Alec's house was an elegant white terraced house overlooking a small park in Knightsbridge. The keyhole was trapped; Bond opened the brass number plaque beside the keyhole, entered the eight-digit keycode, and let himself inside, feeling worse than he had after getting shot off the train. His head was pounding and the pain medications were wearing off. In a sadistic fit, the medical staff had refused to give him any more if he exercised his right to leave, possibly because he threw in something about 'blocking the doors with the stacked up corpses of this whole department' being unable to keep him from leaving. That might have been overkill.
The house smelled of dust. Bond had a maid service for his old flat because he didn't keep anything sensitive there. Alec did — including an arsenal — which meant the house fell apart whenever he was on a mission.
Bond's vague thoughts of cleaning up and fixing himself lunch fell apart. Instead, he made it as far as the sofa, where he eased himself down, put his feet up on the arm, and closed his eyes.
Leaving, he thought — and god, even thinking hurt — might have been a tactical error, though strategically, it was sound. He needed to get away from MI6. He needed to get away from Mike Taylor. From the Quartermaster. Some time over the last year and a half, he'd got used to thinking of Mike Taylor as his. In his own mind, Bond had forged a connection between them without even considering how Mike would feel about it.
Very sociopathic, that.
But Bond had never considered that Mike might have his own plans (which apparently included becoming the Quartermaster on his own, despite Bond's efforts to get him into Q Branch a year ago). He never thought that Mike would be young and gorgeous and too fucking good for a half-dead field agent who was useful only for drinking himself to death and killing anyone who crossed his path.
Bond's dark, morose thoughts were made worse by the ebb of painkillers in his blood. He considered going downstairs, to where he knew Alec had emergency medical supplies — including enough painkillers to keep Bond from hurting for the next week — but he was too damned tired. Instead, he got up off the sofa long enough to retrieve a bottle of fair-quality whisky from Alec's bar. That would do well enough to get him to sleep or unconscious. Same thing, really.
"Not that I'm shy or anything," Q said, his discomfort probably showing through clearly, despite his attempt to hide it, "but why are you insisting on a video chat? What's wrong with a phone call or typing? And do you have any idea how insecure this is?"
"Because it's eight in the morning, and I have someone to kill in forty minutes. Wouldn't want me to be late," Alec said from somewhere outside the camera pickup. All Q could see, in fact, were legs — thankfully in blue jeans and not bare — and the dizzying view of what looked like a cheap hotel room.
"Are you carrying your laptop by the screen?" Q asked with some horror. "You know that's bad, right?"
"It's fine," Alec answered, and thumped the laptop down somewhere. And there was the bare skin that Q had expected, in the form of a too-muscular torso, visible as Alec bent down and turned on a sink. "You're sure you're the Quartermaster?" he asked sceptically, twisting to face the laptop as water splashed. "Do you even know how to mix explosives?"
"Not just explosives, Alec. The world is damn lucky I'm a white hat. Otherwise I could have it burning," Q said grimly. "Now, can we skip you telling me that I look like a teenager and get to the part about what the hell I'm supposed to do about James?"
Alec ducked, and Q actually saw his face. He was far more handsome than his file photo implied (perhaps even more handsome than James), with deep green eyes and a square jaw, hidden though it was by half a coat of shaving foam.
"I can see why he likes you so much. You're feisty," Alec approved, and stood back up, leaving the camera focused on his torso once more. With every breath, a nasty scar on his ribs moved. Q suspected something large and angry had bitten him, and had no idea how he'd managed to survive.
"Did you hear about what happened?" Q asked cautiously.
"I got an alert that someone's at my house, so it's either an unusually polite burglar who used the keypad or it's James," Alec answered. "What did he manage to do to himself? Why didn't he just get a hotel? He doesn't kip at my place unless something's gone horribly wrong."
Q shifted uncomfortably, telling himself that he was better off having this conversation with Alec halfway around the world in Mexico, rather than at a cafe where he might be tempted to strangle Q. "Well, I was in the new Q Branch, testing a new robot. An armed defence bot. Which, uh, went a bit wonky. And I tried to tell James not to interfere, but you know how he is. He got shot" — Q paused — "a couple of times. Nothing life-threatening, but still..."
The sound of splashing went silent. Then Alec let out a loud, booming laugh. "You — you shot James?" he gasped out. "With a bloody robot?"
"Twice. Maybe three times. I'm not really sure how many times, actually," Q replied wryly. "And I wasn't trying to. The bot just went homicidal on me."
"He's never going to live this down," Alec said, still laughing. "If I don't get killed on this mission, I'm taking you out for the best — You are old enough to drink, aren't you?" he asked slyly.
"God, what is it with you Double O's and underestimating ages? Seriously? Is it just me, or do you often make that mistake? I'm in my thirties, for Christ's sake." Q was glad Alec wasn't looking at him directly because he knew damn well how petulant he looked.
"Well, yes, but Boothroyd was older than rocks. By comparison, you're, well, adorable comes to mind. But why the hell are you hitting on me from halfway around the world instead of shagging James in a supply cupboard somewhere? Shooting's damned near a third date, for field agents."
Q huffed. "Sorry, Alec. One Double O is enough for me. Besides, I hear you go more for the married ones, what with their not looking like teenagers and all. But really, I do need help with James. After the shooting, I met with him in Medical — which was the first time we'd met in person. He brushed me off and left against medical advice."
Alec made a thoughtful sound but didn't speak up immediately. There was more splashing, punctuated by the periodic wet splatter of shaving foam shaken off a razor. "Right," Alec said thoughtfully, leaning forward a bit more. "So, here's the thing. You're both idiots. Let's start at the beginning. Got anything against blokes? Dating, shagging, take your pick."
"Obviously not," Q said dryly.
"Not making any assumptions here," Alec answered quickly. "So, what about James himself? I mean, you're not calling to ask me to kill him. I hope you're not calling for that."
"If I wanted him dead, I could do it myself with the aforementioned world-burning tools, Alec," Q answered wryly, before dropping into a more serious tone. "I'm worried about him."
Alec sighed. "James is loyal. He'll sacrifice his life for England. He won't think twice about the cost. Even when he's at his breaking point — Greece, for example... Well, you saw. Someone came after us, and he came back. But don't for a minute think that means he's nice. He's not. He'll lie, steal, fuck, and kill his way through a mission and do it without a single bit of regret."
It wasn't new information, but put that way it made Q pause. He wasn't stupid. When he'd been promoted, he'd quickly made an effort to learn everything about the Double O programme and its operatives. But it was still hard to reconcile what he'd learned in those files with his friend, James, who he'd come to know through phone calls, emails, and notes attached to surprisingly thoughtful gifts.
"I know," he finally said. "It wasn't as if I didn't hear him killing his way through many a mission. He didn't hide from me that he..." Q sighed. "I know, Alec."
"How important is loyalty?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, short of asking him to betray another loyalty — to England, to me — James will do anything for you, if you earn it from him. He'll kill for you, and he'll die for you. Can you handle that responsibility, knowing what he's doing when he's out on a mission?"
"Yes," Q answered, albeit quietly. "Loyalty goes both ways. It means that even if I could ask him to do whatever it was I wanted, I wouldn't. And I wouldn't ask him to stop doing anything that makes him who he is."
Alec let out a sigh that sounded relieved. "All right. Because when he trusted you enough to give you that phone, it was both our careers he risked — assuming M didn't escalate things all the way to treason." He huffed and turned off the water, walking away from the camera. "So, the tough question now: Has James been enough of a complete bastard that you're ready to turn your death-robots loose on him again, or can this bloody mess be redeemed?"
"It's not that he's being a bastard," Q said, frowning as he watched Alec move around. "I'd like very much if he came back and had dinner with Cherie and me as he said he wanted to, before. But he doesn't seem to want to have anything to do with us right now. He refused — several times. Hell, Alec. He wouldn't even look at me, really. He just..." Q shook his head. "He blew me off."
"Or he made the decision to keep you safe. To keep you at arm's length, because having anything to do with us is like skydiving into a bloody hurricane," Alec said, sounding resigned. "He's probably terrified for you. And of you."
"Bloody fucking stupid death bot," Q groaned out, running his hands through his hair. "If I hadn't —"
"Of you, not your robot," Alec interrupted. He turned slightly, and though his face was still out of the camera's field, Q knew Alec was looking at the screen. "Look, a few years ago, he got involved with someone. He left MI6 to be with her, and she betrayed him. He's been talking to you for how many months?"
Q sat back to process that for a moment. It confirmed the vague sort of suspicions he'd had about Bond's past relationships — though he would never have guessed that he'd be willing to give up MI6 for anyone. He pushed aside his curiosity about what happened to her and focused on Alec again.
"Yes," Q confirmed. "And I come with added benefit of being thoroughly vetted by MI6. I'm not the enemy, Alec. I'm not even a civilian."
"She was Treasury. Thoroughly vetted, sent to work with him on an MI6 op."
"Fuck. What the hell am I supposed to do? I'm not willing to just sit back and let him kill himself because he's got cold feet about being involved with me. I thought we already were involved, in the more important ways. What else does he want from me?"
"For you to not get fucked over by being involved with him," Alec answered. "He's not an idiot — god, I can't call you 'Q' without thinking of Boothroyd. He let you get close. Suddenly he's panicking. So, he's going to do what any Double O would do in that situation."
"You can call me Mike, if you want." Q sighed. "He can't just get up and run off to chase the bad guys, Alec. He's hurt from my stupid machine. And everyone seems to expect me to just know what to do to keep him here, keep him getting himself killed, and that's where I'm stuck. Because I can't just sit on him, no matter what Danielle says."
Alec barked out a laugh. "Why not? He was shot. Even a skinny thing like you could probably take him down, assuming he didn't get into my stash of morphine. He wants you to be a part of his life. He's just too bloody stubborn to admit it to himself. Otherwise, he'd fuck you to get you out of his system and move on."
"You have a stash of morphine?" Q asked with concern, glad for an excuse to not have to respond to the second part of what Alec said. "He doesn't know where it is, does he?"
"Of course he does. It's in the emergency surgery kit in the basement. Do you want the code to the door or not? I have to go kill someone, and I hate to not be on time for that sort of thing. It seems frivolous."
Whether he was emotionally prepared to face James or not, he couldn't risk James doing something stupid with that surgical kit. Well, something else stupid; it was already too late to prevent him from leaving MI6 Medical. So he grabbed his phone and opened a new text note, asking, "What's the code? And you don't mind if I bring my cat, right?"
Alec gave him an eight-digit code, along with an address in Knightsbridge — about as economically far from Q's cramped, tiny flat as one could get, short of Buckingham Palace itself. "Go ahead. The armoury's in the basement as well. Train her as a sniper. I could use her as backup on my ops. God knows she's got the instinct."
Q laughed. "Thanks, Alec. I'm heading over there now. And good luck with your mission."
"Just have the sofa dry cleaned before I get home — that or change the sheets. James knows where the guest bedroom is." He saved Q from having to answer by closing the lid to the laptop.
Q chuckled before closing the chat window. He stood to start packing a bag — several days' worth of supplies for both him and Cherie.
Right. Sit on James. He could do that.
The double-beep snapped Bond awake — which he immediately regretted, thanks to the searing hot knife someone had apparently embedded in his gut while he had been unconscious. "Fucking Christ," he groaned, staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling. His mind wasn't registering any sort of alarm, though, which meant he was somewhere safe. It took him a few seconds to recognise Alec's house.
He rolled onto his back, wondering why the hell he'd let himself collapse on the uncomfortable sofa. Then he thought about dragging his arse up the stairs to the guest room and decided the sofa was just fine. He twisted and looked over at the coffee table, where he'd left most of a bottle of whisky. The thought of reaching for it at the moment was absolutely unacceptable.
"Alec!" he barked as loudly as his gut would allow, which wasn't very.
The sound of soft footsteps, too soft to belong to Alec, who tended to stomp like an elephant when he was in his own home, echoed in the hallway. "Wrong friend," came the response before Mike appeared in the entryway to the living room, carrying a stuffed rucksack, a laptop bag, a cat carrier, and a large bag of what looked (and smelled) like takeaway.
Bond stared at him; this wasn't supposed to have happened. "What the fuck?" he asked, more baffled than angry or even irritated — at least until he swung his legs down off the couch and sat up, and the invisible knife inside him moved.
Mike frowned at him. He dropped the bags in the doorway, then leaned down to pull Cherie out of the carrier. He walked over to stand mere inches from where Bond was taking deep breaths and trying not to swear. Even sitting up apparently hurt.
Gently, Mike dropped Cherie onto Bond's lap, took him by the shoulders, and gently pushed him back to lie down. "Cherie is under orders to sit on you to keep you off your feet. I'd do it instead, but I suspect that might be a bit more painful than you'd prefer. Hungry?" Mike shoved the whiskey aside and sat on the coffee table.
Tempting as it was to look around and make damned certain he really was in Alec's house — where Mike couldn't be — Bond wasn't quite that stupid, even in his present condition. Besides, Cherie's angry bite to his finger proved that this wasn't a dream. "What the fuck?" he repeated, thinking in some fuzzy way that those three simple words encompassed everything going through his mind.
He was glad of the cat, too. He knew better than to try and dislodge her so he could do something even more stupid, like grab at Mike to pull him close.
"Did you think I was going to let you get away that easily?" Mike asked, leaning over to brush his hand over Bond's face. "I mean, it took me a few hours, and a little help from Danielle and Alec, to figure out what to do. Because you're stubborn, and I wasn't expecting a rejection. But here I am."
Bond closed his eyes, thinking this was all too much. "You're an idiot," he said, petting under Cherie's chin. She rolled over, latched onto his hand with her claws, and started gnawing on his fingers. "Why the hell aren't you running?"
"Why on earth would I do that, James?" Mike asked with a small smile, leaning over him. "You're my agent." Then he kissed him despite everything that had gone wrong — despite Bond stalking him, passing out from blood loss and shock the first time they'd met, walking out of Medical, and all his efforts to warn Mike off, and even despite the fact that Bond was half-dead and couldn't be pleasant to kiss at all.
He got his free hand up into Mike's hair, not caring that it pulled at the bandages around his left arm, and tugged him off the coffee table and onto the couch. Mike was alive and unhurt and too stupid to run from Bond, and that said more about Bond's luck than the fact that the damned robot hadn't actually scored a fatal shot.
Mike groaned into the kiss, pushing himself forward reflexively before he stopped moving, hands fluttering lightly over Bond's arms without landing anywhere. Then, as Cherie let out a hiss, Mike suddenly jerked back with a startled huff. "Damn cat," he muttered, shaking his hand as he sat up, smiling ruefully. "Apparently she's going to be a little possessive of you."
Bond reached out to take hold of Mike's bleeding fingers. As they touched, he had second thoughts — and third and fourth thoughts, because Mike deserved far better than someone like him — but he did it anyway, because apparently they were both idiots. He pressed a finger over the two bloody fang-marks on Mike's fingertip.
"If that's what I think it is" — he nodded in the direction of the takeaway bag — "we could always distract her. Cats eat more chicken in the wild than they do people. I think."
Mike chuckled. "Not our cat. She doesn't actually eat anyone, but I think she might be part vampire." Mike brushed one more light kiss across Bond's lips before he stood to fetch the bag. "I suppose given where she came from, it's not an unreasonable assumption."
Our cat, Bond thought dazedly. He watched Mike set out takeaway containers and tried to get himself to believe this was real. Mike Taylor was a voice on the phone, a competent tech, and a lifeline to sanity. But he was also here, now, with Bond. He wanted to be here. And god help them both, Bond wanted him just as much.
Bond risked bleeding to death (slowly) by moving Cherie off his lap. He ignored the slash of her claws.
Mike looked up at her indignant hiss, just in time to see Bond actually stand up, in defiance of medical wisdom. "James —"
Tape stretched and stitches strained as Bond pulled Mike into his arms. He buried his face against Mike's unruly hair and muttered, "Just because I have to share you as Q doesn't mean I'm sharing all of you."
"Bloody well better not," Taylor huffed out against Bond's shoulder. "I think we've earned having this to ourselves, don't you?" He gently wrapped his arms around Bond, trying to avoid his injuries. "Why don't you go lie down on the bed? I'll get Cherie some chicken to sate her carnivorous thirst for a while, and we can just talk and relax and I can call you an idiot again."
Bond laughed, feeling strangely daring when he pressed a kiss to Mike's cheek. "You romantic, you," he accused. "I'll go turn down the bed. We'll take Alec's. He won't mind, and it's bigger than the guest bed."
"No, he won't mind. He said to just make sure we change the sheets before we leave."
"You — Of course, you talked to him," Bond said, leaning back to look into Mike's eyes. It was strange that he looked so unfamiliar, even though Bond knew Mike's voice better than his own. Usually, relationships went the other way around for Bond — if he could call them relationships at all. "And yes, that's a compliment, me suspecting you hacked the house security system without setting off the countermeasures."
"I would have set them all off if I had to," Taylor said, looking right back at Bond. "But fortunately, you have very good friends. I have to admit, we owe them a lot. Alec, M, Danielle."
"Danielle threatens me every time your department assigns me so much as a bloody pen, M ordered me shot, and Alec getting involved just means that we have an assassin acting as a matchmaker," Bond teased, brushing his right hand a bit gingerly through Mike's hair. It was soft and dark brown and too long, and Bond was already addicted to touching it. "And since you're now one of the executives at MI6, you get to deal with them all. I just shoot people."
Taylor laughed and pushed into Bond's hand, letting out a low hum that couldn't be mistaken for anything but pleasure. "You just want to get out of the dinner party, don't you?" he said before leaned back up to nip at Bond's lips.
Bond's pleased hum cut off as he reluctantly backed away from the start to a very, very promising kiss. "Dinner party? You'd best mean with Cherie."
Taylor laughed and gave him a gentle but firm shove. "Bed, now, before I have to literally drag you. Which I promise won't be pleasant for anyone. I'm not that strong and may have to resort to robots."
"Christ, not more of your bloody robots." Bond stood his ground long enough for one more kiss, not quite willing to believe that Mike could possibly want him. "Will Cherie be all right down here? Has she ever done stairs before?"
"I honestly don't know what's more alarming," Taylor said with an expression of exaggerated disbelief. "That you underestimate our rather evil cat's abilities to the extent that you don't think she can tackle the stairs, or that you think she belongs with us in bed. Did you miss the glorious bloodshed?"
"But you said she sleeps on the pillow with you," Bond said, unable to resist ruffling Taylor's hair, though it pulled at his stitches. When Taylor glared at him — insincerely — Bond surrendered, laughing, and backed away. "I'm going. I suppose if I tell you to bring the whisky, you'll say no?"
"And here I foolishly thought you'd want to remember things tonight," Taylor said with a shrug. "But, if you insist..." He looked speculatively at the whisky bottle, hands on his hips.
"They refused painkillers, since I left against recommendations. It's not my fault," Bond protested. "Or do you think you can distract me, given that you also had me shot?"
Taylor's grin turned wicked. "Oh, I bet I could come up with something that wouldn't pull at your stitches," he whispered as he leaned into Bond, mouth grazing his ear, making Bond shiver and forget, at least a little, about his injuries. But then Taylor took a step back and folded his arms. "Not that it will be necessary. I set the bastards straight. There are a handful of prescriptions in my bag for you — painkillers and antibiotics, which you're not refusing."
Bond laughed, not caring how much it hurt. "All right. Forget the whisky," he said, to his own surprise. "I'll turn down the bed, you settle the cat, and then come upstairs and tell me how you sicced your robot army on the vampires in Medical."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Taylor said, giving him one last kiss before he turned, as if bracing himself, towards the kitten. "Here, beastie. Let's dial down your need for human flesh with a bit of nice chicken, shall we?"
Over the sound of Cherie's hissing, Bond took himself upstairs. Only when he was past the first landing did he pause, both to give himself a quick rest and to take the flimsy, anonymous flip phone out of his pocket. He dialled the second speed dial as he started up towards the second storey.
"Tell me you didn't shoot him," Alec said.
"I'm an idiot, but not that much of one," Bond said softly. "Thank you."
"Idiot. Try not to bleed all over my house. And do as he says. This one's clever."
Bond smiled. "That he is."