“Four weeks’ leave, Q? You’re entitled to it of course, but do you think it’s wise?”
“Yes, sir. Three years ago you asked me to prepare for my absence or loss. This is the final test of those preparations, short of my actual...loss.”
M leaned back. “You had flu last year.”
“Yes, sir, but I was still logged in to Six and worked from home when I could. This time, I will be incommunicado, disconnected, and unavailable. Virtually deceased.” Q smiled.
“You don’t need to sound so cheery about it, man. And the commander?”
M sighed. “Of course. And this would have nothing to do with two other leave requests I have received, one from Miss Gelberg and the other from 007?”
“Yes, sir, it does. We’re going to Australia for a holiday. A road trip.”
“Q, I need to ask this, so please don’t take offence. But are you out of your bloody mind?”
Q grinned. “Very likely, sir. But I believe it will do us all good, and no one is indispensable, are they, sir?”
“No. But I’m not looking forward to fielding the complaints from the Australians about the inevitable mayhem.”
“Holiday, sir. No mayhem planned.”
“That’s what they all say,” M muttered. “But, very well. Make sure your personal details and next of kin information is updated before you do. And Q, do stay out of trouble.”
Sorry I haven’t written before, but there’s hardly been any time. We’ve had such a wonderful holiday so far. The flight out was lovely.
“You want to spend how much to fly the two of you first class to Australia?”
James shrugged. “It’s his first long-haul trip, and if I can’t spoil my lover when I want to, what is the use of all this money anyway?”
“But it’s twenty eight thousand quid. Each!”
“Naomi, if a handsome man want to spend extravagant amounts of money on me, who am I to argue?”
“And I’ve always wanted to join the mile-high club,” James added.
Q stared. “I’d always assumed....”
“A first class suite on MI6’s budget? You of all people should know how unlikely that would be. I don’t enjoy fucking in airplane toilets.”
Jay had had to pat Naomi’s back to stop her choking to death with laughter. “However,” he said once she’d calmed down, “if James is doing this for Daniel, I can do no less for you.”
“Thanks but no thanks, darling. Business class is good enough for me. Just make sure we’re sitting next to each other.”
Q hacked the airline’s system and scored them an upgrade to first. It was the least he could do.
Q was surprised by the narrowness of the double bed. Even more surprised by how comfortable being with James made it, and that he slept without needing the pills he’d taken the precaution to have prescribed before they left. Sex was much better than valium.
“Dear mum. What I did on my holidays. I had sex on a jumbo.”
Q’s lover mumbled, “S’not a jumbo, Daniel. Airbus.”
“James, don't step on my joke.” Q nuzzled at James’s throat, sucking a small but significant patch of skin that made his lover shiver, and all jokes are forgotten.
Sydney was beautiful, and the Australians generally as friendly as their reputation. Attached is a picture of Daniel with a koala at Taronga. I’m afraid Jay and James refused to be photographed.
Q had allowed the photograph only because he had grown a beard, had removed his glasses for the shot, and had hidden most of his face behind the koala. James reluctantly held one, but handed it back complaining of the smell. Jay grasped it enthusiastically and managed a graceful handover when he was covered with eucalyptus-scented pee.
Naomi joked about it being practice for later on, and Jay grinned.
Q tried not to let his worry show.
Naomi first confronted the harsh reality of her boyfriend’s job two years ago, six months after they had starting going out together. Q hadn’t been 007’s wrangler on that mission, not at first. It should have been a milk run, barely worth a double-oh’s attention. Go to Pakistan, extract the asset, his wife and son, bring them back to Britain. The man was wanted not for what he knew, but for what he could build, and his importance was thought to be unrecognised by anyone but SIS.
They were wrong. 007 entered the supposedly safe compound where the family lived, only to find them dead or dying, their Russian murderers still finishing the job. 007 had been taken prisoner, tortured, and extracted after far too long when he managed to escape without assistance from anyone at Six because Q’s ‘smart blood’ system turned out to be a double-edged sword that allowed an agent to be tracked by anyone with the appropriate technology, and 007 had refused to allow it anywhere near him.
A refusal M had allowed because this 007 didn’t have “a death wish the size of Mt Everest”. (James said that was a slight exaggeration.) But that refusal came too damn close to losing them another double-oh.
James had spent some of the time waiting for the evacuation team to report with Q. When the report from Medical came in, he read it along with Q, grim-faced and silent. Burns (Q shuddered at the extent and cause), lacerations small and not so small, deep bruising including to the liver, broken fingers, worrying blood loss, dehydration, a dislocated shoulder, and removal of all toe nails.
“I have to tell Naomi.”
James put his hand on Q’s shoulder. “Let me. You take her after that. She won’t be allowed to see him for at least twenty-four hours.”
Q looked up at James. Once, he would have been the last person Q would have wanted near his beloved sister, let alone to break bad news to her. But things had changed. James had changed. “I could try to get her in sooner.”
“I doubt she’d be grateful if you succeeded.” A discreet kiss on the cheek, respecting their rule to avoid PDAs at work.
Q went back to work, preparing a blistering memo on exactly why the lack of an embedded tracker on their agents would lead to this kind of thing again. They had grown complacent. James’s work with the backup team for the double-ohs had cut personnel deaths to zero and injuries by half—ironic since he had been one of the most injured and at risk agents ever known at Six—and Jay had been preternaturally gifted at minimizing collateral damage and diplomatic fallout in his first year on the job. He had won a reputation for superhuman skill and excellent luck. This time, that luck had disastrously run out.
James brought Naomi down two hours later. Her eyes were red, her makeup wiped clean from crying, but she was calm enough when she came into Q’s office. “Can I see him?”
“He’s sedated. The worst of it is the blood loss and burns. They thought he might have a torn liver, but it turns out it’s only bruised.”
Naomi bit her lip. “What else did they do?” she whispered.
“We don’t know. He may not be able to tell you either.” James never talked about the tortures he’d endured, physical or psychological. Q already knew more about them than would let him sleep comfortably at night.
“Why couldn’t you save him sooner?” Her voice had risen, but the office was soundproofed.
“We couldn’t find him.”
“And double-ohs are considered...disposable,” James said. He stared at her, drawing her anger, her fear onto him quite deliberately. “This M is better than some, but official policy—”
“Sod official pol—”
“Is to sacrifice the agent after two weeks.” Q thought Naomi might slap James for saying that. “If they’re not found by then, they’re either dead or as close to as makes no difference.”
“That’s...that’s revolting.” James took her hands, and she trembled as she looked into his eyes. “How many times? How many...did they leave you?”
“Enough. Too many,” he admitted. “I took risks. As many as I needed to. Too many. I had no reason not to.”
She cried then, on James’s shoulder, not Q’s. Q pulled out a chair, and James eased her into it after a bit. “You can’t visit him like this,” James said when the sobbing eased. “A soldier’s partner needs to be as strong as he is.”
“What the hell would you know about that?” she shot back.
“Ask your brother.” James straightened up. “Permission to go downstairs and see how he’s doing, Q?”
“Granted. But we still have work to do up here, commander.”
A look passed between them. Sympathy, sadness, resignation. Q would send Naomi home until she could face her boyfriend without breaking down. James would help her get through the awful night of waiting for news.
It was the first time. Both of them knew it wouldn’t be the last.
Sydney Harbour is gorgeous at night.
Walking back from Circular Quay towards their hotel, Q spotted the sweaty, beer-gutted drunk likely to cause a problem half a second after James’s stance adjusted minutely and Jay moved casually to put himself between the guy and Naomi. Q brought his phone out of his pocket and fiddled with it.
“Daniel?” Naomi asked.
“Looking something up. What factor sunscreen do you think I need for Bondi?”
“Factor five thousand, I should think.”
The drunk glaring at Jay made his move, approaching them and sneering. “Go back where you came from, you mussies.”
Naomi tensed but only slightly, falling back to let Jay have more room. Q didn’t move away, but he did adjust the angle of his camera.
No one watching Jay or James would know either of them had noticed the drunk at all. No one but Q, of course. He’d seen this a couple of hundred times before on the job. He smiled to reassure his sister. She smiled back, less certainly.
Q held his camera up as the guy swung. Jay easily caught his fist, James moved aside and kicked the feet out from under the drunk, Jay pulled his arm up behind him, and the man yelled in pain.
Two armed police officers in stab vests ran over. “That man attacked my boyfriend,” Naomi told him, pointing to the guy on the ground.
“It’s true, officers. I have it all on my phone.”
Q showed the two the movie he’d made, found out where to upload it for police use, and James and Jay offered their (fake official) names. The drunk was removed in cuffs, and the four of them walked away with the thanks of the police for their restraint in under five minutes from the first act of aggression.
Next morning Q looked up the man’s arrest record, and minutes later had his whole sad, underachieving life available to him. “Want me to ruin him?” he asked Jay.
“No. Being him is punishment enough.”
“An ‘Asian babes’ dating site?” Naomi asked, glancing at Q’s tablet screen. “Seriously?”
“He’s a walking cliché,” James said. “I’m ready for a swim. Anyone else?”
We’re hiring a car tomorrow and driving to Perth via Adelaide, stopping to whale watch on the way. I’ll try to email again when we get to Cairns. Love, Naomi.
Q found Adelaide rather charming, though very little like Sydney. He took far too many pictures of the Rundle Street Mall pigs, and just enough of the pickpocket whose wrist he nearly broke before snagging a passing cop to deal with him.
“We're supposed to be here incognito, Daniel,” James remonstrated.
“Your fault for going to the market without me.”
“Your fault for learning my self-defence moves too well.”
“You didn’t teach me that one. Naomi did.”
James’s raised eyebrow sent Q’s sister and her boyfriend into fits of giggles.
BREAKING NEWS: Police have praised the actions of two men who saved the life of a woman and her daughter who got into trouble during an early morning swim at Cottesloe Beach. Onlookers said the two appeared to recognise the mother and child were in difficulty and raced into the surf, swimming out to the pair and bringing them ashore. Surf Life Saving WA have said the two females were lucky not to have drowned and once again warned swimmers to stick to patrolled beaches and to swim between the flags.
“What were you saying about incognito, James?”
“Were we supposed to let them drown, Daniel?” Jay asked.
“No.” Q sighed. “Just means I’ll have to hack a few servers to delete those Youtube clips. Thank God for shitty iPhone cameras.”
“No, 007, you are not going to stop a robbery at a bloody Subway. They have guns. Naomi, call the police. James, get out of this car and you will be celibate for a month.”
In the end, Jay stood in front of the robbers’ car with his phone’s camera pointed at them, and James, technically not getting out of the car, cut them off with a swift reverse. The panicking thieves ran straight towards the police attending Naomi’s triple zero call.
Q imagined M’s reaction when the report hit his desk, and contemplated asking for another four weeks’ leave with immediate effect. M couldn’t stay cranky forever.
James rolled over, and draped his arm over Q’s waist. “It’s six oh fucking clock, Daniel. I thought you hadn’t planned to work on this trip.”
“I’m not. Just making a few Wiki edits. James, wait!”
But James had whipped the tablet away from Q, and was studying the screen. Q folded his arms. “Accuracy is important,” he said huffily.
“Says the man whose hobby is posting fake Wikipedia articles and collecting bets on how long it will take anyone to notice.”
“Just keeping the editors on their toes, and don’t do that, James!”
James’s fingers hovered above the virtual keyboard. “Why?”
“Because I’ll be banned for edit warring, and I’ll have to find another identity to post from.”
James tossed the tablet onto the floor, out of Q’s reach. “How about you spend less time defending the honour of the ‘Pommy Martini’ and more time sucking me off, hmmm?”
“I can do both at the same time.”
James reached for the lube. “Not with my fingers up your arse, you won’t.”
Q hated that James was right. On the other hand, being wrong wasn’t always bad.
James never told Q what he’d originally called the gin, vodka and Lillet Blanc cocktail. He wished he hadn’t given in the impulse to ask for it in a Perth bar just because Naomi said she’d never had a martini. He never suspected the barman would turn it into a drink sensation after they’d gone.
Dear Mum. Another short letter, sorry. Western Australia was fantastic. Whale watching in Albany was amazing. If you didn’t get seasick, I’d have wished you and Dad could have come. Here we are, all kitted up to swim with whale sharks at Ningaloo. Daniel took the photo because he didn’t want to join us.
“I don’t snorkel, James. I don’t like things over my face.”
Which was true, but not the real reason. Q couldn’t admit to James that his biggest secret fear, apart from losing his lover, wasn’t flying, but drowning. It was a touchy subject.
“I thought you’d be more worried about the fact we’ll be swimming with a bloody big fish.”
“I’ve told you before, size doesn’t impress me. On the other hand, if you managed to be eaten by a filter feeder, that might.”
“All right. Try not to break anyone while we’re out there.”
From Perth we flew to Cairns, and then to Uluru (you probably still call it Ayer’s Rock.) Can you believe it’s almost as fast to fly across the country and back to the centre, as it is to fly from the west coast to Uluru? Daniel found it so ridiculous. We enjoyed the Great Barrier Reef, though Daniel liked the rain forest better.
“Why the hell did I agree to come to a country where the sun never stops bloody shining?” Q knew he sounded petulant, but his feet really hurt. The tops of his feet hurt. “Factor fifty SPF, and I still got burnt.”
“Marine reflection,” James said, applying another cold tea soaked washcloth to Q’s painful feet. “Maybe you should stay out of the sun for a bit.”
Q glared as icily as he could from under itchy red eyelids. “Maybe our next stop shouldn’t be the fucking desert.”
James kissed him. “Sorry,” he murmured.
“I’m never going outside again.”
“Of course you aren’t.”
James managed to rearrange a few things, and Q had two days’ rest in the hotel before the flight to Uluru. By then he was over the worst of the pain, though he was peeling, and had to wear socks to stop his sandals rubbing.
To top it all, because they were travelling economy on the only available direct flight, they had to be at the airport stupidly early for a seven thirty departure.
“I look ridiculous.”
“No, just English,” Jay said. He pointed discreetly to another group of tourists in the airport. “Guess the nationality.”
Q took in the socks, the shorts, the hats and the t-shirts. “Shoot me now.”
“Waste of a good brother,” Naomi said, hooking her arm through his.
“Waste of a good quartermaster,” Jay said, doing the same on Q’s other side.
“Waste of a—”
“Don’t you dare,” Q said, forestalling James’s remark. His lover had a very maritime mouth on him sometimes.
“I was going to say ‘travelling companion’,” James said, eyes crinkling, before he kissed Q.
“Of course you were. I need tea.”
Q noticed a man walking away from the queue at the café with a peculiar look on his face, and Jay standing there with his killer double-oh expression. “Did I miss something?” he asked Naomi.
“Manners lesson,” she said, looking nearly as deadly as Jay.
Later she told Q that the man behind them had starting muttering about “fucking poofters” when Q had taken James’s hand as they stood in line. Jay ignored it for a bit then turned around and told him that one of those fucking poofters was trained to kill and the other could cover all trace of the crime with three keystrokes. When the guy started to argue, Jay had pushed his rigid hand against the man’s gut and told him that he was ex-SAS and if he kept it up, he find Jay’s hand wrapped around his spine.
“And then he left. I don’t know why.”
“I can’t imagine,” Q said. We’re the most lethal group of tourists in Australia, the land where even the cute animals can kill you.
Naomi and Jay had asked to spend six days at Uluru, and Q hadn’t had a problem with that when the trip was planned. Arriving in the desert heat with his sunburn still painful (and painfully reminding him of things best forgotten), he wished he’d objected. He stayed grouchy until they reached the hotel room, which he grudgingly admitted was ‘okay’.
“I think it’s charming. Look at the view.”
“It’s hot and too bright. I’m staying inside for the next six days. I’m having a shower.”
He didn’t even bother to unpack, just went into the bathroom and stripped. The cold water on his skin was a shock, but then pleasant on his sore bits.
The curtain moved aside, and James stepped in behind him. His lover turned the temperature up a couple of degrees to cool, rather than cold. “I was enjoying that,” Q groused.
“Sorry.” James kissed his neck. “Wash your hair?”
Someone had taught James how to manage longer hair on men and how to give the world’s most wonderful head massage at the same time. Q was afraid to ask whom, but he would have liked to have sent them flowers if they weren’t dead (they probably were.) He stood and allowed James to show the skills which had once made him a legendary, if short term, lover on the Casanova scale, and as James’s fingers worked their magic, Q’s crankiness disappeared down the drain with the suds. He was rinsed and hugged and stroked and placated like an angry cat back from the vet, and though he was ashamed at his outbreak of childish temper, he couldn’t regret the way James had dealt with it.
He turned and washed James in turn, lingering over the fading scars, the few strands of grey chest hair, his lover’s tanned and muscled body. James refused to let himself go, even at the age of fifty-one. “My favourite dirty old man forever,” Q murmured, kissing him.
“The dirty boy I love to wash clean,” James said, cupping Q’s backside. “Feel better?”
“Yes, thank you. Will you marry me?”
James’s eyebrows lifted. “Do you mean that metaphorically or...?”
“Literally. Marry me. Not here. In London. Properly.”
“I’m serious, James.”
“So am I. I will take thee, Daniel Joshua Gelberg, to be my lawfully wedded whatchamacallit these days.”
“‘Husband’ is still in vogue,” Q said, grinning.
“Then that’s what it’ll be. Are you sure? There’s still a bounty on my head.”
“And mine, and Naomi’s probably. Not to mention Jay’s. I’m not wearing white.”
“I don’t think either of us are entitled.” James turned the water off, and wrapped his arms more tightly around Q. “I’m not going anywhere even if we don’t get married.”
“I know. I just...want to. I want you.”
“Then you can have me.”
Curled up on the bed, enjoying the lassitude of the well fucked, Q only heard half of James’s question. “Hmmm?”
“I asked where Naomi and Jay were going tonight.”
“Dinner in the desert. Some sunset watching thing.”
“Hmmm. I like it here better.”
Q spotted his sister walking towards the restaurant for breakfast. He caught up with her. “He said ‘yes’!”
“So did I.” She grinned from ear to ear, and showed him her hand, sporting a tasteful sparkly ring.
Q was lost for words. Jay watched the two of them, his stance more appropriate to facing an armed assailant than a future brother-in-law.
“Congratulations, my dear.” James stepped up beside Q to kiss Naomi on both cheeks, French style. He did the same to Jay, “You too, mon ami.”
Jay held out his hand to Q. “I understand you’re also to be congratulated?”
“Yes. Uh.” He took Jay’s hand and shook it. “Are you sure?” he blurted out. “Naomi, he’s—”
“I know what he is, and what you are, and what James is. And yes, absolutely and completely sure.”
“Mum is going to have kittens.”
“Your mum?” Jay said. “What about mine?”
James clapped his hands on Q and Jay’s shoulders. “I suggest we have breakfast and then visit the rock while it’s still cool. This isn’t the time or place for delicate family discussions. Right, Naomi?”
“Absolutely right, brother-in-law to be. Come on, James.”
She took his arm and left Q and Jay to stare at each other.
“I don’t even know your real name.”
“Javeed. Javeed Ghosh. Naomi is more worried about your approval than your parents’, Daniel.”
“She’s a grown woman and a smart one. But there’s never been a married active double-oh for a very good reason.”
“I know. James told me all this when I discussed proposing to Naomi with him.”
“You talked to James and not me?”
Jay lifted his chin. “I needed the perspective of another agent, not an angry brother.”
“I’m not angry! At least, I wasn’t until.... Shit.”
Q walked off. Naomi and an assassin. Naomi with a child in arms mourning her dead husband. Naomi dead because someone wanted to get to her husband.
“Daniel, I’m retiring from the double-oh service. I emailed M this morning. I won’t be going into the field again.”
Q whipped around. “You’re throwing away your career, all your training, for her?”
“No. For me. For us. This is why I had to talk to James. I wanted to know if he was happy no longer being an agent. His answer was that he wished he’d given up ten years ago. Ten years ago, he was a year older than I am now, Daniel. I’m forty. I’m not going to keep going until my body fails me, my mind can’t take the strain, until I screw up the mission and get someone killed because I’m not fast enough, strong enough, reckless enough. It’s not for Naomi. It’s because it’s time.”
Q exhaled. “You really are the brightest double-oh we’ve ever had.”
Jay grinned. “Thank you. I’ve asked to join Q branch as a coder or a developer. A trainer if they need one. If Six no longer wants me, there are other jobs. I could contract with the army. James was the longest serving double-oh MI6 has ever had. I don’t want to beat his record. No one should.”
“No. I believe someone mentioned breakfast?”
“I believe Naomi was going to see if they did champagne. Just this once, I think alcohol is appropriate.”
“Too bloody right.”
Jay followed Q as he set off in search of food. “I see you’ve picked up some of the lingo.”
“Must be the heat. It’s sent me slightly mad.”
Later Q looked up the meaning of ‘Javeed’. ‘Immortal’—how appropriate.
If anyone could make this work, it was Naomi and Jay. The problem was, could anyone make it work?
The four of them stood in front of Uluru and contemplated the oldest continuous culture in the world, and the inexorability of time.
“What do you see, James?”
“A bloody big—”
“Beautiful work of nature.”
By the time you read this, we will be on our way home.
“I’m quite sorry to leave, actually.”
“What, even after the sunburn, mosquitoes, racists, bigots and koala piddle?”
Q buried himself deeper into James’s pyjama top. “The sunsets, the mountains, the koalas sans piddle, the sex, and my fiancé.”
“And Naomi’s fiancé.”
“Yes, him too. M is going to kill me.”
“How is it your fault?”
“It’s not. But I’m your boss. His superior. Naomi’s superior. The arse kicking stops here.”
James silenced him with a kiss, and they got snugly for a few minutes as they waited for takeoff. But Q still had things to say. “You could have warned me.”
“No, I couldn't.”
“No, you couldn’t,” Q agreed with a sigh. “They want children. So I suppose they’ll need the house.”
“I can’t imagine Naomi kicking you out. Baby sitters on tap, if nothing else.”
“You mind a baby? If we had a burglar, you’d forget it wasn’t a gun and throw it.”
“If we had a burglar that got through all your security systems, I’d hold the Walther in one hand and the bottle in the other.”
“And the baby’s on the floor.”
“Right. So you hold the Walther, I’ll hold the baby and the bottle, and the burglar is bleeding out on the floor.”
“You’ve given this some thought.”
“My best plans are made on the fly, Daniel. Anyway, maybe I want babies too.”
Daniel laughed. “Okay, I’ll stop taking the pill.”
“You don’t believe me.”
Q looked deep into his lover’s eyes. “James, I hate to tell you this, but you have never been able to lie for toffee.”
“Crack shot, amazing lover, brilliant strategist when it comes to blowing things up, but you are and always will be, an absolutely rubbish fibber.”
James pouted. “Brilliant lover, amazing strategist, thank you.”
“I’ll allow that.”
“Good. Once we’re in the air, I’ll prove it.”
Q was happy with that, though he didn’t need any more proof.
Dear Eve. What I did on my holidays. Got engaged.
Dear Daniel. Congratulations. You’re completely bonkers.
Dear Eve. What I did on my holidays. Got engaged.
Dear Naomi. Congratulations. You’re completely bonkers.
Dear Eve. What I did on my holidays. Got engaged.
Dear James. Congratulations. He’s too good for you, you realise.
Dear Eve. What I did on my holidays. Got engaged.
Dear Jay. Congratulations. She’s too good for you, you realise.
Dear Eve. Yes, I know :)
Dear Eve. Yes, I know :)
Dear Eve. Yes, I know :)
Dear Eve. Yes, I know :)
Memo to Q:
Medical asks that you make no more leave requests until my hypertension resolves.
Will try my best
Hugs and love
“James, stop hacking into my email.”
See you soon, love, Naomi.