Bond had thought his place impassable.
Like the man himself, it's a force to be reckoned with. Bolts, shutters, locks, keycodes. Fingerprint access. Voice recognition. The flat is representative of his own sense of paranoia, perhaps. Of the shuttered, locked, steel-tight fortress that HE is, too.
They told him that nobody would ever get inside, that his secrets would be safe from the world.
So, how is it that he's opened his front door and found Q, his own Quartermaster, lying prostrate on his black leather couch?
His clothes, stained with what appears to be blood, are neatly folded on the floor beside him. He's wrapped in a blanket wearing a pair of Bond's jogging bottoms. Bond had left them on a radiator to slip into comfortably when he arrived home after a hard day on the job.
Q has claimed them. Q has claimed this place.
There is dried blood on his lip and it makes him look like a bullied twelve year old. Bond doesn't know whether to laugh or pity him.
One eye opens slowly. There is no fear reflected in Q's glance. No shock. Q knew it could only be him. Who else could find their way inside? There are only two people on Earth who could access this place.
They're both present and accounted for.
"You're late, 007. I was expecting you back an hour ago."
"How did you get in? I have state of the art security. It cost a pretty penny. It's also linked to Headquarters. I was told it was impenetrable."
If Q's eye wasn't so swollen he might just raise an eyebrow. He doesn't dignify Bond with a response, simply huffs a little, a tiny sound that indicates just how put out he is at the indication that there's something he cannot access.
"And my fingerprint?"
"Silicone. I lifted them from your exploding pen and had something…fashioned, shall we say."
"Yes. It's useful for more than just breast implants. It's good for kitchen utensils and baking products too, would you believe?"
"And the pass code? How did you crack that?"
"You're not as clever as you think you are. What are you hiding in here anyway? Last I checked the crown jewels were still safely tucked away in their glass cabinet."
"I'm hiding all the secrets of the world."
Again, he could be talking about himself.
The older man removes his coat, hangs it on an elaborate stand next to the breakfast bar. The apartment is open plan not so as to be modernistic but so as to provide no place to hide; no room for an intruder to escape to.
Bond lives and breathes paranoia as readily as he lives and breathes.
There's a flash of it as he looks at Q, obviously bruised, perhaps still bleeding. The light is dim. Bond assumes it's because of the headache he's clearly feeling if the cut above his eyebrow is anything to go on.
"Are you hurt, Q?"
If Q is attempting to hide the pain he does well, at least in the short term. He brings a hand up to the side of his head when the throb behind his eyelids intensifies. He sways momentarily then gathers himself.
Still, it holds in his voice.
"Not any more."
The discarded frozen peas beside him lay testimony to his attempts at lessening the damage, as does the ointment that he most likely found in Bond's bathroom cabinet along with the anti-depressants he's yet to touch, Bond thinks, together with the other bottles that have lain dormant and rejected in the wake of his 'resurrection' - but he pushes that to the back of his mind for now. Bond thinks this is neither the time nor the place to question him about invasion of privacy.
He'd only be hypocritical if he did so.
"Who did this to you?" he asks, finally.
He feels he deserves to know that, at least. It might give him a focus to his anger, to know who was the cause of this. His flame-blue eyes show concern. A flash, nothing more. He rarely gives way to emotion, justified or not. Emotions, feelings, they're kept as secure as his apartment is.
Q's response, however, is not forthcoming. He takes a breath then folds his hands together between his knees. His body language suggests shut off. Unwilling to talk. He's looking away.
"Let me guess, you walked into a door? "
"I'm not a posterchild for domestic violence, Bond, regardless of how I look. There's no partner, abusive or otherwise."
There's nothing waiting for Q at home but a bowl full of fish and some microwave pizza. If he's lucky, his landlady might have left him a mug of fresh, hot tea.
There is no fist. No backhand.
There is nobody.
"But someone did this, Q."
"No, I fell off the parapet. I'm not a damsel in distress that needs rescuing."
"You fell onto your face. You have arms. Did you forget how to use them?"
The shift doesn't imply discomfort. It implies defensiveness.
"I might have been pushed off the parapet. My arms might have been caught in my jacket as someone was trying to pull it off my back."
"So you were mugged?"
"No, I had my jacket and wallet stolen and I was bundled into the street."
"I thought pedantics weren't your thing?"
Admitting weakness isn't his thing. If Bond has learned something it's that. He does not have the allusion of strength to hide behind. He's not built that way.
"I could've got myself home only your place was closer and I didn't have any money for a cab. That was in my wallet which, as I've already explained, found its way into someone else's possession. So, as humiliating as it is, this is all my own doing."
They stole his wallet, much for shame. It was new, a Christmas gift from his more traditional brother. It had been engraved with his initials, his real initials. A.N.H. There had been no Q in sight and that had been a wonderful thing. He'd only had it three weeks. It still smelt of new leather, was still smooth when he opened it.
It was still a novelty.
He'd been so busy he'd not had time to have it installed with the usual tracing devices so there was no hope of it ever being found.
He looks up at Bond. His eyes are blurry. There's a crack in his glasses that alters his perception. He squints, trying to clear his focus.
"Now you've drained me dry of information are you going to sit down? You're making me feel uncomfortable."
Bond senses his humiliation. This shouldn't happen to a man like Q.
This shouldn't be allowed to happen to a man like Q.
"I don't know why you're taking responsibility for this. You didn't ask to be mugged."
"How do you know it wasn't something more?"
"There was no violence, just a push. It was my own fault I fell the way I did. They didn't ask any questions. They didn't take me. They didn't threaten me. Believe it or not, they didn't ask about you. I was merely a nameless victim of petty robbery. Nothing more. We're not so special."
"No, we're not. But you came to me. Here. You felt unsafe. Why?"
"I felt nothing of the sort. Like I said, it was closer."
The truth is, he did feel unsafe. He did feel insecure. He did feel bruised and wounded, had nobody else to call, nowhere else to go. Perhaps deep down he didn't want to be alone. It would be beyond and beneath him to admit that, however.
"How did you get here?"
"You could have called a cab when you arrived. The phone's in use."
"I thought I'd wait for you."
"Curiosity, I suppose."
A pause. A lie. Poorly hidden, but confidently voiced.
"No. Just that. "
"So did you break into my apartment for fun or for a quantum of solace?"
"Then tell me why I shouldn't call the police?"
Q leans back. He's getting comfortable, now. Bond doesn't know whether to be annoyed or impressed by his nerve.
"Well, for a number of reasons, really, first thing being you need me, second thing you'd have to explain why Q Branch is without their leader tomorrow morning when I'm still in lock-up."
"Yes, well, there is that."
"How come you were out this late on your own anyway? Did scrabble club let out after hours?"
"I got drunk. I wasn't on my guard. It was…foolish of me, I expect."
It's something Bond can't imagine, a confession that he wasn't expecting from this closed book of a man who won't even reveal his true age. He senses there's more behind the confession than Q would wish to reveal but he asks anyway. This is his ground. His territory. They should play by his rules.
"Why the descent into alcohol abuse? You don't seem the type. Tee-total, aren't you? What happened to make you break a habit of a lifetime?"
"Really, don't ask. You wouldn't like to know."
The door closes, shuts tight. There are bars and locks that Bond wouldn't dare try breaking through.
He watches carefully as the young man tries to lighten the mood.
"I love the gym, by the way. I should have known. I was quite surprised at the lack of woman's touch, though."
"You reserve hotel rooms for your conquests, then? No visible notches on bedpost either."
"You were in my room?"
There is anger at first, a feeling of being invaded. A man's bedroom is his sanctuary. His home is his castle. For a young upstart to penetrate it like this is nothing short of unfathomable.
Q shrugs, does not appear fazed by the shift in mood. There's something so impassive about him, something so confident despite everything. Despite his appearance. Despite the cut on his lip, on his forehead.
"I was looking for the bathroom. There are no signs. Probably wouldn't be able to read them even if there were, the state of my glasses. I was at a disadvantage."
The tone of his voice indicates he's not lying. That's fair enough.
"It wasn't what I was expecting, this place."
"What had you expected? Something flashier, perhaps?"
"Just something else."
It's effortless, the way he deflects the conversation back to Bond. He's quite the expert.
"So is this by choice or necessity? This whole shut in thing? Is this self imposed lock up and isolation or is it something you can't avoid?"
"Everyone I love dies."
"I can see how that would be a problem."
"I'm a man of few friends. Acquaintences, but few friends. No time or inclination for a love life, I'm afraid. People find me…difficult."
"I can understand why."
"Thank you for the vote of confidence."
"Were you expecting me to disagree?"
"No, I suppose not."
"A lonely existence, ours. You in your difficulty, me in my…complexity."
"I'll drink to that. "
"Would you like a cup of tea? Coffee? A glass of Martini?"
"Shaken, not stirred?"
"No. I think you're shaken and stirred enough. As am I, by your presence."
"Really. Like I said, impenetrable. You caught me by surprise."
"Well, I'm sorry. Do you happen to have any Earl Gray?"
He sounds timid when he asks that. His voice is sheepish. Quiet. At odds to the raw confidence he's been trying to express.
"No Earl Grey, I'm afraid. Chamomile."
"It's probably best. You might be concussed."
"I can assure you I'm not. But I did procure some ibuprofen from your cabinet. My head was aching. I hope you don't mind."
"Clearly, you've helped yourself to more personal items," Bond says, indicating the tracksuit bottoms.
"My trousers were ruined by the fall."
Knees too. There are dots of blood speckling the grey pants.
Q sighs when Bond raises an eyebrow.
"Look, if I'm in your way…"
"…You're not. Stay. We'll quell the lonely existence together."
Bond might be a fortress – yet this tiny, skinny man can force his way in. Can have himself invited in, in fact.
It's also too much for him. He changes his mind. Shifts a little. This time, there's discomfort. The Quartermaster has opened himself up too much. Too fully if not at all.
He doesn't like being in that precarious position. He doesn't like being vulnerable. Being seen as a man rather than as a figurehead.
"Actually, no. I'll go. Forget about the water. If I could just…call a cab, perhaps?"
"What? Frightened of revealing too much of yourself in your weakened state?"
"What's not to know about me, Bond? You know everything."
"Not your name."
"No. Not that."
Knowing a man's name gives the devil power over him.
Perhaps Q believes that as the truth.
"Just stay, for God's sake. You're still bleeding. On my pants, no less. It's cold out there. You don't have your coat."
"No, that was worth more than the wallet".
"Didn't think you were the flash type."
"There's a lot you don't know about me, 007."
"Yes. Yes, I'm starting to see that."
They sit. They don't speak. Bond watches. Q knows that he watches. He's never looked at him this way before. He's never seen the 'human' side of Q in all his nuances and all his complexities.
He's never noticed the way he sits with one leg crossed over the other, how he is completely still. How he rarely moves. How he could be a shadow or a ghost, a statue carved of marble, of stone.
He hasn't noticed how he rubs the side of his head slowly if he's thinking; how his shoulders jerk a little when he laughs.
How his smile is almost particular, almost controlled, how it finds its way to his face as slowly and gracefully as the rest of his carefully controlled actions.
He sees a lot. Too much perhaps.
He sees more than he's comfortable seeing and it tires him.
Bond yawns. The day has been long and hard. He'd been in debrief for most of the day, each and every action and thought and movement under scrutiny. He'd been expecting to come home and fall into bed with a glass in his hand and a veil of sleep across his eyes.
This has caught him off guard.
"You can go to bed, Bond. I'll be gone when you wake up. You don't have to worry about me stealing anything. Your taste leaves a lot to be desired."
"And, I'm to trust a man who won't even gift me his given name?"
Q smiles. If his eyes were not black and blue it might even reach them.
He looks up.
Pointedly calls him by his codename as if he's drawn a line under that barrier; has highlighted it specifically.
Bond gets the message.
The last thought that crosses the Agent's mind before he falls into sleep is that there's more to that young man than any of them could possibly imagine, more ghosts, more secrets, more stories, more depth.
He can feel it. Sense it.
He doesn't sense him leave. He doesn't hear the creak of the floorboards or the opening and closing of the door. He wonders if he's left at all.
Q moves like the wind. Soundless. Boneless, but not graceless. He leaves as he arrived, without fuss. Without ceremony. If not for the soft scent of him that lingers in the air Bond would almost be tempted to believe that he was never here at all.
Then he sees the note, folded neatly, almost scientifically, propped up against the ornamental lamp. Written in neat, black ink is a revelation. To the casual observer this may seem like nothing, just a scrawl on a page.
To Bond, it's a disclosure that makes his heart stop.
'Bond, Thank You. Alex.'
A name. His name. A confession. A secret revealed. A trust shown.
"Alex," Bond says, whispers, so as not to be heard. As soon as the name has passed his lips he knows it must never pass them again.
He closes his mouth, seals the secret inside.
It's quite a dramatic absence, if rumors are anything to go on.
Q Branch loses its leader to a 'bar fight' or 'chess riot' or any other torrid tale that Q doesn't bother to stifle amongst the minions of his department. M, having seen the bruises on his face, the slight squint in his left eye and the split in his lip, orders him home on three days medical leave. He can't afford his Golden Child succumbing to work-related migraines brought on by an overzealous fist or the like.
"In future," he warns, "try to steer clear. I don't want to have to send you for combat training as well as the double-o's. It just wouldn't be cost effective."
"I apologise, Sir."
"Have medical take a look at you before you leave. The eye looks particularly gruesome."
"I don't think that's necessary.
"It's policy, Q. You and I both know that."
Q wasn't injured on duty, nor was he injured in the workplace. It doesn't strictly fall under policy yet a lot of care and attention is taken with precious cargo such as himself. He understand that, is grateful for it if a little put out by it.
He wishes people didn't assume him made of porcelain but, objectively speaking, he cannot condemn them for it. It's understandable. He embodies a certain frailty from his glasses to his small frame. It's been a burden, of sorts, throughout his young life.
"Schedule a further appointment for Thursday morning, Q. We'll see if we can have you cleared for work then."
"Of course, sir."
Had it been Bond he would have argued his case: that this was the matter of one physically diminutive man against three thieving thugs determined to obtain his coat and wallet. That it was not a fair battle, especially not for one unversed in the fight. Q, not particularly precious about his masculinity in the eyes of a man who employs him for his brains and not his brawn, says nothing, simply nods enigmatically and thanks M for his thoughtfulness. He promises he'll work on some less invasive algorithms at home so that his time off will not be wasted.
"Were you afraid he couldn't handle the brutal truth?" Bond asks as Q packs up his things and excuses himself.
"No. I just didn't want to get into it."
"So you'd rather let the rumours fly around? None of them jumped to the actual truth, did they? Q Branch's imaginations are somewhat colourful, I must say."
"I, of all people, know that you cannot control another man or woman's thoughts about a person or situation. Every thought has a personal genesis based on perception and preference. To alter that is virtually impossible."
"Yet you've learned to manipulate people through words on a screen."
"That's different. The pen is mightier than the sword and the voice combined. I dare say the typed text is mightier than all of them."
"It's a shame you can't call men off with typed words, then, isn't it? You might have saved yourself a leave of absence and a damaged retina."
Q's jaw tightens ever so slightly. It's barely perceptible but there.
"Yes, quite. Now if you'll excuse me, I've a train to catch.'
"You should really learn to drive. Public transport and the streets of London can be dangerous."
He wisely leaves out 'for a man of your stature' but the unspoken words are heard loud and clear. Bond doesn't know if he's trying to provoke a reaction.
It seems Bond's life is spent provoking reactions.
"I've managed to survive twenty-seven years without a vehicle and with minimal incident, 007. I'm sure I'll manage another half an hour."
Bond nods his head. He's learned not to make a big deal of Q's impromptu revelations, simply locks them away for later contemplation. Posing a question simply sends the shutters hurtling down more quickly. It's like pressing on a reflex. Inevitably, there will be a kick out.
What else can you tell me, Q?
"I'll see you on Thursday, Bond. Please try not to damage anything in the interim. Q branch are good but –"
" –they're not you?"
It's not that he's arrogant. It's just that it's true.
Alex. 27. Sure of himself.
It's Thursday. The bruises are fading. The cuts are healing. His time in front of the computer screen, which he had lessened substantially for fear of stress headaches and strain in his damaged eye, had doubled.
His productivity, whilst on medical leave, had been commendable. He wasn't a man to take time off, simply couldn't. People who know him to the level and depth he allows them to understand that. Idle minds, and all that.
He's been quite vocal in the meeting. Q, it seems, is a man of many thoughts and ideas. An asset to MI6, to Queen, to Country, to the world in some sense. The meeting, itself, has overran its course. New initiatives, new targets, new protocols and new ideas, all of which were to be ran by all involved in the conception and implementation so as to gage 'employee response'.
It's laughable, to Bond, the idea that they could possibly have any bearing on what goes and what does not go at Headquarters but MI6 always maintained that illusion of inclusion.
It helps keep them in line, somewhat, to think that they might be listened to.
Bond hasn't been listening at all, if the truth were to be voiced. He's found himself engaged in a raging internal battle of thought, of logic, of idea, of possibility. He's been handed a crumb and it's not enough. He's the child dying of thirst offered a drop of water; the starving man given a corner of bread when he needs the whole loaf.
What did he know?
What does he know now?
Alex. 27. Accent indicating a region of Bedfordshire, perhaps, but with a hint of something else. Possibly Kent.
What else can he deem from the sparse information laid before him? He looks. Searches. Whilst M voices concerns about staff levels and working hours, Bond zones out, focuses on the thin young man with the healing bruises and the bony wrists and the appendectomy scar that he remembers peeking out from those too-large jogging bottoms.
Alex. 27. From Bedford or Kent. Devoid of appendix. Educated to a high standard, possibly a private school, with the emotional detachment of a child who perhaps boarded away from home.
Alex, 27, from Bedford or Kent. Rich family, brother in high position, second brother rather notorious in his own right. His mother's only child. Afflicted with a certain repetitive behaviour and an oft-spoken of lack of interpersonal relationships that could indicate something of an issue, Asperger's Syndrome, perhaps, or perhaps nothing more than the isolating influence of a superior intellect which sets him aside from all else, emotionally.
He says people find him difficult.
Q. Quartermaster. Alex. Alexander?
What goes on inside that head of yours?
Bond's hand moves to his mouth, forefinger slipped between his teeth. He frowns, deep in thought, and it's broken by the familiar buzz against his thigh as his phone, set to silent, alerts him to the fact that somebody requires his attention.
He pulls it out of his pocket as discreetly as possible. His eyes cast downwards momentarily, just long enough to read the words without being caught losing focus.
The message is from a withheld number. It flashes up on a box he's not familiar with. It's not a regular text box and, if he were more technologically minded he would be aware that his telephone has, indeed, been hacked.
There is no name attached to the text.
It doesn't change the fact that his mind reads it in Q's voice because he knows, somehow. He's certain.
"I am not a mystery you will solve if place me under close enough scrutiny. Stop trying."
Calling a man off with typed words, as such.
Q does not appear to have moved,gives nothing away. His eyes remain firmly fixed towards the pull-down whiteness of the projector screen. His hands are resting, as usual, between his knees.
To the naked eye, he has not even flinched.
Bond, as versed as he is in espionage, isn't as versed in technology as Q is. He isn't as able, isn't as nimble. His large arms and substantial hands make it difficult for him to respond with any degree of prudence.
He doesn't respond at all but the look he casts in Q's direction, unnoticed by most but very much received by Q, is answer enough.
"Clever boy," he's saying.
As the monotony of MI6's 'updated files and protocols' film plays out on the screen, Bond finds himself updating his own files, his mental files.
Q's file has a name attached to it now. Unfortunately, it also has a 'classified' stamp emblazoned across the front of it.
If there's one thing that's always 'captured' Bond it's a book he can't read; a safe he can't crack. If there's something that's always grabbed him and refused to let go it's the knowledge that there is something out there that does not want to be found.
Someone who doesn't want to be found.
Perhaps Q sees himself as the Holy Grail. Perhaps his secrets are Illuminati protected. Perhaps the person he once was doesn't exist at all, is merely the black and green photographic negative that could be a picture yet never quite is.
He is fascinating.
He is fascinating and Bond is spellbound.
Bond stands still in the doorway when the meeting is over, not quite consciously blocking Q's exit. It's not intentional. It's just that he's used to people stepping aside for him. Granting him entrance or exit as and when he wishes for it. Q stands before him, his cardigan buttoned up to the top, his unruly hair neat, for once, as it sweeps across his forehead. He's expecting words to pass between them, perhaps a mordant turn of phrase or some sort of comment with regard to his imposing bulk.
Q says nothing. Gives nothing away.
In his eyes there is nothing. One could almost imagine lines of code scrolling down the pupils and irises as it might one of his computer screens before shutting down.
It's an impasse. With nothing to exchange it's just a matter of waiting for one of them to concede. There's a slight smile on Q's face. If Bond looks closely he can see it. Just about.
He wonders if Alex ever smiled.
He wonders if Alex ever gave way to an impasse the way that Q quite simply would never back down from one. He wonders who Alex is, if there is any trace of him in the young man that stands before him.
Bond gets the impression that Q could keep this up all evening, if needs must. He knows when a battle is lost.
"I apologise," Bond says, finally, as he takes a step to the side. He stretches his arm out to the right, an indication, an invitation. By all means, he's saying. By all means, walk away.
It's only when Q passes him that he finally speaks; that the notorious sarcasm shines through now that he knows he has 'won'.
"If you weren't so bloody large, Bond…"
It seems like a partial answer to the riddle, Bond thinks. A clue.
That Q often lets himself shine through when he has the upper hand. When he's on top. When nobody is looking.
He'd love to know what that means.
"Stop thinking, Bond," Q calls back, his voice a mere echo down the corridor and Bond wonders if he can read minds; if that's how he got to be as prominent and brilliant as he is.
He says nothing. Allows Q the last word.
It's better that way.