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   I’m giving up more than I should

Forgive me for my frail love


Tyres screech. His blood-coated fingers slip on the steering wheel as the car careens around a corner. The road winds down towards the ocean and from here, he can hear the roar of the waves.

His passenger is unconscious, slumped against the window with his hair hanging in his eyes and red streaked across the side of his face.

Another turn. Fire burns up his shoulder—a bullet lodged somewhere beneath his skin. Their pursuers are gaining. He grits his teeth against the onslaught of desperation and pushes the gas to the floor, wringing every drop of speed he can from the battered car.

It won’t be enough. Not this time.

Bang.

A bullet—a bloody brilliant shot and bang—

One of the rear tyres blows. The car lurches, spins out of his control. The flimsy barricade barely slows them down and the crack of wood and groan of metal is loud in his ears.

The sea rushes up to meet them.

_ _

 Five weeks ago

 

Venice, Vesper, was a month ago and M has him on bloody babysitting duty. He stares at the folder on the desk without bothering to hide his contempt. He should be hunting down Quantum, not carting a goddamn twelve-year-old across Europe.

“A hacker,” M is saying, matter of fact. “Goes by the codename X and up until three days ago was a high-ranking member of a cyber terrorist ring calling themselves The Network. They mostly robbed various banks and corporations—their biggest heist was in the millions—but recently they’ve apparently become bored with that and decided to try their hand at sabotage, espionage, and murder.”

“Charming.” He plucks the folder from the desk and opens to a grainy black and white photo of a young man with wild hair, piercing eyes, and a baby-face hidden behind a beard.

“Very.” M folds her hands on the desk. “They’re rumoured to be sitting on a truly impressive amount of confidential information. All of which X has offered to cough up so we need him alive, Bond. Get him to the designated safe house in one piece, understood?”

She’s still talking about that blood embassy and he can feel his jaw clench—loosens it with effort. Anger simmers just beneath his skin, ever-present, but he’s still in control.

The bitch is dead and he’s James Bond, 007.

He’s in control.

“Understood, ma’am.”

From the desk, X stares out of his photo and James pretends he can’t already feel the man’s blood on his hands.

 

 _ _

 

They meet in a café in Kiev and X looks both older and younger in person. He slouches in his seat, leather jacket too large across his shoulders, and his eyes are haunted and lined with dark smudges. His fingers twitch against his cup of terrible, cheap coffee and his shaggy hair hangs in his grey eyes.

James watches him impassively—his own cup of coffee sitting untouched and cooling on the metal table.

“So you’re MI6’s finest?” X asks and his accent is crisp, words sharp.

James smiles, equally sharp. “Yes.”

X huffs a disdainful sound and takes a swig of coffee, not bothering to hide a grimace at the taste. When he leans back, James catches a glimpse of a gun concealed beneath his too-big jacket. He looks like a strong breeze could carry him away, but James makes a note not to underestimate him.

There’s steel buried beneath X’s apparently fragility—it’s something he’s learned to recognise.

“And you’re the cyber terrorist,” he continues as X lights a cigarette, keeping his tone pleasant.

X frowns at him. “Hardly. I’m a hacker, not a terrorist.”

“Your criminal record begs to differ.”

X arches an eyebrow. “And how many people have you killed, 007?”

“I work for the government, not anarchists.”

“Queen and country—what a convenient excuse.”

James can’t decide if he likes this punk or wants to punch him in the face. Rather than decide, he gives X another smirk and pays for his terrible coffee.

 

_ _

Three weeks ago

 

Edith Piaf swells in their ragged hotel room, blaring from the speakers of X’s laptop. He’s shirtless on the bed, bandaging a cut along his side with fingers that James can see trembling. His gun, recently fired, sits next to him and the blood that streaks his discarded shirt isn’t entirely his own.

He shot one of their pursuers through the head without flinching and it’s tragic, in a way.

“Just how many people are trying to kill you?” James asks, breathing through the pain of what he’s fairly sure is a cracked rib.

Their room has a balcony, overlooking an equally ragged town and beyond that, the bleak Polish countryside. James plants himself next to it—gun clutched tightly in hand. He can still feel adrenaline coursing through his veins and paranoia is starting to take hold.

This was the fucking sixth attempt on X’s life and it shows no sign of slowing down. He’s starting to get annoyed.

X lets out a sick laugh. “A lot.”

James spares him a glance, noticing the sprawling ink on his arm and back. The designs seem random, hard to distinguish from one another except for the menacing skull on the back of his shoulder—a contrast to how bloody young he seems. Though James is rapidly learning X is anything but.

“I’ve noticed,” he says, turning his attention back to the window. Edith Piaf continues to sing, haunting. “Did you send them a resignation notice or something?”

Another dark, cracking laugh. “No, but I should have known I couldn’t hide something like this from them. They have eyes everywhere.”

X stands, running a hand through his beard. Blood is seeping through the bandage on his side, but the wound wasn’t deep so James tells himself not to worry. “And I helped establish them, so…” He trails off, something broken and mournful flitting across his face. It’s gone in a blink, buried beneath the steel—banished with a shrug.

“They don’t have a Double O, though, and I’m starting to think you’re all Terminators in disguise.”

James feels a smile pull at the corner of his mouth. “I’m afraid that’s classified.”

X shakes his head and pulls a clean shirt out of his rucksack.

“Why did you defect?” James asks, because it’s been burning in the back of his mind since the beginning of this mess. “Guilty conscience?”

X pauses in the middle of fishing for a cigarette. He smokes with almost disgusting frequency, but James recognises a coping mechanism when he sees one and hasn’t called him on it. “Not really,” he replies after a moment of thought, drifting toward one of the windows.

James lifts a hand to stop him, pointing back at the bed. He’d rather have a smoke-filled room than X getting shot by a sniper. X practically rolls his eyes, but obeys without comment, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the lumpy mattress.

“I don’t approve of some of their current activities, but. We weren’t always like that. We’ve done great things.”

“Theft and espionage?”

Another shrug. “Only from those who deserved it.”

“Ah, I see. You were like Robin Hood and his merry men.” He lets the sarcasm drip from his voice.

“I never said we were good people,” X continues without rising to the bait. A pointed look. “But neither are you, 007.”

“You never answered my question,” James presses, choosing to ignore the barb, especially considering X is right.

X takes a drag of the cigarette. He looks small and tired and there’s a grief in his eyes that James almost recognises. “I owe a debt.”

“To who?”

“The dead.”

James scoffs and adjusts his gun. “The dead can’t cash in on their debts.”

“But they can haunt you until you pay them.”

It’s suddenly an effort not to think of Venice, Vesper, and a cold, lifeless body in his arms.

“Only if you let them.”

His tone is even, but somehow, he suspects X sees right through him.

 

_ _

 

Four weeks ago

 

They drive, winding their way west. X absolutely refused to fly, to even go near an airport, and if it weren’t for the multiple security cameras and the two attacks they’ve weathered so far, James would have drugged him and hauled him on board anyway.

They need to shake their pursuers before they go anywhere near the rendezvous point so a non-descript car and back roads it is.

Rain pelts against the windshield and in the passenger seat, X sits hunched over a laptop, fingers clacking against the keys. The repeated noise is starting to grate on James’s already frayed nerves and he feels his fingers tighten on the steering wheel.

“You’d better be doing something important.”

“No,” X replies, practically a snarl. “I’m playing bloody solitaire.”

Tragically, this car doesn’t come with an eject option. He still debates finding a way to throw X out of it.

At his impatient sound, X looks up long enough to glower at him. “If you must know, I’m booking us flights to Milan.”

Ah. A diversion.

“And they’ll take the bait?”

X’s expression is grim. “For a while.”

Well. That sounds promising.

James shakes his head and keeps driving. Overhead, thunder echoes, rolling ominously across the sky. Fortunately, he’s never been a big believer in Fate.

 

_ _

 

Now

 

The impact of the car hitting the water is nearly enough to knock him unconscious. The air punches out of his lungs as his chest connects with the steering wheel. The already cracked windshield splinters further and he struggles to focus through the pain, fumbling for the buckle on his seatbelt.

X is still unconscious and the world narrows down to him, the car, and the rising water.

James has to keep him alive. Right now nothing else matters; nothing else exists.

He gets the seatbelt undone, followed by X’s. The front windshield is about to give. He shifts, bracing himself against the seat—one hand tangled in the front of X’s shirt—and kicks it with as much force as he can muster.

More cracks spider-web.

He kicks again, desperation giving him strength, and the windshield gives. Water pours in and he fights against it, dragging X through the shattered glass and into open ocean.

It’s another battle to the surface and his chest burns as he kicks against the strong current, pulling X along behind him. Black spots are dotting his vision when he finally gets his head above water, gasping in large gulps of air. Up on the cliffs, he can see the broken barricade, but no sign of their pursuers.

He treads water in a slow circle, searching for a break in the cliffs. In the distance, far to their left, he thinks he can see a small beach and that will have to do.

Ignoring the agony sparking through his shoulder and broken ribs, he hauls X onto his back and begins to swim.

 

 

_ _

 

Two weeks ago

 

A bullet thuds into the wall next to him and he ducks back behind their cover. Next to him, X is reloading with efficient, practiced movements. His hands don’t shake anymore.

The alley is narrow and dead-ends into a towering brick wall. There’s a rusting fire escape to their left, but they won’t be able to climb it without getting picked off by the gunmen who have positioned themselves at the entrance.

Sirens are echoing, distant, and he grits his teeth in frustration at the idea of police stumbling into this.

“Any bright ideas, 007?” X asks grimly, hunching forward as another hail of bullets imbed themselves into the metal skip they’re sat behind.

“Shut up,” James mutters as he braves a glance around the skip. They’ve parked their car in front of the alley, boxing them in. But the fuel tank is on the side facing them.

Amateurs—well armed but stupid, nonetheless.

“Aim for the car,” he snaps to X. “Fuel tank.”

Understanding flashes through X’s eyes and he obeys, emptying his clip into the car alongside James.

The explosion rips through the alley a few seconds later, engulfing the men and throwing them roughly against the wall. White streaks across his vision as his head connects with the brick but he holds onto consciousness by a thread. Next to him, X is gasping, arm wrapped protectively over his middle. James shakes off the lingering haze and fists a hand in the back of X’s jacket.

The sirens are near deafening now.

“Up the fire escape. Go.”

X staggers, but starts to haul himself up the rickety ladder. James follows, urging him on, and they collapse onto the roof just as the police pull up to the scene. X moans softly. One side of his face is scraped raw from the brick, but James doubts his looks much better. He reaches out and squeezes X’s shoulder, following a strange, instinctive urge to comfort.

Below, the police shout to each other in Italian.

“Is it going to be you?” X murmurs suddenly, eyes unfocused behind his fringe.

It’s a question he keeps asking and James hates it. Instead of answering, he curls closer, resting his bloodied forehead against X’s.

Though maybe that’s answer enough.

 

_ _

 

Three weeks ago

 

It’s dark, but James hasn’t moved from his perch next to the window. X is on his fifth cigarette and they’ve worked their way through most of Edith Piaf’s greatest hits.

“Is it going to be you, I wonder,” X says suddenly, breaking their half-hour silence. James glances at him. He’s abandoned his laptop and is sitting with his chin resting on his knees, watching James solemnly.

“What?”

X’s lips twitch up in a wan smile. “After MI6 has everything they want from my brain, are you going to be the one to put a bullet through it?”

His tone is even, casual almost, but his shoulders are tense. James frowns, something uncomfortable knotting in his stomach. “What makes you think they want you dead?”

“They tend not to be very lenient with people they’ve labelled as terrorists,” X remarks dryly.

James shrugs, checks his gun to steady his suddenly restless hands. “You could be a valuable asset.”

X smirks, shakes his head. “If they could ever trust me.”

“They like dangerous people.”

X’s gaze studies him for a moment before he smiles again, a little easier. “I’ve noticed.”

They leave it there, perhaps for the sake of the little that’s left of their sanity. As non, je ne regrette rien echoes from the speakers of X’s laptop, James tries to imagine shooting him. He would comply, if MI6 ordered it, but he’s starting to think that it wouldn’t be easy.

 

_ _

 

Now

 

X coughs up bloodied water onto the sand and James carefully doesn’t examine how relieved he is to see air moving through X’s lungs.

“That’s it,” he says, voice soft in a way he barely recognises. “Keep breathing.”

X laughs or sobs—it’s hard to tell—and shakes his head. “I need to give you … the information … in case…”

He trails off into more rasping coughs, but the meaning is clear: in case I die.

“You’re not going to die,” James replies, firm. “You can give it to MI6 yourself.”

Another head shake. “Just … just leave me … a gun…”

“No,” James snaps and gets an arm under X, pulling him into a sitting position. One trouser leg is stained brilliant red and his breathing is laboured. “We need to keep moving and I can’t carry you.”

X blinks at him, dazed, but after a moment James gets a slow nod and X starts to push himself up. When he puts weight on his bad leg, though, a shocked scream tears itself out of his throat and James barely catches him before he collapses back into the sand.

“It’s no good,” X sobs out. “Can’t walk…”

James curses under his breath in Russian and tells himself to stay calm, stay focused. He’s gotten out of tighter scrapes than this, certainly—at some point.

“Let me take a look.” He gently rolls up X’s jeans and freezes at the sight of a deep gash on X’s calf, going from knee to ankle. Shit, it’s bad. He curses again, tamping down a sudden swell of panic, and rips at the hem of his shirt, tearing off a strip.

“You need to leave me,” X is saying, voice trembling but determined. “I can give you the information now.”

James stubbornly ignores him as he bandages the wound, tying the strips of cloth as tight as he dares. X hisses, flinching, but mercifully stays conscious.

“007,” he tries again as James tugs his jeans back down over the gash. “James.”

“You’re not going to die,” James repeats, fixing X with a level stare.

X laughs again, gulping in a rattling breath. “How typical. James bloody Bond thinks he has power over life and death.”

James smiles, grim, and starts easing X back to his feet. “Of course. It’s a power granted to all Double O agents.”

X gasps in pain, curling his fingers in James’ shirt. “You know, I might … actually believe you.”

They start to walk, one excruciating step at a time, back towards the road. X leans heavily on James, who keeps an arm tight around his waist, and halfway there, watching X grit his teeth through the agony while hardly making a sound, James decides that he’s not going to let MI6 kill him.

It would be such a terrible waste.

“That’s it,” he murmurs as they finally reach the road. “You’re doing fine.”

X snorts, amused. James arches an eyebrow at him and he shakes his head. “You being comforting – it’s funny.”

He’s shaking, barely staying upright, but James humours him. “Would you rather I stop?”

“No,” X leans into him even the more, until the words are barely a murmur against his neck. “It’s a … good distraction.”

James feels too far too much in that moment—the same messy, vicious tangle of emotion Vesper still induces—and it hurts, like a wound in his chest, beneath his skin, somewhere in his bones. He ignores it because it will bring nothing good for either of them and, well.

He’s learned his lesson.

 

_ _

 

Four weeks ago

 

It’s dark when they pull up to a hotel in Budapest and James stretches gratefully as he steps from the car. X frowns at him. “You could have let me drive, you know.”

“You’re old enough to drive?”

The smile X gives him is mirthless. “Very funny.” He holds out an envelope to James. Inside are a credit card and a passport, both under the name of William Shenton.

“We’re partners,” X says in response to his questioning glance. “On holiday together.”

The forgeries are good, near perfect, and that answers the question of what X was doing in the hotel two days ago.

“And we’re very much in love,” X continues and the words hit like a bullet to the chest.

“No,” he snarls before he can stop himself—harsh enough that X looks genuinely taken aback.

He recovers quickly, though. “Well, either it’s something I said or the idea of homosexuality is repulsive to you and I must say if that’s the case then—”

“My sexuality is not the issue,” he bites out before X can protest further.

Relief flickers briefly across X’s face. “Something I said, then. I apologise.” He sounds almost sincere, but James can barely hear him past the roar somewhere deep in his ribcage. “But please try to play along, just for now.” A pause, then a sardonic, “Darling.”

James takes a steadying breath, because he’s a fucking professional and the bitch is dead, and tries on his best charming smile. “Of course, darling.”

He manages to reach out and thread his fingers through X’s, as well, trying not to think about the warmth and intimacy of the gesture. He hasn’t held anyone’s hand since …

He snaps the lid closed on that train of thought and the memories trying to push their way to the surface. He’s a fucking professional, goddamnit.

X mercifully doesn’t say anything about his moment of hesitation, just starts for the stairs, pulling James along behind him.

For the first time since Venice, James allows himself to be led.

 

_ _

 

Five weeks ago

 

Three men with far too much weaponry and a wrecked car—he should have seen this coming. Even fucking babysitting missions are never simple when MI6 is involved.

“How many?” He demands after it’s all over. They’re both filthy, covered in blood and dirt, and X blinks at him from where James has him pinned up against the wall of the rundown boarding house they’ve checked into.

“I don’t know,” he murmurs, annoyingly nonplussed.

“Guess then.”

A pause. “If they know I’m defecting, they won’t let me go easily. And they have a lot of resources.”

“Define a lot.’”

“Practically endless.”

“So we can expect a fucking army, then?”

X somehow manages to shrug, shoulders scraping against the peeling wallpaper. “I would think they’d try to be a bit more subtle than that.”

James scoffs and waves a hand, encompassing the three dead men and smoking wreck of car they left behind. “That wasn’t subtle.”

“Then yes. Expect a fucking army.”

X is being far too calm about this and James definitely wants to punch him in the face. He resists, barely, in favour of shoving the punk further into the room and doing and securing the room, wishing that he could contact MI6 to yell at someone about adequate briefings for missions. But with how dangerous their pursuers are it’s best to stay dark. He’ll just have to save it up for when he gets back to London—and at least that way he’ll get to see the terror on the faces in field support—something to look forward to.

X pulls a small laptop out of his bad and proceeds to ignore him for the rest of the evening. There’s music trickling out of his headphones, barely audible over the stupid clacking of his keys, but James thinks it’s Edith Piaf.

 

_ _

One week ago

 

“Why Edith Piaf?”

X looks up from the bed. At least their hotel has a better view this time—the wintery French countryside sprawling out on the horizon.

“It relaxes me.”

James arches an unimpressed eyebrow at the rather pathetic lie. X sighs and runs a hand across his face. “He loved her,” he whispers—now familiar grief in his eyes. “Insisted she had the most beautiful voice he’d ever heard and used to play her endlessly. It’s all I have left of him now.”

It’s fragile ground they’ve strayed onto and James retreats. “Do you speak French?”

The corner of X’s mouth quirks up. “Oui, among several other languages.”

He shuts his ever-present laptop and crosses his arms across his too-skinny chest. “You should get some rest. I can keep watch for awhile.”

James shifts in the creaky chair he’d pulled up to his usual spot by the window and feels his back and ribs ache in sharp protest. “No.”

“I know how to use a bloody gun,” X argues and yes, he does—James has seen it first hand over the past few weeks. “And you’ve barely slept in three days. You’re no good to anyone exhausted and as we’ve established that you’re not actually a very human-looking robot, you need rest. So get on the fucking bed, 007.”

God, he’s almost intimidating, and yet endearing, as well—which is perhaps an even more frightening realisation. James fights against the amused smile that’s pulling insistently at his lips. X is right, though. He can barely keep his eyes open and every single bone in his body feels sore.

“Fine,” he says and tells himself it’s logic that’s driving him instead of a pathetic desire to keep X happy. He stands a bit more slowly than he’d like but manages a dignified walk to the bed. X holds out his hand and James deposits the gun in it as he toes off his shoes.

As he settles onto the lumpy mattress, X begins to get up—probably to take the chair—but with exhaustion crumbling all his walls, James murmurs, “It’s fine. Stay.”

X freezes and James wonders hazily if he made a gross tactical error, showing that much vulnerability, but the moment passes and X leans back against the headboard, stretching his legs out next to James.

“Good,” he says, setting the gun in his lap. “That chair is hideously uncomfortable.”

James huffs a weak laugh into his pillow and tries to offer a witty retort, but sleeps comes in a rush, pulling him under.

 

_ _

 

Four weeks ago

 

They manage to charm the lady at the front desk into giving them a room, even though she keeps glancing disdainfully at their joined hands. It’s Spartan, but functional, with a double bed and an armchair and a decent view of the city. Certainly not the worst James has ever had.

X barely gives the surroundings a glance before crossing over to the small desk.

“So who were they?” X asks as he sets his laptop bag on it.

“They?” James asks, dumping his rucksack on the bed.

“Whoever broke your heart,” X elaborates and it’s suddenly an effort not to freeze in the middle of pulling his thick jumper over his head.

As it is, he manages to keep from flinching and his voice is blessedly calm when he asks, “What the hell led you to that conclusion?”

“It’s obvious,” X says, annoyingly matter-of-fact. “It’s the anger.” He pulls a cigarette out of his pocket and twirls it between his long fingers. “It seeps from you like a bloody wound.” A twisted, jagged smile. “There’s only one thing in the world vicious enough to cut that deep—shatter someone like that.”

“I thought you were a hacker, not a psychiatrist,” James fires back, more sharply than he intended.

X just smiles that infuriating smile of his—smug and knowing. “People are easy to read. They all have habits, routines, similarities—like lines of code. We’re all structured from the same basic formula. Once you know what to look for, people are as easily manipulated as technology. Perhaps even more so.”

“Charming,” James remarks dryly. His walls are rebuilding and the familiar, lancing ache fading back to dull obscurity.

X shrugs. “But the truth. And you didn’t answer my question.”

“Because it isn’t open for discussion.”

“Very well,” X says and doesn’t talk to him for the rest of the night.

James loathes the silence, but is absurdly grateful for it, too.

_ _

 

Now

 

The cabbie they manage to flag down mercifully doesn’t ask any questions after James shoves a handful of soggy bills into his hand and drives as quickly as asked. James ignores his nervous glances in the rear view mirror, keeping a protective arm around X’s shoulders and watchful eyes on their surroundings.

He lost his gun to the ocean and he hates being this vulnerable—especially since he doubts The Network is going to give up until bodies are found and identified. They’re the thorough, relentless type.

X’s eyes have slipped closed, head against James’ shoulder, and his breathing is painfully shallow—at least one broken rib on top of his leg and head wound—he desperately needs a hospital, but the emergency kit at the safe house will have to do.

“You need to stay awake,” he murmurs, giving X a gentle shake.

“Fuck off,” X croaks without opening his eyes and James smiles in spite of the current hopelessness of their situation and the blood staining the upholstery of the taxi.

“X,” he prompts with another nudge and X sits up slightly with a quiet groan. The cabbie looks even more nervous, but doesn’t stop, which means he has some sense.

“Fine, you bastard.”

He coughs and they’re both starting to shiver from the cold. James leans forward and locks eyes with the cabbie in the mirror, pinning the man with his most intimidating stare. “Faster, please.”

The cabbie obligingly steps on the gas and James focuses on keeping both himself and X conscious.

 

_ _

 

Three weeks ago

 

James runs, skidding around a corner fast enough to nearly lose his balance. X is three steps in front of him, dodging around a parked car. The men chasing them have fallen behind, but James isn’t taking any chances.

“Left!” He barks to X and the hacker obeys, sprinting into a side street, squeezing past a couple that James nearly barrels over. He ignores their angry shouts and follows the twisting street. X chooses another direction at random, leading them into a maze of winding streets and houses.

This part of Warsaw is a sprawl and in the distance, James can see the glitter of downtown skyscrapers. The safe house is on the outskirts, about two miles from here, and he’s already planning a route there.

They make it two more streets before James signals to stop. X leans against the side of a shop, panting.

“I’m not sure whether to be flattered or annoyed now,” he gasps out, brushing his shaggy hair out of his eyes.

“I am,” James mutters darkly, checking his gun—not nearly enough bullets left for comfort, but enough to do considerable damage.

“I know them,” X continues, quieter, introspective. “I suppose I should have expected that they know me just as well.”

“I did expect that,” James tucks the gun into his belt and does a quick scan of the street—deserted. “It’s how well they know me that’s concerning.”

“Lines of code, remember,” X pushes off the wall and glances around, too. “They’re good at predicting people. Even highly-trained MI6 agents.”

“Still concerning.”

X smiles, thin. “Yes. But at least they don’t have me. You’d be dead by now.”

Somehow, James almost believes him.

 

_ _

 

Two weeks ago

 

Someone is screaming.

James is on his feet, gun in a hand, before his brain fully switches online and it takes another moment for him to realise the sound is coming from the bed—or, more specifically, X, who is thrashing in the middle of it. James is no stranger to nightmares and experience states that it’s a very bad idea to startle someone trapped in one when they have a gun close by.

But X is loud and the absolute last thing they need right now is to wake the rest of the bloody hotel. So James abandons any attempt at subtly and darts to the bathroom to fill up a cup of icy water. Then, with a twinge of sympathy, he dumps it over X’s head.

X jolts upright, gasping, and a second later James is staring down the barrel of a gun. He keeps his own gun by his side and says, calm, “It’s Bond. You’re safe.”

X blinks at him and James can see the remnants of the nightmare rapidly receding. Another shaky exhale and X lowers the gun, dropping it onto the bed next to him.

“Fuck,” he hiccups, scraping wet hair out of his eyes. His voice cracks in the middle of the word. “Sorry.”

James ignores the apology in favour of refilling the cup—this time pressing it into X’s trembling hand. X takes a long gulp and rakes his fingers through his hair again. “You don’t have anything stronger?”

This James also understands intimately—has lost count of the nights spent drinking himself into a stupor so he couldn’t dream—and though he should say no, the grief and anger and helplessness on X’s normally stoic face is impossible to brush aside.

“Wait here.”

He rings the lobby and orders a bottle of Centerba. It’s nearly two in the morning, but they quickly stop their protests when they realise how much he’s willing to tip and a few minutes later someone is at the door.

When he returns to the main room, X has left the bed and is smoking by the window—gun on the table next to him. His shoulders look too thin in his baggy t-shirt and his hand shakes slightly as he lowers the cigarette from his lips.

He turns when James crosses the threshold and his mouth quirks briefly at the sight of the bottle. “Good choice.”

He perches on the edge of the bed while James pulls up a chair and pours him a glass. “Of course, I knew you’d choose well,” he continues after his first large sip.

“And why is that?” James asks, deciding to humour him, just this once.

“You’re clearly an alcoholic, if a highly functioning one.”

James takes a swig of his own drink. “Another requirement of Double Os.”

“Makes sense.”

X downs the rest of his drink and holds out his glass for James to refill. James complies and watches him kick it in a matter of seconds. He’s drinking with the desperation of someone trying to forget and James hesitates, wondering if he should say something. He isn’t good at this, doesn’t know where the boundaries and the landmines are, but.

Sometimes this is a question that needs asking—if only because no one has ever asked him, even when he’s clearly tearing apart at the seams.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” X replies immediately, halfway through his third glass. A pause, then, “does anything keep you up at night, 007?”

Dozens of things—collections of moments and memories—people who have died at his hand and who haven’t, people he’s hated, and …

And people he’s loved.

“Yes,” is all he says, because those kinds of ghosts, that much blood, can’t be summed up with mere words.

X swirls his glass. “Love is such a pointless thing.”

His voice cracks again and his eyes are wet and it’s a terrible lie—the same one James keeps telling himself.

He doesn’t bother with the truth tonight, though. Lies are all they have left for comfort because they’re aren’t good people and they never will be.

So instead, he drinks.

 

_ _

 

Five weeks ago

 

“What the hell are you doing?”

X is perched on the large table in their current hotel room with a bunch of electronics scattered around him. He looks remarkably like a nesting bird.

“And where the hell did you get all that?”

“Shop,” X says without looking up. He’s putting pieces together with assured dexterity and as James steps closer he realises that it’s an earpiece X is assembling.

But that hardly matters because, “I told you to stay in the hotel room.”

X makes a distracted sound of agreement. “And I chose to ignore you.”

“I can and will tie you to a chair next time,” James snaps.

“I took a gun with me,” X says as he twists two wires together. “And you’re welcome to try.”

God, James wants to hit him. He’s the most infuriating asset James has ever had the displeasure of guarding. Before he can come up with more creative threats, X twists to sit properly on the table, dangling his legs over the side, and shoves an earpiece at James.

“Put this in.”

James reminds himself that MI6 would be very displeased if he shot a valuable asset in the face and complies.

“And go stand in the hall.”

James glares. X arches an unimpressed eyebrow and ten seconds later James is closing the door behind him and cursing his own weakness.

Vesper made him soft, it seems.

After another moment, X’s voice crackles through his earpiece. “Can you hear me, 007?”

“Yes, and stop calling me that,” James demands to hide the fact that he is maybe, slightly, impressed.

He would ask how X learned his MI6 designation, but it’s easy to guess—the little bastard seems to know far too much about things he shouldn’t.

“Excellent,” X is saying. “Some fine tuning and we should be set.”

James takes out the earpiece and re-enters the room. X is once again perched on the table like a weird cat and James hands him the device with a purposefully casual, “I thought you said you were a hacker.”

“I am,” X replies, fiddling with the earpiece. “But that’s hardly all I am.”

“What else did you make?” And now he can’t keep the harshness out of his voice because hacking corporations for terrorists is one thing—directly supplying them with weapons is a new level of dangerous in MI6’s book and could easily push X into the “to be eliminated immediately” category, if he isn’t there already.

X looks up at him, a flicker of surprise on his face at James’ tone before understanding dawns. “Not weapons,” he says evenly and, somewhat distressingly, James can’t tell if he’s lying.

Like so many other topics, he lets it drop for now, and X goes back to his makeshift radio.

The silence is heavy.

 

_ _

 

Now

 

He lowers X carefully onto the edge of the tub in the bathroom of the safe house and pauses to catch his breath. The stairs to the second floor were absolute hell and James is halfway amazed that they made it all the way to the flat and didn’t wake any of the other tenants with their pained gasps and groans.

X manages to hold himself upright, bloody fingers grasping the porcelain tight enough to bleach his knuckles white, while James digs around under the sink for the emergency kit.

“I need to stitch up your leg,” he says once he’s found it, setting it up on the bathroom floor.

X nods. “And then your shoulder.”

Right, he got shot. In the blur of the past few hours he’d almost forgotten. He feels it ache, a deep, burning pain, but it’s manageable for now. “Fine,” he agrees, not having the energy to argue and not really expecting X to still be conscious after this is over.

He locates the painkillers in the kit and pours a few into his hand. “Take these. It should help.”

X swallows them dry before accepting the rag James offers and placing it between his teeth.

James cuts the leg of his jeans to above his knee—too tired to battle through taking them off properly—they’re ripped to hell, anyway—and pours alcohol on the needle and the wound to sterilise it. X hisses through the cloth, but holds himself still.

James moves as quickly as he can, stitching the torn skin together with well-learned precision. X screams when he gets to the deepest part of the gash and James has to clamp a hand over his knee to keep him from thrashing backwards into the tub.

“Easy,” he soothes over the sound of X’s sobbing breaths echoing off the tile. “Almost done.”

He thinks X mutters, “fuck you,” but it’s hard to hear through the rag. It’s still reassuring—X is as fiery as ever and maybe not as close to the edge as he feared.

He finishes the last stitch a few minutes later and ties off the thread. It’s not a perfect job and the wound will definitely scar—badly—but it’s stopped the bleeding and as long as it doesn’t get infected, X should be fine. He relays all of this to X as he winds bandages around X’s leg, sneaking assessing glances up at the hacker’s face. X’s eyes are closed and he’s nearly ghost-white and trembling, but he’s conscious. Somehow.

James just might be absurdly proud.

Once he’s taped the bandages into place, though, X suddenly tips forward. James catches him before he can slide off the tub and they pause there—James’s arms around X’s skinny waist and X’s forehead pressed against James’s good shoulder.

“You can pass out now,” James supplies helpfully. “If you want.”

X huffs what might be a laugh into James’s neck and slowly manages to sit up. “Not yet. Take your shirt off.”

It’s a testament to how exhausted James is that his brain nearly derails at that. It’s only when X’s gaze moves to his shoulder that everything clicks into place.

Right. He’s been bloody shot.

The adrenaline is wearing off and the wound is reminding him of its existence with painful ferocity. He freezes when it comes to extracting his arm from the sleeve of his ruined shirt and takes a moment to breathe through his teeth.

X reaches out to help and together they manage to tear the sleeve, dropping the shirt into a soggy pile on the floor.

“Right,” X croaks, trying and failing to sound assertive. “Give me the needle and some thread.”

James would normally insist on doing this himself, especially since X is probably clinging to consciousness with nothing but stubborn determination, but well, so is he. And he’s fucking exhausted and everything hurts so he hands over the supplies without complaint.

X’s hands are surprisingly steady as they stitch his shoulder. Thankfully, it was a clean shot through and though the exit wound is messy, it isn’t too large to sew back together. James counts tiles and runs various assassination scenarios through his head to keep from either screaming or passing out—or both, really—and by the time X is finally finished, he’s craving a drink with just about every cell in his body.

“Your ribs,” X insists when he starts to stand and he grudgingly lets X bind them, hissing through pain and irritation—broken ribs remain one of the most annoying injuries to acquire.

Fortunately, X is quick about it and soon James is helping him stand. They hobble into the bedroom together and James eases X down onto the bed. He thinks briefly about needing to keep watch—and that drink—but God he’s so tired and without much of an internal debate, he crawls onto the bed next to X.

They fall asleep side-by-side, on top of the covers, pressed together.

 

 

_ _

 

Two weeks ago

 

“Why MI6?” James asks, leaning back in his chair. It’s four in the morning and he’s more than halfway to drunk. Across from him, X laughs—head tilted toward the ceiling and glass gripped loosely in his hand.

“Nostalgia, I suppose,” he murmurs. “And I figured you’d make it quick.”

“Do you want to die?”

X looks at him with lidded, barely focused eyes. “It would be the simplest solution.”

“For what?”

“The pain.”

And that, he thinks he understands.

“The dead are vicious,” X continues, twirling his glass. “Or maybe that’s just the grief.”

“I doubt the dead care about us,” he replies. “They’re best forgotten.”

X smirks at him, knowing, and he hides his discomfort by taking another long pull of his drink. “I suppose denial is one of the easiest methods of coping.”

“You’re the one that said love is pointless,” James points out.

“It is.” X sighs and props his feet up on the small coffee table between them. One of his socks has a hole in the heel and it makes him seem strangely vulnerable. Though, on second thought, that’s probably the drink talking. “But we’re have a predisposition for it. Why else would we let it happen over and over again, even chase it? That’s the definition of insanity, you know. Doing the same thing over and over yet expecting different results. Love drives us insane, but it’s in our biology.”

James isn’t sure what to say to that so he goes for the easiest option and refills his glass.

“I’m sorry,” X says after a moment, voice thick. “I’m drunk.”

“Do you want to talk about them?” James ventures and means X’s debt to the dead or the Network—anything but Vesper and Venice and bloody ghosts.

“They were my family,” X mumbles, staring mournfully into his glass. “I loved him.”

James realises that they seem to be having two different conversations at once and his muddled brain can’t keep up. Before he can formulate a response, though, X leans across the table and kisses him. It’s harsh, forceful, and he freezes beneath the press of X’s chapped lips to his own and the scrape of X’s beard against his skin.

His hands flutter, caught between pushing the other man away and pulling him closer because this is a monumentally bad idea, but God would it help him forget. A second later, X makes the decision for him, jerking back with a sharp exhale.

“I’m sorry,” he repeats, taking another rattling breath. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“It’s fine,” James says on instinct and it is. He understands the need for the allusion of intimacy—fucking in order to forget. A selfish, twisted part of him still wants to reach for X and drown in him.

X shakes his head. “No, I shouldn’t have done that.” He stands and wobbles precariously for a moment, supporting himself on the edge of the bed. “I…” he breaks off and the next inhale is wet with unshed tears. “I’m going to bed.”

James watches, still half-frozen, as X climbs clumsily onto the bed and crawls under the covers.

His lips ache.

 

_ _

 

Three weeks ago

 

The third bus of the night glides along the quiet city streets, winding its way east. James sits in the back, X curled up in the seat to him like a child, and tries to keep his eyes open. They’ve spent the past two hours on their roundabout route to the safe house, using a combination of cabs and public transportation, and now that the rush of the chase is gone, he can feel the weight of exhaustion creeping into his bones.

“They’re more persistent than I expected,” X murmurs, breaking the last fifteen minutes of silence.

The only other passengers are an elderly couple near the front so James shifts his attention to the unfolding conversation. “They’re losing a valuable asset.”

“It’s more than that,” X says. “Criminal organisations hate betrayal just as much as queen and country do.”

“Because it’s personal.” And it’s an effort to keep Venice locked away where it should be. “Always.”

X makes a sound of agreement. “I’ve been with them for years. They saved my life. And now I’m going to destroy them.”

He sounds tired, but not particularly remorseful. James wonders again what was the catalyst for this turn, for the bleak determination in X’s voice—a promise, not a fact, and the kind you make even if fulfilling it is going to take everything you have and more.

“Sometimes,” he offers, halting. “Betrayal is justified.”

He’s done his fair share of it, in the name of duty, but its different when…

When it’s someone you love.

“This one is,” X agrees and gives him a bitter, lopsided smile—little more than a wry twist of his lips. “Maybe that’s why they’re trying so hard to kill me. They’ve always known what I’m capable of.”

“And what is that exactly?”

“More than you can probably imagine, Bond. I hazard I can do more damage sitting on my laptop sitting my pyjamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.”

“But somehow, I’m the one keeping you alive.”

Another faint sound of agreement. “Yes, I will admit you’re better at pulling triggers than I am.”  He closes his eyes. “And that was before, anyway.”

Before, capital B—like X is talking about the end of an era or a war—and James opens his mouth to ask what the hell he means by that when the bus pulls into the their stop.

X stands, pauses in the aisle. And then, almost too quiet for James to hear, “I am grateful.”

James isn’t sure that sentiment is actually meant for him, so he brushes past X in silence, stepping off the bus into the frigid night air.

 

_ _

 

One week ago

 

He wakes to a now familiar clack of keys. X is still sat next to him on the bed—the gun on the bedside table now—and sunlight is piercing the thin curtains. Shit, he hadn’t meant to sleep that long.

Before he can sit up, X says, crisp, “It’s fine. No attacks and no sign of them for the moment. Relax.”

James snorts, amused at the almost mothering tone, and sinks back against the pillow. “Have you slept?”

“Not yet. Just need to finish …” He clicks a few more keys. “There.”

There’s a program running on the laptop that James can’t make sense of, though it looks like some kind of surveillance. “What are you doing?”

“I’ve hacked all the CCTV in the surrounding area and set up an alert on my computer if there’s any suspicious movement. It should give us a few more hours before we need to leave again.”

He shifts to lie down, pulling the covers up to his chin. It’s freezing in the room, enough that their breath fogs in the air between them, and James rather desperately misses the luxurious setting of his last assignment, in spite of the all the pain he ended up enduring along the course of it. Still, he’s not one to dwell—or so he tells himself—and shifts closer, lending X more of the blanket and some body heat to stop his shivering.

“Finally, something useful.”

“Fuck off,” X mutters into the pillow. “Everything I’ve created has been useful.”

And yes, James can admit that is true. Radios, motion sensor software, fake passports and credit cards, hacking various ATMS, explosives—X’s repertoire seems practically endless and after four weeks, James is suability impressed. MI6 is going to have a field day once they realise the vast amount of skills X possesses.

“Yes, I admit I wasn’t expecting you to be able to weaponise a pen.”

X huffs a tired laugh. “Anything can become an explosive device with enough creativity.”

“So I’ve learned.”

X rolls to face the other way with a smug smile and silence descends—long enough that James starts to think X has fallen asleep.

But suddenly, “I saw the picture. The one you carry in your pocket.”

He tenses, completely awake and fighting against the invisible hand that’s reached into his ribcage and is squeezing all the air out of his lungs. It’s stupid, reacting like this, with such pathetic sentiment, but he can’t seem to fucking stop.

“She was beautiful,” X continues, still facing the other way, giving James the illusion of privacy as he rebuilds the holes this conversation has unexpectedly punched in his armour.

“And still not up for discussion,” he says, voice somehow even.

“Locking her away forever is futile. You can’t erase someone from your mind, no matter how determined you might be.”

“And what are you, my fucking therapist?”

“You could probably use one.”

“I’m fine. Just as fine as you seem to be.”

X sits up—good, this is a ridiculous discussion to have lying down with their backs to each other like cowards. James follows suit, watching as X sighs and runs a hand through his messy hair, sending it into further disarray.

“At least we’re on even footing in that respect,” he mutters.

“Did you look through my things?” James asks, trying to keep a rein on his fury.

"No,” X snaps, glaring at him. “It fell out of the pocket when I went to hang your jacket on the chair. And it hardly matters, I’ve already read your file.”

“What?”

“Don’t look so surprised. MI6 is child’s play and why wouldn’t I read up on the bloody agent who might be coming to kill me? You’ve read my file.”

“What little there is of it.”

X shrugs. “Yours wasn’t terribly interesting, either. Heavily redacted.”

James takes a calming breath. “You didn’t go poking further?”

“I could have, but I figured it’s best not to unduly piss off the people I’m surrendering to.”

“That still doesn’t give you the right to—”

“Mine is called Kai.”

James stops mid-sentence, thrown completely off-balance again—and hating that X seems capable of doing it to him at whim. “What?”

“My ghost. The debt I owe. It’s to my partner—my boyfriend, I suppose you could say, though I’ve never liked that term—and his name is—was—Kai.” X looks at him, tired and a little resigned. “There, now we’re even.”

“A name hardly counts as even—they’re trivial.”

“His wasn’t.” And with that, X lies down and pulls the covers over his head—back to James once more.

James sighs in frustration and shifts to face the other way. He tries to sleep, but Vesper and the murky waters of a Venice canal are waiting every time he closes his eyes.

 

_ _

 

Four weeks ago

 

They drive—another new car, purchased from a rundown dealer a few minutes from the hotel—and the sun rises on the horizon. For once, X’s laptop is stowed away in the bag at his feet and he’s watching the sky with unfocused eyes.

The heating is broken, along with almost everything else in this rusting piece of junk, and their breath fogs the air. X pulls his hat tighter around his ears with gloved fingers and says, quiet, “I’m sorry about this mess.”

James glances at him, questioning. He sighs, leaning his head against the window. “I should have planned this better.”

“Your grand escape?”

A faint snort of laughter. “They never would have noticed until it was too late. That was the original idea.”

“Which has failed spectacularly, if you haven’t noticed,” James comments, wry.

“Yes.” X sounds frustrated with himself, which is a definite first. “I was … not my best. When I defected. So I apologise.”

James shrugs, uncomfortable and wondering what’s brought this on. He’s not about to ask—because personal discussions are something to be carefully avoided these days—but. “It’s fine,” he says without taking his eyes off the sunlit road. “More interesting this way.”

X laughs again, just short of hysterical, and turns on the radio. Classical music filters through the car’s tinny speakers and for the moment, it’s enough to fill in the silence.

 

_ _

 

Now

 

He draws careful lines on the map he purchased from the vendor around the corner of the building. In this neighbourhood, no one asks questions, and the man barely blinked at his rumbled, stained shirt or the bandages visible at the edge of his collar.

Two cabs and three buses and they should be at the final safe house. Extraction is set for 0600—four hours from now.

He glances across the table at X. The hacker is hunched in a now familiar position over his laptop, cigarette clamped between lips thin with pain. James has the strangest, most idiotic urge to reach out and squeeze his arm in reassurance—maybe even twine those shaky fingers through his own.

He buries it immediately. Sentiment doesn’t belong anymore or ever again.

He’s learned his damn lesson.

“I’m not picking up any traces of them,” X says, exhaling a long trail of smoke. “But they could have gone dark again.”

And they contacted MI6 without knowing for sure if the Network was listening, but James is already nearly a week behind schedule for extraction and it was radio in or risk being declared MIA.

He checks his battered watch—another purchase from the street vendor. “We need to start moving.”

X grimaces, but nods, stubbing out his cigarette. James doesn’t offer assistance as he carefully stands, leaning on the table for support. He tests putting weight on his leg and immediately hisses in pain—shoulders hunching. James moves on instinct to take his arm.

“Easy.”

“I’m fine,” X grits out, stubborn to the last.

“Of course you are,” James replies, winding an arm around his waist. X glares at him, but allows it.

James helps him into his shoes and then carefully lowers him into an armchair while he cleans out the safe house, destroying any important documentation and packing a few essentials—guns, clothes, fake passports, cash—into a rucksack.

He tucks X’s gun into the holster under his jacket, getting a faint smile in response, and then they’re hobbling into the hallway and James locks the door behind them.

“Okay.”

“Stairs,” X mutters, staring down the hall with a mixture of trepidation and defiance.

James steadies him again. “Stairs.”

Two flights later, X leans against the wall, panting. “Fuck.”

James, ribs and shoulder aching fiercely, shares the sentiment.

 

_ _

 

Three days ago

 

“Can I ask you something?”

James looks up from cleaning his gun and sees that X has closed his laptop and is drumming his fingers on the table—more nervous than James has ever seen him.

“Or rather,” he says, “something of you?”

Sensing a serious conversation ahead of them, James sets the gun aside and leans back in chair. “Depends on what it is.”

X sighs and runs a hand through his unruly hair. “I need a trigger pulled.”

James frowns, but it clicks into place easily. “This is about Kai.”

A jerky nod and a sharp, stuttered exhale. “Yes.” X pushes back from the table, surging to his feet, and starts to pace. James watches carefully. The dams are breaking; he can almost see it beneath X’s skin—the widening cracks and the wounded, bleeding heart beneath—laced together with tearing stiches.

“My parents were English,” X starts and James nearly holds his breath. “Or so I was told.  I was born in France.”

Don’t tell me this, he wants to say. He doesn’t want to care more than he already, inevitably does—never asked for this private window into the bloody centre of X’s armoured maze. It’s too much, too private, too fucking painful and he can’t do this again; he can’t.

But his mouth is wired shut—all the words tangled up in his throat—and so he sits in silence as X makes himself terrifyingly vulnerable.

“I grew up in an orphanage, for a time. I met Kai there. It was overcrowded and unkind, so we decided to run away when we were ten. After that, it was just the two of us. We travelled all over Europe, hitchhiking, walking, doing odd jobs for money.” He pauses to suck in a shaky breath and adds, “and sometimes, when necessary, using ourselves as currency.”

“You were prostitutes,” James says, surprised and not—the tragedy of it is written all over X’s face for one brief blink before the walls come up again.

“We were survivors,” he snaps, bristling. “We did what we had to.” He dismisses it with a wave of his hand. “Until Kai got hurt. A punter who went too far. I wanted to fucking gut the bastard but Kai was kinder than me. So I stole his credit card and drained his bank accounts. Then I realised I was good with technology—at making it do whatever I wanted. So I started hacking.”

X lights a cigarette, still pacing. “It was small at first—ATMs, security systems, etc. But I was good at it and we weren’t starving anymore, so I grew more ambitious.” A rueful smile. “Too ambitious. I caught the attention of law enforcement, but also of a group of hackers. They got to me first.”

“The Network,” James surmises and X dips his head in acknowledgment.

“They’re led by Max. Or at least, that’s what we’ve always called him. Names are a cheap commodity. I’ve had dozens over the years and so has Kai. Anyway, Max helped us go to ground and took us under his wing. He was the first person to ever see something special in us, to believe we had a future.” X’s voice goes flat. “I worshipped the ground he walked on.”

James can see the tragedy looming, lurking in the undercurrents of X’s words, but he waits for X to unravel it.  

“It was just heists at first. Max wanted to change the world, he said. So we robbed banks, corporations, and gave the money to people who needed it. I never cared about that, really. I was in it for the thrill—the challenge. Kai was the moral compass; I merely followed his direction. After a few years, Max started branching out. We helped overturn governments, expose secrets, topple institutions. I loved it. Kai didn’t. He thought we were going too far.”

X pauses and breathes a plume of smoke at the ceiling. His hands have started trembling. “Then, Max landed the biggest job of all—got us employed by a group looking to take over governments, consolidate resources. That was enough for Kai. He wanted out. And I would do anything for Kai.”

X starts pacing again, tense. “Somehow, our employers got wind of our plans and didn’t take to them kindly. They thought I was the one wanting out—Kai wasn’t even on their fucking radar. But. I was Max’s right hand, the best resource he had, and so instead of letting them punish me, he gave them Kai.”

X’s voice cracks and he stops to wipe his timorous hands across his eyes. James’s fingers tighten on the arms of his chair as he watches X try not to shatter. His chest aches.

“They tortured him,” X continues wetly. “They fucking ripped him apart. And then they killed him—bullet to the head.” He mimes a gun with his hand, pointing it at James’s forehead and pulling the trigger. “And I was too late. I was …” The rest of the words drown in a hiccupping sob, but X rallies himself quickly. “Max treated it like a bloody favour—said he’d saved my life. That I should be grateful.”

He turns to look at James and his gaze burns with fury. “But he made a mistake. He overestimated my loyalty to him and underestimated my love for Kai. Kai was … was everything. And Max is going to pay for it. He’s going to burn—and the whole fucking Network and the ones who killed Kai. All of them. I’m going to destroy them.”

It’s a promise, written in blood, and James can see all of X’s fracture lines—his love, his grief, his rage—and it’s like looking in a fucking mirror.

Because he made that same promise in Venice, to Vesper and the men she worked for.

They’re going to burn.

X wipes his eyes again and the fire fades to familiar steel. “But if I don’t make it, or if MI6 decides that I’m too dangerous to live, will you finish it for me? I know it’s a lot to ask, but—”

“What’s the name of the organisation?” James cuts him off—vengeance he knows, understands.

“Quantum,” X replies and suddenly, James can’t breathe.

 

_ _

 

Now

 

Fuck. He should have seen them coming, should have known.

The cobblestone is hard against his back and dimly he can hear people screaming, the wail of sirens, but they fade to white noise in the face of the agony radiating through his chest from where the bullet hit. He coughs, feeling warm blood bubble to his lips and spill down his chin. His thoughts are fracturing, dissolving, but X.

Where’s X?

Using what feels like every last drop of his energy, he manages to turn his head enough to see the body crumpled a few feet away. X’s black hair obscures his face, but the cobblestones are turning red around him.

Fuck.

Get up. He has to get up.

He tries to shift, get his hands under his body, but another pulse of agony wracks through him, leaving him gasping and shaking. Black is seeping into the corners of the already blurry world around him and he desperately struggles to focus. The gunman had shot from above, a mere two fucking streets away from the extraction point—why hasn’t he finished it?

Get up. Get up.

He coughs again, violent, but manages to push himself up, half crawling towards X.

More gunshots echo like thunder, but none of them hit. MI6? He doesn’t care—has to get to X.

Finally, he manages to cross the ocean between them and collapses next to X’s prone body as he fights off another spasm. He scrabbles to find a pulse, but his hands are slick with his blood and X’s and he can’t.

He’s fading fast—everything going dark, like someone is dimming the lights. He thinks, absurdly, of a low-lit living room—a bottle of wine on the table and a silver lake beyond the balcony.

Montenegro, but instead of Vesper, X is sat across from him. Edif Piaf is playing and X’s smile is full of love and grief and death.

It’s beautiful.

 Fade to black

 

 


So tell me once and it’s enough

Forgive me for my frail love


 

One day after

 

God, everything is so fucking bright. He squints, blinking rapidly as his eyes adjust and a white ceiling forms overhead. He can feel a bed beneath him and tubes in his nostrils and skin and somewhere, a distant, steady beeping is growing louder.

Hospital. Not dead, then.

He sags back against the mattress with a rattling breath and lets his heavy eyelids slip shut. 

 

_ _

 

Three days after

 

Tanner is standing over him, brow furrowed, and he struggles to clear the haze still clouding his mind.

Tubes, bed, white, hospital, alive, bullets, shot, blood—X.

“X,” he rasps through a desert-dry throat, feeling panic clawing down his spine and into his nerves, wrenching him to full, painful awareness. “X.” He tries to sit up, but his chest and ribs decide to catch on fire and he ends up panting pathetically against the mattress while Tanner hovers.

“He’s alive,” Tanner says, not without sympathy. “Just.”

Where?” James demands because X is his responsibility, goddamnit, and he’s failed more than enough in protecting him.

Tanner frowns at him, but steps aside, letting James see another bed a few feet away and the pale, still figure in it. X looks like a bloody ghost, but his monitors are beeping with reassuring signs of life.

“Rest, 007,” Tanner says, orders, and James wants to tell him to sod off but doesn’t have the strength.

 

_ _

 

Five days after

 

X still hasn’t woken up and James asks for a record player and Edith Piaf. Tanner looks at him like he’s grown a second head but complies.

 

_ _

 

Eight days after

 

James hurts all over, but he’s also bored and restless and they won’t let him talk to X, even after the hacker woke up yesterday. Instead they just moved him to a different room and James keeps worrying about him—constantly, in spite of his best efforts.

So he decides it’s about time for a walk.

He makes halfway down the hall before he starts to get dizzy and a nurse happens across him. She tuts like a mother hen, taking in his IV, bandages, and probably deathly pallor.

“Please,” he rasps in French before she can order him back to bed, putting on his best pathetic, beseeching face, “I need to see my partner. He’s hurt, too, and they’ve moved him to a different room. Can you help me find him?”

The lie is surprisingly easy, and the nurse’s face softens.

Five minutes later, she’s easing him into a chair next to X’s bed. James reaches for X’s hand immediately, curling his own around it, and pretends it’s to keep up his act.

Ten minutes,” she says and closes the door behind her.

He doesn’t let go of X’s hand.

“Somehow,” X drawls, eyes still closed, “I doubt you’re supposed to be here.”

His voice is weak, but as dry as ever, and James fights down hysterical, relieved laughter. “I charmed one of the nurses.”

“Of course you did,” X mutters and opens his eyes, lips twitching up in a faint smile that James manages to return.

They sit in companionable silence for a few moments before X continues, “They wouldn’t tell me anything about you.”

I was worried, James translates. “Same. That’s why I came looking.”

X smiles again, blurry around the edges with the painkillers. “’M glad you’re here.”

It’s open, completely unguarded, and James swallows around the tightness in his chest.

Me too, he almost says, but squeezes X’s hand instead, lacing their fingers together.

 

_ _

 

 

 

 

Seventeen to thirty days after

 

They’re moved to a secure medical facility in London and James continues sneaking into X’s room until MI6 throws up its hands and puts them back together. Crawling back from death’s door is painful and slow and James is glad for the company on the arduous journey.

X seems to share the sentiment.

They talk, more than they ever have. The complicated mess of feelings in James’s chest continues to grow until the ache of it is omnipresent.

“Mine was called Vesper,” he tells X one night, showing him the picture and the necklace that Medical exasperatedly let him keep when he promised a vicious and slow death to anyone who took them away.

X touches the items with a reverence that James appreciates. When he looks up, another promise burns bright in his eyes. “When they give me a computer again, I’ll do what I can.”

To find out the truth, James hears and thinks that will be more than enough. X can topple empires with a few keystrokes—all that terrifying brilliance that’s sometimes too intense to look at for too long—and if anyone can cut through the lies and half-truths and secrets of Vesper and Quantum, it’s him.

In the meantime, X feeds him information about Quantum and most importantly gives him a name.

Dominic Green.

 

_ _

 

Thirty-five days after

 

X disappears for hours, wheeled away to a secluded room to spill all his secrets. James paces their hospital room until one of the nurses threatens to sedate him.

Then he resorts to playing cards on his bed—round after round of solitaire until he makes himself go numb.

It’s dark when X is wheeled back in and there is a complicated expression on his face.

“I’ve been offered a job,” he says, hesitant, and James understands. The prospect of life after so long expecting death is a daunting one.

“Take it,” he says, even though X probably doesn’t have much a choice considering the prison sentence he’d be facing otherwise.

X blinks at him before his lips slowly stretch into his now almost trademark smirk. “Yes, I suppose someone has to make sure you behave yourself since it’s frankly a miracle you’ve managed to survive this long without dying or starting a bloody world war.”

James smiles back and has to fight down the sudden, overwhelming urge to kiss X until they both run out of air.

He thinks that someday, potentially, he could love this brilliant, sharp-witted, dangerous man.

The prospect is absolutely terrifying.

 

_ _

 

Forty days after

 

James is closed to being released, but X is in the middle of physical therapy on his leg.

He lies on his bed after one session, covered in sweat, and cursing colourfully in eight different languages.

James still wants to kiss him—it’s becoming a fucking problem that he doesn’t know how to solve.

 

_ _

 

Fifty days after

 

James goes back to his empty, barren apartment that has never felt like home. His chest aches and it has nothing to do with the still-healing bullet wounds and ribs. The first night back, he drinks until he passes out and tells himself he isn’t lonely.

In a fit of rage, he rips his picture of Vesper, only to tape it back together the following morning.

Love is such a fucking pointless thing.

 

_ _

 

Sixty-seven days after

 

He’s been cleared for field duty and he hasn’t seen X in over two weeks—isn’t sure he’ll see him again at all and doesn’t even remotely know how to feel about that.

There’s a message on his phone from Tanner, asking him to go to the bloody National Gallery of all places for a mission briefing. He thinks about refusing, because someone has to be pulling his leg, but the walls of his apartment have been slowly closing in on him and he’s out of alcohol.

He puts on a suit for the first time in weeks and an hour later finds himself sitting in front of The Fighting Temeraire. It’s a beautiful painting—the colours of the sunset iridescent on the canvas, but something about it strikes him as melancholy.

Someone sits next to him, but he doesn’t bother to look until he hears a familiar crisp voice, “It always makes me feel a little melancholy—a grand old warship being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitably of time, don’t you think?”

“Or just a bloody big ship,” James counters, turning to fully take X in.

The sight makes him freeze, because, well, it’s like looking at a stranger. X is clean-shaven and his messy hair has been trimmed into a slightly more manageable cut. There are glasses perched on his nose and he’s wearing a bloody suit with, God, chequered trousers. The whole effect is … James can feel a surprised laugh bubbling up his throat.

“Don’t say anything,” X warns. “I know I look bloody twelve and about as nerdy as humanly possible. I believe someone in MI6 is harbouring a grudge.”

James lets out a low burst of laughter before containing himself. “Or they’re just trying to make you look harmless. You were a cyber terrorist, after all.”

Hacker,” X corrects, but he’s smiling now. His hand twitches, like he wants to fiddle with his glasses but is containing himself. “Black hat, if you must get technical.”

The look suits him, oddly, though James finds himself inexplicably missing the tattoos, leather jacket, faded T-shirts, and almost ever-present cigarette.

Christ, it’s good to see him.

“What are you doing here?”  He asks and X’s smile widens.

“I’m here to introduce myself.” He holds out a hand. “R, at your service, 007. I’m your new field support.”

James shakes the offered hand with an arched eyebrow. “R?” He isn’t surprised, really. It was a given that Boothroyd would take one look at X’s file and immediately whisk him away to Q Branch, but to promote him immediately to second-in-command? It’s impressive.

“Yes,” X—R—says and finally gives in, adjusting his glasses. “Apparently Q Branch is rather short-staffed at the moment. I’m still to be monitored and have a tracker on me for at least the first six months of my contract, but.” He shrugs and yes, it’s much better than prison or a bullet through the head.

“And they assigned you to me,” Bond adds, because, really he can think of no greater punishment. Most members of Q Branch won’t aide him on missions even if their careers are on the line—something about paperwork and high-stress situations and him being “completely incapable of following even the most basic of orders.”

R grins again. “Yes, there is that, as well. I suppose I can bear it for the time being.”

His expression turns solemn, then, and he shifts to fully face James on the bench, pressing a USB drive into his hand. “I’m officially meant to be briefing you on your new assignment, but I did promise.”

Vesper.

James’s throat goes tight and he curls his fingers around the USB until he can feel the plastic digging hard lines into the skin of his palm. “What did you find?”

R sighs. “Not much, I’m afraid. But … you know of the boyfriend?”

James nods and R gestures to the USB. “His name is Yusuf Kabira and apparently his body washed up on a beach a few months ago—facial features unrecognisable and wallet with ID in his pocket. All very convenient.”

“So you don’t think it’s him?”

R shakes his head. “No. I can’t verify for certain, obviously, but no.”

James files this away as R continues. “Still, he’s not important at the moment. Dominic Green is in Bolivia—most likely a continuation of the operation we were helping with. We overthrew the current government and there were plans to put a new dictator in place—one in Quantum’s pocket. There was also talk of controlling natural resources and since Bolivia appears to be going through a drought at the moment, I would say it’s the water supply. Quantum does love charging people for things they should be entitled to for free.”

R hesitates here and he looks too damn young with those stupid glasses on his face. “This … I also checked your file. You were pulled off the investigation into Quantum.”

He stiffens, wondering where this is leading, and says, terse, “M believed me to be compromised, considering the circumstances.”

R runs a hand through his hair, mussing it, and it makes him look a bit more like the man James is used to. “Fine. I don’t really give a damn about MI6 policy and procedure. All I ask is that you don’t get me thrown into prison for helping you, understood?”

James nods again, trying to hide his relief. “And I’ll still help you with the Network.”

“Of course you will. That isn’t optional.”

James pockets the USB drive as R hands him another file and a box with a gun and a few various other gadgets. “Here’s your current mission briefing, 007. Missing agent in Bahrain—sounds thrilling. Do try not to get yourself blown up. I’ll be on comms to guide you. And Boothroyd has given me clear instructions to demand you return the equipment in one piece.”

James takes the file, trying not to dwell on the spark of warmth as their fingers brush. “Fine. Though, I am planning on taking some overdue holiday as soon as I return. I hear Bolivia is nice this time of year.”

R’s answering smile is jagged and dark and full of blood. “Yes, I’m sure it is.”

_ _

 

 

 

 

Eighty-two days after

 

James leaves Dominic Green in the middle of the Bolivian desert at the mercy of his enemies and burns his compound to the ground.

He calls R as he drives away from the still-flaming ruins.

“It’s done.”

“Here, too,” R replies and James can hear the distant clacking of keys. “I’ve managed to dismantle most of Quantum’s network from the files you recovered at the compound. Any last remnants should be easy to mop up. Excellent work, 007.”

“You know,” James says before he can stop himself, “we’re technically off the clock.”

A pause and James’s fingers tighten on the steering wheel as he berates himself for his frankly idiotic lack of self-control.

But then R replies with a warmth that James refuses to worry he’s imagining. “Quite right, James.” Another pause. “Thank you.”

He thinks of the weight of Vesper’s necklace in his jacket pocket and says with quiet honesty, “I didn’t do it for you.”

“I know,” R replies, equally soft. Then, back to his normally matter-of-tone. “I’ve found Yusuf. He’s in Russia. You have a flight leaving at 1800 so I suggest you head straight for the airport.”

James feels the corner of his mouth quirk in a stupidly pleased smile at the efficiency of his new field support. “Noted. Thank you.”

“Good luck, James,” R replies and James, in spite of his numerous cuts and burns and the dirt coating him, feels lighter than he has in months.

He very carefully doesn’t examine why.

 

_ _

 

Eighty-four days after

 

In a move that perhaps surprises him more than anyone, he leaves Yusuf alive.

“Why?” R asks when he calls, standing under the lamplights in the snow, turning Vesper’s necklace over in one gloved hand.

“He wasn’t worth it,” he decides. He thinks of the fear in the bastard’s eyes, the helpless anger at being caught out, and how pathetic he looked, staring down the barrel of a gun.

He wasn’t worth Vesper’s life or her death.

The silence stretches on as he wages war against the pain deep in his ribcage where his stupid heart continues to bleed. R waits, patient, and he’s absurdly grateful for this shared, grief-stricken understanding that bonds them together.

Finally, he manages, “hating her would have been easier.”

“Yes,” R agrees and James can almost see him, sitting on a couch in his new apartment, fiddling with those ridiculous glasses—a cigarette between his lips. “Love is rarely that kind, though.”

James laughs, strangled, and takes a deep breath to steady himself. “Have you found Max?” He asks as he resolutely drops Vesper’s necklace into the snow.

He can practically feel R straighten on the other end of the line. “Yes, he’s in Minsk.”

James checks his gun, heading back to his car as police swarm Yusuf’s apartment—no doubt tipped off to something by R. “When does my plane leave?”

 

_ _

 

Eighty-six days after

 

James isn’t sure how he pictured Max, but it was stronger than this. Anyone able to corral R’s lethal, overwhelming brilliance should have been a great man, not a snivelling wreck on the floor, whimpering over the bullet James put in his kneecap.

He feels a wave of disgust as Max babbles, offering him money and power and all the other pointless things always conjured up by the desperate. R is in his ear and watching through the camera pinned to his coat.

Fuck,” Max sobs, clutching his bleeding leg. “please, w-whatever you want…”

“It’s not up to me,” James tells him. “Are you listening?”

R’s voice is quiet and too young and too old all at once. “Of course.”

“Anything you want to say?”

R sucks in a ragged breath and James waits, patient, with his gun pointed steady at Max’s forehead. “I looked up to you once,” R starts a moment later and the words crack across the line—weighted with rage and grief. James parrots them to Max and lets the pathetic bastard hear nothing but steel.

“So did Kai. And you killed him, you piece of shit. Like it was nothing.”  Another wet inhale, but R keeps talking and James recites. “I was going to kill you for that, but I’ve decided a bullet to your head is too quick for you, too merciful.”

James doesn’t let his surprise show at this change of tactic. Right now, he’s merely a mouthpiece for R’s vengeance.

“So I’ve decided that you’re going to rot instead, in the place you fear more than anything. You’re going to spend the rest of your miserable, worthless life behind bars knowing that all your money and your precious Network are gone. That everything you’ve worked and tried to achieve has amounted to nothing and there is no escape. And when death finally comes for you, you fucking bastard, you’re going to welcome it with open arms, begging for it to take you.”

R finishes his rant with a stuttering breath and James calmly shifts his grip on the gun, using it to knock Max unconscious.

“I’ve alerted Interpol,” R says into the sudden, heavy silence—composed again. “They’ve been hunting him for years and I doubt they’ll be kind once they’ve extradited him back to France.”

“Good,” James agrees, holstering his gun.

“I also suggest leaving by a route other than the door.”

James rolls his eyes but climbs out the window and down the drainpipe into the bushes below. Keeping his head down, he fades into the shadows filling the gaps between the feeble streetlights, leaving the dingy hotel behind.

In his ear, R murmurs, “I thought it would hurt less than this.”

“It will,” James replies because it’s something he desperately wants to believe himself.

R laughs, broken and weak. “The inevitability of time.”

James smiles as he climbs into his car. “Something like that.”

He sits for a moment, watching his breath fog the windshield, and then, with the last scraps of his foolish, reckless courage, he asks, “have dinner with me? When I’m back in London.”

“Are you asking me on a date, 007?” It’s impossible to decipher what R what might be feeling from the careful flatness of his tone.

James thinks of Vesper and Kai and the blood on both of their hands—the grief that is lessening too slowly, the rage that hasn’t quite burned to embers —and the fact that he still wants to kiss R and maybe sit in a room with him and Edith Piaf and just be and he has no idea what that’s supposed to mean.

Love is a pointless, vicious fucking minefield—the definition of insanity—and yet, yet…

“I’m asking you to dinner.”

R is quiet just long enough to make him nervous. “I suppose that would be acceptable. Pick me up at eight on Saturday.”

“I don’t know where you live.”

 "An issue which I’m sure you’ll easily rectify.”

James laughs, leaning his head back against the cold leather of the car seat.

And yet…

“Thank you,” R says and it’s the most heartfelt he’s ever sounded.

James finally starts the car. “I promised. I’ll see you at eight—wear a suit.”

R sighs, long-suffering, and James can practically see him rolling his eyes. The ache eases another degree.

 

_ _

 

Ninety days after

 

R slouches in his seat at the candlelit table, suit jacket too large across his narrow shoulders. His fingers twitch against the fine tablecloth, fiddling with his abandoned glasses, and when he peruses the menu his eyebrows climb towards his hairline.

James hides an amused smile behind his own menu as R looks up at him, questioning.

“This seems a bit …” Another glance around and then up at the fine chandeliers overhead. “Over the top for dinner, 007.”

“Off the clock,” James reminds him. “And I’m making up for all the shit food we endured on the run.”

R snorts. “I do suppose we’re owed some finery after that … James.”

“I still don’t know what to call you,” James points out as he sets his menu aside.

“Pick a name, then,” R replies with a careless shrug.

“Just like that?”

“I’ve had dozens of names—I hardly mind another and I realise that going by merely a letter isn’t really feasible in polite society. MI6 hasn’t finished processing my new documentation yet and I’ll need to come up with an alias anyway, so, choose.” He folds his arms on the table and blinks at James, assessing. “What do you think suits the new me?”

James tries not to show how off-balance R has just thrown him and most likely fails spectacularly. “Isn’t that something you should decide?”

“I don’t care and it’s more interesting this way. Go on.”

They’re interrupted by the waiter, giving James a few moments to run through various names in his head as they order. He discards most immediately after thinking them up and R watches him with open amusement, the prick.

“Should I try to match the letter?” He asks as the waiter pours their wine.

“If you want, but that seems a bit trite, don’t you think?” R fires back and yes, he’s right.

James makes a noise of agreement and taps his fingers on the table as he deliberates. “This is much harder than I anticipated.”

“So I’m noticing. Don’t think about it so hard. It’s only a name.”

And he’s right again, but somehow, James wants to get this right. “Put your glasses on.”

R does roll his eyes, this time, but complies, and James takes him in again before announcing, “Adam.”

“Adam,” R repeats, trying out the name and then dips his head in acknowledgment. “Good choice—not one I’ve used to before.”

Then he sticks his hand out, an amused smile dancing in his eyes and the corners of his mouth. “Pleased to meet you, James.”

James can feel the pull of his own smile and marvels how easily it comes around this man as he shakes R’s hand. “Likewise, Adam.”

They regard each other a moment before James reaches for his glass and raises it in a toast. “To the dead,” he says, going quiet again.

R lifts his own glass. “May we carry them with us and yet still live.”

“Poetic.”

R’s eyes go distant and his lips quirk, wistful. “Something Kai said once—he was more inclined to that sort of thing.” He gathers himself. “Anyway. To the dead and the living.”

Their glasses clink.

 

_ _

 

A few hours later, over dessert, James watches R by the candlelight and basks in the companionable, easy silence, taking in the wicked curve of his smile and that sharp intelligence that lurks in his grey eyes.

Given time, he thinks, they could be something, and the thought doesn’t terrify nearly as much as before.

 After all … he’s always liked a challenge.

Fade to black

 

 


We’ll be just fine

We’ll be just fine

It’s a matter of time til our compass stands still

Til our compass stands still


 

  Three hundred and six-five days after

 

“Would he have liked me?” James asks as he watches R—Q now—carefully place the lilies in a vase on the windowsill.

There is no grave to lay them on, so this will have to do. When Q is finished, James steps forward and slips in a rose for Vesper. He’s never been the sentimental type but it seems fitting, feels right, and maybe he’s learning.

“No,” Q remarks. “Not at first, at least. The shock would need to wear off.”

James laughs—something that’s getting easier as time heals the still-seeping wounds beneath his armour. Q smiles, too—openly fond. He’s soft in the pale morning light—hair a riot, stubble on his cheeks, and glasses slightly askew—and James loves him.

It’s not something they say. Words are trite and perhaps they’re both still a little cautious and more than a little broken. They don’t need to say it, though. It’s evident in the tea Q makes for him every morning and the medical kit he keeps under the sink, knowing James will always come home after a mission rather than report in to MI6, no matter how badly he’s injured.

It’s in the decorations they’ve slowly begun to put up in a flat they’ve finally admitted they’re sharing, venturing cautiously into this commitment, this relationship together, and it’s in the truths James tells to Q and no one else.

It’s in the trust, the silence, this little world they’re building together that theirs and no one else’s.

Who needs words after all of that?

And there are still days when he’s terrified and he still drinks too much while Q chain-smokes and builds destructive inventions. There are scars and ghosts and skeletons and nights curled together on the couch, weathering the aftermath of brutal nightmares. Neither of them is good at this, but they’re trying—which James is starting to believe is the most important thing.

“He would have been happy,” Q says, running his long fingers over the lilies. “For me. Us.”

In response, James wraps his arms around Q’s middle and tucks his face into Q’s neck. Winter sunlight sparks off the dusty windowpane and together they breathe.

 Fin