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oh love, remind me

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I wasn’t composed of broken bones or demon limbs,

So please watch over me.

 

“Left.  Your other left, 006.  Your other other left.  For Christ’s sake, 006, do we need a refresher on what your lefts and rights are?  Shall I get you socks and mittens with little L’s and R’s stitched into the—that is still your right!  Left!  Oh, sod it, fall down the bloody well, then.”

 

There’s commotion on the other line, and Q pointedly does not care.  He reaches for his scrabble mug, which is empty, spits something about committing high treason, and then witnesses Alec Trevelyan falling down a bloody well.

 

“Q!” he exclaims when he hits the bottom.

 

“I explicitly said to avoid your right,” Q says evenly.

 

“No, you continued to say left, your other left, your other other left—which, aside, what even is your other other left?”


“It’s the left you have when you’re still going right after being told to go left.  Nope, you’re already down there,” Q says when 006 starts to look around for handholds to bring him back up the well.


“It was concealed,” 006 grumbles.

 

“Which was why I told you to go left.”

 

“You know what,” 006 says, and rips the modified sunglasses off his face.

 

“006!”

 

He crushes them underfoot, and Q loses visual.  He takes a measured breath, inhaling to the count of seven, and exhaling to the count of eleven.

 

Eleven double oh’s.  More than any quartermaster in the history of MI-6 has had at a single time, and Q is responsible for their safety, their wellbeing, and their missions.  Granted, R and Nala handle a fair amount of missions, and he’s even recently started delegating some of the less obnoxious ones to Keira and Arjuna, but it is still him who outfits them, who briefs them, who has to listen to them snap months of hard work beneath the heel of their shoe.

 

He’s already got Alec’s credit report open before he realizes what he’s doing, and Q closes it out with a sigh.  He’ll ruin him later.

 

“I’ll have you know,” he says evenly, coldly, “those glasses took up quite a bit of my budget.”

 

006 does not respond.  Q can hear him, plunging into the depths of the well that has been reconfigured and transformed into the epicenter for a network of tunnels.  He considers adding that the glasses have night vision installed in them, but decides to save that piece of helpful information for when 006 has successfully made it back out into the light of day.  That won’t help him now, either way, what with them being a crumpled mess.

 

In, seven, out, eleven.

 

Eleven.

 

In the events following Spectre, M did a bit of tidying.  He sent James away on an extended undercover mission, which kept him short-tempered and frustrated for the first three months, and then dark for the next five.  Q knew why he was being sent away, knew that M was taking him out of the public eye, but it didn’t make his bed any less cold, his shoulders any less tight, and his mood any less volatile.  He allowed himself three full days to be snappy with everyone, and then he reined it in, neatly packed his emotions away behind a reinforced steel wall, and got back to business.

 

In his absence, M hired three new double oh’s.  They all happened at once, and they all happened without Q knowing about it beforehand.  He was down in his branch, surrounded by minions separated into myriad tasks—Keira and Arjuna were working as a team to lead 002 through a mission that would only realistically take a day or two, Nala was overseeing the development of a new virus, R had taken first on 008’s current mission in Baghdad, and Faruq was in R&D trying to put out a literal fire while the culprit of said fire was standing, shoulders hunched right up to his ears, head bowed, and fists tight by his sides, at the helm of Q branch, enduring a terrible lecture about setting actual literal fires in one of the most hostile environments in all of MI-6—when M walked in flanked by three new agents.

 

Q didn’t stop in his quiet tirade.  He let every ounce of disappointment and anger roll right off him and into the fire minion—though the anger was mostly at himself for outright forgetting the minion’s name—only sparing one glance as the doors opened.  When he was finished—when M had migrated to the plant corner, and the three new agents were standing together, looking unsure, which just irritated Q further—he sent him off to help Faruq put out the fire, intercepted a bit of broken code 005 had just sent their way, and glared at it for four full seconds before M said, “Q.”

 

He sent the code off to Rashmi to handle, who startled as Q transferred 005 to him, as well, and turned to M.  “No,” was all he said.

 

M, professional as always, didn’t smile, merely lifted an eyebrow.  “Agents 0010, 0011, and 0012, this is your new quartermaster.  He’ll have you outfitted and prepped.  Q, files have been sent down.”

 

M wasn’t foolish enough to ever give the 001 moniker to anyone after the last one—Q hadn’t been here for it, but he’d heard plenty of outrageous stories—and thus he now had eleven agents, 002 through 0012, to babysit.  The last quartermaster, Eve told him later, had only been trusted with seven in total.  The one before, four, and when he’d asked when the last time their roster was this full, she’d given him this smug look that he refused to interpret and told him five quartermasters ago—five; Q was loathe to think why there had been so many, what had happened to the early ones to go through so many so quick—they’d had nine.

 

He needs to stop being so careful with them, and just let them bloody well die.

 

006 is still careening headlong into the dark while Q tracks his vitals and provides assistance whenever he stops at a fork.

 

He allows himself, briefly, to wonder where James might be right now, who or what he might be doing, if he’s wrapping up the mission or still in the thick of things, if he’s ever going to come home, if he’s even alive—and stops himself right there.  He can’t think about this at work, can’t let his walls crack when there are too many people depending on him.

 

The three new agents still haven’t been sent out into the field.  They have, in truth, but not really.  They’ve been sent to nearby countries for short missions, and then to farther countries for a bit longer missions, but they’ve all come back without any serious, or even mild, injuries, with their equipment intact, and Q is eager to shoo them off to somewhere far away and exotic so he can yell at them about their lefts and rights.

 

“When I say left, 006, I mean left,” Q growls suddenly as Alec starts to veer right.

 

“I’ve got a sense about this right, Q,” 006 says, trotting along, “The air is clearer down here.”

 

“Have fun, then, Gandalf,” Q mutters.

 

Alec howls in delight, and Q doesn’t bother reminding him about being discreet.  Though Q’s lost visual with the glasses, he’s still got a thermal reader attached to 006’s suit that he doesn’t know about, and he doesn’t see anyone for a few miles at least.

 

The next time he reaches for his mug, it’s full, and he throws a smile over his shoulder in the general direction of Nala.  A small notification pops up in the corner of his screen, and he refrains from sending up a prayer to an entity he doesn’t believe in.  0010 has been assigned to a mission in Cambodia to infiltrate a drug ring.  He clicks into the email, reads it in a heartbeat, and grins at M’s postscript.  Another mission will be coming down in a few hours for 0012, and he thinks it’ll be to Q’s liking.

 

He wonders if M will ever admit that he’s keeping him so busy because he’s afraid Q will break otherwise, wonders if he’ll ever admit that he sent James on a deep undercover mission with the intention of never seeing him again, wonders if he’ll ever be able to shake loose of the vice wrapped around his heart, making his bones cold and his sternum ache.

 

Eleven double oh’s, he almost says aloud.  His thirty-third birthday is in two weeks, and it’s possible he’s at the height of his prime.  He hates to think that, that he’s peaked so young, but then he remembers that the last quartermaster was ancient, and he only had seven.

 

Eleven.

 

002 is still in love with the moon, and is overly grateful whenever Q sends him a bit of culture nearby.  He brings back exotic pastries, waxes poetic about the new generation of youths, gets feisty when Q tries to talk literature with him, and has an endless collection of old records.

 

003 wears his suits with a crisp air of formality and business, and is still fond of knife fights in the dark.  His cool demeanor budges only when Q is clearly affronted by something, always quick to try to pacify the situation even if he has no idea what the situation is, seems to be collecting dogs with every eighth mission, and recently got himself kidnapped.  Nala got five days leave for her excellent recovery.

 

004 is still a hard-edged, sharp-tongued, awful-spirited woman that hates the minions of Q branch and detests how young Q is like it’s a personal attack, but Q knows about her children now, and she’s softened a little since he started keeping tabs on them.

 

005 recently got engaged, shares a love of reptiles with Nala, and keeps cutting her hair shorter.  She’s taken to lingering in Q branch for tea while she chats with the minions, has been known to procure pizza when they’re in the midst of all-night hacks, and has even convinced Q down into the training room to work on his hand-to-hand combat every other Thursday evening.

 

006 is vexing, arrogant, and on a very, very short leash.  M has already sent down a suspension effective immediately, which Q simply cannot wait to dole out.  He adores his job, and cares deeply for his agents, but 006 has been showing some terrible habits as of late—he smokes more, misses his aim too often, flirts when he should be working, and loses equipment when there’s absolutely no reason to other than he’s being spiteful.

 

007 has been undercover for eight months, three weeks, four days, and seventeen hours, but Q isn’t counting.  They had two months post-Spectre to be lulled into a false sense of security that everything was okay, and then M shipped him out into the middle of Iceland, where his blonde hair and cold blue eyes would hide him well, and where the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and Interpol had all met a dead end.  Soon, it will be a year since the last time he saw him, and too long since he spoke to him.

 

008 is his favorite, and Q will unabashedly admit to that.  They exchange pictures of their children and nieces or nephews, respectively, go out for drinks on Fridays with a few of Q branch, Eve, Bill, and 005 if they’re not otherwise preoccupied, and she’s even started coming for standing Thursday dinners.

 

009 is a curse upon all, and if Q hadn’t tripped right into the natural disaster that was James Bond, he would be well on his way to nursing an open wound masquerading as a crush that would last too many years and break his heart too many times.  He’s charming and unfairly handsome, but both are softer and quieter than James.  He’s made for breaking hearts and snapping spines, and Q has to remind himself, every fucking time, not to stare at those green eyes for too long, or he’s going to trail off and make a fool of himself.  To make matters worse, he’s also a film lover, an avid sports fan, and loves to talk Q’s ear off about both.

 

He hasn’t gotten to know the new agents well enough yet, but he’s starting to pick up little pieces of them to file away for later use.  0010 and 0012 are both women, both of color, and both without families.  They each have a love of the sea, always seem to know what species of bird are native to the country they’re in, and treat Q with a high level of respect.  It took him an absurdly long time to discover that they were fraternal twins, and half of his branch is still laughing at his obliviousness.  0011 is one of the few men with a family—003 is the only other, and 002 keeps saying that one day he will, but then falls hopelessly in love with every young man he crosses paths with—and he seems to own an actual pack of dogs, as well as thirty acres of land in Alaska, but Q is still on the fence about him, though he can’t quite say why.

 

They’re rowdy and unpredictable and infuriating, but Q is stupidly fond of them, which may be why M is trusting him with so many.

 

“There’s light up ahead,” 006 says, pulling him back.

 

Q scans three different screens—one for Alec’s vitals, gritting his teeth at how high his heartrate is, another for the blueprint of the tunnels, and a third for the thermal readings.  “Catch your breath,” Q says quickly, trying to be discreet.

 

Normally, 006 might obey, might concede that he’s well past his prime now, and even if he’s a little bitter about James still being on the roster when he’s two years away from required retirement age, but clearly in better shape than half of them, normally, he’ll slow down and take a breather while Q deigns the upcoming world safe.

 

Normally.

 

Today, he says, “Sod off, Q,” and starts sprinting.

 

“006!” Q yells.

 

Nala, overseeing a small group working on rare venom antidotes, doesn’t startle, though they’re all wearing headphones and working too deep to really notice what’s going on, but R looks over at him sharply, Arjuna stops in mid-sentence, and 008, just coming through the doors, pauses over the threshold.  0010 is behind her, though this seems to be a coincidence.  008’s flight from Africa landed an hour ago, but 0010 is likely coming to collect intel for her upcoming mission.

 

“006!” Q growls, fingers flying over the keys, “There are—”

 

Abruptly, and for no reason at all, the thermal readings splutter out of existence.  Q switches tracks, trying to find where it’s gone, trying to see if there’s a piece of code that’s warped itself, trying to figure out what the hell is going on when 006 says, “I’ll report back when I’m finished.”

 

Static crackles over his earpiece.

 

Q, for the first time in recent memory, freezes.  His hands go still over his keys, and his mouth opens just a little, revealing a small crack of surprise in his armor.  Only once, one single moron in all of the truly idiotic double oh’s that he carefully and meticulously works to keep alive, has ever gone dark on him without previous instruction to do so, and the old 005 was engulfed in flames because of it.

 

008 and 0010 are standing in front of his desk.  R is talking to 002 again, but glancing at Q too frequently.  And somehow, it’s M that cracks the ice around him.  “Why has 006 just gone dark, Q?” he cuts into the dead feed he was using to communicate with 006.

 

“I—” Q says.  These are traitorous words, and he wants nothing more than to swallow them, “I don’t know.”

 

There is a short, terse pause on the other end before M says, “Find him, and begin extraction.”

 

Q steps away from his desk, away from his laptop, and looks over to R.  “002 sends his regards,” R says, already starting to tap into Q’s network, “There’s a strawberry moon coming up, apparently?”

 

“Yes,” Q says absently, “It’s—”

 

In, seven, out, eleven.

 

Q nods once, to himself, and tucks up behind his walls again.  “R, please assist 006 in any way you can remotely.  He’s outside again, but in a rather undeveloped area.  Make use of satellite imaging to find him.  008, your flight was well, I trust?”

 

She shrugs.  “As well as can be expected.  I’m due in medical, but this—” she holds out a small flash drive, the other hand wrapped around an open wound near her ribs, “—is for you to demolish small civilizations with.”

 

“Flattered, as always,” Q says, dropping the flash drive into the pocket of his cardigan, “Do try not to drip on your way out.”

 

008 smiles exasperatedly at him and turns away, heading back toward the doors as 0010 nods briskly at him.  “Cambodia,” Q says, “Estimated time is, at minimum, three to four weeks.”

 

“Excellent,” she says as Q steps out from his desks, leading the way out of his branch.

 

He switches to his phone on the way, bringing up 0010’s mission file.  He scrolls through it, looking for anything of import, as he continues, “The file has been sent to your mobile.  Please peruse it discreetly.”


“IE: not on the plane,” she translates.

 

Q smiles at his phone.  Her sister made that mistake on her last mission, and though she handled it aptly, she still had a situation to diffuse that she shouldn’t have.  “Yes, that would be best,” he says, “Confidential information, as always, but this is particularly sensitive.”  He scans them into the armory where 0010 waits patiently near the front, watching Q wander deeper.  When he returns, she tests her gun to be sure it lights up green, pockets her radio, and frowns at the watch he’s handed her.

 

“Is the alarm loud?” she asks.

 

Q’s heart trips in his chest.

 

Eight months, three weeks, four days, and eighteen hours.

 

The three new agents haven’t met James yet, don’t even know his name, but they’ve heard plenty of wild stories about the infamous 007, and he knows all of them are eager to finally lay eyes on him.

 

Q wonders if he’ll ever see him again.

 

“It is,” Q says, “Among other things.  I’ve also sent instructions to your mobile for what each time does.  Only on the hour, with no added minutes, please.  These will soon become standard issue, so I trust you’ll review the instructions accordingly.”

 

“Of course.  Thank you, Q.  Will that be all?”

 

“Check in with Eve before you leave to ensure M hasn’t left any last minute memos, but otherwise, yes, that will be all.”

 

They leave the armory, and are heading back down the hall together when 0010 says, “I heard through the grapevine that your birthday is coming up.”

 

Q makes a face.  “Indeed,” he says, “The minions usually have something planned.”

 

“A few of the other agents and I were wondering if we might take you out for a drink,” she says, her words starting to rush together.  Q glances at her.  She looks a little nervous, though he can’t imagine why.  “Eve is invited, as well, of course,” she adds quickly.  Q frowns as they approach the doors to his branch.  “Speak of the devil,” 0010 says when they stop at the doors.  Eve is perched on R’s desk, either helping or distracting.  Q can’t tell from this distance.

 

Q sighs.  “As long as the other agents don’t include 006, that sounds nice.”

 

“Oh,” 0010 laughs, “No, don’t worry.  M is in a right state about him.”

 

“As he should be,” Q says, “Until then, 0010.”

 

He steps into his branch, gaze flicking around to the different groups.  Nala’s venom antidote team is still working furiously, though when he pauses by them, it seems they’re finally getting close to something.  He talks with Nala for a few moments before stepping over to check in with Keira, Arjuna, and Faruq, who have just returned from R&D with freshly finished prototypes.  He takes longer than he intends with them, and when he finally reaches R and Eve, the clock has ticked up to nineteen hours.

 

“Q, darling,” Eve says when he stops in front of them, arms folding across his chest as he eyes flick over R’s screens, growing tighter by the second behind his glasses.

 

“I’m going to kill him,” he mutters.

 

Eve smiles awfully.  “Alec?” she guesses, “M is furious.”

 

“Destroy his credit, donate all his money to charities, and implement a—R.”

 

“Holy shit,” R says, fingers hitting the keys a little harder, “Holy shit.”

 

“Well, that’s in poor taste,” Eve says even as Q jogs over to his desks, skids to a stop behind his laptop, and starts typing.  Eve follows, coming around to the front of the desk and tipping her gaze upward, to the larger screens, one of which is currently displaying a live video feed of 006 on his knees, bound and gagged, the barrel of a gun pressed against his temple, surrounded by ten people in all black, their faces covered by masks made of bones and with mesh stretched tight beneath.

 

His eyes are fierce and bright, his chest heaving, a nasty gash opened along his chest.  He looks like a trapped animal, and Q doesn’t understand where everything went wrong.  This mission had been a simple reconnaissance one.  This particular group was too much for them to touch yet, and 006 was sent in to break some of the barriers down for them, not to make contact.  Later, Q will review the mission in excruciating detail to figure out where exactly 006 snapped and decided to go off-book.

 

R throws a program at the video to translate it with only a second of lag time, and a robotic voice tells them that if MI-6 sends another agent into their midst, this will be the last time they show mercy.

 

Q hacks into 006’s earpiece, overrides every command and firewall that rears its ugly head, and comes out ready to wage a war on the other side, “006, I’m detonating your gun remotely.  It will give you at least eight seconds to—”

 

They shoot him in the head.

 

Q falters, trips up a line of code, and loses contact with 006 even as he starts to fall.  He does so slowly, his head sagging to one side, toward one shoulder, and then starts to roll forward before his whole body pitches into the ground, and he collapses in a small cloud of dust from the sand beneath him.

 

Q keeps typing even as the rest of the room trickles into silence.  He opens up a private line with M, says, “Agent down,” and still detonates 006’s gun.  One of the ten people is holding it.  Q watches them die.

 

“Confirm,” M says.

 

“Oh, Q,” Eve says softly as the person next to them is thrown backward by the explosion.  Their head bounces of the ground with alarming speed, and they don’t get up.

 

“006,” Q says, “Headshot.  R, location.”

 

There’s another gun on 006’s body, but it’s not one of theirs, and Q ignores it in lieu of the grenade he told Q he’d lost six months ago and kept taking on missions with him.  He spares one moment of silence, of sorrow, and then sets the world on fire.

 

——

 

Fourteen hours later, M finally arrives in Q branch.

 

In the last fourteen hours, too many things have happened.  Q’s nerve endings are threatening to snap in half, his breaths are coming too short, and he wants to shoot something.  Eve has promised, via text, that she’ll be down in four minutes to join him in the range, and then they’re going out for late night Chinese and too much alcohol.

 

Hours one through three after 006 was murdered, Q delivered Nala’s completed venom antidotes to the Germans, fielding sporadic questions as they played with it.  He typed up a full report of 006’s mission, and set six different searches going for any information he could gleam on the group 006 had encountered.  At the end of the third hour, he had a name, the God of Small Things, and nothing more.

 

The literary reference was not lost on him, and the absolutely destroyed gun on the desk next to him was proof of that.

 

Hours three through eight, he scoured every network available to him, and many that were not, got himself in trouble with the NSA and exchanged a few nasty words with one of their techs, promptly got booted out, and snuck back in a few minutes later to poke around quietly.  At the end of hour eight, he had two pictures and two incomplete files.  He was still working on getting rid of the redactions.

 

Hours eight through nine, he was forced to eat, given herbal tea, and signed his way through a small stack of papers.

 

Hours nine through fourteen, he scraped away the redactions on both files and plunged into a hole that promised to drop him into a twisted and dark Wonderland.

 

At hour fourteen, a hand taps against his desk, just on the edge of his periphery, and Q reaches for his tea.  It’s blessedly full, and with caffeine again, and he downs half of it in three long gulps.  M waits as Q starts to back out of his hole, starts to sweep away his footprints, and eviscerate any signs that he ever existed in this alternate Wonderland.  He blinks to obscure the numbers tripping across his screen, flings himself back into the safety of MI-6, and kills any potential ghosts following him.

 

When, finally, he surfaces, his vision is a little blurry around the edges, and M is frowning at him.

 

“I’d like to make one thing clear first,” M says.  Q nods, waits.  Whatever punishment M wants to deliver, he deserves.  This is his fault.  006 is dead because he wasn’t paying attention, because he handed him off to R, because he was angry with him and didn’t look past that.


“This is not your fault,” M says.

 

Q blinks.  “What?” he says, completely derailed.

 

“Not a single iota,” M continues, “006 got himself into this mess after repeatedly ignoring your instructions to remain on-grid, as well as ignored a directive from me reminding him this mission was about recon and nothing else.  He disobeyed orders.”  Q exhales slowly, and his shoulders drop a little.  M doesn’t react other than to say, “I was not going to lift his suspension.  He was as good as dead if he managed to make it back here.  Q.”  His voice is firm, unyielding.  “This is not your fault.”

 

Q allows himself a full second to gather his wits, and then another to check for holes in his walls, and a final one to breathe.  When he’s ready, he says, “Here’s what we know.”

 

——

 

James spits a mouthful of blood onto the cracked concrete beneath him, swipes a hand across his sweating brow, and frowns at the bodies in front of him.

 

There are four of them, all dead, all kingpins in their own right.  Three of them were foreign, one was native to Iceland, and they were each disturbingly hard to kill.  He thinks a few of his ribs might be broken, if not badly bruised, and his shoulder is aching something awful from his shoddy job at resetting it after the Icelandic one tore it out of its socket, thinking that might give him an advantage—it didn’t, and he’s dead because he was cocky.  There’s a throbbing at the back of his skull that promises to turn into a headache, or worse, later, its source a gash along the nape of his neck when one of the foreign ones tried to behead him with an axe.  James is still reeling from that, and the axe is sticking out of the foreigner’s back, handle embedded in his spine and sharp edge swaying lightly in the breeze.  He’s bleeding from a stab wound to his right bicep, a shallow cut following the edge of his face on the left, and the same knife is still firmly lodged into his abdomen.  He knows better than to take it out right now.  It’s likely the only thing keeping him alive, and it’ll be hell later when he’s trying to stitch himself up if he’s dead.

 

He does a quick body scan for anything else.  Both his ankles and wrists are intact.  His knees are sore, but that’s to be expected.  One of his hips is protesting the roundhouse kick that had knocked one of the other foreigner’s cleanly into unconsciousness.  His knuckles are swollen, his jaw hurts if he opens it too wide, and his nose is probably broken, if the blood is anything to judge by.

 

With a hand circling the knife, adding more pressure to the wound, he starts staggering away.  It’s not going to take long for someone to realize their four most important leaders are missing, and he needs to put as much distance between them and him as possible.

 

James considers, as he hobbles back through the warehouse, locates the car he stole, and unceremoniously dumps behind the wheel, groaning, that things back home might not be in his favor.  He’s considered this more than he likes to admit, but now that the mission is over, now that he might actually be heading back to England—back home, his heart whispers, back to loud purring and soldering smoke and bergamot and crooked smiles and flashes of greybluegreen behind dark frames and expensive whiskey and rambunctious football arguments and soft blankets and Sunday morning records—it’s the only thing he can think about.  Not the knife in his abdomen, not the taste of copper on his chapped lips, not his raw, bleeding knuckles, but this uncertainty churning something dark and awful through him.

 

His home may not be there anymore.  His flat, certainly, is gone, but that was gone before he left.  His home, though, the whispered conversations in the early late hours under the unforgiving lights of Q branch, the takeaway and tea and Instagram-worthy coffee, and the smile he loves when he’s cooked up something truly magnificent, even the bitten insults and the snap of something gone wrong.  It all may be gone.

 

James has been dark for so long, he doesn’t know what to expect when he finds the light again.

 

It is truly a feat of pure skill, dumb luck, and sheer willpower that he makes it back to the shoddy motel he was staying in.  The room itself isn’t all that terrible, though the sheets do often smell like nicotine, and the décor is a little drab, but the staff is friendly and doesn’t ask questions, the water pressure is acceptable, and the little forest it sits near is excellent company at night.  He makes a beeline for the bathroom, kicks the door shut, and gets to work.

 

Somehow, he doesn’t die.  He does give it his best effort, however.  Between blacking out when he finally gets the knife out and nearly bleeding out on the cracked tile floor, and smacking his head off the wall when he trips into the shower, which ends him splayed out on the floor of the shower, breathing hard while water hammers down on him, James isn’t sure how he doesn’t die.  Eventually, though, he manages to wash away most of the blood, stitches everything that needs stitching and that he can reach—his neck will have to wait until later, so he wraps it in gauze and hopes for the best—and stumbles back out into the room.

 

Really, James wants to lie down and sleep for the rest of the week, but they’re going to figure out where he is sooner rather than later, so he changes into clean clothes, scowls at his beard, and crashes back out of the room.

 

There is no flight booked for him, no escape route whispered sweetly into his ear, no one to guide him out of this mess.

 

M sent him here to die, and though he knows it, it still stings a little.  He told him it was for MI-6’s image, told him it was so that they could tidy up a little without him mucking things up, but he knows.  He’s two years away from the mandatory retirement age, and M needs to get rid of him quietly after Spectre, after Skyfall, after it all.  He wants to wrap this all up, stick a bow on it, and call it a day.

 

James collapses into the stolen car, and sags against the seat for a moment, just breathing.  The sun has begun to set, staining the world in violent hues of red bursting with purple, and with just a hint of gold beneath it all.

 

He breathes for five seconds.

 

He thinks of falling into the King size bed he bought, with pillows that smell like sandalwood and bergamot and lavender and a little bit of wood smoke, thinks of the deep, uninterrupted sleep he knows awaits him, the kind he never thought was possible before.

 

He thinks of the book spine indent between his ribs that he’s lost, that he’s yearning to get back.

 

He thinks of endless balls of fur curled up at his feet, on his hip, on his chest, between his legs, anywhere they can be the most inconvenient, thinks about burying his face in their fur and inhaling the familiar scent of home.

 

He thinks of the black zeroes and the single letter on the insides of Q’s wrists, wonders if M has discovered them yet.

 

He thinks of Q’s voice in his ear, his mouth on his spine, his smile pressed into his shoulder.

 

“Alright,” James grumbles, opening his eyes and turning the key in the ignition.  Whether or not home is still there waiting for him, he needs to get out of Iceland, and England seems like a safe bet.

 

——

 

There are not enough bullets in the world.

 

Q tries to fire them all anyway.  He hits his mark every time, calling out body parts, everywhere but the head, and whips his empty clip at the ground when he’s done with it, slamming in a new one.  Eve keeps pace with him, follows him over the edge and into the dark until, finally, Q’s arm drops at the same time his chin does, pivoting down toward his chest.

 

Eve flicks her safety on, drops her gun, and eases Q’s out of his hand.  She sets it down, and wraps around him, pulling him close.  “I know, sweets,” she says when Q shudders, “It’s okay.”

 

“It’s not,” Q mumbles into her shoulder, “It’s—not.”

 

“It isn’t,” Eve agrees, rubbing circles into his back, “But it happens.  And it’s going to be okay.”

 

“It’s my fault,” he whispers.

 

Eve squeezes him, stops rubbing circles and instead just holds onto him.  She doesn’t say it isn’t because she isn’t M, but Q feels it anyway.  With a dejected sigh, he lifts his arms to hug her back, and Eve plants a firm kiss on his temple before she releases him.  “Chinese?” she asks.

 

“And tequila,” Q says.

 

“I’m vetoing that,” Eve says, already turning away.  She takes Q’s hand before he can protest, though he doesn’t, and winds their fingers together so she can tug him along.  They don’t stop up in Q branch because they brought everything down with them, and she releases his hand only so he can tug on his parka, loop his messenger bag over his head, and adjust his glasses wearily.

 

They walk out hand-in-hand until they get to the lift, and then Eve wraps an arm around Q’s shoulders, draws him in close, and takes a steadying breath when he winds his arms around her waist, burrowing against her a little.  “I know, dear,” she whispers, dropping her face to his hair, breathing him in, “I know.”

 

“Is this what it felt like when you shot—” his voice cracks at the end, and then the doors start to chime open.  Eve reaches forward, jabs her thumb against the button to close the doors, and then at the one to lock the lift down.

 

“Hey,” she says, unraveling from him.  Q’s shoulders slump forward, his gaze on the ground, and this noise, this godawful noise, trips out of him.  “No,” Eve says, reaching to curl her hands around his face, tip him up to look at her, “Don’t do that.  Not right now.  Not with the rest of it.”

 

“He’s never coming back,” Q whispers, “I know that.  I’m just—it hurts.”

 

“Q—”

 

“I thought, if I could keep Alec safe, then—well, then he had to come back because it wasn’t just me waiting for him, it was—it was more than just—” he cuts himself off, his mouth trembling and his eyes huge and sad, and Eve hauls him close again, clings to him as Q threatens to break.

 

He doesn’t.  He refuses to.  This is the most he’s talked about James’s dark disappearance in several months, and he’s not going to let that flood go now, not just because Alec is dead.  Instead, he inhales slowly—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven—holds it at the top, thinks about Keats and Joyce waiting at home for him, thinks about how many spring rolls he’s going to order, thinks about Eve’s strength and determination, and exhales—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven.

 

“Crab rangoons,” he says.  Eve pauses a moment, and then pulls back, lifting an eyebrow at him.  “And spring rolls,” he continues, “Wonton strips and miso soup and edamame and Peking raviolis.  And another cat.  And a new flat.”

 

Eve releases him fully, a laugh edging into her smile.  She shakes her head, lifts the lockdown on the lift, and clicks out into the main room.  “A new cat?” she asks over her shoulder.

 

“Yes,” Q says firmly, following her.

 

“Q,” a voice says from somewhere on his left.

 

He turns halfway as Eve asks, “A kitten or a cat?”

 

“Cat,” Q says, “I don’t have the temperament for kittens anymore.  Yes, 0010?  Is there something wrong with your file?”

 

0010 smiles warmly, glancing at Eve, and then back at Q.  “This may seem—morbid,” she settles on, “But we’re going out for drinks, for—for Alec.  Would you like to join?”

 

“We’re?” Q asks, looking around.  She appears to be alone.

 

“Charles’s flight has just landed, and he’s meeting us there,” 0010 says, “Luis is trying his damndest to make it, Thema and Bradley are getting their coats, Adelaide just texted to say the sitter arrived, Reese is—ah, right there.”  Her gaze shifts minutely, and Q looks over his shoulder to find 005 chatting amicably with Eve.

 

He has to spare a moment to take stock—002, 003, 0012, 0011, and 008—because he so rarely uses their names, which seems a little impersonal and paints him further into the evil mastermind overlord in a way that he hates.  And so, instead of dropping more numbers like he wants to—009 and 004—he asks, “Kellan and Adrienne?”

 

“Kellan’s in Saudi Arabia still, and Adrienne is in the air.  She told me to tell you that she would be looking for you first thing in the morning, though.”

 

A thought occurs to Q, and he blurts out, “Do you have some kind of double oh group chat going on?”

 

“Don’t tell M,” 0010—Ebele, he carefully reroutes his brain—says with a small smile.

 

“I’m surprised Adrienne went for that,” he says, starting to turn back to Eve.

 

“She hates being left out,” Ebele confides, “So?”

 

“Eve?” Q asks.

 

“Still Chinese,” she says, “But with more Peking raviolis.”

 

“And tequila,” Q says.

 

Eve sighs insufferably at him.

 

It takes a truly heinous amount of taxis to get them to Eve’s favorite Chinese restaurant, which is open at the worst sort of hours, but has the best ramen noodles Q has ever tasted.  On the way, he types and retypes a message to R four times before he finally gives up.  They can have their own outing, so he opens up his email instead, sends it to R with Nala copied, and exhales relief when the taxi finally pulls up to the curb.

 

It takes some rearranging of tables, but they manage to get all nine of them seated eventually, and then the chaos begins.  Q orders more food than any reasonable person should ever be allowed to order, but then, so do the rest of them.  They ask for the bottles of alcohol rather than just glasses, and quickly set to drinking.  When Bradley starts to express surprise that Q can more than hold his own against them, Adelaide snorts and says, “It’s highly likely he’ll drink you under the table, Bradley.”

 

Q hides his laugh at the way she drawls out his name in a handful of wonton strips, and then the stories begin.  They’ve all, with the exception of the newest agents, got stories about Alec, good, bad, and in-between, and they all get told.  Q has some of the more hilarious ones from missions, but Eve has a few dirty ones that she swears them to secrecy for.  Charles and Luis, both around nearly as long as Alec, have the fondest and the worst ones, and Adelaide surprises them all with a truly joyful and innocent one.

 

The night wanes on as they continue to eat and drink and mourn.  Q is reminded, both fondly and heart-achingly, of another night like this, nearly a week after the old 004 and 005 died.  They’d gone out for Mexican and drinks that time, and there had been much fewer of them, but it’s still a night he’ll never forget.

 

“Yeah,” Eve says when she catches his mind wandering, “Me too.”

 

“You, too?” Adelaide says, smiling sadly, “I was just thinking about that.”

 

“About what?” Ebele asks.

 

“The last time we gathered like this,” Luis says, nodding slowly, “Surprisingly, it was a long time ago.  We’re in good hands.”  Q waves one of those good hands dismissively at him, reaching for his glass.  He’s not sure what’s in it, but it burns on the way down.  “No, Q,” Luis says, straightening.  He snaps in the general direction of Thema and Ebele, both of whom react in the same way, one eyebrow arcing up toward their hairline as Bradley snorts.  “You, too,” he says, jabbing a finger at the air near Bradley, “Pay attention.  Do you know how rare it is that there are this many of us?  Hell, that almost every moniker is filled?  We’re missing, what?”

 

“001 and—006,” Q admits, “Technically, there’s a moniker for a thirteenth, as well, but alas.”

 

“Someday,” Luis says, “For now, we’re all alive in part because of you, Q, and we wouldn’t all be here, eleven strong, if not for your twisted, cunning, devious little brain.”

 

“Spoiler,” Eve says, “it’s not that little.”

 

Bradley hiccups straight into a laugh, and the rest of the table dissolves, either reaching for drinks or laughing with him.  Q watches them, a little bit of warmth leeching into his cold bones.  Alec may have been his fault, no matter what anyone says, but the rest of them, his double oh’s—they’re all at this table because he cares for them deeply, and he’ll do everything in his power to keep them alive.  It’s a disadvantage, he knows, but one he shoulders proudly.

 

Even so, the cold bones remain.

 

He’s been stripped of his home, and he doesn’t know how to stay warm anymore.  Some days, he just wants to go back to his flat and die.  Others, most days, he reminds himself that he was someone before James, and he can be someone after him.

 

Eve squeezes his hand under the table, and he swallows his sorrow.  Today is not the day to mourn James, not yet.

 

——

 

James gets halfway to the border of Iceland before he gets caught.  After pulling over on the side of an old, dirt road, he crashes in the backseat, forces himself awake after two hours, and starts driving.  He finds a convenience store tucked into the center of a little town, inquiries about getting off the island, and forty minutes later, his tires are shot out, the driver’s side door is ripped off its hinges, and James is thrown face first into the ground.

 

Before he can even think about getting up, there’s a boot on his ear, pressing him against the ground, a sharp coldness sliding into the vein at his neck, and darkness floods his senses.

 

When he wakes later, it will be in a damp, dark cell with bars that singe the skin right off his fingers, a cough rattling in his chest, and the empty understanding that he’s never going home, but for now, the darkness settles over him like a warm blanket, and he dreams of Q.

 

——

 

Life is sometimes a thing that happens to him, and sometimes a thing that happens with him.

 

Some nights, Q doesn’t sleep.  Instead, he codes, he hacks, and he develops.  He strengthens MI-6’s defenses, he builds and destroys firewalls, and he reviews applications for potential Q branch employees.  He fields requests from M, spontaneously slips into R and Nala’s networks to check their progress on different tasks, and even takes a few easy missions from the comfort of his sofa.

 

Some nights, when Q does sleep, he wakes up choking, water sloshing in his lungs and ice in his bones.  When he’s not drowning, he’s in a room with no walls and no ceiling, with no space and no matter, floating through nothing and screaming at deaf ears.

 

His days at MI-6 are better.  He knows how to wall himself up when he’s not alone, knows how to pretend he’s okay when really, he’s still counting the hours, the minutes, sometimes the seconds when he’s not paying attention.  It’s not that he can’t function without James—he can.  Truthfully, he’s less distracted without him, completes missions without worrying overwhelmingly about his agents, and doesn’t have to argue over requests for exploding pens and night vision contact lenses and whatever other asinine things he’s come up with at the time.  His paperwork gets done almost on time, he sees Eve and Bill more often, and M is in Q branch less.  These last three are entirely to blame for the fact that he leaves MI-6 less often now, though, which means he sees his brothers less, his cats are loud about missing him, and his flat is starting to collect a little dust.

 

Eve sees through it all, but she politely doesn’t comment on it while they’re at work.  Bill pretends to be oblivious, though Q knows him better than that.  Only a few of the agents knew that something was going on in the first place, and the ones who didn’t don’t notice a change in their quartermaster other than he’s a little quieter, a little less sarcastic.

 

Really, Q should be grateful.  He’s a normal functioning member of society.  The world, as it were, makes sense.  He goes to work, he goes home, he has friends and a healthy relationship with his family, and sometimes, he even remembers to eat on his own.

 

He feels like he’s dying inside.

 

When he’d first started at MI-6, he’d been expecting adventure and thrill.  He can still remember now, years later, how disappointed he’d first been when he started, and how at peace he’d felt after that first meeting with James in the art gallery.  Here, finally, was what he’d been searching for.  Here were missions that left adrenaline rushing through his veins, that gave him something to be snarky about.  Here was a man he could go toe-to-toe with, and end up smiling on the other side, having both won and lost.  Here was someone he felt comfortable with, someone he could slowly learn to drop his walls for, someone that challenged him intellectually, physically, and morally.

 

Now, Q’s back to where he started.

 

Another month passes.

 

He works.  He saves lives.  He’s awake more than he sleeps.  He goes home to his cats, and he gets takeaway or just doesn’t eat.  There’s no point in cooking.  He compliments Nala on her brightly colored dresses, goes out for Italian with R, has a lengthy debate on which is better, The Tudors or Reign, with Ebele and Thema, and builds a pocketsize bomb so spectacular that he gives it to Adelaide for her next mission though she absolutely doesn’t need one.

 

He leaves The Bone Clocks in the last place he set it down—on James’s bedside table after he’d stolen it to reread it—doesn’t watch the new season of Game of Thrones when it comes out, and reads primarily dead, white, English poets in the hopes that a name will pop out at him for his new cat, which he hasn’t even begun to truly think about.

 

It’s been nine months, one week, six days, and four hours when Eve stalks into Q branch, snaps his laptop closed almost before he can jerk his fingers out from certain decapitation, and says, “Come on.  Time to stop procrastinating.”

 

“What exactly am I procrastinating?” Q asks as she comes around his desks to throw his parka at him and start shoving things into his bag.

 

“I’ve already cleared your afternoon schedule,” Eve continues, talking right over his confusion, “with both M and R, so no arguing, no ifs ands or buts about it.  First things first, we’re going to wander around London until we can find you a proper flat, then we’re going to stop in at the shelter to look for a lonely, at least two-year-old, cat for you to adopt and fulfill your dream as a crazy cat lady complete with hideous cardigans, and then we’re going out to celebrate.”

 

Q quirks an eyebrow at her as he tugs on his parka.  “What, pray tell, are we celebrating?” he asks.

 

“Honey,” Eve says sternly, sliding his laptop into his bag before she hands it over, “How old are you?”

 

“Thirty—” he pauses, frowning.

 

“Three,” Eve finishes for him, “Your birthday was two weeks ago.”

 

“No, it’s—what’s today?”

 

“Exactly,” Eve says, “Did you know there was cake and everything, but you’re such a despondent little shit that no one thought it would be appropriate to bring it out?”

 

“Despondent is hardly—” he tries.

 

“Nope,” Eve says, looping her arm through his and dragging him away from his desks, “We’re going to find you somewhere to live that isn’t haunting you, a cat to make you go home more often, and we’re going to talk about this.”

 

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Q says firmly.

 

Eve laughs, loudly and confidently, and R ducks his eyes when they go by.  Q has half a mind to glare at him, but it would take far more effort than he’s willing to expend, so he dutifully trudges along with Eve.  They walk in silence, Q’s mind performing a rather intriguing act of self-sabotage, and Eve steering him along.  She glances at him every so often, whether to check that he’s still alive or awake, or to see if he’s even on this planet.  Q can’t be sure, and isn’t bothered either way.  Really, he’s not sure any of the three are true anymore.

 

He is alive.  His heart is beating, his blood is circulating—albeit poorly, even in the best of circumstances—his bones are unbroken, his muscles are stronger than they’ve been in years, and he’s still breathing.

 

He is awake.  His eyes are open, he knows the route they’re taking, his feet are moving, and he can feel where his fingers are wrapped around the strap of his bag.

 

He is on this planet.  Contrary to popular belief, he does exist on Earth, though, perhaps, on a superior plane.

 

“Why, then,” he says without preamble, when they’re in the lift, taking it underground to the parking garage, “does it feel like I’m not anything?”

 

Eve, ever a saint, doesn’t ask for any clarification before she says, “You love him.”

 

“Oh, stop that,” Q mutters, frowning.  He releases the strap of his bag to cross his arms in frustration.

 

“Listen, admit it or not, say it or not, continue to be a complete sociopath or not, but you do love James Bond.  Terribly, it seems.  And, even beyond that, however impossible it may sound, I think you were friends with him, too.  You didn’t just lose a boyfriend—shut up,” she adds when he starts to complain, “Give me something to call him if not that, then.”

 

Q sighs loudly.  The doors chime open on the lift, and he strides out.  Eve follows at his heel, though she isn’t loud with her footsteps, and Q doesn’t get the sense that’s she angry at all.  “Partner,” he settles on.

 

“Thank you,” she says.  “You didn’t just lose a partner, you lost a friend.  You lost someone that you talked to as often as you could.  When he was on British soil, or not otherwise occupied on a mission, you were talking to him.  Don’t make that face,” she says when Q starts to roll his eyes, “I know very well that you texted and called and flirted shamelessly over the comms, so yes, you were in pretty much constant communication with him.  And when you weren’t, he was off buying you goddamn gifts.  And that book.  How many times have you read that book?”

 

“It doesn’t matter,” Q says.

 

He stops at Eve’s car, refusing to look at her.

 

Surprisingly, Eve allows it.  She strides past him, tugs open her door, and gestures at the other side.  “Well?” she asks, “What are we getting for food?”

 

“What?” he asks.  His confusion bleeds out so that he looks up at her.  “I thought we were flat hunting,” he says.

 

“We are,” she says, “But it’s lunchtime, and I find it truly disturbing that you’ve rewired your stomach to not yell at you around noon.”

 

“It probably does,” Q says, and gets into the car.

 

“Too busy saving the world, right,” Eve says as she gets in next to him.

 

“Are we done?” he asks.

 

Eve barks a laugh.  “Not even close,” she says.  Q snaps the seatbelt in place, and doesn’t take out his phone.  Eve blinks.  “Well,” she says slowly, “I mean—Q, we don’t have to talk about it.  I just—you’re not you, and I’m worried.”

 

He looks down at his hands, which are folding and unfurling together.  It’s an old, anxious habit he used to have as a child, constantly moving his hands, until he could finally start working with tools, and later, a keyboard, but he seems to be doing it more and more, seems to be ignoring his technology for just fidgeting with his own fingers.

 

“I know,” he says, barely a whisper.  Eve backs out of her spot.  “Okay.”

 

“What if he never comes back?” Eve asks.

 

“How do I stop waiting?” Q asks because if he’s going to do this, then he’s going to take a fucking sledgehammer to his walls.

 

Eve is quiet for long moments as she drives through the garage, passing several security measures, and then finally out into the light.  It’s beautiful out today, the sky a brilliant, startling blue, with only a few wisps of white clouds in the distance.  The sun is pale, and coolly warm in that autumn way that Q loves.  It occurs to him, rather abruptly, that he has no idea what month it is.

 

He presses the button to roll down his window, stops halfway, and leans his temple against the glass.  London floods in, cars trundling by, boots crunching leaves underfoot, the smog overwhelmed by apples and fresh donuts, newspapers swirling in the breeze.

 

Q breathes deeply.  He thinks it might be October.

 

When they’re out in London proper, with Eve driving like a normal citizen, she says, “I think you have to stop hoping he’ll come back.”

 

Q doesn’t nod, though he agrees.  He continues to breathe.

 

“I know that’s awful,” she continues, “to just give up hope on—well, on love, but if you want to move on, and I really think you need to, Q, you have to start believing that he’s gone, that he’s—well.”

 

“That he might be dead,” Q finishes.  He lifts his head from the window, rolls it back up, and asks, “Chips?”

 

“Oh, yes,” Eve says happily, and takes a turn at the next light.  They follow a well-worn route to one of their favorite seafood restaurants, get fish and chips to go, and sit outside with the pumpkins and spicy wind to eat.  Q starts researching flats nearby while Eve continues their conversation, “It’s possible that he’s not dead, but he’s been gone for how long?”

 

“Nine months, one week, six days, and five hours,” Q says without thinking, and then, “Fuck.”

 

Eve looks away when Q looks over at her.  She’s doing something complicated with her face, trying not to let her emotions bleed through, but Q knows how desperate he sounds.

 

“Well,” he says, “That wasn’t—meant to be a thing.”

 

“Maybe you need to get laid,” Eve says.

 

Q nearly chokes on a chip.

 

Eve is smiling terribly when he surfaces.  “Yes, I’m starting to believe in this theory more with each passing second,” she says, “This is a fantastic idea.”

 

“This is a wretched idea,” Q says, going back to his flat research.

 

“Fantastic,” she echoes, “This is exactly what you need.  A good shag or two, and you’ll be right as rain.  Of course, we’ll have to find someone with the level of skill of James, which is not impossible, I promise you.”  Q raises a disbelieving eyebrow at his phone.  “Come off it,” Eve says, “It isn’t.”

 

“Male stripper?” Q offers.

 

“As before, I can have that arranged,” she says, “Oh.”

 

“You will not—” Q says sternly, “—pay someone for this wretched idea.”

 

“You’re no fun,” Eve grumbles.

 

“How about this one?” Q asks, handing her his phone.  Eve heaves a sigh so dramatic, Q is almost concerned for her.  “What?” he asks, bewildered.

 

“Stop looking at flats that James would like,” she says.

 

Q winces, and takes his phone back.  She isn’t wrong.  He keeps searching.

 

——

 

A week before Halloween, Q is working late when something starts vibrating.  He’s in the middle of taking apart a small hard drive that 0010 brought back from Cambodia, and doesn’t notice the vibrating at first.  Arjuna’s on with the skeleton crew, though, helping 004 a few time zones away, and Roland looks up at the sudden noise.

 

It’s quiet otherwise in the branch, just the tapping of keys and occasional bits of conversation between Arjuna and 004, the rest of them working on various projects.  The vibrating distracts Roland’s brother, Rashmi, a few seconds later, who looks up from the lines of code he’s typing out and immediately looks to Q.

 

“Dude, come on,” Ivo grumbles, reaching up to take out one of his headphones, “What the hell?”

 

“Tell me that’s not an impending explosion,” Roland says.

 

“Vibrating countdown?” Rashmi says disbelievingly, “That seems counterproductive.”

 

“Or sneaky,” Ivo says around a yawn.  He reaches for his mug, frowns when he finds it empty, and gets up to make another round of coffee.  He’s watching the water drip tiredly while the brothers bounce theories off one another when he says, “Oh, duh.  Phone.”

 

“Phone,” Rashmi agrees, “Q.”

 

Q keeps typing.  He’s passed the first three layers of security, and almost under the fourth, and last, but there’s a bit of firewall fighting back at him, rerouting him every few seconds.  He’s got both his headphones in, and when Rashmi gets close enough, he can hear the thundering bass beneath something louder and vibrant.

 

“Q,” he says, and taps his desk.

 

Q keeps typing.

 

Rashmi sighs, and turns to face his brother and Ivo.  Julian has joined them now, leaning his chin into his hand as he patiently waits for them to return to the code they’re working on.  “Don’t wave in front of his screen,” he says.

 

“Duh,” Rashmi says, “He almost broke a hip last time.”

 

Roland snorts.  “He’s not that old, asshole.”

 

“Yeah, okay,” Rashmi retorts.

 

“R’s in his thirties,” Ivo counters.

 

“He’s the only one,” Rashmi says, “What else?”

 

“Text him,” Ivo says, and then, “Shut up.  Can you—yeah, chat alert.”

 

Roland fires off a quick message to Q, who doesn’t react at all.  Rashmi lifts his eyebrows, but Roland shakes his head.  “He must have a block on, or he’s just ignoring it.  How mad do you think he’ll be if we just look for it?”

 

Rashmi turns back to the desk, looking around.  In Q’s general vicinity, there’s a teetering stack of paperwork, a dismantled gun, a cold soldering iron still resting against a sponge, and several pairs of pliers.  His other desks are filled with various computer parts, and whole laptops themselves, as well as other, small projects that he’s working on.  The monitors behind him are displaying 004’s mission on one screen and cameras for MI-6 on the other two.  There doesn’t seem to be a phone or his messenger bag anywhere in sight.

 

Rashmi shrugs, and steps up into Q’s space, starting to look under the desks.

 

“We could explode something,” Julian says unhelpfully.

 

“Yes,” Ivo agrees, “He usually responds to explosions.”

 

Roland frowns, but says, “A small one.”

 

Immediately, Julian’s up and searching for something to blow up while Rashmi continues to look for his phone.  The vibrating stops briefly, and then starts up again.  “Whoever it is, they’re clearly angry with him for not answering.”

 

“Maybe it’s one of his brothers,” Roland says.

 

“He has brothers?” Ivo asks incredulously, “Plural?”

 

“Hm,” Roland says, “I’m not sure if that’s public knowledge or not, come to think of it.”

 

“Plural,” Ivo says, “Seriously?”

 

“Three, I think?” Rashmi guesses before he disappears behind a desk.

 

“Shit, that must be interesting,” Ivo says.

 

“What in the blazes—” Arjuna surfaces as he yanks his headphones out and turns toward them, “What the hell are you doing?”

 

“Q’s phone is ringing,” Roland says.

 

“I’m exploding a pen,” Julian says.

 

Rashmi appears, shaking his head in sync with Ivo and Roland.  “Terrible idea,” Ivo says, “He’s still pissed about that one Laia made.  Blow up the stapler.”

 

“Staples,” Julian and Roland say at the same time.

 

“Tape dispenser,” Rashmi says.

 

Guys,” Arjuna says sternly, “Just—oh.”  He spots Q, still buried deep in the last layer of security.

 

“Precisely,” Roland says, and then, “Anything?”

 

“Okay, it’s definitely somewhere on these,” Rashmi says, turning away from Q and to the desks behind him.  There are two pushed together beneath the monitors, opposite his main one.

 

“Where’s his bag?” Arjuna asks.

 

“How’s 004?” Roland asks.

 

“Told me she wouldn’t need further assistance, and she could bloody well figure out how to board a plane on her own,” he mutters.

 

“Miserable cow,” Julian says.

 

“Nope,” Q says.  They all jump, turning to face him as Q tugs out one of his headphones.  “Don’t ever call her that again,” he continues, flashing Julian a quick glare, “I don’t care how unfriendly she is in comparison to the double oh’s, we’re lucky the rest of them aren’t like that.  Considering they’re all a bunch of sodding—what,” he adds when he turns and spots Rashmi, “are you doing?”

 

“Your phone is vibrating,” he says quickly, “It’s annoying.”

 

Q gives him a withering glare, so Rashmi quickly steps out of his station again, going back to his own desk.  Q rubs one of his eyebrows tiredly, rolls his shoulders until his spine cracks, and gets up, going over to where his jacket has been dumped carelessly on a heap of scrap metal.  Beneath it is his bag, and subsequently, his vibrating phone.  He makes a face at the screen before answering the call.

 

When he turns, and they’re all still watching him, he says, “Has that code finished itself?” and they scramble to get back to work.

 

“It’s—late?” he guesses by way of greeting.

 

“Early,” Shae says, “Or late, I don’t know.  Good morning.  Evening?  The hell time is it, anyway?”

 

Q rubs at one of his eyes, dislodging his glasses, and goes over to his laptop to squint at it.  “2AM,” he mumbles, “Why are you up?  Why are you calling me?”

 

“Are you still at work?” Shae asks, “That’s abhorrent.”

 

“Five points.”  Shae hums distractedly, and then there’s a soft sound like a muffled yawn.  “Oh,” Q says, “How’s my favorite nephew?”

 

“He’s your only nephew,” Shae says, “He was having a nightmare.”

 

“So you called me?”

 

“Wow, you need to go to bed.  Tomorrow’s Sunday.  Are you coming over?”

 

“Sunday,” Q repeats, and squints at his laptop again, which is busy scanning for viruses on the hard drive before it starts copying onto one of his own.  “It’s Sunday already?”

 

“Jesus,” Shae mumbles, “Rowan.  Wake up.  For, like, three minutes, come on.”

 

“Fine,” Q says, and leaves his station to amble over toward the tea station, “Awake, I am.  Are you guys doing anything Halloween night?”

 

“Yes,” Shae says, “Half why I’m calling.  Are you?  Do you want to come trick or treating with the kids?”

 

Q hums.  He hasn’t seen everyone in so long, it might be nice to spend the night with them.  He’s seen his brothers here and there, and some of his nieces and nephews, but not all of them together in a few months.  “Sure,” he settles on, “Barring anything obnoxious.”

 

“I’ll write to the Queen and ask her to withhold any terrorist attacks.”

 

“Her Majesty,” Q says as he fumbles around until he finds a tea that’s only got enough caffeine to get him home, but not enough to keep him awake, “does not barter with terrorists.”

 

“Are you calling me a terrorist?”

 

“I loathe this word,” Q says, “New one.”

 

“What are you working on so late?” Shae asks.

 

“Hard drive,” Q says, “Someone brought me a present to break into.”

 

“Wasn’t that new agent that’s got a thing for you, was it?” Shae teases, “What’s his name?  Bradley?”

 

“Oh, shut up,” Q mutters, “He’s harmless.”

 

“For now,” Shae says, “Just make sure he knows where his place is.”

 

“He has a wife,” Q says evenly, tucking the phone between ear and shoulder as he starts pouring water into his mug, “and children.  Plural?  I’m not sure.  I haven’t finished redacting his file yet.”

 

“Wait, what?” Shae says, a little louder than he probably means to.  “Your boss doesn’t give you their full files?  Wait.  Ro.  Are you hacking into your own company?  Dude.”

 

“It’s fine,” Q says tiredly.  He turns, and watches everyone’s heads duck back behind their laptops.  He sighs, and strides back over to his desk.  “Tomorrow,” Q says.

 

“You’re trying to get off the line,” Shae accuses.

 

Q sets his mug down, drops into his chair, and starts infecting everyone’s computer, with the exception of Arjuna, with a virus remotely.  “I need to finish up one last thing, and then I’m going home, so yes, I’m trying to get you off the line.”


“It’s late,” Shae says, and there are a dozen other things lurking in that one statement that Q won’t acknowledge, and that his brothers have stopped trying to pick at, “Are you taking the tube?”

 

“I’ll be fine, Shae,” he says as Roland swears softly.  He puts his laptop into a secure hibernation so that it can keep scanning and copying, and stands back up.  After a long sip of tea, he says, “I can text you when I get home, if it makes you feel better.”

 

“It would,” Shae says, “Tomorrow?”

 

“Tomorrow.  I’ll be there at 10, yeah?”

 

“And not a second late,” Shae says, “Goodnight, Rowan.”

 

“Goodnight, Shae,” he says, “Given Reagan a kiss for me.”

 

“And disrupt his sleep?  You’re a menace,” Shae says before he hangs up.  Q smiles, and goes to tug on his parka.

 

“Q?” Roland says hopefully.

 

“You brought this upon yourselves,” he says, looping his messenger bag over his head, “I’ll be unavailable in the morning, but if something terrible comes up, R can reach me.”

 

He leaves without another word, his minions muttering as he goes about what an evil overlord he is, and if he grins as he steps into the lift, he blames it on the caffeine in his tea.

 

——

 

On Halloween morning, James discovers he’s to be the sacrifice for a ritualistic circle.  He keeps his face impassive, his muscles relaxed, his eyes cold and uninterested, but he’s honestly taken aback upon learning that it’s Halloween.  He starts counting as his captor watches him with narrowed eyes, and comes to the abhorrent conclusion that he’s been in Iceland for just over ten months.

 

When he doesn’t respond to this information after several long minutes, his captor finally gives up, leaving him in the damp, dark cell once more.  As soon as the grating sound of the door scraping over cracked concrete stops echoing, he gets up and starts stretching.

 

It’s high time he escaped this hellhole.

 

——

 

Q walks into his branch at 6AM, and almost walks back out.

 

For one, he’s balancing two stacks of drinks in one hand, and they’re from Starbucks.  He feels like a traitor just for having walked in there, but he’s also holding a travel mug from his favorite café, so he thinks it might cancel out.  Eight different people spring out of their chairs when he comes in, though, and he’s forced to just stand still and weather their hurricane of excitement and thank you’s and grabbing hands.

 

For two, the entire branch has been decorated.  Every desk has either fluffy white spider webbing, plastic creepy crawlies, or bones that look a little too real for comfort.  There are black and orange streamers looped along the ceiling, and he doesn’t even want to ask how they got up there.  A fog machine in the back of the branch occasionally unfurls a fuzzy mist at them, which they’ve rigged to trickle into the floor vents so it doesn’t distract too much.  There appears to be confetti on his desks, a very human-looking skull where his laptop usually sits, and several boxes of apple cider donuts teetering precariously on the edge of the tea station.  All of that doesn’t even touch upon the fact that each of his employees has dressed up, which is just—going to give him a headache.

 

For three, Nala is currently standing in front of him, dressed like Cleopatra, her dreadlocks spray painted gold—or dyed, he’s really not sure anymore—smiling at him like he’s given her something more than coffee.

 

“Yes?” he asks.

 

“Happy Halloween,” she says, and holds out her hand.  Dangling from her fingers is a small bag with glittery skulls and cats dashed across, orange tissue paper poking out of the top.

 

“Did you arrange all this?” he asks, not taking the bag from her.

 

“Listen, I know what you’re going to say, but—”

 

“It’s nice,” Q interrupts, “Thank you.”

 

“It’s just candy,” she says, and swings the bag.

 

Q sighs, and takes it.  “I hope there will be no trick or treating.  I already have to suffer that with a horde of children tonight.”

 

“Honestly, Q,” Nala says, beaming again, “That would just be silly.  Trying to arrange something like that with those monkeys—” she gestures vaguely at the ceiling, “—would be utter chaos.  How’s the new place?”

 

“Not ready for your schemes yet,” Q says, starting to walk into the branch proper.  Nala falls into step next to him.

 

“Well, stop stalling on unpacking so we can throw you a proper home warming.”

 

“Absolutely not,” Q says dejectedly.


“It’s happening, whether you approve it or not.  Right, R?”

 

“Whatever she says,” R says distractedly.

 

“That doesn’t count,” Q says, and steps away toward his desks before Nala can persist.  Thankfully, she doesn’t follow, and he’s left in peace to upend his person on his station.

 

No one pays him any mind.  There’s not a lot to do today.  They only have a few agents in the field, a handful on active leave after particularly gruesome missions, and the rest taking a short breather in between assignments.  The agents in the field are all on reconnaissance or in time zones that haven’t quite woken up yet, so the hum of Q branch is just scattered conversation about costumes and plans for the night.  Only a few people are working, and while Q would normally hustle the rest of them back to work, he lets them have their moment.

 

In the last month or so, things have more or less returned to their former glory.  He’s been careful not to let his sorrow follow him to work, and has succeeded wholly.  Regardless, there are still people who knew, people who keep expecting him to break.  Nala is the worst and best of them, always offering him uncertain smiles at the same time she keeps his mug full.  R reacts by trying to fix him up with more of his friends until Q quietly tells him that he’d rather just be alone.  Keira reacts by reminding him to eat and check in on his cats.

 

The double oh’s continue to treat him as though nothing has happened, which he prefers above all else.  He is not fragile, and he will not break here.  He leaves that for the solitude of his flat, and now, with that old place firmly in his past, Q doesn’t break at all.  His walls are twofold—an inner layer of hard and unyielding brick, and an outer layer of fierce and reinforced steel.  He won’t come out from behind them, not here, not there, not at all and never again.

 

Eve occasionally lets him know that this is unhealthy, and he usually just sips his tea snobbishly at her.

 

The new flat is a bit farther from MI-6, but closer to the water and without as much hubbub in the streets.  It’s larger, and yet simpler, and he adores it.  He hasn’t unpacked entirely yet, though he keeps promising his branch that he will so that they can gather in fashion.  A third cat has not happened yet, though he imagines it’s in his near future.

 

He’s moving on.  He’s going to be okay.  He’s even convinced his brain to stop counting the hours.  Soon, he’ll learn how to stop counting the days, maybe even the weeks.  He’s not sure he’ll ever stop counting the months.

 

It’s been just over ten since the last time he saw James, eight since he spoke to him, and he doesn’t even know if he’s alive or dead.

 

“Alright,” R says.  Q peers over the top of his laptop, smiles when he sees that R is holding a donut out to him, and straightens as he takes it.  “I have good news and bad news,” R continues.

 

Q bites into the donut, shoulders dropping happily.  “Yeah, I know,” R says, setting another donut down next to his keyboard on top of a black napkin.  “Bad news?”

 

“If it’s that haunted house festival Arjuna and Nala have roped the entire branch into attending this weekend, I’ve already accepted the invite on pain of death,” Q says, reaching for his tea.

 

“It correlates,” R says, brandishing half of a donut at the mug.  It does, indeed.  It’s not his usual Earl Grey, but instead a tasteful apple and cinnamon blend that has him humming and taking another sip.  His coffee can wait until later.  “Bad news,” R says before taking a bite of his donut.  He regards Q as he chews, swallows, and says, “004 just returned.”

 

“I don’t see how this is bad news,” Q says, “Is she injured?”

 

R sniffs, takes another bite of his donut, and says, “She isn’t.”

 

Q’s stomach drops.  “The car?” he asks, fear edging into his voice.  R’s eyebrows go up.  “How much of it is left?” he asks.  R’s eyebrows, impossibly, skyrocket closer to his hairline.  “Worse than the Martin after Skyfall?”

 

R snorts, “That’s not possible.  We only got a freaking steering wheel back from that and a deflated rear tire.  No, she’s at least got most of the frame intact.  Well.  Some.  Well.  A bit.  It’s all there, just not—it’s magnificent, really, that she even managed to get it back at all.”

 

“And the good news?” Q asks, almost afraid.

 

R’s grin is positively devilish.  “It’s already in the lab if you want to go hack it to pieces.”

 

“Call me if anything,” Q says, already getting up.  R nods once, turning away.  Q grabs his phone, his coffee, and his tea, donut hooked around one of his fingers.  “And R,” he says as he comes around his desks.  R pauses, turning halfway.  “Thank you.”  R merely flashes him one of his brilliant smiles, rows of white teeth wrinkling his olive skin, and returns to his desk, where he’s hoarding more donuts, and where Nala is waiting to discuss a prototype with him.

 

Q leaves his branch, follows the short hallway down to his lab, and steps inside, inhaling the scent of grease and metal and gunpowder.  This, he thinks, could possibly be home.

 

He should have fucking known it wouldn’t last.

 

——

 

When he gets back to MI-6 and ultimately has to fill out a mountain of paperwork entailing this horrible mission in Iceland, James decides he’s going to describe his escape as such: using the unruly hair from his beard, he roped two sea turtles together, and sailed back to England.

 

He’s not going to tell them that he has eight confirmed kills from that escape alone.

 

He’s not going to tell them that he snapped a woman’s femur in half, or that he knows, intimately, what a spine breaking feels like, or that his exhausted body started to shake after the sixth one.

 

He’s not going to tell them that he did not blow up the building intentionally, but that he did set fire to the cell they kept him in, and that might have triggered the explosion that swelled across the new morning.

 

He’s not going to tell them that he stole a small, private plane almost out of someone’s backyard, as well as the coffee from just inside their kitchen window and a handful of tomatoes from their garden.

 

He’s not going to tell them he also stole a potted plant sitting on the back porch.

 

He’s not going to tell them that he made it to London in under three hours, crash-landed the plane because it was almost out of fuel and nowhere near made to go that fast, stole a government car idling at the airport, and broke every possible road law, and possibly a few not yet invented, only to find out that his flat—his home—was gone.

 

All it took was a cursory conversation with the building owner’s daughter, who was still working the front door on weekdays, and was clearly ready to call the police just at the sight of him, to inform him that Q had moved.

 

He’s not going to tell them that he left the stolen car outside the building, walked to the nearest station, and took the tube to MI-6.

 

He’s not going to tell them that his heart was trying to rip its way out from beneath his ribs, claw out of his chest, and throw itself to certain death the entire way there.

 

He’s not going to tell them that his hands shake when he finally breaks into MI-6.

 

His knees also shake, as do his shoulders, his jaw, his breaths.  He’s bone tired in a way he hasn’t felt in a long time, and he just wants this to be over.  He wants to find Q, to find out if he has a home or not anymore, and if not, he wants to drink himself to death on an island somewhere far, far away.

 

When he breaks into MI-6, he doesn’t trip any alarms.  He does, however, nearly cause two identical heart attacks when he climbs out of one of the floor vents in the main room.  Two women scream, and then there are several guns pointed at him.

 

He climbs out of the floor vent, turns around despite the shouted warnings to lift his hands and stop bloody moving, and smirks when he sees Eve.  She’s wearing black, billowing pants with a high waist, a long sleeve, burnt orange top, heels with little skulls on them, and a twisted smile that promises torture.

 

“The beard doesn’t suit you,” is the first thing she says.

 

A few guns falter, and then drop.

 

James shrugs one shoulder.  The beard is the least of his problems right now.  His clothes are bloody and torn, covered in ash and dirt and grime, as well as ill-fitting.  He thinks the sole of one of his boots is about to come loose, his eyes are bloodshot, he’s sporting a map of ugly bruises, and he’s supposed to be dead.

 

“You’ve picked an appropriate day for resurrection, though,” Eve continues.

 

James doesn’t bother attempting to grin at her.  The rest of the guns have dropped.  He looks over his shoulder, spots the lift, and looks back up at Eve.  “Where is he?” he asks.

 

Eve’s twisted smile falters, and something buried deep, something uglier than his bruises flickers across her face.  “I will kill you,” she says, “Slowly.”

 

“I know,” James says because he does.  Because as strong as Q is, there’s no way this was easy.  There’s no way he got through his unscathed.

 

Eve’s chin lifts just so, juts toward the lift.  “I’ll let M know he can schedule a debrief with you.”

 

James nods once, curt, and strides away.

 

He does not run.

 

He does not show his hand.

 

Inside the lift, he closes his eyes, tips his head back against the cool metal, and tries to breathe.

 

——

 

“What the fuck?”

 

Nala looks up, frowning.  003, waiting patiently as Nala assembles his gun, follows her gaze to R.  “What is it?” she asks R, whose back is to her.  He’d been tracking some information for 0011, but the sound of him typing has careened to a halt.

 

How—what—fucking hell.”  He fingers start typing again, and one of the main screens shift.  Nala looks over, her frown deepening as the cameras come up, showing different places in MI-6.

 

“What—” she starts to ask, and then stops, her eyes going wide.  “No,” she says, already turning, “No, no, no.”

 

She’s the first one that sees him.

 

The doors to Q branch shush open, and James Bond walks through.  He scans the room quick, predatorily, sharp blue eyes narrowing minutely at Q’s empty station.  He flicks his gaze to Nala even as other minions start to turn.

 

“007,” she says, and Luis turns abruptly, expression bleeding his disbelief.

 

“Bond,” he says, relief in his voice.

 

He walks slowly, purposefully.  R, unfrozen, steps out from behind his desk, and says, “You’re alive?”  He frames it like it’s a question, like he may be a ghost, like this is all some elaborate Halloween prank.

 

“Where is he?” James asks.

 

“No,” Nala whispers.

 

The doors open again, preceding their fearless leader, attention focused on a blueprint on his tablet.  Nala watches him glance up, find R, and look back down.  She watches his mouth open as he starts to form a question, watches his brain catch up with his body, watches his feet stumble to a stop.  She swears she can hear the way his heart staggers and threatens to do the same.

 

James sees it on R’s face, and turns back toward the doors.  There are only a few feet between them, but the atmosphere that bleeds out from them turns the world cold, turns it upside down and wrenches it inside out, twists and warps and destroys the space until it feels like hundreds of acres between them.

 

Q’s hands wrap tighter around his tablet, the blueprint blurring as tears try to creep into his eyes.  He taps at his walls, finds that they’re still stable, and swallows everything down—his sorrow, anger, fear, all of it—before he looks up.

 

“Did you move?” is the first goddamn thing James asks him.

 

Q bristles.  “I did,” he says, rolling his shoulders back so that they sit square and defiant.  He sniffs once, and asks, “Did you grow a beard?”

 

“Blending in with the locals,” James says.

 

“I hear they’re quite finicky about suave men in Iceland,” Q says.  His tone suggests he’d like to string James up by his thumbs and leave him hanging for an indefinite amount of time.

 

“What with all the goats and hard labor,” James agrees.

 

Q swallows, though his throat is dry, and his bones are shaking, and he wants to give up, give in, give out.  “And the plants?” he asks.

 

James valiantly tries to fight a smirk, but he’s too tired and too wound up, and it comes out, crooked and dashing and doing terrible things to Q’s insides.  He reaches into his jacket, where he secured his tiny potted plant, and produces a small bundle of lemongrass.  “It has catnip qualities,” he says.

 

“R’s allergic,” Q says.

 

“Do not rope me into this,” R says quickly.

 

Q scowls, releases his tablet from his death grip, and tucks it under his arm before he starts walking.  James tries to meet him halfway, but Q steps out of his path, says, “Glad to see you’ve returned in one piece, 007.  I fear the same is not to be said for your Walther?  Pity,” and walks right past him up to his desks.

 

Nala blinks, her mouth dropping open.  She stares at James’s tense shoulders, and then swivels to look at Q, who is effectively hiding every possible thing he might be feeling as he sets his tablet down and goes over to fill his mug at the tea station.

 

James doesn’t move until he hears the telltale sound of Q setting his mug down on his desk, and then he pivots, takes long, fluid strides to cross the room in the space of a heartbeat, and stops only when he’s reached Q.  A younger Bond might have shrugged and called it a wash, left without a fight.  An angrier Bond might have loomed over Q, made his presence overwhelming and unavoidable.  A harder Bond might have snapped something awful at him, or even tried to make a lewd joke.

 

James is none of these anymore.  He is forty-three now, has knees that creak, a hip that grumbles sometimes, too many scars and bullet wounds and haunting memories, and, for the first time since Vesper, he doesn’t want to be alone.

 

And thus, when Q looks up at him, when he lifts a hand to adjust his glasses and swallows again, when he tries not to let James see how much he’s hurting, it’s all for naught because James is visibly defeated.  His whole posture is slumped, his mouth an uneven line, his face open and his eyes full of all the things he doesn’t know how to say.  “Please,” he says softly, “I’m so sorry.”

 

He sets his hand on the desk, taps his fingers gently there, and starts to retreat after a breath of silence when Q’s hand closes over his own, loosely at first, and then tighter, holding onto him.

 

“Has it been too long?” James asks.

 

Q inhales, opens his mouth, and smiles instead.  It’s an easy, Sunday morning smile, and it warms every bone in James’s body.  He straightens a little, tries not to fall into this unraveling hope inside him, and fails utterly when Q says, “Welcome home.”

 

“Thank you,” James whispers.

 

Q releases his hand, clears his throat, and steps to the side, looking out at his stunned employees.  At once, they scramble to pretend they’ve been busy, and Q shakes his head.  “Arjuna, your desk is on fire,” he says evenly.

 

“That it is,” Arjuna says.

 

“Nala, once you’ve—”

 

Nala starts clapping.

 

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Q mutters, and drops into his seat, rolling toward his laptop.  The rest of the branch joins her, although some of them absolutely refuse to meet Q’s gaze.  Q logs into his laptop as James starts moving, and he half expects him to prowl until he steps up behind Q’s desk and comes to stand just behind him.  Q glances at R, who honest to god gives him a thumbs up, and turns in his chair as the applause starts to die down.  “Ah,” Q says as James tries to step closer, “I vetoed workplace indecency.”

 

“I don’t give a damn,” James says, and kisses him.

 

It’s a bit like coming to leisurely, bathed in the late spring warmth of golden sunshine, with a cat purring by your head and a cup of tea already steaming nearby, the delicious scent of breakfast mingling with the sigh of the water outside.

 

That is, to say, that it’s like waking up, like he’s been asleep this whole time, and this is his first moment of clarity in ten months.

 

When James releases him, one hand wrapped possessively around Q’s jaw, he licks his bottom lip and draws it in to bite at it.  He opens his eyes to find James still close, and smiling like he’s swallowed stardust.  “Q,” he says.  His voice is full and steady and everything Q’s been missing.

 

“James,” he says.  He hums, leans into his hand a little.  “I don’t like the beard,” he says.

 

“You and me both,” James says.

 

Though they’re still at MI-6, in Q branch, no less, Q leans up, asking, and James kisses him a second time, slower than before, the whisper of his mouth against Q’s saying all the things neither of them can, or are willing to hear.

 

James tastes like smoke and copper and gunpowder, gasoline and terrible coffee and the sharp snap of a cold breeze.  He tastes like all the things Q has been trying to erase from his life, and he swallows all of it greedily.

 

It’s Q that pulls back this time, tips out of James’s hand, and leans back in his seat.  James lingers only a breath longer before he straightens, tucking his hands in his pockets.  His gaze shifts minutely, watches one of Q’s screens on his laptop.  “M’s on his way down,” he says.

 

“Precisely,” Q says.  He reaches behind him for his phone, taps across it violently with his thumbs, and adds, “I’ve sent you the new address.  I haven’t unpacked much yet.”

 

“When did you move?” James asks.  Q turns to fish a phone out of one of his drawers, whose screen is lit up, and starts typing on that one, as well.

 

“Only a few weeks ago,” Q says before he hands him the phone, “You’ll have access by the time you get there.”

 

“Shall I assume you haven’t food shopped in those few weeks?” James asks.  Q lifts an eyebrow without looking at him, still typing on his phone.  James opens the message on his new phone, smiles even though it’s nothing more than a jumble of words and numbers, but it’s from Q, who’s speaking to him, who didn’t give up on him, who wants him here.

 

“Please shower before you do any shopping,” Q says, “And change.”  His mouth twitches.  He finishes typing, looks up, and adds, “And please don’t tell Moneypenny that I’ve kept all your things, but they’re in a box in the bedroom closet.”

 

“One last thing?” James asks, watching M exit the lift.

 

“There’s an emergency door behind the plants,” Q says, and turns back to his laptop to make himself look busy.

 

James is gone before M even reaches the doors.

 

——

 

When James arrives at Q’s new flat, it’s after an exorbitant amount of time spent in the back of a cab and with a certain level of frustration that he hopes to demolish by answering Eve’s thirteen messages with a phone call.

 

“James Bond,” she snaps when she picks up.  The phone has barely had time to ring, and her voice is lower than he was expecting, like she’s at her desk, trying not to be overheard by M.

 

“Moneypenny,” he says as he climbs the steps to the front door of Q’s new building.  He nudges open the door, checks for added security measures in the small mailroom and grins when he finds a few, and then pushes through another door into the lobby.

 

A man, younger than Q, but exquisitely handsome, flashes a brilliant smile James’s way as he straightens in his seat behind the front desk.  He finds the smile impressive considering how he looks, and likely smells, particularly because it doesn’t falter when James doesn’t immediately step up to the desk.

 

“Moneypenny,” he cuts off Eve’s building tirade, “Might we pause for a moment, and then perhaps restart?”

 

“You weren’t even listening?” Eve seethes.

 

“Good afternoon, sir,” the young man says, “Mister Bond, I presume?  He asked me to let you know it’s the third floor, as before.  He said a key wouldn’t be necessary?”  This, finally, shows his uncertainty.

 

“Thank you,” James says, and makes for the stairs at the right of the desk.  He ignores the quick comment about the lift, and starts climbing.  “Goodness,” he says as he lifts the phone back to his ear, “This place is a tad bit posher than the last one.  Ostentatious, even for Q.”

 

“He likes the location and the security,” Eve says sharply, “So don’t fuck this up with your temperament.”

 

“My temperament?” James echoes, reaching the second floor, “Why, Moneypenny, you wound me.”

 

“Five minutes?  That’s all he gets?  You’ve been gone for ten fucking months, James, and you hang out in Q branch for five minutes?”

 

“Do give M my best, and let him know I’ll be in for debriefing at some point.”

 

“James!”  She’s angrier than James has ever heard her, and a small part of him considers just hanging up on her.

 

Instead, he says, “Eve.”

 

“The audacity, honestly,” she snarls.  He waits, remaining silent as he climbs the last flight of stairs and stops on the third landing.  The door looks like every other one he’s passed.  Eve sighs softly on the other line.  “I know,” she says, “I know.  This was to be expected.  I haven’t the faintest why I thought it might be different, but go right ahead and trod across his heart again.”

 

James steps up to the door, lets the peephole read his retina, flattens his hand above the handle, and listens to the locks disengage on the other side.  When the door shushes open gently, he says, “I’m not going to flatter that with a response,” and hangs up.

 

He steps just inside, toes the door shut behind him, and lets the lullaby of the locks reengaging remind him that this is Q’s home—his home again, finally—as he looks out at a world he doesn’t know.  From his vantage point, all he can see is the length of the hallway and an open, uncertain space beyond.  The lights here are soft and warm, casting long shadows across the walls, which are a rainy day grey.  There’s a door to his immediate right, which reveals itself as a full bathroom, and another to his immediate left, which is a small storage closet, already holding some of Q’s ugly jackets and scarves.  A set of double doors a few paces farther down reveal the washing, and then the rest of the flat is just around a corner which makes him want to draw his gun.

 

What he wants is a shower, a shave, and new clothes before exploring, and he’s about to dismiss that notion when Joyce, her grey fur darker in the wane light, walks out of the open doorway directly across from him, at the end of the wall on his left, and sits down in front of it, her green eyes fixed on James.  He refrains from thanking her out loud, though he does bend down to scratch between her ears before he pushes the door further open.

 

Keats, wound tightly into a ball, twitches one black ear and then lifts his head, swiveling his gaze toward the door.  He meows theatrically, and tucks his head back beneath his paws.  James exhales a laugh.

 

Already, just from the bedroom, he likes this flat more than the old one.  Their massive bed is set in the middle, against a wall which sports the periodic table of elements over the headboard.  The bed itself is a tangled mess—the dark grey duvet is almost entirely on the floor, one of the pillows is on the floor, and Keats has pulled the sheets into a little nest.  A long shelving unit sits opposite the bed, packed with books, framed pictures, candles, and forgotten mugs of tea.  Unsurprisingly, where James had once tried to persuade Q into getting a television, there’s a pile of scrap metal and a project that he thinks was left there by accident.  He checks to make sure nothing is smoking, and then crosses over to the glass doors on the other side of the room.  They open up onto a private balcony, which Q has already furnished with an elephant ear plant, and which James spends a moment on, eyes closed to the cold sun.

 

Joyce flicks her tail at his pant leg, effectively herding him back into the bedroom, and he makes a beeline for the attached bathroom.  It’s a far cry from the small shower and single vanity he’s accustomed to, and he starts disrobing quickly.  After washing the grime and blood and months off of him, James finds his shaving kit tucked neatly into one of the shelves beneath the sink closest to the door, and smiles fondly.  He’d been so worried that Q would have moved on when Q was quite busy doing exactly the opposite.  He takes his time getting rid of the offending beard, and when he steps back, admiring his new old face in the mirror, his bones begin to settle.

 

True to his word, there’s a box of his clothes in the back of the closet, which is attached to the bathroom.  He tugs on a pair of light grey sweats that Q had been absolutely astonished by, pulls a pale blue shirt over his head, and pads barefoot out of the closet, through the bathroom, and out of the bedroom.  The front entrance is in his direct line of sight, and the rest sprawls out easily before him.

 

Though it’s been furnished—a sofa and two armchairs, too many pillows, a coffee table littered with tools and gadgets, and an entertainment center to rival any gamer’s all arranged off to the left—the bookshelves along the farthest wall are empty, and there’s a pile of boxes sitting in front of them.  Ignoring the kitchen for now, which he needs to walk past to get to the boxes, James takes a moment to peruse them.  They’re mostly books, but one contains Q’s records, and he busies himself setting up the record player, filing away his records in a system he’s confident Q will change, and then puts on something at random, smiling at Joyce when he finds her sitting on the kitchen table, watching him closely.

 

He leaves the boxed books for now, and goes over to peer out the glass doors at a corner balcony outfitted with comfortable chairs and a small table.  James puts his back to the doors to take stock of the kitchen.  It’s far bigger than what they had before, with long, black countertops, excellent lighting, and a long, marble unattached island with a sink opposite the kitchen proper.  There even appears to be a well-stocked liquor cabinet just next to the refrigerator, though James leaves it for later consideration as he crosses the open space to a door next to the kitchen.

 

Beyond, in what was likely intended to be a guest room, Q’s transformed it into a workspace, his large desk covered in wires, electronics, and a secondary laptop, other monitors scattered around it.  The shelves in here are also bare, though these boxed books are all on engineering, mathematics, physics, and the like.  There’s another walk-in closet that connects to the bathroom accessible from the front hall, and he very nearly calls Q to poke fun at him being well off enough to afford this incredible place, but not enough to stop wearing tattered, embarrassingly ugly jumpers.

 

James steps into the workshop fully, rummaging around until he can dig up an earpiece, and heads back out into the main room, turning toward the empty bookshelves and boxed books.  He listens to the telltale signs of Q’s technology coming alive as he pauses at the island to pet Joyce absentmindedly.  When, finally, the sound of keys clacking filters out into his left ear, James’s shoulders drop, relaxing.

 

“Mm,” Q hums distractedly, “One moment.”

 

Even just that makes him pause.  He’s home.  With Q’s voice in his ear, Joyce trying to trip him as she jumps down and does figure eights around his legs, and a stack of boxes to unpack, every muscle in his body starts to release the tension he’s been carrying around for the last ten months.

 

Joyce smashes her head against his shin, and he laughs softly, leaning down to scoop her up.  “Where shall we start, then?” he asks her, carrying her over to the boxes.

 

“Oh, not the books,” Q says, “They’re a mess.”

 

“Contrary to popular belief, I am competent with the alphabet.”

 

“In several languages, no doubt,” Q muses.

 

James sets Joyce down on one of the boxes.  “And your alphabet, Q?  Have you spoken to Eve?  And that doorman.”

 

“Thank you, R.  No, you may not—honestly.  I’m not going to call you Gomez, so stop—no—R.”  There’s a distinct cackle on the other line, and James smirks as he tears open a box.  “I hate Halloween,” Q mutters, “Every second of it.”

 

“Pity I don’t still have that suit.”

 

“Do not bring up the skeleton suit right now.  Yes, I have spoken to Eve.  Several times.  She refuses to listen, and continues to believe that I’m one of those collapsible wooden dolls that’s just going to—just because it’s Halloween doesn’t mean there needs to be constant fire!  Oh.  Oh.  Push it a little farther, and I’ll redirect the sprinklers to soak just you.”

 

“Sounds like mayhem over there,” James says as he starts taking books out, setting them on the floor.

 

“They’re all up in arms today, and I hate every last one of them.  Except Nala,” he adds.

 

“Give Bond a kiss for us, yes?” a voice floats by.

 

“Including Nala,” Q amends, “Why I ever thought that was a good idea.  Doomed.  I’m doomed to a lifetime of living that down.”

 

“What, the kiss?”

 

“Oh, the kiss,” Q says derisively.

 

“I thought it was rather overdue.”

 

“Overdue doesn’t even come close.  No,” he says before James can pick at that, “That’s a conversation for a much later hour.  Do not harass the doorman.  He’s kept me great company these past few weeks.”  James is startled into silence.  Q does nothing to stifle his laugh.

 

“You complete asshole,” James says finally.

 

“Oh ye of little faith,” Q says, “The alphabet is genre and last name.  Mind you, subgenres are a thing to be considered.”

 

“Shall I shelve the alien porn outside of the general science fiction hogwash, then?”

 

This time, it’s Q that’s startled into silence.  James lets him stew, beginning to separate the books he’s already unpacked into small stacks.  “Well,” Q says finally, “I’m—I have no idea what to say to that.”

 

James quirks an eyebrow.  “You don’t really have alien porn, do you?”

 

“Well, there are a few Doctor Who novelizations, and there are some sections of the fandom that consider the doctor an alien, so one might categorize any romantic inclinations as—”

 

“Q.”

 

“I put the periodic table in the bedroom just to spite you,” Q says.

 

“I’m aware,” James says, “The other walls are lacking in imagination, though.”

 

“I trust your interior designing skills,” he says, though he doesn’t sound like he’s giving James his full attention, “Put them wherever—fine.  Fine.  I can take a fucking hint.”  An enthusiastic cheer cuts through.  “Individual punishments for this mutiny will be extended upon my return.  Tomorrow,” he adds severely.

 

James pauses in his sorting, looking over at the window.  It’s still early, the sun still high in the sky.  “Are they kicking you out?” he asks.

 

“They pooled their resources to freeze me out of my own network.  It would, theoretically, only last a few seconds, but I—” Q falters, and there’s a commotion in the background.

 

“Oh,” James says, something warm unraveling across his chest.

 

Q makes a noise of disgust.  “This is all so distasteful,” he mutters, and cuts their line.

 

Thankfully, after Q’s packed his bag, the noise dies down.  He knows that, if they were in a different situation, his branch would never act this way, but given the circumstances, he’s decided to let it happen.  Truthfully, even in this given situation, he could easily set them straight, but his heart is beating at a million miles an hour, and all he can think about is James in his new flat, surrounded by his books, likely being tortured for love by his cats, and waiting for him to come home.

 

Home.

 

He’s been waiting so long, he almost forgot what that word meant, and he’s eager to rediscover it.

 

Bag packed, and his branch secure, Q takes his leave, pausing only by R to confirm that he’ll call if anything, which Q knows he won’t unless MI-6 is under an actual assault, stops in with Eve to let her know he’s taking a half day, which she positively beams about, and leaves as discreetly as he can.

 

Once outside, the decision to take the tube is both one of cowardice and anticipation.  Though he’s loathe to admit it, Q’s uncertain about where they stand now, or rather, how they stand.  The display in Q branch was one thing, but with the prospect of being alone with James for several hours at once looming overhead, Q’s not sure he’s ready to face all of it.  There’s so much that’s been left unsaid between them, and though he’d like to just pull the wool over his eyes and kick things off where they’d left it, that seems both unfeasible and highly illogical.

 

Thus, the tube.

 

It takes a solid thirty minutes for him to get back to his new neighborhood, and so, as soon as he’s settled into a seat, he conference calls his brothers.

 

Connor is the first to pick up, “Bugger, hang on.  Moira, knock it off!  I don’t care if Devon stole one of your Barbie’s, you can’t just go around whacking people with two by fours.”

 

Q lifts a fist to his mouth, trying to contain his laugh.  Moira’s shrill, angry voice retorts, “She tore off her head, dad!  And covered her in ketchup to make it look like blood!  She’s a psychopath!”

 

“Murdering dolls again?” Shae asks as he answers, “This is why I’m stopping at one.”

 

“Ro, give us a second,” Connor says, and there’s the sound of him putting down the phone to go break up what sounds like a promising fight.

 

“Are you dead?” Shae asks.

 

“No,” Q says, “Are you?”

 

“Well, you’re the one calling in the middle of the day.  I’m at work.”

 

“I know, I’m sorry,” Q says, “I just—Des?” he adds when the last line clicks on.

 

“Hang on,” Desmond says quickly.

 

“How am I the only one not busy?” Shae mutters, “I hate this office.”

 

“You do not,” Q says, “I have it in good faith that you enjoy your coworkers, and even don’t completely despise the work you do.”

 

“It’s HR,” Shae says, “Hardly the stuff of spy novels.’

 

“You do realize it’s the middle of the day, right?” Desmond breaks in, “I’ve got an actual mountain of paperwork I have to get through by end of day.  Wait—are you dead?”

 

“Honestly,” Q says, “Connor!”

 

“World War XVIII is at a cease fire at the moment.  Rowan, it’s the middle of the day.”

 

“Good grief,” Q complains loudly, “You do all realize that occasionally I keep strange hours, right?  That it might be the end of my shift right now?”

 

“Uh huh,” Connor says, “But you’ve never called in the middle of the day.”

 

“Unless holy shit!” Shae yells.

 

“Shit,” Desmond says, “Rowan.”

 

“Yes, okay,” Q says quickly, “He’s back.”

 

All three of them start talking at once, and Q makes a face, though he refrains from pulling the phone away.  Shae sounds angry, which surprises him as he’s been the most supportive one during all of this.  Desmond sounds cold and uncertain, which Q understands completely.  Connor, however, breaks through the noise with, “I’m going to curb stomp him and serve his skull on a fucking platter.  The nerve.  How long has it been?”

 

“Ten months,” Shae says quickly, “Are you going home to him right now?”

 

“Yes,” Q says, and waits for the noise to start again.  When it doesn’t, he swallows past a lump forming in his throat, and says, “I just—don’t want to do this anymore.”

 

“And when he leaves again?” Desmond demands.

 

“He didn’t leave, Des,” Q sighs, “So stop pretending that he did.”

 

“He could have called,” Connor mutters furiously, “Or something.”

 

“He couldn’t have, actually,” Q snaps.  His own anger is starting to boil up, though at his brothers and M, not at James.  “He was dark for a reason.”

 

“It’s still bullshit,” Connor says.

 

“I called you because I need you, not because I want you to make me feel like shit,” Q says, and doesn’t feel bad about it when Shae exhales loudly.

 

Connor grumbles incoherently before Desmond says, “Okay.  We’ll—talk about this later.  What are you doing right now?”

 

“I’m on the tube,” Q says, “I’m kind of freaking out.”

 

“Well, that’s dumb,” Shae says, and they spend the next thirty minutes talking about absolutely nothing at all, pulling Q’s mind farther and farther away from the way his world wants to unravel before stitching itself back together.  And when, finally, he’s reached his stop, he hangs up with them after a few long minutes of encouragement, walks the short distance from the stop to his building, and is left standing outside, frowning at the front door.

 

A voice from above, literally, ushers him inside, “I once witnessed you hack into Russia’s nuclear codes on a dare, and this is giving you pause?”

 

Q carefully doesn’t startle, doesn’t even look up, but he does give James the middle finger before striding into the building.  James’s laugh follows him even after the doors have closed, settles under his skin and makes a home there.

 

“Edward,” he says in greeting as he comes in through the lobby.

 

“Mister Larson,” the young man at the front desk says as Q makes for the stairs, “I wasn’t expecting you back so soon.”


“Duty calls,” Q says, and jogs up the first flight.

 

He doesn’t let himself pause outside the door, but instead lets himself in ahead of time, shoulders the door open, and opens his mouth to start the worst of the conversation when the music reaches him.  It’s one of his favorite records, slow and smooth and heavy.  It hangs around him as he distractedly shuts the door, a whisper leaking beneath his layers and pulling goosebumps up along his arms.

 

Keats wanders out of his bedroom, meows in greeting, and trots past him into the kitchen to graze on his food.  Q blinks, and steps in after him.  Still wearing his parka and his bag, which contains a heavily modified gun, Q just stares at James—James Bond, the deadliest assassin that MI-6 has to offer—surrounded by stacks of books with Joyce asleep in his lap and a mug of tea—tea—in hand.  Q sags against the island, at a loss for words.

 

James lifts his mug in greeting, sips from it, and sets it on top of a stack of books to continue sorting the pile in front of him.  There are a thousand things he should ask, and instead the question that comes out is, “Did you separate my poetry into Renaissance and Romantic?”

 

“The classics are over there,” James says, gesturing vaguely behind him.

 

“Classics?” Q echoes.

 

James flashes him a smile.  “Beowulf, Homer, the Divine Comedy.”

 

Q blinks, and does not breathe.  “Well,” James says, and promptly looks away, tapping lightly at one of Joyce’s ears until she unravels to glare murder at him.  “Treats later if you scatter now,” he whispers.

 

Q flings himself out from under his messenger bag, not caring when it thuds loudly to the ground.  “Ten months,” he says, and shrugs out of his parka.

 

“Almost eleven,” James says, climbing to his feet slowly once Joyce is gone.

 

“The audacity,” Q snaps.  He gets tangled in one of the arms, swears recreationally at it, and throws it at the ground when he’s finally out.

 

“Goddamn those kidnappers,” James agrees, a smirk tilting across his mouth as he approaches Q, wending his way through the stacks easily, like he’s closing in on a mark.

 

Q toes out of his shoes as he asks, “Kidnappers?”

 

“Only the once,” James says, “At the end.  I was on my way back to you when they caught up to me.”  The words catch in Q’s chest, and he stops halfway out of his left shoe.

 

“Injuries?” he asks.

 

“Several,” is all James gives him, “Later.”

 

“James—”

 

Q.”

 

There are no words.  There are no words for the way the sun expands through Q’s lungs and cracks his sternum in half as James’s hands find him, one wrapping around his jaw as he tilts Q’s head up to meet him, the other finding the middle of his spine to press them together.  There are no words to describe how every muscle in his body breathes a sigh of relief and stops holding him together as James pauses a heartbeat away, his cold, unsettling eyes thawing rapidly at the whisper of skin when their noses brush together.  There are no words for how the numbness leaves his aching fingers, for how his bones shake the cobwebs loose, for how transparent he is in his wanting.

 

“Ten months,” he says because James still hasn’t kissed him.

 

“I’m sorry,” James says, and drops his forehead against Q’s.  His eyes are still open, still searching.

 

Q shakes his head, just a little, but enough, and lifts his hands to curl around James’s face, holding him steady.  “No more,” he says, and kisses him.

 

He means it to be soft, to be a whispered secret between them, but James is a fire always devouring, and Q is given one sigh of peace before he’s being pinned against the wall.  The hand that had been on his back tugs his button-up from his trousers, slips beneath, and wraps around Q’s waist, fingers digging in.  The hand around his jaw shifts just so, thumb hooking beneath his chin so he can tip Q’s head farther up.  Q lets out a strangled noise when James leaves a hot, unhurried trail down his throat, kisses the hollow there, and then noses aside the collar of his sweater to nip gently at his collarbone.

 

His exhale ghosts warm across Q’s exposed throat, and then he’s lifting his head, pale blue eyes meeting Q’s hazel ones.  In the expanding light of midday, they look almost golden.

 

James studies him for a long moment, and Q has one blinding moment of feeling unsettled before James steps back.  “James,” he says quickly, stepping away from the wall and toward him.

 

James holds up a hand between them.  “Is this okay?” he asks.  Q blinks, confused.  He almost asks him what the hell he’s on about when James continues, “If this is—not a—well, if—if we’re not—”

 

“James,” Q cuts over him swiftly, knocking his hand aside and closing that damning distance between them.  “If we weren’t, you would have known long before right now.”

 

“I need,” James tries, and breaks off with a sigh.  Q gives him silence to figure out his words, but winds their fingers together and lifts their twined hands to kiss the backs of his knuckles, a little bruised from whatever recent fighting he’s done.  “I need to hear it.”  Q flicks his eyes up, finds James’s blue eyes closed, his head tilted forward, unconsciously leaning closer to him.

 

Q presses a last kiss to his knuckles, and then one to the corner of James’s mouth.  “You’re home,” he says, “And I’m still here.  Now,” he kisses the other corner, “Do I have to ask nicely, or can we skip the bullshit?”  James smirks, so Q comes close enough to kiss him, and doesn’t, instead brushes their mouths together.

 

“And you call me brutish,” James murmurs.

 

“Ten months,” Q says.

 

“Almost eleven,” James agrees, and kisses him with the fire of a thousand suns.

 

——

 

After it all—after they stumble around stacks of books, knocking into still unpacked boxes, and nearly tripping over Keats when he decides to lay down in the middle of everything; after Q laughs like something has been let loose inside of him, something dark finally easing, finally beginning to dissipate, and James just grins and grumbles, dragging Q along through the flat to the bedroom; after they struggle out of clothes because they can’t stop touching, hands leaving searing trails of heat and want and now, why are you so bloody slow—after, James knocks Q’s knees out from under him, sending him sprawling onto the bed, and grins down at him in a way that makes Q huff and say, “Oh, Mister Bond, do be gentle with me,” in his best imitation of a valley girl voice.

 

It’s neither a good impression nor particularly convincing considering Q is batting his eyelashes ridiculously, but something sharp dislodges in James, something that had been piercing his lungs and serrating the edges of his heart, something that, once again, appears to open the floodgates.  There is no in between here, no before and after, simply Q, his trousers undone, his glasses skewed, and the line of his ribs a little less defined than the last time James saw him, grinning wickedly as James erupts into a laugh, bowing over the bed toward him.  There’s only this—James’s mirth hidden in Q’s neck while one of his hands splays open over Q’s ribs.  There’s James asking, “Have you been working out?”  And there’s Q answering, “Why, want to see what you’ve been missing?” before he aptly tosses James onto his back.

 

And after, after it all—after Q rises onto his knees and takes back what is rightfully his, after James’s fingers smear bruises across his hips, on one of his thighs, and even around one of his biceps when Q dips down toward him, mouth a sharp, wild thing across James’s chest; after James swallows Q’s almost beg when he rolls them, biting sharply at Q’s lower lip, pins him to the bed, and shows him just how much he’s missed him, just how much he’s been waiting and wanting and wishing; after Q drags blunt nails across James’s shoulder, marks his Iceland pale skin with long, red marks, swells a bruise to his collarbone with his teeth, and holds onto him when James shakes apart, the silence broken only by their sharp breaths—after, Q makes them both tea, almost lets traitorous words spill from his mouth when he finds James has picked out books for each of them, and tucks up in bed with him.

 

“I can’t believe I left work early,” he muses later.  James is resting against the headboard, Joyce curled up against his hip.  Q’s legs are thrown across his lap, temple resting against his shoulder, and book propped against his side.

 

“I can’t believe you left work early for a shag,” James says.

 

Q rolls his eyes, sticks his thumb in his book, and sits straight.  James is grinning cheekily.

 

Q hums thoughtfully, opens his book back up to mark his page, and sets it aside.  James lifts one eyebrow.  “Standard operating procedure?” he asks.  When Q merely continues watching him, gaze flicking across his face too rapidly to tell if he’s seeing anything there, James closes his book, and sets it on top of Joyce, who doesn’t move.

 

“I am still your quartermaster,” Q says before James can say anything, “I don’t blame you in the slightest for the length of time.  Admittedly, I do harbor a splash of resentment toward M for sending you out to die, but alas.  Kings and queens and guillotines.”

 

James blinks, swallows a smirk, and asks, “Did you just quote an Aerosmith lyric at me?”

 

“Live,” Q says loftily, “and no reply, they died.”

 

James’s expression remains impassive, though it’s a battle he’s certain he’ll lose if Q continues along this vein.  Thankfully, he doesn’t, but instead asks, “What’s next?”

 

And truly, here it is.  Here is the truth he never got to speak aloud.  He has two options.  He could tell Q about the will, about wanting to retire, or he could keep running from his future, from his fear.

 

Q hums, seeing something on his face, though James isn’t sure what it could possibly be, and swings his legs off of James’s lap only to clamber up onto his knees.  He sits back on his heels, thighs resting alongside James’s, and sets one hand flat over his sternum, long fingers spreading wide.  James sets both his hands over Q’s thighs, grip just enough that he can feel how strong he really is, how much he’s actually been working out.  It sets a fire alight in his spine, and though he wants nothing more than to explore that fire, he doesn’t move, instead remains present in their conversation.  “Is this about the will?” Q asks.

 

James blinks, derailed.

 

Q smiles softly and lifts his hand to brush the backs of his knuckles over James’s collarbone, stopping only to press his thumb against the bruise still blossoming there.  James’s eyes narrow, but otherwise, he doesn’t show that a small flare of pain brightens beneath Q’s thumb.  They narrow a little further, fanning lines at the edges of his eyes, as Q presses harder.

 

“M told me.”

 

“What?”  James reaches up to grab Q’s wrist, fingers circling around it easily.  Even if he’s put on a little muscle, James could still easily snap his wrist with the right grip.  Q, ever a sadist, digs his thumb against the bruise.  James lets him, though he does tighten his hold a little.

 

Q lifts one eyebrow, releases his bruise, and says, “Six months after you went dark.”

 

“And the funeral?” James asks.

 

Q scoffs.  “Absolutely not,” he says, “I demanded that we wait a year.”

 

“And after that?”

 

“A quiet affair,” Q says before his hand twists.  James releases his wrist, and leans into Q’s palm when his hand curls around his jaw.  His thumb, gentle now, sweeps out over James’s cheek.  “Eve, myself, a few of the double oh’s.  Perhaps R and Nala.  M, of course.”  James blinks slowly, trying to decipher why he doesn’t find it morbid that Q’s clearly planned out his funeral extensively.  That is, until, he continues, “We’d all wear Hawaiian shirts and sip martinis with those little umbrellas in them.  With sugar on the rims and some kind of god awful fruit.”

 

James says, “Dragon fruit,” before he turns his head to kiss Q’s palm lightly.

 

“That hardly seems like a proper fruit for a martini.”

 

“Fruit,” James says, “for a martini.”

 

“Right,” Q agrees.  James drops another feather-light kiss against his palm, grins when Q’s other hand drifts down to run his knuckles distractingly over both of them.  “If you die,” Q says, “and I mean well and truly kick the bucket, I thought a drink on the roof would be fitting.”

 

James hums, opens his mouth enough to lick up the inside of Q’s thumb, and then closes it again around the last knuckle.  He flicks his blue eyes up to find Q biting his lip, his eyes dark and heavy.

 

“You were going to retire,” he says evenly.

 

James releases his thumb, kisses his palm, and lifts his head.  “Should I not?” he asks.

 

Q regards him, looking every bit unhinged with his bitten mouth and hungry eyes.  He wraps a deft hand around James’s cock, swipes a thumb over the head, and leans in close, close enough that James can see how sharp his hungry eyes really are, how thoughtful his bitten mouth is.  He wonders, briefly, if Q’s brain ever lets him be, if he’s ever able to just let go, and resolves to do just that as soon as Q’s gotten his words out.  And so, he waits him out, still and silent as a predator on the hunt even as Q’s hand twists knots of heat in his belly.

 

“Do you want to?  Truly?” Q asks.

 

“For you, yes,” James says.

 

“For you, though?” Q asks.

 

James shrugs one shoulder.  “Not always,” he says.

 

“Then don’t,” Q says, “It’s a nice thought, yes.”  He lifts his free hand to thread through James’s hair, and continues, “A greying James Bond, at home with dinner ready and a dog lapping at his heels.”

 

“Do I get an apron?” James asks.

 

Q’s fingers tighten, moving just so, and James lets out a startled exhale, the hand on Q’s thigh tightening, nails biting skin.  Q smirks, and does it again.  “Bastard,” James mutters because of course, of bloody course, Q is the only one that can unravel him, that unleashes the dark creature lurking beneath his skin at the most unexpected of times.

 

“Kiss the cook?” Q asks, and shifts away, leaning back into his heels, his hands wrapping around James’s where they rest on his thighs.

 

A muscle in James’s jaw clenches, but he doesn’t move otherwise.  “Mandatory retirement is in two years,” James reminds him.

 

“Oh please,” Q says, rolling his eyes, “M isn’t sending you off to die again, nor is he forcing you to retire anytime soon.  The organization that you destabilized is making news everywhere.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, is paying their respects to M.  He’s not letting you go until you’re both good and ready.”

 

“And you?” James asks.

 

“Well,” Q says, pausing to lick his lips, “Selfishly, I’d rather you where I can keep my eye on you.”

 

“At work,” James clarifies.

 

Q hums his agreement, eyes wandering across James’s face.  He squeezes James’s hands, offers him a crooked grin, and asks, “Are we done?”

 

“I should hope so,” James says, “I’d quite like to fuck you.”

 

“Well, get on with it, then,” Q says.

 

He manages to keep up the banter until James swallows him down, two fingers in his ass, and other hand wrapped tightly with Q’s, and then the only thing he’s capable of saying is James’s name and a few choice swear words.

 

And after, when James tries to test his brain capacity by asking him for the square root of a hefty number, Q yawns around telling him to sod off, and falls asleep with his ear pressed to James’s heartbeat.

 

——

 

They get called into MI-6 at 4AM the next morning.  Well, Q receives a dire message from R, and James snorts when Q says he’s going to take the tube in.  Q points out that they don’t exactly have a car, and he doesn’t trust cabbies this late, though that hardly does anything to deter James.  It’s a rather curious sight, then, riding the tube just after 4AM with James Bond looking unassuming next to him.  He’s anything but, though the way he sits, legs sprawled open and head tipped back, eyes closed, lends to an air of carelessness.  The clothes certainly don’t help, either, Q almost tells him.  Though his jeans likely cost as much as one month’s rent, and his winter sky blue long sleeve is soft as sin, he’s sporting Q’s Ares III mission sweatshirt beneath his handsome jacket, and it’s entirely possible that the green and grey scarf has a Slytherin emblem hidden somewhere.

 

Q’s hardly in better shape, though he did manage to dress appropriately since he’s unlikely to return home anytime soon.  His navy trousers are wrinkled, though, and he’d outright ignored James’s snort when he pulled a forest green, checkered jumper over his hideously brown button-up.  James had, however, intervened at the yellow tie, and told Q to get out before he gave everyone a headache.

 

The connection on the tube is spotty at best, even using networks that he really shouldn’t, but he does what he can while James pretends to nap next to him.  He opens his eyes only once, when a young man sits opposite them, and glares at the man until he moves down a few seats.  “Stop it,” Q mumbles absentmindedly.  James ignores him.

 

When, finally, they arrive at MI-6, it’s to quite the hubbub.  It appears the news of his resurrection spread like wildfire after his scene coming up through the floor vents, though he’d expected nothing else.  The minions, however, appear to have said nothing about what happened in Q branch, if 009’s reaction is anything to judge by.  There are three other agents in the branch when they arrive, though James doesn’t recognize them.

 

“0010, 0011, and 0012,” Q says without looking up as James holds open the door for him.

 

“That was fast,” James says as he carefully steers Q out of the way of what appears to be a weaponized Roomba.

 

Q sees it, however, and immediately looks up and over to a minion’s desk.  “I said to destroy that abomination,” he snaps.

 

“Sorry, sir,” the minion says, hurrying to do just that.

 

“Well, hell,” 009 says when he looks up at Q’s voice and spots them.

 

He’s sporting a grin that James wants to rip from his face, so he stops at Nala’s desk instead of continuing with Q to his own.  Nala slides a piece of paper across the desk, and James almost, almost, laughs.  “Bagels?” he asks instead.

 

“Don’t skimp on the cream cheese,” Nala says, still typing.

 

James pockets the note, and wanders over to the tea station, studying the three new agents as he does.  Two of them are clearly related, which seems a bit unlike M to do, and they’re far too friendly with Q when he comes around to his desk, tossing bits of himself onto it.  He answers their questions distractedly, setting his phone down as he opens his laptop.  The only man among them has the gall to lean against Q’s desk, flashing him a handsome smile, and 009 discreetly tries to tell him what a terrible idea that is while James plots his untimely death.

 

Q, completely unfazed, fires off questions at R, their conversation hardly legible.  He acknowledges them only when he’s finished, and when James is leaning against the tea station, a mug of tea in hand.  “What?” he says, too quick to be anything but annoyed.

 

0011, James assumes—because M would of course separate the twin’s monikers—straightens from Q’s desk, is so new he sports a frown at Q’s sharpness, and says, “M thought we might be able to help.”

 

Q blinks once, deliberately slow.  “Help,” he repeats, “I find that hard to believe.”

 

“Well, not—” 0011 flusters, loses his footing.  James thinks about saving him, and reconsiders, instead sipping the tea.  “Not with all this,” he finally says, waving a hand at Q’s laptop, “But perhaps—” he trails off, looking forlorn.

 

“With the general atmosphere,” one of the twins jumps to his aid.

 

It’s the smallest thing in the world, in retrospect, but Q glances at James, lightning quick, and back to the three agents.  Trained as they are, though, they see it, and confusion flits across their faces in different fashions.  James watches it all unfold from the tea station, refusing to move until they’ve done so first.

 

“Oh,” 0011 says, “Never—never mind, then.  We’ll just—”

 

“Yes, thank you,” Q says, attention effectively released back to his laptop.  009, having wandered off to bother one of the minion’s when it became clear the three green agents were just going to dig their own holes, grins as 0011 leaves.

 

The twins, however, are not so easily swayed.  They don’t leave the branch, and though they do hover a bit, they give Q room to work.

 

“Oh, don’t,” James hears Q grumble under his breath when he steps away from the tea station.

 

James doesn’t respond until he’s at Q’s shoulder, and then he sets the mug down next to his laptop, his exhale rushing warm over Q’s ear as he says, “Just remember til you’re home again, you belong to me.”

 

Q doesn’t miss a beat, “Patsy Cline or Misfits?”

 

James straightens, laughing without sound.  “What an enigma you are, Q.”

 

“Hardly,” Q says, and reaches for the tea, “Wild berry, please.  On second thought.”

 

“Onion to chase away your admirers?” James suggests.

 

Q pulls his attention from the code in front of him, and looks up over his shoulder at James.  “Play nice, you incorrigible brat,” he says.

 

“With garlic cream cheese, then,” James says, stepping out from behind his desk.

 

“Asiago,” Q says, “Or death.”

 

“So soon after the reunion?” James says, feigning disbelief, “Quartermaster, you wound me.”

 

From somewhere to his left, R snorts.  James smirks, but doesn’t look over.  “Not yet,” Q promises, already back to his code, “But later, perhaps.”

 

“Oh!” R exclaims, “Holy shit.  Welcome back, Bond.”

 

Q hides his grin as he adjusts his glasses.  One of the twins looks like she’s been hit with a stunner when James turns to leave.

 

All is as it should be, then.