Actions

Work Header

How to Be a Superhero

Work Text:

James Bond is not a casual person.

There’s a difference between an air of indifference and actual indifference.

James isn’t Jim. He isn’t a jeans and a t-shirt sort of person. He doesn’t lie around the house and watch telly for hours on end. He likes a life filled with purpose. He abhors laziness. Too much time alone is a breeding ground for unpleasant self-reflection.

James is fine without reflecting on anything for too long.

He knows what he’s good at. He’s good at witty banter and sexual innuendo. He’s good at both disappearing into high-powered worlds and functions while simultaneously being the person to whom everyone is drawn.

One doesn’t become a Double Oh agent without being a highly disciplined, pathologically confident individual.

James knows his strengths. He understands his appeal. He knows what he needs to know to be good at what he does.

But he’s also in his 40s now, and sometimes his job requires him to understand people not yet born when James was rising through the Naval ranks, earning every promotion and commendation and distinguishing himself from his peers.

In his latest mission he finds himself in San Francisco, California, attempting to infiltrate a dot com to find the perpetrator of a series of devastating hacks on the governments of Britain and its allies.

What, for the love of God is “Netflix and chill?”

A woman with a nose ring and black lipstick asks him to come over to her flat instead of his proffered attempt at drinks at the one local establishment that knows how to mix a decent martini.

He agrees to her suggestion because she is beautiful, and he’s also fairly certain she has a significant piece of information he needs for the mission. He alerts Q-branch on his drive from the office (where he learned upon arrival that a well-tailored suit made him stick out like a sore thumb, so he’d been forced into trousers and button down shirts without a tie of which, for some reason, Q-branch insisted on seeing a photograph).

“She invited me to her apartment,” James says as he drives back to the hotel to wait for the agreed upon time for their rendezvous. “She said, and I quote, ‘you could come over, and we could watch Netflix and chill.’”

Q laughs so hard James has to pull the comm out of his ear.

“I have no idea what that means,” James admits as he pulls into the valet stand at the hotel.

Q seems to gather himself. “I think your mission is going exactly as planned.”

“Is Netflix some sort of coded language for sex in this ridiculous country?”

Q snorts. “Netflix is— dear God do you really not know what Netflix is? 007—” and then he’s laughing again, and Bond rolls his eyes and ends their communication for over an hour.

James isn’t an idiot. He searches online when he gets to his room and finds that Netflix is an internet-based service which provides movies and TV shows for a subscription fee. He signs up for a free, two-week trial. Seems like the thing to do.

And as it happens, Nose Ring is very interested in giving James exactly what he’d hoped to get through drinks and possibly dinner. He just isn’t used to dates including his partner beginning the evening in joggers and an exercise vest.

When the mission is successfully completed several days later, James mutters to Moneypenny that if he’s meant to blend into a world of “twenty-somethings” MI6 might need to send a twenty-something, a millennial, he learned they referred to themselves as, on the mission.

James does not have “a Facebook,” although Peter (“Pete”, apparently) Miller, his computer consultant alias apparently does, thanks to Q-branch and their endless level of enthusiasm for this particular mission. Peter also has a Twitter account from which he tweets endless banalities about his day and his thoughts on everything from traffic to the permeation of some establishment called Chipotle into the marketplace.

James is going to kill Q.

***

Q surveys the photographs from Bond’s latest assignment and smirks. He’s jealous, of course, because he’s always wondered what it would be like to live in California and work at Google or Yahoo or Oracle. There was a time, straight out of university that he pursued a possible move to the States to put his computer skills to use working for a large software or internet company. Instead he stumbled into a job with MI6 and found the arms’ length danger and continual problem solving intoxicating.

He also hates to fly, and he likes his family well enough that being thousands of miles away with an ocean and entire continent separating them isn’t ideal. His sister is producing children like she’s worried the population growth of Britain is her singular responsibility, and while Q isn’t keen on children of his own at this point (possibly at any point), he does quite enjoy being an uncle, and he’d miss his niece and nephews if he were to move so far away.

But Bond in California, living the life Q might easily have been living is entertaining. Bond and his impeccably tailored suits and his old guard charm that relies heavily on his not inconsiderable sexual magnetism and machismo attempting to blend into a place where no one dons a tie and either trainers or flip flops are the footwear of choice is amusing.

Bond sauntering through posh casinos in Monaco in bespoke tuxedos is a much easier image to reconcile. But the world is changing and some of the wealthiest, most powerful people in the western world are young and casual.

After Bond’s first day at the tech company (and Q would like it noted for the record he did attempt to warn Bond that a suit and tie wouldn’t be the best option and had been dismissed summarily) he groused for a solid 10 minutes on his drive back to his hotel about the evils of hoodies and seeing toes in an office and why no one understood the art of introduction anymore.

Q muted his microphone and laughed loudly, drawing the attention of his coworkers, before he unmuted and calmly informed Bond that on his way home he should stop at a mall (which earned more disdain) and purchase jeans and khaki trousers and shirts he instructed Bond not to tuck in which garnered a scoffing noise and then continued muttering during his foray into The Gap.

“I’m not wearing those holiday shoes to work,” Bond warned, voice muffled by the shirt he pulled on over his head in the dressing room.

Q laughed and told him he didn’t have to, but not to wear oxfords or brogues and sent him a couple of links to appropriate footwear for his cover.

In the end, he still stuck out a bit. But he wasn’t meant to be 25. He just needed to look like the seasoned consultant called in to sort out a problem by upper management. It required him not to look like James Bond, but he could still be well pressed and tucked in (as he resolutely refused to leave his shirt tails hanging).

Bond is naturally charming, and he soon found that in America a British accent is its own conversation starter. But being out of his natural element was still frustrating for Bond, and a frustrated Bond is an amusing Bond in Q’s opinion.

Something about seeing someone who is otherwise so unflappable, who knows so much about so many disparate things, not understanding what “Netflix and chill” requires of him delights Q to no end.

It levels the playing field between them somehow. Not that Q was looking to play on Bond’s field, really. But if Bond knew everything about everything, it would mean he’s perfect, and perfect is boring.

People are interesting when they triumph despite flaws. And people become friends when one figures out what those flaws are. Intimacy is about the exchange of flaws, when it comes right down to it. It’s trusting another person to see weakness and still focus on strength.

Q isn’t attempting friendship with James Bond, Agent 007 of MI6. But he does enjoy unpredictable, intriguing people. And James Bond is certainly that.

***

The down time between missions is intolerable.

James is never in London long enough to adapt to the change in time, so his sleep schedule is forever a mess.

He keeps a flat in Pimlico for convenience, and for a place to store the three or four things that are valuable enough to him to want to secure. But other than those personal items, it might as well be a hotel room. The furniture is sparse, the decor minimal. His two requirements to his decorator were a comfortable bed and a wall safe. Otherwise, she had free reign.

Apparently she took one look at James and saw a sleek sofa that isn’t as comfortable as it should be, and very little in the way of personality.

There are no mementos from trips set about. James doesn’t go in for souvenirs. He can’t keep plants alive. He doesn’t have a pet for obvious reasons.

In short, his flat isn’t a place of which he feels particularly fond.

James gets bored easily, restless. So he takes walks sometimes late at night when sleep doesn’t come easily. Sometimes he walks down to a pub nearby and pretends he’s on a mission, tries to figure out what everyone is doing there, where they’re from, what they want. Sometimes that turns into going home with someone, but lately, more often than not he ends up walking home alone.

If his walk is particularly lengthy, and he ends up across the Vauxhall Bridge, there’s a dodgy little kebab shop a few streets over from MI6 that he frequents after he returns from tough missions, or when he wants to make sure he doesn’t run into anyone from work.

He finds himself there one night after a late meeting with M to debrief on his California mission. Instead of taking a car home he decided to walk, and part of the reason was because he was craving a kebab.

He orders, and while he waits for his food he hears a throat clear behind him.

“I thought that was you,” Q says, wry smile growing as James turns.

“Memorized how I look from behind, have we?” James shoots back.

Q laughs. “You don’t exactly blend in around here,” he says conspiratorially. “The last place I expected to find you, actually. A kebab shop late at night. And without a tie,” he tisks and moves closer to James.

“Late meeting,” James offers reluctantly. “On my way home.”

Q grins. “This is not on your way home.”

James raises one eyebrow and hopes to convey judgement that Q has clearly snooped his file.

“We’re spies,” Q whispers, leaning closer. “I know loads of stuff.”

“Loads is the unit of measure for ‘stuff knowing,’” James says and steps forward when they call his order.

The bag is already greasy, and if he doesn’t eat the kebab soon, it will soak the pitta and will be a much less pleasant experience and possibly ruin his trousers. He gives Q a nod as he moves toward the door.

He can tell the Quartermaster is about to say something else, but James has had a long day. As much as he enjoys the back-and-forth he has with Q, he’s not in the mood to be teased about California, doesn’t want to talk about work at all. He wants to sit on a bench along the river, eat his greasy kebab and let his mind clear enough that he can walk back to his flat and sleep the night through without pharmacological assistance.

***

Q watches Bond walk down the block away from the kebab shop. He’s still somewhat shocked to see the always smooth and elegant Bond at his own favorite late night food place. It’s on Q’s way back from the pub he goes to once in awhile if his friends are in the city, and if he takes a slightly circuitous route home from MI6 he can stop for a kebab after a bad day.

When he finally gets back to his flat with his kebab he collapses on his sofa, only to be greeted by very unimpressed meowing.

“Right,” Q says and struggles to stand again. “So sorry,” he says to his cats.

He keeps irregular hours, but fortunately cats don’t have to be let out or walked like dogs do, and even though they complain, their feeding time can be pushed back a couple of hours on rough days. He gives both cats an extra spoonful of the wet food they both prefer as a peace offering.

One of Q’s cats is aloof and a little devious, and is therefore named Mycroft. The other is, at first introduction, overbearing and insistent, but unfailingly loyal and quite interested in always keeping an eye on Q. His name is Sherlock. Q is far more amused by that than he probably should be. It’s funnier still because the cats act irritated with each other, sometimes even hissing and batting each other with claws extended. But invariably they wind up curled up on the overstuffed chair in the lounge, as though they can be affectionate as long as no one’s paying attention.

After the cats are fed, Q eats his completely ruined kebab. There’s an important time-sensitivity to kebab consumption, and he’s definitely missed it. But he’s hungry and tired. His day involved a nearly botched mission with 009 in St. Petersburg and everyone’s nerves were on edge for most of the day.

He chats to a couple friends while he checks in on his World of Warcraft guild, watches a bit of telly and then falls into bed for a few meager hours before he must awaken and do it all over again the next day.

*

Two weeks later, Q is back at the kebab shop after an agonizing budget meeting with M and Tanner. There are many things Q likes about his job, access to experimental tech, confidential intelligence, encouragement to improve and invent. Budget management and all of the administrative aspects of governmental bureaucracy, however, are not part of his appreciation.

He has a headache behind his eyes, spreading out to his temples, and he feels snappish. He just wants to get back to his flat so he can take some paracetamol, eat, and then do something mindless for a couple of hours before bed.

He checks email on his phone while he waits for his order, amazed at how many pile up when he’s in a marathon meeting like that.

“Your ID badge is still on, O. Harris,” a familiar voice says from behind.

Q whirls around, grabbing for the pocket where he usually clips his badge and remembering he’d moved it to his belt when he was helping an intern with the welder earlier. He tucks it back into his pocket. They aren’t supposed to wear their badges outside of the building, and Q tries not to call attention to his name whenever possible anyway.

He gives Bond a weak smile and turns back to his phone.

“What does the O stand for?” Bond asks, amusement in his tone.

“Oh… just call me Q,” he shoots back as Bond steps up to place his order.

“The lamb please,” Bond says and rattles off a couple of modifications to the usual menu offering.

“This is twice in one month,” Q says, hoping to change the subject. “If you can’t scale a building on your next mission I’ll know what to blame.”

Bond smirks. “Do you have issues with my performance, Quartermaster O. Harris?”

Q’s cheeks heat, even though he knows that’s exactly what Bond hopes will happen. “Well let’s see,” he says hoping to will away his blush. “Last mission you lost your gun—”

“Hardly lost,” Bond scoffs.

“Did it not fall into the Mediterranean?”

“Technically,” Bond says imperiously. “But you act as though I misplaced it in a bazaar. I was fighting a man with a knife on the bow of a ship.”

“And you lost your gun,” Q says.

Bond rolls his eyes. “And my gun is now on the bottom of the Mediterranean at coordinates I could articulate for you if I must.”

Q snorts. “I believe there was a button camera you also misplaced,” he continues and says the word with clear sarcasm.

“I know precisely where that is,” Bond says.

“None of Q-branch wants to live through a repeat performance so you can get it back,” Q says quickly. “Thankfully you’d uploaded the necessary footage already.”

Bond grins. “I imagine the footage available on the pin is worthy of rescue.”

Q’s order number is called at precisely the right moment. He moves to take the bag from the counter. “Charming as always, 007,” he says as he passes by on his way to the door.

“Does this mean you aren’t inviting me back to your flat to eat our kebabs?” Bond asks with a raised eyebrow.

“I’ve got a raid at 10,” Q says automatically, and then blames his headache and hunger for giving up that information at all.

Bond’s brow furrows. “I was unaware of an op this evening.”

Q closes his eyes for a moment. “No,” he says and sighs. “A raid. In a game I play online. My guild is— never mind.”

“Game?”

Q squares his shoulders. “I play World of Warcraft. Online. On the computer. With a couple of friends from uni.”

Bond narrows his eyes slightly like he’s trying to determine if Q is lying. “Never heard of it.”

“Yes,” Q says. “Well, you’d not heard of Netflix before a month ago, so I remain unsurprised. Good evening, 007.”

Bond smiles and nods. “Good evening, Quartermaster.”

***

When James gets back to his flat he accesses the MI6 database from his secure laptop and searches for Q’s name. James has a high clearance, but not higher than Q, and he finds that while he can see an O. Harris in the system, along with his title, department, and dates of employment, it doesn’t offer any further details.

He puts it down to boredom then, that he finds himself Googling the game Q mentioned he plays. James has never been one for video games. So many of them mirror his actual work life a little too closely. When one shoots people for a living, one doesn’t exactly seek it out in one’s free time unless one is a borderline psychotic. James likes to think of himself as rather non-psychotic.

James ordered a side of hummus with his kebab, and he drags torn pieces of pitta through the crushed chickpea spread while he reads the description of Q’s game on Wikipedia. He wonders if Q was bullied at school. There was a group of lads who played something that looks a bit like this World of Warcraft but with cards and a board when James was younger, and they were mercilessly teased for it.

Even so, James reads the article on the game, learns of the two factions, the races and classes of the characters and finds he’s intrigued.

Q is intriguing. There are few people with whom James feels he never quite has the upper hand. Q, however, always seems he’s at least a half step ahead. He’s brilliant, but Quartermasters usually are. It’s more than that. He’s quick. He has a sharp wit. He doesn’t seem intimidated by field agents, even the double ohs. James can tell he gets flustered sometimes during frank discussions of sex or in a debriefing about a seduction. But otherwise he remains unflappable.

James wants to study Q, learn what motivates him, what his weaknesses are. Not because he wishes to exploit them exactly, but James’ world rotates around knowing more, doing better, being the one in the room who understands the bigger picture. He doesn’t like being on his heels, and more often than not he leaves encounters with Q feeling like he doesn’t have the advantage.

He clicks the download button for the free trial of the game on his personal laptop. Doesn’t hurt to see what it is Q does with his free time aside from eating kebabs. Of course, the download takes forever, and James has never been a patient man. So he watches an episode of Midsomer Murders and falls asleep on the couch instead.

**

The next morning, however, the game is fully downloaded and waiting for him. James isn’t due into MI6 until a meeting with M toward midday, so he spends some time creating a character. He ends up with a male human warrior named Heremod in a place called Elwynn Forest feeling completely out of his depth. He knows the game goes up to level 100, and he’s only on level 1, but if these stupid worgs don’t stop killing him James is going to shoot his computer with his real gun.

He considers calling Q, but thinks better of it. He’s James Bond, agent 007 of MI6. He is a commander of the royal navy. He’s singlehandedly brought down crime syndicate bosses and driven motorcycles across rooftops and cheated death on more than one occasion. He can certainly figure out a sodding computer game.

The phone rings a little later. “Bond,” he barks as he pauses the fight his warrior is in with a Blackrock Orc.

“Are you still coming in for your meeting with M?” Moneypenny inquires.

James looks at his watch. Somehow two hours have passed, and he hadn’t noticed. “I am,” he says. “Hit a bit of a snag.”

“I can tell you’re still at home, 007,” she scolds with amusement in her voice.

“Right,” James says and pulls his shirt over his head so he can jump in the shower. “The snag is here. I’ll be a few minutes late. But I’m on my way.”

“I’ll move your appointment back fifteen minutes,” she says, amusement in her tone. “Hurry.”

She rings off, and James moves quickly to ready himself for his day.

*

James is being sent to Libya on a mission to trace funding for Islamic extremist groups with a false arms deal. His missions are never without risk, and some are more glamorous than others. But some come with a very stern discussion with M and an explanation that they can’t ensure his safety, that the mission will be disavowed by the British government should he be caught, and that being caught is a very real possibility.

In this case it’s not just the possibility of his real identity being discovered, there’s also the instability of the region and general lack of adequate rescue available should things go wrong. There’s not an outpost close enough to his target to provide him with extraction assistance. There aren’t enough agents in nearby cities to aid in his cover should he need to bolster his story.

These are the missions given only to agents with James’ level of experience. This is the part of the job that requires the decision-making that cannot be taught, can only be learned with decades of experience in tight situations. This is a job he has been chosen for because there is frankly no one else in Her Majesty’s Secret Service who speaks enough Arabic, who looks just old enough to be believable as the cover and who could be trusted to withstand the torture sure to follow if he’s caught.

The meeting with M is sobering. It shouldn’t be, as James has embarked on enough of these missions by now that warnings of security risk and potential death should be a standard soundtrack of James’ existence.

He doesn’t refuse—can’t refuse, really. But he finds himself weighed down by the gravity of the situation a little more fully than he usually would be. He leaves in two days and in the meantime is sent to Q-branch for tech and a thorough briefing on his cover story and the groundwork that has been laid with contacts using social media and other methods that didn’t exist when James first got into this line of work.

“This is what they’re after,” Q says, gesturing to the display where rows of missiles are displayed along with the pictures of the men with whom MI6 has been in contact after a lengthy process with other agents and operatives using the darker parts of the internet.

James is meant to be the boss sent in to close the deal. Everyone up until this point has been posing as underlings and things have progressed to a point where the leaders of the group expect to deal directly with someone higher up the gun-smuggling food chain.

“These are not Libyans,” one of the intelligence officers inserts. “The weapons are meant for the conflict in the middle east. But Libya is unstable enough that it’s an ideal place to bribe local officials and conduct deals of this magnitude. Easy for these groups to use it as ‘neutral’ ground and then smuggle the weapons out, making them harder to trace after the fact.”

“You are meant to make the transaction,” Q says, pulling up a different screen full of information. “Five of these are real. The rest appear identical in weight and make save for one small mark along the shaft.” He zeros in on a nearly inconspicuous marking. “The five real are meant to be used as demonstrations to the buyer, and we are willing to let the two or three you don’t use go through the sale as a cost of the location trace the rest of the false weapons will allow. They will usually want to see more than one test, however, from more than one case, and you must be able to choose these specific five as if at random.”

James squints and tries to memorize the difference in the weapons. “The transaction should go through, then?” Usually his missions would involve disrupting a transaction or thwarting something at the last moment.

“Yes,” M says, having sat silently in the back for the most of this meeting. “Make the sale, and then we will track the weapons through their distribution to the various arms of the extremist group. It will help us locate their hubs of power and we can then direct the military to send in strike teams to take out those specific locations.”

James’ missions don’t usually have this level of war-time involvement. It’s somehow sobering, even to someone who has seen the ugliest, darkest consequences of human decision-making.

There are more technical mission details shared. James will also have a younger agent with him to keep the illusion of someone with power. Megalomaniacs rarely go anywhere alone.

Q gives James several mission-specific pieces of tech. He gets the standard personal weapon, palm-print encoded, along with a virtually undetectable recording devise and, contrary to Q’s normal disdain for things that explode, James is given a couple of innocuous-appearing items that contain explosives, a sort of panic button, last attempt at escape if things go horribly wrong.

After M leaves, satisfied James has grasped the nuances of the mission, he’s left with Q and his team, along with the operatives who have put the hard work in on this operation. They drill into him all of the information he should be able to recall without hesitation, the finer points of his cover, and all the ways he might botch the deal.

There are days when James feels too old for this work, and this is one of those days. He used to feel energized by high-risk operations. He found an almost inappropriate thrill in danger, the more the better. But since he was shot off a train and “died” and then subsequently returned to attempt to save the former M from an obsessed disgraced former agent, he finds himself examining his motivations more closely.

He can’t detach the way he used to. He can’t seem to do it purely for Queen and country like he once might have. That is why he does it, mind. But that isn’t enough to quell fear or calm doubt like it used to be. Instead it is an explanation for why he’s willing to risk harm and peril, but it doesn’t ease his fear of those things. It doesn’t calm the part of him questioning the existential parts of why he considers this his duty, of what it will mean for him when he’s too old to physically accomplish these things, of who he will be when he is only the quiet parts of his day.

That’s the scariest thought of all, really. He hates to be bored, hates to be still, and yet he longs to enjoy those very things. He longs to have the sort of life that can be celebrated in those languid moments. His life up until now has been all flash, all loud noises and heady excitement. It’s been speed and energy and adrenaline. It’s been risk and reward, offered up like sacrifices to some personal god who promises meaning if only the sacrifice is bigger next time.

“007,” Q’s calm, steady voice cuts through James’ introspection.

“Yes?” James says, sitting up and attempting to appear fascinated with whatever Q has been explaining to him.

“That’s enough for today,” Q says, amusement at the corners of his mouth. “We can pick this up tomorrow. Kebab?”

James smiles. “Two days in a row? I suppose so. Will I be scaling buildings on this op?”

“I should hope not,” Q says as he does inexplicable things on the computer to shut down the confidential files they’ve been pouring through. “If you are it will have gone horrible wrong.”

It’s meant as a joke, but they both know it may go horribly wrong. There’s less amusement in that to James these days.

“Or perhaps something else? There’s a curry house down the road.”

James considers saying no. He means to say no in fact. But he also equally does not want to go back to his quiet flat and ponder his impending mission, either. He nods once in assent and waits while Q collects his things.

***

They stop at an off licence for a six pack on their way to the curry house Q gets take away from some evenings. The owner nods to them as they find a seat in the back. They order several curries and different naan and each crack a beer.

“I downloaded that Warcraft game you were on about,” Bond says.

Q chokes on his first sip of beer. “Oh,” he says as he recovers, covering his mouth with his napkin. “Uh. Right.”

Bond smiles. “I have a human warrior.”

Q laughs. “Of course you do,” he says, still trying to collect himself. Those are literally the last words he ever expected James Bond to say. But then again, he never thought he’d find James Bond in a kebab shop, either.

Bond seems delighted to have surprised Q. “Level 6, actually.”

Q takes another swallow and watches James’ amused expression grow. “Just a baby, really.”

Bond rolls his eyes. “What have you got?”

“I have a level 100 Pandaran Monk Tank I recently leveled up. But my main is a level 100 Night Elf Druid Healer.” He can’t believe he’s saying these words to James Bond.

Bond hides a smile behind his beer.

“What.”

Bond shakes his head.

Q chooses to ignore the weird flutter he gets in his stomach at Bond’s amused expression. “But I’ve tried just about every class or race. I play Horde on a PvP server, but my friends have an Alliance guild on a North American server. So that’s where my main is.”

Bond nods. “There were people into this game on the California mission,” he says and leans back as the waiter sets down their sizable order. “I had no idea what they were talking about at the time. I deduced it was a video game, as I’m fairly certain gnomes and trolls aren’t real. But otherwise I just nodded and hoped no one would ask me anything about it.”

Q laughs, reminded again about the humorous bits that surrounded that entire operation. “I’m still keeping up that Twitter account, you know,” he says tearing off a bit of naan. “Peter has loads of important thoughts to share.”

Bond rolls his eyes. “Well, maybe Peter can get this warrior out of Elwynn Forest.”

Q lets out a surprised bark of laughter. “If you want to level up quicker, I could run you through some dungeons. You get lots of XP that way.”

Bonds’ eyes narrow slightly, and Q realizes it’s the look he gets when he doesn’t understand but doesn’t want to admit it.

“I can take my 100 level character and group with you and take you through instances at your level, kill everything for you, but since we’ll be in the same group, you’ll get the XP needed to level up. Plus, you can have all the gear that drops off the bosses, and it’s a good way to get more money within the game.” Q drags his naan through the chicken makhani. “You just need to transfer your ‘toon to my server.”

Bond blinks. “I— I just have the starter version downloaded.”

Q rolls his eyes. Of course he does. “You have your laptop with you? I can get you the full version. Or what am I saying, you can afford to buy it outright.”

“It’s at home. I used my personal laptop,” he gives Q a significant look.

Q smiles. “Secret’s safe,” he says and mimes zipping his lip. “Well, you should download the full version of the game tonight,” he says. “And when you’re back from Libya I’ll run you through instances so you can get out of those annoying starter zones.”

Bond takes several bites in silence. “Do you have a warrior?”

Q nods. “I’ve never fully leveled one. But I have played around a bit. You want to tank or DPS?”

Bond gives him the confused look.

Q laughs. “Tank means… do you know about dungeons?”

Bond shakes his head so Q explains the five man dungeon instances within the World of Warcraft game and how each five man group is made up of one tank, or an aggressor that keeps (in theory) most of the attention of the bad guys on him so that the three damage dealing (or DPS) characters can wail on the bad guys without taking too much damage themselves and then one healer, whose job is to first keep the tank alive and then to help keep the DPS from dying.

“DPS is the easiest for a beginner,” Q finishes his explanation. “Tanking is rather fun, but it’s not ideal for someone who has little knowledge of the game. And healing is quite high stress and strangers will yell at you a lot. Which I can’t imagine you enjoying.”

“I don’t know five people who play this game,” Bond says with confusion.

“You don’t have to,” Q says, forgetting Bond’s knowledge is limited. He explains the dungeon queuing function that allows players to wait to be matched up with other players with whom they have no previous relationship to run instances together.

“That sounds unpleasant.”

Q laughs. “It’s not so bad. Most people are pretty nice, especially in the lower level dungeons. If you’re running heroics, they’ll expect you to know what you’re doing. Otherwise they’ll call you a n00b.”

“Noob?” Bond asks in such a disdainful tone Q wishes he’d recorded it to use as a ringtone. It’s a beautiful thing, really.

Q grins and swallows a big bite as well as an oddly fond feeling. He realizes somewhat after the fact how unusual it is for Bond to admit not knowing something. At least unusual in the sense that he’d usually have directed conversation away from the gap in his knowledge to something else. Or he would’ve growled or threatened or done something to make sure teasing him about said weakness was unappealing.

Maybe it’s because it’s an easier topic than the mission he’s about to go on, or because they spent an afternoon cramming on Islamist extremist groups and watching grizzly beheading videos. Video games are easy by comparison.

“You don’t need to worry about strangers for now,” Q promises. “I’ll give you a course in WoW vocabulary before you do your first dungeon.”

“I don’t even know that I’ll keep playing,” Bond grouses, and while that seems like the correct statement for James Bond to make, somehow Q knows it’s not true.

But Q lets him keep up the pretense. “Of course,” he says smoothly. “But if you decide to continue, I can guide you through your WoW mission.”

Bond smiles surprisingly unguarded and nods slightly.

It turns into one of the more surreal dinners of Q’s life. He hadn’t expected Bond to agree to the dinner in the first place. He hadn’t expected to discuss the finer points of Fury Warrior talent trees or the difference between PvP and normal game servers or how to level up professions and the benefits to completing holiday quests.

Gaming has been part of Q’s life since he was a boy. His love of computers and technology easily meshed with his interest in science fiction and fantasy novels and MMORP games were an attractive option for an otherwise reserved kid who made friends much more readily with a computer as mediator.

It’s not something he advertises at MI6, however. He’s not embarrassed, exactly. But he knows that most agents are the type of guy at uni who sneered at the guys who spent Saturday nights gaming in the halls. Even if there’s no sneering going on now that they're all adults, and Q and his colleagues are keeping the agents alive in the field, there’s still a survival instinct that tells Q that bigger, stronger, more confident men don’t need to know that words like “worgen" and “dranei” and “flying mount” are part of his vocabulary.

Bond and Q finish their dinner and drinks and part ways for the evening. Q gives Bond several Warcraft-centric websites to visit for terminology questions or if he has trouble with a particular quest. Bond is surprisingly grateful and without smirky comeback.

Q watches Bond walk toward Vauxhall Bridge on his way to his Pimlico flat. He imagines it’s posh and perfect and everything is made of non-blend fabrics and the cushions are down-filled, and he didn’t have to assemble anything himself. The lighting is probably soft and controlled with dimmers or timed to some sophisticated entry alarm or something.

Whereas Q still lives in the same small flat he bought one street over from a dodgy area of Vauxhall when he first got the job at MI6, and not his more recent Quartermaster promotion. He could move. He should move. But he’s busy, and house hunting is not on his list of relaxing activities in his limited free time.

So he goes back to his flat filled with slightly lumpy furniture, some of which he’s had since university, with its fine dusting of cat hair because that’s a never ending battle. There’s the table he’s had to balance with a book under one leg because otherwise it lists dangerously to the side.

He has the money to upgrade all of it. His position as Quartermaster is a prestigious one. He’s part of the leadership of MI6, and that comes with a much higher salary and better perks. He could walk into John Lewis and buy a smart new sofa and comfortable bed with high thread count sheets and not have to worry about whether or not he will be able to eat that month.

He should move across the river, find a place in a nicer area. His mum would appreciate it and might stop asking whether or not her car is safe every time she visits.

But for now Q quite likes his tiny mess of a flat. There’s something reassuring about the lumpy sofa and the crooked table and the cat hair. He likes that he assembled his bookcase himself. He can’t imagine James Bond pouring over the illustrated instructions for IKEA furniture. His furniture was probably made of solid wood by craftsmen who didn’t hold a set of wordless pictorial instructions and swear repeatedly at the not-quite fitting pieces.

He powers up his laptop after he feeds the cats, and tries not to imagine Bond doing the exact same thing as he answers the welcome messages from his guild.

*

An operation like the one MI6 has sent Bond to complete is extremely complex. It’s the culmination of months of work by dozens of agents and MI6 operatives. Q’s team has been preparing for weeks. The team tasked with researching and uncovering the labyrinthine network of cells and how they report up the organizational chain worked for weeks to determine who the undercover operatives should target. They spent weeks, in some cases months gaining trust, performing confidence gaining acts that will leave a psychological mark, Q is certain.

In this case as in most, Bond is called out to finish the work of dozens and dozens of other people, slogging away for long hours in windowless offices. Field agents have risked their lives already, have put themselves at risk, and Bond is part of an elite group of agents the organization trusts with the most delicate task of staring down leadership, power, ruthless cunning and making sometimes unanticipated choices in moments that could affect the lives of hundreds if not thousands of other people.

Q has heard junior agents grumble about how the double oh agents swoop in and earn the accolades for the hard work of others. He understands how it must feel like that to some of them. But Q can’t imagine being tasked with the fate of an entire mission, with being the one person who can either bring it to successful conclusion or ruin it with one wrong word or look.

Double oh agents earn their spot not because they can fight or shoot or wear a suit well, even if all of those things are true too. They earn their place at the top of the agent hierarchy because they are preternaturally cool under pressure, because they are smart and able to think and improvise quickly.

Q would love it if a mission went exactly like his brief predicted it would. He prides himself on considering all eventualities. But he learned early that most missions take a turn even he can’t foresee. He’s watched, or usually heard, field agents lose their lives because they couldn’t course correct quickly enough.

Bond is the best. He’s one of the oldest double ohs, and if his biography is to be believed he’s a well-preserved and astonishingly fit 44 years old. Young agents grumble to each other about how they could’ve done what 007 did, that they should be moved up the ranks, and Bond should be put out to pasture.

Q might have even been one of the people suggesting this just a few months ago. But since he was promoted to Quartermaster he’s watched Bond defy odds, circumvent conventional wisdom about what is possible in given situations. He’s stayed alive when making a move Q predicted would lead to death. He’s risked himself for Queen and country over and over and completed the mission enough times that Q wouldn’t send any other agent to finish an operation this complex.

It has to be lonely, though. Q didn’t think much about that at the beginning of his work with Bond. He seemed more machine than man. He was all expensive fabric and perfect grooming and wry humor.

But over time Q saw him return from enough missions with a limp or a scar or a wince that he knows these operations take their toll.

Yet Bond can’t share that with anyone in his world. Q isn’t certain if Bond has friends. His file indicates he’s an orphan with no next of kin. Bond doesn’t speak of a girlfriend or a companion of any sort. They all know (and joke) about the many people he seduces in the field, but that just makes him seem lonelier to Q. Those aren’t relationships. There’s no intimacy.

Sex is great. Sex doesn’t have to happen in the midst of a committed relationship to be valuable to Q. But if that’s all it ever was, if it was always just a physical act or one that happened in the course of a manipulation, Q thinks he would start to resent it a bit.

It’s silly, but Q has taken to worrying about Bond. Finding him in the kebab shop that night a few weeks prior actually quelled something within him even as it further piqued his curiousity.

Bond is human. Bond likes greasy late night food.

Bond admitting he’d investigated World of Warcraft after Q mentioned it in passing just added to his belief that Bond’s free time is fairly empty. It’s not as glamorous to be 007 as all of the junior agents seem to think it is. They probably imagine him lounging in tuxedos with beautiful women eating caviar and sipping champagne, even when back in London. Q doubts they have any idea he eats kebabs and drinks cheap beer in a curry house and experiments with online gaming.

“Q,” Bond’s voice cuts through Q’s thoughts through the comm.

“007,” Q says in a calmer tone than he feels.

“I’m in place,” Bond murmurs.

Q glances at the wall screen and scans the cameras they have installed at the location. “Targets incoming,” he says. “Your contact and five bodyguards.”

It’s difficult to simply listen, helpless to truly assist beyond providing eyes on the otherwise unseen. Q feels tension regardless of the assigned agent, or the scope of the mission. But this time he feels particularly nervous.

There are several tense moments in the meeting that proceeds. Bond nearly chooses the wrong missile for the demonstration, and there’s last minute price disagreement that ends in weapons drawn. But in the end, the terrorists leave with the weapons, and Bond leaves with the money. Alive.

Everyone back at Six cheers as Bond reports himself and his accompanying field agent safely on the extraction helicopter. There will be weeks of monitoring the weapons and potential follow-up operations, but the team is relieved to have this first major hurdle jumped.

When everyone finally leaves Q branch, and most of Q’s staff are packing their things to finally leave for the day, Q rubs his temples and feels the relief wash over him that things went as closely to planned as they could have done, that they brought another agent through, that they didn’t have to hear the comm go silent and know another good man or woman wouldn’t be returning to English soil. That they’d died in service to their country but their friends and family would never know of their bravery, would never understand the immense sacrifice their loved one was willing to make.

*

Several hours later, Q is at his flat. He’s eaten a meager supper, too tired and frankly too hungry to figure out which takeaway was appealing enough to either arrange for delivery or make the effort to pickup. He’s taken his shower and climbed into his warmest, softest jogging bottoms, clothing his mum refers to as his security soother. He’s run a dungeon with his friend Brian who is in the middle of writing his dissertation in Boston, therefore up at weird hours and plays Warcraft at half four in the morning Boston time.

“You alright?” Brian asks after they run a couple of Heroic dungeons.

No one in his real life knows exactly what Q does for a living. They know he works for the government and that he recently got a promotion. But as far as anyone knows it’s in a benign branch that has nothing to do with MI6. He’s fairly certain most of his friends think he has given up what could’ve been a promising career in Silicon Valley for a dead-end government job.

It also means there’s no one to talk to about the more stressful aspects of his career.

“Long day,” Q says vaguely.

Brian makes a sympathetic noise, but Q knows he’s thinking about his own doctoral studies at MIT and the long distance relationship he’s trying to maintain with his English girlfriend. It’s hard for Q to spend too much time complaining about his own job unless he can follow it up with “Today I had to guide an undercover agent through an operation with Islamist extremists where we did a million dollar weapons deal and death was a real possibility.”

He can’t say that, so he drops the subject. After another few minutes and some polite questions for Brian about his studies and his plans for a visit home in another two months, he and Brian disconnect their Ventrilo communication.

Q gets a text almost immediately.

Bond: I’m in Westfall

Q: Congratulations

Bond: a stranger whispered to me.

Q laughs. It’s surreal to be texting Bond about his location within the World of Warcraft and his interactions with other players.

Q: they do that. Did you answer?

Bond: I wasn’t sure how.

If he stuck to the operation plan, Bond should be in Tunisia at the closest geographical field station debriefing local intelligence before flying back to London tomorrow. There’s something about the image of Bond in a Tunisian hotel room hunched over his laptop trying to quest his way through Westfall while random nerds /whisper him in the World of Warcraft that is diverting.

Q: we’ll do a tutorial when you get back. Did you download the full game?

Bond: I did. Lord knows why, but I did.

Q: Did you have a specific Westfall question?

Bond: No. Just a sitrep Quartermaster.

Q grins.

Q: well done 007. Carry on.

Bond: level 13 and all is well.

Q sends him a thumbs up emoji and then sets his phone on the bed side table and turns out the light.

***

“So what’s the next mission, then?” James asks after Mallory gestures to the seat across from his desk.

He went straight to MI6 from the airport after his flight from Tunis and was immediately called into M’s office, something that didn’t usually happen unless he was in for a lot of shouting or an emergency in some far flung placed necessitated his immediate redeployment.

“Rest,” M says looking at him sternly. “Moneypenny informed you over comms that you didn’t need to report today, and yet here you are.”

James resists rolling his eyes, but only just.

“Wanted credit for turning in all of my gear to Q in working order,” he says instead.

M smiles thinly. “I’ve been looking through your file, 007,” he says ominously.

“Am I sacked?”

M doesn’t bother answering James’ attempt at humor but instead continues in his point. “Since your return from the Skyfall operation, which was over a year ago I might add, you have not taken one day of leave, no holiday of which I'm aware. You haven’t rested the requisite 48 hour period between mission and report.”

James takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly.

“You are not a young man,” M says plainly. “Everyone, even James Bond, needs time to let wounds heal, both physical and mental. Pushing yourself is going to get you or someone else killed eventually.”

“So not another mission then?” James asks and moves to stand.

“This isn’t an optional conversation, 007,” Mallory says, voice sharper than it had been. “You were presumed dead and came back to save the agency and the former M from Silva. You didn’t actually pass your field test, I came to learn,” M says studying the thick file folder and its contents. “Psych suggested a desk assignment for some months. And the former M, as you know, chose to override those test scores and recommendations, as was her right. But it doesn’t make their results less accurate.”

“Interesting how this wasn’t an issue three days ago when you were sending me to Libya on a multi-million pound arms deal,” James observes coolly.

“If you must know,” M says, “I was only just made aware of the entirety of your file. Certain items had been misplaced,” he says giving emphasis to the word. “I am certain that was done deliberately, but I cannot prove by whom. I have my suspicions. But until you take at least the rest of this week away from work and report for a psych evaluation, you are suspended from field duty, 007.”

James swallows. A display of power then, he notes but does not say. He had thought he and Mallory were beyond the wrong foot they had originally got off on. But apparently not.

James had learned, of course, that the former M had sent him into duty even though his test results would’ve had him in conditioning and therapy for weeks. But it’s been a year since then, and he’s more than proven himself on the many missions he’s been sent out on in the interim.

“Has my performance been found lacking?” James asks carefully.

“Not the point,” Mallory says, voice back to its former calm. “You have been as you usually are, 007. Exemplary. But you are also operating an aging body on no recovery and have undergone a fairly significant loss and taken no time to set yourself right.”

James gives Mallory a steady look. “You’d have me see the psychologist, then?”

“Perhaps,” Mallory says. “I want you to take a few days first and then resubmit yourself to examination. I want the full works, condition tests as well as a psych evaluation. Once I have the full, honest picture in front of me I will decide how we shall proceed.”

There is nothing in Mallory’s demeanor to suggest he has an ulterior motive. James has actually learned to respect the man. He took a bullet for the former M, and he’s proven himself a capable leader since stepping into the M role himself. He has a steady presence and a good eye for the long term. James’ knowledge of these things is the only reason he’s taking any of this remotely seriously.

“I know you were not complicit in the deceit or the removal of those tests from your file,” Mallory says, gaze steady. “That is a separate matter, unrelated to you. Believe what you will, but I am doing this for your longevity with Six. You have been a loyal and highly capable spy, and I would like to see you continue until you are no longer physically able.”

James finds he has nothing to say, so he waits Mallory out.

“There will come a day when you will no longer be fit enough for field work,” Mallory says carefully. “But that won’t have to signal the end of your career with MI6. There is much you can do to serve Queen and Country—”

“By sitting behind a desk,” James interrupts, unable to hide his scorn.

I sit behind a desk, 007,” Mallory reminds him. “And I am quite certain my contribution still has some value to this agency.”

“Is this decision effective immediately?” James asks instead of risking further offense by attempting to respond.

“It is,” Mallory says decisively.

James rises from his chair.

“This isn’t a punishment,” Mallory says. “Your work in Libya was above reproach. Take it as a reward.”

James can’t stop the scoffing sound that escapes, but doesn’t comment further. He doesn’t want to make things worse.

“I will report to Psych to begin my tests Monday morning,” James says and nods to Mallory who makes a gesture of dismissal.

***

At the end of the day Q looks through the requisition logs that show which agents have equipment checked out at any given moment.

“When did 007 bring back his kit?” he asks the general room, surprised because usually Bond makes his presence known.

“He brought it in straight away,” Will says. “Came right from the airport, I think.”

Q tries to hide his disappointment. It shouldn’t matter who checks an agent’s weapons in. The form indicates they were in good repair. Q’s usually the one to whom Bond brings his gear back, like he wants a head pat and a biscuit for managing not to leave his gun with a Komodo dragon. They usually bicker and banter and this time Q was going to suggest they go for curry again and maybe back to Q’s flat for a World of Warcraft tutorial.

His face heats at the realization that he’d hoped for that. That part of him was delighted Bond has taken an interest in something Q enjoys. That they could potentially have something in common outside of MI6.

But it’s obviously ridiculous. And not the sort of fantasy he should indulge.

“Did I do the check-in wrong?” Will asks, tone tense.

Q still appears to be pouring over the document, he realizes, and his employee assumes it’s because he’s done some part of his job incorrectly.

“Everything appears in order,” Q says smoothly. “Never can be too careful with 007.”

Will smiles, relieved. “I’ll keep that in mind, sir.”

*

Q half expects to see Bond at the fish and chips shop, which is ridiculous because it’s not a place he’s ever run into Bond before.

Q really should stop and do some food shopping. He needs milk and cereal and fresh things, but instead he’s decided to stop yet again for unhealthful takeaway. A supermarket trip is what procrastination is made for, after all.

It starts to rain between the shop and his flat, so Q runs the rest of the way home, including up the 3 flights of stairs until he’s leaning against his door, panting heavily, soaked through.

“Bollocks,” Q grumbles. He’s not only wet, but he’s cold and his dinner is going to be shit. He’s hungry enough that he eats the soggy mess standing in his kitchen before stripping his sopping clothes off, taking a hot shower and falling into bed like a failure.

Mycroft and Sherlock immediately start their plaintive meows, and he curses again at his inability to do even the simplest things right. He should’ve fed them while he was upright.

“Sorry boys,” he says gently, scratching a hand along their backs. “You’re better than I deserve.”

The cats resolutely ignore him once the food is in their dishes. They clearly agree.

Q crawls back in his bed. He makes a sort of nest out of his blankets, including the quilt his grandmother made him when he first went to university. It’s soft and warm, and in his imagination it still smells a little bit like her house.

His phone vibrates on the table by his bed. He pauses the movie he’s watching on Netflix and checks it.

Bond: I’m in a dreary place called Duskwood

Q smiles.

Q: level?

Bond: I’m 21 now.

Q: can drink in the states

Bond: I keep dying.

Q rings.

“Where are you?”

“In the bloody misty forest trying to kill wolves,” Bond answers, voice tense.

Q grins. “Need help?”

Bond groans. “Died again. Bugger. There’s nothing I hate more than finding my body again after I die.”

“When I first started playing I had to run back during a dungeon and couldn’t find the entrance of the instance for anything. My friends were yelling at me, and I’m running around as a ghost like a bloody fool looking for my body.” Most of Q’s friends had already been playing for several months when he first started. So he was always a few steps behind everyone else. It gave his friends a lot of ammunition. “I finally just logged off. Didn’t play for days after that.”

Bond chuckles. “Ah, there I am.”

Bond is apparently frustrated enough with the quest that he is willing to log out and transfer his character to Q’s realm server. There are ways Q can group with Bond even on different realms, but he can’t help him out in the capital cities and ultimately if Bond ends up liking the game, Q would like him to join their guild.

It costs a few pounds to transfer, and Bond grumbles about it the whole time, which Q resolutely ignores as he knows Bond can afford it.

“You also need to get a headset and Vent,” Q instructs.

“Tonight?” Bond says wryly.

Q laughs. “No. But it’s easier while you’re questing and in instances and stuff not to have to hold the phone.”

“You’re turning me into a proper nerd.”

Q grins. “I’m uncovering the nerd within, 007.”

Once they’re finally on the same server, Q forms a group with Bond.

“I’ll fly to you,” Q says. “I have a flying mount.”

“Show off,” Bond says drolly. “Are you fearsome to behold?”

Q laughs. “This is my healer spec druid, so no crazy looking armor. But I can turn into a tree.”

“Of course you can,” Bond murmurs, clearly starting his battle with the wolves without waiting for Q.

“You can’t wait for me?”

“If you’re a healer, I assume you’ll be able to resurrect me if I die?”

“Someone’s been reading up,” Q says as he nears Bond’s location. He does an “inspect” on Bond’s warrior when he is in range. “What are you bloody wearing?”

“Jogging bottoms and a jumper,” Bond answers after a beat. “Is this that sort of conversation?”

Q blushes. “Not you, 007,” he says trying to cover his embarrassment. “Your warrior. Are those cloth trousers?”

“They’re my level,” Bond says defensively.

“Yes, but you should be wearing mail at this level. And you don’t need bloody intellect stat, you’re a warrior! You’re looking for different stats.”

Bond huffs. “How are you the Quartermaster here too? Will I finally get my exploding pen within the game?”

Q laughs. “No,” he admits. “But we’ll find you some better gear when we’re done questing.” He resurrects Bond as he just lost his life while Q was busy judging his lack of armor knowledge.

“Brilliant,” Bond says with relief. “I hate being a ghost.”

Q smiles. He has Bond on speaker phone with his mobile perched on a pillow nearby. Not his usual gaming set up, but it will work in a pinch.

“Can you kill things too? Or just make like a tree and heal?”

Q laughs, his mood suddenly much lifted from its formerly soggy, disappointed state. “I can kill you in probably one move even in healer spec.” He throws down the duel gauntlet, knowing that Bond won’t turn down the challenge. “I’ll resurrect you, don’t be scared.”

Bond scoffs. “Scared? Was it you or was it me that recently met with high level terrorists and sold them weapons. Hmm?”

“You are very brave,” Q says condescendingly. “Now fight my elf like a man.”

Bond accepts the challenge, and Q immediately kills him.

“Hey!” Bond says, surprised.

“I’m 78 levels higher than you, Bond. I can kill everything here like that.”

He does an area effect spell and kills the lot of the wolves that were advancing on them.

“Where have you been all of my warrior’s life?” Bond breathes out in what is meant to be humor but sounds more grateful than he probably means for it to.

Q grins. “Turn the quest in and lets do a few more before we go back to Stormwind and get you proper armor. Oh and here,” he says and initiates a trade. He gives Bond 250 gold coins.

Bond makes a gasping sound. “You don’t have to give me money!”

Q laughs. “This is nothing,” he reassures him. “I’m an alchemist and sell potions in the auction house.”

“I’ve been getting mostly silver for quest rewards,” Bond says.

“It scales up as your level does,” Q reassures him. “You can pay me back when you’re fully leveled if that makes you feel better, but it’s not a big deal.”

They quest for awhile, Q trying to let Bond do some of the work so he learns how to use his character, but he alternates healing him and helping to kill the various things vexing Bond during quests.

“This takes no time with you here,” Bond says as his ‘toon glows with the level up he just made to 23.

“Grats,” Q says automatically.

Someone nearby in the village says it too.

“Why do people keep saying that to me?” Bond asks exasperated.

“They see you’ve leveled up. They’re congratulating you,” Q explains. “If you were in a guild a lot of them would be ‘gratsing’ you right now too. It gets kind of annoying. But people are weird about it if you don’t.”

Q takes Bond back to Stormwind and shows him how to buy things off the auction house and what stats to look for on armor and weapons. He also helps him retrain to better match his Fury warrior spec. He shows him where all of the cooking quests are and how to pick and train for a profession. He shows him where the docks are and how to take a ship to another part of the world.

“Okay hop on,” Q says when he equips his two person flying mount. “This one takes two.”

“You made me take that public transport gryphon to Stormwind!” Bond protests. “You had this all along?”

“I wanted to make sure you weren’t running everywhere and that you knew about flight points.”

“I’m not a bloody idiot,” Bond grumbles, but his beefy man warrior hops onto the back of Q’s flying rocket.

Q gives Bond an ariel tour of the Eastern Kingdoms, pointing out the levels they’re flying over, the entrances to instances and things to watch out for.

“This is actually pretty amazing,” Bond says with a voice nearly devoid of sarcasm.

Q smiles and rewards the honesty with agreement. “It’s fun,” he agrees. “It’s a huge time suck. So make sure you don’t forget about real life.”

Bond doesn’t say anything for a few strange silent beats.

“007?” Q asks tentatively, wondering if their connection had been lost somehow.

“I’m off for the next few days,” Bond says finally. “Plenty of time for developing an alternate life.”

Q is startled into silence. Bond is famous for never going on holiday. There’s a stiffness to Bond’s voice that suggests there’s a story there he’s not ready to tell. Q does him the kindness of not pressing.

“Well perfect then,” Q says finally. “Purchase a headset and download Ventrilo, and I’ll help you quest when I can.” He takes them back to Stormwind. “I should go to bed now, though. It’s gone late.”

“So it has,” Bond says. Their characters stand facing each other. Bond’s actually looks like him. Light hair, muscular build. A warrior. Q’s is a pointy eared night elf with grayish skin, so he’s fairly sure it doesn’t translate. “Your hair is blue,” Bond comments as if he’s only just noticed.

Q laughs. “Figured it was my only chance.”

“Thank you for your assistance, Quartermaster,” Bond says, a solemnity to his tone that hadn’t been there just a few moments before.

“Any time,” Q answers honestly. “Let me know how you fare.”

“Good night, Q.”

“Good night, 007.”

***

This bloody game.

James is annoyed with himself for getting so thoroughly drawn into it.

On the face it’s utterly ridiculous. He’s never been one for fantasy or dragons or elves.

There’s something absurd about the World of Warcraft, but it’s stared absurd full in the face and refused to flinch or look away. Absurdity embraced it, and it’s come out the other side fully aware of what it is, unapologetically.

If put to torture by a foreign nation, James wouldn’t admit to playing or especially liking this blasted game. He has regularly cursed Q over the last few days as he’s become immersed in leveling up his warrior.

Q’s scorn for his inappropriate armor led him to read up on the stats his armor should possess and the types of weapons he could use for the best results.

James hates to lose. He did well in school, excelled in the military. He’s always been above average at sport. He can usually find a way to get people to tell him what he wants to know or do what he needs them to. Sure, he’s been beaten and bloodied, had bones broken, flesh ripped. It’s not to say that things have been easy for him. Just that he’s accustomed to ultimately getting his way.

But he finds himself at home on a Tuesday morning, drinking tea and playing World of Warcraft in his pyjamas. He’s already texted Q twice, even though he promised himself he wouldn’t after Q spent so much time helping James the night before.

James felt guilty as he lay in bed later, thinking of how easy it was for him to ask Q for help. How close he came to telling Q he’s been sent home to sit and gather dust for days, maybe longer if psych decides to exact revenge for all the times he’s mocked their process.

It’s ridiculous. James is either fit to serve or he’s not. And there have been no complaints about his performance over the past several months. He’s completed his assignments, gathered valuable intelligence, stopped deals from going through when he was supposed to and made sure they happened when that was his mission. He’s seduced people of power and gotten close to influencers.

And other than that awful California mission he’s handled it efficiently and without being a major drain on MI6 resources. He’s managed not to get shot off any trains or left colleagues worried about his death status.

Yet he’s been shelved. Apparently for his own good. Which is something one tells an ancient grandfather to get him to give up the keys of his car so he won’t hurt himself or others as he swerves around the road with his poor eye sight and slow reflexes.

Mallory seemed sincere in his desire for James to rest, but it is the compulsory aspect James resents most. An involuntary holiday feels distinctly like a dismissal the way an overnight trip that starts with a blindfold and a push toward a running car seems a hell of a lot like a kidnapping.

*

James’ mobile vibrates around lunch time.

Moneypenny: Let me up. I have food.

James smiles, and his house phone immediately rings with a request from the doorman. He’d requested no visitors, even those with whom the doorman might be familiar. But James makes an exception, and when he opens the door she’s holding a large bag full of something fragrant.

“I assumed you lounged about in a suit,” Eve says as she swans into his flat. “Good to see you’re human after all.”

James rolls his eyes. He is fond of Eve Moneypenny, and they’ve developed something that resembles a friendship, or as close as James gets with most people. But she’s still Mallory’s assistant, and that makes her motives suspect.

“You can report back that I am sufficiently relaxed,” he quips as he pulls down plates and bottles of water from the refrigerator.

Eve gives him a look. “He doesn’t know I’m here,” she says. “Thought you might be bored and hungry.”

“Right on both counts,” James admits.

Eve pulls out containers of Thai curry and noodles and a fragrant soup.

“So what are you getting up to?” she asks as she pours the soup into two bowls James produces.

“A bit of reading,” he answers. There’s no way he’s actually going to tell her he’s been playing a computer game with near obsession for the past several hours. “Might go away for a few days,” he adds, because as much as he likes Eve, he doesn’t want her coming over every day to check on his relaxation progress. And he knows that saying that will just make her do it more often.

“Good,” she says, but narrows her eyes slightly, like she knows he’s probably lying.

She shares bits of mundane work gossip that James has never gone in for, but he humors her by reacting with interest at the news that two of their colleagues are now dating and that Jane in accounting is pregnant. Eve’s making an effort to give him continuity, to keep him in the loop, but what she doesn’t realize is that isn’t the part of the job he cares about or misses. He loathes the office politics and chit chat. With a few notable exceptions he thinks of his coworkers as part of the furniture. They’re there. They exist. They’re useful at times, but he has no desire to form a relationship with the sturdy desk he sits at to fill out paperwork.

James isn’t the guy that chips in on the engagement gift for a colleague. He doesn’t send flowers when Grace from security is sick. That’s not— that’s just not who James is. He didn’t grow up in an emotional environment. He is not a nurturer.

He has a high level of discomfort with being on the receiving end of that type of concern, which is what Eve is doing now. It’s as though she drew the short straw in the staff meeting and was assigned to check on 007’s sanity.

That isn’t fair to her, another part of James reminds him. She’s proven a loyal and trustworthy friend. She is worthy of his respect. But there’s always something in James that mistrusts first. That has to be reminded by the other, less suspicious parts of his brain to stand down, that this isn’t someone to be on guard around. The compartmentalizing required by so much of his job means that is a difficult task, especially the older he gets.

So James listens, nods when he’s supposed to, even asks clarifying questions, hums sympathetically when she complains about an assignment or new rule.

“No one else knows you’re here,” Eve says as she gathers their empty containers when they’re finished. “Or why you are taking time off. It’s not information being shared around. In case you were worried.” She gives him a searching look.

James nods. He’s glad to hear it, actually.

“I’ll keep you updated,” Eve promises on her way to the front door.

“You don’t need to,” James says quickly.

She gives him a smirk.

“This was thoughtful,” he clarifies. “Thank you. But I’m thinking of getting away for a few days. And you’re busy.”

Eve smiles knowingly. “If you need anything, you know where I am.”

“I do,” James promises. “I’m a spy and a bit of an arsehole too. So I usually find a way to get what I need.”

She laughs. “Enjoy your break, 007.”

“Ta,” he says as he watches her walk down the hallway toward the elevator.

***

Q snoops a bit in the obvious places that might explain why Bond is suddenly taking unprecedented time off. There’s nothing in medical. He wasn’t written up for anything.

It’s possible he was given time off as a “job well done” on the Libya mission, but Bond never takes the time off he’s supposed to, much less something meant as an indulgence. Bond pushes himself like he has something to prove, a debt to work off.

Q receives a few texts that make it clear Bond is playing Warcraft, which Q finds reassuring somehow. And a little flattered that Bond would still want to talk to him during his break.

By the end of the day the stiff tone of Bond’s texts has loosened up into the teasing, flirty (maybe? Q’s never sure if that’s just Bond’s natural method of communication with everyone), entertaining dynamic their rapport usually holds.

Bond has extracted a promise from Q to help him “get out of this bloody jungle” in which he’s currently questing.

Q’s workday is rarely boring, even without 007 pestering him about gadgets and gear and making exceptions to rules. He walks 003 through an op and coordinates an unexpected extraction of another agent in a mission that has gone wrong.

It’s 7:00 before he even realizes it. He didn’t remember to stop midday for lunch, a common occurrence for him, unfortunately. The sort of intricate problem-solving he executes on a daily basis doesn't leave a lot of room for pauses to run and grab a bite.

He stops for a suspect sandwich on the way home, and makes sure to ask for lettuce and tomato since he can’t remember when he last had a vegetable. He feeds the cats, and briefly ponders how much easier it would be if he could just eat cat food too.

Q takes a shower, changes into pyjamas and then logs onto his personal laptop. After replying to an email from his mother and obliging his sister by flipping through the latest album of baby pictures she posted of his niece and nephews on Facebook, he logs into Warcraft.

Bond immediately “whispers” to him in game.

[pink text] Heremod: finally

Q smiles and tries not to feel too flattered that Bond was clearly waiting for him to log on.

[pink text] Antikythera: eager are we?

[pink text] Heremod: don’t be an arse. I have Ventrilo as requested.

[pink text] Antikythera: oh brilliant. Let’s switch to that, shall we?

Q finds his headset and with a bit of fussing they connect on Vent.

“I wonder how much of my life I spend with you in my ear,” Bond muses.

Q laughs. “How do you function in that small bit of time when I’m not?”

“It’s a mystery,” Bond sniffs.

“Need help with something?” Q asks as he creates a group and invites Bond to join.

“I’m still in bloody Stranglethorn,” Bond grouses. “Having trouble with a quest.”

Q answers a couple of messages from his friends who are also online and about to queue up for dungeons. He knows they’ll never let him hear the end of it if he turns them down and then they see him inexplicably hanging out in a low level area.

But Bond was waiting for him, and while that isn’t exactly Q’s responsibility, there’s still something satisfying about 007 needing him for something non-work-related. Even the fact that Bond is playing the game at all continues to amaze Q, and that Bond is letting Q be part of that, asking him to be part of that still feels tentative and new.

“On my way,” Q says, finding Bond’s location on the map.

Q helps Bond kill things and collect quest items and do all the usual World of Warcraft tasks. Stranglethorn has a jungle feel, and there are tigers and other traditional jungle inhabitants about, which leads to Bond telling Q the story of a time he met with a man with a pet tiger. It was unchained and in the room with them the entire meeting.

“Needless to say, I was a bit nervous,” Bond says and then exclaims loudly as he completes a quest with minimal Q intervention.

“Moneypenny brought me lunch today,” Bond says after awhile.

“Nice of her,” Q says and tries to stuff down a weird, jealous feeling.

Bond hums agreement and is quiet for a few minutes. “Nice,” he says finally. “But more than likely sent to reassure Mallory that I’m properly relaxing.”

He says the words bitterly.

“Well you are supposed to be on holiday,” Q says after Bond doesn’t elaborate. “Yet you’re killing tigers and trolls which is decidedly unrelaxing.”

Bond huffs a laugh. “This bloody game,” is all he says at first. “It’s frustrating, but I like it. That’s confidential, by the way.”

Q smiles. “I have a pretty high clearance.”

“M’s is higher, and he doesn’t need to know,” Bond jokes, or Q thinks he means for it to be a joke, but it’s not quite light enough.

“It’s no one’s business how you spend your free time,” Q says seriously after a few beats of silence. “Your work might be intense, but it’s still just work.”

Bond laughs, but it sounds hollow. “Come now, Q,” he says. “We both know that’s not true. It’s a fine idea, but it’s not true.”

Q is dedicated to his job. He puts in long hours, comes in on weekends sometimes. He thinks about work at home, sketches plans and ideas in his spare time. He loves computers, loves tech. He’s fascinated with engineering and invention. He’s one of the lucky few whose career actually lines up with his hobbies and interests. He’d write code and hack systems even if it wasn’t his job. He’s just fortunate it is.

But even at that, Q still tries to keep a separation from his work and his personal life. If he’s had several late nights in a row, he takes a morning off and spends time at home. He tries to make it to his parents’ house or meet them somewhere for dinner once a month or so. His sister brings her family into the city periodically and they take the kids to the park and out to lunch.

Q loves his job, and it requires a different level of commitment than if he worked for Apple or Google. But it’s still his job.

“My leave was compulsory,” Bond says finally.

“Oh,” Q says, unsure how to respond. He figured it was something like that, but he still can’t find any reason for it.

“You really didn’t know?”

“No,” Q admits. “I think people assume you’re on a well-deserved break.”

“I told Moneypenny I’m going away this weekend.”

“Oh? Where to?” Q asks, curious and inexplicably disappointed.

“Nowhere,” Bond says. “I just don’t want her to stop by and give me pitying looks, the old ship being towed for scrap.”

Q winces. Clearly the conversation they had at their first meeting all those months ago stuck with Bond. At the time Q wanted to seem indifferent and unaffected by the famous 007 charm. He’d wanted to assert his authority and make sure Bond knew things would be different in Q-branch. But he also hadn’t known at the time exactly what Bond had been through, he’s still not entirely sure. But now that he knows Bond a bit better, he knows he’s not as invulnerable as he wants people to think.

“I thought it was just a bloody big ship,” Q quotes from memory.

Bond chuckles. “I’ve lost the metaphor,” he says.

Q smiles. “You could actually go away this weekend,” he suggests.

“Where,” Bond says more than asks.

“Surely you’ve been somewhere for a mission you wouldn’t mind exploring again.”

Bond makes a noncommittal noise.

“Well, Warcraft and sulking it is, then,” Q says lightly.

Bond huffs.

“Are you in a suit?” Q asks suddenly. He can’t picture Bond in the casual attire most adopt while lying around a flat.

“No.” Bond chuckles. “T-shirt and jogging bottoms like a normal person. Do you think I’m some sort of spy robot?”

“Sounds like what a spy robot would say,” Q counters.

“How human do I seem right now?”

“You probably still smell fantastic,” Q grouses without thinking, “even in jogging bottoms.”

Bond makes a choking sound, and Q realizes what he said in the same instant.

“Erm—”

“I smell fantastic?” Bond asks, amused.

“Oh sod off,” Q says, cheeks flaming. “You know what I mean. Your posh suits have some sort of expensive cologne thread sewn into them. Wanker.”

Bond laughs, and Q realizes it’s a rare sound. “I don’t wear cologne.”

Q rolls his eyes. “Just your natural essence, then?”

“Well spotted,” Bond says.

Their Warcraft ‘toons are standing in the middle of the jungle staring at each other. Every few minutes a tiger respawns near them, and Q has to kill it. He does it without effort, earning a huff of annoyance from Bond every time. But other than that, they stopped playing awhile ago. They’re essentially just talking.

Q wishes he hadn’t noticed that, because now he feels self-conscious.

“Well, unlike some lazy gits,” Q says after the first awkward pause of their evening, “I have to get up early, so I should log off.”

He messages his friends that he won’t be making a dungeon run with them and is going to bed. They’ve been periodically taunting him in Guild chat and asking him who he’s trying to pick up in Stranglethorn.

“Thank you for your assistance, Quartermaster,” Bond says as his toon begins the always comical “hearthstone” spell to send him back to whatever inn or city he has it set to.

“You’re most welcome, 007,” Q says with equal formality.

***

James goes for a long run the next morning. He takes a shower, and then reads the newspaper like the ancient fossil he is. At lunch time he expects Moneypenny to knock at the door with takeaway, but he’s left to fend for himself at the noon hour.

He’s tired of sitting in his depressing flat, so he goes on a directionless walk. The sun is shining and the sky is bright and cloudless.

For the first time since he was summarily sent home from work he is glad he has the day off. He won’t be sharing that with anyone from MI6, but it is nice to be on a walk in the middle of the day instead of just shy of midnight. There’s something tranquil about watching children play in the park and old people laugh on benches. Not that James is the type of person who stares wistfully at families in parks, but he also rarely takes the time to notice that sort of thing.

He stops in at a cafe and has a ploughmans and a pint. He sits outside and finishes reading the paper, for maybe the first time in his adult life.

James won’t admit it on pain of death, but it’s a nice afternoon. He’s not used to sitting in a cafe without constantly scanning the crowd, surveilling his mark.

He’s back to his flat before the streets crowd with people coming home from work. He indulges in a late afternoon nap and when he wakes again the sky has gone dusk and the house phone is ringing.

“Yes,” James answers the doorman’s call.

“Good evening, sir,” comes the crisp reply. “There’s a man here who insists his name is Q—” the incredulity in his voice is clear— “and he would like to be let up.”

James smiles. “You can send him up,” he answers. “Thank you.”

“Very well, Mr. Bond,” the doorman responds with obvious hesitation.

James doesn’t have much time to wonder how Q knows where he lives and whether he’s just the latest MI6 member to have drawn the short Bond-watch straw before there’s a knock on the door.

James opens it to find Q holding a large bag of takeaway and smiling.

“Delivery?” Q says, with uncharacteristic uncertainty.

“I don’t remember ordering anything,” James replies, but stands aside and lets him in.

“Ah,” Q replies as he sets the bag on the counter. “My mistake. But since I’m here…”

“Did Moneypenny send you?” James asks, trying to keep his tone indifferent as he watches Q unpack the containers of curry and rice.

Q looks up suddenly. “No one sent me,” he says firmly. “Although there is a black car parked outside, so Six may be checking up on you.”

“It’s just I escaped without a lunchtime babysitter,” James says ruefully.

Q smiles then. “You’re welcome.”

James raises his eyebrows.

“I may have made it look like your tracker was in the south of France,” Q says smugly.

James smiles and feels an unexpected warmth spread in his chest.

“Made an executive decision,” Q says as James grabs them both a plate. “I can undo it if you want them to know where you really are.”

James knows there are legitimate and sound reasons for MI6 to be able to monitor the location of their agents, but at the moment he would much rather the solitude afforded by M thinking he’s actually on holiday, and if Q knows where he really is there’s at least someone who could find him if he’s needed.

“No,” James finally answers. “Thank you.”

Q smiles, a small but genuine thing. “My pleasure.”

They eat their curries and watch a film. The nice thing about Q is that he doesn’t seem to need conversation, and he isn’t put off by silence. He’s rather unexpectedly a comfortable companion. He doesn’t seem to need anything from James, and James has a good sense for these things.

“I thought we could play Warcraft,” Q says after the film they’re watching ends. “I’ll run you through a couple of dungeons for the XP, and it might be easier to answer questions and stuff if we’re in the same room.”

James enjoys the game, but more than that, if he’s honest with himself, he enjoys Q. He nods and pulls his laptop from the coffee table.

“Ridiculous headset?” James asks holding it up.

Q laughs. “Not unless you have plans to talk to someone else.”

James bites back a smile. “Might do. I’ve made loads of friends with the random people whispering me while I quest.” He leaves the headset on the table.

Q forms a group and invites Bond to join and then finds the inn he’s at. “Hop on my mount,” he says.

James smirks.

“Oh stop,” Q says, but his cheeks are pink. “We have to actually go to the entrance of the instance since it’s just the two of us. It’s on the other side of the continent. Don’t be a git.”

James rolls his eyes.

“You don’t like to let anyone else drive, do you?”

James doesn’t answer, because that’s obvious.

Q smiles and taps away at his keyboard. “Sorry,” he murmurs. “My friends are on and wondering what I’m up to.”

James feels a pang of jealousy. Which is ridiculous since Q is actually in the room with him. But he feels guilty if he’s keeping Q from actually playing the game instead of just spending time babysitting James. “Do they require you for something?”

Q looks up at him across the room. “They want me to heal a dungeon run,” he admits. “But one of them can switch ‘toons and do it. Not to worry.”

“This can’t be as fun,” James says, keeping his eyes on his screen. “If you want to do that, by all means.” He hopes he sounds indifferent.

Q narrows his eyes. “Don’t be daft. This is fun. They just live to wind me up.”

James relaxes a bit. “If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure,” he says and gives James a genuine smile.

The dungeon run mostly involves Q instructing James to stand back while he kills things and James collects the loot off the dead bodies.

“This feels like cheating,” James says as he watches Q take on a whole room of undead.

Q huffs. “We’re just getting you a couple of levels higher so you can quest somewhere else,” he reassures. “If you get a few levels higher I have a human paladin tank at level 40 and we could run actual instances together. It’ll help you learn your character.”

“That sounds fun,” James says honestly. He gets a strange thrill from watching Q’s competencies, but it does make him feel like a passenger even more than riding on the back of Q’s two person rocket mount. He’d rather participate.

“We need to get you to at least 38 so we can run those together,” Q says as he uses an area effect to clear a low level mob. He grins at James in satisfaction. “And look you leveled up again.”

James smiles back, helpless in the face of Q’s happiness. “Alright then. 8 to go.”

“You need to train again when we’re done with this. How are your professions coming?”

“I do the cooking quests,” James admits. “And I started on blacksmithing and mining.”

“A wise combination,” Q declares proudly.

They settle into an easy evening. After running a couple of dungeons, Q helps him train and buy new armor and then just hangs out with him while he quests. When James life level gets low, Q heals him, but mostly he lets James do it himself. He steps in when asked or if he has advice, but other than the dungeon and the occasional “heal” Q’s role is mostly one of guidance, much like their working relationship.

Q’s mobile starts buzzing incessantly toward the end of the evening. Q checks it and then silences it the first two times, but the third time he shoots James a look.

“Sorry,” Q says. “Need to take this.”

James nods as Q moves into the kitchen and answers it.

“I will try,” Q says in a gentle voice into the phone after listening to a long statement following his initial greeting. “It’s not easy to get away,” he says with a pleading tone. “Things come up at the last minute.” He glances up and makes eye contact with an apologetic expression. “Well, now that’s not playing fair,” he says, a slight whine in his tone. “Mum,” he adds. “I know. I will do my best.” He swallows and listens again. “Love you too,” he mumbles and then rings off.

James doesn’t say anything because while it’s clear Q was talking to his mother, James isn’t sure if that’s a positive or negative situation, and he couldn’t tell exactly from the context or the tone of the call.

Q’s cheeks are pink, as if he’s embarrassed. He sits down in the chair he’s occupied all evening and chews his lip. “My mum,” he says unnecessarily.

“Everything okay?”

Q swallows. “It’s my nephew’s birthday this weekend,” he says after several beats of silence. “My mum and sister have been taking turns ringing me to give me guilt about it.”

James smiles, warmth spreading in his chest at the unexpected and completely boring answer. “Would you like to go?” he asks carefully.

Q nods. “He’s turning five,” he says and looks at his hands. “He’s having a super hero themed party, and I’m the one that got him into Captain America.”

James can’t help the pang in his stomach at the sweet expression on Q’s face, the naked love and affection. James doesn’t have family, so figuring out how to attend family birthday parties or how to get out of them if a mission came up unexpectedly is not an issue for him. But for Q, James imagines, who can’t share the importance of his job and how many lives hang on his decision-making and expertise, it must be difficult to cancel plans with family without causing resentment and hurt feelings.

“You have a good staff,” James suggests. “They’ve manned missions alone before.”

Q makes a disapproving noise. “It’s my job to be there. My duty.”

James nods. “But everyone is owed time off.”

“Says the man who had to be forced to take his,” Q says and then seems to hear what he said. “I mean—”

“No,” James says. “It’s— right. So take the time with your family.”

James imagines sometimes what it would be like to have a family to come home to. A wife, or maybe a boyfriend, or if not that, to have a sibling or parent to ring up just to hear their voice, to be reminded why it was important to come home again, why he couldn’t give in to the impulse to just disappear.

Q swallows. “I— yeah I’ll see. It’s just far,” he explains. “My parents and my sister’s family live in Witney. So when I go I usually stay overnight, and if something were to happen, if MI6 needed me—”

“Well, you know I won’t be out on a mission,” James says quickly. “And I’m the one that usually cocks things up enough for you to have to come in on your off time anyway.”

Q rolls his eyes good-naturedly. He looks down at his hands for a few beats of silence and then smiles. “I got him the Captain America shield,” he says proudly. “He’s going to love it.”

“Do you have other siblings?” James asks, because he finds he actually wants to know.

“No,” Q says. “Just a sister, Amy. She has three kids. The oldest is the one with the birthday. He’s called Sam. And then there’s Charlie, he’s three and then little Alice and she’s one.”

His face is so proud. He reaches for his phone and pulls up a picture and passes it to James.

James is met with three happy, messy faces. They’re gorgeous children, and James isn’t really one for cooing over children.

“That was Alice’s birthday,” Q says softly. “That’s cake on their faces. I missed that one.”

“Well, you’ll go to this one,” James says firmly.

Q lets out a slow breath.

“You won’t get sacked for going to Witney on a day you should already have off, O. Harris,” James teases.

Q gives him a look.

“Does your mother know you’re Q?” James asks, because it’s so strange to him to think there are people important to Q who don’t even know what he really does, that he has a name and an identity so separate and apart from the Q James knows.

“They think I work in government IT,” Q says with a smirk. “They do not call me Quartermaster.”

James smiles. “Octavio Harris.”

Q laughs. “No.”

“Orlando.”

“No.”

“Odin.”

Q shakes his head. “No.”

“Olaf.”

“I’m not telling you,” Q says firmly.

“Olaf it is,” James says and stands to head to the kitchen. “Beer Olaf?”

Q laughs. “It’s not Olaf. And I better not. I should probably go soon, actually.”

“Oh of course,” James says and looks at his watch. It’s gone half ten. The evening went by quickly.

“But thanks for not kicking me out,” Q says a bit awkwardly as he slides his laptop back into his bag.

“You brought food,” James says with a smile. “I rarely turn that away.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Q says moving toward the door. “Good night, 007.”

“Good night, Quartermaster Olaf.”

*

The flat is quiet after Q leaves. James busies himself completing another two quests in World of Warcraft and then logs off. He enjoys the game most when Q’s playing with him, something he’s not keen to admit to anyone, even himself.

He stares at the ceiling once he’s finally in bed. He pictures the families in the park earlier in the day and then somehow Q’s face is there too, with laughing kids and a happy family.

Q is normal.

James is used to the emotionally stunted double oh agents, all of whom seem to have suffered grave personal loss. 002’s husband was killed in Iraq and has never bothered to have another serious relationship other than the one she’s in with England. 003, like James, is an orphan. 005 comes from a well-heeled family, but isn’t close to them as far as James can tell and doesn’t mind the long absences. It goes on like that. None of them are married, or if they were they aren’t now.

It’s not a job that allows a life. And mostly James has been fine with that. The few times in his life he’s attempted “normal” he’s been rudely reminded that isn’t something he gets to have.

But Q has people who want him at birthday parties. He has friends who time their online raids so that Q can participate. He may be as much of an overachiever as the rest of MI6, but at the end of the day when he goes home there’s life waiting for him, even if not immediately in his flat.

James almost viciously wants to protect that for Q. He doesn’t want Q to become hard and bitter and edgy like the rest of them.

In the morning he calls Moneypenny from his non-MI6 issued phone.

“How’s France?” she asks, wryly.

“Sunny.”

She hums. “Weather dot com has it cloudy with a chance of rain where your tracker says you are. Interesting.”

James sighs. “Lucky I guess,” he says. He knows Moneypenny probably knows he’s not in France, but he doesn’t think she’ll point it out to anyone else. “I need a favor.”

“Should I find a curry house for you in France?”

James smiles. “I am managing to feed myself, but ta.”

“What can I do for you 007?”

James pauses because he knows this opens him up for more of her scrutiny. But it’s important. “Don’t read into this,” he warns. “But I think Q should be encouraged to take the weekend off.”

Moneypenny chuckles. “You want him in France with you?”

James chokes on nothing. “Pardon? No. Why— no.”

She laughs again. “Do you have reason to be concerned with his performance, Bond?”

“Nothing like that,” James insists. “He has a capable staff yet he works seven days a week anyway. And as I know M is interested in the rest his employees are getting…”

Moneypenny sighs. “You know that has more to do with your specific situation, 007.”

James closes his eyes. He doesn’t want to encourage a lengthy discussion of his “situation” with anyone, even Moneypenny.

“Yet I assume a rested, happy employee is the goal,” he presses. “Trust me on this. Make sure there’s adequate backup for Q in place for emergencies, make sure Q knows it’s in place, and then encourage him to take a weekend for himself.”

There’s a pause. “Why—”

“He doesn’t need to end up like us,” James says quietly and hopes Moneypenny is kind enough to leave it alone.

There’s another long pause. “There’s more at play here than just needing him to work,” she says after seemingly weighing her approach.

“Such as?”

She sighs. “You know I can’t— you should speak to M.”

This isn’t like Moneypenny. She’s normally easy for Q, has always liked him. And she’s usually pretty easy for what Bond needs and wants too.

“If I’d wanted to speak to M about this, I would’ve,” James says resolutely.

“James,” she says more gently than she usually is with him. “I am unable to give you the clarity you seek. But I think if you run your proposal by M he might be able to either help with the situation or tell you why it is impossible. Or we can forget this conversation happened.”

James closes his eyes and rubs the skin between his eyebrows. “Fine.”

She makes a noise of assent and then the line goes to hold. It takes a few minutes, as M is important and busy and wants to make sure James knows that.

“M here,” Mallory’s voice responds smoothly.

“M, Bond,” James says.

“Yes? I hear you’re on holiday in France.” There’s amusement in his tone, as if he doesn’t quite believe it either, but is willing to go along with the ruse.

“I’ve paused to meddle,” James says keeping his tone light. “Moneypenny suggested I should speak with you about my concern.”

“What is your concern?”

“Q. He needs the weekend off, and he will not take it if he thinks he’s needed there.”

There’s a distinct sigh across the line. “Q-branch does not fall under your purview, 007.”

“I’m aware,” James says carefully. “But it has come to my attention that the rest and relaxation of employees is a particular concern.” He lets his voice drip with irritation. “And it has also come to my attention that one of your employees has been working himself ragged and needs a push to take a weekend for himself.”

There’s a pause for several beats. “I was unaware you took interest in our Quartermaster’s free time.”

“He is a colleague,” James answers, refusing to let M ruffle him. “I happen to know he has a family event he wishes to attend this weekend. I also happen to know he will not attend said event if he senses even a whiff of need from MI6.”

There’s another deep sigh. “Bond—” he stops, and James doesn’t do anything to fill the subsequent silence. “There’s been a threat made.”

“Against MI6?” James asks, sitting up straighter.

“Against Q, 007.”

A cold feeling washes over him. “By whom?” James asks tightly.

He can tell M is weighing the decision to share the information. “That is unclear at this time. A group with domestic ties has information about Q’s particular role within MI6. Information suggests we may have someone feeding them information about inventions and equipment modifications, as well as his prowess with hacking and this outside group seems determined to uncover his real identity. If they discover that information while he is ‘out of pocket’ so to speak it will be harder to protect him. As long as he’s in London we can keep an eye on him.”

“Does he know about this?” James assumes Q would’ve mentioned this straight away if he was aware.

“He does not,” M says. “He isn’t a spy, 007. Civilians tend to react poorly to being in danger. They overcorrect and do things to give themselves away. It is better if we work behind the scenes to secure his cover identity and keep him safe without his knowledge.”

James thinks back to Q’s mention of seeing a black car parked on the street outside of James’ building. They’d both assumed it was to determine if James was actually in France. They had no idea it was possibly MI6 agents following Q.

“Do you have agents following him?” James asks immediately. Because if not, then someone has learned his identity.

“Of course,” M says. “And yes we know he was at your house last night. Watering the plants while you are away?” he asks drolly.

James rolls his eyes. “Well, he noticed them,” he says. “He thought they were there for me. But either way, they aren’t very good.”

Another sigh from Mallory. “I’m only telling you this so you’ll understand why we cannot allow Q to leave town right now. He’s entirely vulnerable and puts his family at risk if something comes to a head while he’s gone.”

James thinks of Q’s face when he was talking to his mother and his wistful expression when relaying that he’d missed his niece’s birthday a few weeks prior.

“What if he has an agent with him?” he asks suddenly.

“Bad for his cover,” M says with amusement. “His job in government IT wouldn’t come with body guards. Surely his family would find that suspicious.”

James lets out a slow breath. “How about a friend?”

“I’m not sending Moneypenny to Oxfordshire.”

“I meant me,” James says rolling his eyes because Mallory is being daft.

“Friends?”

“We’re friendly,” James says blithely. “My stipulation is, he needs to be told about the threat. He’s not just a paper pusher. He’s a strategic thinker, calm in a crisis. And if he knows there has been a threat he will know to look for suspicious activity.”

Mallory is quiet. “You are meant to be off active duty,” M reminds him after a long pause.

“I’m also meant to be in France,” James counters.

Mallory huffs annoyance. “I don’t like this. He should stay here.”

“Yes, and MI6 would run easier if everyone were a machine,” James says. “But some people have families they like and for some reason care about things like birthdays.”

“Ridiculous,” Mallory says with amusement. “Alright, 007. I will inform Q of the threat. And that if he wishes to leave London he must have a field agent with him. Convincing him to go is not my problem. I’ll leave that to you. I have no investment in the Quartermaster’s family obligations,” he said as if he has a large measure of judgement for James and his seeming interest in Q’s life. “If you do go, I expect your tracking device to be miraculously accurate again. And I’d like a sitrep every 12 hours, with immediate report if you encounter suspicious activity.”

“Understood.”

“And do try to blend in,” Mallory says condescendingly. “No blowing up granny.”

***

“Is my family in danger?” Q asks, leaning forward, trying to process what M just told him.

“Not as yet,” M says calmly. “It’s a non-specific threat. It isn’t against you specifically so much as your position. They know of your work. There is interest in you in the criminal underworld. But they as yet do not know who among the hundreds of employees here is responsible for those innovations.”

Q’s heart was beating quickly. “So why the alarm?”

“We are being thorough,” M says. “Our network is more than secure. You see to that, and we test it in increasingly elaborate ways every few days. Your cover is complete, and as far as I know there is no reason to think anyone outside of this agency knows who Oliver Harris really is to Her Majesty’s Secret Service and what he does on her behalf.”

Q nods, because he has been very careful. There are days he wishes he could share why he works long hours and has to cancel plans at the last minute, why he’s so excited when he achieves something on the job. They imagine his job as dead-end and boring, when really it couldn’t be further from the truth. He feels like he’s keeping a piece of himself, a really rather large piece, back. It’s a part of which he’s proud, for which he’s worked hard and that makes it all the more difficult.

“Do you have any reason to think your staff has been compromised?” M asks after a few beats of silence. “Anyone new who seems overly interested in things that have not been assigned to them, anyone wanting clearance for things they have no reason to see?”

Q can’t think of anyone on his staff who fits that description.

“Exercise an extra measure of caution,” M advises. “Both in your work here, but also in your life outside. Vary your routine, avoid walking alone at night. Let a driver take you home if you leave after hours.”

Q nods.

“We’ve been sending agents to check on your flat so you may see them out front,” M confirms, and Q remembers seeing the car outside of Bond’s building last night.

“Is that all?” Q asks when M doesn’t continue.

“Yes,” M says. “Oh, and if you have any plans outside of London, I would advise you to take an agent along. We cannot force you to, obviously.”

Q tries to picture a field agent lurking around his nephew’s birthday party and nearly laughs out loud. “That’s okay, sir,” he reassures. “I will stay in the city.”

M waves his hand around as if to suggest he doesn’t care one way or the other. “007 is available for that detail should you change your mind.”

Q starts. “I thought— isn’t he on holiday, sir? South of France, I think.”

A wry smile spreads across M’s face. “It appears his tracker is on holiday in France. But I am fairly certain 007 remains on British soil. Your tech may be malfunctioning, Quartermaster. Do look into that when you get back to the lab.”

Q’s face heats. “Yes, sir.” He stands before M can be anything but amused by that.

*

Q leaves M’s office in a daze. Moneypenny is away from her desk, and he’s just been instructed to be careful about what he shares with his staff.

After checking in at Q-branch for a few minutes, he closes the door of his office and stares out the glass into the room full of employees. Surely they’re all trustworthy. They’ve been vetted, submit to an extremely rigorous background check, undergo periodic polygraph tests, not to mention are surrounded daily with agents with a literal license to kill.

These are gleeful nerds who can’t believe they get to spend their days inventing new, amazing ways to make weapons smarter. Who take existing spy equipment and experiment until it’s half the size, until it’s lighter, more compact, until it’s disguised as a button or a tie clip.

These are Q’s people in every way.

But now that the concern has been suggested, he can’t help wondering about his colleagues.

He finishes his work day in a fog and finds himself on Bond’s doorstep without consciously making the decision to walk in this direction. Somewhere along the way it started raining and by the time he arrives he’s soaked through.

“Hi John,” he says to Bond’s doorman. He’s pretty sure his name is John, and the guy nods at him and lets him through without calling up to Bond’s flat to ask if it’s okay, so he’s feeling smug about his people skills.

Bond is standing in his open door by the time Q traverses the distance. He has a smirky sort of smile on his face.

“My doorman, Timothy, said a dazed vaguely familiar-looking homeless person was on his way upstairs,” he stands aside so Q can pass. “I figured that could only be one person.”

Q scoffs. “A lorry splashed drain water on me on the way. Homeless…” he mumbles and looks down at himself. He is a right mess. “It’s raining,” he offers feeling suddenly embarrassed.

Bond laughs, a bright unexpected sound. “Lets hang this up, shall we?” he asks, plucking at Q’s coat. He holds it away from his body like it’s going to give him some sort of disease.

“I got that at Selfridges a year ago,” Q says with an eye roll. “It’s not from a charity bin.”

“Even so,” Bond says and hangs it on the hook farthest from his own coat.

Q stands dripping in the entry of Bond’s flat wondering why this is where he came after a weird day. He hadn’t called or texted or emailed first. Bond isn’t the sort of person one just drops in on. And yet here Q is, and he’s suddenly self-conscious.

“So,” Bond says after Q awkwardly lets the silence settle.

“Right,” Q says and shifts his weight. His trousers are uncomfortably wet from his feet to his knees and he feels ridiculous. “I don’t— sorry.”

Bond smiles, and it’s a strange, softer, less predatory smile than the one Q usually sees. “You’ve talked to M then?”

Q swallows. Of course Bond would know about that. Of course. “Yes.”

“Should’ve had a driver bring you,” Bond admonishes.

“Would’ve done,” Q admits. “I just started walking. Ended up here.”

“Sounds precautionary,” Bond says and walks toward what Q assumes is his bedroom. “I don’t think you’re in real danger,” he calls over his shoulder.

Q follows slowly. “Right. Of course.” To Bond no one is in real danger unless they’re being actively pursued by an armed gang of terrorists through the streets of Morocco, though. So.

Bond emerges from the bedroom holding a pair of jogging bottoms and a T-shirt. “Put these on.”

“Oh,” Q says and feels his face heat. “I can go— I don’t need—”

“I don’t want your wet clothes on my couch,” Bond says like that settles it. “I’ll order delivery. I was just about to get something for myself when you arrived.”

Q nods and takes the clothes from Bond and shuffles toward the bathroom. He is uncomfortable, wet and cold and now that he’s in a dry, warm flat he is more aware of just how miserable his lot actually is. Bond’s clothes are comically large on him. They may be of similar height, but Bond is broader in every way, and the bottoms hang precariously low on Q’s hips. But they’re dry, and the shirt is soft, so Q won’t complain.

“Thank you,” he says sincerely as he emerges from the bathroom.

Bond nods. “I ordered Chinese. Hope that’s okay.”

“More than,” Q says and perches hesitantly on the sofa. “Thank you.”

Bond is back to his smirky, smug smile, arms crossed across his stupidly impressive chest. “If you’re working out how to ask me if I’ll go to Witney with you, yes,” he says and sits in the deep arm chair opposite the sofa.

“That wasn’t— how did you— I’m not going— wait,” Q stutters, brain flipping through the necessary logical leaps to get to the point where he realizes M and Bond have already discussed this and that’s why M mentioned him going out of town this weekend.”

Bond holds a hand up. “Don’t be cross,” he says, voice less smirky and more gentle. “M brought me up to date on the problem, and I offered to accompany you if you needed to leave town. Simple as that.”

Q takes a deep breath. He has no idea how he feels about any of this. He’s still in shock that he could personally be in danger and still reeling from somehow ending up at Bond’s flat as if his presence would be a comfort, and then staggering back from the fact that now that he’s in Bond’s dry warm clothes and sitting on his astonishingly uncomfortable sofa he does feel safer.

He can’t decide if he’s irritated Bond meddled or flattered he bothered.

“It’s not your kind of thing,” Q finally settles on. “It’s a super hero birthday party. In Witney.”

Bond nods. “Yes, you’ve said.”

“And my family doesn’t know— they just think I’m in IT. If I show up with you—” Q doesn’t know how to finish that. Q doesn’t bring people home. If he shows up with Bond to his nephew’s party, his family will assume they’re dating. There will be no other acceptable explanation.

“If I can go undercover as an arms dealer, I think I can handle being O. Harris’s boyfriend in Witney for the weekend,” Bond says, smile extra smirky.

Q smiles shyly and tries not to blush (and fails). “Oliver,” he says quietly. “You should probably call me Oliver in front of my family.”

Bond grins. “Oliver,” he says almost reverently. “Not Olaf.”

Q rolls his eyes. “Not Olaf. And keep the real name to yourself.”

Bond nods. “So Witney for the weekend, then?”

Q swallows. He tries to read Bond’s demeanor. Tries to discern if this is a chore for him, if it’s asking too much. Part of him knows that taking Bond home to meet his family, participating in a charade of a relationship just so he can be part of his nephew’s birthday party, is a lot to ask and opens him up to a shift in the power dynamic of his working relationship with Bond as well as his personal connection to him. (Strange to think that there is a personal connection to shift in the first place, really.)

“It’s not necessary—” Q starts to say.

“I don’t mind,” Bond says. “I’m meant to be in France.”

Q laughs. “Witney’s not exactly France. It’s small and quiet and really rather boring.”

Bond shrugs. “Up to you. I’m not going to convince you. It’s your family. But don’t not go because you think I’ll be bored.” He settles into the chair. “I once lay on a roof for 8 hours waiting for my target to appear at this one specific spot in a building across from my position. Witney will be thrilling in comparison.”

Q thinks of his sister’s voice the last time they talked. It’s important to her that Q come to Sam’s party, and he hates disappointing his family. “The party is Saturday,” he says. “My mum will expect me to stay the night after. I don’t get home much.”

Bond’s eyes do something akin to twinkling. “I’ll manage.”

“And we, uh, we’ll have to bring the cats.”

“You have cats?” Bond asks, eyebrows raised.

“I do,” Q says and sits up straighter. “I have cats. Shit.” He’d gone straight to Bond’s without even thinking of Sherlock and Mycroft. His poor cats. “I need to go home.”

Bond smiles. “Well don’t walk, for Christ’s sake,” he says. “I can drive you after we’re done eating. The food will be here soon.”

Q lets out a slow breath. This whole day has been so surreal. “If you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind,” Bond says easily. He stands and moves toward the kitchen where he pulls down plates and grabs beer out of the fridge.

Q leans his head back and closes his eyes just for a second.

***

James pokes his head out of the kitchen to ask Q if he wants his beer in a glass or from the bottle and finds him leaned against the back of the sofa, sleeping.

When Q had arrived at James’ flat a soggy mess, James felt something twist inside of him. He’s not a nurturer, could do without being a shoulder to cry on or a ‘safe space’ for the people in his life. He’s not great with emotions. Yet he found himself taking care of Q. And wanting to.

He tries not to examine the urge too closely. It’s probably a result of not having a lot going on right at the moment, too much time on his hands, and Q has been kind to him in his own way. He’s provided James with distraction, been good company.

Q is obviously operating in a daze at the moment, and James feels compelled to help. He finds he doesn’t mind the possible weekend in the country, doesn’t feel repelled at the idea of meeting Q’s—Oliver’s—family, playing the role of boyfriend. He’s curious about Q’s life, his parents, the world he comes from.

When the food arrives a few minutes later, Q sits up again bleary eyed.

“What’s it?” Q asks, hair an even bigger mess than usual, glasses crooked.

James smiles. “Food’s here.”

“Right,” Q says and runs his fingers through his hair. “Fantastic.”

They divide the beef with broccoli, lo mein, egg rolls and fried rice. James hands Q a beer and flips on the telly since Q’s conversational skills seem to be a bit stunted from his grogginess.

When they’re done eating, Q’s more alert and fidgeting nervously.

“Shall I drive you home, then?” James asks to ease the tension.

Q sags in relief. “Would you? So sorry,” he says. “The cats, though.”

James nods. “Not a problem. He finds a jumper and a little jacket to give Q a couple extra layers as his clothing is still sopping wet and hanging to dry in the bathroom.

“Put these on,” he instructs. “You can get yours later,” he adds nodding toward the wet clothes.

“Thank you,” Q says. “Sorry to come here without ringing first. I just— needed out of Six.”

James politely doesn’t remind him that they live in opposite directions of headquarters. “Understood,” he says instead.

When they’re in the car an uncomfortable silence settles over them. Q periodically throws nervous glances over at James when he thinks James isn’t paying attention. James doesn’t push him to talk, and when they’re just down the road from Q’s flat, Q finally speaks.

“So, would it be awful if I asked you to come with me?”

James smiles as he brings the car to a stop in front of Q’s building. “Happy to do it.”

“We have to take the cats,” Q reminds him.

“Do they have some sort of containment device?”

Q nods. “They hate them though. So they’re loud the whole time.” He winces slightly.

James isn’t particularly a cat person, but he also thought he wasn’t really a video game person either, so he’s learned not to be too absolute about things. “You’re really selling the weekend, Q.”

Q laughs. “I know,” he says mournfully. “There is no way I’m getting out of building you an exploding pen now, is there?”

James grins. “I hadn’t thought of that. But now that you mention it.”

Q rolls his eyes and takes off his seatbelt. “Thanks for the lift.”

“Pleasure.”

“And the clothes.”

“Not a problem.”

“And—”

“We’ll be here all night, Q,” James reminds him. “Lets just agree I am wonderful, and you owe me many favors.”

Q huffs a laugh. “There’s the arsehole I’m familiar with.” He climbs out of the car.

“Good evening, Quartermaster.”

“Good evening, 007,” Q says as he shuts the door behind him.

***

Q has a day to talk himself out of the ridiculous notion of Bond accompanying him to Witney for a five year old’s birthday party. He has no idea what he was thinking. He’ll make it up to his nephew and his sister, explain he got a last minute assignment.

But then at lunch time he gets a FaceTime call from Sam.

“Uncle Ollie!” Sam says when Q accepts the call.

Q smiles. “Nephew Sam!”

Sam giggles. “It’s my party tomorrow! Mummy bought an Avengers cake. And we have a balloon Iron Man! And Grammy made a banner with the Hulk!”

Q swallows. “Sounds brilliant,” he says with a small smile.

“When’re you gonna be here?” Sam asks and shifts closer to the camera, so Q gets a prime view up his nostrils.

Q knows this is part of his sister’s plot to make sure he comes to the party. Because there’s no way he can tell his nephew that he won’t be coming. He’s too happy, too excited, too sweet. He can’t disappoint that face.

“Tomorrow morning,” he reassures. “I’m bringing a friend.”

Sam sits up straighter. “Does he like superheroes?”

“He does,” Q promises. He actually has no idea, but there’s no way he’s giving Bond bad press before they even arrive.

“But you’ll still play with me too?” Sam asks suspiciously.

“Loads,” Q says gravely. “I see him all the time. Visiting you is special.”

Sam squirms around. “I wish it was tomorrow already!”

Q laughs. “Is your mum around?”

Sam nods. “She’s right here.”

“May I speak with her?”

Sam sighs. “Okay. Love you Uncle Ollie.”

Q’s chest warms. “Love you too, Sammy. See you tomorrow.”

The phone jostles around and then he’s staring at his sister.

“Not going to weasel out of it then?” Amy asks, eyes narrowed.

Q rolls his. “No,” he says as if the thought hadn’t occurred to him. “I’m bringing someone with me, though. Be nice or we’ll leave.”

“Bringing someone?” Amy asks, voice rising in excitement. “Someone someone? Well! Who’s this then?”

Q takes a deep breath. “A friend. Someone I work with. No interrogation please.”

She laughs brightly. “You think you can bring someone home for a family party and we’re not going to ask questions?”

Q sighs. “No. But just. It’s complicated. He needs a weekend away,” Q improvises. It’s easier if he doesn’t flat out lie. “We’ve been spending time together.” Again, oddly, this is the truth.

“Well,” she says voice softening a bit. “As long as you don’t back out at the last moment, Ollie, I don’t care who you bring.”

Q winces. He hates that irresponsibility with family events has become his calling card. It makes it seem like they don’t matter to him, like they aren’t a priority. It’s not true, but the nature of MI6 work means he can’t ever fully explain himself. It’s a shit feeling.

“I’ll— we’ll be there,” he says.

“Can I tell Mum you’re bringing someone?”

“Let me, hey?” Q pleads. “This just came together, but I don’t want her to think I’m keeping it from her.”

“Alright,” she says. “It’ll be good to see you. You’re due a cleaning too, by the way.”

Q laughs. “You are not cleaning my teeth while I’m there.”

“It may come to that,” Amy says lightly. “Ring mum. See you soon.”

“See you soon,” Q promises.

*

That night after work Q putters around the apartment doing long-neglected tidying and packing his bag for the trip to Witney. He feeds the cats and gathers their supplies before finally calling his mother about bringing Bond—James, he should probably call him—to the birthday party.

There are several things working in Q’s favor. One is that while Q is close to his family, he’s always been intensely private about his relationships. It could be a hold over from being young and gay and unsure if that would be well-received, or it could be a reaction to having a meddling older sister who was forever prying into his life.

Regardless, dating someone wouldn’t be cause for a call home where he’d spill every detail about how he met whoever it was and what he liked most about him. Q usually waited until he knew the relationship was heading somewhere, or it had lasted more than a month or two to casually drop into a conversation with his family that he was seeing someone.

The other thing working in his favor is that his mum would be distracted with party details. She’s very creative, forever sewing new curtains and making costumes. When Q and Amy were little, she would devise crafts that played to both of their strengths and could keep them occupied for hours decoupaging boxes or the like.

Sam’s party will no doubt have earned her full attention, so she will be preoccupied and less likely to press him for details.

When Q does call to warn her he’s bringing a friend home with him she’s in the middle of making masks for all the party attendees so she’s distracted.

“That’s nice, dear,” she says when Q tells her about Bond.

Q laughs and waits for the information to catch up with her.

“Oliver,” she says sharply, and he hears a loud bang through the phone as she drops something against the table. “Blast,” she murmurs and is again distracted.

“We can talk about this later, Mum. You’re busy,” he says magnanimously.

“Oliver,” she repeats with authority. “Why have you not mentioned this man previously?” She huffs and there’s another loud crash followed by more invective. “I always ask if you’re seeing someone when I call!”

Q hears the hurt in her tone and feels guilty anew. “It’s— we’re—” he sighs. “We were colleagues and friends first. It’s a recent thing.”

“We like to know what you’re up to,” she says softly, and Q’s chest tightens. “I wish you felt like you could share.”

“I do,” Q says quickly. “I didn’t want to jinx it, is all. But I’m bringing him home. You’ll like him,” he adds, hoping it’s true. Bond is charming when he wants to be, so he imagines his family will enjoy him. But it’s such an incongruent image to his usual picture of Bond that he can’t quite imagine how it will all come together.

There’s another loud noise. “Drat,” she says, and then there’s a lot of rustling, and he thinks she drops the phone. “I need to go, dear,” she calls out from a distance. “We’ll see you tomorrow!” And then she rings off.

Q shakes his head and is reminded again of how much he misses his family when he’s not around them for awhile. He misses them enough that it’s worth the embarrassment of having Bond in his childhood home and privy to all of his awkward photographs and stories his family is likely to share.

*

When Q finally gets online before bed his friends pounce immediately and insist he run a dungeon with them. It’s been several days since he has, and they hold the World of Warcraft version of an intervention with him, threatening to reduce his access to the guild bank and ignore him in guild chat.

So he’s in the middle of healing a heroic dungeon guild run when Bond finally comes online. Q smiles in spite of himself, and nearly neglects to keep their tank alive when Bond “whispers” to him to say hello.

[pink text] Heremod whisper: where the hell is The Everbloom?

[pink text] Antikythera whisper: lol dungeon. give me a sec. healing.

[pink text] Heremod whisper: yes quartermaster. I’m going to level my mining.

[pink text] Antikythera whisper: :)

When he finishes the dungeon with his guild he begs off another and logs off their vent connection and initiates one with Bond.

“Hello,” Q says when Bond gets connected.

“Everyone still alive then?”

Q laughs. “Of course. Do you expect anything less?”

“Moneypenny collected me for dinner tonight,” Bond says. “She seems greatly amused by our trip to Witney.”

Q flushes. “I hope that won’t become Six gossip.”

“Doubtful,” Bond reassures him. “Your situation is apparently being held closely by upper management. I think she teased me about it because she knows she can’t say it to anyone else.”

“Is it okay if we leave by 10:00 tomorrow morning? I want to be there by lunch.”

“Yes,” Bond says. “How are we getting there?” His voice bears amusement.

“Well, there’s the train,” Q starts. He’s been dreading this part. “My parents pick me up in Oxford if I take the train. I have a car but it’s at my parents’ because my flat doesn’t have a dedicated carpark, and it’s rubbish to pay extra when I take the Tube everywhere.”

“I’ll drive us then,” Bond says.

“The cats,” Q reminds him mournfully.

“Will be in carriers, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Well then, I imagine we’ll manage.”

Q lets out a slow breath.

“It’s better for us to have a car should we need to make a quick getaway for the sake of security,” Bond says. “And as you know, my car is specially equipped for emergency situations.”

“Okay then,” Q acquiesces. It’s going to be a long weekend if he feels guilty for every little thing that happens.

“Will there be a briefing before this mission?” Bond asks, amused. “Any tech?”

Q smiles. “I can brief you in the car, but the overview is, my dad is a dentist and has a practice in Witney. My mum used to teach, but has retired and now sometimes helps out at the practice. My sister, Amy, is also a dentist and she and her husband Liam lived in London up until about a year ago when they moved back to Witney so she could join my dad’s practice. She’ll take it over when my dad retires. Liam was a banker, but he quit when they moved to Witney and now he stays at home with the kids.”

Bond makes the appropriate interested noises throughout Q’s explanation. “And you?”

“What about me? You know me.”

“Not really,” Bond says. “I know Q.”

Q sighs and tries to convince his stomach to stop flip flopping as if this were somehow a sign of Bond’s actual interest in him. “My name is Oliver Harris. I grew up in Witney. I went to Cambridge. When I graduated, I was offered a job at a tech company in California, but didn’t—” he starts to go into all the reasons why he’d opted to stay in England but decides that isn’t necessary intel. “But decided not to and got a job at MI6.”

“Your cover?” Bond asks, not pressing Q on the California thing.

“I work in government IT. No one really asks much about it because they don’t understand it. My friends who do know more about it, just think I’m wasting away in a dead end job I couldn’t possibly find interesting.”

“I don’t really need a cover,” Bond says. “Family’s all dead. No one else is around long enough for me to have to divulge my profession.” He says it lightly, like it’s not a fairly significant and tragic thing to admit.

Q doesn’t know what to say, so there’s a weighted silence for a few seconds.

“What should— I mean, my parents will ask,” Q says finally.

“Analyst for SIS,” Bond says. “My military career is public record, Commander of the Royal Navy. Sometimes they give me a title like ‘senior liaison to the Protection Command’.”

Something flashes in Q’s memory. “Oh! You were the agent that rode with the Queen on the helicopter to the Olympic stadium!”

Bond groans. “Yes,” he admits. “Although I assure you Her Majesty didn’t actually jump out of the plane.”

“Did you?”

Bond laughs. “No,” he says. “I had to stay with the Queen. I wasn’t window dressing. I was actually on protection detail. I just showed up in the shot because they used a wide angle to catch the dogs.”

Q smiles. “My grandmother is going to flip when she realizes you’ve met the Queen, by the way. Lead with that, and she’ll be putty in your hands.”

“Noted.”

“Okay so you’re still you. Just not 007. And what, I work for your department, and you’ve chatted me up a bit?”

Bond makes a scoffing noise. “How are we so sure you didn’t chat me up?”

“This has to be believable,” Q says, rolling his eyes. “You’re a huge flirt, and my family knows I’d never work up the nerve to hit on a Commander of the Royal Navy who knows the Queen.”

“What did you tell them already?”

“Just that I was bringing someone with me. That we’re friends,” Q adds. “But they also know I wouldn’t bring someone home without it being more than just hanging out. So… sorry ‘bout that.”

Bond doesn’t say anything right away. There’s no quip or innuendo or the usual Bond filler, so Q rushes on ahead.

“I hate mushrooms. I skipped year two and then year five.” He tries to think of random arcane facts. “My mum had a thing for John Denver, loved him, played Rocky Mountain High all the time when we were in the car. So he’s my guilty pleasure music playlist.” He blushes but forges ahead because these seem like the sort of facts a boyfriend might’ve stumbled upon. “I like to cook, but I never do it. I’m rubbish at sport, which I hated as a kid, fitting that stereotype of the bookish kid who doesn’t like football, so I played on teams for most of school even though I hated it. My sister is 4 years older than me, but we’re close. I’ve told you about her kids. We like her husband. It’s all very boring and drama-free. My parents still appear to be in love although in a very British way. My dad is corny, loves puns and bad jokes. He went through university on grants, and he worked every summer to earn extra money. My gramps died when my dad was young and my grandmother did everything she could to keep them comfortable, but their house was very lean. So my dad is very frugal to this day. I always had to have a summer job because they thought it built character.” Q swallows, realizing that all came out in a jumbled rush.

They never grouped up when Q was done with his dungeon. Bond is apparently mining in the Redridge Mountains, and Q is standing in the middle of Stormwind. They might as well just be talking on the phone.

Q isn’t sure Bond is going to reciprocate the sharing of personal facts. He’s quiet for awhile, mumbling about copper and some low level dwarf following him around trying to steal resources.

“My parents were killed in an accident when I was 11,” Bond says after awhile. “I was raised by my aunt and a Swiss boarding school. My aunt died when I was 16. I went to Britannia Royal Naval College, served in the Navy, did some training near Witney, actually, at RAF Brize Norton.”

That’s all in his accessible file. Q knows all that. But it still feels different to have Bond share it willingly.

“I’ve never had a pet,” Bond continues after an audible swallow. “I speak German, French, passable Russian, a smattering of a dozen other languages. My left shoulder aches when it rains. What else?”

Q laughs. “I don’t know. That’s the point. But it’s okay. I probably know more about you than you do about me anyway.”

“Why’s that?”

“I know every double oh’s file back to front,” he admits. “So as you get older, should you forget details of your life, I will probably remember.”

Bond huffs. “Amusing.”

“I think so, yes.”

“And how old are you, Oliver?”

Hearing Bond say his real name makes Q flush. “31,” Q admits.

Bond makes an interested noise. “Older than I thought.”

Q laughs. “I get that a lot.”

“So 10:00 tomorrow?” Bond asks after a bit.

“If that’s okay,” Q says forcing down the urge to apologize again.

“It is,” Bond says. “I will be at your flat tomorrow wearing my ‘I am a suitable choice for Oliver Harris’ printed t-shirt.”

Q grins, charmed in spite of his better judgement. “As if you’d be seen in a t-shirt.”

“Maybe in Witney I wear t-shirts. Maybe James Bond SIS analyst wears t-shirts to a Saturday birthday party. Maybe he also likes things like beans on toast.”

He says all of that like each word has personally offended him.

Q laughs. “First of all, beans on toast is amazing, and you are a proper snob.”

“And second?” Bond asks with amusement.

“Second?”

“You said first of all, and I was anticipating your second point. Scathing to be sure.”

“That sounds like a t-shirt that would very much be in demand,” Q improvises because he can’t remember what his second point was going to be.

“Oh of course,” Bond condescends. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a tuxedo to press for the party.”

Q rolls his eyes. “Black tie is definitely on point for the super hero theme.”

“Bruce Wayne maybe?”

Q bites back a smile. “You are Bruce Wayne-ish. Premise accepted.”

“Good night, Quartermaster, or should I say, Oliver?”

“Good night, 007,” Q says face heating again at the sound of his real name on Bond’s tongue. “James,” he amends quietly.

*

Bond knocks at 9:55 the next morning.

When Q opens the door he’s met with the completely unreasonable sight of James Bond in well-fitting jeans and the softest-looking dark blue jumper. He looks, in a word, edible. Which, Q supposes will make it that much easier to convince his family he’s crazy about James Bond, but it will also make it more difficult to remember this is just a favor Bond is doing for him and for MI6.

Bond is currently bored. He’s so bored he has been playing World of Warcraft and leveling at a truly impressive rate. So it would figure he’d take on a protective detail assignment for a valuable (and possibly threatened) MI6 commodity.

That’s all this is.

“Just have to get the cats in their carriers,” Q says and grimaces. He hates it. The cats hate it. He braces himself for the scratching and plaintive meows that will make him feel like he’s a horribly abusive cat parent.

He’s already set his overnight bag and Sam’s birthday present by the front door, so Bond takes those down to the car.

Q earns a defensive swipe of Sherlock’s claws when he has to coax the cat out from under the bed. Mycroft goes a little more willingly, but makes sure to convey to Q that he is thoroughly betrayed and nothing will be the same in their relationship.

Q wipes his brow when Bond enters the apartment again. “Cats have been contained,” he says and winces.

“You look worse for the wear,” Bond says with amusement.

“Well, it was a battle,” Q retorts. He hands Bond the bag with the cat food and dishes and treats and toys and then gingerly carries the cats in their carriers, trying not to jostle them and hoping the neighbors don’t think the mournful cat mewls mean he’s participating in animal sacrifice.

Bond’s eyes are wide when they get to the bottom of the stairs. “They’ll do this the whole time, then?” he asks, probably attempting to seem nonchalant.

Q sighs. “Maybe,” he says with a grimace. “Sorry.”

Bond helps Q situate the cat carriers in the tiny back seat of the Aston Martin. Q buckles the seat belts around their carriers to keep them from sliding around the car (which he hopes will minimize their yowling).

Q starts to apologize again, and Bond holds up his hand to stop him.

“Don’t say you’re sorry. You warned me about the cats. I knew what I was in for.”

“Right then,” Q says desperately wanting to apologize for apologizing so much. But he manages to bite his tongue.

***

A week ago James wouldn’t have imagined he’d be spending his Saturday morning driving to Witney with two displeased cats and an embarrassed Q in his car. This is as far from James’ normal routine as he could get.

Instead of feeling irritated, however, James finds he doesn’t mind. He quite likes the pink high in Q’s cheeks every time one of the cats yowls or otherwise expresses their unhappiness.

He also finds that he enjoys the thought of arriving in Witney at the Harris’ home as Oliver’s boyfriend, someone Q’s proud of enough to introduce to his family. That’s not the man James usually is, and the majority of the time he’s more than happy with that.

But sometimes he gets tired of all the assumptions, all the innuendos. He gets tired of always being on his guard, of keeping careful watch, even in sleep, so he can’t be surprised or compromised.

James doesn’t date, exactly. On missions he “strategically intercepts” potential contacts. Sometimes that’s a more pleasurable experience than others, sometimes it doesn’t have to involve sex. But all of James’ interpersonal skills, the muscle one must flex on a blind date to get to know someone and seem interesting and worthwhile, James uses that on missions. He doesn’t feel compelled to do much of that in his free time.

If he desires companionship, he’d rather find someone at a posh club or dark pub. He’d rather not go through the charade of an actual date.

Most of the time.

Q, however, brings forward a long dormant part of him that wants to impress, wants to understand. Not to gain advantage or maneuver, but for the sake of it. He wants Q to think he’s smart. He wants Q to find him witty. He wants Q to want to spend time with him.

He has no idea why or when that happened. But he’s playing a highly ridiculous video game as a way to facilitate time together. And now he’s in a car with two loud arsehole cats wearing casual clothes and talking about what one does at a five year old’s birthday party.

Q is laughing at him. “What do you mean, what will we do?”

James rolls his eyes. “I do not spend a lot of time around children, as you might imagine.”

Q laughs again. “Okay, well, I’m sure my sister has party games planned. I think for this party everyone is supposed to wear a costume, so maybe there will be a fancy dress contest. They eat cake and open gifts and run around until one of them inevitably vomits and someone else ends up in tears. I just hope neither or those things befall Sam.”

“So they do that,” James says carefully. “And we…”

Q keeps smiling like everything James says is hilarious. But these are legitimate questions. Is Bond expected to “pin the tail on the donkey” (or the mask on the Iron Man or whatever comparable game there might be for the super hero theme)? He can remember a birthday party when he was a boy where there was some sort of team race that involved sitting on a balloon and getting it to pop. James hated that. The loud noise scared him. He remembers crying.

He doesn’t share that memory, mostly because he realizes he was one of the annoying kids Q is worried about.

“We stand around the edges with the other adults and make sure the kids behave and possibly eat cake and sneak a glass of wine,” Q says and pokes James in the leg with his finger. “And then after everyone leaves, Sam will want to play with all the gifts. If the toy involves assembly, my sister tasks me with putting it together.” He looks delighted, and it makes James’ stomach feel warm.

James nods but doesn’t say anything further.

“You don’t have to play with the toys or anything,” Q says, voice patient. “If you don’t want to. You could probably sneak away and read if you get bored.” He looks out the window like he wants to say something else but stops himself.

James clears his throat after a strange, indecipherable silence. “Is the party at your sister’s?”

“My parents’,” Q answers with a head shake. “It’s just down the road from my sister’s. My parents have a much bigger garden, and it’s always better when a big group of kids can be outside.”

James tries to remember the last time he was at a family function. He goes to parties all the time, but they’re usually swanky soirees in posh hotels full of polite laughter and champagne. Not the cake-fueled noisy children affair this afternoon will probably turn out to be.

James doesn’t remember what it feels like to be part of a family. It’s not something he voices, or even allows himself to ponder because he hates pity, and he’s not one for wallowing. When his parents died he hid in the tunnel under their house for several hours before Kincaid found him and coaxed him out with sweets. But aside from that one moment of weakness, he kept his feelings to himself.

His father was distant, but not unkind. Just busy and distracted. When he was home he sat with James and inquired about his studies and sport. He was away more often than not for business. James’ mother was beautiful and sparkly. She laughed a lot, a bright open thing. But she was involved in many clubs and societies and managed to keep herself occupied outside of their home. James was left to Kincaid and various nannies and governesses.

It wasn’t a bad childhood. He didn’t know any other way. But when his parents died James was left with the feeling that he’d never quite won them over, never quite drawn them in. Like they were waiting for him to become interesting and worthwhile. James waited helplessly for that too.

He was frustrated they’d died before he could prove to them that he was capable of being someone of whom they could be proud.

James was lonely, too, of course. But the loneliness wasn’t a new feeling. It was just intensified now that he knew it was permanent. That it would never be anything different.

He felt sad for a few days, crying under his pillow so no one would hear him. And then he just stopped thinking about it.

There were still moments he missed his parents, moments of which he wished they could’ve been a part. But James single-mindedly pursued a life of accomplishment and distinction in a way that eclipsed all other concerns or personal fears. He gave sorrow no foothold, and forced himself to believe that meant it wasn’t waiting just outside his periphery.

“007,” Q’s voice cuts into James’ thoughts.

“Yes?”

“I asked if I could turn the radio on,” Q says.

“Of course,” James says smoothly and does it, gesturing at the controls so Q knows he’s welcome to find something to listen to. “And you should probably get used to calling me James.”

Q smiles. “Good shout, James,” he says like the word feels strange on his tongue.

James laughs. “And perhaps practice so it sounds like you’re used to it.”

*

James doesn’t go into the English countryside very often. He’s in London or off on assignments in other countries, so he forgets how beautiful it can be. Skyfall, where he grew up was in a much more forbidding sort of landscape. It had its own beauty, but it wasn’t quite this same bucolic, tranquil scenery.

As they get closer to Witney, Q seems more and more nervous. He shifts in his seat and fusses with his hair.

“Just stick as close to the truth as you can,” James advises.

“Pardon?”

“Don’t add unnecessary details with no basis in reality,” James clarifies. “It’s the best way to keep track of a cover. We work together. I’m an intelligence analyst/security specialist. You help me with my technology. That’s how we met. That’s actually true, so it shouldn’t be hard to remember.”

Q nods. “I don’t date much,” he says in a small voice. “I don’t bring people home. So this— this will seem like a fairly big deal to my family.” His tone is apologetic. “Sorry.”

James’ stomach twists unexpectedly. He’s not sure why Q’s dating past is of particular interest, and it’s not as though this is an actual “meet the parents” situation, but James still feels proud for completely ridiculous reasons. “I’ll attempt to live up to that honor.”

Q rolls his eyes. “Arse.”

***

Bond pulls the car up outside of the house, and Q feels the familiar flutter of excitement at being back home. He’s nervous too. He can’t help it. But he still feels the pull of family and comfort. He tries not to worry about what Bond will think of his family and how their cover will go over.

Q’s parents live on a side road within the center of Witney. His dad’s dental practice is just around the corner on the main street that runs through the center of town. It’s the perfect house, in Q’s estimation. It’s not cramped and small, but neither is it ridiculously large and unnecessarily cavernous. It has a cozy, friendly warmth.

Q’s dad bakes bread as a hobby. Dentists tend to be meticulous personalities, and baking is apparently appealing to people who appreciate science and precision. The result of this hobby is that their house always smells of yeast and baking rolls, and there’s almost always a crusty loaf his father has made waiting to be eaten with soft butter and the jam Q’s grandma makes every summer.

His mum is waiting by the door when they approach and throws it open with a bright smile.

“We wondered if you’d make it in time for lunch,” she says opening her arms for a hug. Q goes to her automatically, easy to be welcomed into the safety of family.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Q murmurs against her cheek as he gives her a kiss. “Mum,” he says quickly, aware of James’ presence just behind him. “This is James. James, this is my mother Victoria.”

“Mrs. Harris,” Bond says formally. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Q’s mum smiles widely. “Oh please. Victoria. And really, the pleasure is mine, James. Oliver has told us very little about you! He likes to be mysterious. So you’ll have to fill us in.” She puts her arm around Bond’s back and leads him into the living room where the rest of Q’s family has gathered.

“Ollie!!!!!” Sam yells and barrels toward them, crashing into Q’s legs with a thud. “You’re here! Did you see the banner? Look!” He points to the colorful superhero Happy Birthday banner strung along the dining room, where there is a table full of snacks waiting for the 20 five year olds to arrive in three hours.

“I did!” Q says and squeezes his nephew’s shoulder. “Looks fantastic. Where’s your costume?”

“Mummy won’t let me put it on yet,” Sam says sadly, stepping back a little so he can look up into Q’s face. “Who is that?” he whispers gesturing toward Bond.

Q smiles. “This is my friend James. James, this is my nephew Sam.”

“Sam,” Bond nods formally and puts his hand out for Sam to shake, like he’s dealing with a dignitary or VIP.

It’s totally the right move, because Sam shakes it solemnly and looks up at him like he is definitely worthy of the respect. “You like super heroes?”

Bond smiles. “I do. Batman is a particular favorite. Who do you like?”

“Captain America,” Sam says decisively.

Q groans theatrically. “I’ve tried to explain to him how very unpatriotic it is and how embarrassed the Queen is by his obsession with an American superhero. But. He persists.”

“He saves everyone,” Sam says gravely. “Not just Americans.”

Bond’s face is earnest and warm. For all he seemed not to know how to act at a child’s birthday party, he sure seems to understand that children appreciate being treated like their opinions matter. “I have known many very fine Americans. I think you’ve made a wise choice.”

Sam nods and shoots Q a look. “You like Lego?” he asks Bond. “We got some in the playroom.”

“I don’t have a lot of experience with Lego,” Bond says. “Want to show me?”

“Yeah,” Sam says and takes Bond’s hand. “Cause I know a lot ‘bout it, so I can tell you all the stuff you need ta’ know.”

Q laughs and ruffles Sam’s hair. “James doesn’t need to crawl around on the floor with you just yet,” he says, worried Bond will be a bit out of his depth.

“I don’t mind,” Bond says and gives Q a private wink. “Not very often you get to learn from an expert.”

Q’s heart thuds loudly in his chest, and he reminds himself this is all fake. It isn’t charming. It’s not real.

After Bond follows Sam out of the room, Q looks up to find his entire family staring at him.

“Stop,” Q says and goes over to give his sister a kiss and shake his brother in law’s hand. He takes baby Alice from him and kisses her head, receiving a giggle before she squirms around wanting to be let loose on the floor.

“So,” Amy says. “That’s James.”

“Stop,” Q repeats as his dad comes into the room from the garden.

“Tables set up and chairs distributed,” he says as he brushes off his trousers. “Oh Oliver. You’ve arrived.”

“Hey Dad,” Q says and gives him a hug. “Need any help?”

“I think we’ve got it,” he says. “Lunch is soup and sandwiches. I’ve tried a new sourdough bread and your mum made tomato soup.”

“Ollie brought a ‘friend’ home,” Amy says, managing to convey the quotes around the word verbally.

Q’s dad raises his eyebrows. “Oh? I seem to remember your mother mentioning something about that yesterday. Where is he, then?”

“He’s playing with Sam,” Q says defensively. “Everyone be nice,” he hisses as an after thought, directing his plea to his sister in particular.

Q’s mum laughs. “We’re always nice, dear,” she soothes. “You can’t blame us for being interested in your friend, though. You so rarely bring people with you.”

Q helps her slice cheese and lay out a deli tray full of sandwich meats and veg. He hears a squeal of delight coming from the playroom after a few minutes and goes in to investigate.

“Ollie,” Sam says excitedly. “James built a castle,” he says. “Look at the little window for the guns!” He points to a tower. “For defence.”

Q rolls his eyes at Bond. “Really?”

Bond smirks. “Castles were historically well-defended. I didn’t invent the concept.”

“James is really good at building,” Sam says and gazes adoringly up at Bond.

Q bites back a smile. “Well, lunch is almost ready,” he says. “Can you save the castle for later?”

Sam eyes it warily and looks up at Bond.

“I think we can do that,” Bond says and stands.

“Okay,” Sam says. “But I don’t want my friends messing it up.”

Q laughs. “We’ll hide it in the closet when they get here.”

“‘kay,” Sam agrees. “Cause Hazel always knocks stuff over. Even when she doesn’t mean to.”

Bond leans down and picks Sam up and slings him over his shoulder. “You point Hazel out to me, and I’ll make sure she stays away from the castle.”

Q laughs, picturing Agent 007 guarding anything from a determined 4 year old.

Sam squeals and squirms around delightedly. “I’m tall,” he shrieks as James bounces him around before turning to leave the room with him.

Q gives Bond a droll look, wanting to remind him of his fear of what they’d possibly be doing at the children’s birthday party they were going to attend. He’s strangely a natural at the kid thing, and Q ignores the way that tugs at his chest.

Bond shrugs slightly and carries Sam into the next room.

“Mummy we built a castle!” Sam says as Bond puts him down.

“Did you?” Amy asks and gives Q a knowing look. “Well, that sounds quite fun. Did you thank James for playing with you?”

Sam looks over at James. “Thanks for building a Lego castle with me.”

Bond nods solemnly. “Of course. My pleasure.”

Q’s dad approaches him with his hand out. “I’m Oliver’s father,” he says shaking Bond’s hand. “Please call me Tim.”

“James,” Bond offers and gives him a small smile.

“Lunch is ready,” Q’s dad says gesturing toward the kitchen table where a big tureen of soup and a plate full of ham and cheese sandwiches is piled. “Add the veg you want to your sandwiches. I can’t keep track of who likes what these days.”

Lunch is a quick and boisterous affair. The kids have to eat at their regular times or they get cranky and won’t go down for their naps. Amy is hoping all three kids will rest, however briefly, before the party at 3:00. And there are still decorating and gift wrapping to be done. Jobs for all, it would appear.

After they eat, Amy’s husband Liam takes the kids upstairs to bedrooms to try to get them down for naps while James helps Q’s mum and dad clean up the kitchen.

“I like him,” Amy says while she and Q blow up balloons in the dining room. “Why haven’t you talked about him before?”

Q flushes. “I— we work together. I didn’t— it’s still new,” he says finally. “We were just colleagues before.”

Amy smiles and squeezes Q’s arm. “Well, I have a good feeling about him. And Sam took to him quickly. That’s a good sign.”

Q glances over to where Bond is helping his parents load the dishwasher and wipe stray crumbs from the table. “It’s— unexpected.” If only she knew how unexpected.

“Hello!” Q’s grandmother calls as she walks through the front door. “Someone take these tarts from me!”

Q rushes to assist her. She’s carrying three stacked shirt boxes, belying her 75 years. “Gran! You should’ve called before you left. I would’ve helped you over.”

“Pish posh,” she says as he takes the box. “I can manage for the few steps from my house.”

Q’s grandmother lives just a street away. His entire life is literally within a half-mile radius. It’s positively quaint.

“Victoria said you have a friend here,” she stage whispers to him as they walk toward the kitchen.

“Gran,” Q pleads.

“Oh don’t worry,” she reassures him. “You must be James!” she says as she bustles toward Bond.

Bond’s eyebrows raise, and he looks to Q.

“This is my grandmother,” Q explains. “Gran, this is my friend James. James, my Gran.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” Bond says and takes her offered hand.

“Mavis,” Gran says with a pleased smile.

Bond looks like it might kill him to call someone grandmotherly by their first name, but he repeats it with a small smile anyway.

Gran pulls Bond toward the table. “I was finishing the tarts so I missed lunch. Tell me about yourself.”

Bond smiles. “I’m a security analyst and liaise between SIS and Protection Command. I’m a Commander in the Royal Navy. And I was kicked out of Eton when I was 13.”

Gran laughs, delighted. “Well, clearly you’ve worked hard to course correct since then. Protection Command, eh? Guarding the Queen, then?”

Bond cuts a quick glance toward Q. “From time to time. But it’s not a primary responsibility.”

Gran studies him closely. “You’re the chap who walked behind the Queen in that video before the Olympic ceremony! I knew you looked familiar.”

Improbably, Bond blushes. “That was me, yes. Although I think Her Majesty and the corgis were the real focus.”

“Well done, Oliver,” Gran enthuses. “He’s met the Queen!”

“He does a lot of other important things—” Q contradicts before he can think better of it. That stunt during the Olympics is just the tip of what Bond has done for his country, and he hates that he can’t share that with his family.

“Not that important,” Bond says smoothly over top of Q to subtly keep him from continuing. “Nothing more important than Queen and country.”

“Quite right,” Gran says decisively. “What’s she like then?”

Bond smiles. “Stoic.”

Amy rushes into the room. “If you can spare it,” she says, slightly frantic, “a little help would be fantastic.”

“Anything,” Q says feeling guilty he’d got caught up in his Gran’s grilling of Bond.

“Run down to the bakery and pick up the cake. It’s meant to be the Captain America shield, so if it’s not, well, don’t bring home a cake in the shape of a duck or anything.” She hands him the claim slip rushes back outside to hang decorations.

Bond stands up as Q gives him a questioning look.

“Sorry Gran,” Q says sheepishly.

“Run along,” she says shooing them toward the door. “It’s nice to have you here, James.”

Bond ducks his head and smiles in an annoyingly charming way.

Q pulls him along, desperate to get him away from more of his smitten relatives.

“God you’re good at that,” Q says as they walk down the street toward the center of town.

Bond furrows his brow. “Good at what?”

“Charming the parents. Putting people at ease,” Q attempts to clarify. “I forget this is what you do on an assignment. It’s strange to see it from this side.”

Bond slows his gait for a few steps and then matches Q’s pace again. “They’re making it easy,” he says finally. “I like your family.”

Q flushes and peers in the window of his favorite pub to see if he recognizes anyone.

“It’s not the most exciting way to spend a weekend,” Q says instead of addressing Bond’s statements directly.

Bond doesn’t say anything for long enough that Q looks over at him. “You have a distorted view of how I would normally spend a weekend,” he says finally.

“I’m often listening in on those activities,” Q reminds him.

“That’s work,” Bond reminds him. “For my job I periodically wear tuxedos and play baccarat. On other occasions I crawl through sewers and defuse bombs. Some of it’s glamorous, some of it isn’t. But it’s all still just my job.”

Q obviously knows that. “You work constantly. To the point where they made you take time off,” he says and then immediately wishes he hadn’t. He presses on anyway. “So even if it’s your job, you’re doing your job nearly all the time, which means your life is the tuxedos and the baccarat and the beautiful women and the planting bugs in bedrooms.”

Bond stares straight ahead as they walk, and Q wonders what everyone thinks when they see them together. Bond is handsome in a craggily arresting way. He looks like a man who has experienced life, has maybe taken a few knocks, but has managed to turn those in his favor. He’s older than Q, obviously so. But he’s on a completely different plane in terms of attractiveness. His clothes are made for him, jumper fitted to him just enough to show off the definition of his shoulders and his chest without looking obscene. His jeans hug his arse and hang perfectly. He looks distinguished, important.

Q on the other hand looks rumpled. He never feels like he gets his hair to do what he wants it to. Some part of it is always sticking up when it shouldn’t be. He has thick framed glasses, even though he has contacts he knows he could wear if he could be bothered to give much thought to how he looks. He has a few nice items of clothing, sweaters and shirts his mum and sister have guided him towards purchasing. But he’s thin and clothes hang on him differently than they do on someone like Bond.

He’s not hideous or anything. He’s aware he has a certain appeal. But nothing like the “people on the street stop and watch him” look of James Bond.

For his part, Bond doesn’t seem to notice how people look at him. Or if he does, he’s good enough not to point it out.

“If I were home this weekend,” Bond says finally and Q has to pause to remember what they had even been talking about, “I would’ve played more of that infernal video game. I would’ve gone on long jogs, read the paper in the cafe near my flat. I might’ve gone out to a pub, but more than likely not. It would’ve been quiet and not disagreeable, but there would’ve been no baccarat, no tuxedo. My real life, such as it is, is much less exciting than you think it is.”

They’ve arrived at the bakery, so Q can’t respond. Bond already has the door open and is holding it waiting for him to walk through.

The cake is exactly as it is supposed to be, and Q would’ve been ecstatic if it had been his cake as a five year old. “Brilliant,” he tells the baker as he signs the slip.

Bond is quiet on the walk back. He’s also been tasked with carrying the large cake box, so perhaps he’s just intent on his duty. But Q can’t shake the feeling that he’s said something wrong.

There’s no time to worry about it once they’re back at the house, however. Amy and mum give them jobs as the party time nears. So they set up party games outside and slice fruit and put juice boxes in a tub of ice. When the kids wake from their naps, it’s all hands on deck getting them dressed and ready before the first little guests arrive.

Bond seems slightly bewildered by the whole thing. Sam’s insistence that Bond be the one to help him into his costume and sit by him in the living room while they wait for Sam’s friends to come seems to both flatter and mystify him.

Q has baby Alice duty, while his parents are wrangling Charlie and keeping him from pulling down the decorations. It’s chaos. But it’s a different sort of chaos than the life or death sort he deals with on a daily basis.

He missed the din of family, the disorder of happy kids and weary parents. Q’s been away too long, and as he does every time he’s back in Witney, he promises himself he won’t let as much time pass before coming home again.

***

James isn’t easily overwhelmed. He prides himself on his ability to stay completely cool under pressure. He has a steady hand.

But a house full of children and their parents all speaking a language he barely understands, comparing notes on nap times and whether or not kids should eat gluten and if organic is the only way to go in homemade baby food. There’s talk of nappies and formula and something called Thomas the Tank Engine.

People are nice enough, of course. They introduce themselves and ask about his job and how he likes London and where his family is from. They talk about knowing Q as a child, funny things he did when he was younger. They are, for the most part, welcoming and inclusive. It’s just such a foreign, unfamiliar world. He doesn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation.

Then there’s Q—Oliver—who is both the same and yet different. He’s still dry-humored, quick-witted. He’s still brilliant, interesting. But where he’s normally officious and professional, here he is warm and soft-edged. He seems to have relaxed, the wary expression is gone from his face. This is where he belongs.

It doesn’t help that Q seems determined to point out all the ways James doesn’t belong, that he has little experience with this sort of quiet chaos. He means it in a self-deprecating way. He assumes James would rather be anywhere else, would have no interest in this if it weren’t for the vague but serious threat made against Q-branch.

In one sense he’s right. James doesn’t imagine his future holding a family or children. He gave himself to England a long time ago, set his course on a solitary path. But sometimes he’s not sure if that was a choice so much as a response to the path down which life had already begun to lead him. If he made it seem like it was his plan all along, he took some control of his future. When really, the choice was taken from him when he was quite young.

He wonders sometimes what would’ve happened if he hadn’t been kicked out of Eton. If he’d kept on the steady, expected path. If he’d met and married someone appropriate to his station. If he’d followed in his father’s footsteps and taken an important yet unremarkable job. He’d have children by this point. They could be old enough to be starting university. He wouldn’t wonder what his future would look like. He’d know it was full of family, grandchildren, possibly weekends at a country house, hunting with gents from his club.

It’s a silly thing to spend too much time pondering. It isn’t his future, and he’s not sure he’d want it to be. But being surrounded by the Harris family of Witney is bringing all those thoughts to the forefront again.

“I forget how to tie my laces,” Sam says, finding James in the kitchen, where he’d escaped to get a drink and take a little time away from the well-intentioned smiles. “Can you do it?” He pushes his little foot forward, shoelaces dragging and a little muddy.

James swallows the thickness in his throat and nods. “Of course.” He bends down and talks Sam through the process of tying shoelaces, inadvertently bringing up the memory of his mother reciting the same directions to him when he was small.

“You should come outside,” Sam announces when James is done. “You can watch us play.”

Sam’s face is so open and earnest and completely impossible to say no to. So James follows helplessly behind him, shooting a little smile at Q as he passes him in the living room.

“Are you being bossy?” Q says to Sam as they pass, sticking his arm out to slow their progress. “James isn’t here just to do your bidding.”

Sam gives him a frustrated look. “Jamie wants to come play with me, he said.”

James smiles in spite of himself. Kid logic is a thing of beauty, really.

“Oh Jamie does, does he?” Q asks and ruffles Sam’s hair. “You having fun Sammy?”

Sam nods vigorously. “You should come too,” he says. “It’s more fun outside.” He glances around the mostly adult-filled room.

Q sighs dramatically, but stands, shifting Alice, to his hip. “Lead the way, birthday boy,” he says and adjusts the little shield hanging from Sam’s back.

Outside is barely controlled chaos. The kids are running around yelling “let’s pretend” directives at each other. The ones dressed as superheroes are explaining the things they can and can’t do, and how if the situation warrants it they could probably fly.

James looks over at Q and finds him smiling.

“Crazy, right?” Q asks and then laughs as two Iron Man-attired children collide and mimic the sound effects of battle.

James nods as they settle into chairs positioned to keep an eye on the play.

Sam gets bossy with a little girl, and she immediately starts crying.

Q stands. “Here, take Alice,” he says and thrusts the baby onto his lap as he moves with authority toward the children, admonishing Sam and using a soothing tone with the little girl with cat ears on her head.

Alice stares up at James.

“Hello,” James says and jiggles his legs slightly which makes her smile and touch a tiny hand to his cheek.

“Bounce!” she enthuses or maybe commands, as James finds himself immediately doing it again at her direction. She giggles, and James is filled with an unexpected warmth.

“So what do you think of all this then?” he asks her, even though he realizes that’s probably a bit of a complex conversation starter.

She tilts her little head at him. “Sam,” she says with authority.

James nods like she’s said something wise. “Yes,” he says. “It’s Sam’s birthday. Did you buy him a gift?”

Alice narrows her eyes slightly and looks over toward the overflowing gift table. “Gifts!”

“Yes,” James agrees. “Gifts.”

“Ollie,” she says fondly as she points toward where Q is mediating the Great Superhero Summit of Witney.

James is still getting used to thinking of Q as anything other than Q. Oliver is his name. He watches him with the kids, taking their opinions seriously and explaining things to them in a uncondescending manner. ‘Oliver’ suits him, James decides, although he couldn’t say exactly why.

“Unca Ollie,” Alice says again. “Love.”

James smiles at her, and she giggles and pats his cheek again. She still seems to be struggling to wake up fully from her nap and has been much more subdued than she was when they first arrived. She rests her head against his shoulder, and James automatically pats her back. A human reflex apparently, as children are not something James has any experience with. In fact, before today, he can’t remember the last time he interacted with a child, much less picked one up.

Alice sighs a small baby sigh and murmurs something against him.

When Q comes back he’s got a soft look on his face. “She sleeping again?”

James shrugs, because he can’t see her face. He suddenly doesn’t want to give her back, so he hopes Q doesn’t try to take her. He’d hand her over immediately of course, because what right does he have to continue to hold her if her uncle wants her. But she smells warm and sleepy and it makes something protective swell within him.

“She likes you,” Q says and sits down again without putting his hands out to take the baby.

“She seems generally affable,” James says.

“She’s a good baby,” Q agrees, and his gaze lingers a beat or two longer than seems usual.

“You’ve brokered peace among the superheroes?” James asks after an odd sort of silence.

Q smiles. “I think so,” he says. “Although it’s probably good for us to stay out here. I think all the parents have drifted inside and abandoned the garden to the rule of children. Dangerous, really.”

James huffs a laugh and tries not to jostle Alice. “Well, I do work in conjunction with Protection Command, as you know.”

Q rolls his eyes. “So I hear.”

They watch the children run around enthusiastically for a few more minutes before Q’s sister comes outside and alerts them it’s time for cake and presents. Then there’s a general stampede inside, war whoops and squeals of delight accompanying the migration.

James waits until everyone has gone in and then stands carefully, trying not to wake the baby.

“You can put her down in one of the rooms upstairs,” Q offers as they walk toward the house.

“I don’t mind,” James says and steadies Alice with a hand to the back of her head.

A slow smile spreads across Q’s face, but thankfully he doesn’t tease or comment on that. He nods and gestures to the doorway to the kitchen where there are fewer people and they might be able to shield Alice from the loudest noises of the party.

***

“Okay,” Amy says to Q as they’re sorting the party trash later. “He’s adorable,” she enthuses. “Did you see him with Alice?” She clutches her heart. “Good job, you.”

Q swallows and tries to ignore the ache in his chest when he reminds himself it’s not real. “I didn’t know he liked kids,” he admits.

“Well, kids like him, regardless of how he feels,” Amy says as she dumps the last of the paper plates into the brimming rubbish bag. “Sam has quite the crush. I heard him telling James he should come back next weekend.” She grabs at her heart again and makes a wounded noise.

“The party went well,” Q says, trying to change the subject.

“It did, didn’t it?” Amy says proudly. “I superheroed the shit out of this thing!”

Q laughs. “Well done.”

Amy takes a dramatic bow. “Mum made the whole thing possible, obviously,” she says sheepishly. “And Gran helped with the food. Group effort, I suppose.”

“The best sort,” Q says and gazes across the large room toward his parents where they sit snuggled on the couch with Sam and Charlie, reading books in an attempt to get everyone down from their sugar-fueled, adrenaline-laden high. James had volunteered to take Alice upstairs to a quiet room and sit with her, and Q can’t think about that too much without feeling like he might be going a bit mad.

“Liam went to get the car so we can get all the presents home in one trip,” Amy says as she surveys the mostly revived room, nearly clear of its earlier chaos. “We’ll probably just stay in tonight. But after the kids go to bed, I could probably convince Liam to stay home with them so I could meet you and James at the pub.”

Q nods. He wants to do something to give Bond a little bit of time away from the madness of the afternoon. He’s not used to that level of kid-filled activity. But he’d like to spend some time with his sister too, if possible.

“Mum said she’s making breakfast for us all tomorrow,” Q says. “Gran’s coming too.”

Amy smiles. “We’ll be there too.” She gives Q an embarrassingly tight hug. “Thank you for coming. You made Sam’s day.”

Q feels guilty for how close he came to not coming at all. Now that he’s there he knows he would’ve been devastated to have to miss it. He pats her back. “Quite right,” Q says. “Favorite uncle here.”

“Only uncle, really,” Amy reminds him, as Liam is an only child. “But semantics.”

Q laughs and pushes her away gently.

*

After Amy’s family leaves, the house is blissfully quiet. Q finds Bond in the front room, sitting by the window reading a book.

“You survived,” Q says with a smile.

Bond looks up and marks his place. “It wasn't so bad,” he says with a small smile.

“My mum wants to eat at the pub tonight,” Q says sitting down in the chair across from him. “Easier for her.”

“Sounds perfect.”

“We can do something else if you’d rather,” Q offers.

Bond gives him a look. “I like your family. Stop fretting.” He opens his book again and reads quietly while Q flips through his phone and answers the few emails he can deal with from a distance and tries not to think about how much he likes having Bond beside him.

*

“Tell us how you met, then,” Q’s mum says when they are settled into their table and have ordered their food and drinks.

“At work,” Q says automatically, afraid of what further exploration into the topic will mean.

“We know that, Ollie,” his mum says with a laugh.

“I’d been out of the country on a long appointment,” Bond says, startling Q. He curls his arm around Q’s shoulders and squeezes reassuringly. “When I got back, Oliver came to meet with me to assess my technology needs,” Bond says, glancing over at Q and smiling with a warmth that makes Q’s chest tight.

“I’d just started working with that department,” Q adds to the story, assuming Bond was just adapting their actual meeting.

“Right,” Bond says mouth quirking up on one side. “He dressed me down for my antiquated approach to technology—”

“I did not!” Q says, sitting up straighter. “That’s not—”

Bond laughs, an easy, bright sound, and Q’s parents join in. “I pushed back a little, perhaps. Proved there was a little life in me yet.”

Q rolls his eyes. “Antiquated approach,” he mutters.

“You compared me to a great old war ship being towed in for scrap,” Bond reminds him, nudging him gently with his shoulder.

“I was talking about the painting,” Q huffs.

“I am fully capable of understanding metaphor and subtext, however,” Bond says with a smirk. “So he outfitted me with my new laptop and phone and gave me the usual warnings about not breaking anything. But then I needed help with a new database that had been installed and so he had to come back.”

Q flushes. It’s not even a true story, and he feels the heat of what a potential wooing by Bond might be like. “You broke things on purpose,” he says. “Told me his phone had been eaten by a komodo dragon!”

Bond grins. “Monitor lizard, Komodo dragon, who’s to say?”

“And then we met each other by chance out to dinner a couple of times,” Q says, getting the hang of this lying by telling the truth thing. “And I found out he plays video games in his spare time.”

“And I stopped breaking things just to get him to come to my office,” Bond says and leans into Q a bit. “I started to drop by his to say hello.”

“It took me awhile to realize he was actually interested,” Q says, aware suddenly that if this were real, he wouldn’t assume kindness from Bond meant interest. “I mean look at him, right?”

Q’s mum makes a scoffing sound. “Look at you!” she counters, as only a mother can.

Bond laughs, not unkindly. “I liked that he wasn’t intimidated by me. And then I found out he’s quite funny, incredibly smart, and under the huge parka, quite handsome.” He gives Q a private sort of smile, and Q feels light headed.

He sputters and blinks wildly, belying any sort of cool anyone at the table might’ve thought he’d developed.

Bond smiles and squeezes Q’s thigh under the table gently.

This is fake. This isn’t real. Q repeats that to himself like a mantra. His parents seem to be expecting some sort of response so he nudges Bond with his shoulder.

Q’s parents laugh brightly as their drinks arrive at the table.

“Rendering him speechless is a feat,” Q’s dad says as he lifts his pint in a mock toast and takes a drink.

Once their food arrives, Bond does what he does best and gets Q’s family talking about what he wants them to talk about. He hears the story about how Q’s parents met (university on a rainy day sharing an umbrella) and where they grew up (Q’s dad in Witney, Q’s mum, Oxford). Q is reminded of his dad’s impressive feat of being the first in his family to attend university.

“My dad was a foreman in the blanket factory,” Q’s dad says. “And his father before him and his before him. But my mum wanted me to go to university, so I did. I’d always been good at tinkering and solving problems, and I found that dentistry actually appeals to people with my skill set.”

Q smiles, proud of his dad. “When I was young, if I asked him to fix a torn book or broken toy he was so precise about it. It was a lengthy operation. That’s when I learned that dentists, apparently, are very detail-oriented.”

“Oliver would’ve been a very good dentist,” his dad says, in what has become a familiar refrain.

“Oh stop,” Q says with a smile. “You already won Amy to your side. There aren’t enough computers in dentistry.”

It’s not an unpleasant topic. His parents were always very supportive of whatever he took an interest in. His dad would’ve loved it if he had joined the ‘family business’ too, but since Dad was himself a rebel against what was the ‘family business’ he was much more understanding of a deviation from the norm than other parents might have been.

Bond keeps the conversation on the Harrises, without being obvious about it. He asks Q’s mum about her teaching career, her family, her favorite holiday spots. If Q didn’t know what he was doing and why, he would’ve had no idea what was happening.

He feels a surge of affection for Bond. It starts with gratefulness and then morphs into respect for his abilities and then smoothes its way into affection, that he can do all of that and make Q’s parents feel interesting and important and worthy of his time.

Q squeezes Bond’s thigh without thinking about it. It’s strong and firm, denim-clad instead of wrapped in Italian wool, a reminder of who he really is and how he really spends his days. Bond covers Q’s hand with his own, slipping his fingers underneath Q’s palm.

***

James loses track of the lie at some point in the evening. It stops feeling like a cover.

He likes this village with it’s friendly, well-loved pub. He likes these people, likes Q’s family. He likes how they treat each other, how Q’s parents interact with each other, how proud they are of Q, even without knowing that he singlehandedly has kept England safe from massive peril on numerous occasions.

James finds himself wanting to be this version of himself. James who has a boyfriend from a nice, stable family, who sits in small-town pubs on Saturday nights and listens to family memories and town anecdotes.

When Q wraps his hand around James’ thigh, it feels easy to cover it with his own hand, to lace their fingers together. He doesn’t even think about it, really.

He continues not to think about it on the walk back from the pub. They stay out much later than the Harrises are apparently used to being out. Q’s parents joke about how they can’t remember the last time they saw 11:00 pm from somewhere other than their bedroom. They’re buzzed and happy as they walk the distance between the pub and the Harris’ house.

James wraps his arm around Q’s shoulders and pulls him into James’ side. He kisses Q on the temple, quickly, like a habit instead of a new, unexpected thing.

The only thing that snaps James out of his devotion to their cover is standing in Q’s old bedroom, now a guest room, decidedly Q-themed, staring at the double bed and remembering that this isn’t something they do.

“Right,” Q says hurriedly. “I can sleep on the floor.” He opens the cupboard and takes two duvets from an upper shelf and starts to arrange them on the hardwood.

“Don’t be daft,” James says. “We can share. We’re both too old to sleep on the floor.”

Q smiles, nervous. “You certainly are,” he says, and his smile turns mischievous. “It’s why I offered.”

James rolls his eyes but doesn’t respond otherwise. Q is uncertain, and it’s up to James to prove to him there’s nothing to fear. This is their cover. They’re pretending to be in a relationship serious enough to warrant a trip home to meet Q’s parents, so of course they’d share a bed. James is fairly sure Mrs. Harris wouldn’t have believed him if he’d said he and Q were saving themselves for marriage.

James busies himself pulling his pyjama bottoms from his bag along with his washbag. Q’s bedroom doesn’t have its own toilet, so he has to go down the hall to get ready for bed.

When he gets back, Q is propped up in the bed, laptop resting on his knees. He’s wrapped up in a sweat shirt with several quilts piled on top of the bed.

James laughs. “Are we in the arctic?”

Q makes a face. “This house is very drafty. You’ll see.”

James rolls his eyes. There’s no way he’s going to be able to sleep with all those blankets and a t-shirt. He doesn’t want to make Q uncomfortable, but he also doesn’t want to die of heat stroke in the night. So he sheds his t-shirt and climbs under the covers.

Q glances over at him quickly and then looks back at his laptop screen. James leans back against the pillows and looks around the room. It’s obviously Q’s childhood bedroom. There’s a shelf that runs along the length of the wall about a foot from the ceiling, and it’s filled with action figures, books and collectibles. It’s clear someone has tried to make it a comfortable room for guests. There are family photos on the wall and the bed is covered in quilts made with flowery fabrics. It’s kind of a hodgepodge sort of room, but it’s also warm and full of things that mattered a lot to Q at one point in his life. James finds he quite likes it.

James rests his arm behind his head and looks up at the ceiling. There are dozens of glow-in-the-dark stars positioned above the bed.

“Are those actual constellations?” James asks, looking closer and noticing patterns he recognizes vaguely.

“There’s no sense in having stars on a ceiling if they’re just in random order,” Q murmurs petulantly, staring hard at his laptop as a blush rises in his cheeks.

James grins at the ceiling and tries to picture young Q—young Oliver—carefully arranging the stars into Cassiopeia and Cepheus. He’s seen pictures around the house of Q as a child. He had a thatch of thick, dark hair and omnipresent spectacles. He was pale and serious-looking, often held tight against one of his parents in a crushing sort of embrace out of which he seemed to be trying to squirm.

“My father loved looking at the stars,” James finds himself saying. “He had a telescope, and if I promised to be quiet and patient he would let me go with him when he stargazed.”

Q makes an interested noise, but James finds he can’t look at him. He hasn’t thought about star gazing with his father in years. The sky seemed closer in Scotland. James liked laying back on the blanket they brought out for the occasion and pretending he could reach out and touch them if he concentrated hard enough.

James had no particular interest in astronomy. But he did find his father fascinating, and it was one of the only times he would let James stay close without peppering him with questions about his studies or his activities.

James points at the far corner of the room. “Hercules.”

“Yes,” Q says, surprise in his voice. “Well spotted.”

James hums agreement as Q switches off the light.

“They look better in the dark,” Q explains as the ceiling is now aglow with his own personal galaxy.

It should be weirder than it is, this sharing a small bed in Q’s childhood bedroom. That’s not to say it isn’t a little strange, because it is. Q seems to be treating James like he may be comprised of hot lava, and he’s afraid if he touches any part of him he’ll burn up instantly. He’s essentially plastered to the very edge of the bed. But other than that, the lying in the dark and talking about the constellations mapped out by an eager childhood version of Q feels very normal.

Come to think of it, lots of things that are new and different for James have felt normal these past few weeks. Not normal, maybe. Nothing ever feels normal, but comfortable maybe. Spending evenings playing a computer game and chatting to Q on a headset while “mining” in Azeroth. Going for curry with a coworker he hasn’t slept with and isn’t actively campaigning to sleep with is definitely a new development. A weekend in Witney complete with a child’s birthday party and baby soothing is not his typical off-time activity.

James stares at the ceiling for a long time. He’s still looking at it as Q’s breath evens out and his body relaxes into sleep. He’s less rigidly stuck to the very edge of the bed, and has, in fact, flopped over slightly, nuzzling closer to James and murmuring nonsensical things in his sleep.

James smiles up at the fading light of the plastic stars and wonders what his father would have to say about who he has become. He wonders if his parents would be proud, wonders what sort of relationship they’d have with one another.

He hasn’t thought about that in a long time, but it’s easier somehow to let the ache of longing take over when he’s lying in a too-small bed with someone he trusts, someone he admires. He feels less alone, letting himself remember what it was like to be part of something, to be more than just what he does.

Q’s face is slack with sleep, his glasses resting on the bedside table, long eyelashes fanned out on his cheeks. His mouth is still, but turned up slightly at the corners, as if he’s dreaming about something pleasant.

James swallows and carefully pushes the complicated thoughts from his mind. He’s disciplined enough not to ponder what it means that he wants to watch Q sleep, that he doesn’t mind that their legs have drifted together in the middle of the bed. That it would be so easy to wrap his arm around Q and pull him closer, to bury his nose behind Q’s ear.

He’s carefully cultivated the emotions he lets close, the ones he lets linger. And this, this newfound, persistent affection, it doesn’t belong in and among the survival instincts and the cunning and the suspiciousness. So he turns onto his side, away from Q, closes his eyes and wills himself to sleep.

***

Q should’ve anticipated waking up this way, should’ve seen it coming. When he fell asleep he had maintained an appropriate amount of distance, staying very clearly on his side, such as the sides are in an undersized bed.

But when he wakes early the next morning his face is smashed into Bond’s shoulder, leg thrown over one of Bond’s, and arm snaked around Bond’s waist. It takes him a few moments to remember why, and then he flushes with embarrassment.

When he tries to extract himself gracefully, Bond murmurs something nonsensical and tightens the grip he has around Q’s back. Q stops struggling and tries to keep his heartbeat steady.

Once he relaxes into the position, he can see maybe why they ended up this way in order to attempt to continue to both fit in the small space. Also, Bond is warm. Q focuses on that because it’s better than thinking about how much he likes how strong Bond’s arms obviously are, how snugly held against Bond’s chest he is.

Bond is attractive. Q has always thought so. This isn’t new information. Waking up like this would always be appealing, and the surge of affection he feels has nothing to do with how great Bond was with his family, how surprisingly gentle he was with Alice, how intuitive he was about Sam and how to play with him.

Bond’s not wearing a t-shirt, and Q realizes his face is pressed up against warm skin. Warm, smooth skin. Q runs through mathematical equations in his head, his shopping list. He recites pi until he can’t remember anymore of it and conjugates verbs in French. Anything to keep himself from melting any further into Bond, from pressing his growing erection into Bond’s hip and embarrassing himself.

Bond stirs a bit, groans softly. “Stop squirming,” he instructs in a gravelly, sleep-muffled voice.

Q freezes.

Bond tightens his grip around Q’s back reflexively. “Good boy,” he murmurs and turns his face into his pillow.

Q scoffs. He isn’t thinking about how soft and rumply this version of Bond is. He’s not. He’s focusing on Bond being smug even when half asleep.

Bond has a smile on his face, even though he does seem to be mostly asleep.

“Quite bossy for someone not in his own bed,” Q grouses and attempts to rearrange himself so he isn’t plastered to Bond. He turns over on his side, facing away from Bond and picks a spot on the wall on which to focus.

Bond chuckles sleepily. “I’m perfectly comfortable,” he says and obliges the rearranging by lying on his side, careful to keep from touching Q. “As I was before.”

Q rolls his eyes and harrumphs. Of course now that he’s a little farther away from Bond’s furnace-like body heat he remembers just how cold and drafty this room can be. He leans backward incrementally, hoping to be warmed without Bond noticing he’s closed the gap again.

Bond chuckles knowingly.

“The room is cold,” Q mumbles indignantly.

Bond tucks the blankets up over Q’s shoulders. “Better?”

It’s not, but Q nods anyway because he can’t very well admit he wants to be plastered against Bond again. But he’s warm enough, and he dozes again, slipping back into sleep.

When he wakes up again, Bond is propped up in the bed, reading a book, still shirtless. It’s so domestic Q blinks a few times to see if this is somehow a morning mirage.

“Good morning, Quartermaster,” Bond murmurs without looking up from his book.

“Morning,” Q says, voice thick with sleep. He tries not to feel disappointed that this time waking up was far more dignified. No longer pressed into Bond’s chest, leg slung over Bond’s, heat radiating between them. That’s not something he should get used to. He should feel grateful for this “redo”.

“Your mum poked her head in a few minutes ago and said breakfast would be ready in a few minutes,” Bond says, finally looking up from his book.

Q flops over onto his back and blinks up at the ceiling. He tries to clear the fog from his brain.

Before he completely wakes up, the door slams open and a little form barrels toward the bed.

“Olllliiiiieeee,” Sam shrieks before throwing himself on top of Q.

“Oomph,” Q gasps as Sam climbs over him to get to Bond.

“I’m here!” Sam says and settles himself between them.

“Well yes you are,” Bond says and sets his book aside.

“It’s breakfast time,” Sam says and surveys the scene. “This is Ollie’s room.”

“It is,” Bond agrees.

“Sometimes I sleep here,” Sam informs him and leans back against the headboard. “There’s stars up there.”

Bond smiles. “There are.”

“Ollie put them there,” Sam whispers and puts his hand on Bond’s arm.

“He did,” Bond says. “Do you like stars?”

“Oh yeah,” Sam says. “But they’re far. We can’t get there. Mummy said.”

Bond laughs. “But we can see them through telescopes. Have you used a telescope?”

Sam’s brow wrinkles. “Tell-scope?”

Bond nods. “Sometime when you visit your uncle in London you can come over and look at the stars through my telescope.”

“Oh yeah,” Sam says knowingly. “We can do that.”

Just then Charlie peeks his head around the door. “Ollie?”

Q smiles. “I’m here, Charlie.”

“Hey,” Charlie says with a suspicious scowl. “How come Sammy getsta be in here? Mummy said we had to wait.”

“Cause I’m a big kid now,” Sam says. “Babies can’t come in.”

“I’m not a baby!” Charlie insists. “Alice is the baby.”

“You can both be in here,” Bond says and scoots over to make room for Charlie’s squirming form.

“Are you readin’ stories?” Charlie asks as he leans against the headboard, mimicking his older brother.

“I was reading,” Bond admits. “But probably nothing you’d be interested in.”

“I bet I would!” Sam insists. “I’m big now.”

Bond smiles and picks the book back up. “Alright then,” he says and opens the book to his marked place. “In the early stages of war,” he reads, “when the Nazis had conquered much of western Europe, Britain looked alarmingly vulnerable—relatively ill-prepared and underarmed.”

“Where’s da pictures?” Charlie asks, craning his neck.

Bond huffs a laugh. “This book doesn’t have pictures.”

Charlie screws his face into a scowl.

Sam sighs. “Big boy books don’t have pictures, Charlie.” He shoots Bond a long-suffering look. “Keep going.”

Q closes his eyes against the adorableness of the scene and reaches out to pull Charlie against him. Charlie giggles and thrashes around, squirming as Q tickles him.

“Ollie,” Charlie admonishes settling against him. “Jamie’s readin’ us a story.”

Q smiles. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s hard for me to follow books without pictures.”

“Yeah,” Charlie says in a whisper.

Bond clears his throat. “From the beginning,” he continues reading, “the desperate need to break the Enigma codes was about much more than simple tactical intelligence. It was about survival.”

Bond looks over at the boys who both seem to be struggling to pay attention. “I bet there’s a book around here you might like better,” he says. “This one is a little dry.”

Q reaches over the side of the bed and feels around to see if he can find one of the many picture books that end up scattered around his parents’ house. He pulls out Huff the Hedgehog and hands it to Bond.

“Brilliant,” Bond says and nods to Q with a thankful look. He opens the book and begins reading. “I’m Huff the Hedgehog and I want my dinner. If I don’t have it soon, I’ll get thinner and thinner!” He reads the children’s classic in the same exact tone he read the book on World War II codebreakers.

But the kids are rapt. Sam leans his head against Bond’s arm and Charlie leans his on Sam and Q has to resist the urge to take a picture of the scene on his mobile. When the story is almost over, Amy looks in on them and smiles.

“Breakfast is ready, lazy boys,” she says with warmth.

“We’re reading, Mummy!” Charlie announces at a near yell.

“I see that!” Amy says. “Did you thank James for reading you a story?”

“Thank you,” Charlie and Sam say in unison.

Bond nods and ruffles Sam’s hair. “The picture book was far more interesting. You were right, Charlie.”

“I know,” Charlie says sagely as he scoots off the bed. “You can have some of mine. Cause they’re better.”

The boys follow Amy out of the room, and Q and Bond are left sitting on the bed.

“Sorry,” Q says sheepishly. “I should’ve warned you that could happen.”

Bond smiles something small and sweet. “I didn’t mind. It’s been awhile since I’ve read Huff the Hedgehog.” He keeps eye contact with Q for a beat or two longer than Q can handle it. His eyes are their normal piercing blue, but there’s so much warmth and kindness in them, something Q hasn’t noticed before. He seems relaxed, easy. It’s hard to look at for too long.

“Breakfast then?” Q asks, breaking eye contact as he scrambles off the bed. He pulls on a pair of socks and grabs a jumper to ward off the cold.

Bond pulls on a shirt and they make their way downstairs.

Everyone else is already sitting down, Amy and her family, Q’s grandmother and parents. There are two seats left, side by side and Q’s grandma pats the one next to her and gestures for Bond to sit next to her.

“I made the beans,” she says as she scoops some onto Bond’s plate without asking.

Bond thanks her politely and fills his plate with eggs and sausage, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms and a couple of slices of Q’s dad’s homemade bread.

“This looks lovely,” Bond says meaningfully. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a breakfast this good.”

“Doesn’t Oliver cook for you?” Q’s grandmother asks, scandalized. “I’ve taught him all my recipes. Oliver! How do you expect to keep James happy if you don’t cook for him?”

Q chokes on his bite.

“I’m usually a tea and toast sort of fellow,” Bond says smoothly. “But it’s a treat to have a feast like this.”

“A nice, full English is a good way to show you care,” Grandma says and gives Q a meaningful look.

Bond chuckles. “The bread is excellent, Tim,” he says to cover whatever embarrassment Q might be feeling.

Q’s dad nods in acknowledgement but is typically humble about his baking prowess.

“Everything’s great,” Q says as he swallows a large bite. He misses the family meals when he’s in London. He forgets to eat so much of the day under normal circumstances. It’s nice to be at home where food just shows up at meal times and is predictably fantastic.

They settle into a conversation about Amy and Dad’s dental practice and the patients they’re losing to a new interloper dentist swooping in from London two days a week. They are also regaled with tales from Sam’s birthday party. Even though they were all in attendance, Sam tells them stories about the party as if they’d all missed it.

Charlie interjects his own observations when he feels ignored and Alice squeals in delight when the whole table laughs at something.

Q sneaks glances at Bond when he thinks no one will notice. Bond’s face is relaxed, eyes crinkled in the corners, mouth turned up in mirth. He’s good with the kids, even if he probably has no idea that he is. He takes all of their questions seriously, even the ridiculous ones. He listens when they tell him things, asks follow up questions, shows he’s engaged.

Q has to hold himself back from touching Bond, from trying to show how grateful he is that Bond has made this visit so easy, so natural.

Of course he will also have to contend with the disappointment of his family when he and Bond “break up” at some point in the near future. Maybe Q shouldn’t be so quick to feel gratitude.

Q zones out for a few minutes reviewing possible breakup excuses and tunes back in to his grandmother patting Bond on the back.

“You’re welcome here anytime,” Gran is saying.

Bond smiles genuinely at her, and if Q didn’t know how good he was at emotional manipulation he would say Bond looked touched. “Well, thank you. I’ve had a lovely time. It’s been nice to see where Oliver is from, to meet all of you.”

“Can you come again?” Sam asks, head tilted to the side.

Bond smiles. “I’d like that,” he says gently.

“Can we come see you?” Sam presses and looks to his mum and dad and then to Q and Bond.

“I think that’s up to your parents,” Bond says carefully.

“But if they say okay could we come look at the stars with you?”

“If you’re in London and you would like to come see the stars and your parents don’t mind, of course you can, Sam,” Bond says and then glances at Q with a hesitant sort of smile, an un-Bond-like nervousness.

Amy smiles at Bond genuinely. “Thank you, James. Sam,” she says directing her words to her child. “It’s rude to invite yourself to other people’s homes.”

“But he said—”

“Sam,” Liam says in his rarely used Stern Parent voice. “Enough.”

Sam’s lower lip juts out in a pout. He crosses his arms in front of his chest and kicks his legs under the table.

“Samuel,” Liam says. “Do you need a time out?”

“No,” Sam grumbles.

“Finish your breakfast. Don’t kick the table.”

Sam glares at his eggs and doesn’t say anything else.

Q nudges Bond with his shoulder while everyone else is distracted with the children. Bond nudges back and takes a bite of his breakfast, smiling goofily at his plate.

***

The car is quiet on the drive back to London. It isn’t uncomfortable, necessarily. Q seems to be in good spirits. The visit to his family went well, and they received a call from M almost immediately upon beginning the journey to London that they’d set a trap for the mole leaking Q-branch research and were confident they would plug the leak by the end of the day.

And yet Q has been staring out of the window at the countryside for the past 20 minutes, and James isn’t sure how to engage him in conversation or if he should even try.

Maybe he needs space. They have spent a lot of time together for the past several days, maybe Q is ready to be on his own for awhile. He’d seemed almost pained when his family told James they hoped he’d visit again soon, pointedly looking at Q and giving him meaningful looks.

Q’s always a bit of a mystery. James may know him a bit better now, after these weeks of playing Warcraft, getting takeaway together, visiting Witney and meeting Q’s family, but he’s still a private, serious sort of person. James feels no closer to understanding him than he did before, the silence in the car just as confusing now as it would’ve been a month ago.

As they get closer to to Q’s flat he clears his throat a few times, clearly trying to say something.

Just down the road from their destination, he finally succeeds.

“So thanks,” Q says and swallows. “I know— this was— not how you were going to spend your holiday. And I know it turned out not to be necessary anyway. But still— thank you.” He cuts a look at James’ face and smiles before looking down at his hands.

“I had a nice time,” James says truthfully. Because he really did. He figured the weekend would be good for a laugh, if nothing else. He’d see Q in a different element, see him interacting with his family, see embarrassing photographs of his childhood. But it had turned into something else. James was made to feel like he belonged.

He wanted to belong. And that’s not a feeling he’s had for quite some time.

“Sorry about the kids,” Q continues. “I know they’re a lot.”

“Stop it with that,” James admonishes. “I had fun, and that includes the kids.”

Q makes a disbelieving noise, and James finds he feels frustrated that Q isn’t listening to him. He doesn’t know how to insist he liked reading to the kids, enjoyed their sometimes nonsensical little stories, without seeming like he’s protesting too much. He resents, a bit, that Q finds it so hard to believe Bond could enjoy that sort of thing.

To be fair, James had no idea he would enjoy that sort of thing. It certainly wouldn’t have been his choice to randomly spend time with families full of kids. But it’s different when one cares about a member of the family.

And just as he thinks that, he hears the sound of a record scratch in his own head. Oh. He cares about Q. He liked watching him with his family and spending time with them and hearing stories about him because Q matters to him. As more than a colleague or a person he plays World of Warcraft with.

That’s unexpected. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is to James.

Finding Q interesting, respecting him, enjoying the time he spends in his company, none of that is surprising. He’s known all of that for quite some time. But actually feeling invested in Q, caring for his well-being, seeking ways to make him happy. That’s… that’s new. Or if it’s not new, then at least realizing that’s what he was doing is.

He glances over at Q. He’s fiddling with his phone, smiling to himself as he quickly types out a reply.

When he pulls up to Q’s flat, James is suddenly stumped for what to say next.

“Well thanks again,” Q says reaching back for the cat carriers and slinging his bag over his shoulder, like he doesn’t want to give James any reason to come inside with him, like he can’t get away fast enough. “It was… nice of you.”

James swallows and nods. “Of course,” he says. “You have everything? Need any help?”

Q shakes his head decisively. “I can manage. You’ve— it’s fine. Go drink expensive scotch in a well-lit pub or something. Have a decent grownup conversation. You’ve earned it.” He gives James a small, nervous smile and then shuts the car door.

James doesn’t want to go to a pub, is the thing. He wants to follow Q upstairs and help him feed the cats and find a place of honor on the fridge to hang the drawing Charlie made for him. James doesn’t want to go back to his empty flat and his quiet, solitary existence and lose the feeling of warmth and family he was surrounded with all weekend.

But James is bad at asking for what he needs. He’s good at being direct in work situations, in hookups, in informing a tailor he wants more of a break in his trousers. But when it comes to actual feelings, James has never been very good at navigating that.

He watches Q juggling the two cats and his overflowing bag. Watches him almost drop his mobile twice. He can hear the cats loud complaints even from inside the car. If Q had wanted him to come up, he clearly has a great excuse. But he didn’t ask.

So he must not.

***

Q almost falls three times climbing the stairs to his flat. If he wasn’t so sure Bond was ready to bolt he would’ve asked for help getting inside. But he finally manages to get himself and the cats inside the flat without face-planting on the stairs.

It’s so quiet in his flat. Even with the cats grudge-holding meowing. They both scatter to sulk under the bed or somewhere equally hidden where they can plot his demise for forcing them into cages for the 2 hour car journey.

Q is, as he always is when returning from Witney, torn. There’s a part of him that relishes the solitude his life in London affords him. Witney is full of questions, full of other people making all his decisions for him. He’s pulled by tiny hands toward Lego and Star Wars figurines. He reads the same books over and over again, pretending each time like they’re new and exciting.

By the time he’s home again, Q feels a sense of relief and loneliness in equal measure. For as much as he’s overwhelmed by the hubbub of his family, he does miss his family. Most days he can push that down and cover it up with the demands of an incredibly stressful job that leave little time for self-reflection.

Q can watch whatever he wants on the telly. He can order takeaway from the restaurant of his choosing. He doesn’t battle over the comfy place on the sofa. He can sleep in the middle of the bed if he wants. He can walk around naked or wear a mustard stained t-shirt every night for a week. Being single and living alone has always been something Q relished.

He thrives in the silence. His creativity and innovation are born from the restorative nature of quiet. He tinkers with gadgets while he watches Netflix and plans new weapons while he runs dungeons on World of Warcraft. (He’d be loathe to admit it, but he based more than one specially-equipped dagger on weapons used in Warcraft.)

But after a trip to Witney, the silence feels less welcome. It hangs heavy and thick, echoing back to him that his life has a very limited scope. He’s very good at what he’s good at, but a lot of other things are a mystery.

He looks at his sister’s life, with her strong marriage to a man who was willing to give up a successful career so they could move to Witney to be near her family and so she could go into business with her father. He sees her children in all their loud, sticky, chaotic glory. He marvels at her busy career, her ability to juggle all these things and also manage to live in close proximity to their parents in the hometown full of old boyfriends and nosy busy-bodies.

Q doesn’t know how she managed to acquire any of those things, how she manages to maintain them. He envies her and is mystified by her in equal measure. Her life seems exhausting, and it’s not like his is a walk in the park.

There was a moment or two over the weekend, where Q felt like he got a glimpse of what it would feel like to bring someone home who would be accepted by his family, who would enjoy the time spent in a sleepy village, drinking pints at the pub down the road from the house he grew up in.

He let himself slip into the ease of that, the sense of belonging, not just to his own family, but to the broader fraternity of people who have figured out how to have a career and a personal life and seem smugly baffling to everyone who hasn’t.

Bond was surprisingly good at playing the role of a boyfriend, and Q found himself wanting to believe. It felt real, and it messed with his head a bit.

So now in the silence of his flat, surrounded by the normal nothingness that he usually finds so comforting, he is lonely and longing. That just won’t do. He’s not going to pine. That’s ridiculous.

Bond has always been this charming, this good looking. He’s always been someone grandmothers would find enchanting. He’s met the Queen, for Christ’s sake. He’s always been a man who would know how to choose an expensive wine and also drink someone under the table at a pub. He’s always been that guy.

Q has always found him appealing. But he’s been able to file him under “Unattainable: don’t even bother with fantasy.” And now he’s filed under “Talked about cars with Dad” and “Poured tea for Gran and told her stories about his work in Buckingham Palace” and “Makes satisfied noises in his sleep and is a secret cuddler.” Knowing all of that makes it more difficult to dismiss the attraction or quell the interest. Q wishes he’d invited Bond up for tea. Or asked him if he’d like dinner.

Something.

He wasn’t ready to stop pretending.

***

On Monday James reports to Psych for an evaluation. After the normal battery of inane questions, he is put through the paces of the rigorous physical exam as well. He’s in much better shape now than he was when he wheezed his way through the exam the former M put him through before the Skyfall incident.

He doesn’t anticipate a problem with passing legitimately this time.

When he’s finished he waits for Mallory and tries to ignore the knowing way Moneypenny is smirking at him.

“If you’ve something to say,” James says, aiming for imperious but it comes out a bit more peevish.

She bites back a smile. “How was Witney?”

James raises an eyebrow at her. “Classified.”

She smiles brightly. “Better than I’d even hoped.”

James rolls his eyes. “It was Witney. What is it you imagine?”

“Don’t play dumb,” she says and sits behind her desk. “It doesn’t suit you.”

James schools his features into a mask of indifference. “Witney was lovely. Mission accomplished. Q is safe. Nothing else to report.”

Thankfully the intercom buzzes to indicate Mallory is ready for James so he has an excuse to escape her scrutiny.

“Well then,” Mallory says over the top of his glasses once James is settled into his chair across the desk from him. “You look well.”

James nods. “I was on holiday, you see.”

Mallory gives him a long look and then flips open the folder in front of him. “It appears you’ve passed,” he says finally. “Psych has recommended you take your leave between missions, no volunteering to go out into the field immediately upon return.”

James knows better than to raise protest, so he simply waits.

Mallory watches James with his assessing gaze. “You are a valuable agent. And I suppose one could argue that part of your value is that you seem to not place a very high worth on your own life. One has to have a certain measure of carelessness about one’s own life to do the work of a double oh.” He tents his fingers and leans back slightly. “I happen to think you’ll be a better long term asset for England if you have a lie in every now and again and take a holiday once a quarter.”

James doesn’t say anything, even though there’s been a space left for him to respond.

“How you spend your non-work hours is technically none of my concern,” Mallory admits. “So long as it doesn’t affect your work. Which this should prevent.”

James finally nods to show he heard. “The threat to Q-branch has been mitigated, then?” he asks, changing the subject to something he finds far more interesting.

“As I informed you yesterday, the threat has been neutralized,” Mallory says calmly.

That can mean any number of things in their world up to and including killing the mole. It might make him cold hearted, but James hopes that’s what happened. The only way to neutralize the threat of leaked intelligence, if it’s of human origin, is to permanently remove the human leaking the intelligence.

“Very good, sir,” James says. “Am I cleared for duty, then?”

Mallory sighs. “Report to Q-branch to help 004 interrogate the remaining employees.” He smirks.

“So one step up from desk duty, then?”

“I would think the safety of Q-branch would be of particular interest to you,” Mallory says with one eyebrow raised. “Especially since you returned from the South of France to accompany its head to Witney.”

Why must everyone say the name of Q’s hometown as if it’s the worst place in the world? Witney is a perfectly lovely place. “Anything for Queen and country,” James says smoothly. “I’ll just be off, then.”

“Yes,” Mallory says and looks back to the papers on his desk. “We’re running full evaluations on all Q-branch employees again, psych included. You and 004 are only meant to remind them in your ever-subtle way what can happen should they have a lapse in loyalty.”

“Understood.”

“Good day, 007.”

***

Q slips easily into the work that is always waiting. M sent agents to question the rest of Q branch, after discovering and eliminating the leak (he can’t spend time pondering what that actually means. Self-preservation). Since Q has already been cleared, he’s covering the employees currently being intimidated by field agents and monitoring 002’s mission in Uzbekistan while modifying equipment for a mission two agents will undertake the following week.

When Bond turns up in Q-branch, they nod recognition to each other but Q keeps his attention on his work. He doesn’t even have to pretend to be engrossed. He’s doing the job of at least four people. He doesn’t have time to stare at Bond and think about how he looked reading to Sam and Charlie. That way madness lies.

It’s better for everything to go back to the way it was anyway. The sooner he trains himself out of thoughts like that, the happier he’ll be in the long term.

At the noon hour his stomach starts to rumble. He flits his gaze across the room to where Bond is listening intently to one of Q branch, intimidating stare firmly in place. He wonders if Bond is hungry, if he should wait and see if he wants something to eat.

But he’s trying to go back to the way things were before, and before Q would’ve ducked down to the chip shop and eaten his lunch walking back to Vauxhall. Q doesn’t do lunch out with colleagues. He usually gets so absorbed in his work he forgets to eat.

A throat clears, and Q looks up to find Will staring down at him.

“Yes?”

“I am going to pop out for takeaway,” Will says, shifting from one foot to the other. “Shall I get you something?”

Q smiles. “That would be lovely.”

“What would you like?”

“Whatever you’re having will be fine,” Q says and tries to infuse the words with calm since Will seems determined to be intimidated by him for absolutely no good reason.

“Right,” Will says, nodding. “Back in a flash.”

Q turns back to his computer and lets himself get absorbed by the weapon modifications he’s planning for a delicate mission.

Some time later another throat clearing begs for Q’s attention.

“Just set it on the desk,” he says and gestures vaguely without looking up. “Thank you.”

“Set what exactly?” Bond’s amused voice a surprise where he expected Will’s nervous tone.

Q looks up to find Bond smirking at him from the doorway. “I thought you were Will.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Bond says and moves into the room with his usual swagger. “Lunch?”

Q swallows and looks back toward his computer, ignoring the way his stomach jumps at the suggestion. “Will’s fetching me something.”

“Ah,” Bond says. “And what a culinary delight that will be.”

Q smiles in spite of himself. “Says the man who frequents the greasy kebab shop at least once a week.”

“Lies and slander,” Bond says and leans against the wall next to the door.

Will rushes in then with a brown paper bag. He glances between Q and Bond and then rushes back out.

“Have you threatened him in some way?” Bond asks grabbing the bag before Q can reach it.

“You make him nervous,” Q says defensively, even though he knows Will would’ve reacted like that even if Q had been in there alone. “Could have something to do with the menacing you and the other double oh’s have been doing this morning.”

Bond levels him with a steady gaze. “Just reminding,” he says vaguely. “Not menacing.”

Q rolls his eyes. Semantics.

“So I’m left to my own devices for lunch, then?” Bond asks, eyebrow raised.

Q feels himself flush. “You seem to do fine left to your own devices most days.” He scolds himself for finding anything about this conversation worthy of a blush.

Bond smirks at him in a Bond-ish fashion, but he leaves. It’s better this way, Q reminds himself. They need to go back to eating lunch alone, not running into each other at dinner. Bond needs to go back to his glamorous life, and Q needs to get back to his quiet one.

***

Things go back to form, which should bother James less than it does. His first mission after being reinstated should be a relief. It’s an easy assignment to a posh locale. It isn’t the sort where he has to lay in wait on a rooftop for hours on end. It’s the sort where he dresses in a tuxedo and charms a wealthy widow and drinks good liquor and eats fine food. There’s dancing and flirting, and the hotel where it all takes place is beautiful.

It’s the sort of assignment that James normally finds relaxing. It’s mostly an intelligence gathering mission, and one with very little risk. Mallory gave him the assignment because he’s attempting to ease James back into service. It might even be a bit of an apology if Mallory were prone to that sort of thing (which James is certain he is not).

But after James has extracted the bit of information he was after over a fine meal, he retires to his room. The widow was hinting wildly that he would be welcome to join her in her suite, but he demurred as graciously as he could so as not to offend.

Instead he pulls out his laptop and logs onto World of Warcraft and tries to pretend he’s not disappointed when Q isn’t online. He plays anyway, does the daily quests for his professions, mines ore mindlessly while he watches a movie on TV and briefly wonders how this became a thing he does. How many other Warcraft players are sitting in a hotel room in Monaco in an undone tuxedo. He wonders where one Warcraft player in particular is that evening.

Q isn’t his handler for this mission. It’s easy enough that it was passed off to an underling. Or at least James hopes that’s the reason. Usually Q is his monitor, even on the simpler tasks. James liked to think he’d somehow claimed 007 missions as his own, regardless of difficulty or type.

But Q is busy. He hasn’t been avoiding James, exactly. They’ve still bantered when they’ve encountered each other in Q-branch. Q has helped James through a few dungeons on Warcraft, and they’ve bumped into each other once at the kabob shop. It might just be James’ imagination, but it feels like Q is holding something back. It felt easy between them before Witney. Spending time together didn’t feel like it required effort or explanation.

But James has found himself struggling to justify visits to Q-branch. It hasn’t felt easy to invite Q over to play Warcraft or to grab takeaway. It seems silly now to have thought they were maybe headed somewhere. That their pretend relationship for the benefit of Q’s family was possibly less pretend than it maybe should’ve been.

Q’s sending him some sort of message. James’ job is to be observant, to read cues. And everything Q is sending right now is saying “stop” “wait” “don’t.” James is a lot of things, some of them not entirely ethical or moral. But the one thing he doesn’t do, won’t do, is force his presence on someone who doesn’t want it. If Q has reasons for keeping James away, James will do his best to respect his decision.

He just doesn’t understand what changed. Or why it’s different. Or when the reason started to matter so much.

***

“But Jamie said we could,” Sam whines, eyes big and concerned. “He said. Ollie.”

Q sighs. They’re having their daily FaceTime conversation. Amy has informed Q that they’ll be in London that weekend to visit the science museum and take Q to lunch, and Sam wants Bond to come along.

“He’ll be out of town for work,” Q hedges. “He’ll be very sad to miss you though.”

“He said,” Sam says again, lower lip quivering. “I sent him a picture.”

Q swallows. Every couple of weeks Amy sends a big mailer full of drawings and coloring pages from the kids. Last month there was a frame made of ice lolly sticks painted bright purple and dipped in glitter. Sometimes there’s a pebble or two in the package that Sam has identified as special or important in some way, and he’s entrusted Q to keep them safe from his younger brother and sister.

Q keeps everything, displays the newest things on his refrigerator or the peg board by his front door. He has a couple of them framed in his bedroom, like the drawing Sam made of their whole family, stick figures Amy labeled helpfully so Q would know who everyone was. He looks forward to those packages, and in return he sends back snow shakers he buys in tourist shops, t-shirts he picks up in comic book stores. He sends photos of Mycroft and Sherlock and sometimes encloses a book or a toy for each of them. He isn’t able to send a package as often as he gets them from the kids. But when he does, he tries to make them special.

Amy comes into frame. “I sent off a box yesterday,” she explains, pulling Sam onto her lap and running her fingers through his messy hair. “Sam included a drawing he made for James. And a special stone just for him.”

“It’s very shiny,” Sam says quietly, looking at his hands. “He’ll like it.”

“I’m sure he will,” Q says and feels like the worst person in the world for introducing this man to his family under false pretenses.

“Will he send me a stone in return?” Sam asks hopefully.

Q smiles. “I’m sure he will,” he says. He’ll send Sam something from James if it comes to that. There is no way he wants to hurt his nephew.

“See if maybe he wants to see me when we come,” Sam says hopefully.

“He’s working, Sammy,” Q says softly. “He goes away a lot for work.”

“We’ll see him next time,” Amy reassures Sam. “We can send him things in the meantime.” She looks at Q through her phone and the look on her face is fierce and pointed. “Right, Oliver?”

Q swallows. “Right. Of course.”

“Give him my picture, Ollie,” Sam says earnestly. “And tell him I’m coming ‘case he wants to stay.”

Q smiles and nods. “Will do, Sammy.”

Sam returns his smile brightly and Q’s heart twists. “I love you, Ollie! You’ll see me soon!”

“I will,” Q agrees. “I’m very happy about that.”

“Yeah,” Sam agrees.

Amy grins at Sam and kisses his forehead. “Go play in the garden, Sam. I need to speak with Oliver.”

Sam grumbles, but slides off her lap and runs off toward the garden yelling something to Charlie.

“Out with it,” Amy says. “What has you so upset?”

Q furrows his brow. “Nothing? I’m not upset. I feel bad disappointing Sam.” That’s as close to the truth as he’s going to go right now.

“Did you and James have a row?”

Q bites his lip. “No,” he says carefully. “I just haven’t seen him much. He travels—”

“For work,” Amy finishes. “I know.” She levels an assessing gaze at him. “Well, something is wrong, I just don’t know what. If James is ignoring you in favor of work or other friends, I will be very cross with him.”

“He’s not ignoring me,” Q says and thinks of the confused looks Bond has been throwing his way during his visits to Q-branch, his surprise that Q wouldn’t be manning his current mission. “We’re both just really busy. He was on an extended holiday when we visited Witney. That’s… rare.”

“Well if he happens to be around this weekend, I know that the kids would love to see him,” Amy says. “Liam and me too, really. I like him, Ollie.”

Q swallows. “Yeah. I know. Me— me too.”

“And you promise you’ll be able to go to the museum with us on Saturday?”

“Yeah,” Q says quickly. “Of course. Looking forward to it.”

“No last minute emergencies?”

Q groans. “That doesn’t happen every time,” he says petulantly.

“Just every second time,” Amy says with a smirk.

“It won’t happen this time,” he reassures her. He’ll make certain.

***

James has been in Q branch for the past 10 minutes and seen not a trace of Q. The door to his office is closed, a rarity.

When he’s finished returning his mission equipment to the Q-branch tech, the nervous one who always seems to flinch when James moves, as if James might strike him, James starts toward the exit to leave. He wants to stop and say something to Q, but he can’t think of an excuse that won’t seem terribly obvious, and he used up his “question about World of Warcraft” excuse for the week already.

“007.”

James turns around at the sound of Q’s voice and tries to keep his face free from surprise.

“Do you have a moment?”

Q’s face is impassive, and he turns back around and disappears inside his office. The nervous tech shoots James a sympathetic look, as if he knows James is in for some sort of verbal flogging.

When he enters the office, Q is bent over his desk, a mound of paperwork in front of him, and James feels guilty for assuming he was in his office to keep away from James.

Q gestures to a thick folder without looking up.

James retrieves it, opening the folder to find several childish drawings inside. “Your work is improving,” he quips, hoping to break whatever weird tension is hanging over the room.

Q looks up, small smile on his lips. “The top three are from Sam. He wants you to have them. You don’t have to— they’re yours, I just promised him I’d give them to you.”

James examines the pictures. The first is a rendering of Captain America’s shield. The second is of a garden with balloons and the third is less clear, but it appears to be a bed with four people in it, books open on their laps and stars over their heads. It occurs to him all of a sudden that it’s meant to be them—James and Q, Sam and Charlie. He smiles at the paper, helpless and looks up to find Q staring at him.

“Looks just like you,” James says because it feels like he’s supposed to say something.

Q rolls his eyes and leans back a bit in his chair. “I was given very stern instructions to make sure you got those.”

James swallows and is surprised to find he’s touched by the gesture. Sam had seemed to like him when they were in Witney, but it’s been a few weeks since they’ve been back. James doesn’t know much about children, but he always assumed they had a fairly short attention span. “I will display them proudly,” he says finally.

“Sam will be thrilled,” Q says with a small smile.

They stare at each other for a few, oddly charged seconds before Q clears his throat. “I have a meeting with M in a few minutes, so I should—” he gestures at the stack in front of him.

“Right,” James says, tucking the drawings into his valise. “Thank Sam for me.”

“Will do,” Q says with a nod, glancing down at his work.

James pauses for a second, tries to think of how to ask if Q would want to get dinner, would care to meet for Warcraft, would like to catch a film. But he’s completely lost his normal calm and ease with that sort of inquiry. Something about whatever is going on with Q just makes James feel completely off balance.

“Right,” he says again. “I’ll just be off then.”

He turns and flees as coolly as he can manage.

***

Q isn’t stupid. He’s actually fairly clever, and usually a few steps ahead of the people around him. So he feels the tension with Bond. He could tell as he lingered around Q’s desk that he wanted to talk more, make plans, flirt. Like they used to.

It’s not that Q doesn’t want that. He misses it. He just— he knows it’s not going to end well for him. He knows it like he knows how to rebuild a computer, how to deconstruct complex machinery. He knows it like he knows maths. It feels like a universal truth his soul understands.

James Bond may be intrigued by him, drawn to him. But it will not end well for them. Q doesn’t want to be one of the flings, one of the office romances that burn bright and flame out quickly. He doesn’t want to be gossip fodder. He doesn’t want the sympathetic looks when Bond tires of him and moves on to someone new.

It’s become clear over the past several weeks that there’s something between them, but that doesn’t mean it’s something that has staying power. Q may not be ready for marriage or family or that level of seriousness, but he’s also not a guy who wants to sleep with a different person every night. He’s a steady sort of bloke.

He’s waiting for Bond to get over whatever has him currently fixated on Q. He kind of thought the Sam drawings might do the trick, remind him that Q comes from Witney, likes Witney. That he holidays with sticky fingers and macaroni crafts and Lego play time on the floor. That being with Q means being with his family, his no-boundary-having family.

But instead of seeming put off by it, Bond had seemed oddly touched by Sam’s artwork.

Q had to look away from the way his features turned soft at the picture Sam had drawn of the four of them in the bed reading stories.

So Q is just pretending it doesn’t exist until Bond inevitably snaps out of his infatuation (or attraction, or whatever this is).

*

It’s Saturday, and Q has had a flat full of family since mid-morning. They’ve already destroyed his bedroom and sent the cats hiding under various pieces of furniture, so it’s definitely time to do things that take them out of the small space.

Sam loves the Tube. He wouldn’t if he had to take it every day, but he’s 5, and it’s a train, so of course Sam loves the Tube. Sam peppers Q with questions as they walk to the station, submitting to the requisite hand-holding as long as Q provides him with the information he seeks.

“How’d they get the train down there, though?” he asks, squinting up at Q as they walk. “Did they dig a hole or was the hole already there?”

Q smiles. He watched a documentary on Netflix last month that addressed the “Secrets of the London Underground” so he’s actually well-prepared to answer this question. When Sam asks questions, Q tries to answer them fully and completely, without dumbing it down for a kid. He does choose words he hopes that Sam will understand, but the kid isn’t stupid, and Q thinks treating kids like they’re tiny idiots is a mistake.

“They dug tunnels, and sometimes trenches and then covered them back up again,” Q says and describes the early history of the Metropolitan Railway.

“Was it scary to dig the tunnel?”

Q squeezes his hand. “Maybe sometimes,” he admits. “But there were lots of workers, so they weren’t down there alone.” He says that part because he knows Sam’s primary objection to the dark is having to experience it by himself.

“They were brave,” Sam decides. “And now we have the Tube.”

Q laughs. “Indeed.”

They descend into the station, and as usual, Sam is fascinated by the whole experience, as if the Tube were an amusement park ride.

They eat lunch at Tom’s Kitchen, Charlie and Sam as charmed as ever by the tiny burgers and fries on the kids’ portioned plates. It’s a beautiful day, so they walk from there to the museum, stopping to pick up the odd pebble or clump of dog fur that Charlie or Sam find interesting.

“That’s rubbish, Charlie,” Liam admonishes at one point, as he reaches for a foil gum wrapper.

“’s shiny,” Charlie insists.

“But still rubbish,” Liam says a little more gently.

Charlie pouts, so Q points out a puppy sitting next to his owner on a bench near the park.

“Puppy!” Charlie exclaims happily and drags his father toward the bewildered man. They’re all watching that happen when Q backs into a jogger.

“Oh, sorry!” he says and turns to find a sweaty James Bond blocking his path.

Bond smiles broadly, eyebrows raised in surprise.

“Jamie!” Sam yells and runs toward them, wrapping his little arms around Bond’s legs. “I knew you’d come!”

Bond gives Q a confused look. “Sam,” he says and crouches down so he can look him in the face, giving him a warm smile.

“Ollie said you were gone,” Sam says, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

Bond shoots Q a quizzical look. “Yes. Well, I was. But I came back.”

That’s almost always true, in some way or another, so it’s not even like he has to lie.

“Are you coming to the museum with us?” Sam asks—pleads, really.

Bond gives Q another glance. “Well, I’m just out for a run,” he says and seems suddenly aware he’s in exercise clothing when he nods to Amy and Liam, holding Alice and Charlie and standing at the periphery of the conversation.

Sam’s face is so hopeful, Q can’t sit idly by. “You could meet us there,” he suggests to Bond, willing to beg his forgiveness later if it will make Sam happy. “I didn’t know if you’d be up to it. You know, uh, after your trip.” He tries to infuse apology and understanding into a pointed look.

“We’ll go to the park for a little while first,” Amy suggests smoothly. “Give you a chance to pop home and meet us at the science museum.”

Bond glances at Q again and then nods decisively at Sam. “I’d love to come.”

Sam grins and gives him a big hug. “We ate burgers at Tom’s,” he says, as if that has anything to do with anything.

Bond laughs. “That sounds delicious,” he says and stands up. “I should run back to my flat so I don’t hold you up. I’ll ring Oliver when I’m done and meet you at the museum.”

“Thank you,” Q says quietly as Bond squeezes Q’s shoulder as he moves past him, already picking up his pace to a full out run.

Q ignores the way his family is smiling at him and forges ahead imperiously.

***

As usual lately, James is left reeling after an interaction with Q. The last people James expected to run into on his jog were Q, his sister and her family, including one very excited 5 year old determined to make James his best friend.

Usually on his Saturday runs he crosses through Kensington Park and is “accidentally” bumped into by an aggressive woman who wears very tight jog pants. It happened so regularly that for awhile he was convinced she was a secret agent, but he’d doubled back and followed her home the last time, had Q-branch research her, and it appears she’s just a banker unused to hearing “no” from men she meets on the jog path.

But encountering Q—Oliver—with his family hadn’t even made the list of possibilities.

He keeps picturing Q’s face (embarrassed? sheepish?) upon James discovering their family outing. He’d blushed when Sam announced that he wanted James to meet them at the Science Museum, which James couldn’t tell was embarrassment at being reminded that his family thinks James is his boyfriend, or embarrassment at being caught out on such a mundane activity.

James can’t figure out how to make Q understand that he actually enjoys the novelty of time spent with family, that he was flattered little Sam sent pictures just for him, that they’re now hanging proudly on his refrigerator. He can’t decide if Q doesn’t think James is good enough to spend time around his family or that the doesn’t think he’d want to. If it’s the first, there’s nothing James can do to change his mind. If it’s the second… he clearly hasn’t been paying attention.

After he’s taken a quick shower and changed into a jumper and jeans, he texts Q. They’ve apparently been feeding ducks in the park and are now walking to the science museum. They arrange a place to meet, and James hails a taxi.

Q’s family is gathered near the entrance of the museum. Amy is holding Alice, while Q has Charlie on his back and Liam has Sam on his and the boys are shrieking in delight as the adults “race” each other as the boys pretend to be jockeys.

James grins helplessly, moving to stand next to a laughing Amy and accepting a spit-covered toy from Alice.

“Hello,” he says to both of them and earns a delighted shriek from Alice.

“James,” Amy says warmly. “We’ve been amusing ourselves in your absence.”

“I see that,” James says and tries to tamp down the surge of affection he feels as Q reaches the other end of the building. He pauses for a moment, turns and then starts running back toward them.

James tracks the moment that Q sees him and his face does several things at once. He sobers briefly, looks like he might stop running, takes stock of the laughing 3 year old on his back and the disappointment his stopping might cause and then looks determined to run in spite of James’ witness to his behavior.

Q and Charlie beat Sam and Liam, but just barely. Sam is incensed by the loss until he spots James and squirms off Liam’s back and careens toward James.

“Jamie!” he squeals and slams into James’ legs.

James pats his head somewhat awkwardly, never quite sure how to return the exuberance. “Sam.”

“Let’s do the horse race again,” Sam says looking up at him. “If you’re my horse we’ll win.”

Liam scoffs from the side, and Amy and Q chuckle.

“No more races,” Q says and sets Charlie down. “We’re here for the museum!”

“But you’re coming in, right?” Sam asks James, tugging him toward the door to the museum.

“Don’t— Sam,” Amy pleads. “Sorry, James.”

It’s silly, maybe, as James has won over much tougher audiences. He’s charmed his way into impossible-to-enter parties, rooms, situations. He’s kept himself alive by convincing a person holding a gun that he was more use breathing than not. And yet somehow a five year old called Sam liking him this much, picking him as a favorite, feels like a triumph.

“It’s quite alright,” James reassures them as he lets Sam pull him closer to the museum. “I don’t mind.”

It’s been years since James has been in the science museum, and the last time he was there he certainly wasn’t with children. But things have a way of coming alive when viewed through the eyes of a five year old. The exhibits are fascinating to Sam and Charlie, their eyes wide as they experience everything, as they’re encouraged to touch, to understand.

James looks up when they’re in an area called the “Pattern Pod” and finds Q watching him with a thoughtful look on his face, like he’s trying to figure something out. James smiles at him, and Q seems jolted out of whatever reverie he’d found himself in.

They pass a toilet at some point, and Liam and Amy insist that Charlie and Sam both take advantage of the moment, handing Alice off to Q and each herding a boy into a toilet.

“Sorry about all of this,” Q says when they’re alone with Alice.

“It’s fine,” James says carefully, unsure how to say that this is far more enjoyable than whatever he would’ve done to pass the day if he hadn’t bumped into Q’s family.

“Sam’s been asking about you non-stop for weeks,” Q admits and flashes a small smile. “I tried to save you from this. Told him you were out of town.”

“I caught that,” James says with an eye roll. “You could’ve asked though. I like your family.”

Q looks away, down the hall toward another exhibit. Alice pats him on the face and grabs at his glasses flinging them down before he can stop her. “Oh shit,” he says and then apologizes to the baby.

James laughs and takes Alice from him while he fetches his glasses before someone can step on them. Alice giggles like it’s part of a game.

“Alice,” Q huffs as he cleans his spectacles on the edge of his shirt before putting them back on. “We don’t fling Uncle Ollie’s glasses.” He shakes his head solemnly as she buries her face in James’ neck.

“She seems contrite,” James says even though he can still hear her giggling against him. “Never happen again.”

Q scoffs. “It happens at least once a visit.”

She smiles up at James and without thinking he boops her on the nose. She giggles. “Jamie,” she says decisively.

“No one’s really called me Jamie before,” he says softly, smiling easily at her.

“Sorry—” Q starts.

“I didn’t say I minded,” James interrupts before he can get going. “Or I don’t when it’s the kids anyway. Don’t you start calling me that.” He gives Q a stern look and it’s met with a surprised smile.

“If you need to be somewhere else—” Q fumbles desperately.

“Where exactly would I need to be?” James cuts him off again, since he seems determined to misinterpret everything, and James has had quite enough. “What is it you imagine I do with my time? You already know I spend inordinate amounts of free time playing that blasted video game. I would’ve thought the mythical 007 character would’ve been ruined for you after that.”

Q swallows and studies his fingernails as Alice taps a rhythm on James’ cheeks with her suspiciously sticky fingers.

“This is where I want to be,” James says finally, as bravely as he knows how. “I’m the only one in a position to decide that.”

Q stares him down as Amy and Charlie exit the women’s toilet.

“Well we may be reaching the end of the time where I can take Charlie into the women’s toilet,” she announces with a grimace. “He was peeking under stalls again. We don’t do that, Charlie.”

“The lady had shiny shoes,” he reasons. “I wanted to touch ‘em.”

Q barks a surprised laugh. “Good rule of thumb, Charlie, is to keep your hands to yourself in a public toilet.” He grins down at his nephew and then ruffles his hair.

“She was loud,” Charlie confides.

“She screamed when she saw a little hand reaching for her shoe under the stall,” Amy clarifies. “I don’t blame her.”

Charlie pouts and refuses to hold anyone’s hand while they wait.

“He’s obsessed with shiny things,” Amy says, bewildered.

“Maybe he’ll be a showgirl,” Q teases.

Amy rolls her eyes but Liam and Sam exit the men’s toilet at that moment, and they’re distracted by Sam’s elaborate retelling of how he went by himself into a stall because he’s a big boy and that’s what big boys do.

James never imagined taking children to the toilet was such an adventure.

By the end of the afternoon, Alice is asleep on her dad’s shoulder, Charlie is clinging to Q’s back and Sam is lying on the floor refusing to leave the space exhibit. There are tears, and people are staring. No one can seem to console him, and James can tell that Amy is at her wit’s end.

He kneels down next to where Sam is lying prone, tears streaming down his face.

“Why don’t you want to go?” James asks once Sam opens his eyes and looks at him, somewhat startled by his presence with him on the floor.

“Cause I wanna look at stars, and mummy said that if I drank all my milk we could watch the space movie,” he wails as fresh tears form.

Amy sighs long-sufferingly. “I forgot completely about the movie,” she admits, directing her words to Liam. “That was three days ago! I don’t know how he keeps track of this stuff.”

James keeps his attention on Sam. “That’s disappointing,” he says. “But lying down here isn’t going to change anything, yeah?”

Sam’s lower lip wobbles and he sniffs. “I wanna see the movie.”

“I know,” James says, at a loss as to how to coax him to stand up. It’s possible he’s out of his depth here. It had just seemed like nothing anyone else was doing was working. “How about this,” he says, landing on a half-formed idea. “What if you stand up, and we all go back to my flat, and I’ll order dinner for us, and then you can look through my telescope.”

Sam wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “I can come to your house?”

James looks up to find everyone staring down at them. “If it’s okay with your mum and dad,” he clarifies as Amy nods encouragingly. “We’ll all go to my flat together.”

Sam sits up. “Can I ride on your back?”

James huffs a laugh and nods. “You can, although I think we’ll get a taxi. It’s a long walk.”

“A taxi!” Sam says. “The big black ones?”

“The very ones,” James says and moves into a crouch as Sam lets his mom pull him up.

“We don’t want to impose on you,” Amy says with a grimace. “I’m sure you don’t want three kids running around your house.”

“He said!” Sam says and looks up at James quickly. “You said, right?”

James smiles. “It’s not a terribly interesting place for children,” he admits. “But if you don’t mind that, you’re welcome. We can get a pizza or some other child-approved food. Or there’s a great curry takeaway close to my flat. Do kids like curry?”

Liam laughs. “Some might. Ours don’t. Pizza is spot on, though.”

The little crowd that had gathered to watch the tantrum disperses, and James crouches down to let Sam climb onto his back.

“This feels distinctly like rewarding him for bad behavior,” Amy grouses.

“Well you did tell him if he drank all his milk he could watch the space movie,” Liam jokes quietly.

“Hush,” Amy says and nudges against him as Liam curls an arm protectively around her shoulders, kissing her temple. “James is my hero,” she sighs, tension leaving her shoulders. “Let’s leave the kids in London with James and Oliver.”

Q chokes on nothing and then starts a coughing fit.

James grabs onto Sam’s legs where they’re wrapped around his waist and then walks down the road to where he knows they’ll be able to catch a taxi.

“We can take a bus or the Tube,” Q says, suddenly beside him.

“This is easier,” James says dismissively as he flags a taxi down. He gives the driver a generous tip to overlook the excess number of people. It’s probably not the safest thing in the world, but they’re only going a mile or two. Too far to walk with kids, but it’s more work to find a bus or a Tube stop and get home that way.

When they’re all piled in it’s a bit like a clown car, and the kids are a giggling squirming mass, clearly enjoying the irregularity of being in an automobile without their safety seats.

When they arrive at his place, James tips the driver again generously.

“I have nothing for kids to do,” James confides to Q as they’re waiting for Amy and Liam to get all the kids out of the taxi. “My flat barely has anything for adults to do.”

“You have Netflix, right?”

“Right,” James confirms.

“We can always find them a cartoon to watch,” Q says. “But I think just the novelty of being in your space will go a long way.” He smiles warmly and James’ stomach flips over. “Let’s order the pizza first thing, though. They’ll fade quickly without food.”

The doorman raises his eyebrows upon seeing James enter. “Good evening, Mr. Bond,” he says.

“I’m Sam!” Sam declares. “Are you a soldier?”

The doorman smiles. “Of a sort,” he says and winks at Sam. “I guard the door.”

Sam grins. “I like your hat!”

“Thank you, Timothy,” James says with a nod.

“Very good, sir,” Timothy the doorman says as Sam pokes the button for the lift.

James sees his flat through the eyes of children as they walk through the door. It’s very posh, high ceilings, sleek furniture, beautiful moldings, heavy doors. But it looks lifeless and boring.

“Where’s your toys?” Charlie asks looking around the main living room.

James smiles. “No toys, I’m afraid,” he admits. “Your house is better for that, I’m sure.”

“Yeah we got a lotta toys,” Charlie sighs.

Sam runs through the flat with a whoop and then jumps up onto James’ bed. “Your bed’s real tall!”

“Sorry,” Q mumbles. “This is— things might be ruined. Hide anything valuable.” He grimaces as he hears the tell-tale sound of little feet jumping on James’ bed.

“You go supervise that,” James says. “I’ll ring for pizza.”

They spend the time waiting for the pizza to arrive chasing the kids around the apartment and putting breakable items on high shelves.

James doesn’t have a table big enough for all of them, so when the pizza arrives, Q asks for a blanket and declares they’re having a picnic. James tries not to think too hard about the cashmere blanket he’s sacrificing to the cause.

When it gets dark, James pulls out the telescope and shows Sam and Charlie constellations as best he can.

“It’s harder to see them in the city,” James admits.

“You could bring it to our house next time,” Sam says as he stares into the eyepiece of the telescope.

James looks at Q. “Sounds like a plan,” he says carefully.

The kids start to fade not long after, Charlie already fast asleep in his father’s lap and Alice sleeping soundly on the couch. Sam is fighting it, but his eyelids are heavy.

“We need to go, Ollie,” Amy says, moving to stand. “We need to get our car from your flat.”

Liam groans wearily.

“Stay here,” James offers quickly. “I have an extra bedroom, and there’s a sofa bed in my office. Between those two rooms, I think we can accommodate you.”

“Oh no,” Amy starts, but then looks around at her family, glances at Q who shrugs helplessly. “I mean that’s too much—”

“It’s fine,” James insists. “It’s silly to have all this space just for me anyway.”

It doesn’t take much to convince them. It makes James weary just thinking of lugging three sleeping kids across town and then driving all the way back to Witney. Q’s flat is small, so even if they decided to try to make it there, that wouldn’t be a comfortable option. Amy’s smart. She seems to process all of that pretty quickly.

They of course have none of the things they need for bedtime. James lends out t-shirts and pyjama bottoms. He sends Q down to Boots to get toothbrushes and a few other essentials while he makes up the sofa bed in the office and finds extra towels for everyone.

“Thank you,” Amy says at the door to the guest room once she has Charlie and Sam tucked into the office. “You saved us today. More than once.”

James smiles. “It’s no trouble.”

After she closes the door, it’s just Q and James staring at each other awkwardly.

“I just— today was—” Q starts, shifting from one foot to the other.

“Great,” James finishes for him. “Today was great. Stop fretting.”

“We just kind of invaded your life with no warning,” Q says mournfully.

James sighs. He doesn’t know how to reassure Q better than he already has, and he’s growing weary of trying. “Bedtime.”

James could offer to sleep on the sofa in the living room, but a) he’s pretty sure Q’s family still thinks they’re together and b) he doesn’t want to. Instead he moves toward his bedroom and leaves it up to Q if he follows or not.

***

Bond flosses. Of course he does.

Q tries not to stare at him as they share Bond’s ridiculously oversized ensuite to brush their teeth and ready themselves for bed. Even his toothpaste is stupidly fancy.

He seems out of sorts, which Q guesses is because Q’s family invaded his life for the entire day and now he has a house full of people when he expected to have a quiet evening (or even worse, had planned to go out and possibly bring someone back here. But Q doesn’t want to think about that).

Unlike the bed they shared in Q’s childhood home, Bond’s bed is generously sized. Bond obviously has a side, as one of the bedside tables has a stack of books, a notepad, a few pens and a pair of reading glasses on it. Q takes the other side, and checks email and news on his phone while Bond dons the reading glasses and picks up one of the books.

Q wishes he had his laptop. But otherwise this feels surprisingly normal. He could imagine ending many days this way.

“Stop fidgeting,” Bond murmurs without looking up from his book.

Q hadn’t even realized he was fidgeting, but he’s grown restless without something to read and his phone battery nearing the end of its life.

“Sorry,” Q says and tries to stay stock still.

Bond huffs a laugh. “Would you like a book? You can turn on the telly,” he says and gestures toward the large flatscreen mounted across from the bed.

“What’s your book about?” Q asks.

Bond flashes the cover at him. “The French Revolution.”

Q doesn’t know what to say to that. He also doesn’t know where to look when Bond’s perfect torso is uncovered and on display.

Bond sighs and sets the book on the table. “Out with it.”

“With what?” Q asks, confused.

“Whatever is wrong,” Bond says. “You’ve been odd for weeks. Avoiding me. And now you can’t keep still.”

“No,” Q protests, even though he knows it’s probably futile. “I’m not— avoiding you.”

Bond hums noncommittally and raises an eyebrow. “You are a lot of work.”

Q sits up straighter, suddenly indignant. “What? No, I’m not. What do you mean?”

Bond sighs and closes his eyes briefly. “I’ve never met someone more determined to ignore truth and stick to a self-penned narrative.”

“What— I don’t—”

“It’s quite simple,” Bond says and scoots down in the bed until he’s lying flat and flips off the lamp so that only the light from the street illuminates the room. “You’re making it much more difficult than it needs to be.”

“Making what difficult,” Q asks feebly, even though he knows already. He just didn’t expect Bond to be so direct about it.

“I’m 44 years old, Q,” Bond says finally. “Playing coy games is something I do professionally. But in real life, I’m tired of that. It seemed to me like we were getting along quite well, like we were possibly heading somewhere good. Together. But you seem determined to misunderstand my intentions and paint me as a cad. And I’m not having that. Playing dumb doesn’t suit you.”

Q lets out a slow breath.

“I have your nephew’s drawing hanging on my refrigerator,” Bond continues. “I pretended to be a horse today, for Christ’s sake.”

Q smiles at the ceiling and feels his stomach twist.

“I like your family,” Bond says turning his head toward Q, but Q keeps his gaze on the ceiling. He’s too embarrassed to look at Bond. “But I like them because they’re yours. I’m not in the habit of befriending children at random.”

Q laughs softly. “Probably wise,” he says. “That’s creepy behavior, especially if you keep sweets in your pocket.” He turns to find Bond staring at him intently.

“Why don’t you believe me?” Bond says finally.

Q could pretend he doesn’t understand what Bond means, but instead he swallows. “It’s not that,” he answers quietly. “You are— we’re so different. I’m cardigans and Warcraft and two cats— oh shit, the cats—” he sits up. “The cats are going to get taken from me by child welfare, aren’t they?”

Bond smirks. “I assume they can make it until morning.”

Q sighs. “They can. But it’s still a shit thing to do.”

“Let’s stay on task here,” Bond prods.

“Right,” Q says and rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I’m cardigans and cats and you’re you. You don’t see how everyone looks at you. How they talk about you. You’re perfectly tailored suits and expensive watches and fine wine. It just doesn’t seem destined to last.”

“That’s a bit insulting,” Bond says after a long silence. It’s not what Q thought he would say, and he turns to face him. “So what if people look at me? They look at you too. My job requires me to dress a certain way, to blend into a certain class of people. But it doesn’t mean I’m incapable of fidelity, of trustworthiness. It doesn’t mean I can’t focus on what’s important. It seems like you think I’m too shallow for real affection, like I don’t deserve to be with who I want because of what I do for my job.”

“That’s not—”

“It is, though,” Bond persists. “How many times today did you apologize for your family, for including me in your plans? How many times today did you not listen when I told you I was having a lovely time, that I didn’t mind, that I enjoy the kids?”

“You’re being polite—”

“Or genuine,” Bond says and makes an exasperated sound. “You will always see what you want to see. And what you see, apparently, when you look at me is someone who can’t be bothered with things that are real, with things that matter. You see someone vain and shallow who doesn’t have the depth to put himself aside for the good of others. That’s offensive and disappointing.”

Q swallows. He hadn’t thought of it like that. Bond did keep insisting he was enjoying himself. And Q had continually dismissed him, and not just today. He doesn’t know what to say to that.

“Good night, Oliver,” Bond says quietly and turns over to face way from him.

Q knows he should probably think of a way to respond, to protest. But he hasn’t been entirely fair to Bond. Maybe attempting to immediately refute his points without giving them some consideration negates them even further.

He has been waiting for Bond to tire of the chase, to become distracted by someone else. He supposes that is unfair.

He lies awake staring at the way the street lamps throw shadows on the ceiling for a long time.

He’s not sure when he finally slips into sleep, but when he wakes the next morning, Bond is no longer beside him.

It takes Q a few minutes to fully awaken, but he hears laughing coming from the main part of the flat. He stumbles out to find everyone awake and gathered in the kitchen.

“We thought you’d never wake up!” Sam says happily from where he clings to Bond’s back while Bond stirs eggs and flips sausages. “Daddy and I went and got pastries!”

There’s a pile of said pastries on a plate next to a pot of tea. There’s orange juice for the kids, and James is finishing up the hot food.

“Looks fantastic,” Q says sleepily.

“We need to head back to your house after we eat,” Amy says.

Q just nods as Bond distributes the eggs and sausages to plates. The kids sit at the small table and the adults lean against the kitchen counters. It’s all quite casual, and if Q is honest with himself, pretty perfect.

When they’re all finished eating, and they’ve gathered their things and everyone is standing by the door, Amy gives Bond a tight hug.

“Thank you for taking us in,” she says and gives him another squeeze. “The kids had a great time, and you saved us from a miserable drive back to Witney late.”

Bond smiles, soft and genuine. “My pleasure. Truly.”

Sam hugs his legs and then Charlie grabs his hand. “Come see us again,” Sam says and Charlie nods up at him. “We have better toys.”

Bond laughs. “Draw me another picture in the meantime?”

“I can draw you more pictures!” Sam declares.

“Me too! I draw stuff!” Charlie insists.

Alice just yells, “Stuff!”

Everyone laughs, and Amy gives Bond a hug and kisses his cheek. “Be good to each other,” she says quietly.

Q swallows and gives Bond a small smile. It’s met with a pinched expression, and Q has no idea how to interpret it. It doesn’t look good, however. He’ll have to sort that out later. He has a five year old pulling at his leg.

Bond must’ve had the doorman call for a taxi, because when they get downstairs there is one waiting for them, seemingly willing to overlook the excessive number for the short drive across the bridge and to Q’s flat.

Amy’s family doesn’t stick around when they’re back to the flat. They grab the random toys and articles of clothing that children seem to shed wherever they go and pack up their car and go.

As usual after one of their visits, Q can’t decide if he’s grateful for the quiet or if he misses the din.

*

Work is busy for the next few days. It’s easy to dismiss the lack of Bond in Q’s life as being down to that. He has budget meetings to start the week and then spends most of the rest of the week in the lab assisting a couple of his team with an invention they’re testing. In between all of that, he monitors missions and outfits departing agents.

It isn’t until Moneypenny visits the lab and mentions Bond in passing that Q realizes it’s been since Sunday morning as his family was leaving Bond’s flat that Q has last seen him.

He’s been thinking of how best to apologize, or even if an apology is what’s in order. He’s not entirely sure what Bond is angry about. He’s certain Bond feels misrepresented, but Q doesn’t know if that’s all it is, or if Bond has deeper feelings he believes haven’t been valued.

Q had been hoping they’d play some Warcraft or run into each other for lunch, and he could better assess the situation. But Bond’s been pointedly absent.

By the end of the week, Q still hasn’t seen him. And then he reads through a brief and realizes Bond was sent to Turkey the night before, and Q hadn’t even realized. He finds that distressing, and he’s not entirely certain why.

Except that’s a lie. He is certain why. He wants to be the person Bond checks in with before he leaves the country, both as his Quartermaster and as… something more.

Since Bond’s mission was thrown together last minute, and Q wasn’t on duty when he left, someone else is handling his comm. Q keeps up with the mission by reading reports and sitting in on briefings, but he’s not the voice in Bond’s ear.

It’s been days since they last spoke. And apparently after Turkey he’s being sent straight to follow a newly discovered lead to Uzbekistan. Q is a part of the mission there, walking Bond through the schematics of a decommissioned weapons plant and helping him to retrieve a cache of bombs that were days away from being sold on the black market.

They banter a bit through that communication. It’s impossible not to, really. Bond is, as always, a contrary sort of person, refusing to just take Q’s word for anything.

(“There will be an exit to your left,” Q says when Bond has located the weapons.

“There’s a door to the right,” Bond insists.

“Dead end,” Q argues. “Go left.”

“I see light under the door.”

“Leads to a courtyard,” Q says. “You’re running out of time. Go left.”

Sound of door opening.

“Oh shit,” Bond says and gunfire punctuates his heavy breathing as he retreats to the left like he should’ve all along.

“You are impossible.”)

But once Bond is safely at the rendezvous point, he signs off with Q. There are no texts later, no calls. He doesn’t log onto Warcraft. A work relationship isn’t enough, Q realizes. He wants more.

He wants more, and it might be too late to have it. He needs to figure out how to prove to Bond that he understands, that he believes him, that he trusts him enough to believe he might actually be boring.

***

James has been on back-to-back missions for over two weeks. These have not been the glamorous sort of missions either. He’s slept in dusty, suffocating rooms, where he felt like a baking bread loaf. He lay in cramped, uncomfortable spots for hours on end listening in on meetings through ventilation shafts. He’s been shot at, trousers ripped, and somehow in the escape in the latter part of his mission, he turned his ankle.

He’s happy he made it out alive, but he’ll be benched for at least a few days while his ankle heals, he’s certain.

It might not be a bad thing, though. He’s tired. James feels every one of those hours he spent contorted in the air shaft. His back is aching, and his neck has had a kink in it since Turkey. He might not mind the break.

He sleeps on the flight back to England. He’s taken straight to medical to have his ankle wrapped and given a heavy dose of painkillers, which eases both the throb of his ankle and the ache of his neck and back.

Mallory pokes his head in as the doctor is finishing up with him and says a bunch of words that James’ brain can’t completely separate now that it’s foggy. But he thinks it’s something about a mandatory rest period and a car waiting to take him home and is replaced in his field of vision by Moneypenny who ushers him out to a waiting car and directs the driver to James’ flat.

“You should call him and tell him you’re okay,” Moneypenny says as she helps him onto his sofa after he insists he doesn’t need her to put him to bed.

“Who,” James asks, because it’s possible he and the painkiller have missed something.

Moneypenny rolls her eyes. “Q.”

James makes a distressed sound. “G’night, Moneypenny,” he says with as much dignity as he can muster through the drug fog.

“Like children,” Moneypenny mutters as she plumps the pillow behind his head. “I’ll check on you in the morning.”

James grunts and lets sleep pull him under as she lets herself out.

*

The next morning James wakes up to a throbbing ankle and loud knocking.

“I know you’re there,” Q’s voice comes through the door.

James groans and squints at the clock to see that it is barely 7:00 am.

 

Q’s knock turns into a pound. “I will pick this lock, 007,” he says in a loud voice.

“Bollocks,” James mumbles and pushes himself off the couch, swearing as he puts too much weight on his ankle. He takes some pleasure in throwing the door open just as Q was about to pound the door again thereby throwing him off balance. He tumbles inward.

“Sorry,” Q says and rights himself, smoothing his clothes and stepping into the room as if he hadn’t been hollering in the hall like a crazy person.

“How can I help you?” James asks, attempting smooth dignity, even though he still hasn’t fully shaken off the fog of painkillers and sleep.

Q crosses him arms in front of him. “You weren’t answering your mobile.”

“It’s 7:00 in the morning,” James says and tries to remember he’s cross with Q and doesn’t want to find anything about Q charming, including his befuddlement and worry. “And my mobile was damaged in the mission.”

“And— and you haven’t logged onto Warcraft in 8 days,” Q says in a rush, almost as if he can’t stop himself.

James bites back a smile. “I’ve been on a mission, as you well know, Quartermaster. There wasn’t a lot of downtime to work on my blacksmithing.” He winces as he forgets himself and again puts too much weight on his foot.

“Sit down,” Q says, moving toward him. “Your file said it was just a sprain. Did they X-ray it? it’s so swollen.” He crouches down next to James’ spot on the sofa after he lowers himself with as much dignity as he can muster. Q prods the ankle gently and stares at it quizzically.

“They did an X-ray,” James assures him. “Not a break. Just a bad sprain.”

Q lets out a slow breath. He looks up at James and swallows.

“I believe you,” Q says meaningfully.

“Why would I lie about an X-ray?”

Q closes his eyes and huffs a laugh. “No. I— you said—” his fingers move gently across James’ ankle, the touch no longer necessary for assessment. It feels soothing, almost unconscious, as if Q can’t help but touch. “You said I didn’t believe you,” he continues. “Before. You said I don’t believe what you want from me. But I do. Or— I want to.” He glances up at James and then looks down and away.

James’ stomach leaps at the words. He hasn’t let himself think about Q, about what happened before he left on his mission. He couldn’t afford to be distracted, and it had hurt too much anyway, to think he’d possibly got close to something with someone who matters, only to be pushed away.

“I believe you are real,” Q says, placing a hand on each of James’ knees, steadying himself. His eyes are sparkling. “I believe you like quiet evenings, that you watch Midsomer Murders and Doc Martin and read military history books and have a telescope. I believe that you enjoy the mining and profession quests in Warcraft.” He smiles softly. “I believe that you’re a nerd.” He rubs his thumbs along the inside of James’ knees while he talks. “You’re a nerd wrapped up in the body of a middle aged movie star.”

James scoffs. “Middle aged,” he says, feigning offense and narrowing his eyes.

Q grins. “Hate to say,” he says sliding his hands further up James’ thighs. “44 is very much middle aged.”

“Cheeky,” James says and reaches out to wrap his hand around the back of Q’s neck.

Q smiles and turns his head slightly so his lips brush the palm of James’ hand. “I was worried about you,” he murmurs.

James runs his thumb back and forth along Q’s jaw. “It’s just an ankle sprain,” he says. “I’ve survived worse.”

“Not because of that,” Q insists. “Okay, a little because of that. But because— I missed you. I— I thought maybe I’d lost you.”

James swallows and then smiles. He focuses all of his attention on Q’s face, his warm eyes, his unfortunate stubble, the earnest expression playing at his lips. “You’re meant to be the smart one,” he chides. “You haven’t been paying attention.”

Q closes his eyes, and his entire body seems to relax. “I am now,” he promises.

James leans over and uses his other hand to wrap behind Q’s neck, letting him frame Q’s face. He rubs his thumbs across his cheekbones and then leans closer and kisses him gently, not to start something, but to reassure, to remind. Q’s lips are soft and willing, but the kiss stays sweet. There’s no urgency, which to some might suggest a lack of passion, but to James it just means he finally has nothing he has to prove.

“It’s still so early,” James murmurs pulling away slightly. “I slept on the bloody sofa. Give us a hand to the bedroom?”

“Smooth,” Q says smirking against him.

“I promise you I will be very smooth another time,” James says as Q helps him off the sofa. “But I need another pain pill and a nap first. I’m middle aged, remember?”

Q laughs, and it sounds relaxed and easy and, most importantly, happy. “I plan to never let you forget it,” he says and leads James toward the bed.

***

Q didn’t intend to stay. But after he’d helped Bond to the bedroom, there’d been beseeching with those bright blue eyes, somehow so much more vulnerable than they’d seemed before.

“Stay.”

And Q had. He propped himself on the bed next to Bond and answered emails on his laptop, working on things he didn’t need the secure server within MI6 to accomplish.

Moneypenny also pestered him over the employee messaging system.

Moneypenny: you forget I can see the location of your phone.

Q: I’m ignoring you

Moneypenny: M says 007 is benched until his ankle heals

Q: am I meant to deliver that message?

Moneypenny: he’s been told. You can help him remember should it slip his mind.

Q ignores her after that and accepts a FaceTime call from his brother-in-law instead. Liam’s face fills the screen.

“Oliver,” he says warmly. “I know you’re at work, but Sammy has cleaned up his room like I asked, and I told him we’d call you if he did it.”

Q smiles. “I’m actually not in the office this morning,” he admits.

The camera shakes a little, and he hears a little voice from just out of frame. “Lemme see!”

And then Sam’s face pops into frame. “Ollie!”

Q’s smile widens. “Sammy,” he says. “I hear you’ve been a good boy today.”

Sam nods vigorously. “I picked up my Lego so daddy stopped steppin’ on it and sayin’ bad words.”

Liam laughs out of frame.

“Stepping on that is the worst,” Q agrees, wincing at the memory. “It’s good you tidied like your dad asked.”

“Yeah,” Sam agrees. “When’re you comin’ to visit again?”

Q glances over to Bond’s sleeping form. He’s stirring a little at the sound of voices.

“Maybe soon,” Q says, wondering if he could convince Bond of a visit to the country that weekend.

“Bring Jamie,” Sam instructs. “Did you give him my drawing?”

Q bites back a smile. “I haven’t had a chance yet,” he admits. “He’s been out of town. Just got back last night.”

Sam’s eyes narrow like he’s determining the acceptability of Q’s explanation. “But you’ll give it to him now?”

“As soon as he wakes up,” Q says in a staged whisper. “He’s sleeping.”

“‘m not,” Bond mumbles from next to him reaching out clumsily. “Not sleeping.”

Q looks down at him and can’t help the probably goofy expression on his face. “You should be,” he says softly.

“Jamie!” Sam’s little voice sounds delighted. “Lemme see him!”

Q gives Bond’s sleep-confused face an apologetic glance and turns the phone to him.

Bond smiles wearily. “Sam,” he says, voice slurred with sleep.

“Jamie!” Sam says and wriggles around excitedly. “Dad! Jamie!”

Liam laughs off-screen. “I see him, Sammy.”

“You comin’ to see us?” Sam asks. “Ollie give him my picture!”

Q hands the phone to Bond with an eye roll and goes to collect his bag from the living room. He hears Sam asking where Bond was and what he was doing there and why he’s sleeping and if he’s sick, all in rapid fire. Bond chuckles and answers as best he can.

“I rolled my ankle,” he’s explaining to Sam when Q gets back to the room with his bag. “The doctor gave me something to make it hurt less, and it’s made me tired.”

Q roots around in his bag while Sam tells him all about a new friend who moved in a few houses away and the fort they built in his garden.

Q hands Bond the drawing when he finally finds it. “This is from Sam,” he explains.

It’s a picture of Bond on the back of a dragon for some reason, Sam standing on a tree nearby.

“Where am I in this picture, Samuel,” Q asks with mock seriousness.

“We’re going to rescue you,” Sam says like it’s very obvious. “You’re in that castle up there.”

Q rolls his eyes while Bond laughs. “I refuse to be the princess in the castle waiting for rescue.”

Bond laughs and pats Q’s leg, pulling him closer so they can both be in the frame. Q smiles and settles in beside him. Sam tells them the story of why Q is in the castle in the first place and how first Sam saved Bond and then they’re both going to save Q.

Q laughs and lays his head on Bond’s shoulder. “That doesn’t sound so bad, I guess,” he admits.

Bond wraps an arm around him and squeezes. They finish the call with Sam eliciting a promise from them that they’ll come out to Witney for the weekend.

“That okay with you?” Q asks when they’ve hung up the phone.

Bond wraps his other arm around Q and draws him impossibly closer. He kisses his forehead and nods against him. “Yes. It sounds perfect,” he says into Q’s hair.

Q grins against him and nods. “Yeah,” he agrees. “It does.”

*********

Six months later…

James blinks his eyes open to find Q peering down at him. He grunts questioningly, hoping Q knows him well enough by now not to need any more words to ascertain his meaning.

“Two things,” Q says, pushing his spectacles up his nose. “Happy birthday,” he says and leans over, giving James a quick kiss on the lips.

James groans. Historically his birthday has not been a celebrated event. Lately birthdays have just meant getting a year closer to the inevitability of being stripped of his field agent status and closer to a desk he’d rather not sit behind.

Q kisses him again, letting his lips linger this time. “Looking pretty good for 45,” he says cheekily. “If I’m being honest.”

James rolls his eyes and grabs Q around the waist, pulling him down onto the bed. “Why are you dressed?”

“Some of us didn’t just get back from a mission, 007,” Q reminds him. “Some of us still have to report to MI6.”

“On my birthday?” James croaks out, indignantly, kissing Q thoroughly. “Some boyfriend you are.”

Q laughs. “Oh please,” he says primly, sitting up. “You told me last night you hate your birthday, so don’t try guilt with me.”

James grins at him while Q adjusts his tie and straightens his hair. “Stay home with me,” he says and feels the familiar swoop in his stomach as he’s reminded that this is now their home. Q moved his things in two weeks ago. The cats sulked under the guest bed for a full two days before they deigned to explore James’ flat. “What’s the second thing?” he asks, remembering how Q started his wake-up.

Q’s brow furrows momentarily and then smiles. “First of all, happy birthday,” he starts again, even punctuating it with the kiss, as if he refuses to be derailed from his practiced delivery of this message. “Second,” he says and kisses James again. “My sister is throwing you a party this weekend, and there’s not really a way out of it.”

James huffs a laugh and reaches out for Q as he darts out of reach, smoothing his shirt and grabbing for his bag.

“Party meaning—”

“Party meaning,” Q finishes with a smile, “my whole family. My gran’s best friend Betty who wants to meet ‘Oliver’s man-friend who knows the Queen’,” Q rolls his eyes letting James know how he feels about Betty, “the Springers from next door to my parents’, dad and Amy’s office staff, Liam’s folks. You know, the usual.”

James knows he’s meant to be irritated by this news, and frankly he could do without the neighbors and the office staff, but the rest of it sounds pretty perfect. “Well, as long as Betty’s there,” James says with a smirk and then squirms away from Q’s retaliatory pinch.

“The kids are quite excited,” Q says as he searches around his side of the bed for his mobile. “Sam is baking you a cake.”

James raises his eyebrows and tries to imagine what that will taste like.

“Which you don’t have to eat,” Q finishes from somewhere on the floor as he reaches for his mobile under the bed. “Gran’s also baking your favorites.”

James smiles at the ceiling and then at Q when he pops up triumphantly waggling his phone.

“Sound okay?” Q asks, and his face is so earnest it makes James’ feel warm from the inside.

He nods and smiles helplessly at Q, happy to be wherever he is and overwhelmed yet again by the ferocity of that feeling.

“I can’t be late for my briefing with M,” Q says apologetically. He leans over and kisses James quickly. “I’ll be home by 6. We have reservations at half 7 at Five Fields. Love you!”

He says that as he’s rushing out of the room, and the last bit is clipped off by the slam of the front door. James smiles and checks his mobile on the bedside table. 7:30. He could get up, go for a jog, read the paper.

But it’s his birthday. He’s on mandatory rest following a mission. And his boyfriend has a rushed commute ahead of him that he could make very uncomfortable if he wants to.

He shoves his fingers into the waistband of his pyjama trousers and dials Q’s number.

Q answers out of breath. “I literally just made my train. Please don’t tell me I forgot something.”

James smiles lazily and wraps his fingers around his quickly hardening dick. “You did. It’s my birthday, and you’ve left me on my own to get off.”

He hears Q’s breath draw in predictably and grins.

“James,” Q says, punctuated by the click of him swallowing. “I’m on the train.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” James says deviously, picturing Q’s blush and the way his eyes are darting around the train car and trying to determine who in there will know what he’s doing.

“You know this call will get dropped,” Q chides. “I’m underground you wanker!”

James laughs and squeezes his dick, stroking himself with more purpose. “See I knew you wanted to listen,” he says and then groans loudly, obnoxiously, and really for no good reason other than he knows it will make Q crazy.

“I hate you,” Q says, in a pinched, clipped way.

James laughs again. He can predict exactly when the call will get dropped as the train goes under the river. He leaves the phone close because he also knows almost exactly how long it will be before—

His mobile rings 4 minutes later.

“James,” Q says, still out of breath, clearly finishing his run up the stairs and out of the station. “You are evil, and I hate you, and I hate that you knew I would call you back.”

James grins. He’s going to enjoy today, he decides. He’s going to take a lot of pictures of himself and send them to Q at really awkward and uncomfortable times. “You didn’t have to call me back,” James reminds him. That’s what makes it so great. Q knows he didn’t have to, he knows James knows. And he did it anyway.

“If I hadn’t this meeting this morning,” Q says and must stop before going into the building, because his voice is more even and it sounds like he’s able to cup the phone to keep his voice angled directly into the receiver. “I would’ve stayed, baby,” he says, his voice a more gentle coo.

James swallows and picks up the pace. “Yeah?”

“Mmm,” Q says. “Wanted to wake you up with my mouth.”

James takes a deep breath. It took them weeks before Q could even talk about wanting to kiss James over the phone. The first time they’d tried to have phone sex while James was on an extended mission, Q had hung up twice he’d been so embarrassed.

He still gets flustered, but he’s become much more comfortable. James likes that he still can’t quite go fully dirty. He usually lets James do the talking. It’s enough for James to know he’s listening, that he responds with murmurs and agreement to James’ suggestions.

“I love it when you do that,” James says honestly. And he means everything. The phone sex, the morning blow jobs, the calling while he’s running late to a meeting, the planning a family party for him, for sharing his home, his life.

Q makes a wounded sort of noise, and James pictures him standing outside, forehead probably resting against the building, trying to keep his face hidden and his voice low. “Let me hear it,” he says softly, like he can’t help it.

James groans loudly then, not even for show. He takes long pulls on his dick, let’s himself enjoy the languid feeling of his hand and the soft fabric of his pyjama bottoms. He thinks about Q and what he looks like when he sleeps— hair completely destroyed by the bed and the way he lets James run his fingers through it while they fall asleep. He thinks about how Q smells, like the inexpensive soap he insists on keeping next to James’ Tom Ford Oud Wood soap bar.

It’s these weird, small details James misses when he’s away, longs for when he’s in the midst of expensive perfume and lavish parties. It’s Q’s sleep rumpled smile and the cat hair-covered jumper he wears to bed James misses. And yes, he thinks of Q’s body, the lithe and lean lines of his willowy torso. The weight of his dick in James’ hand. The way his face changes into something almost wondrous when James presses in. The way he moans his name. The way his voice goes small and serious when Q says he loves him.

James thought love was different than it’s turned out to be. It’s less about reassurance and certainty and more about hope. His life still has loads of question marks. Will he pass his next physical? He has to submit to one when he’s back at work on Monday. If he does, will he decide to stay in field work? Will he take the possible leadership role he and M have discussed as his Plan B at various times over the last several months? He still knows none of those things.

He thought maybe love would make all of that feel less full of uncertainty.

But what it does do is give him hope that regardless of his choice, or the outcome of his test, he has someone to come home to. He has someone with whom to share cats and a flat. He has someone who knows what kind of bread he prefers to buy and how he likes his eggs cooked. He has someone who shares secrets with him, who knows he likes Midsomer Murders and hasn’t told everyone with whom they work that he’s ancient. He has a family, people who care if he comes home in one piece from a mission, who are interested in his wants and needs and desires.

Love is soft and nebulous and less something he can grab onto and more something he can move toward. Love doesn’t make him happy, but it certainly gives him more reasons to make the choices that will lead to happiness.

And honestly, love is why he has his hands down his pyjamas on the morning of his 45th birthday, while his boyfriend stands panting helplessly outside of their shared workplace. Because he loves someone who loves that he’s kind of an arse, who taunts him with sex over the phone when he knows he’s about to have a meeting with their boss. Because he loves someone who he wants so completely that he can’t wait until the end of the day to hear his breath hitch as James gets closer and closer to his climax.

“Oliver,” James says brokenly as he twists his wrist up and over the head of his dick bringing him that much closer.

“Fuck,” Q groans. “I really hate you.”

James grins and comes over his hand. He makes sure to moan loudly while he does and to describe what just happened so Q can file that away to think about throughout his day.

“I’m two minutes late, fuck you,” Q says, frustrated. “You are making that up to me later.”

James licks his lips and sits up to find one of the cats—he still can’t tell them apart—watching him with judging eyes. “Happily,” James says and winks at the cat.

***

“Jamie!” Charlie yells loudly as they walk in the front door. “It’s your birthday! Did you get me a present?”

Bond laughs and braces himself for the small form hurtling toward him. “I thought you were supposed to get me a present on my birthday, Charles.”

Charlie’s eyes narrow like he’s trying to parse the sentence for logical flaws. “I did,” he says finally. “Mummy did,” he admits and rests his forehead on Bond’s shoulder.

Bond laughs and pats his back. “It’s possible there may be something in our bag for you, Charlie.”

Charlie lifts his head up excitedly. “What is it?”

“You’ll have to wait and see,” Bond says and sets him down as Alice clings to his leg. “You too, Allie girl.”

Q feels the familiar tug at his heart that is ever-present when Bond deals with the kids. He likes Bond in his finely tailored suits, as he was last night at James’ birthday dinner at Five Fields. But he likes this even more. Soft-smiling Bond, making Q’s family happy, slinging children over his shoulder, giving Mum and Gran pecks on the cheek, is Q’s favorite Bond.

Q takes their things up to their room while Bond stays in the kitchen and accepts tea and biscuits from Gran. Sam started school a few weeks prior and regales Bond with stories from the playground as Q descends the stairs to join them.

“We made you a party,” Charlie says, trying to climb into Bond’s lap.

“So I hear,” Bond says as he helps him up. “Where is it?”

Charlie giggles. “It’s tomorrow, silly.”

“Oh right,” Bond says. “Well tell me about it, then.”

Charlie sighs. “Mummy said it’s a secret,” he says mournfully, giving Amy looks across the room.

Amy laughs. “Not a secret, exactly,” she says. “Just more fun if we don’t tell James every thing that’s happening before it happens, right?”

“I guess,” Charlie says. “I like parties.”

Bond grins. “Me too. What should we do before dinner?”

Charlie and Sam look at their mum. “Can we go to the park?”

Amy gives Q a look. “If James and Oliver will take you, yes. But Grammy and I are making dinner.”

The kids all swing their heads to look at Q and Bond.

Q laughs. “Sure,” he says. “Shoes on.”

There’s a flurry of activity as the kids scramble into shoes and squirm out of the idea of adding another layer of clothing. They do diligently hold Q’s hands, however, while Bond carries Alice on his shoulders.

Charlie and Sam give away all the secrets of the party on their short walk to the park. Bond laughs and says he’s glad they don’t hold state secrets, and then has to spend the rest of the walk explaining what a state secret is and why it would be bad for them to be told.

Q grins the whole time, sneaking glances at the way Alice has two fistfuls of Bond’s hair tugged tight like she’s holding the reins of a horse.

While the kids use the swings and run around the playground with a few other kids they seem to recognize, Bond and Q sit on a bench and monitor the proceedings. Bond is vigilant and alert the way he would be if he were on a mission. Back straight, senses keen, his eyes constantly roving the green and the surrounding houses for anything that could potentially pose a threat.

Q chuckles softly. “You can relax, I think,” he says and squeezes Bond’s knee.

Bond glances at him quickly and then back toward the children. “They’re under our care,” he murmurs as his eyes narrow at one of the fathers sitting on the other side of the playground. “Which one is his?”

Q bites back a smile. “I think he belongs with the little girl called Hermione by the sandpit.”

Bond nods, but keeps his eye on the father.

Q threads his fingers with Bond’s and keeps his grip tight. “They’re safe here,” he reassures. “Amy brings them here all the time without you, and there are no assassination attempts.”

Bond gives him a sharp look. “Not funny.”

Q rolls his eyes. “I’m just saying.” He holds up the hand not gripping Bond’s in surrender. “This is Witney. I think it will be okay.”

Bond sighs and leans back against the bench a little. He doesn’t say anything, but Q sees his cheeks pink, and he squeezes Bond’s hand in reassurance.

“It’s good,” Q admits. “I love how you love them.”

Bond swallows and keeps watching Charlie running in a giant circle around Alice while Sam and another boy sing some sort of song. “They’re family,” he says quietly. “I don’t— I don’t have a lot to contribute, but I can at least keep them safe.”

Q makes a small, involuntary noise and rests his head on Bond’s shoulders. “Listen,” he says after a few minutes of silence. “This party was their idea. They made all the decorations, colored you a banner. They chose the food. They picked the games. You don’t have to do anything, contribute anything to earn that. You are you, and they love you. And that’s the end of it.”

Bond swallows and doesn’t say anything, but Q feels his shoulders relax a little further.

“Not all of the food, I hope,” he says finally, and Q laughs loudly.

The kids are notorious for going through phases of only wanting to eat certain foods, turning their noses up at former favorites. Sam is currently in a egg salad sandwich phase, and the house has a particularly sulfuric smell at all times, as they boil the eggs necessary to keep up with the demand.

“I’m sure my mum got a few of your favorites in there too,” Q reassures him.

***

James wakes up slowly the next morning, pulled out of sleep against his will and determined not to succumb. He tightens his grip around Q’s familiar form, slipping his fingers into the elastic of Q’s pyjamas, which earns him a wriggle of Q’s arse against James’ dick. He kisses the skin behind Q’s ear.

“Morning, love,” James murmurs.

Q grunts and turns his face further into his pillow. “Sleep,” he commands in a less than commanding tone.

James hears the sounds that woke him moments before. The shouts and squeals coming from the kitchen as Q’s parents welcome Amy’s family into their home for breakfast.

“I think sleep will be impossible soon,” James says with a smirk and kisses farther down the back of Q’s neck.

Q groans and turns his head slightly so he can see James’ face. He looks befuddled. It’s one of James’ favorite things about waking up with Q every morning. He looks so soft and unguarded. It’s a private side of him only James gets to see.

“Did you lock the door?” Q asks rubbing his eyes.

“Can’t remember,” James admits. They’d been at the pub with Q’s parents late, and had fallen into bed when they got home.

“We need our own place,” Q says just as the sound of little feet running up the stairs and shrieking voices fill the hallway.

“We have our own place,” James reminds him. “In London.”

The door swings open. “Jamie! Ollie!” Charlie and Sam hurtle themselves onto the bed, knees and arms flailing.

Alice waits for someone to pull her up on the bed, smiling sweetly at James. He’s always been easy for her, as Q never fails to remind him. He smiles at her as the two boys squirm and fight for a spot on the bed.

“Up?” She asks him and raises her hands.

James hauls her onto the bed and settles her in the middle of the pile.

“It’s breakfast time,” Charlie informs them, still squirming. “Why’re you still in bed?”

“We like sleep,” Q says, voice still a little slower and thicker than usual.

Sam rolls his eyes. “Sleep’s boring,” he informs them like it’s something James and Q will come to realize when they get older. “Nothing fun happens in bed,” he adds, like he assumes that will seal the deal.

James laughs, thinking of all the ways that is completely untrue. “Oliver and I are deeply boring people, Sammy. We like sleep. And we like our bed.”

Sam scrunches his nose in distaste as Q chokes back a laugh. “Toys are more fun. Breakfast is more fun, even. C’mon. Let’s go.”

James grins and shakes his head. “No. Nap time.” He closes his eyes and pretends to snore.

“Not nap time!” Charlie says desperately. “We just got here! C’mon!” He tugs at James’ arm and scrambles against the bedcovers to try to gain the necessary leverage to actually move James from the bed.

Alice rests her head on James’ shoulder, content to wait it out. “Pastries,” she says in her little voice. It still surprises him when she contributes to the conversation. She still seems like a baby to him, the 12 month old he rocked when he was in Witney that first time. “I like ‘em.”

James kisses her forehead. “Me too. What else is there to eat?”

“Eggs!” Charlie says, louder than he needs to. “Sausage too!”

“Potatoes maybe,” Sam adds, sounding uncertain but wanting to be part of convincing them to get out of bed.

“Everything good,” Charlie says.

“Hard to refuse that,” Q admits and runs his fingers through Sam’s messy hair. “Lead the way.”

The kids whoop happily and scramble off the bed again. They run down the stairs as noisily as they came up earlier.

“Really need our own place,” Q says again, leaning over to give James a long, lingering kiss.

James slides his arms around Q and pulls him over until he’s covering James’ body.

“I’m serious,” Q says breaking the kiss. “I’d like to have sex in Witney someday,” he says wistfully. “It’s been a dream since I was a kid. Help me make it come true.”

James laughs and curls his hand behind Q’s neck. He is so beautiful. James doesn’t know what to do with it sometimes. There’s such an openness, a vulnerability to his face now when he looks at James, and it makes his stomach clench pleasantly.

The sound of little feet and exasperated voices start up the stairs again and Q laughs. “We can discuss it later,” he says and kisses James one more time. “They won’t stop until we go downstairs.”

James groans but knows Q’s right. He loves to luxuriate in bed with Q when they have a chance, but he also doesn’t much mind this, either. He knows there’s a full English breakfast downstairs, that Q’s parents and Gran and sister and all the kids will be waiting. There will be laughter, joyful conversation. It will be overwhelming and loud in a still-startling but unexpectedly pleasant way.

When they finally make it downstairs Q’s mum gives them a knowing and yet somehow still disapproving look.

Q’s cheeks pink, and he ignores her completely, finding a seat in between his dad and Sam as Gran places a full plate in front of him. James is pulled down next to Charlie and Amy and receives his own impressive serving, but his has a candle in it.

“It’s your birthday,” Charlie stage whispers, as if James could forget the purpose of their visit.

“I know,” James whispers back. “Should I blow this out?”

All the kids nod solemnly, so James makes a big show of thinking of a wish and blowing out the candle, winking at Q across the table.

“There’s cake later!” Sam says gleeful. “This is just breakfast!”

James laughs. “Lucky me,” he says and finds he means it.

It’s not just something one says anymore. He’s lucky. Sure, he’s been lucky in the past. He’s won hands of cards he probably shouldn’t have, cheated death more than once. He chanced into a life of privilege, gaining a status he could never hope to earn on his own.

But this is different. This is the kind of luck one earns by trusting the right people, by giving up pieces of one’s self in exchange for a pieces of someone who matters. It’s luck he cultivates, protects, strives to deserve. He cherishes it, nourishes it, attempts to do better each time he falls short.

“So what did you think of the flat?” Gran asks as she settles into her own breakfast.

James furrows his brow, and glances at Q.

Q swallows his bite and wipes his mouth. “I haven’t had a chance to show him yet,” he says meaningfully, making a lot of intense eye contact with his grandmother.

“Show what? To whom?” James asks looking back and forth between them.

“Oh, Oliver found a nice little flat,” Gran says, sipping her tea and completely ignoring the looks everyone else in the family is giving her. “Just down the road from my house.”

Q sighs. “Yes,” he says carefully. “I— I started to tell you this morning— there’s a flat for sale in a good location. Thought it could be—” he swallows again and seems very nervous. “A good investment. For me.”

James raises an eyebrow. “Are you leaving me?” he asks, somehow not all that worried that Q actually is. But he enjoys flustered Q, and it’s fun to prolong the discomfort, just a bit.

Q chokes and reaches for his water glass. “No!” he says after taking a big gulp. “I sold my place in London, as you know,” he says, finally looking James in the eye. “And you have that ridiculously nice flat so of course we live there. But I thought— I have some money too, you know,” he says like he’s gearing up for some sort of argument, “and we come out here enough it just seems—”

James laughs. “We should see it today,” he interrupts just because he was starting to feel a little guilty Q seemed so rattled.

Q stops, and his face lights up. “Yeah?”

“Of course,” James says. “Or tomorrow. I know there’s a party later.”

The kids all nod in unison, pleased everyone is keeping their priorities in the correct order.

“It’s a lovely flat,” Gran continues as if nothing happened. “I know the couple selling it. They’re having a baby, you see. Wanted a bigger garden and another bedroom. I thought it would be perfect for you. You won’t work forever, James,” she says with a knowing look. “You are 45 now.”

Everyone laughs again and somehow the bit of tension abates as they all tease him over his new age.

“45’s like a granddad,” Sam says knowingly.

Q guffaws loudly. “Not quite,” he protests on James’ behalf.

James grins. “45 is when men become real superheroes,” he says nonchalantly. “My cape arrives next week. I get an Avengers card for my wallet and everything.”

Sam’s eyes get big. “Really?”

Q nods when Sam looks to him. “Yep.”

“That means granddad’s a super hero?” he whispers to the table. “What can you do?”

“I keep all the superheroes’ teeth clean,” he says grandly. “It takes special tools since their teeth are so strong.”

Sam and Charlie squirm around in their chairs excitedly. “We’ve been in your dentist chair!”

Q smiles a small, private thing at James across the table while the family discusses the various dental super abilities of Q’s father.

James returns his smile, helpless to do anything but.

Later, in the calm of the pre-party preparation, when Q and James have been thrown out of the house so the kids can “decorate”, they take a walk. They nod at neighbors, stopping to talk to one of Q’s primary school teachers and pet the dog of one of his childhood friends.

“Here it is,” Q says, coming to a stop outside of a stone building with a “for sale” sign in one of the upper windows. There are flowers in window boxes and it has a charming sort of appeal. “We can’t go in until tomorrow,” he apologizes. “But see how it’s just around the corner from Gran? And the pub is just down the road. Nice, right?”

James smiles at Q’s expectant, hopeful face. He wraps his fingers around Q’s wrist and tugs him closer. “I’m sure it’s great,” James murmurs and kisses Q’s upturned face.

“We don’t have to come every weekend or anything,” Q says nervously, glancing at the building and back up at James. “It just seems like maybe a good idea. To have our own place here.”

James cups Q’s face with one hand and tips him closer for another kiss. “I love it here,” he says against Q’s lips. “You’re here.”

Q’s cheeks pink and he swallows, eyes darting around. It’s still difficult for Q to accept that James is really “all in” on their relationship. James knows this, is still randomly irritated by it, but also knows the more he says it, the better it will get. An added bonus is that he finds flustered, blushing Q extra appealing.

“I take my test this week,” James says finally after an internal debate. He knows Q knows, but they have purposefully been avoiding the topic.

“Nervous?” Q asks and slides his hands up James’ back.

James takes a deep breath and considers the question. “Not nervous,” he admits. “I hope to pass, but if I don’t…” He can’t finish the thought even though he’s come to a place of acceptance about it. No agent can stay field ready forever. “It’s not the most important thing to me anymore.”

Q rests his head on James’ chest and waves an awkward hello at a passing acquaintance who gives them an openly curious glance. “I love you,” he says softly.

James smiles and tightens his grip around Q, keeping him close, breathing him in. “I love you too,” he says. “And I look forward to sex in Witney.”

Q laughs in a loud, surprised burst. He looks up at James, and his face is so open and trusting. “Me too. It’ll be a first for me as well.”

James shakes his head. “Witney’s loss is my gain,” he says and tugs Q along the pavement toward the center of town.