“Absolutely not,” Q said. “I’m appalled anyone’s suggested it.”
“No one has,” Moneypenny said calmly.
“You’ve gone mad with power. Fine, I’m appalled anyone’s ordered it, and I would like to register my objections with some reasonable authority, which is obviously not you.”
“Right. As soon as anyone reasonable agrees to work here, I’ll let you know.”
Q felt that that was really the best he could hope for, which may, he realized in some abstract sense, have gone no little way towards proving her point about the logical capabilities of anyone in MI6. He gave up on tinkering with the mechanical spider device he’d been trying to make both less terrifying and capable of navigating air vents and decided that, legitimate channels of complaint having failed him, the least he could do was whinge, and the least she could do was listen. He said, “It isn’t that I don’t trust him, understand. In the event that my conference is attacked by something that needs to be shot, pummeled, or otherwise menaced, I have every confidence that he would shoot, pummel—you see the essentials of it.”
“I do,” Moneypenny said. “And I bet if you look at my expression very carefully, you’ll be able to deduce how much I care about your situation.”
“Mad with power,” Q said again. “My point is that I can’t imagine anything more disastrous than three days at a conference with Bond following me around.”
Moneypenny raised her eyebrows.
From behind Q, Bond said, “That shows something of a failure of imagination.”
“Hello,” Q said without turning around. “Thank you for proving my point.” Though it wasn’t really Bond’s catlike ability to appear from nowhere that unnerved him—that would have been simpler, and for more easily dealt with. The problem lay in how Q was so horribly aware of him when he did appear. Also how generally annoyed Q was at him.
What he’d told Moneypenny was entirely the truth. He couldn’t imagine anything more disastrous than this.
He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and settled for glaring at Bond, the source of all his problems, who only gave him that small non-smile back and said, “Well, I’m here to assist you, Q. Proving your point’s a start.”
“You made him my bodyguard,” Q said to Moneypenny. Did she think his life was a Mills & Boon novel?
She raised her eyebrows back. “Mad with power, remember? Go demonstrate whatever’s been declassified, and remind the world that we used to be an Empire. That’s a good boy.”
“I’m only two years younger than she is,” Q said as she made a heel-clicking exit. He shoved a notebook and a handful of pencils into the last bag and buckled it.
“You’re two years younger than everyone,” Bond said, and then he did something strangely appealing with his mouth, almost a flex of indecision, and then said, “Everyone here, at least,” as if it were important to clarify that Q wasn’t in fact two years younger than everyone in the entire world. Again, as Moneypenny had said, it was the typically reasonable kind of conversation one could imagine occurring in the storied halls of the British Secret Service.
“Grand. Glad we had the chance for this talk.” He frowned. “Does you playing bodyguard mean you I can pawn off the baggage carrying on you?”
Bond shrugged and scooped it up off the floor.
“I was only joking,” Q said.
“It’ll make you look more important if someone else does it,” Bond said.
“Perhaps, but you’re not my valet.”
Bond didn’t relinquish the handle. He said, without looking Q’s way, “I did this for M, once.” Q didn’t have to ask to know that he didn’t mean Mallory.
They made their way through the halls, and Q didn’t say anything until they were well past any crowds: the walls in headquarters had ears. Q had put most of them in himself. He had threaded microfilaments as thin as cobwebs through the cracks and crevices and mortar-lines of the decrepit walls and, on one memorable occasion, even experimented a little with giving the rats tiny transmitter-collars. He hadn’t thought, at the time, that he would have any secrets that needed keeping, let alone anyone whose secrets he would want to keep for them. When they came out onto the street, he said, “I imagine she enjoyed that.”
When it came to the two of them, Bond and his M, Q didn’t know what to say. It would be ludicrous, undeserving, for him to say something as cheap as “I suppose you miss her very much,” even though that was what kept occurring to him.
“Then,” he said, as lightly as he could manage, “I’ll have to put you in charge of all my things, won’t I? To help you deal with your loss.”
Bond almost smiled. “How benevolent of you.”
“Yes, well, while the hierarchy of this situation may be extremely unclear, I’m intrigued by your claim that it’s your job to make me look more important.”
“It actually is, you know,” Bond said. “That, and M’s under the mistaken impression that I need downtime every now and then.”
“I think he got that impression because you swanned off—sorry for the pun—and didn’t come back for three months.” He undershot on purpose. Ninety-seven days, he could have said. “He’s got the idea if you take a holiday now and then, you won’t pretend to retire or die so often.”
“You’re a shining star in their constellation and they want to show you off,” Bond said, ignoring him, which did not, Q felt, represent the treatment a shining star should have. “Nothing will lend you more credibility than me being at your beck and call.”
“You’re aware that generally at conferences, you’re supposed to impress with your work alone?”
“No one’s worried about whether or not your work will impress,” Bond said, as though it were the most foregone of foregone conclusions that Q would outshine everyone else’s. As though he would know. “And supposed to is a long way from how the world works.”
“Then you can always murder anyone with a better presentation.”
“As long as you’re helping me get away with it,” Bond said, and he loaded Q’s bag neatly into the boot next to his own. One brushed up against the other, which was a bit overly friendly of it, all things considered.
Yes, Q thought. “No.”
He pleaded work once they were in the car and Bond thankfully didn’t press him on it. Even with a three day work holiday of sorts in front of him, Q did have a hard time abandoning his projects to other hands. He was trying to work out an improvement to the palm-print gun. The wrong touch and—some sort of comic book sound effect would do nicely.
“Is that for me?”
“Watch the road, please, and when it’s finished, yes.”
“What does it do?”
“Kills people more efficiently than before, and dislikes everyone who isn’t you.”
“Or you,” Bond said.
“I’m not going to be trying to fire it,” Q said. “It doesn’t have AI. It only knows who’s pulling the trigger, which I won’t be doing.”
“It doesn’t think for itself.”
“The day you make one that does is the day I’m out of a job,” Bond said, and there were about a hundred things Q could have said in response to that, but Bond turned all his attention back to the glossy, rain-slick road ahead of him and the flicker of the wiper-blades, and something about the concrete set of his face told Q not to bother.
He settled for making a series of odd custom changes, well beyond the normal parameters, and ended an hour later by penning 007 into the imagined of the gun. JB might be more information than Bond wanted written there.
“What’s your middle name?”
Bond signaled for a lane change. “Don’t you know?”
He did, actually, but godlike technical powers and information access was no reason for rudeness. “I prefer to ask.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“But you asked,” Bond said. “Sometimes when you ask questions, people lie to you.”
“You,” Q said, “are exceptionally difficult, and I’m going to take a nap.” He peeled off his jacket and decided that there was no real chance of it growing any more rumpled from being pressed into service as a pillow. He wadded it up, pressed it between the window and his seat, turned, wriggled, and tried to get comfortable. He was almost asleep when he realized that Bond had clicked on the seat-warmer for him. This is not good, he thought as the warmth and the sound of the rain carried him off. This is decidedly not a promising start.
When he woke an hour later, a crick in his neck, Bond looked exactly the same: eyes ahead, attention clear, back straight. And he didn’t even have the radio on. Q forced himself up, turning his head from side to side, and said, “How exactly do you do that?”
Bond gave him a sideways glance. “You can’t mean drive.”
“That would be correct, 007.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I know how to drive. I just don’t know how you drive without music or conversation or, I don’t know, interesting things to look at.”
“The views aren’t so dull.”
Q looked out the window. “Rain, more rain, a shrubbery, a sheep.”
Bond shrugged. “There are compensations. Anyway.” He shifted his hands over the steering wheel. “You’re forgetting that I have to be able to do all right without conversation.”
Q thought of endless cities, neon and gray, cities that throbbed with music or wailed with voices or were else quiet as the smoke rose; Bond had walked through all of them at one point or another, and most of them he’d walked through alone. He supposed there hadn’t been postcards to send back, either, or many memories he’d want to keep. Q had always traveled alone as well, but it had felt voluntary, going to hostels with nothing but a change of clothes stuffed in a pack, washing them out in the sink every night. Solitude was one thing, though, and loneliness another, and to want someone to talk to and to grow out of the habit of wanting it, well, that would be a totally shit change.
Do you miss her?
“I talk to you,” he said, because he did, or at least he used to. One night with Bond in Venice, Q had rented The Room and summarized it into Bond’s earpiece until he said, “You are TEARING ME APART, 007,” and Bond had nearly swallowed the olive in his martini and Q had gotten disconnected for the rest of the night. It had been almost like a date. “I don’t know what you consider conversation. Should I ask you about your day?”
“You are tearing me apart, Q,” Bond said, which would have been cleverer if he hadn’t sounded, just a little, as though he meant it.
“I’ve seen nicer,” Bond said, glancing around the lobby. He was still carrying Q’s bags.
Well, all right, Q hadn’t fought against it that hard. It did lend him a certain aura of importance to have a very official looking person holding his luggage.
“You haven’t seen nicer at a technological conference that doesn’t involve the latest iPad iteration. There are real plants on those tables, which I’m fairly sure are made of real wood. We can’t all have careers that lead us into lushly appointed dens of opulence and, I don’t know, mahogany.”
He wound his way through the crowd mostly by raising his eyebrows and then glancing back at Bond, implying that he was obviously more important than they were by dint of having, by all appearances, a sexy valet, and reached the desk feeling unexpectedly in favor of the class system.
“Quentin Markby and James Bond.”
“Is that really your name?” Bond asked in a low tone as their attendant apologized for having to take a phone call.
“The Quentin is, the Markby isn’t. But the credentials for Markby are better than the credentials for Stanhope, Fletcher, or Gadalline, though still not as impressive as my actual credentials.”
“A-levels while you were still in your nappies, no doubt.”
“Poked and prodded with needles, since you mention it. There’s nothing people like better than taking something apart to see how it works. No worries,” he said, smiling at the desk attendant as she finished her call and began checking them in. “We’re not in any kind of hurry. The sooner you do it, the sooner I have to go talk to extremely boring people.”
She laughed. “Unfortunately, nothing about this takes very long.”
“Your extremely boring people await, Mr. Markby.” She handed him his key. “Mr. Bond. Enjoy the conference.”
“An everlasting series of delights.”
As soon as they were in the lift, Bond said, “You do know she fancied you.”
“She was being polite. She’s a professional, she felt bad about needing to take the call, she was trying to make it up to us.”
“She was trying to make it up to you.”
“You’re being irritating. You know I’m not interested.”
“Disinterest is no excuse for inattention,” Bond said. He leaned a little closer. “You have this habit of missing things.”
Q leaned close back, not to be outdone. It was as though they were playing “anything you can do, I can do better,” and what they were both doing was trying to cut the heart out of him. “Perhaps you could run off with her,” he murmured. “I’ll even loan you the car. If we’re speaking of habits.”
“One time doesn’t make a habit.”
“Well, that very much depends on your definition of ‘one.’”
The lift doors slid open with a slight apologetic hiss, as if embarrassed to intrude. Bond peeled off into the corridor immediately and checked down each side before gesturing Q out. It was the sort of thing that always disarmed him. It was hard to maintain pettiness whenever Bond automatically risked life and limb for him.
“Academic conferences are hotbeds of sexual tension and career anxiety, not danger,” Q said. “For what it’s worth. And I don’t really want you throwing yourself in front of my sexual tension, either. I have a long-standing arrangement.”
“More habits,” Bond said, not really looking at him.
They found Q’s door. “Well,” Q said, “go on and find yours, and I’ll meet you—”
“The rooms connect,” Bond said.
Of course they do, Q thought, because it was that kind of day.
He slid his own key card into the lock. “Mine first, then. And I’ll be sure to tip you for carrying the bags all the way up here.”
“I’d expect nothing less. That’s another mark against this hotel, by the way, not offering you someone to do that.”
“I had someone to do that,” Q said as they stepped into the room and he held the door back a little so Bond could maneuver around him with the luggage. “Did you want them to offer me a second?”
Bond set Q’s bags down on the floor and looked about the room with what Q would have sworn was a faintly curled lip of disdain, even though it was—by Q’s standards, anyway—a perfectly nice room. Bed, curtains, television, bath. Nothing too noticeably stained with the terrors of visitors past.
He cleared his throat as Bond picked up the phone and glared at a crack in the handset. “You have a very strange snobbery related to hotel rooms.”
“You should see where they put me when I’m elsewhere.”
“I have seen where they put you, and I agree, it’s nicer, but you’re usually posing as someone with an immense amount of money. I’ve also seen where they put you when you’re not, and thanks, but I’d rather a constant string of second-rate motels than getting whiplash going from five-stars to holes in the ground where the proprietor will press you a copy of any room key for a pound and there are bullet holes in the walls.”
Bond smirked. “Moneypenny said you complained about that.”
“I put too much valuable equipment on you for you to walk it into hellholes.”
“And you convinced M of that?”
“No, he told me to bugger off and stop watching your surveillance all the time.”
Bond opened the connecting door to his own and went through with his bag, but, back turned, kept talking all the same. “Do you still do that?”
Of course I still do that, Q thought crossly. The one good thing about Bond’s time away was Q had finally had a chance to clear off his DVR. Somehow it hadn’t seemed like much consolation at the time.
Nevertheless, there was a limit to how much he could snipe at Bond before he gave too much of himself away.
So he said, “You need the attention so you won’t act out all the time. The one time I wasn’t watching, you ran a truck through a Pottery Barn, and the Americans were very unhappy.”
“If I ran a truck through the hotel,” Bond said, looking around as if he were actually considering it, “we could find nicer rooms.”
So somehow they were on the other side of the How Much Did You Mind That I Flirted With You and Then Left with Someone Else conversation, and Q supposed he should have been glad of it. He’d had ninety-seven days to grow out of this ridiculous infatuation. Past a certain point, it was just pathetic for him to still be sulking around about missed opportunities. He had had a window and it had closed—mostly because Bond had slammed it shut on his fingers—and the time had come for him to let it go so they could both be adults about it all.
Instead of letting it go, Q said, “I’m going to shower before we go downstairs,” and he closed his door a little harder than he needed to.
Bond had showered, too: he had the careful non-scent of hotel soap, a cultivated cleanness that went beyond petty fussing-about with lavender or oatmeal, and a fresh overlay of cologne and aftershave. Q disliked noticing these things even more than usual. He wasn’t in the mood for it.
Bond said, “New jumper?” with his voice martini-dry, and Q considered whether or not it would be worth his time to try to punch him in the face.
Most likely not. “Don’t be such a prick.” The lift was taking an unforgivably long time about its arrival. “I’m not going to introduce you to anyone, you know.”
If he’d intended that to be cutting, disdainful, a proper reminder of the hierarchy in which he was the one to be looked at and listened to while Bond was the one to fade into the background, he missed the mark.
Bond said, “Why would I want to be introduced to anyone?” and, well, when he put it that way, Q had to admit that it was a little difficult to think of an answer. Certainly he couldn’t imagine Bond trading pleasantries with any of the conference attendees besides himself.
His sort of people were not Bond’s sort of people, even though it sometimes seemed that he was Bond’s sort of person, though not the sort of person Bond stole cars for. (Stole cars from, yes. Was he letting it go? He surveyed himself: no, no current signs of letting it go.)
“Fair point,” Q said grudgingly.
“You want the humanities for that. The sciences prefer to be clearheaded, at least until the sun goes down.”
“Pity,” Bond said as the lift finally arrived. “You’d make an especially charming drunk.”
For someone who wasn’t interested in flirting with him, Bond was very interested in flirting with him. Perhaps he did it automatically. Q flattened the lobby button under his palm and said, “You’d have a hard time knowing.”
“Good head for it?”
“A disproportionate amount of Q branch disputes are settled by drinking competitions. Your tax dollars at work, 007.”
“Then,” Bond said, “you’d make an especially charming victor.”
It was automatic, then, Bond’s habit of flirtation. He reached out unconsciously towards anyone who might respond, one of those plants that unfurled itself toward whatever light there was. Bond didn’t want to actually do anything about it, or at least not anything long-term. He wanted attention and favoritism.
If Bond had meant nothing to him, Q could have given that to him, reflected Bond’s own empty dazzle back at him to satisfy whatever need was there. But he wasn’t inclined to play when they couldn’t agree on the stakes.
He said, “Try not to get into any trouble,” and he left Bond behind right by the lift doors.
He did have projects to present, after all: it wasn’t as though MI6 had funded his appearance at the conference only to have him in uncomfortably close quarters with James Bond so they could play at using each other—I’ll flirt with you if you love me back, I’ll love you if you throw me crumbs from your fucking table—and so he made the rounds. It was all unorganized for the moment, pre-pre-conference, as it were, with everyone eating cubes of cheese and chattering about their work so they’d know whose presentations to attend later and whose to skip. Everyone, he was sure, would be attending his: it was one of the many reasons he liked being Quentin Markby. Markby was the only one of his professional aliases to have made the circuit often enough to have a reputation.
“Though,” Priya said, “someone is always telling me that they’ve tried to find you and you’re never wherever it is you were supposed to be.”
“Perhaps if I knew who was looking.”
“Ah, the reclusive genius. Though not quite so much today?” She tipped her glass in the direction of Bond, who had been keeping a polite distance from Q for the last hour while still obviously following him, or, as Q had formulated it to himself: being considerate while still being immensely disturbing to anyone who paid attention. “Boyfriend?”
“If he’s looking for work,” Priya said, “I would be happy to hire him.”
“You left off the punchline. You’re supposed to say that you’d be happy to let him guard your body.”
“Puns are dreadful,” Priya said, the very spectacle of disinterest. “Do give him my number, though. Now, have I told you about my submarine design?”
“Submarine? Show me. I’ve been toying with planes—”
He was deep into Priya’s schematics—nothing like conference friendships, however casual, to yield benefits like early reveals, and nothing like academics for wanting to show off—when a hand landed lightly on the back of his neck. “Nice to see you again, Quentin,” Lionel the Long-Standing Arrangement said. “Or at least the back of you.”
Q straightened. “Lionel. Priya’s designing a sub.”
And the really excellent thing about the kind of person one met at conferences was that Lionel was immediately distracted from him by the prospect of submarines. “Oh, let us have a look.” It was an hour before he said, “Is there someone following you?”
“He’s not following me if I’m not moving,” Q said without glancing up. “So at the moment, he’s technically only watching me from a distance.”
“Well, it’s bothersome. It’s like one of the nature shows where the cheetah stalks the gazelle.”
Q looked sideways at him. “I don’t remember you mistaking me for the gazelle type.” Something about Bond’s eyes on him—being the focal point of that attention—made him lean closer to Lionel and brush his fingertips across Lionel’s wrist. Lionel smiled.
“Not the gazelle type at all,” he said.
“Submarine,” Priya said, rolling her eyes.
“Too right,” Lionel said. “Time for the rest later,” but even as he ducked his head down again, Q could tell exactly where his mind was. Even the way he regarded the schematics was an insinuation, down to how he glided a touch along the outer white edges of the sub’s walls. There was no reason, Q thought, why he couldn’t have a good time, exactly as if Bond weren’t there. He’d enjoyed all his previous conferences. There wouldn’t have to be anything different about this one at all.
The next morning, Q discovered Bond in the hotel lobby eating a continental breakfast croissant with visible patrician distaste.
“Hello,” Q said. He slid in across the table from Bond and tore off an end of the croissant. “You might have waited.”
“You had company,” Bond said. “I’m surprised you’re not having breakfast in bed.”
“Oh, grow up, 007. You’re not the only one allowed to have a sex life.” On a list of things you’re allowed to be angry with me over, that particular item is conspicuously absent. “In any case, it wasn’t a proper sleepover, he was gone by two or so.”
Bond had a certain look about that that Q couldn’t resist asking over, whereupon Bond allowed as to the opinion that leaving in the middle of the night wasn’t proper.
Q longed for a cup of tea so he could do a proper spit-take over it. “I once watched surveillance of you seducing a woman in the coat-room at her father’s wake all so you could find out if she had a specific tattoo on her hip.”
“There’s a distinction between an assignment and a private life.”
“And in private life, you—”
Bond ripped off another piece of croissant and offered it to him. “I never said I did things right.”
“Thank you. It’s also two men, which affects things.”
“Not with basic courtesy.”
Q studied him. The croissant, for whatever it was worth, was reasonably buttery and did not deserve the scorn Bond had been heaping upon it. He decided to make a try for Bond’s tea and succeeded—no sweeter victory on occasion than being allowed to win—and, sipping it, found Bond had added more milk and sugar than he would have guessed. The lip of the cup was still warm.
“I suppose I’ll concede that from what I’ve seen of it, you treat your men on missions the same as you treat your women. Notwithstanding that you kill more of them.”
“An occupational hazard.”
“Does that bother you?”
“The sex.” He already knew the answer about the killing: it was both yes and no, and both answers bothered Bond enough that it was too much for a chat over breakfast.
Bond smirked. “Does it bother you?”
“It bothers me that you breathe the same way every time.” Q imitated it: it had a kind of heaving muscularity to it, more appropriate for a weight room instead of a bed. “It’s a bit tired.”
“I’ll have to change it up for you.” It was only half-flirtation—Q was more interested in the half of it that was serious, almost contemplative. He lifted his eyebrows. Bond accepted the unspoken query. “I said there was a difference between assignments and elsewhere. The way you think about things, whether you’re using yourself as a key to unlock a door or decrypt something, or a gift to ingratiate, or a set of handcuffs. To seal a loyalty, to prove a point, to disarm, to calm—them or you. It’s sometimes intense. But it’s not spontaneous. It doesn’t take you away from yourself—it can’t. You can’t afford for it to.”
Q wasn’t convinced that this was less intimate than whatever conversation they might have had about death. There was the faint background noise of people gathering up napkins, pouring glasses of orange juice, popping their bagels out of the toaster. And Bond looked simultaneously so ancient and so innocent that he made Q’s skin hurt.
“People use it like that not on assignments, too,” he said at last. “I understand what you mean.” What had he done not twelve hours ago with Lionel, a man he didn’t even especially like, except calm himself and prove a point to Bond? He no longer liked the taste of victory. That may have only been because he wanted more croissant.
“Did you have that with her?”
(He hadn’t meant to ask that. He had not meant to ever ask about her.)
“At first,” Bond said. He didn’t say it to be cruel, but he said it as if he knew it would hurt and was sorry for it: that seemed as kind as he was capable of being. “Then it became a way to prove I was still with her, another way of lying. She didn’t believe me.”
“Smart enough to leave.”
Q fidgeted with the edge of a napkin. “I’d assumed you left.”
“Only part of me left first.”
Oh you fucking romantic, Q thought, and that was when he became uncomfortably, unfortunately aware that he was involved here beyond his ability to extricate himself.
“But part of her left first, too,” Bond said. “You have to think about it from her point of view.”
No, I don’t.
“I put her in danger and snatched her away from it, I was the story of her past that she could give a better ending to. I pulled her into fights she should have been left out of and she could have been the last person in this world I knew by sight.”
And James Bond was James Bond. “So of course she fell in love with you.”
“Like a rush of chemicals.”
“It’s all a rush of chemicals.”
Bond shook his head. “No.”
Q looked at him and conceded it: “No.”
“Mr. White said I was a kite dancing on the edge of a hurricane. That’s what we were, together. Then—it’s mundane. We didn’t really know each other. I saw it in her eyes—she started thinking that she had made a mistake, but she wouldn’t say so, not when I had left for her, not when I’d been tortured in front of her, not when—to be frank—the sex was still good. And then it was all I could do to keep the last part right, because she was what I had to hang on to, to prove I could get the blood off my hands. It didn’t work out, unsurprisingly. I shouldn’t have made you watch me leave, but I wasn’t thinking—it had all the rush of a good free-fall. It felt like my last chance to be someone else.”
Q put his hand very carefully, and very briefly, across the back of Bond’s, and then got up and made them both some more tea, Bond’s milky and sweet the way he seemed to like it, and returned with it.
“Do you know,” Q said, “that I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk that much?”
“I wanted you to understand.”
There were a dozen things Q could have said, a mix of lies and the truth. You don’t owe me an explanation. I already understood what you were like. I have blood on my hands, too, but you didn’t kill Blofeld and I shut down Nine Eyes, and that counts for something because it must. It’s nice you finally confirmed we had been on the edge of something. You don’t need to be someone else. This is also free-fall. Did you have to make a point of mentioning the sex was good?
Instead, he said, in a low voice, “Thank you,” and they carried on with breakfast. Gradually, they began to talk of other things. Ships and sealing wax, cabbages and kings.
Q’s presentation was at ten sharp. Bond hummed around the designated conference room beforehand like a particularly alert shark and turned out to be as surprisingly prissy about arrangements there as he had been in the hotel room. Very fussy with the tablecloth. Q supposed he could have deduced some degree of fastidiousness from the way Bond dressed, but it was still rather fascinating to see it all in operation. What was pure sex when it was a perfectly fastened French cuff turned out to be pure ridiculousness when it was whether or not the rows of chairs looked even.
“Thank you,” Q said. “You were right, that one on the end was a bit too forward. Really throwing off the whole row.”
“It’s rich of you to pretend you’re above all this when if someone moves a pencil in your lab, you threaten to sack them.”
“I didn’t threaten to sack him.”
“That’s true. You threatened to take his leave paperwork and shove it down his throat.”
“You were missing the subtext,” Q said. “It was concealed fire-starter. Not exactly the kind of thing you want mixed up with general supplies.” He looked suspiciously at one of the pencils he had reserved for his note-taking. “Speaking of—”
“You never give me fire-starter pencils.”
“You’re never doing anything that requires them, we save them for the more nebbish-looking double-ohs, the ones who look like they work for Inland Revenue.”
Just as the doors opened for people to start to flood in en masse, Bond leaned over to Q and said, “Don’t have company tonight,” and the look on his face was one of barely-checked need. Something more like longing than lust. Q flushed—felt himself do it to his deep chagrin—and Bond, having gotten his answer, settled himself back against the wall, the perfect featureless bodyguard once more.
Not out of the realm of possibility that Bond had done it on purpose—flustered him directly before he was due to speak.
Not out of the realm of possibility that he had meant it.
What was Q supposed to talk about again, exactly? Ah, yes. The recently-declassified and thus no-longer-useful-for-espionage software that allowed for surveillance data from multiple field contacts to be compressed and viewed simultaneously, complete with psychological studies on how one person could best monitor all the streams, also known as, “After Seven Hours or So Your Eyes Stop Hurting and the Headache Goes Away.”
He was one of the more in-demand presenters, but even so, his audience’s attention ebbed and flowed—he lost one half the deeper he went into the software design and the other half the deeper he went into the important work of preventing people from going mad. Such was the price of well-roundedness, he supposed. Once upon a time, he would have been one of the ones who drifted off a bit when it got down to human cost. Bond had sheared that arrogance off him like wool from a sheep. Everything came down to bodies and minds. Whatever Q did, with all his cleverness, was only real insofar as it worked for the people using it. If Bond didn’t bring back the equipment, it meant the equipment had safely brought back Bond, which was good enough.
If he told Bond that, though, Bond would start chucking half the things Q gave him in rivers and give up on carefulness altogether. As was, Q had bumped him up to returning tech about 30% of the time, which was no mean feat and ought to have been a presentation of its own.
He wrapped things up within ten minutes of his deadline.
“Who’s the guy behind you?” someone called out.
“We’re to raise our hands and announce our names in an orderly fashion,” Q said imperiously, or perhaps just pettily, “and that’s Mr. Bond. He’s going to shoot me if I say anything that hasn’t been declassified. Wave to him so he’ll see that your hands are free of weapons.”
Everyone obediently waved to Bond, who looked them over coolly and nodded, evidently unimpressed. Probably he wanted to readjust their collars.
A forty-ish woman with an amiable face and disheveled hair stood up, introduced herself, and asked about screen size and the highlighting process Q used, which Q was happy to answer. Then it was a man with an absurdly green tie who wanted to ask about whether or not Q had done any more overlapping work with resource management. Then Priya, with a funny little wave, inquiring after technical details of the way the motion-sensitive highlighting responded to the motions of the surveillance points themselves, which took about twenty minutes of agreeably heated back-and-forth before Q promised he’d grab her for a drink after and break it all down and let her teach him a better way to do it, since she was obviously thinking of one.
A few people stood up to passive-aggressively explain that they had already thought of something else like this—the examples they gave sounded very dissimilar to anything in Q’s presentation—and they wanted to talk about how their version worked They tilted their voices up at the end of their speeches in the hopes of Q being fooled into thinking they had asked actual questions. He wasn’t. (Though he was amused by how much he could sense Bond’s dislike of them.)
Then it was Lionel the Long-Standing Arrangement, looking especially louche and sex-haired. It occurred to Q in a sudden and unwelcome suspicion that Lionel looked rather like him, only tanner, and he might have to think about what that said about him at some point.
(Though he and Bond looked nothing alike.)
“Yes, Lionel,” Q said, a little unfairly testy about it all because of Bond right behind him undoubtedly glaring daggers, and there was a flood of audible tittering, because academics and researchers alike could all sniff out a good awkward sex tiff in under a minute.
“Just a couple of questions.”
“We’re going to run over,” Q said, checking his watch.
“It’ll be worth it,” Lionel promised. He had the same gleam in his eyes as he had the night before. The here we are again gleam.
“For all those of you who think it may not be worth it,” Q said drily, “file to the exit at a time of your choosing.”
“Your name isn’t Quentin Markby, correct?” Lionel said.
Some little bit of air went out of the room.
“No,” Q said, “as most sensible people have put together by now, it isn’t, because I engage in shadowy governmental things and they don’t let me publish properly. If you’re hoping to be provocative—”
“But your name is Quentin Pencey, isn’t it?”
Q stood very still—absurdly, he knew—as though hoping not to be seen by a dinosaur. The room was a multicolored blur. He actually gathered up the skin at his wrist and pinched it hard between his fingernails in the hopes of waking up, but it was a no go. He looked back at Bond, who was much closer to him now than he had been before. And wasn’t that a metaphor, he thought numbly.
“Get people out,” he said, and Bond moved past his shoulder.
Lionel raised his hand, as if to remind them he still had the floor. He had a small presentation clicker. One push, and Q’s presentation was flooded off the AV screens and replaced with a series of all-too-recognizable images. First, his hiring documents, complete with a photo him at twenty-one that he was evidently still capable of being embarrassed by, complete with his name and address.
Bond was shoving people through the door like a belligerent sheepdog, doing it all with his face turned halfway back towards Lionel and Q, towards the screens, never dropping vigilance, and Q realized he had forgiven Bond everything.
Click: Q and Lionel in bed the night before. A tangle of limbs Q wanted to believe was indecipherable when really, he knew, it was only too plain who was doing what to whom, and how both of them felt about it, including Lionel’s silly little smirk, aimed directly at the camera.
Click: Q and M in C’s tower, a veritable scramble of initials. The night was spread out around them like a curtain of black silk.
Click: Q in Austria, on the cable-car, his face a papier-mâché mask of barely restrained panic, the first of a handful of shots—click, click, click, click—that capture him up and running, a ludicrous bobbing parka silhouetted against the snow, before, thank God, he disappeared.
Click: Q sitting on the stone floor of the garage recently vacated by Bond’s restored Aston-Martin, leaning against the wall, drinking the champagne Bond had given him straight out of the bottle, which he held by the throat as though longing to choke the life out of it. A picture of lovesickness. Was that supposed to prove something to him? He already knew he was in love. Bond most likely knew it, too.
If that was supposed to humiliate him, well, Bond fell in love with people over the course of train rides and card games, and in some circumstances might have managed to make both of those relationships last; he wouldn’t judge Q for the awkward gush of sentiment where there had never even been a kiss. He had enough of that in his own past.
Q was aware that it was the wrong time to be thinking about things. He had never found the right one.
It was a reasonable distraction from Lionel pressing the button again.
That last click restored Q’s presentation on the slide that had shown the screen split into four strains of blurry, anonymized surveillance, only this time, the squares were clear. The agent’s faces were still turned away—a small mercy—and unrecognizable. It was pure flaunting.
So was Lionel’s gun, which was big enough to qualify as compensatory.
Everyone was out of the room but him, Lionel, and Bond.
“You know,” Q said, “this is exactly how you are in bed. Enthusiastic, but absent any particle of imagination.”
Bond had his weapon drawn, but Q knew him: he would not risk the shot, not with Lionel already aiming squarely at Q.
“You work for SPECTRE,” Bond said.
Lionel rolled his eyes. “I worked for Denbigh. We were going to change the world.” He had the bright eyes of a fanatic. Q had seen this all before—had seen it the night Denbigh had died—and felt simultaneously weary of it and a little tender.
“Everyone wants to change the world,” he said. “Everyone in our position. All the power we have—all the power I have, because, no offense, I’m sure you come cheap in comparison—it’s easier to stomp than to glide, easier to do evil than good. C said that democracy was outmoded, that the eyes were easier, that the solution was giving him more and more power, more and more eyes, all the eyes there were.” He pointed to the screen. “Four eyes, not nine. Even I’m not that arrogant.”
He thought of Moneypenny. “Mad with power,” he added, and laughed a little. “I’d go mad with power. Anyone would. Which is why I have someone to answer to. Why Bond does. Why the one we answer to does, and his get elected. Even the Queen feels the frailty of it all. But you go on, Lionel. Tell me how I ruined the world you planned for the night I tore through that precious system of yours like a wet paper bag.”
“You’re high and mighty for someone who sends him out into the world,” Lionel said, jerking his head at Bond. “Do you think he doesn’t do damage?”
“I will,” Bond said softly.
“Of course he does damage. But so does looking. Everything’s violence sometimes, everything’s a bruise. You weigh the numbers. You keep people safe. I keep him safe. If you have a better way of doing it, let me know, Lionel, because you haven’t proven yourself yet. But your abstracts were always sloppy. I’ve never peer-reviewed a single thing of yours I could get through without groaning. Your thesis is muddy and self-interested and you don’t know how to give a proper blowjob.”
That seemed to be everything he could think of to say, though he had gotten off the high-minded point a bit at the end. It was everything he could think of in defense of himself. Not everything he could have said to stop Lionel from killing him—perhaps he should have tried harder for that, and not insulted him so much—but everything he could think to say to Bond in consolation for it all. He wanted to say that on balance he thought the world was better off with Bond in it. That there was dirt on them and even in them but there was conscience too. That if Bond wanted to leave again, he should, but not because of Q’s opinion of him.
They were adequate last thoughts.
He said to Bond, looking at him over Lionel’s shoulder, “If he’s Denbigh’s little swot, this has nothing to do with you. I would leave, if I were you.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Bond said. “I saw the pictures. You, in Austria. You never told me anything happened to you.”
Don’t have company tonight, Bond had said. And of course Bond had had company in Austria.
Q shrugged. “We haven’t had the best possible timing.”
“He can’t leave,” Lionel said, “and he won’t. He hasn’t taken his eyes off you once. I could have done it last night if I’d wanted you alone, but I want him to see what happens to you. I want MI6 to know the cost of what they’ve done.”
There was a sheen of sweat across Lionel’s forehead. Q wondered when Denbigh and SPECTRE had gotten to him, and if that mattered. He supposed it didn’t. But it was hard to separate himself from an abrupt and graceless kiss exchanged at a bar seven years ago, from drunken bickering over whose turn it was to pick up a check, from the guilt he still had over using Lionel’s cock to hammer in a point to Bond. None of them could escape blameless.
“Thank you for letting everyone else leave,” Q said. “Not to compliment you on your methods, but we do try to avoid collateral damage ourselves, and so I appreciate it. You’ll die too, you realize that. If you kill me, he’ll kill you. Immediately, if not slower.”
Lionel nodded. His throat twitched slightly. “I’m prepared for that.”
“SPECTRE knew you would be,” Bond said. “When they contacted you. They must adore people like you. No need to pay you when you’ll spend yourself dry, life included, for their sake.”
He stepped a little closer to Lionel and Q shook his head, trying to get him to back off, but Bond wouldn’t.
“Someone once told me orphans make the best recruits, that MI6 prefers them, for all that love and loyalty held out for Queen and country. Your business—I think it’s different, because they don’t want your love. They want your anger. So it doesn’t really matter if you have parents or not, then. I wonder if that means you’ll win--a broader recruiting field. Then again, they use you and they throw you away, so the numbers might even out in the end.”
Lionel’s face was turned just slightly towards Bond. Q saw his window.
“Yes,” he said loudly, reaching behind him—Lionel took a stutter-step forward automatically, sweaty finger still against the trigger--“let’s work out the numbers.”
He grabbed the pencil.
His whole life, and Bond’s, riding on a lackey’s mistake and his split-second, immediately distracted curiosity about why the paint on that pencil had felt slightly pebbly. He scratched his thumbnail down the side in one long, clean stroke, and lobbed it at Lionel as lightly as he could manage.
For a moment there seemed the possibility that he had picked up the wrong one. It rolled at Lionel’s feet and he looked at it in bewilderment.
Then it lit up in a wheel of green flame and Lionel’s shoes and trousers were abruptly ablaze.
The sound and smell of it was awful—the sour, acrid gunpowder and chemical, the burnt fabric, the cooked flesh—and Lionel’s howls were even worse. He had forgotten the gun and Q had forgotten how to move even though he needed to. He had never directly hurt anyone before. He kept thinking of Lionel forgetting him in his eagerness to look at Priya’s sub design. He had ripped his thumbnail off and he was bleeding.
The sound of Bond taking the shot was the loudest thing in the world.
Q didn’t even get to sit down. Bond’s immediate priority was beating out the fire on Lionel’s body before it spread anywhere else and Q had to rally a combination of bursts of extinguisher foam and blows from the heavy tablecloth off his presentation table. When it was done and it no longer seemed imminently possible that they might die, he went and vomited in a corner of the room. Bond put a hand on Q’s back and then on Q’s elbow and then on Q’s cheek and Q leaned against him, their foreheads touching. He was probably breathing the smell of sick directly into Bond’s nose but Bond’s expression showed nothing of it. Which was all to the good, because Q was not convinced he could have moved anyhow.
He could hear distant sirens coming closer.
“So,” Bond said, “Quentin Pencey.”
“I’ll have to change flats.”
“Not currently,” Q said, and had to stifle a small, hysterical laugh.
Bond tapped his cheek. “Parents, siblings?”
“Parents are dead—cancer and heart attack. No brothers, no sisters. No one else in the firing line. –There was just as much of a chance as him pulling the trigger on his way down from fire as there was from a gunshot. I suppose that was risky.”
“Everything is. But fire is a distraction, and a surprise. He didn’t, and that’s what counts. It was clever. And a good thing your assistant made a mistake.”
“Do you know, I actually think I’m the one who packed it?”
“I’d just been told I was going to be spending three days in a hotel with you.”
“That would distract anyone,” Bond said. He put his thumb against Q’s lips. “I can’t really run away with you,” he said, sounding vaguely amused by it. “Danger follows you everywhere.”
“Evidently you follow me everywhere.”
“Yes,” Bond said. He sounded as if he were answering a question, something very important.
Q never got to see Priya’s presentation. She sent him flowers c/o the Quentin Markby address, though, and folded her sub schematics up in the vase like a card. Q put them in his lab and tried and failed to remember to water them. But he appreciated the gesture.
Most people were not as considerate. MI6 suppressed news announcements and chatter about Quentin Pencey, but Q could have told them that not even British Intelligence could dissuade academics from gossiping. The information was out and surfacing at odd intervals. M said that if he wanted to change his name, they could keep a firm hand on the paperwork and prevent it from leaking. Bond was in favor.
“You use your own name,” Q said, “which is a worse idea than me using mine.”
“They offered me a code-name when I started.”
“And you said no.”
“I didn’t have much left of them,” Bond said. Q had never heard him directly say “my parents.” He wondered if he ever would.
“That’s touching,” Q said, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say that Bond would accept.
Bond smiled. “But still a risk, in any case. I didn’t know then I was going to have anything I’d want to live for.”
“Since you put it that way,” Q said.
He took M up on his offer and selected a new surname that Bond insisted on not knowing. He seemed to attach a fair bit of romanticism to the idea. Or else he just liked guessing, because they would lie in bed and Bond would hum names against Q’s shoulders. He liked hyphenates.
SPECTRE seemed to judge that exacting retribution against Q would be financially imprudent, because none of their agents in the field picked up any chatter on it. The more Q thought about it, the more he thought Lionel had been on his own—an acolyte to an idea rather than a master. He had been an academic, after all.
Nevertheless, M and Bond both seemed to take it all rather personally, and SPECTRE’s constellations began to dim and go out star by shining star—the casualty, Q supposed, of taking on the notable rather than the invisible. Seventeen human trafficking routes were shut down. Bond said he was even starting to like his work. Q, more cynical, thought it would all just go somewhere else, but shut up saying it after he saw the pictures of women and children being led out of buildings. If everything was violence sometimes, it followed that there could be safety, too, and even goodness. Not that he could fathom cheapening it by saying so. But he liked the way Bond seemed less tired. And he liked the numbers: x many lives saved to y many lives lost. They seemed to be working out well.
Sometimes he dreamt of saying again to Lionel, “Let’s work out the numbers,” and then the pencil exploded in his hand into a cartwheel of blue-black multi-armed fire, and it all ended there. On those nights, the calculus he had agreed to was harder to remember.
But eventually it came back to him.
The shot Lionel had had of Q in the garage of his lab led to another close scan for the rest of C’s inter-office surveillance. Only four cameras they had missed from the first pass. Q decided to delete the footage unwatched. He was having difficulty trusting people, and Bond said distrust was an animal that grew stronger the more you fed it.
Q didn’t know if it was smart to take psychological advice from Bond, but did anyway, and felt good about it once the shakes cleared out of his hands.
Whenever the tremors came back, Bond—when Bond was in-country, of course—would pour him a drink.
“I hate self-medicating,” Q said, though he always took it. “It’s a bad habit you have, too.”
“Not so much now.”
“True. You’re compensating by pushing it all on me.” He drank, appreciative of Bond always giving him the top-drawer Scotch even though Q had no real taste for it. Over the rim of the glass, he was looking at Bond looking back at him. “Do you know, I think it’s less the drink that helps and more you.”
“Thank you,” Bond said, “Quentin Smith-Farrington.”
“I’ve already told you there’s no hyphen in it.”
“You could have been lying.”
“That’s true,” Q said. “I’ve lied to you before.”
“Oh?” Bond raised his eyebrows.
“I did originally say I was only going to live here while I looked for another flat. But the cats like it here. I think really I had better stay.”
Bond smiled. He closed the distance between them, took Q’s glass out of his hand, and put it down on the counter. It was a sort of preemptive meticulousness, Q knew, the sure prelude to rumpled bed-sheets and Bond’s gratifyingly unchoreographed breathing. He felt very warm. Sex and love in a domestic context were surprisingly comforting, like good toast. He would have to remember never to tell anyone he had thought that.