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“It was, quite literally, the simplest task I could think to assign you,” M said. “It was down to this or you straightening the pictures in the hallway and, as there’s a large number of pictures, ‘write a falsified mission report’ seemed easier.”

“There aren’t that many pictures,” Bond said.

“Then you see how easy I imagined this would be. Let me ask this first—are you fully recovered from that little dust-up in Montreal and ready to go back into the field? Because if I have to invest any more time or energy into coming up with light assignments for you, I’ll go mad.”

“Medical gave me the green light this morning.”

“Thank God for small favors.” M held up the file Bond had dutifully turned in the day before. “This, 007, was meant to be a page or two of incorrect intelligence we could feed to any suspected moles. You could have double-spaced it if you’d liked. You gave me twenty-seven pages. Twenty-seven annotated, coffee-stained pages, with laborious corrections in red ink. You bought a special pen to make this more difficult.”

“I wasn’t quite happy with it.”

“Weren’t you? I can’t think why not.”

“Well, you can just toss it if it isn’t any good, can’t you, and I’ll be back in the field, playing to my strengths.”

“No, you won’t be, because this document is actively concerning me.” M opened it. “The bit in Mexico City is quite good, actually—easily proven false, but perhaps not if we redact certain key bits. Glad to see you making good use of that holiday of yours. I thought, at that point, that you might stay within the realm of the improbable but not actually ludicrous. Then you introduce this Denbigh fellow, and he’s—what, exactly?”

“He’s the head of intelligence after we merged with MI5.”

“Try not to incorporate seismic shifts in governmental agencies into your work, especially since it appears you undo it later. And Denbigh wants to shutter the double-oh program, which seems odd, because we only recently went through all of this ourselves.”

“That’s where I got the idea.”

“And you thought—‘oh, I’ll just have the exact same thing happen twice’?”

“The first time around, the real way, it wasn’t SPECTRE, just bureaucracy.”

“And SPECTRE is—your massive international conspiracy of highly organized criminals who have board-meetings in Rome.”

“They are, yes.”

“And they’re headed up by your foster brother. Did you have a foster brother?”

“Not as such, no.”

“SPECTRE appears to be some sort of acronym, though what it stands for is ambiguous at best. So, in this piece of make-believe of yours, you kill someone while on a mission from my predecessor and cause a fuss—not improbable. I have Q inject you with smart-blood, in an exchange where you’re oddly specific about everything he says and does, including the fact that he agrees to hide you from me for a day or so, and you’ve attached a Post-It that says ‘this didn’t happen,’ which worries me, because presumably none of this happened, and you’re now reassuring me that something that isn’t real isn’t real, which I already know, because I’m the one who told you to make it up.”

“I didn’t want you think he was going behind your back on anything,” Bond said.

“Yet you felt compelled to theorize that he would, in effect, choose you over me.”

Bond smirked.

“Charming,” M said dryly. “While we’re on the subject of marginalia, the tentacles you’ve doodled here are both baffling and off-puttingly visceral.”

“They’re meant to be.”

“Congratulations on your success. Going on, then, you sally forth to Rome and appear to interrogate the man’s widow with your prick as a question mark. You’ve also described this woman, twice, as ‘looking like Monica Bellucci,’ which I didn’t need to know.”

“She’s an attractive woman.”

“She is. And I conveyed that information to you by saying it, not by writing it out in lurid detail in what is ostensibly a mission report that you have, for some reason, bothered to cast.”

“Are you going to have me sit here while you go through all this point-by-point?”

“I don’t know why you shouldn’t be expected to suffer as I have suffered.” M turned the page. “For some reason—which is the operative turn of phrase for this whole endeavor of yours—your international affiliation of the disreputable has chosen to wait until after the funeral of their previous assassin to appoint a new one. It’s very sweet of you to imbue them with so much respect for the dead. You gate-crash, with the aid of a ring you impulsively stole from your target during the middle of a helicopter fight, which brings me to this point: tell Q he’s not getting the flight simulator budget no matter how many times he bribed you to cram into this report how incredible and convenient it would be if you could fly things.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“There are two helicopters and a plane in this, 007, and I don’t even know how the plane comes into it, or why you’re able to fly it without wings. It’s got Q’s fingerprints all over it.”

Bond shrugged.

“Chivalrous of you to cover for your co-conspirator, but unfortunately, the burden of that is that you will continue to bear the brunt of my displeasure. We last left you in Rome, taking stock of some ridiculous assembly of criminals, where you meet your fictional foster brother again. I have a few notes on his character.”

“I doubt I can stop you from giving them.”

“You’re correct. First of all, why do you treat him changing his name with so much significance? It’s as though you’re alluding to something, but I have no idea what it is.”

“Maybe the mole would care.”

“Somehow I doubt it. Secondly, am I expected to believe that this man was so annoyed by two years with you as a child that he devoted the rest of his life to intermittently attempting to destroy you?” M looked down at the file again. “Come to think of it, I may revise my opinions on the plausibility of that. Perhaps you spent the entirety of those two years inflicting your creative writing upon him. He might be the hero of the piece.”

“You’re funny, sir.”

“And you’re somewhat troubled, Bond, because it’s not a healthy person who writes ‘and then he explained that he was responsible for everything unfortunate that had ever happened to me and this had all been about me the entire time.’”

“It was my story.”

“It wasn’t meant to be a story, it was meant to be a report.”

“Six of one and a half-a-dozen of the other.”

“You are a self-centered bastard, aren’t you? Shall we resume chronological order?”

“If we must.”

“Eve informs you of your friend Mr. White’s participation in all this—and thank you yet again for throwing in the gratuitous notion that everyone who works for me prefers you—and you vanish to confront him, whereupon we enter the part of the narrative that was of the most concern to Human Resources, which is to note that Dr. Swann would like to be perfectly clear with you that while she appreciates you endowing her with weapons expertise and a very vividly described gown, she is your employer-mandated psychiatrist, not your ingénue, and her father is a dentist, not an assassin. She also treated us all to an explanation of the concept of transference, which is why any future required appointments—and I certainly intend to require them now—will be held with a different doctor. Also, she spells her first name with a y.”

“My mistake.”

“Your further mistake is the apparent assumption that what women really want in a relationship is to have their lives repeatedly endangered, which I assume is something you may actually have discussed with Dr. Swann. And please spare me from sentences like, ‘Then we had sex on the train, because that seems like something I would do.’”

“I think Q typed that bit.”

“No, no, it’s too late to blame him for anything now. Though, speaking of, allow me to draw your attention to page fourteen, where you’ve written out some lengthy scene of Q getting kidnapped in Austria and then struck it all out and replaced it with—‘Q is briefly inconvenienced in a ski-lift.’”

“That’s not a replacement, that’s the segment that used to lead into the kidnapping part.”

“That’s worse,” M said, “because it now leads to nothing, and therefore serves no discernable point. You also have him outwitting highly-trained criminals by ducking behind a door.”

“He’s very clever.”

“I don’t think anyone would know that from this.”

“Perhaps it was a very unremarkable door, so they wouldn’t think to check.”

“I fear for your safety in the field. Anyway, Q has analyzed this ring for you, which was somehow possibly worn by everyone who has ever inconvenienced you, which means he begs your pardon for having doubted you in the first place, which is a rather disgustingly self-aggrandizing thing to have included.”

“I’ll admit that.”

“And you go into as much strange detail on it as you do Dr. Misspelling’s dress and every single car you deign to mention.”

Bond hastily cast about for a new subject. “You do come off rather well in it all, sir.”

“Aside from my strangely disloyal employees, yes, I’ll admit that I do. Quite flattering. Why do I suspect all that was incorporated just to forestall me from binning this whole exercise?”

“A vain hope.”

“Quite. Eve, by the way, would like you to know that she would have expected she would have more lines in this, and she can always shoot you again.”

“I expect she’ll increase her presence in rewrites.”

“See that she does. –You then discover a hidden chamber Mr. White was evidently able to create in a hotel room—I’m not convinced that makes any sense—and you use coordinates you find within it to discover the lair your former brother, Oberhauser, a.k.a. Blofeld, a.k.a, according to what I can only assume was a Freudian slip, Hans Landa, has made inside a valley created by a meteor. I can see the brotherly resemblance. You’ve given him your gift for trite melodrama.”

“I don’t have a gift for trite melodrama.”

“Allow me to draw your attention to the scene in which your enemy has decided to torture you by endeavoring—apparently wildly inefficiently—to surgically take away your facial recognition skills.”

“It’s insidious.”

“It’s contrived,” M said shortly. “Approximately as contrived as the fact that you arrive at this compound, voluntarily surrender your weapon, and then seem surprised when it all goes horribly wrong.”

“I was surprised by how it went horribly wrong.”

“Well, agree to disagree. You then escape, thanks to an exploding watch of the exact sort I’ve been told we don’t make any longer. Everyone else around you has, apparently, dreadful aim. The entire compound then explodes, courtesy of our old friend ‘for some reason,’ and you and our impending lawsuit escape via—something. You’ve presumably just blown everything up, so I’m not quite sure.”

“I’ll include more detail.”

“I’d prefer you didn’t, actually, as I’d rather not read another passage about someone’s automobile. We then skip to London, where you meet up with us. Not Actually Dr. Swann leaves just in time to be kidnapped and you and I pile into a car just in time for you to also be kidnapped. Given this fixation, clearly the best thing we can do for your next birthday is pay someone to grab you off the street and give you a thrill.”

“It’s not a fixation.”

“We’ll leave that question to your next psychiatrist. Q then takes down an international surveillance system, and you specifically note that this is very impressive work, and I lecture a man until he falls off a roof, which is presumably less impressive, as you don’t take time to praise me for it.”

“I didn’t think it was as impressive, no.”

“Then you are once again the victim of an elaborately staged scenario in which you have to rescue the maiden fair, which you do. You then don’t murder Blofeld in plain sight, which you try your damnedest to make into a moment of crushing moral rectitude—yet another thing that worries me—and then you walk off with Madeleine-with-an-i. This at least ought to be the end, but instead, you’ve written in this extremely bizarre postscript in which you come back and get a car from Q.”

“I like that car.”

“But presumably you’re aware that you don’t own the car, and neither, for that matter, does Q. His proximity to various objects doesn’t actually equal possession of them. Just because Q is standing near something doesn’t mean he can give it to you, and why you think he’d want to give you a car is also beyond me.”

Bond stood. “That’s the end, nonetheless—if there’s nothing else?”

“Please delete everything after you prevent the stadium bombing in Mexico City and resubmit this as is,” M said, rubbing his temples. “Tell Q he can have the bloody flight simulator if he’ll proofread everything you write in the future.”

“He’ll be pleased.”

“And do try to keep a healthy distance from Dr. Swann, for legal reasons. You worry me, 007.”

“That’s not uncommon, sir.”

M looked at him. “It would be just your bad luck if the pen really did turn out to be mightier than the sword.”

“There’s no need to be rude.”

“When I came off so well, you mean? Tell the truth, Bond, did you really give me the heroic grandstanding just to get away with everything else?”

“Truthfully?”

“Why not?”

“I didn’t think about it,” Bond said. “It just seemed characteristic of you, sir.”

M sighed. “Well, that’s kind of you.”

“For whatever my good opinion is worth,” Bond said, and, nodding at him, went out into the corridor.

Q was sitting on the floor with his back against the wall throwing paperclips into a cup Eve was holding out for him. He scrambled up.

“Did I get the flight simulator?”

“At the cost of my dignity, yes.”

“Did I get any more lines?” Eve said.

“No, but he cut it to the bone, so everyone else is also without a presence. You’ve got good company.”

“I’ll expect better from the sequel,” she said. “If he ever lets you touch a pen or a keyboard again, which I very much doubt.”

Q followed Bond out. When they were in the clear, he put his hands in his pockets and swung them back and forth, a grin spreading across his face. “You’ll like the simulator. You got very into those helicopter-flying scenes, I know you did.” He patted Bond on the shoulder. “Come on, don’t be dismal. You can’t be expected to have made a good go at the dramatic arts the first time through. Plenty of time to improve. I’m interested in hearing more about your fantasies about Monica Bellucci, not to mention my kidnapping.”

“I do have other strengths,” Bond said. “But that’s the problem with downtime. You start looking for things to get invested in.”

“Well, next time you have a spot of time off, we can go to Mexico City again. I quite liked you in that skeleton suit.”

“M was a little suspicious of the amount of focus I gave you.”

“If we have to make a clean breast of things, we will,” Q said, sounding unconcerned about it. “We’re both indispensible. Even if he’s miffed about it, he won’t be unreasonable.”

Q, at least, was indispensible, or at least Bond couldn’t successfully imagine a world in which he wasn’t.

“This spot of transference you obviously have going on with Dr. Swann,” Q said musingly, “should I be concerned about that?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Goodness knows I fell in love with a shrink or two in my time. Perfectly understandable.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Ah,” Q said. He seemed to be fighting to keep his voice casual. “Just a harmless little fantasy, a you-needed-a-name thing?”

“Well, obviously I wasn’t overly gifted, creatively. M made that clear.”

“The wounded ego on you is astonishing.”

“I needed a name,” Bond said, “and the relic of an old infatuation, I suppose, but—” What he wanted to say was that the part where he had rescued her from the soon-to-be-detonated building he had written quickly and without a single flinch, but the attempted saga of Q’s kidnapping had taken him two Scotches and four hours, and in the end he hadn’t been able to bear committing it to the page. It had filled him with adrenaline that had gone nowhere.

“I wouldn’t say I fell in love with her,” he said finally, lightly.

Q looked up. “Oh. Really?”

“If you’ll have me.”

“I’ve been having you.”

“For good, though,” Bond said.

Q pulled him around a corner and into a doorway which, despite M’s criticisms, seemed perfectly capable of shielding them from prying eyes. Q seemed to think so, at least, because he proceeded to kiss Bond soundly enough that the was no doubt at all what his answer was.

They stepped back out on to the street.

“I mean, even if only for the spectacle of the love letters,” Q said.