The grenade comes in through their living room window on a Thursday.
There’s the smooth chink-chink of it rolling across the tiles. Q, who is trying to find the TV remote, hunting crossly amidst the sofa cushions, where the bloody hell is it, thinks that Bond has dropped something on the floor: the lid of a beer bottle or the apartment key.
Bond ploughs bodily into him and knocks him behind the couch.
“I didn’t realise you wanted to change the channel that badly,” Q says, and then the grenade goes off.
Q feels the explosion in his very bones. The floor beneath him trembles. There’s suddenly smoke everywhere; the hot, savage roar of fire. Bond is lying half on top of him, one elbow digging painfully into Q’s hip, one hand already scrabbling underneath the couch. Of course Bond has secretly taped a handgun there, Q thinks. Of course. Then he puts his head to one side and coughs as if he’ll never stop.
Bond gets up off of him. “Stay here. I’m going to take a quick look.”
“Wait,” Q says.
But Bond’s already snuck off, the damn bastard.
Q peeks around the edge of the couch. One half of his living room is on fire. He spots the TV remote – knocked underneath the coffee table. There doesn’t appear to be anybody shooting at him, so he crawls his way to the armchair nearest the bedroom and then into the bedroom itself.
His laptop is sitting plaintively there on the bed; he grabs it, snaps it shut, tucks it under his arm.
Bond appears in the doorway. “What the fuck are you doing? I told you to stay put!”
“I had to go get my – ”
“We have to get out,” Bond says. He looks char-tinged, black-edged, like some strange sort of demon. For a moment Q is rooted entirely to the spot. “Police will be here in a matter of minutes.”
“But all of your things,” Q protests.
“No time.” Bond takes his wrist and positively drags him. “Deal with it later.”
They pass the living room on their hurried way out. The wind sucks the flame out through the windows but they flick back in again, hissing, spitting black smoke. Q feels as if his skin is about to crisp and slough off his body. The fire alarm in the kitchen wails.
Q gives the place one last look – the DVD cabinet he stole from an old roommate, his self-designed sound system, the copper lamps, the pretentious modern art on the walls, the television, the radio, his extensive Swarovski collection in its glass display cabinet, the thick-pile rug that Bond picked out, which is the only thing Q is glad to see burning because the thing is ugly.
Bond bundles the two of them out of a window and Q says, “Those curtains were fucking new.”
Bond is in a chair next to the double bed. He’s half hunched over, not looking up from the handgun he has balanced in one hand. The lighting is bad. The digital clock blinks out the time: three in the morning.
“M called while you were asleep,” Bond says.
Q is still sleep-muzzy. His head hurts and his eyes are sore, so that when he opens them he has to blink several times before he can see anything. The back of his throat is extremely dry. Bond watches him get his bearings – there is no expression at all on Bond’s face.
“What did he want,” Q manages, finally.
“The usual. Where we are. Whether or not we’re going to come in. The situation.”
“And what did you tell him?”
Bond doesn’t answer.
Q pushes the sheets away. “Where’s my laptop?”
“Where you left it last night,” Bond says. Then he seems to realise that Q doesn’t remember much of last night. “On the desk. How’s your throat? You breathed in a lot of smoke.”
“I’ll survive,” Q says. “Did you sleep at all?”
Q can imagine the sort of sleep Bond means – cramped, jittery, starting awake at sudden noises, the rumbling of the bad plumbing upstairs, a footstep outside.
There’s something frighteningly shut-off about James Bond right now. His eyes, normally blue in the day, are slate-coloured. A taut energy has wound itself into his arms. This is not the man who, two days ago, stood by Q’s desk in Q branch and looked on, half-imperious, half-indulgent, as Q showed him how to operate his new gun. This is a man who has killed before. You can look at him and know it at once.
“James,” Q says. “I have a feeling that you’re contemplating doing something stupid.”
Bond shifts the gun to his left hand, scrapes down the barrel with a nail. “You’ve been compromised.”
“Not necessarily,” Q says.
“People don’t normally throw grenades into other people’s apartments for fun,” Bond says.
Q sighs. Unfortunately, Bond does have a point there. “What I mean is, it might not be an urgent situation. They threw a grenade but they could’ve done any number of more direct and efficient things – shot me in the head, for instance.”
Bond’s knuckles go very white on the gun.
“Please don’t break that,” Q says, automatically. “In any case, I’m not dead. Which tells us something.”
“That this time was just a warning,” Bond says.
“Yes,” Q says.
Bond goes quiet again.
Q lets him brood for a while. And then Q decides that he doesn’t like it when Bond is like this – too much like how he was in the beginning. Too distant. Too self-punishing. Too much steel and barbed wire and not enough bone and muscle and blood.
Q says, “I am actually really upset about those curtains. They were handmade. From Holland. It cost me something bloody ridiculous to have them shipped over here.”
“They were the most disgusting things I’d ever set eyes on,” Bond says.
“You lost the right to say that the moment you bought me that carpet,” Q says.
Bond sighs. “I’ve apologised for that one already.”
“Why don’t you come over here,” Q says, unbuttoning his shirt, “and apologise more thoroughly.”
Bond’s mouth flattens into a line. He’s trying very hard not to smile. The opaque look leaves his eyes. This is the card that Q will always play at times like this because this is the card that always wins.
“You’re hopeless,” Bond says after a moment.
“Yes,” Q says. He’s known that for a long while now. “Yes, I am.”
He has a fairly good idea about who is throwing grenades at him. At any one point in time he has several projects running under MI6’s radar that M has no idea about. Every now and then, one of those projects go awry. And then people come rampaging into his apartment trying to kill him.
The real problem is that Q is much too curious. He’s always sticking his nose into things he should probably not touch with a ten-foot pole. Curiosity killed the cat, but then Q is still alive, so he keeps at it. Nothing has managed to cure him yet. The first time Bond had peeled Q out of his shirt he’d been surprised to find the single bullet-scar, neat and indented, just above Q’s right hip. But it isn’t all that surprising. Q is repeatedly drawn to things that will probably end badly; he wouldn’t be in espionage otherwise. No quartermaster in the history of MI6 has yet managed to leave the job cleanly.
Sleeping with a double-o agent is just another on the long list of bad ideas Q has had in this lifetime.
In his defence, though, sleeping with James Bond is a difficult thing to prevent.
It is not a phenomenon unique to Q. Open Bond’s file and you’ll find a web so tangled that the Gordian knot starts to look like a piece of cake in comparison. James Bond is the kind of person who doesn’t do things by halves; you realise this, every time you are in the same room as he is, every time you look into his eyes. Every time you speak to him.
Falling for James Bond is clockwork.
Q felt it like you’d feel an earthquake. It was as violent as a fortress being stormed: machine-gun fire, close-range mortar shells, an entire populace razed to the ground.
Now whenever Bond walks into a room Q’s heart leaps. Whenever Bond’s voice comes over a communication line Q’s blood runs hot. It isn’t anything he can help. Q is as hopeless as hopeless gets. When Bond is nearby the rest of the world fades to monochrome and Q can’t focus.
The patch of ground on which Q stands has already been conquered.
So Q is already a veteran in warfare; a grenade in the living room is nothing at all.
Q plucks an earphone out of one ear. “Sorry, what?”
“I said,” Bond says, then, “Never mind. What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to get in contact with a Hong Kong arms dealing operation,” Q says.
“Oh,” Bond says. He doesn’t question it. “We’re going to Hong Kong then, yes?”
Q nods. He taps in another line of code. He watches the scenery as it flashes past: a plane cuts across the sky, a bright trail of cloud behind it, like a signal flare.
The old fear gnaws itself into the pit of Q’s belly. He ignores it.
“You just ran a red light,” Q says.
Q is still too jittery from the flight. All his nerves feel raw. He wants nothing more than to collapse into bed and sleep until the apocalypse, but Bond has followed him into his room.
“You are going to stay here,” Bond says. “We do this the old-fashioned way. You stay here with the maps and the cameras and the codes and what-not.” There is a familiar, stubborn set to Bond’s jaw that brooks no argument. “I go out into the field.”
“That isn’t going to work, Bond,” Q says. “They want me.”
“If you go out there, then they’re going to get you.”
“Don’t be melodramatic,” Q says.
“Look at you,” Bond says. “A six hour flight and you look as if you’re about to buckle at the knees. There isn’t a chance I’m letting you out of this room. You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Q scrubs a hand over his face. “I’ve told you before, flying’s a hard thing for me.”
“Trying to stay alive will be even harder,” Bond says.
Q sits down. He’s trying very hard not to get pissed off but Bond always makes it so damned difficult.
“This isn’t anything to do with you,” Q says at last. “The grenade was meant for me, the message I sent to them came from me, the meeting was arranged by me. They want to see me. If they’d wanted me dead I can assure you I would be dead by now. The moment you appear you’re going to be involved. And you don’t need to be involved.”
“I’m already involved,” Bond says.
“Not in this way,” Q says. “I don’t need you to fight my battles.”
“You don’t even know how to fire a gun,” Bond says.
Q snags Bond’s wrist. He pulls Bond down to his level, one hand skating smoothly across Bond’s shirt and underneath his suit jacket. He takes the Walther out of its shoulder holster in one fluent movement. He ejects the magazine, checks it, jolts it back in. He flicks the safety off.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Q says, and sets the gun neatly down on the table. “I know how to fire it.”
Bond is watching him.
“I’m not a crack shot,” Q says, “but I can hit something vital when it comes down to it. I don’t design things I can’t test out myself. It’s a matter of work ethic.”
“You’ll be outnumbered,” Bond says.
“I’m planning to engineer a few calculated explosions so that I won’t be,” Q says.
Bond straightens. Sighs. Reaches up to brush something out of Q’s hair: an automatic motion.
“I’m not a child,” Q says. “So stop looking at me as if I’m breakable. I’m really not.”
“I’m going in there with you.”
“Of course you’re going in there with me,” Q says. Their neighbour has turned on the television set; the sounds filter in through the wall, muffled, the stoic voice of a newsreader. “I paid for your airline ticket you know. So you might as well be useful.”
“I can be useful,” Bond murmurs, quietly. “If that’s what you’d like.”
His hand drops from Q’s hair down to his shoulder, thumb brushing the collarbone.
Something inside of Q shivers. He turns his head; he bites the inside of Bond’s wrist. And then, looking up, making sure that Bond is still watching, he draws his tongue back over it.
Q and the ringleader are chatting amiably, tit for tat, this is the body part I’ll cut off if you don’t stop disrupting our shipping, this is what I’ll do to your bank account if you don’t stop throwing grenades, when somebody jumps the gun and puts a bullet straight into Q’s thigh.
The ringleader – a broad, hulking man called Wu – stoops down to where Q’s collapsed on the floor.
Q cuts him off before he can begin on a long-winded villainous monologue.
“You really shouldn’t have done that,” Q says, and flicks the switch inside his pocket.
Bond is the one who ends up shooting Wu. At that point, things are a bit hazy for Q because of the blood loss, but he still manages to feel distinctly annoyed that he wasn’t the one to pull the trigger.
He’s carried out of the place a split second before the roof caves in.
“You are an idiot and I’m never listening to you again,” Bond says.
Q smiles into Bond’s shirt. “I’m still alive, aren’t I?” he says.
And then he passes out.
Too young to be fiddling with computers. Too young for university-level calculus. Too young to be in university, at all. Too young to be an orphan.
Too young, he supposes, to be in espionage; too young to be getting shot at.
Too young, to be paired with James Bond.
Too young to deserve him.
Bond is asleep. Unlike other people, Bond doesn’t relax, even now. He looks focused, like there is a particular dream he wants to chase down and manhandle into something else.
There was a time when Q wondered if he dreamed of a woman – which of the many threads of the web would it be? Vesper? – or if, in his dreams, it was not any specific face. Just a whisper. The ghost of a touch on his arm. A scent.
It has kept Q awake many a night wondering what James Bond wants.
Q would ask him directly, but he’s not sure that Bond himself knows the answer.
Bond’s eyes blink awake, slowly. “Q.”
“You’re hurt, 007,” Q says. He nods at the bandage peeking out from under Bond’s shirt.
“Bullet graze,” Bond says. “I’m afraid you win out. You nearly lost a leg.”
“Key word being nearly,” Q says. A nurse bustles in to check his temperature; she adjusts the speed of his drip. “I suppose I’m just very lucky. First a grenade, and then a sniper shot. But here I still am.”
“I’m not letting you do this ever again,” Bond says.
“I’m afraid it’s not up to you to decide whether or not people want to kill me, 007,” Q says.
“You’re right. It isn’t. But the next time this happens, you stay in the hotel room.”
“Bond – ”
“This isn’t your world,” Bond interrupts. “This isn’t a world you’re familiar with. You think it’s enough to be able to fire a gun, but it isn’t. There are instincts that you need to have. There are rules. In your world, people think before they shoot; in mine, they shoot and they don’t think about it at all. The field isn’t for everybody.” Bond leans forward, pins Q down on the bed with that blue stare. “Only a particular type of person survives, and you’re not that type of person, Q. And you shouldn’t have to be.”
“You don’t have to try and protect me,” Q says. “It was my mess to begin with. I had to take care of it.”
“You don’t have to do it all yourself,” Bond says. “Next time, stick to the things that you’re good at. Leave all the shooting and the blowing things up to me.”
Q lies there for a while. Through the morphine, he can only just feel the wound in his leg – a dull throb that seems to reach him through staggered layers. Without his glasses he can’t really make out the ceiling.
The light from the window hurts his eyes.
“You just want to be the one to explode something for once,” Q mutters, eventually.
“I just don’t want you to die,” Bond says, extremely dry. “The next quartermaster might be even younger than you. And even more of a prick. Though that’s difficult to imagine at the moment.”
“It wasn’t me who proposed we start shagging,” Q says.
“No,” Bond says. He tucks in the edge of Q’s sheet. “And you say that you’re the clever one.”
This is some time later, maybe a couple of months, in Bond’s apartment. Bond’s just returned from an unsuccessful assignment in Borneo. There are bruises all over him; Q kisses one, just above Bond’s shoulder, knowing that tomorrow it’ll change from green to blue to purple.
“I thought you knew how to shoot,” Bond says. He sounds tired.
Q unearths the handgun from underneath the pillow. “Teach me how to shoot the way you do.”
“I’m just going to keep asking,” Q tells him, matter-of-fact. “You know how persistent I am. I don’t give up until I get what I want. And this is what I want.”
“This is what you think you want. I know who you are.”
Q hikes a brow and props up on his elbows. “And I don’t?”
“You don’t have to keep trying to prove yourself,” Bond says. He winds a hand into Q’s pyjama shirt and tugs him back down onto the bed. “Now go to sleep.”
“Sometimes I just feel I need to fight for you,” Q says.
“Well, you don’t,” Bond says. There’s sleep in his voice already; Q can feel the soft touch of his breath on his cheek. “You don’t have to make a conquest of me, Q. I’m already here.”