The latest from Q branch was—or rather, had been—a set of cufflinks, imprecisely matched to each other, the left of which emitted a distress signal and the right of which contained a few grains of a severely toxic extract of some government genetics project, neither of which were supposed to go through fire, evidently. Q scrutinized them through a magnifying glass and then, pulling on a pair of latex gloves, delicately placed them in a small steel box.
“I’d prefer you endeavored in some fashion to return things intact,” he said. “It does save on wear and tear. I’d say something about why you’re not allowed to have nice things, but—”
“It’s been a long day,” Bond said.
“Quite.” Q took the gloves off and set them aside. “Well. Do try, if you wouldn’t mind. Just don’t try—excessively.” There were shadows underneath his eyes and he was even more rumpled than was usual for him; his hands weren’t as steady. Bond knew every manifestation of exhaustion, even when he was exhausted himself: not detecting something as slight as the tremor in Q’s fingertips when it appeared in someone else could be the death of him, under the right circumstances. Evidently the situation even in Q branch hadn’t been calm, though Bond didn’t know what they had to fret themselves over.
Well, it wasn’t his business. Q would say if he wanted to say; Bond wasn’t his nursemaid.
“You should go home as well,” he said brusquely. “Get some sleep. Though traffic will be murder.”
“M thinks you do that on purpose, you know,” Q said. He tapped keys on his laptop and pulled up the CCTV footage of the damage that Bond had done to the streets. “Since it happens so often. And then it takes everyone an extra hour to make it to work in the morning, and you’ve never been entirely fond of making anyone’s life easier.”
“And you are?” He wasn’t adverse to killing time by listening to Q call various technical support lines and then toy with the company’s stock if their representatives were dourly, willfully unhelpful; it was interesting, if nothing else.
But Q had turned his attention entirely away, and was just typing, the street footage flickering across London, skimming along some route in Q’s mind, and all he said was, “On occasion, I make exceptions. Go home, 007.”
Bond went home. All the lights were green. Something seemed off about that, but he was tired enough that he didn’t think it over until he was already half-asleep.
Then Bond was in Mumbai, and Q was in his ear talking about what he called the slow death of imperialism. Bond listened to him more than he would admit—he’d told Q about a month ago that his constant chatter in dull moments was more akin to a recording of ocean sounds than anything else, and Q had taken revenge by playing pop music over the connection for three straight hours, until Bond had threatened to drop the earpiece in his martini. Q emphatically did not like losing a connection. (Bond only rarely dropped him. He was partial to ocean sounds, anyway.)
“I suppose you think we shouldn’t meddle,” Bond said.
“Not when the circumstances aren’t extreme.”
“You’re not opposed to abuses of your own power.”
“I’m one person.”
“With the power of a half-dozen governments. I don’t have to worry about your conscience, do I?”
“You’re on my conscience,” Q said sharply.
“What I do or don’t has no bearing on you. That’s another—”
“What happens to you,” Q said. “I’d prefer your life wasn’t wasted in the pursuit of something—unworthy. Don’t quibble over the terminology, I’m at home, and my security systems make ours look like they were cobbled together from scrap. No one’s listening.”
MI6 operatives, whatever their branch, were not supposed to pass judgment on the relative merit of their assignments, or the locales in which they were conducted: Q was valuable enough that the light criticism, if infrequent, might have passed by without comment, but it was a risk. With or without the secure connection, Bond could always have told M that their newest Quartermaster was thinking a little too independently. Q was no Silva—they wouldn’t interrogate him, just reduce his privileges, curtail his access, as if they could keep him out of a network he had essentially designed. But Q enjoyed his position too much to risk it on a whim, which meant that he trusted Bond not to divulge any of this to anyone else.
People put their lives in Bond’s hands often enough.
But Q didn’t trust easily—there was that to think of. Bond thought about Q rather more than he would generally admit. Work entanglements were always—difficult.
“No worries,” Bond said. “I’ll bring all your toys back untouched by moral complexity. Do you know where I should get dinner?”
“You’ve mistaken me for an iPhone,” Q said tartly. “Pick your own restaurant. No, not that one,” he said as Bond strayed towards the nearest door. “American owner, and the health inspection reports for it are nightmarish.”
Q stopped talking to him only once. Of course, even then, he was still talking, he just wasn’t talking about restaurants, imperialism, or Bond’s regrettable tendency to cause traffic disasters. It was all hard-edged practicality, and when there was nothing to say, he was silent.
On his way to report, Bond hit every single red light. M, tight-lipped, approved him for reassignment after a week of downtime. “And try to get some sleep. You take so many risks, it makes me tired just reading the reports.”
Back in his flat, the hot water heater had gone on the blink, and the shower he took was two minutes and ice cold. It stung the still-open cut on his shoulder. After half an hour—enough time to tape more gauze over the gash—his power clicked off. Then on. Then off again. He unplugged his alarm clock and slept for twelve hours, uninterrupted until the three separate singing telegrams that dropped by at noon, and the stripper at one. He gave up the next time the power went out, and went back into headquarters, which took an hour and a half longer than normal, between the red lights, sudden forced detours, and unexpected flash-mob protests.
When he did make it in, he found Q, tight-lipped, on a third cup of Earl Grey.
“I hope you’re enjoying yourself,” he said.
Q raised his eyebrows. “Aren’t you supposed to be at home, recuperating?”
“It’s not proving especially restful.”
When Q was pleased with him, Bond spontaneously won email sweepstakes he hadn’t entered, where the awards were hot stone massages and well-aged Scotch. When Q was cross with him—well, the morning itself served as an illustration of that. “You’d have been a dictator in another time or place,” Bond said, sitting down. He looked a little wistfully at Q’s cup of Earl Grey—between all the power outages, he hadn’t wanted to mess about with his own kettle. “Unlimited power doesn’t wear well on you. Especially when you’re in a snit.”
“Coordination of certain resources,” Q said. “You shouldn’t take it so personally.”
“It would be a challenge not to.”
“You’re an expert at the challenging, though. I have handled—personally, mind you—three double-O agents, and not one of them has been the exasperation that you so continuously prove. You don’t think. Someone who doesn’t think doesn’t deserve hot water.”
“Profound. I think. I don’t overanalyze, the way others might—”
“From the safety of my electronic perch in your ear, from the scrutiny of my video feeds,” Q said. “Do you think it’s something I’m fond of, watching you nearly get filleted? Because it isn’t. I can rearrange the world without ever leaving this building, but I can’t stop you from trying to—to superimpose yourself between two men with knives. It’s a fool’s game. You know better, and you do it anyway, and I just have to watch you. This is not a snit, 007, this is—entirely righteous vengeance. Now go away. I’ll turn your power back on.”
“And no more traffic snarls or flash-mobs.”
“None. I’m sick to death of following you around when it does no good. You won’t learn anything.”
For all the rest of the week, Bond’s life ran only as smoothly as could be expected: no flutter of extra Q-inspired luck, for good or for ill. He thought, Good, all for the best, but the underpinnings of that thought were strangely hollow, pipes through which regret and (loneliness) boredom could run.
When he went back to work, things were level, calm, stable. Q nodded briefly at him, apologized for the dressing down by handing him a pair of nail clippers strong enough to cut through most metals, and they didn’t chat. Rumors of Q’s technological vendetta—or, as Eve wryly put it, the pox on all Bond’s machines—against him were out-of-date enough for everyone to give him a wide berth in the halls, on the off chance that he would cause something to explode. Not to mention M, looking tired as usual, asked, “Is everything all right between you and your quartermaster, Bond?” before handing him an assignment.
“You were working well together, I thought. Though sometimes things get—overly personal.”
Bond kept his face still, and earned the file. It was nothing too complicated. He had Q in his ear, and sometimes Eve, although Eve was too busy to talk to him and Q most likely the same. He had time to think, then, or time to try to avoid thinking.
His mind kept returning to Vesper. He’d gone through lovers before her, if they were to be called that when they were mostly hasty, if pleasurable encounters, but he hadn’t gone through any love more serious than a schoolboy pash until her, and he sure as shit hadn’t gone through heartbreak. It had been much safer, in the years since, to limit his activities to the casual. The woman with the Cupid’s bow mouth, the man whose gaze lingered across the bar. But the people he took to bed touched his skin without touching the rest of him. It was much safer that way. Contrary to what Q thought, Bond learned his lessons very well.
Love came hand-in-hand with tragedy, and if there were someone, someone with dark eyes and eternally mussed clothing, someone who at first was a complication, because work was intended to be kept separate from entanglement (however pleasant), someone who now was a complication, because it was clear that things had proceeded whether Bond had wanted them to or not, because it was clear that he couldn’t, in this instance, untangle someone’s fondness for Sudoku puzzles and Earl Grey from the idea of his mouth—if there were that someone, Bond would have to have sense enough at least to avoid saying or doing something—irrevocable.
Like, say, taking the scowl off someone’s face by kissing him, or even saying, “Talk to me,” when there was no earthly reason he’d need anyone talking to him during a mission.
Bond was an expert in living without.
He watched the rainfall. It was gray, as usual. The radio played ordinary top-charts music, utterly unlike the time Q had hijacked half the stations in London to play nothing but bubblegum pop simply to torment him. Observational assignments were always dull, and this was no exception. Watch the target. Ensure that the target moved no more than it was normal for someone to move. At least if they did, he would get to move a little himself.
“Do you have visuals on me?”
“Of course,” Q said, sounding engaged for the first time all day. “Is something wrong?”
“I just wondered if you’d noticed the décor.”
“You’re not watching him to observe breaches in interior design taste,” Q said. “However egregious.”
“The lampshades are all black,” Bond said. “Functionally—”
“I’m rather busy,” Q said.
Bond was far too old to ask if Q was mad at him. “Understood,” he said, and thought that really, he should have been grateful that Q knew how to draw a line when he was beginning to suspect Q could have persuaded him into forgetting his own.
Then Q said, “Ah.”
Bond blinked. There was something wrong with Q’s voice, like a wire threaded through it had been plucked and set to vibrating, and he said, “What?” a little too urgently; covered it by raising his paper cup of tea to his mouth. There was always someone watching.
Q dropped into a whisper. “I appear to be in the middle of a robbery.”
Bond’s hand closed around the cup so quickly that tea sloshed onto his wrist. He barely felt it. He ducked his chin down to his chest and put his hand up like he was scratching his nose: “You’re what? Q branch is being robbed? Where the hell is your security?”
“Not Q branch,” Q said, and even with that edge of panic in his voice, he still managed to make it sound as though Bond was being an idiot: it was the same tone he’d had when Bond had gotten locked out of his email account. “I had to make a run to the bank. The line’s secure, I told you that. Makes it easy to run errands during. And explanations are a bit much to ask when I’ve got my face pressed to the floor, don’t you think?”
“Busy,” Q said, and Bond heard the unmistakable click-hush of a broken connection. Q had just cut him off. Bond looked after the target, who had just started doing a search for porn, and decided that even the most disaffected double-O agent in England would have ruled that saving Q would have higher benefits for queen and country than watching a sometime agitator and would-be terrorist enjoy his downtime. And he knew where Q banked, though he couldn’t for the life of him remember how until five minutes from the block, when it came back to him that Q chewed on pen caps, and had an impressive collection of teeth-marked caps scattered about his department, nearly half of them from the same bank. He didn’t want to know that, because then, if Q were gone, if he got there too late, then Q’s pen caps would be just one more thing he had after the owner was gone. A necklace. A ceramic bulldog. And the memory of teeth biting into the cusp of a blue plastic pen cap as Q smirked around it.
But as soon as he pulled the car up a little too close to the sidewalk, he saw Q, and not through the glass front of the bank: just leaning casually against the door as though nothing had happened.
“Oh,” he said, when he saw Bond, and he at least had the grace to look faintly sheepish. “I forgot to turn the earpiece back on.”
“You forgot,” Bond said, “to turn the earpiece back on.”
“You’ll agree that it’s funny in just a bit,” Q said hastily. “They left us all our phones, so I just—well, it’s quite impressive, technologically speaking, but the essentials of it is that I foiled an entire bank robbery with an iPhone. It would make a good advertisement for Apple, actually, I should call them. Only the police took my phone. Temporarily. For evidence. There may have technically been one or two laws broken, albeit nothing anyone’s going to be too concerned with. But you can see how, in all the fuss, I may have forgotten to switch you back on.”
“You may have forgotten to switch me back on.”
“Are you broken? You’re just repeating things. You used to hang up on your observers all the time, and anyway, technically I’m your support, not the other way around.”
Bond looked at him, the man who’d foiled a bank robbery with his phone, the man with ink-black hair who mused on the inevitability of time and the remnants of British imperialism, the man who still had the occasional spot, and he thought that, as foolish as it was, he’d gone and fallen in love with Q, whose real name he didn’t even know, and at the same time, he thought it wouldn’t be amiss for him to knock Q’s head off his shoulders. He could barely stop his hands from shaking. He said, as coldly as he could manage, “Well, next time I won’t bother rushing, then. Since you can handle yourself, apparently,” and he walked off, and kept walking even after Q said his name.
Bond put up with three days of Q’s penance—the automatic doors opening well before he even reached them was a new trick—before he said, “You don’t have to keep doing that.”
“You’re angry with me,” Q said. He was looking straight ahead, at an oil painting that was too abstract for Bond’s taste, all blue and violet layered together. His mouth was very rigid. “I haven’t done anything you haven’t done. At least now you have some idea what it was like to watch you do something so incredibly, recklessly—”
“I didn’t cut you off,” Bond said.
“Fine. I apologize for that. It’s not likely to happen again. I’m not followed by bank robbers, you know. You don’t have to sulk. It’s unbecoming.”
“And it was so attractive on you.”
“That was different,” Q said quietly. “You can’t have the faintest idea how I felt.” And then Bond turned to look at him, and Q was looking at the violent sadness of the painting so hard it was like he had to clench his jaw tight to do it, and then Bond thought, Oh, because he’d known how to read Q’s ragged fatigue because of his own, and he’d known how—or almost known—how to read Q’s flirtation, but it had taken the bank for him to know how to read this. It was all experience gained, one way or the other, and Bond had never, for all he’d had, had anyone who worried over him the way he’d worried over Q when the connection had gone dead.
“This is going to be very complicated,” Bond said, almost amused by it, because for a moment, all the pain that had come with Vesper and all the pain that was sure to come with Q seemed almost incidental, as opaque to him as those slashes of indigo across the canvas: something he could stand back away from and appraise, almost. It would be hell to sort it all out with M, of course.
Q glanced at him, and he must have seen something, because his mouth softened even as he said, “What’s going to be—” and Bond kissed him.
Q tasted like Earl Grey and salted peanuts, toffee, and he kissed Bond back harder than Bond had been kissed in years, more desperately, as if there were actually something to be gained or lost by it. For now, at least, Bond could focus on the idea of the gain, the most immediate of which was Q’s mouth. When they broke apart, Q said, “Yes, very complicated. I don’t give a damn. You—” and he smiled. “I never thought. Not really.”
“You sent me a male stripper,” Bond said.
“Gauging your reaction was of some interest,” Q admitted, shrugging. “But more of your extracurricular activities are on record than you’d think. That wasn’t the mystery. I’d have rung you up months ago if you hadn’t been—if I hadn’t been—well.” He made a series of hand gestures, evidently intended to take in all of Bond, and twisted his mouth as if the words wouldn’t come unless he unscrewed them first. “You mean more. –Everything, actually. It’s too soon to be saying all this.”
“You’ve been the voice in my head,” Bond said. “I think we’re well past soon.”
“I wanted very badly not to,” he said. “You were an interest, and then you were a surprise, and then you were a problem, and then you were you, and I knew that I was—” Yours, he almost said, but it was what he had said to Vesper, and it was unfair to her and unfair to Q to bring her ghost into it. “Gone. Completely. I’ve been tied to chairs that I could have gotten away from better than I could manage to get away from you.”
He kissed Q again, and there were no ghosts there, just the heat of Q’s mouth, the slightly chapped lips, the quintessentially English taste of him, and Q said, “Art gallery,” in his ear with what Bond realized—in a way that sent longing through him like an arrow—was a light moan.
“So we’ll go somewhere more private,” Bond said. “My flat—”
Q took out his phone. “The traffic,” he said, “is going to be excellent.”