James was gone for two years. Two years was an extraordinarily long time; enough, it seemed, for the world to move on and leave James Bond behind. That was how he felt when he returned back to MI6 after his ill-advised affair with Madeleine while carrying a duffel bag filled with souvenirs.
Eve had a ring around her finger when James went to Mallory’s office to ask for his old position back. Mallory was still in a meeting, so he took the opportunity to catch up. “So, who’s the lucky man, Eve?” He smiled at her. “I need to know so I can warn him about you.”
"Oliver Brooke. And I’d appreciate it if you can leave my fiancé alone. He knows what he’s getting into, trust me.” And she leaned in, her smile sweet but her eyes venomous, “And what about you, James? I seem to recall you swanning off with a girl. How is she, by the way?”
”She’s doing perfectly fine. You can even say she’s thriving. She’s working in a very prestigious clinic in Germany right now.” All this he uttered cheerfully, but just like Eve’s, his eyes told a different story. You are a cruel, cruel woman, Eve Moneypenny, James’ knife-cold eyes said.
You deserve it, Eve’s eyes spoke. “Well, that’s a pity.” She didn’t bother to hide her gloating tone now. “At least you’re back. Very late, but you’re here.”
“I seem to have the world’s worst timing, don’t I?” He said in an abrupt burst of melancholy.
”So it seems.” Eve replied without an iota of sympathy. “Must be so terribly sad, realizing she wasn’t your true love after all that SPECTRE trouble. But you must have had a nice vacation, unbothered by World War bloody III almost starting.” She mercilessly continued, reminding him of how he left MI6 when they needed him and his reckless affair. Of how he abandoned his almost-lover with metaphorical egg on his face.
James grimaced, for once having no reply. He folded his arms, looked away and ignored Eve. He could still feel her smug smile all the way to when Mallory called him in.
“Ah, the prodigal son returns,” Mallory greeted James with a coldness he had never directed at him. “Did you have a good time?” Mallory didn’t seem to care that James had so clearly lost weight. He pulled out a bottle of scotch and two tumblers from his desk drawer. As he did it, James noticed that the glass bottle showed the reflection of two girls and their mother from a new frame on M’s desk. Mallory poured them both two fingers of scotch each. Once done, he gestured for James to sit and gave him his drink.
James answered: ”I did. Is there any chance I could have my old position back?” He didn’t see any point in beating around the bush. He drank half the scotch in one go.
Mallory sipped his drink. ”That can’t be done, and you damn well know that. You’re old, above mandatory retirement age and out of shape. But there is a teaching position open. I suggest you consider it, instead of looking for a mission where you can go out with a bang.”
Mallory pulled out a manila folder from his desk drawer and handed it to James. He had obviously been expecting him to return to MI6. James bristled internally at being read so easily. He finished his scotch, nodded his thanks to Mallory and stood up. But he wasn’t going to leave without a parting shot.
“You seem to have a nice family there, Mallory. How long would it last, I wonder?” James knew he was being rash, that the only reason he was doing this was because Mallory succeeded where he failed, but he didn’t care.
“Longer than yours, I’d wager. At least I won’t abandon them willingly.” Mallory's eyes bored into his, daring him to say another word. James merely inclined his head at him and left the office.
Eve looked up from the paperwork on her desk when he got out. “So, how did it go?” She asked, smoothing her skirt and standing up as though she didn’t already know how it went.
"Terribly. Do you know where I can find Bill?"
"He's on paternity leave." Eve relished in James' shock. "That's what happens when people leave without contact, James-you get left in the dust."
"You could have called me anytime you wanted."
"Why should we? You've made it abundantly clear you couldn't bother with us. Now," and she clapped his shoulder, the one she shot, "I know you're going to see Q. My advice is-don't."
"Can't I see an old friend, Eve?"
"He's something else entirely, isn't he? Don't bother wasting your breath with apologies, he doesn't want to hear them. And bribery doesn't work either." She eyed his leather duffel somewhat disdainfully.
"I'll keep that in mind," he replied. He took out Eve's gift-a box filled with chocolates from Switzerland, an outfit he had ordered for her in France, and a sterling silver brush, comb and mirror set-and deposited it on her desk before leaving.
Q-Branch was as busy as ever. James saw a few new faces, and noticed several missing ones. He wondered if the replaced workers were SPECTRE or they were simply fired because of the merger.
Q was directing a group of his minions. It wasn't an unusual sight. What was unusual was the outfit the Quartermaster was wearing. Q nearly always wore a cardigan or jumper over a shirt and brightly-coloured slacks to work until the whole merger business where he started wearing equally bright suits. Now, he wore a grey tweed suit over a lighter grey woolen waistcoat. James' expert eye identified it as bespoke. Q had also cut his hair and stopped wearing his glasses. James wondered if he wore contacts now or if he got Lasik.
A hush fell over the Q-Branch minions as he made his way deeper into their branch towards their Quartermaster. Q either didn't notice or was simply ignoring him. James would bet his DB5 that it was the latter. The minions around Q froze awkwardly when they noticed him coming closer. Q only clucked and snapped his fingers to gain their attention again before issuing new orders. James took a spot behind his Quartermaster and waited for Q to finish. One by one, the minions scattered to do their jobs and Q was left alone. Before James could approach him, Q turned to face James and said, softly: "Welcome back, Bond."
"Hello to you as well, Q. You look well," No thanks to me, James added ruefully in his mind.
"Thank you. Now, what business do you have in Q-Branch?"
"I just want to see an old friend, Q." An old friend? Really, Bond?
"I was under the impression that we were never friends." Fuck, Q's angry. He had every right to be, James didn't fault him one bit.
"That's mostly my fault, I'm afraid."
"Indeed. Now, if you have no official business in Q-Branch, kindly leave." Q turned and started to walk back to his standing desk.
James surged forward and grasped Q's arm. Q instantly went rigid. "Wait, Q."
"Let go of me, Bond." Q's hands had balled into fists. James let him go.
"Would you like to have dinner with me sometime, Q? I believe we have much to discuss." Seeing the look on Q's face, James amended hastily, "Just a dinner between acquaintances, nothing more. Or drinks, if you want. Whatever you're more comfortable with."
"I can't do that."
"Can't or won't, Q?" Wonderful, James. Sound like a demanding arsehole. I'm sure it'll convince him.
"You see, I have a girlfriend now." What? "And it would send the wrong message for me to spend time with you. I'm sure you know why."
Numbly, James nodded. He saw a smug, triumphant smile flicker briefly on Q's face before a blank expression replaced it. Noticing the minions' stares, James left Q-Branch to look for a hotel to stay in.
Once James was safely ensconced in the bedsit he was staying in temporarily, he started to process what had happened. Q had moved on and found a girlfriend. James didn't even know the Quartermaster liked women that way. He had simply assumed the Quartermaster was gay and not bi. But it didn't matter, did it? James had pushed away his lover and now he lost him. He had always ruined everything good in his life. James had never regretted leaving with Madeleine more than at this moment.
God, he desperately needed a drink. James pushed himself up from the bed he had been siting and having his breakdown on and grabbed his coat. He had seen a bar a street away. He knew it wouldn't make anything better, that at the end of the day it would just drive home how alone he was after having pushed away all his friends, but he needed to drown his sorrows right now. It would soothe the sting of seeing the ruins his life had become, however temporarily.
In the end, it was Bill who picked him up.
James had been using his folded arms as a pillow. He stared blankly at the space behind the bar, taking the occasional sip of alcohol. He could feel the bartender shooting him concerned looks, but he didn’t care. He was here to lose his mind and forget, not to comfort people.
James saw someone sit on the bar stool to his left. James ignored them until he heard a throat clear. Grimacing, he was just about to tell them he was uninterested when a familiar voice said “James.”
Blinking, James focused his blurry vision on Bill’s face. Bill shouldn't be here. Moneypenny said he was with his family.
“What are you doing here? You’re on paternity leave.” James slurred out.
“Eve called me to come pick you up. Gareth is still too angry because of that stunt you pulled in his office, Eve still hasn't entirely forgiven you yet, and Q-well, you know.”
Groaning, James let his head thump on the sticky bartop.
“I’m sorry for bothering you.” He mumbled out. The old James wouldn’t even bother. He’d go back to drinking and ignore Bill. Old James was a prick who didn’t appreciate his friends. New James had learned his lesson well. Too little too late, but they always said experience was the best teacher.
James could feel Bill’s brows rise up to the ceiling.
“There’s nothing to apologise for. I needed a break from Cathy, anyway. I love her, but there’s only so much baby stuff and diaper changes I can handle before I want to talk to adults again.”
”Congratulations, Bill. How old is she?”
”Six months. She’s the most adorable baby you’ll ever see. Want to see a picture?”
”Then let’s go to wherever you’re staying at right now. We can talk properly and you can see Cathy’s picture in a better light. Now come on.” Bill stood up and beckoned to James.
James wobbled up to his feet. Bill helped James out of the club and asked him where to go. James slurred out something that might be directions. Evidently, Bill understood whatever he said as the next time James woke up it was in his hotel’s bed.
James tried to go back to sleep, but his head pounded too much. Grunting, he turned on his side to get out of bed and saw that Bill had put a glass of water and two aspirins on his bedside table at somepoint after dropping him off. James half-sat up, washed the pills down with a swig of water, finished the glass and went back to sleep.
He was next woken up by Bill shaking him gently.
“James? Mate, it’s 1300 hours. You need to wake up and eat.”
James wanted to snap at Bill to leave him alone, but he stopped himself and sat up, rubbing his forehead. Bill had taken the time to take care of him, the least he could do was to treat him nicely.
Bill had a box of take-out and plastic cutlery in his hands.
”A fry up. Greasy, heavy and filling-perfect for hangovers. Eat up.”
"Ta." James devoured the fry-up in bed, not bothering to move to the desk and chair in the corner.
Once James was done, he binned the box and cutlery. It was then he noticed that Bill had put him in a pair of pajamas. He wondered what the hell he was thinking when he asked for his old 00-status back when he couldn't even notice someone changed his clothes. Bill himself was in a pair of sweatpants and a vest, and there was a duffel near the bed. He obviously planned on staying the night with James.
Not really knowing why Bill was there instead of with his family, and not really knowing what to do when your old friend visits you in your hotel, James went to the kitchen corner, turned the kettle on and offered Bill tea awkwardly. Bill, bless his heart, cheerfully accepted the offer and sat down on the chair in the other corner. He started a litany of chatter about his new baby. From how Sophie had terrible morning sickness through all forty weeks of her pregnancy, to how her birthing plan went out the window when Cathy arrived two weeks early while she was driving.
"It felt like a backache at first, you know. We're used to seeing labour as the mother's water breaking suddenly, but it's not like that. Sophie was out visiting her parents. She just drove normally, because she thought her back was acting up because of the baby weight. Then her water broke on the highway. Sophie nearly crashed the car. She had to stop on the side of the road and call an ambulance. Thankfully, she was brought to the hospital in time and Cathy was born two hours later." Bill took out a picture of a very wrinkly, red-faced baby from a side pocket in his duffel. James put teabags in a cup, poured the hot water into them, and handed one to Bill.
"What do you think of her?" Bill cooed. James privately thought she looked like a very white piece of raw bacon, but said she was adorable anyway. Bill snorted.
"Don't lie, I know she's ugly. I appreciate you pretending to think she's beautiful, but she is very wrinkly and ham-like. Thankfully, that went away. Look," he took out another picture. "See, she's much prettier now." And the alien-looking infant was now a charming grey-eyed baby with blonde hair.
"I hope she stays blonde until she's an adult. I was born blond, but my hair darkened at seven. Sophie was born a brunette and she stayed dark-haired, though her brother's hair turned lighter as he grew older. When she calls you Uncle James, you really would look like you're related. You are staying, right?" Bill asked him.
"Do you actually want to stay, or are you staying because you haven't anywhere else to go?"
James took a sip of his tea so he won't have to answer straight away.
"A bit of both," he replied truthfully.
"Well, if you leave again, say goodbye at least. Q was upset about that, you know. You just took off with your last word being a request for the car."
"He must be livid."
"Like you wouldn't believe. The poor boy felt taken advantage of, especially because of your-how shall I say it-affair. He pretends he's not, said you never owed him anything because you never formalized anything in the first place. But really, you owe him an apology." Bill sipped his tea to wet his dry throat.
James sighed into his mug. A beat of comfortable silence passed between them.
"Did Eve like my gift?" he asked Bill. "I bought the brush before I remembered it may not work on her hair texture."
"Oh, yes. It went a long way to appeasing her. She loved that boar bristle hairbrush you gave her. She tried to give some of the chocolates to Q, but he refused. The dress was a perfect fit."
"I'm glad to hear it."
"Do you have anything for Gareth and Q? It might make them less angry at you."
"A dressing gown, leather gloves and sunglasses for Mallory. I got Q chocolates, tea, a scarf, a cardigan, coat and watch. And some cat treats. I got you a fountain pen, cologne, and a jumper."
Bill's mouth twitched at the discrepancy of the amount of gifts between Q and everyone, but didn't comment.
"Speaking of Gareth-what were you thinking, James? Saying he'll lose his new wife and daughters soon, and that it would be his own fault?"
James grimaced. "I was angry at everyone and everything," he admitted. "I was angry at myself for leaving, at Madeleine for the end of our relationship, at all of you for not contacting me. Not your fault, but anger is irrational. Then I went back to MI6, trying to pick up the pieces, and there Mallory was-abrasive and harsh. And it turned out he had a family. I took my anger out on him. It was unfair, he didn't hold a gun to my head and force me to push you all away. I owe him an apology."
"You do. Q was furious when he heard what happened. I tried, and failed, to convince him to not forge a criminal record for you. It was Gareth who finally managed to talk him down."
"Did they fuck?" James asked bluntly.
"No. Oh, they tried a romance-but it didn't really work out."
"Why? Mallory can't get it up anymore?" James meant it as a joke. Q was an insatiable minx in bed, and Mallory seemed too old for Q. He saw Bill grimace, and realized there was some truth to his crass joke.
"Gareth's asexual-that is to say, he doesn't feel sexual attraction. It's probably Nature's way to balance things out with people like you and Q. Gareth had a lot of issues with his lack of attraction. People expect him to enjoy sex and have a lot of it, especially in his agent days because he was young and handsome. But to him, it felt more like an obligation, something he had to do so his partners can enjoy themselves. Problem was, like many people, including you, he equated sex with love. So he had a boatload of unresolved relationship problems from romantic partners who were angry he didn't enjoy sex with them, or never initiated things."
"One day, we all got drunk, and started confessing our love troubles. Gareth admitted he can't enjoy sex. Q suggested asexuality. When we were all sober, Gareth researched it. He was overjoyed to find out he wasn't broken. It was especially difficult for him after his capture, you know-uninformed psychologists diagnosing his lack of attraction was caused by the torture. He was worried someone molested him as a child, or some bastard took advantage of him during his three months and he repressed it. Gareth asked Q out for a dinner. I guess he was too excited at the rush love for the person who helped him find his identity that he didn't stop to figure out if it was platonic or romantic. Not even fifteen minutes in, they ended up giggling like children over how awkward it was, and went back to Q's for a movie and pizza. Q set Gareth up with his wife. She's a friend of a friend. Evelyn demanded a divorce because of her ex-husband's reaction after she came out as asexual. Apparently, because she did fine having sex with him for fifteen years, her ex said she could continue on."
James wrinkled his nose. "You have to be a special type or arsehole to make your partner pretend she wants sex when she doesn't," he remarked.
"Definitely. Asexual people are on a spectrum, some being completely repulsed by sex to being okay with it to make their partner happy. Evelyn's somewhat neutral, she just prefers doing other things than sex. She was ready to compromise with her partner to have reduced sex, but her ex demanded they continue to have sex everyday. Gareth is sex-repulsed, so their relationship worked out perfectly. Her girls accepted him as their father, and Q got to be Gareth's best man."
"And I just insulted his family, and hurt his best friend by leaving. Good God," James scrubbed a hand over his face.
"Gareth understood your actions, you know. But that didn't mean that he liked what you did, abandoning Q like that. If you were simply a runaway agent, he'd snark at you for laziness, but hurting Q-well, that's another matter entirely."
"How do I apologize?"
"Saying sorry would be a good start. Now," Bill stood up. "Tomorrow, you're going to show up at MI6 being as charming as possible. You're going to give the gifts, and you're going to ask Gareth and Q if you want to resume your friendship. I'm going home now, I miss Cathy and Sophie. Good luck." Bill patted James on his shoulder, dug out a t-shirt from his duffel, got dressed and left.
James frowned and started planning out his apology. He hoped he'd get his friends back, especially Q.