Q wasn’t sure what made him look up. Maybe a noise, maybe a prickling on the back of his neck, a certainty that he was no longer alone.
It was at least two AM, and while Headquarters never slept, Q Branch was mostly empty, just the night shift upstairs and Q down in the data lab. If anyone needed him, they’d buzz him. Eve, the only one who’d seek him out in person, had gone home hours ago. He couldn’t imagine who was there, and turned around silently - maybe he’d employ glare #4, and see how long it took them to crack.
When Q turned around, though, he didn’t see a person. Or, at least, he didn’t think it was a person. For one thing, no sensible person dressed like that, in this day and age. And, for another, he could see through it to the opposite wall.
Q stared. He hadn’t brought it up, whatever it was. It looked human, but it was probably just the processors - had he accidently manifested another AI?
The thing was turning slowly on the spot, and that wasn’t right - the projections were supposed to orientate themselves for optimum viewing. Q was the only one in the room, so why was it turning?
Then it finally faced him, and the sheer wrongness it exuded turned him cold.
‘Um,’ said Q, trying very hard not to stutter, ‘That - I mean, you’re not a projection, are you?’
The figure - man, thought Q distantly - blinked slowly at him. ‘What do you mean, projection?’
Shit. It talked. Of it’s own accord, like a -
The accent was funny, but it was speaking English. ‘Um,’ said Q again, and gestured vaguely around the room. The central display was the only one live at that moment, so he pointed it out, unsure what to say. The man frowned at it, then at the rest of the equipment around the room.
‘What’s all this?’
Q’s patience, not robust at the best of times, exited the room at that point, throwing its hand into the air. ‘Are you a rogue AI? Because I really don’t have time for this.’
It stared at him. ‘How can an AI go rogue?’
‘How can an - what? What are you? How did you get in here?’
It frowned at him, before raising its hand and examining it. Finally it looked up.
‘I think I’m a ghost.’
‘Yes.’ It squinted at him. ‘You do know what that is, don’t you?’
‘Of course I know what a ghost is. But -’ ghosts don’t exist. And yet, right in front of his eyes…
He shrugged. ‘Well, I’m definitely dead, but you seem alive to me. What other explanation do you have?’
Q’s brain was going into overdrive. He was surprised he couldn’t hear it. ‘Wait - how do you know you’re dead?’
The ghost gave him a hard stare. On reflection, it wasn’t the smartest question Q had ever asked. ‘I just got shot off a bridge. In Turkey, which I’m pretty sure this isn’t. I highly doubt I survived. I’m good, but I’m not that good.’
The way he’d said… Oh, great. Q’s day was just getting better and better. ‘When you say Turkey, do you mean the country? Because you’re saying it wrong. It hasn’t been called that for thirty years.’
‘I beg your pardon? What year is this?’
Q winced. ‘2102.’
The ghost snorted. ‘Pull the other one, it plays Jingle Bells.’
‘Oh God, you’re serious.’ The eyes narrowed. ‘Where the hell am I?’
Q gestured helplessly around the room again He had no idea what to do, but he couldn’t just tell him everything, that would be a massive security breach, especially if this was some new form of covert infiltration, although that seemed unlikely. Should he call security? What would they be able to do with a ghost, anyway?
‘We’re in London.’ He reexamined the ghost. Strange, but obviously English accent. Horrible old clothes - early twenty-first century, perhaps. Semi-transparent. Appeared out of nowhere like a fucking - he didn’t even know what. ‘I’m still not convinced this isn’t some extremely vivid hallucination.’
‘You’re not? How do you think I feel? I’ve just missed a hundred years.’
They stared at each other. Q had always assumed (no, he knew) that any scientific evidence for ghosts had been dismissed years ago, that ghosts were just stories people used to tell their children to scare them. But here was one, right in front of his eyes, moving and talking and aware.
If it was a hallucination, there was no point resisting it. ‘So what’s your name? I can’t just keep calling you ghost in my head.’
‘Bond, James Bond’ His arm twitch, like he’d been about to offer Q his hand to shake.
‘They call me Q.’
Bond did a double take. ‘Not Q as in Quartermaster?’
Oh. Well now, that was interesting. ‘And what makes you say that?’
‘That’s what we used to call the Quartermaster.’ He shrugged fluidly. ‘At MI6. Do you still have MI6, in the 22nd century?’
‘Not really.’ Q could feel a grin creeping over his face. ‘Welcome to the London base of the International Intelligence Committee.’
Bond, James Bond was apparently an early 21st century MI6 field agent, which Q supposed made sense. He couldn’t come back to MI6, because it was long gone, but this was the closest substitute.
Death hadn’t made him polite, however. ‘Are people dying at forty these days? Or has medicine advanced so much that you’re actually eighty?’
‘No.’ He could see where this was going. ‘Why?’
‘Quartermasters never used to be as young as you. How old are you anyway, twelve?’
The number of times Q had had a conversation like this was laughable. ‘Age is no guarantee of efficiency.’
Bond actually rolled his eyes. ‘And youth is no guarantee of innovation.’
‘Who better to run the processors than someone who grew up with the technology?’
Bond conceded the point with a tip of his head. He seemed fascinated by the equipment in the room. Q supposed it all looked a lot different to the old computers they used to use. A lot more streamline, for one thing. And Q wouldn’t be caught dead with something as vulnerable as a hard drive.
Bond was shaking his head. ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.’
‘You’re quoting something, aren’t you?’
‘What, they don’t teach Shakespeare to teenagers any more?’ A smirk spread over the ghost’s face. ‘Lucky bastards.’
Shakespeare, of course. ‘Not as much as - wait, what do you mean, time wastes you?’
Something twitched in Bond’s expression, as if he hadn’t meant to say what he’d said - or Q had completely missed the point.
Bond was fading at the edges, Q suddenly realised. What -
The ghost looked Q straight in the eye, expression unfathomable. And then he vanished.
The next morning there was no sign of the ghost in Q Branch. Q had gone straight home after Bond had vanished and put himself firmly to bed, still not sure what had happened.
He had a very vivid dream that night, one he hadn’t had since he was a child. He was stuck in the war wastelands again, wandering through the fog. He never made it to wherever he was trying to go, and had woken up, shaking, at dawn.
Q didn’t ask anyone if they’d noticed anything strange the night before. In the light of day, he was starting to doubt himself. Maybe it had been a hallucination caused by lack of sleep and too much tea, or something. Perhaps it had actually been a dream.
He needed more data.
The rest of the world seemed to have decided not to have any major crises that day, so on his way to lunch he buzzed Eve.
Are you free for lunch?
For you, always
I need to tell you something
Coming down now
They met in the cantina. Once they’d sat down at a corner table, Eve leant forward, a devious look on her face. ‘What’s got you so worked up? You look like you’re about to jump out of your skin.’
Q double-checked that no-one else was close enough to overhear. ‘I think Q Branch has a ghost.’
Eve raised an unimpressed eyebrow at him. ‘Rubbish.’
‘Are you sure it wasn’t another AI?’
Q rolled his eyes. ‘I can tell the difference, thanks. I wasn’t even working data when it happened.’
‘Go on then.’ Eve leant back and started eating. ‘Tell me what happened.’
Q described the encounter. By the end, Eve was shaking her head. ‘Only you would get stuck with a one hundred year old ghost.’
Q shrugged. ‘It’s absolutely weird, I know. I’m actually wondering whether I dreamt it all.’
‘That seems like a pretty extreme dream, even for you. Tell you want, I know what you can do.’
‘Stay late again tonight. I’ve got a data backlog to deal with, I’ll be stuck here too. Buzz me if he comes back. I’ll come down and see for myself.’
That night Q retreated back down to the lab when the night shift arrived. He tinkered, but was too distracted to make much headway into anything. He was careful not to encourage company - he had a sneaking suspicion that Bond, if he was going to reappear at all, wouldn’t do so if there was anyone else around.
After about an hour he felt a sudden tingling on the back of his neck, and the next moment Bond had appeared at his elbow.
Q’s hand jerked violently, sending data everywhere. ‘Are you trying to give me heart failure?’
Bond smirked. ‘Sneaking around is my job.’ He paused. ‘Was my job.’
Q righted what he’d been working on and minimised the display. ‘What were you doing during the day? Or do you only exist at night?’
‘Do I look sparkly to you?’ Bond must have sensed Q hadn’t got whatever reference that was supposed to be. ‘I was trying to work out what you do in Q Branch in the future. Or whatever you call this department. I have to say, it’s quite confusing.’
‘We only call it Q Branch as a joke, because that’s my nickname.’ He paused, thinking back to his twenty-first century history classes. Of course Bond would be confused. ‘Think computers, but better.’
‘That I worked out for myself, thanks.’ Bond looked curiously at the display. ‘How does that work? Are there sensors in the floor, or…?’ he gestured upwards.
‘Floor,’ confirmed Q. He looked closer. ‘Are you floating?’
Bond followed his gaze. ‘I think so.’ His eyebrows raised. ‘Haven’t met many ghosts before, have you?’
‘As far as I knew, ghosts weren’t real,’ admitted Q. ‘There was a scientific investigation into it ages ago. “Superstition thoroughly debunked,” or something. I was pretty sure I’d dreamt you.’
Bond smirked. He seemed in a good mood, so Q decided not to bring up his comment about wasted time, which Q had been puzzling over. He didn’t think Bond had even meant to say it, and Q didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. It might drive him away before Q had gotten to know him.
Wait - ‘So when you disappear, you’re still there. You don’t, I don’t know -’
‘Enter the fifth dimension? No there’s...’ His brow creased, and his gaze suddenly turned laser-sharp. Q felt as if he were being dissected. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation.
‘Look, what are you -’ Bond flickered and vanished. ‘Hey! I didn’t - whoa, shit.’ He could feel Bond’s presence again, a tingling all along his left side - but Bond was nowhere to be seen.
‘Uh… are you still there?’ He heard a snort, and Bond reappeared.
‘That worked well. I wasn’t sure I could control it. Why are you rubbing your arm?’
Q realised what he was doing and stopped. ‘It’s gone now. Huh. When I couldn’t see you, I could feel you, but now that I can see you again it’s stopped. How close were you standing?’
‘Close enough to touch. I’m testing my boundries, if you will.’ He vanished again, and this time Q was prepared for the sensation. After a moment it began to fade, as if Bond was moving away. He listened hard, but couldn’t hear anything.
Bond eventually reappeared just over a metre away, frowning. He started ticking things off on his fingers. ‘When I’m invisible I don’t seem to have a body, but I can move around. I can walk through walls and tables. People can only tell I’m there if I’m within touching distance. When I’m visible… I don’t know.’
‘Why don’t you try walking through the wall?’
There was a short silence, before they both succumbed to laughter. This was absolutely ridiculous.
‘This is fucking insane,’ managed Bond eventually. ‘I’m dead, and this is what I’m worried about?’
‘It’s not like you can go out looking for vengeance, can you? They’ll be dead anyway.’ Hang on a minute. ‘Can you even leave the building?’
‘I don’t know.’ Bond looked thoughtful. ‘I can leave Q Branch, but I haven’t tried leaving the building. We’re not underground, are we?’
‘No.’ The display chimmed. ‘Oh shit, Eve. I forgot.’
‘This? Oh. It’s.. our messaging system. I told my friend Eve about you, she wanted to come down if you turned up again.’
Immediately Q knew that was the wrong thing to say. He’d never seen an expression change so fast: One moment Bond had been smiling faintly, the next he looked like he wanted to snap Q’s neck. He took an involuntary step back.
‘What the fuck do you think I am, a fucking animal in a zoo?’
‘I never said you were!’ Q resisted the urge to lift his hands in surrender. ‘I thought I was going crazy, I didn’t know if you were real, and she’s my best friend - she’s not going to tell anyone.’ Bond’s stare turned glacial. ‘Look, for goodness sake, I wasn’t sure if you were a hallucination, aren’t I allowed to ask for some reassurance? If I’m going crazy, I’d like to know.’
Bond appeared to relent, his face going blank. Eventually he shrugged. ‘Fine, just don’t - nevermind.’
Q frowned at him. There was no way of telling what he was thinking. Q checked the display.
He’s here, come on down
See you in a few
Q knew Eve had arrived because Bond made a noise like a cat that had been stepped on. He looked up in time to see her blink in confusion.
‘Hello, I’m Eve Moneypenny. I suppose shaking hands is out of the question?’
Eve’s eyes widened. ‘Okay, I saw that. What just happened?’
‘I don’t know, he was - Bond?’ He wasn’t close enough to feel. ‘Are you still there?’
In the corner of his eye, Eve flinched - and then yelped when Bond appeared centimetres in front of her nose.
‘Hey! What are you doing?’ Bond took several steps back as Q hurried over. Two of those steps took him straight through one of the benches. Well, that answered that question.
‘Sorry,’ said Bond without a trace of sincerity, ‘I didn’t realise how close I was.’
‘Okay,’ said Eve, looking furious, ‘so why, in the name of everything that used to be holy, were you looking at me like you wanted to tear my throat out with your bare hands?’
Q blinked. ‘You got all that from one look?’
‘He was right in my face, I didn’t have much choice, did I?’
‘I’ve seen you before.’ They both swiveled to look at Bond. ‘I don’t know where, but I’ve seen you before.’
‘I work here, dumbass.’ She looked back to Q. ‘Has he been wandering around upstairs without us knowing?’
‘No. I meant I’d seen you before I died.’
‘And that’s possible how, exactly?’
‘I don’t bloody know. You’re the smart one, aren’t you? I’m just the grunt with the gun.’ Q was still boggling at the bitterness in Bond’s voice when he vanished again.
Eve hissed softly. ‘That was real, wasn’t it?’
‘Yeah. Sorry, I didn’t expect him to - you know.’
Eve bit her lip. ‘You have to tell M.’
‘Simon,’ She was using his real name, and that never boded well, ‘there’s a ghost in Q Branch!’
‘Shh!’ Q knew Bond could still be in the room with them. ‘Why? He’s not doing any harm. What do you think he is, a spy?’ She didn’t say anything. ‘Oh, for goodness sake!’
‘I don’t think he’s a spy, but you can’t tell me he isn’t dangerous! If he can vanish at will, walk through walls - it’s a recipe for disaster. And if he’s harmless, he’s still a ghost! Something new like this, the Boss needs to know about it.’
‘Eve, I can’t.’ The very idea made him sick. ‘He’s dead, he deserves some peace. He doesn’t deserve to be made into a weapon. And you know that’s what they’d want to do with him,’ he added when she opened her mouth to protest.
Eve didn’t speak to him for a week.
He could understand why she was upset, he could see where she was coming from, but he wasn’t about to back down, and neither was she. It would blow over eventually, all their arguments did.
Bond didn’t reappear for two days, and when he did, he made no mention of the incident. Q doubted he’d forgotten about it - he looked like the sort to hold grudges for years, which wasn’t a pleasant prospect - but he seemed to be content to ignore it, so Q did too. There were more interesting things to talk about.
‘So I can walk through walls, but I don’t fall through the floor. That’s convenient.’
Q smirked. ‘What if you wanted to fall through the floor?’
Bond frowned. he looked down at his feet, then jerked violently as he started to sink through the floor. He stared at Q, eyes wide. ‘Let’s not try that again, shall we?’
Q snorted and waited for Bond to recover his balance. ‘So what haven’t we tried? We’ve done walls, the floor, you can float higher if you really want to, and become solid enough to sit on my chair if you want to get in my way. What else is there?’
Bond made a face. ‘People.’
Ah. Yeah, there was that.
Bond came closer, looking almost apprehensive. ‘Do you… I mean...’
‘Go ahead.’ Better to get it out of the way quickly. ‘I don’t think you can hurt me.’
Bond didn’t look convinced, but he stretched out his arm carefully, until his hand was hovering just about Q’s shoulder. He moved the last few centimetres, and his hand sank into Q, who shuddered. The tingling was back.
‘I can’t go any further. You’re warm.’ He jerked his hand back. ‘Sorry.’
‘Bond, I’m fine. It was just a bit weird. Don’t spring it on me when I’m not expecting it and we’ll be fine.’
Bond nodded slowly, looking relieved. ‘You can call me James, you know. I’ve just had my hand inside your shoulder, I think we’re a bit passed surnames at this point. Simon.’
Q shuddered. ‘Don’t. I never liked that name.’
‘Why? It’s just a name.’
‘They chose it out of a book at the orphanage when I arrived and couldn’t tell them who I was. It’s not me.’
Something shifted in Bond’s expression. ‘Sorry.’
‘Don’t be. It’s not exactly an unusual story.’
Q closed his eyes. ‘I really don’t want to talk about it now.’
Bond nodded slowly. ‘All right. What’s a safe topic, then? Guns?’
‘Yeah, guns’ll do.’
It was a few weeks before Q realised he hadn’t really shown James around the department. It was a little difficult, with the nightshift wandering around, but eventually they managed it. Though Q’s expertise was in data and the processors, Q Branch was much more than that. They had engineers, chemists, doctors - anyone and everyone needed to keep the agents alive in the field and make use of the intelligence they brought back.
‘It’s not that different, I suppose,’ James admitted as Q led him to his favourite room of all. ‘Still a bit of a hodgepodge of areas. I’m surprised you still bother with field agents, though. We must be obsolete by now.’
‘They tried phasing them out in the eighties, when the IIC was first formed. It didn’t work very well. Some things still need that human touch.’
James gave him a sideways look. ‘Do you have double Os?’
Q stopped dead. ‘You - is that what you were?’
‘Yes.’ He arched an eyebrow. ‘Problem?’
‘We… don’t really go in for that any more. There are some agents like that, but they’re not based here.’ He gave himself a mental shaking. ‘Anyway. This is the Cave.’
Q gave a little flourish as the door opened. ‘I run active operations from here. The whole room is display enabled, so I can have a three dimensional view if necessary.’
James passed him in the doorway to stand in the middle of the room. ‘Is that usually necessary?’
‘No. It’s only happened once before, but it’s nice to know we can do it if we need to.’
James waved his hands over the sensors. As usual, there was no response. ‘I’ll have to hang around this room more often. I’d like to see the way you run missions these days.’
Q smiled. ‘Let me show you something.’ He took James’s place in the middle of the room and activated the display, searching for something he’d put together when he’d been testing the 3D display. When he found and opened it, the room was plunged into near darkness - and then filled with tiny specks of light.
‘Oh,’ said James turning on the spot, and his face was transformed by wonder, and maybe, if Q was lucky, even joy. ‘The whole Milky Way?’
‘All the stars in the sky.’
It was two AM again, and Q didn’t want to go home. There was just the usual night shift in Q Branch and Q up in one of the engineering labs, tinkering. James was hovering around, watching his work but not saying much. It was a friendly silence.
They both heard clicking heels in the corridor. James snapped to look at the display, already fading at the edges. They’d have a few close calls recently - but it was only Eve, according to the display. Q was surprised she was in the building. Not much was happening, and Eve hated staying at work all night.
‘Oh good, you’re both here.’ James twitched, but stayed put. Eve had come down to see Q a handful of times, but she and James were still wary of each other.
Eve strode over to Q’s workspace. ‘I’ve worked out why you don’t like me, Mr Bond.’
‘That’s a bit harsh,’ protested James. He was leaning casually against a bench, but Q could see that he was tense.
‘Rubbish. Be glad I didn’t call it loathing.’ She pulled up the display and started channeling data. ‘This took a bit of doing, by the way, I had to dig up family records from before the War, and you know how hard that is.’
‘There.’ A projection sprang up, a young woman similar enough to Eve that they could be sisters, if Eve had any family left. ‘The first Eve Moneypenny. My great grandmother. MI6 field operative from 2006 to 2012, fired after shooting agent 007 of a bridge in Türkiye.’ She looked pointedly at James, who was frowning at the projection. ‘That’s you, isn’t it? The file says she was ordered to shoot the person you were fighting -’
‘Take the bloody shot. I remember now. She hit me instead.’ He looked up. ‘Congratulations, you’re related to the most dangerous woman ever to be employed by MI6.’
Eve blinked at him, then burst out laughing. ‘You think so highly of yourself, don’t you?’
James pretended to be insulted. ‘Who, me? I was the longest living double O on record, I’m being modest.’
‘I tried to leave the building yesterday.’
‘Oh?’ Q stopped working to raise his eyebrows at James through the display. ‘What happened?’
James frowned. ‘It was like trying to walk through treacle. I don’t think I made it more than five metres before I had to stop and turn around.’
‘So we can cross that off the list then. Was that -’
‘Goddammit, fuck.’ Q looked up in surprise. James’s hand was embedded in the wall. Q stared. It looked like he’d taken a swing.
‘I want to go outside. I want to see it, Q, not just… but I’m trapped here like a bloody prisoner.’ James took a deep breath before continuing bitterly, ‘you can just go home every night if you want. I’m stuck here. I didn’t even die here, and this sure as hell isn’t my MI6. I didn’t even like London that much, and I can’t leave.’
Q glanced at his watch. It was just past midnight. ‘Do you want to go out onto the roof?’
That stopped James short. ‘What?’
‘There’s a flat bit Eve worked out how to get out to last year. Do you want to go up there? You should be able to see something, at least.'
The relative darkness of the night was such a contrast from the interior of the IIC building that Q stopped short in the doorway, and felt James pass straight through him. He solidified in front of Q’s shocked face.
‘Shit, sorry, you all right?’
‘Yeah.’ Q stepped fully out into the night. ‘You’re harder to see in the dark.’ He wandered to the edge of the roof. It wasn’t really that dark, he supposed. There was too much light pollution in a city like this to see the stars, but it did make it easier to see the city itself.
Bond looked down at the street. Q could just make out a grin slowly spreading over his face. ‘Well, I have to say, the future’s a bit boring.’
‘Well, firstly,’ he raised a finger, ‘it’s not a nuclear wasteland. I was pretty sure that’s where we were headed. Two,’ up went the second finger, ‘where the hell are the flying cars? The hoverboards?’
Q chuckled. ‘God. We’ve got better things to do than invent hoverboards. Walking is good for you, anyway. And as for the flying cars, no one could work out how to get them to fly without using more energy than turning the wheels, so they abandoned that idea not long after it got off the ground.’ Bond stared at him. ‘Oh bugger. No pun intended.’
‘I should hope not.’
Q listened to the hum of the city. He hadn’t been up here for a while, and never at night. He should be wearing more layers.
‘Tell me about the war.’
Q took a deep breath. He’d been wondering when this might happen. ‘Are you sure you’re ready for this conversation?’
‘We’ll have to see, won’t we?’
Q closed his eyes, trying to think. Where to start? ‘It wasn’t a war at first. It was an uprising that spread through the Americas first, and then just didn’t stop. The first one was in ’62. A year later they were happening everywhere. Then the governments that didn’t crumple started fighting back, really fighting back, and that’s when it got really messy.’ The less said about some of what had happened, the better. ‘The whole thing lasted nearly ten years.’ He shrugged. ‘By the end of it the population was back down to seven billion, and two billion of them were war orphans.’
There was a moment of silence. He could almost hear James thinking.
‘It looks the same. Everything’s taller, but - after everything, it still looks the same.’
‘Do you really think so? I suppose all cities are essentially the same. But you probably wouldn’t say that if you were down on the street.’
‘Yeah, well, you know how well that worked out.’
Q was alone on the tram when it happened.
Or, rather, Q had thought he was alone on the tram until James Bond materialised in front of his nose.
‘Shit!’ He dropped his thermos and the tea went everywhere. ‘Where - what - how...’
‘Who, what, when, where, why and how?’
Q glared at James’s grin. ‘Shut up. I thought you couldn’t leave the building, how did you get here?’
James shrugged. ‘I’ve been experimenting. Apparently if I follow you, I can leave. But I’ve got to stay close to you or I get stuck again.’
‘That… makes absolutely no sense.’
‘You’re telling me?’
The tram jerked to a stop, and James vanished again as a woman got aboard. Q gave her an apologetic look when she noticed the tea, and got out at the next stop. He slipped into an alleyway and James reappeared.
‘I still don’t understand.’
‘Q,’ said James patiently, ‘You can’t understand everything. You think I know what the hell is going on? I just followed you on a whim.’
They stared at each other. ‘My life was nowhere near as strange as this before, you know.’
James laughed. ‘I’m not going to apologise.’
‘Well,’ Q threw up his hands, I suppose I’m going to have to live with it. You might as well come home with me now.’ James made a choking noise. ‘That sounded bad, didn’t it?’
‘Depends where you’re coming from.’
James stared at everything in Q’s apartment, which Q couldn’t blame him for. He watched Q prepare his dinner - a pre-made one, because it had been a rough day and he wasn’t in the mood for cooking.
James seemed particularly interested in the print Q had on his living room wall. Q supposed it was because it wasn’t a display - it was the only piece of paper Q owned.
‘What is this, Turner?’
‘Yes. The Fighting Temeraire, I think it’s called. Do you like it?’
‘I always thought Turner was a bit wishy washy, to be honest. Why do you have it?’
Q shrugged. ‘I ducked into the shop to escape the rain and the poor person behind the counter looked so hopeful when I came in that I thought I had to buy something. I chose it because of something they said, that it was supposed to represent the inevitability of time, or something.’ James snorted. ‘Yeah, I know. It’s grown on me, though.’
Q decided not to eat at the table because it was such a mess, so they ended up sitting opposite each other in the living room.
‘Tell me about you,’ said James, leaning against the wall. ‘We’re always talking about me, or about your work, or what I’ve missed. I don’t really know much about you at all.’
Q crossed his legs on the settee, thinking. ‘There’s not a lot to tell, honestly. I was born during the war, I’m an orphan, I don’t remember my parents… When I was in second school I got picked out for my brains, and they accelerated me through to third school when I was fifteen. The IIC picked me up in third school, told me to study whatever I liked as long as it had to do with processors and data, so I did everything I could. I joined the IIC when I was twenty-two. I’m twenty-five now. I’ve been head of Q Branch for just over a year.’ He took a deep breath. ‘I’d like to have a pet cat, but I’m allergic to them and I’m never home, so it would be a bit unfair on the poor thing. Once I knew a thousand digits of Pi until I realised what a waste of time it was, when I could just use a calculator. I even know you hate my cardigans - you’re rubbish at hiding it, don’t look at me like that. Is that enough for you, Mr Bond?’
James blinked. ‘Christ. You’re even younger than I thought.’
‘That’s all you got out of all that? Seriously?’
James started following Q home most nights after that, or at least the nights Q could be bothered to leave work. It was nice to have the company, and one weekend they spent a whole day walking around the city so that James could see what it was like.
It had been a nice day out, Q thought, until two strangers herded him in an alley and surrounded him.
Q swore under his breath. Junkers. If they got their hands on his bag, there’d be duplicates of his designs on the black market before he had time to blink.
‘Hand over your bag.’ Q did as he was told, slowly. Let her touch the pocket display and set off the alarm, he thought desperately. Don’t just -
Someone grabbed a handful of his hair and dragged his head back, exposing his throat to a blade. Oh, fucking -
Something slammed into the Junker behind him and Q crashed to the sidewalk with him - He could hear - what the fuck was he hearing?
He scrambled to his feet, turning around, and nearly fell over again.
James was crouched over the Junker, arm wrapped around his neck. The Junker’s eyes bulged and his legs thrashed, and Q had never seen James so solid, he was strangling -
James let go of the hapless man, who slumped to the ground. Q thought he was still breathing, but he couldn’t really see, because James was blocking his view as he advanced on the other Junker.
She was staring at him with her mouth wide open. He took another step forward and she took off, disappearing around the corner.
Q stared at James. For the first time, he looked alive. No flickering edges, barely even transparent - and when he turned around, Q could just see him as a double O, as a killer, because -
James flickered and vanished.
He had no choice but to follow Q home, but he stayed outside the whole night, even though he spent most of it resisting the pull to get closer to Q. he didn’t trust himself, not one inch. For a moment, for a few glorious seconds he’d been closer to living than he’d been in months, and all he’d wanted to do was kill. It had been all he could do to let go of his solid form or there would have been no way of knowing what he’d have done. And if he’d hurt Q…
Q left the alley as quickly as possible, extremely shaken. He had nightmares the whole night.
He didn’t tell anyone what had happened in the alley. Not even Eve. She would have wanted to tell M, and them he would have had to move to a new appartment, change all his identity papers, learn a new part of the city…
No, it wasn’t about that. It was about James, of course it was, because he couldn’t tell the story without talking about James, and then M would know. he’d promised James that would never happen.
He didn’t see James the next day, or the day after that. he didn’t even feel the prickling on the back of his neck that meant James was looking over his shoulder. If he was in Q branch, he was keeping out of Q’s way.
What Q couldn’t work out was why. James fussed over him, complained that he never saw Q eat (because he didn’t eat in the middle of the night), that he didn’t get enough sun, or enough sleep. Q would have thought he’d hover, keep close to Q on the way to and from work, keep checking on him. He didn’t expect to be abandoned.
He didn’t expect it to hurt.
He spent an undeterminable amount of time in the new M’s gun safe, unaware of how many days were passing as he forced himself not to become solid, to ignore the outside world. The urge to do something incredibly violent, to spill blood, eventually passed, but he couldn’t help replaying those few seconds in the alley. Over and over. If Q had been alone. he could have been killed. He nearly had been.
He knows, now, why Q is - is his fucking tether, fuck. And he was so, so close to losing him.
When he turned around, James was centimetres from his face.
Q almost jumped out of his skin. ‘Shit. Don’t do that, how many times do I have to tell you, you nearly gave me a heart attack!’
‘Sorry.’ James was now a metre away from him. ‘I didn’t realise I was that close.’
Q swallowed. ‘It’s all right, I just wasn’t expecting it.’ He hesitated. ‘I wasn’t sure you were coming back.’
James blinked, confused. ‘Where else would I go? I can’t leave the building without you.’
He’d forgotten about that. ‘You’ve been avoiding me, though, haven’t you? Is it about the Junkers? Because all my stuff has emergency alarms in it, I would have been fine, you didn’t need to -’
‘There are at least twenty ways to kill someone with your bare hands,’ interrupted James, ‘and they had knives. You were not fine.’
‘Are we really having this conversation?’ Q threw up his hands. ‘Really? I thought you’d go it through your fucking head, I’m not a kid, I can look after myself -’
‘And if you’ve got more than basic self defence training, I’ll eat my hat, Q, those fuckers meant business. You’ve spent so much time in this bloody bunker, your perception’s warped to hell, Q, you’re not invincible -’
‘For fuck’s sake, it’s not like you can talk, you’re dead!’
It sounded so utterly ridiculous when said out loud that they both stopped and stared at each other. Then James surprised Q by bursting out laughing. Quickly, though, the laugh started to sound more hysterical than anything else. Q hated that he couldn’t reach out and touch him.
‘James? Are you all right?’
‘All right? Fuck if I know, I can’t - you really have no idea, do you?’
‘No idea about what?’
James took two steps forward, so that he was right up close again. A strange look had come into his eyes, an oddly tender expression Q had never seen before. He realised with a start that he’d been wrong when he’d thought James couldn’t look any more solid than he had in the alley. If he didn’t know better, he’d say James was alive, but then he saw that concentration meant James had stopped breathing, stopped blinking. It wasn’t like he needed to do either, anyway…
James reached out and cupped Q’s cheek with a calloused hand, and Q gasped.
The tingling sensation was back, but beyond that he could feel, really feel James’s hand, the roughness of his skin, the faint tremor running through him. James was so gentle, like he was afraid Q might break.
Something was happening here, something Q was starting to understand. He could tell he shouldn’t say anything, not yet. He saw James swallow, and without thinking Q reached out for him, his hand landing on James’s shoulder, and beneath the strange fabric he could feel tense muscle.
And then James kissed him.
It was like nothing Q had ever felt before, almost too much sensation, the very air was humming with energy, and James was so real, their whole bodies were touching, and at some point Q’s other hand had come up to grip James’s hair, but it was to short to really get a hold of.
It was too much, in the end, and Q had to break away, gulp in air, try to understand. James pulled back, his hands coming to rest on Q’s forearms. He was flickering at the edges again, but he stayed solid.
He let out a ragged breath. ‘Sorry.’
‘Don’t - why are you apologising? I would have stopped you if I wasn’t comfortable.’ Q reached out to touch James’s face. ‘Hey. Look at me. Are you okay?’
James leant forward until their foreheads were touching. ‘Just… Just don’t die on me. Please. You’ll turn up a hundred years in the future, and I won’t be able to find you again.’
‘I’m not going anywhere.’
‘You’d better not. People I care about have a nasty habit of dying. I don’t - I can’t let anything happen to you, too.’
‘Tell me a story.’
James smirked at him. ‘Sweetheart, if you’re trying to stop me making the age jokes, you’re doing it wrong.’
James walked right through the bench so that they were eye to eye. Q was determined not to flinch, as unnerving as it was. He did, however, take a step backwards, which gave James enough space to step out of the bench and press a quick kiss to his lips.
Q tried very hard to to grin. ‘James, I’m working.’
‘You’re the one who wanted a story.’ James vanished, only to turn up again a second later, sitting on the edge of the bench, legs swinging.
Q tucked the kiss away to think about later. After their first, desperate kiss, James had been frugal with his affections, mainly, Q eventually worked out, because he didn’t quite believe his luck. That James would kiss him so casually, and in Q Branch where anyone could theoretically walk in on them, gave Q a ridiculous warm and fuzzy feeling inside.
‘What kind of story?’
‘Something ridiculous. I’m sure you’ve been in plenty of unimaginable situations.’
‘Have I ever told you about the time I blew up an embassy?’
Q stared. ‘No. You didn’t.’
James grinned like a shark. ‘Oh, I did.’