Chapter 20: Explanations, Adagio ma non troppo
"It was latched into the front bumper," Moneypenny said grimly. "The explosive, that is. Not under the hood, as we first thought. And it must have been triggered remotely. We can only be grateful no civilians were hurt. My God, are we going to have to secure surveillance cameras to our bloody automobiles?"
She was speaking over a secure line to Bond's mobile, and could hear rustling papers and the squeak of wheels on linoleum, and the equally recognizable squeak of rubber-soled shoes in the background.
"I'm still in the waiting area," Bond replied in a normal tone of voice with no particular inflection. "They haven't told me much. M's to be discharged in an hour or so. He needed stitches and bandages, but not much else."
"Does he know some of his younger staff call him Old Stone Face? Behind his back, of course," Moneypenny whispered, and could almost imagine Bond's ghost of a smile. "The man's indestructible."
"Tanner's conscious," Bond continued. "Someone from MI5 is speaking with him now; this is being handled as a domestic issue rather than the act of a terrorist from overseas…we can't assume a foreign agency is behind it, yet. I managed to collar a doctor and he says the driver should be in hospital for a good ten days at least. Fortunately, they expect a full recovery. We're still waiting on word about the Quartermaster, though."
There was no change whatsoever in the tone of Bond's voice and he sounded perfectly calm, but Moneypenny had expected this and made no comment.
"Well, James," she said, taking a deep breath. "Let me know if there's any change, or any...news. My guess is that Mallory will be back in the office tomorrow, juggernaut that he is. We'll talk again later."
"My God, Bill," Bond said lightly. "You have cornered the market in black and blue."
Tanner winced a little as he sat up. "This is the worst of it. Bloody broken. Can't use my hand, much," he added, holding up his wrist, now imprisoned in a splint. "My assistant, Francesca, is equally mottled, but nothing broken, thank God."
"You're being discharged?"
"This evening, if the doctors say I may be, which I think they will. Our driver's just come out of surgery, but they tell me he'll pull through. Now we're just waiting on what they have to say about the Quartermaster."
"Is he conscious?"
"I don't know, really," Tanner replied almost fretfully, running his good hand over his thinning hair. "But I don't suppose they'd stop you if you went to have a look, as they didn't stop you from coming to see me."
"Right," said Bond with a rueful lift of his eyebrows as he turned towards the door. He had the distinct feeling that Tanner might wonder about himself and Q, but more out of concern for their situation should they be outed, than out of the prurient curiosity Moneypenny occasionally exhibited. Eve, he thought with a mixture of affection and exasperation, probably wondered about what he and the Head of Q Branch did in bed together. "See you at HQ," he continued, turning his head back toward Tanner, and pausing for a moment before leaving the room. "We can work on eliminating whoever did this to you, once you get back."
"Did this to me?" He heard Tanner's ironic snort before the door shut with a click.
The name on Q's chart, which was attached to the foot of his hospital bed, read "R. Frobisher," which Bond could only assume was a false name, an alias for the MI6 Quartermaster.* But he couldn't know for certain, could he, as Q had never told him what his real name was.
He had been half-expecting to see a supine, unconscious, ashen-faced Q, hooked up to all manner of technology to record his vital signs, but Q was in fact propped up on pillows in a half-sitting position, looking little the worse for wear save for a pallid complexion, ugly red and purple bruising round one eye, and a cut on the bridge of his nose. His hair was, not surprisingly, awry, his glasses sat on the bedside table and a single IV line ran into the vein on one wrist. As Bond approached, he cracked one eye open and gave an exaggerated sigh.
"007," he murmured, opening his other eye and then executing an equally exaggerated eyeroll. "You should just see your face."
"Why, what's wrong with it," Bond retorted as he felt the tightness in the muscles of his shoulders and back begin to relax. "It's your face that resembles a Fauvist color palette. Still, it's good to see you're conscious. They wouldn't tell me anything, out there." He gestured in the direction of the hallway.
"They've been busy," Q said absently, touching his violently-colored cheekbone with tentative fingers. "I'm just waiting for the results of my x-ray and scan…want to be certain there's no concussion, after all. But I don't feel too dreadful, save for a headache."
"A really bad headache," amended Q, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment. "According to the doctors, I must have hit the back of my head on the rear window, and then bounced forward and hit my face on the back of the driver's seat. How are the others?"
"I've seen Tanner," Bond said. "He believes he'll be discharged tonight."
"Lucky bastard," murmured Q. "If I've a concussion, as they seem to think, I'll be kept here overnight."
"I pity the night staff, then," Bond said, smiling, and watched Q's scowl turn into a reluctant half-grin.
A nurse came in at that moment to change Q's intravenous bag, but she glanced from one to the other and then left immediately, with a gentle smile that took in the two of them.
"What's that?" Bond gestured at the IV, deliberately ignoring his Quartermaster's blush.
"Just to keep me hydrated," Q replied, frowning at it. "Well, it has been a busy few weeks. From the…the thing in New York to this. Some person or organization is clearly gearing up for something."
"Clearly," Bond said wryly. "Eve told me your youngsters are already trawling the dark web for clues."
"The dark web," Q replied with distaste. "Right. And no, 007, that is not my real name," he added as he caught Bond eyeing his chart with a quizzical lift of one eyebrow.
"I rather doubted it would be."
Their second interruption was by a young doctor, whose red-rimmed eyes inspected them through horn-rimmed spectacles with lenses even thicker than Q's. In short order Q was informed that he was fortunate not to have any broken bones but that he did have a concussion and would have to spend the night in hospital, "For observation, just in case." If there was no change, and he felt well enough in the morning, he could almost certainly go home.
"I see," said Q, sounding anything but pleased as he peered up at the doctor through his tangled fringe; then his eyes met Bond's and they exchanged what nearly amounted to an eye roll. "You might want to stop in and see Mallory's driver…it's our old friend Neville. Did you know he still finds it amusing that you took his place in order to kidnap me. Oh—I don't suppose I could have something to read?"
"Get some sleep, Quar…Mr Frobisher," Bond said calmly as the doctor made his exit. "Reading will only give you more of a headache. At least, that's what I've found to be the case when in a condition like yours. Well, at least your memory is intact. And you're not to come in to HQ tomorrow, Eve tells me. Your minions can look after things for a week or so, without you."
"A week! As neither you nor Eve is a doctor," Q said acidly, "I'll decide when I'm fit to come to work."
"Hospital staff will decide, not you," Bond retorted. "And for pity's sake, do as they tell you." His mobile beeped, and he glanced down at the screen with a frown. "Well, I'm off. I've been summoned, but I'll look in on Neville before I go. I'll see you tomorrow, perhaps?"
Q made a noncommittal grumbling sound, but his eyes, when he raised them to Bond's, had softened. "Not worried about me, are you, 007?"
"Not in the slightest," Bond said in a very dry voice. "But don't even think about putting in an appearance at HQ tomorrow. Between us, Eve, Tanner, and I will haul you back to your flat and tie you to your bed, if necessary."
"My, my," Q snapped, raising his eyebrows. "What perverse and kinky practices you field agent types get up to. You'll do nothing of the kind. And now, if you don't mind, I think I will try to sleep."
Q closed his eyes and settled himself back against the pillows, but as he turned to leave Bond could see him peeping upward from beneath his lashes. He resisted the urge to pull the hospital blanket over his Quartermaster's shoulders and walked quietly to the door. As he turned the handle he heard the young man growl, "Good night, Bond," almost inaudibly, and only just managed to repress a vast sigh of relief.
The MI6 Quartermaster was discharged from hospital the following day, shortly before noon, and he elected to take a taxi home as he was still well and truly groggy from the medications he had been given the night before to ease his headache and help him sleep.
His flat seemed more than ever a haven from the turmoil of the outside world and the uncertain state, generally speaking, of international affairs. Quiet and tidy, mostly white but with touches of color here and there, framed prints, watercolors, and line drawings on the walls, and the sofa piled high with cushions, it had the instant effect of easing the tension that had been throbbing in Q's temples and behind his eyes. The cats were sitting reproachfully by the kitchen door, but Q knew that Mrs Meadowlark had fed them only an hour earlier. As he headed for the kitchen, mentally composing a message to HQ, he nearly ran full tilt into Bond, who was emerging from it.
"Bloody hell, 007," Q exploded, dropping his plastic sack of hospital goods to the floor with a clatter. "How did you get in here?"
"Not telling," Bond drawled, unsmiling, but his eyes were twinkling just a little. "You have your secrets, I have mine." He held out a tumbler half filled with ice water. "I heard you at the door and thought you could do with this. Have they given you any meds?"
"They have, but I'm doped to the eyeballs at present, and won't need any more until evening." Q accepted the glass and took a long swallow, eyes closed. "I thought I'd check in with Eve and then have a rest."
Bond nodded but made no reply, so Q sat down at his laptop and typed out the mentally composed message, watching out of the corner of his eye as Bond headed for the sideboard to pour himself a surprisingly modest amount of scotch. Presently he stood up and walked to the fireplace to peer into the mirror hanging above it.
Bond, who appeared to be nursing his scotch with notable restraint, turned at the sound of Q's muffled "Oh shit!" as he flung himself onto the sofa. Then he sat down on an armchair opposite and made what Q supposed was meant to be a sympathetic grimace.
"No, you're not a pretty sight just now," he said blandly. "An ice pack might help with the swelling. Eve told me that if I saw you I was to say to have something to eat and go straight to bed, after. Mrs Meadowlark left you some soup," he added, ignoring the aggrieved look Q shot in his direction. "And there's plenty of bread for toast. And half of a chicken in your fridge, if it's still good. Enough for a makeshift meal or two, don't you think?"
"This is scarcely your MO, Bond," Q said in deeply suspicious tones, but he followed Bond into the kitchen and sat down at the counter, eyeing the dishes that were then set before him…because he was hungrier than he wanted to admit.
"Déja vue…didn't we do all of this a week ago?"
"We did indeed, and on a much more doleful occasion."
"Doleful. The way you put things," Q mumbled gloomily, but he began on Mrs Meadowlark's soup as Bond slid pieces of bread into his toaster and fetched butter and jam from the fridge.
The soup turned out to be an ambrosial vichyssoise, and while Q sipped it up, and ate the buttered toast, he watched Bond locate a half-empty bottle of white wine in the fridge before sitting opposite him to devour the leftover chicken.
"On a positive note," Q said after a while, the worst of his hunger pangs assuaged, "I've been told my concussion is a mild one and should give me no real trouble in a matter of days, if I'm careful. And that Neville is now out of danger and should expect an eventual full recovery."
"Excellent," Bond replied over a mouthful of chicken. "One never knows when I'll need him to kidnap you again. Oh, and on an equally positive note," he added, looking up from his plate, "Medical is pleased with me…the memories are coming back fairly smoothly now rather than in jumps and starts, and if there are still gaps, they're far less disturbing than they were a few months ago."
"I'm glad to hear it," Q said honestly, after a brief pause. "And no doubt Mallory will be pleased with you."
"For a change," Bond murmured, emptying his glass of wine.
"For a change," Q responded in a deliberately sarcastic tone of voice, because he secretly relished it when B's harsh mouth curved upward in the vestige of a grin. "Why do you insist on the absurdity of thinking M doesn't think well of you?"
Bond shrugged, and Q noticed that he was looking nearly as tired as he, himself, felt. "I think his mind is otherwise occupied, just now. And I never said I believed he thinks poorly of me."
"As for who blew up his car," Q continued, yawning. "As you say, Q Branch is working on it, but I think it has something to do with that Sciarra fellow and whoever's behind him."
Bond was silent for a moment. Vargas, and now this. Signor Sciarra, it seemed, would have a great deal to answer for, should he ever meet up with him. And it was his wholehearted intention to make the man pay for what he had done. "More toast, Quartermaster?"
"No, thank you," said Q, rubbing his eyes. "I think it's bed for me. You've been extremely… kind, 007, but you needn't feel obligated to stay longer…I'm too tired to be much of a conversationalist."
"I wasn't thinking of conversation, Q. No, nor was I thinking of…the other thing. I got very little sleep last night, going over the dossier for a new assignment."
"Oh, M's given you a new mission?" Q said, still swiping at his eyes. "That's good…I thought he might."
Despite his fatigue, his eyes were scanning his plate for crumbs, and between them he and Bond finished up their makeshift meal with chilled green grapes and red, crisp-fleshed pears. Once these were gone he got to his feet and headed for the shower, his bottles of medication in hand, vaguely wondering whether Bond would still be there when he emerged.
Bond was indeed still present when Q, carefully dabbing at his hair with a towel, walked into the bedroom, but he had had the effrontery to settle himself on the far side of the bed and had fallen asleep there.
When Bond woke, perhaps an hour later, Q was fast asleep next to him, his breath purring faintly against his pillow.
Who would have thought, Bond mused, looking at him, who would have thought a year ago that he would have been fascinated by a young person of his own gender, to the extent that he enjoyed spending this amount of time with him—in bed and out of it. Or that he would actually contemplate some sort of…long-term connection with his Quartermaster. Or that such a connection would satisfy him on an—and here he cursed himself wryly—on an emotional and intellectual level as well as a physical one. There was more to Q than his intelligence, his lean, pliable body, or his dry, mildly sarcastic commentary in the halls of HQ. They could talk without running out of things to say to each other, or simply sit, saying nothing, in comfortable silence.
On the other hand, what did he know about his Quartermaster, really? Nothing of his background, his family, his friends. On two or three occasions he had met Mrs Meadowlark, who saw to Q's cats when he was obliged to travel or stay late at work. She had worked in Medical, and had even, in her younger days, done a brief stint in overseas intelligence. She was now prettily grey-haired and plump, and rather charmingly old fashioned, addressing Q as "ducky" and Bond as "sir."
He had seen a color snapshot of what he assumed to be Q's family, on top of one of the bookcases in the living room, but this had not told him much of anything, apart from the fact that there appeared to be quite a few adult individuals in it. No children.
Both of Q's cats leaped onto the foot of the bed at that moment, interrupting his train of thought, but it also woke Q, who raised his head and stared at him.
Bond realized that he must have been frowning when Q's mouth twitched and he lowered his lashes over those hazel eyes flecked with green. "What is it, 007, what's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Bond said evasively, shifting onto his side. "I was simply wondering."
"You. Where you're from…who your family is. I know nothing about you, after all, and you know quite a lot about me. Hardly fair at this point in our…in our dealings, don't you think?"
Q sighed and rolled his eyes. "Bond. You know it's against regulations to—"
"Yes, yes," Bond muttered, unrelenting. "It's against bloody regulations. But we've both broken enough of the rules already, don't you think? Ever since that business with Raul Silva. I should think that you could trust me, if only a little, by now, Quartermaster."
There was a brief silence.
"So," said Q, breaking the pause during which he and Bond had eyed each shrewdly like a couple of chess players at a tournament. "What is it, exactly, that you'd like to know."
"Well…is your family in London, for one? I won't ask their name."
"And I won't give it to you," Q replied, with a flash of humor. "That is, not yet." He took a deep breath as Bond watched him. "At least one part of my family isn't difficult to explain, although you know my antecedents are classified information and I'm breaking every rule in the book by telling you. M—the previous M—was my aunt. My mum's older sister. She put me up for the job of Quartermaster, although she wouldn't have hesitated to choose somebody else if she thought him or her better qualified. And then I let Silva escape. So it was I who indirectly brought about her death. And I've never forgiven myself, really."
"I probably should've been sacked," Q added conversationally, but Bond noted that his eyes were lowered and his fingers were picking at the edge of the duvet.
"Q, don't be a total idiot. Silva had contingency plans, and would have escaped regardless of what you did with his laptop. And there's no way you, or anyone else, could have known that retrieving information from his computer would backfire the way it did. And it was M who gave you the order to plug it into our system."
"So it wasn't your doing. None of it was your doing."
"You're telling me I shouldn't feel guilty," Q said gruffly, raising his eyes.
"I know you shouldn't feel guilty. Not about M, and not about Miss Vargas. Tell me about the rest of your family."
Q cleared his throat. "My parents are academicians, still active in their fields. There are a few other far-flung aunts and uncles. Oh, and I have a cousin who used to live here but is now in America. He's an art conservator and quite brilliant; everyone says he has magic in his fingertips. He works at a museum in New York. You've maybe heard of it: the Pendragon Institute."**
"I've visited the place," Bond replied, attempting in vain to nudge the cats off the foot of the bed. "They have an excellent collection of medieval and Renaissance art. What's your cousin's name?"
"My God," Bond said with amusement. "How appropriate, for a wizard of the conservation lab, not to mention medieval art."
"He's in that family photograph you stealthily unearthed yesterday."
Bond recalled the figure of a slender young man, pale, with dark hair and a remarkable set of high cheekbones. "Stealth had nothing to do with it. That photo just happened to be sitting on top of your bookcase. Emrys. So there's Welsh blood in your family, then."
"Welsh, and Irish as well. Some German on my dad's side. We're quite a mix of things," Q replied, shrugging. "I shouldn't be giving you any of my background, Bond."
"Your family is clearly much more interesting than mine. Is your cousin a tech genius as well?"
"No, not that I'm aware. But of course Merlin's studied chemistry; that's a requirement in the field. He has an excellent eye, and is much better with his hands than I am," Q added, with a sudden, urchin grin, and Bond snorted.
"And that's all I can tell you, really."
"Then you still know more about me than I do about you."
"Oh I don't know. I only know what everybody else at MI6 knows, who has clearance to look at your dossier. I know that you had a temporary guardian, Hans Oberhauser, was it? In Austria? After your parents, um…"
Bond was actually smiling a little. "After they died, yes. Yes, I did. And?"
Q cleared his throat. "And after his death, you lived with an aunt for a time…"
"… and were educated abroad, after Eton."
"From which I was sent down, as you doubtless also know," said Bond, his eyes closed.
"Yes…something to do with a girl, I think? You were at university in Switzerland—Geneva, wasn't it?—with some time at Cambridge," Q went on. "In many respects, you had a quite privileged youth."
Bond snorted for a second time, eyes still closed. "Not in all respects."
"It can't have been so dreadful, growing up in a manor house in Scotland."
"I never really liked that house."****
"I always thought it was the back of beyond."
There was a moment of silence and Bond opened his eyes and raised his head, to find Q eyeing him assessingly. "What is it?"
Q gave a rueful little grin. "I was trying to imagine you in Highland dress."
Bond's head fell back on the pillow and he roared with laughter, to an extent that Q had never seen before.
"You certainly haven't a trace of accent," Q added musingly, as if to himself.
"I dinnae ken ye were so curious."
This time Q chortled loudly until his eyes watered with mirth, as Bond watched him, smiling.
"For pity's sake," he said with mock indignation. "You should know better than to laugh at a Scotsman."
Q mopped at his eyes with the bedsheet. "Sorry."
"At least I don't call you 'ma wee haggis.'"
"Oh please don't," Q replied, attempting to reclaim some of his gravity. "And I have no intention of calling you by pet names of any sort. I don't suppose you had one, as a child?"
Bond shrugged his shoulders, smiling slightly, but made no reply. Pet names? His childhood? His memories of those early years were now fairly intact, with a few gaps here and there. But those were less frustrating than the dwindling gaps that still existed in what he recalled of his later life. Things, moments from those earliest times, sometimes came back to him before he slept: his mother standing by the darkening windows of the night nursery; his father teaching him to fish; Kincaid, the groundskeeper, who had spoken to him brusquely but with gruff affection; Kincaid's wife, who had called him "wee man" and stuffed him with hot buttered scones and gingerbread. The dogs. The low silver bowl in the center of the dining table that his mother had filled with pink roses from her garden.
Ah yes, his mother had sometimes called him "Jamie."
"James," Q said, unexpectedly, with a sudden yawn, and Bond returned to the present with a jolt. It always took him by surprise when Q addressed him thus.
"I think I might go back to sleep. It's the meds, you know. If you happen to be here tomorrow evening," Q continued casually, "I should be in a less, well, semi catatonic state and you can seduce me with my good will."
Bond lifted one eyebrow. "I see. I'll hold you to that tomorrow, then." He switched off the light and drew Q lightly against his shoulder. "If you're feeling up to it, that is. Sleep well, Quartermaster. I believe there are some eggs in your fridge that we'll have to make do with for breakfast. And coffee. Although I imagine you'll want a cup of your unspeakable Earl Grey."
"Do shut up, 007," Q mumbled, stifling a yawn. "Just be grateful that before I came to bed I reviewed the surveillance recordings from the building exterior and the front door of the flat. You may think you were quite clever, breaking in without my knowledge, but your image was nicely recorded and most of Q Branch would have had a field day looking at it tomorrow morning. I erased it, of course. Not for your sake, but for mine. I have no desire to be the object of smutty jokes from my very own staff."
* Robert Frobisher was the name of one of the characters played by Mr Whishaw in the 2012 film "Cloud Atlas."
** From a series of "Pendragon Institute" fanfics based on BBC's "Merlin," originally written by me for the fanfiction website as an AU set in the present day. Currently in the process of being posted here on AO3.
*** The information about 007's pre-MI6 years are taken from the obituary composed by M near the end of Ian Fleming's novel, You Only Live Twice.
**** Bond's claim to have never liked the family home in Scotland comes from the film "Skyfall."