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The Solitary Practitioner

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Q was weird.

Bond had seen various shades of weirdness in people over the years. There was the garden variety weird, kinky weird, scary weird, Florida weird…but he’d yet to put a name to what Q was.

A weird little league of his own, he decided, when he came home one evening to find Q on the kitchen table, surrounded by a varied collection crystals and of lit candles—which was another level of weird, because Q didn’t approve of open flame around his precious cats. He called candles fire hazards (and Bond had found that out the hard way when an attempt at romance was halted until all candles in the house were extinguished). Bond sniffed. There was the lingering smell of something herbal and burnt, or was that incense?

Q himself sat cross-legged in the middle of the insanity, eyes closed. He wore a clean t-shirt and a comfortable pair of jeans and was barefoot. His hands were open, palms up, resting on his knees. Back straight as ever, hair damp from the shower drying in unruly curls. Outwardly he looked serene, but it was the frozen, professional serenity that Bond had learned to associated with deep and abiding frustration. The cats each sat on a kitchen chair like sentries, and turned to look at Bond as he came in.

“Evening, Q, Ada, Turing,” he said. “It looks like a New Age shop threw up in here, complete with familiars. You’re just missing the salt and pentagrams.”

Q didn’t open his eyes, nor did he sound surprised that Bond was home. Q did have an uncanny knack for knowing about small things before they happened, which suited the epithet of Seer that Silva gave him during the Skyfall Incident. “Mm. I salted the windowsills and thresholds. I suppose you’re not a demon, then, if you’re here. Good to know, because there have been concerns.”

Bond carefully moved some of the occult detritus, bundles of herbs and a few candles, so he could stand in front of Q. Even to his unpracticed eye, the whole setup looked haphazard, like Q had thrown everything he could think of at a metaphysical wall, hoping something would stick.

Green eyes opened, and Q heaved a deep sigh. Whatever he’d been doing had been unsuccessful, Bond thought, but Q’s quiet smile of greeting was knowing.

“You’re right on time,” Q said, simply. “I’m the one who ran late. Dinner will arrive in ten minutes. Enough time for a shower, if you’re quick.”

In fact, according to the rest of MI6, Bond was about two weeks overdue from his latest mission. Everything had gone pear-shaped almost as soon as he stepped foot on foreign soil. He’d even been incommunicado for most of it but having a Seer for a partner had its advantages, even if they were still working out the particulars. And by “they” Bond meant “Q,” who had decided to stop fearing and start exploring his half-crippled powers as a Seer with the serious approach of a scientist.

Bond’s own abilities were an unwelcome addition to his new existence. Not quite a year before, Moneypenny had shot Bond off a bridge in Turkey. He should have died. There was no reasonable explanation how he lived through a gunshot and 300-foot drop and managed not to drown while unconscious. Instead of dying, he’d ended up comatose in a Turkish hospital. He thought he was dead and going to spend eternity haunting various people in London. Then he met the arrogant, overtired, floofy-haired boffin who had looked him in the eye and said: “I’m your Quartermaster.” Bond’s little ghostly world had shifted in that moment and he’d never really parted from Q since.

Turned out Bond was astral-projecting the whole time, and ever since Q hunted him down and dragged him back (meta)physically to the land of the living, he’d been…not normal.

Q’s favorite theory was that Bond was a psychic medium. Bond wanted a second opinion. He didn’t see all ghosts. Just a few. And he was not interested in helping anyone “move on” or passing messages to the living.

Yet, the ghost of Olivia Mansfield took a vicious delight in agreeing with Q. For some reason, she seemed inordinately attached to them both, and Bond swore he saw her more now that she was dead than he ever saw her alive. She haunted him at work, in the field, and sometimes at home. It was like they’d switched roles—he who would gleefully irritate her and break into her house was now the one telling her to piss off, already, didn’t she have a small kingdom in hell to reign over? Karma was a bitch and so was M, as she often reminded him, usually after she switched out his whiskey with Listerine. She’d taken to poltergeisting like a pro.

Thankfully, she wasn’t around now, saving Bond from making the idle threat of exorcising her. He had no idea how to do an exorcism or if it was even really a thing. He did watch The Exorcist as research and it gave him nightmares, which said something considering his profession and the shit he'd seen in real life over the years.

“I can wait,” Bond said, hooking his hands under Q’s knees and tugging. Q came willingly, unfolding from his meditation pose with a sinuous stretch that caused the t-shirt to ride up enough to show a couple inches of mouthwatering lean abs. A long leg wrapped around Bond’s back and pulled him closer. Bond felt the smooth muscles of Q’s back as Bond leaned in to kiss him a proper hello, felt the gun calluses on Q’s palms as he cupped Bond’s jaw, long fingers in Bond’s short hair.

Something settled in Bond’s soul. He was safe, home, and back in Q’s capable hands. The cats, released of whatever self-imposed witch’s familiar duties they undertook whenever Q ran his metaphysical experiments, hopped down and rubbed their cat fur onto his pantlegs before wandering off. Bond let his forehead rest in Q’s bony shoulder and leant into him. Q’s hands dropped from Bond’s jaw to his shoulders and he seemed content to just hold Bond for a moment.

The doorbell rang.

Bond made a lazy growling sound while Q giggled.

Bond scooped Q off the table, Q coiling around him like an Argentine tango dancer, allowing Bond to whirl and set him securely on the floor, with a certain amount of suggestive sliding that would have gotten them kicked out of every respectable dancing competition for impropriety.

“Go shower,” Q said, nose crinkling. “You smell like an aeroplane.”

“M’s right,” Bond sighed. “Romance is dead.” He started shucking his clothes and leaving a trail to the bathroom, anyway, starting with his tie.

Q did not take him up on the invitation and slink in the shower after him, as his usual wont whenever Bond was home washing a mission off. When Bond emerged once more, clean and dressed in civvies and his ratty brown dressing gown, Q had set out a mini-Thai feast. All the occult paraphernalia was gone, with no clues or indications that it had ever even existed. Even the smell of the sage burning had been replaced by mouthwatering spring rolls.

“So, what exactly did I walk in on?” Bond asked. “Did you exorcise M from the house for good?” He helped himself to a heaping pile of noodles, broccoli, and pineapple chicken.

Q stabbed some green beans on his plate and made a face at them. “The usual. Trying to figure out what exactly it is I can do, and what it means to be a Seer. I’ve done the internet research. Lots of crackpots,” he added parenthetically, “I’ve even read a small library’s worth of books. It seems like the consensus is that meditation can’t hurt.”

“But is it helpful?”

“Not in the least. I can never tell if I’m ‘sending vibes into the universe’ and actually Seeing bits of the future or being overly hopeful about it. And I keep falling asleep. Anyway. What about you?”

“What about me?”

Q raised his eyebrows. Bond shrugged. Q rolled his eyes.

They ate in silence for a while.

“There’s just no one reputable to teach this sort of thing,” Q said. “There’s no Hogwarts full of professors who know the occult. No Gandalf’s running amok.”

“Gandalf running amok didn’t exactly work out for the hobbits, so that’s probably for the best.”

Q’s lips twitched. “I do love when you talk nerdy to me,” he said. “You might as well fill me in on what happened while you were dark. I know some of it, but I’d like the details.”

Bond went along with the subject change. “Turns out, we were right to be worried about a mole…”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Contrary to popular belief, Bond worked a proper office job when he wasn’t in the field. He had a briefcase and everything. While Q still made do with their WWII bunkers, Bond climbed the stairs to the department at Vauxhall where the 00s had their offices. In the old building, Bond had had his own office, but the temporary lodgings meant that the ten current 00s were crammed five each into two bullpen offices. It had the unglamorous look of an episode of Law & Order, complete with stuffed inboxes, teetering files, ancient printers that didn’t always work right, and the lingering smell of burnt coffee.

At least they still had Loelia Ponsonby, the stalwart admin assistant that kept agents 006 to 0010 in order. She carved out her own reception area in their bullpen with the imperial determination of Victorian England and ran their lives as smoothly as ever—more smoothly, probably, because no one could hide away in their offices to avoid her and her endless stacks of paperwork and reports that always needed signing.

She had done her best to make the space comfortable. She had turned an unused corner into a small kitchenette. She’d commandeered a folding table and a low, two-shelf bookcase from somewhere. The table became a counter space that was home to a hot plate, a coffee maker, and a microwave. She’d stuck an ancient mini-fridge on top of the bookcase and used one shelf as storage for thrift-store wicker baskets stocked with a dismal selection of low-cost teas and coffee, biscuits, and snacks. The bottom shelf was where their meager office supplies lived. They rarely had more than a single box of computer paper, and a few boxes of cheap BIC pens, highlighters, staples and paper clips. On a good day, there were extra bottles of white-out and some post-its.

The one creature comfort that really made the place bearable was their favorite raggedy sofa and its equally raggedy crocheted blanket. Bond wasn’t sure how Ms. Ponsonby managed it, but she’d saved them from the old building and had them brought over. Even after being cleaned, the sofa still smelled a bit smoky. It also had the overall appearance of a sagging, disreputable piece of furniture that would look right at home in a crack den. Nevertheless, the sofa was nothing short of an institution.

Despite everything, Bond liked the bullpen. It reminded him of his days in naval intelligence. He had everything he needed: a pockmarked desk from the days of the SOE, a computer that Q made despairing noises over, a chair that didn’t wobble, and a filing cabinet that locked. All the pens on his desk were stolen from other departments, including M-Branch, simply because it amused him. He entertained the vague notion of getting a small bookcase but thought that his reputation might never quite recover if anyone caught Bond, James Bond, the international spy extraordinaire, swearing at IKEA instruction manuals. And he wasn’t totally sure where he’d find the space to put one, anyway.

“Mail and memos are on your desk,” Ms. Ponsonby said. “Coffee?”

“Please,” he said, dropping his briefcase onto the filing cabinet.

Part of Bond’s job was keeping abreast of field reports, world news events, and skill sets. The world of espionage small and incestuous—most of the players at Bond’s level knew each other—but globalism meant that political situations were ever-changing and increasingly connected. With the Cold War back on between the Americans and everyone else, right-wing politics on the rise across Europe, Central America ripping itself apart through institutionalized corruption, Iran simmering with resentment over shredded agreements, and more and more strongman fascists being elected or stealing power, keeping up with global debriefs was a full-time job. Add to the pot the myriad of corporate conglomerates who had money to burn and a line of crooked politicians happy to whore themselves for it, and it was a dart toss to figure out where Bond would end up next.

He turned on his computer and sipped his coffee as he sorted through the stack of correspondence he’d amassed during his mission. Most of it was mundane—requests from Accounting to provide receipts, copies of his medical reports, a reminder to file debriefing paperwork and mission reports by the deadline, and other detritus that he had to work through.

At the bottom of the pile was a simple red envelope. Bond picked it up. If it made it to his office, that meant that it had made it through the scanners and security measures that the agency took, but the reality was that just one mistake in the mailroom could result in a face full of anthrax. Instincts roused, he snapped on a pair of disposable sani-gloves that he kept just for just this reason. He clicked on the desk lamp and examined the envelope.

The cardstock was quality, a sturdy paper meant to survive international travel. The origin of the letter was clearly America; the sender used one of the generic Global Forever stamps the United States Postal Service sold for international letters, and the official tracking stamping across the postage told him it was mailed from New Orleans three weeks ago. His name and generic professional address were written in a careful, slanting hand that struck him as feminine. The back of the envelope did not include the name of the sender, just a New Orleans return address and an old-fashioned fleur-de-lis wax seal.

The hair on the back of Bond’s neck stood up. The envelope felt weighty, without actually being heavy.

“That looks like destiny,” M said.

The ghost of Olivia Mansfield perched on the edge of Bond’s desk. She looked young today, but her eyes were as direct and piercing blue as they had ever been when she was alive. She leaned in close enough that Bond felt an icy chill and his hot coffee cooled to black sludge. He grimaced. It had been funny when he was a poltergeist and did that to Q’s tea; it wasn’t nearly as amusing when it happened to him. Budget-cut coffee was no joke; it was barely palatable hot and even Bond needed sugar to bolt it down, but once it got cold it turned into bitter motor oil.

M suddenly straightened with a snort and said, “How appallingly nostalgic. You should open it.”

As suddenly as she appeared, she was gone. A stack of files toppled over in her wake. Bitch, he thought, a bit fondly.

Bond ran his fingers over the wax seal. What an archaic device. It felt like a summons from the queen, official and imperious.

He ripped the envelope open.

Inside were three tarot cards. He shoved aside everything on his desk, leaving a clear space. One by one, he laid the cards out in the order they came up.

The Fool. The High Priestess. The Lovers.

The cold prickle on the back of Bond’s neck became cold sweat. There was only one case in his career when tarot cards figured prominently. He had been young, arrogant, and much newer to the game. He remembered a girl with dark hair, steady eyes, and the knowing manner of an old priestess mixed with wide-eyed artlessness. She had derisively shown him The Fool card and proclaimed it his own. He had retaliated by stacking her deck full of The Lovers to manipulate her.

Explaining the expense of buying 78 decks of tarot cards to Accounting had been an adventure, and one they did not appreciate or reimburse. He’d given away almost all the decks (all of them one card short) as gag gifts for Christmas that year.

The cards she sent him were old, worn around the edges, and well-loved with decades of shuffling and selection. She had not sent him cards from a new deck, or cards she didn’t care about. She sent him her own personal deck, likely handed down in her family, from one generation of women to another.

She had lost her powers because of him. He’d forgotten that, and her, too. He’d never felt guilty about her loss—had never believed in her powers to begin with. To him, she had been a silly girl entrenched in superstitious nonsense who got a few lucky guesses.

James Bond knew better, now.

“Ms. Ponsonby, I’m going to need two tickets to New Orleans, as quick as you can manage.”

 

Chapter Text

 

“You’re being cagey, even by your standards,” Q said. They were in the New Orleans airport, sweating in the heat. Even though the clock approached midnight, the air was still and swampy. Q stripped off his cardigan and Bond was conscious of the boffin padding trustingly after him. Everything they brought was a carry-on, as Bond didn’t anticipate this being a long trip, so all that they had to do was collect their car rental and go.

And he hadn’t left them any time to pack, anyway. He’d put them on the first flight out to Louisiana and practically abducted his Quartermaster. They had whatever was in their office go-bags and that was it.

For his part, Q hadn’t so much as balked. He’d already been packing his things and directing R to take over when Bond had appeared in Q-Branch, hypersensitive to the cards tucked in his suit jacket.

“I still don’t know why we’re here,” Q said, once they’d collected their rental car and started the half hour drive to the hotel. “I just knew we would be. It’s maddening. Like looking at a painting at various stages of completion. I can sometimes see the result, or the process, or the beginning sketch, but never the whole thing in order. Bond.” Q’s eyes were as unyielding as his tone.

“I don’t know,” Bond muttered. “It relates to an old case of mine, but I think it has to do with you.” At a stoplight, he retrieved the envelope from his jacket pocket. He’d kept the cards on him like they were something precious he was charged with guarding.

“Tarot cards. Old tarot cards,” Q said, holding the cards with care. A frown line appeared between his eyes. Bond felt the air in the car shift, like ocean tides at the beach. The stillest and calmest sections of water were usually the deadliest, so he stayed quiet and waited out the riptide of Q’s abilities.

Q continued, dreamily, “Three…no. Four generations in one family, but they feel even older than that. You’re right to return these with such care.”

“They were sent in good faith,” Bond said. “And I owe her.”

Q relaxed in the passenger seat. “And you say you’re not psychic,” he teased.

“I’m not,” Bond grumbled. “Hotel tonight, and then tomorrow we’ll figure out why we’re here.”

“Oh,” Q said, blinking in surprise. “You don’t know, either. Well. Onward to adventure.”

Really, 007, you must be getting old,” said M from the backseat. Bond groaned and peeked in the rearview mirror. M was wearing a purple top hat, a feather boa, cheap sunglasses, and long strands of purple, gold, and green beads. “You are in New Orleans, it is only eleven pm, and you’re going to your hotel to sleep? The party’s just starting. At least find a place that has a good Sazerac.”

“We’re staying at the Roosevelt Hotel,” Bond said. “They have a wonderful Sazerac.”

“Hotel bar. That’s cheating,” M said. “And lazy. Take it from me. Life’s short, and you’re in America’s favorite party town with a pretty young thing who inexplicably likes you.” She rattled her Mardi Gras beads like the ghost of Marley probably rattled his chains.

“I’m not that much younger, I’m just pure at heart. It repels the wrinkles,” Q said. He turned around and recoiled. “Christ! It’s like looking at Elton John during one of his gayer and higher moments.”

“I thought you were supposed to wear what you died in,” Bond said.

“Don’t be banal, 007. Just because you lacked imagination and preferred to schlep around looking bloody and half-drowned, doesn’t mean we all do. I’ll get out here. Don’t wait up.” M said, disappearing at the next traffic light.

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Bond said to the thin air.

“Is that a strip club across the street?” Q asked. His eyes were huge, and he looked like he wasn’t sure whether he ought to be amused or horrified. Bond saw the flickering neon lights reflected in Q’s glasses.

“I’m afraid so,” Bond said, grimly. He pressed on the gas when the light turned green.

Q was quiet for a moment.

“Sometimes I think that the world is layered. That most people typically experience one layer, one reality, but there’s a lot more happening beneath the surface. Perhaps there are other layers, where life and death and time are more relative.”

“That’s a roundabout way to wonder if there are ghosts of male strippers in that club,” Bond said, wryly. “You think she has any ghost dollars on her for the ghostly G-strings?”

“Oh, my God.” Q, the professionally bored voyeur of numerous trysts on camera and comms, clapped his hands over his eyes. “Why would you say that. I was being philosophical.”

“So was I!” Bond said, grinning. “It was a natural progression of the conversation.”

Q made a sound like a cat whose paw was lightly trod-upon. “I need a drink,” he said.

“I know just the place.”

Despite the lateness of the hour when they finally managed to fall into bed, Q rose long before Bond. He looked strained and unusually pale, with deep circles around his eyes. Bond found him on his laptop, flicking through CCTV footage, sorting through his backlog of emails, and carrying on a chat with R about 005’s current mission. He got the impression that Q had been at it for a while.

Bond’s own dreams had been disturbing—not quite nightmares, but he certainly woke feeling like his head was stuffed with cotton. A cold shower helped a little, but not enough for Bond to relax and enjoy the room service breakfast Q ordered, complete with all of Bond’s favorite things: the local newspaper with eggs, bacon, hash browns, toast, powdered beignets, and an entire carafe of CDM coffee. He took his cue from his Quartermaster, who resolutely bolted down his breakfast with truly nauseating quickness and stood ready for whatever adventure the day would bring.

Something about the city had Q on edge and tetchy, and the feeling was catching. The address on the red envelope led them to the French quarter, which didn’t surprise Bond in the least. He’d been to the city enough times to know roughly where everything was located, and he knew there was a cluster of metaphysical shops located just off the main tourist drag.

He hadn’t been back to New Orleans for a few years, and certainly not since waking up with the uncanny abilities. Before, the city had a fun and exciting kind of romance that tugged at Bond whenever he dropped in. Now he felt an itch between his shoulder blades that set him on edge, like he was in a haunted house. The city moved around him, no longer friendly and fun-loving but wary and chaotic. History clashed with the present, yesterday’s slave markets became today’s hotels. The energy still lingered, despair and darkness swirling with the glittery excesses of awestruck tourists bent on having a good time and Louisiana aristocracy built on sugar, salt, and oil—and other less savory things. Bond imagined that if it was giving him a headache, the entire experience was probably excruciating for Q.

This was probably one of the reasons why Q didn’t care to travel, Bond reflected. It wasn’t that London was a spiritually calm environment, but at least it was a homey, familiar kind of unrest that accepted Q as one of its own. For that matter, it accepted Bond, too.

“City’s changed since I’ve been here,” Bond said.

“No, it hasn’t. You have. This. It’s empty glamour,” Q said, quietly, waving an eloquent hand in an all-encompassing gesture. “And It doesn’t like being Seen for what It is. This entire city feels like my childhood, before I turned off my ability to See. If I were a religious man, I’d be willing to bet that the devil lives here.”

They stood on the pavement in front of a small occult shop wedged between an art gallery and a café. It was one of those hole-in-the-wall places, where if you had to ask what it was or where it was, you probably had no business being there.

“The Solitary Practitioner,” Q murmured, reading the wooden hanging sign above their heads. Another sign in the small display window full of artfully arranged crystals on white velvet listed the days and hours of operation.

“I suppose we’re early,” Bond said.

“No, we are right on time.” Q touched the upright pentacle painted on the door, using his right index finger to trace the lines of the five-point star, and then the circle around it. Finished, he laid his palm directly over the symbol. Some of the tension bled out of his shoulders. He grasped Bond’s wrist with his other hand.

It felt like closing a door to a hot, noisy street and taking refuge inside a cool, quiet house. The cotton in Bond’s head cleared, and he took a deep breath.

Bond heard the deadbolt slide and the door gave way under Q’s palm.

 

Chapter Text

 

She was as beautiful as he remembered. Time had been kind to her. The graceful young twenty-something ingenue had grown into a lovely woman approaching middle age and she was doing it well. Her eyes were still large and doe-like, but sharper than he remembered. Long hair, dark and loose to her waist was streaked through with silver, giving her a distinguished, otherworldly air. She appraised him with a somber gravitas that noted the signs of his own aging with faint approval. The years hadn’t been quite so kind to him, not with the constant stress and traumas that came with his job.  

“Solitaire,” Bond said. He was at a loss of what else to say. He didn’t usually revisit past missions, or the women attached to them. He certainly wasn’t in the habit of apologizing for actions undertaken for Queen and Country. Anyway, there was no good way to say, sorry I wrecked your powers because I was a cad. Also, sorry that I almost got you eaten by sharks. And almost sacrificed to a voodoo deity, although not necessarily in that order.

“James Bond. Good to see you so well.” She smiled at him, tiny lines around her eyes crinkling, and any misgivings he’d had vanished. “Come in and be welcome. I have a pot of Earl Grey on, and about an hour until my first client.”

“Lovely,” Q said. “I’m—”

“Q,” she said. “I know. You needn’t lie to me, Quartermaster, and I won’t lie to you, either. I hoped he would bring you, even though you don’t care to fly. I couldn’t think of another way to meet you.”

She led them through the shop and up a set of stairs in the back to a modest two-bedroom condo with a balcony. The living room/open dining room was simply furnished, light and airy, linoleum wood floors underfoot. Herbs grew in painted window boxes, and a giant black cat was stretched out on the cloth sofa. The cat eyed Bond with a strange intelligence before regally dismissing him and going back to sleep.

There was a small table by the kitchen bar, where Bond loitered uncomfortably, feeling like a third wheel in the proceedings.

“Needs must,” said Q. He watched her with undisguised curiosity. She returned his regard with a peculiar kind of challenge. Bond had the feeling that an entire conversation was happening under his nose.

Watching them make tea was just…strange. In fact, Bond thought, watching them together at all was weird. They selected mugs from the cabinet and set about making tea. Q added a liberal amount of cream and sugar to his, whereas Solitaire added only a dash of cream and a tablespoon of raw honey to hers. Once finished, they switched mugs. The whole process was silent, neither one of them checking with the other.

Bond’s spine prickled. Neither one of them made a cup of tea for him, although Solitaire did give him a glass of orange juice with a shrug.

“You don’t drink tea and I don’t drink coffee,” she said, by way of explanation. “It’s orange juice, tap water, or a glass of milk.”

“Orange juice is fine,” Bond said.

She didn’t quite smile, but there was a hint of humor when she said, “I know.”

“I believe these are yours.” Bond took the red envelope out of his inner jacket pocket.

“Thank you,” she said.

The rest of the deck appeared in her hands, and Bond blinked. He could have sworn that she hadn’t been holding them a moment before.

Flexible and worn from years of handling, she shuffled the three cards he returned to her into the deck with the deft movements of a casino worker. Despite being an old set, the cards danced under her fingertips like they were still new.

“These are one of my most reliable tools of the trade,” Solitaire said. “Forget what you have seen on television. True tarot is a method of meditation and helps us communicate with our intuition. It can be a second opinion of something we already suspect, a way to brainstorm solutions, or even a way to order chaotic thoughts and visions. This deck has been in my family for four generations. Before then, it belonged to an old witch, who got it from her mother. Someday I will pass it on to my own daughter.”

Q watched her hands with fascination. He cradled his mug of tea in his hands, inhaling the steam, and staring with the peculiar, unblinking expression he sometimes got. She cut her eyes over to the entranced boffin and smiled.

Bond felt even more like the third wheel. She might have sent the cards to him, but the invitation was clearly for Q. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, exactly.

She laid down the cards. Again, he saw The Fool, The High Priestess, and The Lovers. He’d been watching her hands, but he hadn’t seen any card tricks. He hadn’t exactly been looking for them, either.

“The past,” she said to Q. “When I met James, every reading I did for and around him involved the Fool. Makes sense, looking back. He was young, impetuous, and inexperienced as a Double-Oh. Prone to recklessness, didn’t think things through, utterly irresponsible. But then,” she paused, “in fairness, so was I. The High Priestess, this one represented me, or who I was supposed to be. Keeper of secrets and revelations and the occult. I was arrogant, Q, and it took me a long time to truly earn this card.”

Bond remembered meeting the solemn-eyed slip of a girl, sitting atop a throne in a queenly regalia exactly like the High Priestess’s. It had been such a heavy mantle to bear that it had been built into the throne instead of resting on her shoulders.

“And the Lovers?” Q asked. He still hadn’t blinked.

“That one,” she gestured at Bond, “was very good-looking and distracting.” Bond glowered at the past-tense, but Solitaire continued, airily: “He also switched out my usual deck for one comprised entirely of this card in order to seduce me, even though a loss of virginity supposedly meant a loss of powers.”

Q frowned. Bond just drank his orange juice.

“I was young and stupid and very sheltered,” Solitaire said, waving a dismissive hand. “For a while, it did mean a loss of power.”

“What happened?” asked Bond. The stirrings of something he vaguely recognized as guilt squirmed in the pit of his stomach.

“I realized that it was quite possible that I’d been lied to,” she said. There was an ironic lift to one corner of her mouth. “It occurred to me that a man who’d never had any occult power of his own might not actually be an expert. He had me, and the Baron Samedi, but no talent himself.”

“The Baron Samedi?” Q asked.

“A voodoo loa of the dead and resurrection. An outrageous being, tells the filthiest jokes, but he throws the best parties,” she said. “I found him helpful, back in the early days.”

She shuffled the cards again. “Some time ago, I started thinking of you again, James. Which is strange, because I hadn’t thought of you in years, and then suddenly I kept getting the Fool whenever I so much as looked at a deck of cards. Any of my decks. I own a dozen.”

That stung, but he let it go.

“Then the dreams started. There was something moving, something that had spent many years asleep. You were part of it, a wakened Seer, all bright and shining. The magickal community is a small one. Lots of people play at magic, but few are of any consequence. A new true Seer suddenly coming online, as it were, caused a bit of a stir.”

“A disturbance in the Force?” Q said.

“Something like that. People are looking for you, but whatever your defenses are, they’ve been good enough to keep you under the radar. I would remind you to continue shielding your mind and soul from outside influence.”

You found me.”

“I’m a Seer, too. No one is better than we are at instinctively knowing the truth of things, or how to best hide those truths. With enough practice and experience, we’re impossible to lie to and tend to see situations and people for what they truly are, under all the lies and self-delusions. Certainly, there’s a talent for scrying, prophecy, and long-distance viewing that the CIA has been trying to develop unsuccessfully for the better part of a century. There simply aren’t enough of us for such employment.”

“I haven’t tried reading tea leaves,” Q muttered to himself.

“The minions would talk,” Bond said.

“They do little else.”

Solitaire pressed her lips together like she was trying hard not to grin. “Anyway, there’s a reason that we’re a rare breed. We’re too dangerous to people with secrets. Quite a few bloodlines were purged by the Church during witch hunts. Consequently, there are fewer of us and fewer mentors, so we tend to go mad or bad if left to our own devices. I had my mother and then Samedi to guide me. Most are not so lucky.”

Bond thought of Q as a supervillain. Thought of having to go up against him if he went wrong. The very idea was chilling—there’s nothing in the world that would be beyond his grasp if he decided to reach out and take it.

Solitaire shuffled the cards with renewed intent instead of idle fidgeting. Q moved his chair closer.

“You first, Q,” she said. “Cut the deck, and we’ll start easy. Three cards: past, present, future. Ah. The Moon. Represents secrets, terror, deception. Interpret it. First thing that comes to mind.”

“I repressed my abilities until Bond showed up as a ghost,” Q said. “After getting lectured about lying as a child, told I have an overactive imagination, and being taken to at least five child psychologists and a vicar, it seemed better to hide.”

“Indeed,” Solitaire said. “It pairs nicely with the present card, then. The Chariot, reversed. Indicates setting out on a journey or a quest, but you’re unaware of your limits. Perhaps pulled in too many directions at once, which can be taxing. Future. Temperance card. All things in moderation, all things in balance. Self-control, diplomacy, creative solutions.”

“Sounds like him already,” Bond said.

“Didn’t say it was the distant future,” Solitaire muttered. She laid down a fourth card. “One more for clarification. Two of cups. Love and friendship. You have a partnership that’s important to you, and that helps you find balance.” Her eyes slid to Bond. “It seems the Fool has grown up after all.”

She collected the cards and shuffled them again. There was a sheen of sweat at her hairline, and the air had the odd, simmering quality that Bond had learned to associate with Q flicking the on-switch. He cut the deck when she offered it to him.

The goddamned Fool card laid down first. Solitaire snickered. “I’m sorry, but I think my deck holds a grudge, James. In any case, the Fool was once very much your card, and appropriate to the past.” She laid down another. “Judgement. Setting aside the obvious qualities of deliberation, this is also a card of resurrection, and rebirth. Also, vengeance and guilt.”

Sweat trickled down his back, even though her air conditioning was set low. Q watched him with fathomless, intrigued green eyes, and Bond had the highly unpleasant experience of having the complete attention of two Seers at once.

How many times had he joked that resurrection was his hobby? Tanner had a file of all of Bond’s obituaries from all the times they thought he was dead. How many dead comrades had he gone off-brief to avenge over the years? Vesper, Mathias, M. He remembered coaching Camille through getting her own revenge during the whole Quantum debacle.

Q’s foot slid over and bumped his under the table. It was enough to bring him back to the moment. Solitaire watched him with dark eyes. She laid down the third card, the one representing his future. “The King of Swords,” she said, quietly. “This pairs with Judgement, actually. Judicious use of power, intelligence. There’s some military connection here, a suggestion that you will have ado with the offices of the crown or state.”

Bond leaned back in his chair, a touch smugly. “I already do all that,” he said. “I’ve guarded the Queen of England personally, more than once.”

“No,” Q was looking at the card with a complicated expression that was a blend of horror and amusement. “Apparently the universe has an excellent idea of karmic justice.”

Solitaire outright grinned. “For clarification,” she said, and laid down a fourth card. “The Emperor.”

The simmering air seemed to boil for a moment. “Authority and leadership. Responsibility,” Q said, examining the King of Sword’s stern, implacable countenance.

Bond made a face. “Probably going to have an unfriendly discussion with M about abducting his pet Quartermaster to New Orleans without warning,” he said.

Q paled, shifting his attention from Bond to the card. His eyes were very wide and almost preternaturally green. “Sure,” he said, unconvincingly. He stared at the card like he’d seen a ghost. Which reminded Bond…

“Do you happen to know how to exorcise ghosts?” he asked Solitaire.

Solitaire’s blue eyes crinkled at the edges. “Excuse me?”

“I’m haunted.”

“I have no doubt.”

“By my former boss.”

“Better than a former girlfriend,” she said.

“You’d think.”

Q shook himself out of whatever trance he’d fallen into. Bond didn’t think the prospect of getting in trouble with M would be the end of the world, but Q had a curious streak of selective and unpredictable rule-following in him, and a respect for authority that Bond had yet to completely erode with his bad influence.

“Bond was a poltergeist—for lack of a better term—while he was in a coma for some time last year,” Q said. “Since waking up, he’s seen the odd ghost. And our former boss seems to have attached herself to him. Settle a bet, is he a medium?”

“No,” Solitaire said. “Not quite. Spending so long in the twilight between the living and dead makes you unusually sensitive to other layers of reality. You’ll see ghosts if they are particularly strong. But no, you aren’t a medium like you see on TV.”

“I told you,” Bond said to Q. Q rolled his eyes.

“You could be, if you worked on developing your skills,” she said.

“No, no thank you.” Bond felt immeasurably relieved. “The last thing I need is a supernatural entourage.”

“I imagine. You might be a little bit psychic for the rest of your life, though,” Solitaire said. “Just being in proximity with Q for long periods of time will heighten that ability naturally.”

“I’ll be able to read minds?” Bond asked. That would be a helpful skill.

“Not as such, and certainly not with just anyone. Consider it more of a very reliable sense of intuition.”

Bond wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or disappointed.

“As for your boss, I expect you’ll just have to get used to having a guardian spirit around,” Solitaire said. “I’m certainly not going to be the one to suggest she move on.”

Q caught Bond’s eye. Bond remembered a startling moment the past Halloween where M seemed…not herself. There were still times when the façade peeled back and something about M became unsettling. Bond had had few, if any, doubts about M’s loyalty or nature when she was alive, but now he wasn’t always so sure.

Solitaire seemed to read the unspoken conversation between them. “Ghosts manifest in the ways we best understand them,” she said. “It would be a mistake to assume that your perception is foolproof, and another to underestimate the dearly undeparted. But our fundamental natures in death are like the ones we had in life, albeit expressed in sometimes alarming ways.”

Solitaire took a deep breath and gathered her errant cards once more. “Now, I must open my shop for the day and prepare for client readings.”

Q finished his tea. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. I have a gift for you.” She disappeared into her office and then returned with a stack of six or seven books in her arms. “Well, two gifts. One of them I will need James’s help with. The other is homework.” She dropped the books on the table with a thud and added a paper sack on top. “Consider it a reputable starter library. We don’t want or need another Seer to have a psychotic break. There’s enough strife in the world.”

“I do love homework,” Q said, greedily trying to pick up the books as Solitaire batted his hand away and packed them neatly into the paper grocery sack, shoving the whole package into his arms.

“What do I need to help you with?” Bond asked. She walked them down the stairs to the front of her shop.

She ushered them out onto the pavement and gave Bond the secret, mischievous smile that he remembered from so long ago.

“You’ll understand when you see it,” she said. “Now both of you go. I have only twenty minutes before my first client arrives. James,” she kissed him on the cheek, “lovely to see you. Look after this one. Q,” she kissed him on the cheek as well, “call me if you have questions. But do get out of NOLA quickly. She’s never been a fan of magicks and practitioners that don’t belong to her.”

Solitaire shut the door firmly behind them.

“She’s lovely, 007,” Q murmured. “Absolutely lovely. I like her much more than your usual doe-eyed paramour.”

Bond had the sudden vision of Q and Solitaire getting along like a house on fire for many years to come. Whether it was his imagination (or intuition, or whatever), he suddenly felt outgunned.

“Did you get what you needed from the witch?” asked M. She leaned against the brick wall wearing the top hat and cheap sunglasses from the night before. Bond wondered where the Mardi Gras beads and feather boa went, but decided discretion was the better part of valor.

M scanned the tourists beginning to trickle down the street and prowled along beside Q and Bond.

“And more besides,” Q said, a touch gleefully. “I have homework. And spell books. And possibly my own Professor McGonagall.”

M just stared at him. “You spent a lot of time getting stuffed in a locker as a kid, didn’t you?”