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The day after Bond returns from Scotland, Q walks up to him, still rumpled and grey-faced, and hands him a keycard and an address.

"What's this?" Bond asks.

Q summons up a shred of life in response. "I'm your Quartermaster," he says. "These are your quarters."

Bond raises his eyebrows, sliding the keycard between his fingers.

"I find real-estate listings soothing," Q snaps, and turns on his heel.

*

The flat is in a newly-built high-rise in Battersea, the fifteenth floor, all chrome and hardwood floors and windows, not easily targeted by snipers. Bond walks around it, opening kitchen cupboards and flicking the spotlights on and off, checking for surveillance equipment. It is exactly the sort of bare, modern place that someone might assume he'd live in; nothing like Skyfall Lodge at all.

In rooms without windows, the wheels of MI6 are turning. He is called in for debriefing, for more physicals, for a battery of psychological tests; he hears a replacement for M has been appointed, and is not surprised by the name.

The first night he spends on the floor, which would be penitential if he were not sitting there with a bottle of whisky, watching the lights across the river. He remembers waiting for M at her home, listening for the slide of the door and the practiced click of her keys in the bowl.

Where do the rest of them live, the people who work in the shadows? Eve, he thinks, probably still has the sort of flat that three student girls might share, though she lives in it alone now, the guest room empty except for a bed and some forgotten boxes. She's hardly ever home, so it gets messy – high-heeled shoes left in corners and take-away cartons mouldering in the fridge.

Tanner is a family man, with a house out in the suburbs, a blonde wife and two children. He escapes there every night, takes off his tie and becomes Bill, sidesteps the Lego on the sitting-room rug and watches football with a beer in his hand and does not talk about work at all.

He imagines Q living in a bay-windowed terrace in Islington, around the corner from a Co-operative and a fashionable bar, filled with paperbacks and disassembled computer parts. He's probably there now, somewhere below, still awake, sitting cross-legged in his pyjamas with the light from the screen shining on his face.

The sun rises over London and Bond's phone doesn't ring, so he decides to go shopping. He goes to outdoor markets and antique shops, spends money liberally on the oddest things he can find: African masks, a model biplane, a gramophone, a tiger-skin rug with the tiger's head still attached.

When he sleeps, his dreams are of burning buildings and water in his lungs: elemental fears, with plenty of memories to choose from. He does not sleep very much.

When the third day passes and his phone still doesn't ring, Bond heads down to the underground headquarters and stands over Q's shoulder until he's noticed.

"007," Q says, looking up. He's clean-shaven and looks slightly less hollow-eyed than the last time they met. "I'm afraid you still aren't cleared for active duty." He watches Bond bite off the reply before he asks, "How's the new flat?"

Bond leans against a bench, crosses his arms deliberately. "You should come over some time. See what I've done with the place."

Q blinks behind his glasses. "All right, then. I will."

"Bring a housewarming present," Bond tells him.

*

The buzzer still startles him that night, so that he almost reaches for a gun before relaxing his hand. When he opens the door, Q is standing there, hunched a little, holding a bottle of red wine and a wilting aspidistra.

Bond steps back, letting Q into the flat; his smile has teeth in it, like the tiger. Q looks around slowly.

"A paean to British imperialism," he drawls, handing Bond the aspidistra. "Why am I not surprised?" He toes off his shoes and adds, in tones of gently inquiry, "I suppose there's a rotating bed?"

The bed is heavy oak, wide and sturdy and serviceable, with blue cotton sheets on it; Bond is not about to volunteer this information. "Wouldn't you like to know," he says.

He puts down the houseplant, pours them each a glass, and then stands there, as awkward as he's ever felt. There's no mission, no objective, nothing he's trying to get out of Q – how else is one supposed to have a conversation?

"They're reading the will tomorrow, you know. After the funeral," Q says, around a gulp of wine. "I didn't know her that well, but – we'll miss her. I'll miss her. It won't be the same."

"No," Bond agrees, "it won't." He turns his back on his guest and walks over to the window that covers the entire wall. He means to look out at London below, but all he can see is the flat reflected back at him. It doesn't look like a home, because he wasn't trying to make it one: it looks like a random collection of objects, a paean to nothing at all.

Q comes to stand beside him. "If I were to touch you," he says, "would you take it as an attack or an invitation for sex?"

A smile ghosts across Bond's face in the glass. "Am I that predictable?"

"I've read your file," Q says. "And also the classified file."

Bond's silence is all the invitation he's willing to make. He doesn't know what he's expecting, but it isn't for Q to reach across and link his arm through Bond's elbow, as though the two of them were out for a stroll in some idyllic world that never was – before the War, before any of the wars.

Tomorrow, they will bury M, and he will go to see Mallory and get his new mission, and know where he is again, and who he answers to, even when he fails to answer. For now here they are, facing their own reflections and the night: shadows made flesh. "Thanks for the flat," he tells Q. "Though I don't expect to be spending much time here."

"Not even on the tiger-skin rug?" Q asks, faux-innocent. "Just try not to die again. Have you any idea what the property prices are like in London?"

"I wouldn't want to put you to the trouble," Bond says, discovering it's true.