two at most. Their noses brush, their eyes almost on a level, in spite of the older man’s ability to project a much larger height. He looks into Bond’s pale eyes, and realises they are not so different really. Just two naked animals trying to survive, blood and bone and beating hearts, with needs and desires and fears just like any human being. He reaches up and touches Bond’s lips with his fingertips, and finds he is still able to marvel at the miracle of intimacy with another fragile, mortal creature. He traces the softness of Bond’s upper lip, feels the brush of his warm breath on his fingertips. He studies the delicate etching around Bond’s eyes, the deep grooves that run from his flared nostrils to the sardonic corners of his mouth. The pad of his finger rasps on the gold and silver shadow of beard developing along Bond’s jaw. Bond’s eyes flutter shut at his touch, and he lets out a long, slow sigh, as if of relief. When he opens his eyes again, there is a softness to their expression.
‘We’re not so different, you and I,’ he says, his voice turning velvety. ‘You love the thrill of the chase as much as I do.’
‘Hardly,’ Q says, his head on one side as he wonders at the delicate fringe of Bond’s lashes. ‘I’m half the size and half the strength, and I’ve barely made it into double figures as far as lovers go.’
Bond raises an eyebrow. ‘You surprise me.’
‘I’m a quick learner,’ Q says quickly, to cover his embarrassment at letting such a scandalous lack out. His face floods with heat. To his surprise, Bond pulls him closer.
‘I don’t want you thinking I’m some kind of blushing virgin,’ Q continues hotly.
Bond nuzzles his cheek fondly. ‘I think we conclusively buried that one last night.’
Q finds himself annoyed at Bond’s teasing, and tries to pull away, but he should know better. The agent’s grip is vice-like. ‘I’m not like you,’ Q insists.
‘You are. Come on, if you were interested in domesticity, you’d be married to a school librarian, and you’d have two kids at least by now. You’re not the settling down type any more than I am. But that doesn’t mean we don’t both need love.’
It is a stinging hit, but a palpable one. Q flinches. It is one thing to know it himself, and quite another to hear it come out of Bond’s mouth. It hurts. Even after all these years, it still hurts, the knowledge that he will never find the kind of deep connection that he so longs for. One that the agent also clearly craves.
‘What are you offering,’ he manages to rasp, unable to look away from Bond’s unusually earnest face when seconds ago he would have happily looked anywhere else.
‘You and me. Whatever it takes. In spite of everything. You know what I do, what I have to do sometimes, to get information.’
The risks. The women. The dead. Yes, he knows. Hasn’t he talked Bond through it all, time and again?
‘You know the worst of me. I can’t hide from you. And I don’t have to hide anything from you. You know who I am. And I know you.’
‘No, you don’t,’ Q says. ‘You don’t know anything about me. Who I am. Where I came from.’
‘I don’t need to, do I? That’s the point of the legends. We are who we are right now. The past and the future don’t matter. Especially if we don’t have a future, and the past is too painful to look at.’
They stand there in the cold morning light, a light drizzle starting outside, the only noise in the room the sound of their breath, and the noisy licking of Babbage grooming himself.
Something clicks inside Q’s chest. If feels as if the whole universe has finally fallen into place, after being just slightly off centre all his life.
Those blue eyes are the only things that have ever made any sense to him, right from that first moment in the National Gallery, and now they are the only things that need to make sense ever again.
‘My real name is Quentin,’ he says, finding he feels calmer than he has in years.
Bond’s eyebrows bounce up. ‘Seriously?’
‘I know.’ he cringes. ‘Ghastly coincidence. It’s a hideous name. But it could have been worse. Given what my siblings ended up with, I count myself lucky.’
‘I really can’t tell you that.’
‘Not even a hint?’ Bond’s got that mischievous twitch in the corner of his mouth.
‘You really don’t want to know. Its just too awful.’
‘It can’t be that bad.’
‘Lets just say the Anglo Saxons have a lot to answer for.’
Bond gives him a look that is frankly beyond description, and they are both suddenly reduced to helpless laughter. Which, on the whole, Q decides, is the only sane reaction to such a dark and momentous conversation. And it is a genuinely new feeling, to be grateful to his parents for their preposterous taste in names.
And then Bond kisses him.
Right in the middle of the giggles and the relief and the vulnerability of truth, Bond’s lips tear a hole in the fabric of the Universe, and Heaven pours through. Because this is different to any kiss they’ve shared so far. This is not the raw desire of last night, the slow burn of physical need, the savouring of pleasure and exploration. This has meaning.
This is love.
And they are breathless, and Q rests his forehead against the cool, naked skin of Bond’s shoulder with its pox of cruel scars, and blinks away the tears.
‘I don’t know how long we’ll have,’ Bond tells him softly. ‘I’ll give you everything I can. If you’ll just be here when I get back.’
‘Home,’ Q corrects, looking once more into those pale sapphire eyes. ‘When you come home.’
Now it is Bond’s turn to blink away the tears.
‘You are home,’ he whispers.