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No one quite knows how the whole deal works. Not in any clear-cutdetail anyway. Despite years of conjecture, not even the bravest, smartest, most liberal scientists of their time have been able to comprehend much. There's a stigma here, a spiritualreligiouscultural awe that's survived for centuries and still lives in everyone's eyes.

The only thing that could possibly be more sacrilegious would be to insult someone's God. And even that is a toss-up. 

When the boy who will one day be known by the moniker of '007' is born into the world, this lack of understanding and this unwillingness to understand has not changed. And will not be changed for some time yet, even as time itself brings with it inexorable differences and humanity continues to shoot for the stars. 

Like all little boys and girls, James grows up with the knowledge that his soulmate is somewhere out there. Waiting for him. Someone uniquely meant for him and only him. The love of his life...or so the common misconception is. 

"Here, James," his mother says to him when he is five, handing him a pack of small, colourful felt-tipped pens. They are made specifically for this purpose, long-lasting and harmless when applied to human skin but vivid enough for artistic use and childish enjoyment.

"Write whatever you want. Do it often enough, and your soulmate will be able to see it," she encourages as good mothers do and leaves him with a drawing book full of pictures for him to trace, stars and flowers and lightning.

James smiles and shrugs and does as he's told. It's fun, another little game, so he doesn't complain.

The intellectuals of the world may not know much about how soulmates operate, but trial and error and the occasional mistake and revelation have their uses. 

Before first contact, whether it be by voice or by sight, what can be transmitted between soulmates is always empty of meaning. Whether it happens to be words or drawings or anything in-between, their other-half will see it show up on their skin only if there is no true substance within it, behind it.

A thoughtless note. A rapid sketch for later. A random doodle.

It's why writing a name, address, time and date on one's palm doesn't work, much to the despair of more than half the human population. Not unsurprisingly, the absent-minded, forgetful types who scribble down everything on their arms have the highest chance of finding their soulmates.

If one's lucky enough to find their soulmate, well. No one really knows what happens next since it's unique to each pair, but most people believe that soulmates in love, truly in love, can actually communicate purposefully through ink on their skin.

Of course, no one has yet to prove anything, but at five years old, James hardly knows or cares about any of that.

He will. In time.

He gets into the habit easily enough. Whatever comes to mind, he marks down on his body. Little drawings of his favourite superheroes. Suns. Music notes from Mummy's piano book. The sunset he admires from the window. Ladybugs in the garden. Anything. Everything.

Soon, there's not enough room on his hands and arms. James shrugs and starts on his legs.

Nothing from his soulmate ever shows up on his skin. Sometimes, James feels bummed about that, but then something flashy inevitably catches his attention, and he forgets all about it.

(For now, he's an innocent child still.)

James grows up and up and up. He goes to Switzerland and then Germany because his father's job keeps them moving around. On some level of consciousness, the lack of stability is troubling, even as he revels in the new culture and experiences. His skin remains stained with odd, everyday things, although he never claims to be a good artist.

Still, his soulmate doesn't respond. He's starting to think he doesn't have a soulmate, although his mother claims that notion is entirely ridiculous.

"James!" George, one of the friends he's made this time around, comes running up to him with a wide grin. "Look, look!" He wrenches up his sleeve and proudly shows off a wobbly pink heart. "It's my soulmate's! Awesome, huh?"

James grins despite the uncomfortable stone weighing down his stomach. "Yeah, that's great!"

"I wonder what's she like? They are a girl, right? I mean, it's pink and everything. But if they're a boy, I won't mind. My ma says there's a 60/40 chance, but I mean, they'll be my soulmate either way. What's your soulmate like? Do you know anything?" George spits out in an excited rush.

James grimaces a little and sticks his hands in his pockets for lack of anything else to do. "I…no, not really."

"Oh." Briefly, George makes a sympathetic face. "Well, you shouldn't worry. My ma says most people don't find their soulmate until they're in their twenties or something. I hope I find my soulmate before that, though. How bout you?"

James hums noncommittally, scuffing at the dirt with his shoe. "I guess so."

James turns eleven.

His parents die in a freak climbing accident.

And he's alone.

For a long time after that, James doesn't really think about his soulmate. He still writes down random stuff on his skin, but a habit is a habit. He pushes any thoughts of his mother out of his mind as soon as they appear, and that includes everything she ever taught him about soulmates.

(She was probably wrong anyways. Either his soulmate hates him or they don't exist. And James finds he prefers to believe the latter.)

Instead, he suffers through headache-inducing tutoring at Skyfall Lounge for a year before wrecking havoc at Eton College. The curfew regulations there are stupid, so he violates them. Repeatedly. It helps take his mind off other things. To his amusement, it's actually a little fun with one of the maids that gets him expelled.

James enjoys his time at Fettes College far more, despite the increased amount of homework. He's always been an active, athletic boy, and that has never been truer than now. Rather than thinking about the silence in his 'home' and on his skin, he throws himself into competitions.

He wins most of them with a devilish grin, too.

Boxing is great. When he boxes, he can forget about everything but winning the match, throwing punch after punch, reveling in the blood rushing through his veins and the heartbeat pounding in his ears. Just for good measure, he forms the first intermural judo league for the public school circuit because he's bored and that seems like the thing to do.

When he's not busy with that, he's skiing and climbing during the term breaks with a local Austrian instructor, Hannes Oberhauser. He isn't going to let one small accident stop him from doing what he's loved. His parents would hate that, be disappointed in him.

Oberhauser gets James. He doesn't try to push and prod, lets him The counsellors have never understood that. James likes him, doesn't fight when Oberhauser's smile turns distinctly fond in the way of a proud father, even though Franz, his son, doesn't like James, judging from the icy glares he's treated to every time they're in the same room. 

Naturally, Oberhauser disappears without a word. Well. What else was he expecting?

(He cries in the privacy of his room. No one is here to comfort him now.)

James graduates Fettes College at seventeen. His skin has never borne a single mark from his soulmate.

He accepts that as his due as well.

James goes to the Britannia Royal Naval College. It seems only right. The only constant in his life is England, always England, and he's the patriotic type. He wants to serve his country. Where else would be better than the Navy? He isn't afraid of getting his hands dirty.

It's not as if there is anyone left to care whether he lives or dies.

James likes this place. Sure, the instructors aren't much on moderating their voices or going easy on them, but he doesn't want easy. He wants fast and hard and exhilarating, and the training is surely that. It's good, better than the most vigorous competition he's participated in, the most brutal fight he's fought.

To his disgust, there are still curfews. He ignores them.

Three months after James turns eighteen, he's taking a short shower when he notices it. He's long since given up the habit of writing on his skin; the Navy quietly looks down on soulmates and the weaknesses they present. Besides, between training and simulations, there's never any time to do so nowadays anyway.

It's why the small green leaf on his upper right arm catches his attention so quickly.

James stares.

What the fuck?

It's shoddy work, despite the obvious quality of the green ink. The outline itself is bumpy. The veins inside are skewed. If his soulmate - again, what the bloody fuck? - was aiming for a work of art, they failed miserably. For the first time in a long while, he finds himself utterly speechless.

"Bond! We have strategic operations in two minutes!" Davies, one of the more friendly guys, calls.

James shakes his head, wishing he can shake these new thoughts right out of his mind. "…yeah. Got it!"

He pushes the pathetic little leaf out of his mind and focuses on passing his latest test or, better yet, getting the highest marks. He refuses to think of the possibility that his soulmate is actually much, much younger than he is, because, damn it, he let the possibility of finding his soulmate go when his parents died.

This ugly little piece of... vegetation doesn't mean anything in the grand scheme of things.

It doesn't go away. Jesus Christ, it doesn't go away.

No, instead, the leaf is joined by more of its brethren. On his left arm, on his lower abdomen, on his upper right thigh. With the additional practice, the little leaves actually get better, aesthetically speaking. The occasional arrow, sun, hexagon, flower, and house show up here and there, too.

James is at a loss for what to do. He's only thankful that all of the drawings are in relatively easy-to-cover places.

A month after that, letters start showing up. A, B, C, D, on his right knee. E, F, G, H, I, on his left shoulder. J, K, L, M, N, on his right shoulder. O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, on his left knee, in a small, more oval-than-circle shape. V, W, X, Y, Z, in a little pentagon right over his heart.

James is horrified, now certain of his worst fear. Goddamn it, is his soulmate five or something? What was the universe thinking? He doesn't have the time or inclination to deal with this new existential crisis, damn it! He was perfectly fine without his soulmate, thank you very much!

(He ignores the aching sense of loneliness in his chest, the haunting sorrow in his dreams. He is very good at practising denial, a skill that will serve him well in the future.)

The only silver lining he can see is that, apparently, they do, in fact, use an alphabet he's familiar with. He's heard of random Chinese characters showing up on other, less fortunate people's skin, and that's without getting into the hieroglyphics and obscure tribal symbols.

To stop thinking about bloody paedophilia, he returns all of his concentration to his training. He's doing well, very well, despite the many offences he's stacked up against himself. Just because some of his instructors can't handle being told that they're wrong when they so clearly are…

It's not like their wounded egos are any of his business, is it?

And James is starting to think about applying for work in Naval Intelligence.

He gets on HMS Exeter as an intelligence officer. With full recommendations even.

James thinks he's earned the right to be a little smug. Or a lot.

The ocean is magnificent in its power and beauty. He's always known this, of course, but knowing and knowing are different, and it doesn't take him long at all to fall in love. Whatever that may happen, James knows, the ocean will be there, as it has been before he was born and will continue to be long after he has died.

Just as well. He has no intention of rotting in the ground. Let the sharks have them.

He sinks into his position in the Navy with enviable ease and is more than content when he collapses in bed every evening. Or morning, as it may be.

Operation Granby comes and goes, and James decides to switch to submarines. HMS Turbulent is interesting but somewhat boring after a while. There's something suffocating about gliding along the ocean floor, death a leak away, the metal walls closing around him. Restlessness begins to build in his muscles again so he goes ahead and volunteers for the Special Boat Service.

At least, he reasons, he'll be on the move.

SC3 and Underwater and Aquatic Training are easy. He doesn't hesitate to smirk and trounce his superiors and instructors at their own game. It's not his fault they all make it so effortless.

A bit more problematic is hiding the ink that continues to show up on his skin. Not exactly easy when he's practically shirtless and sometimes even trouser-less for more than six hours.  Really, all of these years and his soulmate decides to get off their arse at the worst possible time.

James adamantly refuses to consider that it's more than possible that when he wanted a sign of his soulmate's existence, they hadn't yet been born. That's a fucked-up road to go down Just no.

He buys one of those special spray-on bottles from a local store. Normal make-up can't hide the marks of your soulmate, but even this stuff can only cover the stains for a few hours. He doesn't want any questions from his comrades, though, so he's careful to apply it every morning after he shaves. The arrangement works well enough.

At least, it's words now. Even if he understands about as much as he did when it was just symbols.

Stupid Sherlock.

Stupid Mycroft.

Stupid Mummy.

Stupid Papa.

James gapes slightly when he first sees the words, showing up one after the other in the span of six weeks on his upper thighs. Apparently, his soulmate is both pouting and smart enough to want to keep their thoughts to themselves.

...what sort of names are 'Sherlock' and 'Mycroft'?

He chuckles despite himself before covering the words up. For a moment, he is tempted to search up the names he was given, but then he is told of the night limpet placement operation at Plymouth and dismisses his soulmate from his thoughts entirely.

James completes UAW training and goes on to Advanced Commando Parachute training at Brize Norton. Absently, he wonders if his life is going to be a string of different exercises but quickly decides to actually listen to what their instructor is saying before he falls from 3000 metres up.

On a side note, his soulmate has graduated from writing down petulant insults against, presumably, their parents and their brothers to full-fledged sentences, sometimes paragraphs, about completely random subjects. On one memorable occasion, James had to conceal an entire rant on the behaviour and anatomy of ladybugs on his chest.

There are surprisingly few spelling errors when he bothers to check. He's almost impressed but mostly just annoyed and horrified at the continued evidence of his soulmate's age. He tries not to think about it.

After that, they decide to focus on basic mathematics. It takes his soulmate about a week to go from addition and subtraction to multiplication and division. Then another two before the process is repeated with double-digit numbers. Triple-digit numbers. And…no signs of them stopping anytime soon. Four. Five.

More complicated sequences. Patterns by an addition of two. Multiplying by three. Subtracting by seven. Starting from one hundred and dividing by five. Negative numbers.


James isn't sure this is normal. Was he this fast with math? It's not like he can ask anyone about the normal progress of a…primary school student? He's pretty sure this kid is in primary school. Maybe. Hard to be certain. Home-schooled, perhaps. Whatever, why is he contemplating this again?

Parachuting is spectacular. He loves the rushing of the wind and the screaming pull of gravity, but what he remembers most vividly when he leaves is an incident during free fall training. Some idiot, Lieutenant Cameron, apparently, got his pins jammed and decided the best way to react was to panic uselessly while he fell, face-forward, towards the unforgiving earth.

For fuck's sake, honestly. 

James didn't even hesitate before manoeuvring himself around in mid-air to deploy the idiot's chute, despite the not-inconsiderable threat of damage to himself. And it was fantastic. If he could, he would do it again…not to endanger the idiot's life, of course, but just to feel that adrenaline rush once more.

Also, his little stunt and his exemplary results earn him the 030 Special Forces Unit, rather than the standard SBS Units in Poole. Which is more than satisfactory, in his opinion.

James recalls the loneliness and desolation he felt as a child when no one responded and buys one of those special pens on his way out.

James is more at home with the 030 SFU than he ever was anywhere else.

To be honest, he feels a little like a boy in a candy store. He's had his fun with the sea, so now his love affair is with the sky, although his first love will always be beneath the waves. Assault helicopters, Harrier-class jets, fixed wing aircraft, and hovercrafts; he has it all. The marine assault vessels and armoured vehicles are really just the icing on top.

When he has time between training other candidates and initiating athletic competitions, James tries to get back into the habit. The first time he has a black pen poised above his skin, he feels inexplicably ridiculous. For a moment, he debates simply recapping the pen and going on with his day.

But he casts his mind around and alights on the training course he will set up later. He writes a series of lines that could mean anything on his upper arm but represents the jumping bars the trainees will have to use and hides it behind his long sleeves. 

Then, he goes off and doesn't spare the matter another thought. 

After that, James sets his goal on one message per day. Most of it means nothing, even if the inspiration inevitably comes from his military life. He has no idea who his soulmate is, and there's a reason confidentiality and security clearances exist.

Endangering his soulmate with knowledge they should not have on their skin sounds like a terrifically bad idea.

One year passes in the service of 030 SFU, at once regretfully fast and worryingly slow. He manages to successfully meet his quota of one message per day through sheer stubbornness. James doesn't know if any of them have gone through since he actually has to consider what he puts down when he writes but shrugs it off.

Meanwhile, his soulmate is scribbling basic weather patterns like the cycle of water and drawing questionable lightning bolts and lightning rods. He hopes that they're not going to electrocute themselves by accident while he is in Libya, because, from their dialect, he's willing to bet they're British.

Thank God. He doesn't want to consider what he would have done if they were enemies of his country. He's heard more than enough stories about situations like that to know they never end well.

James spends most of his second year running around. He's promoted to Lieutenant Commander by the end of it and finds he's routinely doodling on his skin when he has nothing else to do. Little things like the shape of buildings in Iraq and the layers of the sunset in Somalia and the explosion he set off in Iran.

Actually, he hopes his soulmate won't figure that last one out but isn't holding his breath because, from the looks of it, his little soulmate is smart.

(James ignores how he is more or less over the problematic matter of their age. He'll cross that hurdle when he gets to it. If he ever does.)

Ramblings show up on his skin every other day, with no discernible pattern to the topic. Sometimes philosophy, sometimes violent crimes...which does a good job of freaking James out when he reads the police report. A great deal on politics, and, to James' mild discomfort, the Gulf War he's currently participating in.

What the hell is this kid involved in?

At the end of his third year, James is recruited by the RNR Defence Intelligence Group and awarded the rank of Commander after saving a good one hundred men in Bosnia from a Serbian militia. It's instinctive to write his thoughts down now, in short-hand and vague terms that no one but himself will understand, and he has no idea what they think of him and his incoherent notes.

And, at last, he finally develops the slightest of grasps on the identity of his soulmate through painstaking attention to detail and logical leaps.

Young, for obvious reasons. Well-connected, judging from the rare info on high-level politics. Smart, oh so smart. Possibly, probably, a genius. 

Rich. Posh. Cultured.

James bases those last three on the recent reminders that his soulmate has been writing down. Again, how old are they exactly? What sort of household are they growing up in?

Knife placed with cutting edge towards plate.

Red wine does not go with complex sauces.

Dessert forks/spoons brought in right before dessert.

Watch the place cards.

Cut: double vents, padded shoulders, flap pockets.

Salad course last.

Dinner knife to right of dinner plate.

Table arrangements symmetrical.

James has never been one for the rules, and he can't help but feel frustrated and indignant on his soulmate's behalf. Yes, he appreciates the classics, but there's really no need to be this strict, especially with, he's fairly certain, a child. Just a child. When he was a child, he was running around and getting in the mud and laughing without a care in the world.

Still, he's hardly in any position to interfere…and it's not like he sincerely wants to find his soulmate.

(Right? Right.)

James leans back in his plane seat and frowns deeply as he nears Chicksands, the Defence Intelligence and Security Centre.

His sleep is restless.

Not that far away, a ten-year-old boy who will one day be known by the moniker of 'Q' tosses and turns in the Holmes household, brilliant mind racing even in dreams, a vast, fearful, brilliant future ahead of him, unknown military secrets dark against the pale of his skin.

Chapter Text

James has...time on his hands with the Defence Intelligence Group.

This is new. This is almost alien. From his first foray with the Britannia Royal Naval College, James has been kept busy, busy, busy. With training, with exercises, with shooting this terrorist and rescuing that child, with blowing up this monument and saving that building, with life and death and bravery and cruelty, with everything the military has to offer him.

And, oh, for a man like him, for someone who craves action at his heels and fire in his blood and stars in his hands, they have so much to give. This life is embedded into his heart, this love for country and lust for danger. He doesn't think he'll ever be able to walk away from this, not completely.

A nice, peaceful existence has never been what James wanted. In the back of his mind, a little voice wonders if that is what his soulmate expects of him. If so, they will be disappointed.

(He wishes, somewhat distantly, that this one time, the universe has not messed up, that karma has not screwed him over, that his soulmate will be able to truly understand him, be what he needs even if they're not what he wants. But that's hope and fantasy, and he dwells in screaming reality.)

It's not that work with the RNR DI Group isn't challenging. It is. He's responsible for training soldiers in intelligence, in how to handle information that might bless or curse them. He draws his own hands through waves and waves of data that could mean everything or nothing at all.

But it's a job in a way that being an intelligence officer on a boat, a submarine, high up in the sky, wasn't. There are hours here, work hours, and after they're over, he's done. Left hanging with nothing to do until the next sunrise.

After a few weeks of spending his spare time drinking in pubs, James shakes himself out of it and decides to do something worth his time. He's always been intelligent, not as intelligent as the genius he knows his soulmate is, but decently intelligent and stubborn as a mule.

He's been working with the Navy for this long, and his time with the 030 SFU was hardly unkind to his wallet. The RNR DI Group is quite amenable to educating their agents as well. He can afford going to a fancy university. Cambridge and Oxford aren't far off from Chicksands, and there are always other, less well-recommended universities nearby.

Now that he has the time, he may as well get himself a good college education. Who knows? Might come in handy some day. 

It's a bit uncomfortable, wandering around a uni campus after years of combat training and fieldwork, but James forces himself to adjust to his surroundings with all of the speed and efficiency that his instructors have complimented over and over. The first thing that gives an agent away is ignorance and unfamiliarity, so he's careful not to let any of his unease show.

He's only twenty-four, so, with the scars on his body concealed beneath fine clothing, there's no reason for any of the students to suspect anything of him, even if it's true that he's lumped in with the undergraduates rather than people his own age. But they're all in their early twenties - or late teens - anyway, and it's not like he doesn't know how to lie without a single tell. The few "friends" he makes never suspect he is anything more than what he seems.

He decides to take night and weekend courses at times such that even his overtime hours at RNR DI are over. The university is more than happy to accommodate someone with his recommendations and certificates, and soon, he is up to his neck in dissertations and scholarly articles.

It's not easy, and that's why James grins and digs in.

He doesn't bother trying to focus on a single subject. There's no use for that, not in his career. Instead, he spread his range far and wide and looks for what is most useful.

Mathematics and physics, because even if he can instinctively calculate the trajectory of a bullet from hard experience and cold training, it's better to be precise when the alternative is death.

Biology and geography, because he's been travelling and he will be travelling a hell of a lot more in the future if he has any say in his life, and knowing the climate and animals is crucial for survival.

Forensics and criminology, because he's dealing with terrorists and war, intelligence gathering and a global chess game, brutally violent sociopaths and psychopaths, tracking and murdering.

And, last, but not least, languages.

James focuses on oriental languages, because, really, with all of the shit going on in the Middle East, he's going to need a good handle on their dialects. And he honestly doubts it'll be long before he's out of the classroom and learning through cultural immersion once more.

He goes to the specialised courses, and he absorbs it all like a well-made sponge. Not unsurprisingly, alongside a good three-fourths of the student population, he ends up writing most of his notes on his skin during the lectures and discussions, the habit so effortless now that he knows that the majority of what he puts down is getting through to his soulmate.

His soulmate, who, to his bizarre pride and bafflement, seems to be understanding the advanced material that James is learning.

At twenty-five, halfway through his undergraduate degree, he thinks to himself that his soulmate must be the strangest teenager who ever existed. He doesn't know whether to pity the parents or blame them.

Because James is fairly certain they're a teenager by now. A young teenager, perhaps, but a teenager, and a none too happy one from the looks of it. The increasing list of insults against their parents, as well as 'Sherlock' and Mycroft', both of whom are evidently a bit older, is perfectly scathing and more than a tad concerning.

Sherlock almost set his flat on fire again today. I'm afraid he's developing pyromaniac tendencies in addition to his already present necrophilia.

Mummy keeps pushing the daughters of wealthy businessmen on me. Why can't she deal with them herself? One of them had a knife on her person.

Papa's hair is grey enough that he should be nearing senility, but he still has enough energy to scold me for not paying attention in class. My grades are flawless, ta.

Mycroft is developing a worrying obsession with umbrellas. I am concerned.

Sherlock managed to singe his eyebrows off today. Who gave him those bloody chemicals?

Mummy says we have to go to another party on Saturday. I wonder if I'll have to climb out the window again. It's on the ninth floor. 

Mycroft is scheming again. I just know it.

If that isn't weird enough - Christ, what sort of family is his soulmate dealing with? - little comments and observations show up over his own notes, sometimes near instantaneously and sometimes after days of silence. There are questions and even corrections on occasion, implying that he understands the material on a level beyond his professors.

They, he notices, particularly like physics, mathematics, and the small amount of engineering he picks up.

James, rather painfully, recalls what his mother told him about the rules regarding soulmates and ponders over why this is getting through. Eventually, he concludes that it's because while his soulmate is unintentionally receiving their information from James, they are writing their conclusions down for themselves, not for him.

And, really, his soulmate has not stopped writing on their skin for seven years. James doubts that they even consciously think about it now, similar to how he rarely considers his soulmate in the middle of an engaging lecture unless they are cheekily writing over the words he has misspelt in his haste.

The first time it happens, James nearly laughs out loud in the middle of class.

Of course, as if that isn't enough, more than half the time, they're a useful little bugger.

A good amount of their remarks, written in precise, neat handwriting that's an amusing change from the original, shaky letters of childhood, are little more than trivia. Entertaining but not exactly going to help James write his essay. And then, his soulmate goes and writes down a fact that he ends up basing an entire research project on.

James is half-appreciative and half-exasperated with this state of affairs. Genius or not, must he get shown up by a bloody teenager?

In-between their moody comments about their family and their amusing contributions to James' education, they continue to write anything from movie reviews to book quotes. Recently, it seems like they're really getting into it.

"I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts." - Moby Dick

That's...okay, that's alright. James would prefer for that quote to not be just below his right armpit, but he likes it well enough.

"The world seems full of good men - even if there are monsters in it." - Dracula

He can't honestly say he enjoys reading about vampires, but the quote suits his work, so he'll take it. Again, a bit too far up on his upper left thigh.

"True courage is not knowing when to take a life, but to spare one." - The Hobbit

James spends a good half an hour staring at this quote before reaching for the spray-on concealer bottle he hasn't touched in two years. He shakes it violently and covers the graceful black words. For the first time, he feels a stab of insecurity.

He has served his country. He continues to serve his country. Everything is for England. But...

His hands are dirty. Will they want such a tainted man? Surely, they deserve someone better than James Bond.

And then, not two minutes later...

"Small though it is, the human brain can be quite effective when working at full efficiency, not unlike myself!" - Doctor Who

James bursts out laughing. "Arrogant git," he says aloud, smile nearly fond.

James graduates Cambridge with first-class honours in Oriental Languages and promptly gets shipped off to Cyprus.

Well. It's about time.

Grinning contentedly, he leans back in his plane seat and cracks open the book he bought from the nearby bookstore right before leaving.

"Some things are more precious because they don't last long." - The Picture of Dorian Gray

He runs around in Cyprus, gathering intelligence and sending it back to England before moving on to Indonesia. He spends his twenty-eighth birthday in a pub with some fantastic martinis and ends the night by tumbling into bed with two sultry twins.

Some people chose to be celibate, preferring to love only their soulmate. Others are happily promiscuous until they can find their soulmate and devote themselves to monogamy. James has never been particularly fond of either ideology, not when over 20% of soulmates are platonic or simply not inclined to be romantic anyway.

Besides, his soulmate is a brat.

He won't be forever, a sly little voice points out from the dark depths of his mind, but he pushes it away.

"Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed." - The Iliad

James stares at the quote on his chest through the bathroom mirror in the morning after of a spectacular shag and hopes desperately that his soulmate isn't going into teenage depression and melodrama. He doesn't think he could take it.

"Each man delights in the work that suits him best." - The Odyssey

There. Vague enough, innocent enough, but something that resonates with James. He takes a quick detour to Iran and then goes cavorting in China. A bullet misses him by a millimetre in Iraq and then one actually hits him in North Korea.

A through and through on his shoulder. To his distaste, he's on bed rest for a week and a half. At least they bring him entertainment before he dies of boredom instead of the gunshot wound and infection.

"Ask no questions and you will be told no lies." - Great Expectations

James smirks faintly as he writes the quote down on his right arm, amused by how ironic the words are. He finds himself lying to civilians more often than not these days, his days filled with secrets and facades, but it's not really something he enjoys.

If he ever does find his soulmate, he hopes that they won't ask and he won't have to lie.

After the doctors release him at last, James finds himself on a plane to Afghanistan.

"Hey. Hey! Come on, stay with me. No, don't close your eyes. Focus!"

James smiles through the blood bubbling out of his mouth, vision wavering already. Despite that, he can still see the worried eyes of his comrade, feel the hands pressing the tattered remains of a jacket against the knife injury. A bullet thuds into the dirt beside him, and his doctor curses but doesn't run.

John Watson is a good man. James regrets that it's more than possible Watson will die today because of him.

"I'm fine," he says. "It's a gut wound. Hurts like a bitch, but it'll take me a while to bleed out."

"Don't talk. Conserve your energy," Watson commands, pressing down harder. James chokes back a cry of pain, mindful of the gunmen trying to find them. Their shelter is thin, but it's the best they can do for now. "You're not going to die if I have anything to say about it. Come on. you have any family back at home?"

Home. England.

"No," James admits, coughing a little. Chills are settling in now, although it's summer and bloody hot outside. He almost misses his now (literally) bloody and useless jacket, the one that's currently stopping him from bleeding out.

"Soulmate?" Watson frowns in concern at the blood coating his hands, bright crimson and richly warm. It's not really done to talk of soulmates in the military, not openly at least, for all that after multiple near-death experiences with your mates, nearly anything goes, but it's not like anyone will care now.

James sighs. He wants to close his eyes but doesn't. He thinks of book quotes and helpful hints and grumpy insults, youth and intelligence and cheek. "...Haven't found them." A pause while he flounders and the gunshots die down slightly. "You?"

Watson laughs a little helplessly. "Me neither, but I'm not sure I want to," he says ruefully. "Christ, the things that they write..."

That sounds interesting. And distracting, which is the important part. James manages to pry his eyes fully open again, wondering when he let them close halfway. "What?"

"Reports of murders. The more gruesome the better, apparently." Watson shakes his head, leaning back to remove his own jacket. He wads it up and presses it over the soaked cloth, renewing the harsh pressure.

James hisses out a sharp breath and grits his teeth. Inwardly, he curses fluently, going from English to Chinese to Turkish to Japanese and then back, but doesn't reveal their location to the enemies. He'll be damned if he gets Watson killed because of fucking low pain tolerance.

"Sorry. I would think that they were a serial killer or something, but there's always notes on who the culprit might be, so I'm thinking some kind of detective. They like to conduct experiments, too."

"Experiments?" James feels oddly detached, floating on cloud nine freezing cold and aching. He wants the good doctor to keep on talking, the calm, steady drone of his voice an anchor.

"Yeah." Watson smiles, a tad bemused but indulgent. "Chemistry mostly. Sometimes his results are bloody disturbing. He once wrote down that his apartment would have blown up had he let the experiment go on for fifteen more seconds."

That rings a bell somewhere in James' memory, but he's really drifting now, and it's so hard to focus. His eyes fall shut despite himself, the dull roaring in his ears drowning everything out. The darkness is comforting, and he...he...

"Oi! Christ, backup's almost here. Stay with me, come on! Don't fall unc...sciou...s..."

Sorry, James thinks numbly. Sorry.

James wakes up in a hospital bed with random quotes all over his body, machines beeping at him incessantly, a headache pounding in his skull, and morphine dripping into his veins.

He groans.

It takes two weeks for him to escape his prison this time around. He spends the whole time reading books and writing down counter quotes. Christ, his soulmate is turning him into a bookworm, and he hasn't even met them yet.

And he writes

"There is a man who would give his life to keep a life you love beside you." - A Tale of Two Expectations


"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." - The Great Gatsby


"Life is to be loved, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat." - Invisible Man


"We lived in the gaps between the stories." - The Handmaid's Tale


"Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart." - Kafka on the Shore


"No one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying." - Revolutionary Road


When he asks, he is told that John Watson has already been moved and is now in an entirely different part of Afghanistan. Unbeknownst to James, he will see the doctor again. But by then, they will both be completely different men altogether.

James returns to Libya, where he manages to find and secure detailed assessments of the status of the Libyan government's reputed financial ties to numerous terrorist organisations. They're not particularly happy about this, but he couldn't care less. Then, finally, finally, he is stationed back in England once more.

Five months after his twenty-ninth birthday, he wakes up to find a series of zeros and ones written all over his body, starting on his right palm and then going up his right arm, over his right shoulder, across his chest and down in neat lines, skipping over his groin and onto his upper thighs, all the way down to his ankles.

James stares.

What the fuck?

Briefly, he feels a sense of deja vu before becoming distracted again by the binary code. He supposes it says something about the time he has spent working in intelligence that his second thought is: does this mean anything?

Wait, is his soulmate still a teenager?

Don't tell him they're warming up to become the next bloody cyber terrorist, because, damn it, it's too early for this. He much prefers the harmless quotes, thank you very much. He's heard more than enough cautionary tales about a soldier killing their soulmate for duty and obligation and then promptly falling to pieces afterwards.

While not utterly debilitating, losing a soulmate is, more often than not, considered a fate worse than death, especially if a prior connection had existed. For complete strangers, losing their other half is devastating in an eerie way, but they can go on with life, albeit with a much higher chance of depression, anxiety, suicide, and other medical problems that tend to cause early demises.

Soulmates who have met, bonded, and then lost one another are a very different story.

There was a whole bloody play written on the concept for Christ's sake. He studied Romeo and Juliet in Fettes College, and he has never managed to forget it, to his utter annoyance. It would be just his luck if his soulmate turns out to be a witty megalomaniac with a love for literature. 

James makes a face and reluctantly gets out of bed. He'll ignore this for now, he decides. Maybe it's a one-time thing.

It's not a one-time thing.

Every damn morning, James wakes up with more zeros and ones on him, in increasingly more uncomfortable places. The digits are even getting smaller because there isn't enough room anymore, the ink washing away at a snail's it was designed to. Bloody hell, what is his soulmate doing?

Two weeks of this, and he's done. He's much better with action than waiting anyway.

"Miss Rachel," James purrs, sauntering over to the new intern.

The pretty blonde gulps and stares up at him with wide eyes. "M-Mr Bond?"

"Would you do me a favour?" he questions, voice low and deep.

"W-What kind of f-favour?" Her blush is deep pink, and she licks her lips nervously. Easy.

He smiles roguishly at her and places a piece of paper down on her desk. On it are the newest series of digits that have appeared, this time on the bottoms of his feet. "Decipher this for me."



He pays her for her compliance enthusiastically and with much passion. She doesn't seem to mind at all.

Two days later, Rachel walks up to him hesitantly, her heels loud on the floor. Spectacularly unfit for field work, this one, but with a great pair of lungs. "M-Mr Bond?"

James smiles, expertly hiding the curiosity and anticipation that's making his heart pound. Fuck, his soulmate's only a teenager, he's never even met them, there's no reason for him to be this worked up about it. "Miss Rachel."

"Here." Not meeting his eyes, she hands him the paper he gave her before. "Translation's on the back. It's binary in ASCII scheme."

Before he can question her further, she flees. Odd. She wasn't that shy before.

Raising an eyebrow, James glances down at the paper and flips it over. His eye twitches.

What a cheeky brat.

To whomever this may concern, this message means nothing at all. Good day.

The woman who sits across from him has an austere smile and glacier eyes, head held high and back perfectly straight, beautiful but more so intimidating, knowing but more so commanding. 

"James Bond," she says, "Do you know who I am?"

Leaning back in his uncomfortable chair, he smiles over the rubbish tea in his cup and doesn't glance around at the perfectly condemning office. "M," he responds evenly, "head of MI6."

She nods curtly. "Good." She opens the file on her desk. He has no doubt it is his. "You have shown commendable merit. However, more than one supervisor has noted your disregard for protocol and the hierarchy of command. What do you have to say for yourself?"

James tilts his head five degrees to the right but otherwise stays as still as a jaguar on the hunt. "Sometimes," he tells her, "it's best to trust one's own judgement."

She presses her lips together. "Arrogant."

"Confident," he corrects. "And rightly so. Any soldier without confidence in their own abilities is dead." He's seen that happen over and over to friends and strangers, comrades and enemies. still alive. Sometimes, he wonders why.

M looks at him for a while more, eyes seeming to pierce right through him. James stares back calmly, refusing to give so much as a millimetre, knowing instinctively that it's no less than what is expected.

"Very well." She closes the file and smiles. It's terrifying. "Consider yourself hired, James Bond."

He is thirty today.

James knows how to train by now. True, he's training to be a secret spy, a field agent, not a soldier or intelligence officer, but the overlaps aren't so negligible.

He completes the orientation and training in six weeks, almost setting a new record. He refuses to gloat but pushes forward with single-minded determination. He is conditioning his body, and it has always been his weapon. He is conditioning his mind, and it's merely a new level of challenge on top of university and a genius soulmate.

Speaking of his soulmate, they have graduated from binary code to writing, what James is fairly certain, computer languages. It seems their newest interest is the world of technology, and they are advancing quickly. He is no expert on computers himself, but he can recognise HTML and then C++ and recently, Java.

Strangely enough, when he has the time to focus beyond the screaming of his muscles and countless simulations, James is proud of his little soulmate, though he does not truly know them.

(Or does he?)

He's rather more busy with his training nowadays than he ever was with RNR DI, and his instructors are quite clear on the practice of writing on skin. It's disapproved of, primarily because even the slightest hint of personality can give enemies a claw-hold in your psyche to tear and rip, but if he must, then be absolutely, positively certain it is meaningless.

James adjusts easily enough, seeing as he has been in the intelligence business for some time now. He continues to write quotes, if only to let his soulmate know he's still alive, and is fairly certain that unless his potential arch-nemesis wishes to verbally dissect his so-called favourite book, he'll be just fine.

Three months after being recruited by MI6, James is stationed in Kingston, Jamaica with the British Embassy. M is more than willing to capitalise on his multilingualism, and he finds himself translating between Haitian, French and Dutch West Indies communiqués. The glamorous life of a green secret agent isn't nearly all that it's cracked up to be.

At least, his superior, Charles DaSilva, isn't so bad.  There are no attempts to coddle or baby him, much less keep an eye on him off-duty. When he isn't biting the bullet and fumbling with political speech, James is doodling absently about whatever catches his eye or taking a swim.

A long, boring year of that, and then suddenly he's intercepting gun and drug smuggling rings between Kingston and London. He almost gets shot six times, ends up with a shallow knife wound to his leg, and smirks, practically nonstop, for the six months it lasts.

DaSilva shakes his head and calls him an adrenaline junkie and a suicidal idiot. Considering James knows the man also wrote a letter of commendation for him, he doesn't take the insults to heart. Four months after that, DaSilva recommends him for a Black Ops reconnaissance in Cuba.

James grins, slaps the man on the back in thanks, promises him a bottle of quality scotch, and gets on the bloody boat.

By this point, he can't even recognise the coding his soulmate is inking onto his skin. That shouldn't make him grin wider, but it does.

James grabs protective gear, firearms, and his military training. He penetrates five military compounds in four days and gets drinks with the rest of the team once it's over. No one dies, and James gets drunk off his arse but still manages to trounce the rest of the suckers at poker.

He spends his thirty-third birthday on Jamaica in the company of a beautiful, buxom young lady with a come-hither smile and a wicked tongue.

All the way back in England, a twenty-year-old man with clear green eyes and a cup of tea by his desk smiles at his computer screen, the skyline of Kingston on his chest and the sparks of devastation at his fingertips.

Chapter Text

James has always been the classy type.

He likes to think it might be bred into his bones, woven into his DNA. His father was the consummate businessman, ever in suits and ties, all perfectly ironed and impeccable in their fit. His mother was a woman of fashion and the latest trends, colourful jewellery and a ready smile.

Lounging about as a secret agent, years of service under his belt, James shrugs and indulges when he hears that he will be shipped off to Rome as the Senior Adviser and Ops Specialist. Might as well look the part, right?

Despite his wealth, he's never exactly been a materialistic man, so he doesn't go and buy out the whole bloody island. Quality over quantity, after all. Instead, he finds tuxedos and tailors, cufflinks and watches, cologne and martinis. He spends his last few days in Kingston flirting with pretty creatures with dark eyes and knowing smiles.

Rome, now...Rome is magnificent where Jamaica was lovely, breathtaking rather than relaxing, built on years and years of civilisation and emperors and the combined hubris and skill of mankind.

It takes him a little by surprise, having gotten used to the lulling, free-spirited life of the Jamaicans. Here, it's the wild bustle in the streets, excited tourists and spices in the air, the mingled song of different tongues and fire in his blood. There's a gun in his shoulder holster, knives tucked in his boots, and a smile on his face.

James takes a deep breath and fiddles with the black pen hidden in his pocket.

He was no artist as a child, and that hasn't changed, for all that he now routinely draws blueprints and escape routes, but in the end, he thinks that his sketch of the Colosseum isn't so bad. The dimensions are correct, at least, even if the more intricate details look like squiggles.

A day passes. Then another, as he runs around, trying to merge the scattered pieces of information he has in his grip into a complete picture.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

James chuckles as the words, elegant and curlicue, appear around his Colosseum in a near perfect circle. He wonders how old his soulmate is now. They have moved on from Java and C++ to more obscure types of computer coding, far surpassing his meagre knowledge of technology.

He knows better but feels a warm glow of pride anyway.

Recently, they've been concentrating more on riddles than quotes. James is rather more straightforward, although he's a secret spy, but he does enjoy a challenge so he takes to it with nothing more than an exasperated and mildly indulgent sigh.

What can travel around the world while staying in a corner?

He wonders at that for a bit. His soulmate is ridiculously smart, so he isn't surprised that they've figured out that James travels constantly, especially with the little souvenirs that he leaves on his skin for them.

A stamp.

Not five hours later:

Who makes it, has no need of it.

Who buys it, has no use for it.

Who uses it, can neither see or hear it.

What is it?

James needs only think over this one for two minutes before snorting and writing the answer below, right in the crease of his elbow. He has more than enough experience in this area to find the morbid humour in it.

A coffin.

And then, because he can't help himself:

If you have me, you want to share me. If you share me, you haven't gotten me. What am I?

An hour passes. Two. Are they busy? Or merely stumped? Too hard?

A secret.

James smiles. Good, they’re clever. He likes that.

What is always coming but never arrives?

He leaves that one alone for a week, first preoccupied with a disaster in Vietnam and then at a loss for an answer. It comes to him as the sun rises and he's absently doodling the Trevi Fountain over his knee.


The first year passes in a blur of white hot lightning and dull aches. On his birthday, he visits the Pantheon and spends an hour sitting nearby, carefully, meticulously drawing the building in a sketchbook he bought on a whim. Later, in the privacy of his flat and under the glow of stars and street lamps, he recreates it on his chest.

There is no definite response, but he expects none. They may be able to fire riddles back and forth, but their answers are for themselves, not each other. It's an abstract ideal, not something concrete, and so, gratitude or thanks will never appear on his skin.

However, James does get this in the middle of a truly dreadful day with two agents on the run, another requiring medical evac, and a magnificent screw-up in Afghanistan:

"We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude." - Cynthia Ozick

He smiles when he sees it, mood lightening for just a moment. The slight reprieve gives him the objectivity to step back and take a look at the big picture. He manoeuvres the information around into something useful and gets the agents out.

The second year he spends rushing about in Pakistan and Lebanon, chasing after terrorists and practising his Urdu and Arabic. He charms three women, two of whom are already married, shags the brunette, and gets the info that England needs.

On his thirty-fifth birthday, he sits at a bar and requests a martini: three measures of gin, one of vodka, one-half of kina lillet, with a thin slice of lemon peel - twist.

"Shaken, not stirred," James includes as an afterthought. He experienced the concoction at a fancy bar that all but cleared out his wallet two weeks ago, and he may have gotten addicted. The bartender he seduced the recipe from wasn’t at all bad either.

Shaking his head slightly, he rolls up his sleeve to find out what his soulmate has for him today.

What is greater than God,

more evil than the devil,

the poor have it,

the rich need it,

and if you eat it, you'll die?

They seem to have a never-ending supply of riddles, but James finds it an entertaining distraction from the half tedium, half exhilaration of his work. Sometimes, the riddles are too much for his addled brain to grasp after too much paperwork or too many gunshots (or too many martinis), but they never leave him hanging or give him flak for his lack of response. Five days is generally their wait-time before an answer shows up. 

For tonight, he considers the prompt while languidly sipping at his martini. After twenty minutes, he writes down with the black pen that remains perpetually in his pocket:


And then, because it's his birthday, and he's an active field agent, and he's thirty-five today, and it's becoming increasingly unlikely that he will never even know what his soulmate looks like before the world fucks him over, he adds:

What gets broken without being held?

The answer comes not two minutes later.

A promise.

James sighs and feels a decade older than he is. For once, he falls asleep on a cold and empty bed. As always, he dreams of a silhouette he cannot touch, a figure always running, running ahead of him, unreachable, but he wants, needs -

James wakes up.

On a pleasing day with full sunshine and a mild wind, when he's in the United States, working back-channel sources to soothe the hissy fit China's throwing, James sits down in front of a computer and searches up drug addiction, the drug in particular being cocaine.

The reason being the wobbly words on his right arm.

Sy mptom s: dilated pupils, energetic... fast heart beat, euphoria, hallucination s, agitation, excitement...

Rehab: C BT... TC s ... MI...

Sherlock is a bloody w anker. Told him to get clean. Told him. Now he's high again. Stupid fucking co...caine.

James has no doubt that his soulmate was drunk last night. Which, if they're not doing so illegally, means that they're older than sixteen, which is something to celebrate, however ironically. That their brother is apparently a drug addict? Not so much.

He cannot help but wonder how long this has been going on. Considering they only let it spill when intoxicated, it's probably been weighing on their minds for quite a while, not that he can blame them.

"Bloody hell," he mutters when he comes across how wearing an addiction can be on a family member. He has had some experience with drugs before, mostly when disrupting the channel, but it's never been personal. Not like this.

Over sixteen or not, James knows that his soulmate, clever and sweet, doesn't deserve this. He knows it. Still, he doesn't even know what gender they are, much less their appearance or name, nor their address or number. There's nothing he can do to help them deal with their addict brother.

His grip nearly splinters the cheap desk. He hates feeling helpless.

James scowls when he notices it's time for him to get going again. Quickly scribbling down some rehab centres in England should his soulmate need it - though, with their intellect, he doubts it - he grabs his gun and keys and shuts the computer down.

Just before he leaves, he adds something that might help their hangover:

I can only live where there is light, but I die if the light shines on me. What am I?

He receives an answer a hour later and smiles gently.

A shadow.

In China, as he sketches the Great Wall:

What kind of room has no doors or windows?

A mushroom.

In France, whilst he savours sweet macaroons:

Give me food, and I will live; give me water, and I will die. What am I?


In Spain, where he shoots a man in the face:

He has married many women but has never been married. Who is he?

A preacher.

In Afghanistan, when the memories are overwhelming him and he can't breathe:

I have keys but no locks. I have a space but no room. You can enter but can't go outside. What am I?

A keyboard.

In Iran, right before he blows up a building and barely escapes with his life:

I'm always there, some distance away. Somewhere between land or sea and sky, I lay. You may move towards me, yet distant I stay.

The horizon.

And back in Rome, after he collapses in the hotel bed with an exhausted groan:

What occurs once in every minute, twice in every moment, yet never in a thousand years?


Bond comes into his own as an agent by thirty-six, flirting as easy as stealing, lying as easy as running, tracking as easy as shooting. He cajoles and steals and grins and fires. Callouses litter his skin, and blood stains his hands. This is the glamorous life of a secret agent.

He misses England. He knows England does not miss him, cannot miss him.

Where is my home?

"Home is where the heart is." - Pliny the Elder

James laughs, a tad bitterly. His soulmate is a romantic. Who knew? They’ll be disappointed if they ever get around to meeting James.

Later that night, drunk out of his mind, he takes a beautiful thing with devastating curves and sparkling green eyes to his bed that night. When he wakes up in the morning, he throws up in the toilet and leaves her without a word.

Be careful what you wish for.

James gets reassigned to London, MI6 Headquarters. He's still a Mission Specialist, only now he's within the Black Ops.

It's not so bad, not so different. Within a month, he's off to Cuba. The only difference now is that he's required to go back to London to report and debrief.

"Bond," Bill Tanner, the new Chief of Staff, greets when he returns five months later, nodding respectfully. "She'll see you now."

M has not changed much in the seven or so years since he last saw her. Still regal, still striking, if with more lines around her eyes and a harsher mouth. She takes him in with a single glance, and he has the unnerving feeling she can see right through his bullshit although he hasn't even set a foot in the room yet.

(He's heard rumours about her tragedy, of course, everyone in MI6 has, but this queen needs no pity and he gives her none. Besides. It's a better Aesop for would-be spies than Romeo and Juliet ever was.)

"James Bond reporting for duty." He saunters in confidently and sits down, completely relaxed if also aware and watchful as befits a field agent. A fantastic one in his humble opinion. He doesn't back down any more than he did when they first met, and after a moment, she nods.

"Your record for following orders is abysmal," she says.

He shrugs. "I got the job done, didn't I?"

"If you hadn't, we would have fired you a long time ago."

He smirks, spreads his hands. "And here I am."

Four hours later, Bond is on a plane to Austria. He rolls his shoulders and takes a sip of scotch. He's developing a taste for the stuff. Luckily, his job is both high-risk and high-paying.

The slap of paper on wood is muted but still loud enough to make the boffin jump. He stammers, head snapping up fast enough to give him whiplash. Big, frightened eyes stare at Bond, who has recently returned from Russia and is in a spectacularly bad mood.

"Tell me what this means," he orders and walks away.

Over the past year, James' soulmate has turned their interest from riddles to increasingly exotic and indecipherable coding. Not that it ever really stopped, but it used to be just the random line of numbers and letters, clearly just a reminder for later.

Now, it's getting as bad as it was when they first discovered the world of technology at their fingertips. Black ink covers a very questionable amount of James' skin, and he's becoming exasperated at having to go through cans of mark concealer like bullets.

He knows they're brilliant, but do they really need to write everything down? And on rather uncomfortable places as well? He doesn't need fucking code on his arse. Christ, how old are they now? It would be just his luck for his soulmate to have a coding kink.

To keep his mind off of increasingly strange thoughts, James goes out and drinks two martinis and one glass of scotch. Then, he smiles at a pretty blonde, she smiles back, and he spends a rather enjoyable night making her scream.

The morning after, he stands in the bathroom and scowls at the neat lines of characters on his neck. How can they even read that themselves? Are they writing in front of a mirror? Jesus Christ. He escapes with his clothes and the lady's scarf before any awkward questions can be posed.

After a quick stop at his flat to hide the ink and yet another note to buy some more of the mark concealer before he runs out, Bond heads back to MI6 for a mission. Hopefully not a discrete one, seeing as his soulmate can’t be trusted to behave at the moment.

"M-Mr Bond?" The quiet, timid voice comes from his right as Bond waits for the elevator, and he turns with a raised eyebrow. The boffin from before is fidgeting restlessly, but his hands cling to the wrinkled paper, and there's an odd excitement surrounding him.

Bond smiles, carefully trying to appear less threatening in hopes of quicker answers, and nods towards the paper. "What do you have for me?"

"I - where did you get this? Uhh, sir?"

He fights his first instinct which is to start planning out how to make this particular boffin disappear and the more minute details of how to gently encourage his soulmate away from the megalomaniac cyber terrorist route. He doesn't try to prevent himself from narrowing his eyes, however. "Why? Something wrong?"

The boffin hesitates before shaking his head vigorously. "No, no! It's just...this is amazing!"

...well. That isn't what he was expecting, although maybe he should have. He's had years to familiarize himself with how smart his soulmate is. "Amazing, huh?"

"It's like nothing I've ever seen, and I'm a senior member of Q-Branch!" the boffin gushes, all but bobbing up and down on his toes. "From the looks of it, it's a very small piece of a fail-safe protocol, a safeguard for secure information, if you would, but God, this is revolutionary! Do you have any more?"

Bond considers for a moment before reaching out to take the paper with a gentle but firm tug. "No. It's good though?"

The boffin looks crestfallen but nods glumly. "Yeah. If we had that sort of coding, our information would be so much more secure."

"MI6 will keep, and so will Q-Branch." Bond's practiced smile is reassuring as he steps into the elevator. "Thanks."

"Y-You're welcome!"

When Bond turns thirty-eight, he kills a man with his bare hands and shoots another. He is given a license to kill, and a new moniker, '007', the youngest Double-Oh agent in history. Being a Double-Oh is not all that different from being a field agent, only with more blood and more sex and more injuries.

But. There is one vast difference that James finds hard to accept.

"Not a single thing?"

"Nothing," M says, stern, although there is a hint of compassion in her eyes. She, more than anyone else, must know how much it hurts. "You're the elite of the Secret Intelligence Service now, 007. Your very existence is a government secret. We do not know who your soulmate is, and any communication is a security risk.

"I'm not going to - "

She overrides him mercilessly. "You may have chosen to keep your name, but make no mistake, your life belongs to MI6 now. You knew the consequences of this life when you went into it, so there will be no contact whatsoever between you two, am I clear? Set off the ink detector and you're done."

Bond was surprised when that machinery first appeared in his Double-Oh tests. An ink detector only activates when real ink is on his skin, not the “echo” that appears from his soulmate. It’s also, he knows, going to be a repeating and utterly unpredictable evaluation from here on out.

Theoretically, M can hold that hoop up whenever she wants and order him to jump through however many times she likes. The smallest indulgence could cost him his career, and honestly, that’s a risk even a gambling man like him won’t take.

Which means he’s actually going to have to go through with this.

Bond’s fingers clench involuntarily. His love of country has demanded many things of him over the years. Trust, for one. Honesty, for another. Innocence, naivety, a nice, peaceful life. Hands free of murder, relevant relationships without the stress of betrayal or secrecy.

But this -

This -

Bond is no fool. He knows that M’s feeding him propaganda at best and bullshit at worst. This has little to do with his inability to keep secrets, the probability of his soulmate becoming an information leak. The only thing she's not lying about is that the Double-Ohs are the elite, and like all elite, must be kept uncompromised and stronger than steel.

Soulmates are nature’s most efficient compromisers.  

Not only do soulmates come with an ingrained set of instincts that not even the most trained agents can fight, but one of the most innate ones appears to be trust. Even soulmates who meet on the street as strangers can’t help but trust each other implicitly from the very start. 

Needless to say, in the business of espionage, soulmates are the number one reason for treason, betrayal, and death. There’s no helping it when an unknown can bring every last wall crashing down, render an agent utterly defenceless and a massive security breach with no effort.

Now that Bond is a Double-Oh agent, MI6 can’t risk him finding his soulmate, either purposefully or not; they’ll simply be too much of a vulnerability, a living, breathing chink in his armor, if not an enemy who'll incite him to treason.

And that's not even getting into inherent problems like hostage situations and warped priorities. He has no doubt that his new peers are single as well.

He knows, yes, he understands, but that doesn’t mean he’s at all happy about it.

(He wonders mutinously how much this has been influenced and reinforced by the death of M's soulmate. But even he's not suicidal enough to ask.) 

"Crystal, ma'am," 007 grits out and stalks out to get himself blind drunk, resentment burning in his veins and something worse, colder, aching in his heart.

It's hell at first. This is a habit of nearly two decades; this is a beautiful, intelligent soulmate; this is one of the few constants of his life.

England is a cruel mistress, indeed.

Bond entertains himself with three women and one man over the course of the first two days. After that, when he finds himself fiddling with a black pen and there's a half-written letter on the back of his hand, he goes through his belongings and throws away every single one of the pens. He knows how he is with temptation.

Then, he smokes through a whole pack of cigarettes and drinks a bottle of good scotch. He curls up on his bed and breathes unsteadily, wanting, wanting.

When he's sober once more, he stocks up on concealer cans and does the only thing he can. He throws himself into his work as the new 007 and ignores the way his fingers twitch for something other than a gun.

Dryden wasn't wrong. His third, deliberate, unauthorized kill is much easier than the first. His hand trembles afterward, longing to write just a quote or maybe a riddle or even just some lines like those early days in the Navy, but Bond digs his short fingernails into his palms and seduces an ambassador's wife instead.

It takes a while for his soulmate to notice. While it's not uncommon for several messages to go back and forth between them in the span of a single day, sometimes James will be busy and not write anything down for weeks at a time. His soulmate's always been relatively consistent, though. Something every two days, one if they're thrilled.

James stares at the string of numbers and letters on his arm as he returns to London for an inordinate amount of time, a bitter taste in his mouth.

There’s a gaping maw in his chest now, the ache from before transforming into something deeper, crueler. When he doesn’t suffer from nightmares of a vulnerable neck in his grasp, he drowns in darkness, endless and cold. In his dreams, he doesn’t understand, searches for someone he can’t find, lonely and confused and lost, until he wakes up, gasping and shuddering.

Bond smokes constantly, the smooth feel of the cigarette rolling between his fingers an unsatisfactory substitute, but the best one he can find. Alcohol helps numb the compulsion, too. The worst times are the nights, when he knows no one is watching him, when he knows even sleep will bring no oblivion, but he gets over those by occupying himself with warm bodies and hollow pleasure.

When, three weeks in, he finds himself snapping at everyone who attempts to talk to him, temper balanced on a knife point and lungs constricted with pointless longing, he takes a mission that'll require all of his attention and leaves before he shoots an ally.

God, he never quite knew just how bad this...thing...was.

By the fourth week, his soulmate knows something's up. They can't ask him directly, and he's thankful for that, not sure he could stop himself from writing back if they could, but he wakes up one day covered in zeros and ones. Binary code.

Bond is no boffin, but he's been in intelligence for years. He can see the patterns in the numbers, repeating over and over. Like that first message, written so many times, it became meaningless for them, meaningless enough to bypass the rules.

He knows he shouldn't. He writes down the sequence anyway.

This is for him, he knows instinctively. Personal, as much as it can be. Like hell he's going to Q-Branch for this.

Bond has always been a quick learner. Between two missions, four seductions, three murders, and one attempted drugging, he learns binary code in ASCII scheme. When he finally has the translated version in front of him, he nearly bites through his bottom lip and ends up getting drunk again.

Are you okay?

He doesn't reply, can't reply. A week goes by in a daze of alcohol, smoke, and sex. Nothing quite manages to numb the craving. Then, another series of numbers. He gives in to his masochistic desires and translates that, too.

Did something happen?

Yes. Something happened. James became 007. James decided his country was more important than his soulmate. James is an idiot and screwed the fuck up, and damn it, James is sorry. He doesn’t write back a thing but clenches his teeth and carries on with his day.

His soulmate doesn’t stop. The messages come faster and faster, the digits skewed as if by panic.

Are you mad at me?

Please write something.

I'm sorry.

Are you hurt?

Write something, damn it.

Please don't be dead.

It's the last one that firms his desperately wavering resolve, despite how much it makes him hurt. The thing about soulmates who have never met is that it's near impossible to know if one partner is still alive or not, especially if there was little communication in the first place.

Not that it lessens the anguish if there is an abrupt disconnect, as James can certainly testify now, but there’s no loose ends to be tied up, no definite finale.

Bond means what he said to M. Double-Ohs don't live long. Better to let his soulmate believe him dead now rather than lead them on and truly devastate them later. And he knows he has enemies, will make even more in however much time he has left.

He punches a hole in his living room wall and spends the night in a drunken miasma, knuckles still bleeding. God, James really does hate himself sometimes.

The notes come slower after that, as if his soulmate is resigned now and merely persisting because of routine and stubbornness. No more binary code, but pieces of poems, quiet and somber. He should be disappointed they're not giving up, but instead, he's  selfishly glad.

(Up until now, it’s only been James who has refrained from contact, and that’s been difficult enough as is. He doesn’t want to know what it’d do to him if they went completely quiet despite knowing full well how fucking hypocritical that is.)

In the silence of his apartment, James clings to whatever his soulmate gives him and traces the letters on his skin for as long as he can.

"Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

- Dylan Thomas

Then, he meets Vesper Lynd.

Vesper, Vesper, Vesper. Beautiful, glorious Vesper with her dark hair and playful eyes and tempestuous passion.

Bond falls fast and hard over poker games and banter and fire and rejoices in the new lack of pain in his chest. He is happy, oh so very happy for the first time since he became a Double-Oh, and he is sincere when he resigns from the service to travel with her to Venice.

England and MI6 have taken so much from him, and James will not allow them to take Vesper as well.

At first, he wants desperately to believe she is his soulmate. But no, the age does not work out, and her expertise is in money and numbers, not computers. Still, he loves her, and she loves him, and so that is enough. That must be enough, and it is enough, at least for a short while.

"Your soulmate?" she asks him, tracing nonsensical designs on his bare chest.

He holds her close, knowing she sees nothing of the ink that still occasionally appears on his chest. He doesn't read the excerpts anymore before concealing them. The present needs to be better than what-ifs. "Dead," he lies, and it's almost the truth. "Yours?"

Her red lips twist. "I don't believe in soulmates," she says, and there's something in the cadence of her voice, as if she is repeating something someone else told her.

He is confused - soulmates are acknowledged worldwide - but accepts it, content with knowing that their circumstances allow them to be together. It is not uncommon for an ordinary couple to fall apart because of a soulmate-related issue.

They spend her birthday in Venice under the sunlight, laughing and smiling and so, so in love. He procures a cake for her, she blows out the candle and makes a wish with a glorious smile and obscured eyes, and they kiss under the moonlight.

When they tumble into bed again, he worships her body and presses an adoring kiss to her lips. For once, he doesn't think about his soulmate at all.

James gives Vesper his everything. And Vesper betrays him. Them. What they were, what they could have been.

In hindsight, he wonders why he ever thought his bloody cursed luck would let up.

Bond names his favorite drink after the woman he loves and captures the man she loved, the one who told her soulmates don't matter. White gets away despite his best attempts, and James takes back his resignation and drops Vesper's necklace in the snow.

Then he returns to England and breaks down in his apartment.

Everything that can be smashed is smashed. He smokes through three packs of cigarettes and bloodies his knuckles. The bar is emptied, and he has never been so grateful for the limits of his body, for the numbness of black oblivion as tears run down his face.

He cannot blame her, cannot hate her. She saved him, deceived him, but she was just as much of a victim of love as he.

When Bond wakes up, it's noon, he's naked, a hangover is attempting to kill him, and her name is written all over his skin in his own distinct handwriting.

"Shit," he mutters. He doesn't remember writing a single thing down last night, which means that something probably went through to his soulmate. His soulmate, who has been under the impression that he is dead and now has an unknown woman's name inked lovingly upon their skin.

And here Bond was thinking he couldn't despise himself any more. Good to know he can still surprise himself.

He drags himself up and swallows three paracetamol before throwing himself in the shower. Luckily, he used a regular pen, seeing as the special ones have already been dumped in an incinerator, and the accusing words wash off with a bit of scrubbing.

He doesn't try and delude himself into thinking they didn't see it.

Now, more than ever, Bond hates that his own name is too relevant to get through while the name of the woman he loves isn't. He fully understands the burning rants he's heard all too often about the utter stupidity of the soulmate rules and opens the wound on his hand again when he strikes the bathroom tiles, leaving a streak of red that soon washes away.

Maybe Psych was onto something when they labeled him 'self-destructive'.

He takes two days to sober up and look acceptable. He has to practice for half an hour the confident stride that came so easily to him before, the arrogant smirk that is his signature as much as his name, before he can make it to MI6.

007 goes on a mission to Japan because he can. Because he needs to. There has been nothing from his soulmate since he fucked up, and he doesn’t delude himself into thinking they will give him another chance no matter how much he wants to.

James wouldn’t want himself either.

Perhaps if he had stayed, he would have heard the rumors of the cute new boffin in Q-Branch with rumpled hair and sad eyes.

Bond's skin stays clear for two months. He does his job, drinks, smokes, shags, and does it all again, empty on the inside and cold on the outside. On his seventh mission after Vesper, he gets himself captured, tortured, and breaks out to destroy the building with an explosion.

When he wakes up in Medical, he's thirty-nine, and there's ink on his chest in painfully familiar handwriting:

"Drink from the well of your self and begin again." - Charles Bukowski

He stares at the words for the longest time, the heart monitor beeping faster and faster. The relief that crashes through his meticulously built defences and rubs his heart raw is enough to make his eyes sting.

James closes his eyes to keep from embarrassing himself and sighs through his nose. "Stubborn bugger," he murmurs but a smile pulls at his lips, and he can breathe easier, the numbness receding just a bit to be replaced with gentle warmth.

Thank you, he wants to write, but even if he could, they wouldn’t be able to see it.

James doesn't deserve his soulmate. And his soulmate definitely doesn't deserve James.

But damn it all if he isn't happy for the first time since Vesper.

Agent Bond is 007. In many ways, 007 isn't James Bond.

That doesn't change. Might not ever change. It's a miracle he hasn't kicked the bucket yet.

Without parents, without friends, without lovers, 007 has only his loyalty to Queen and Country, his loyalty to M, to sustain him. He's the supreme spy he's meant to be, the killer and the torturer, the affair and the betrayal, the chaser and the chased, the secrets and the cruelty.

007 does what he needs to and returns home to England with blood on his suits, lies on his lips, and hidden ink on his skin.

Sometimes, Bond wishes that his soulmate would just give up already and leave him be, go out and find happiness for themselves without the burden of an unresponsive secret agent. Mostly, James hopes that his soulmate will stay with him until he's returned to the sea in ashes.

What he has now is nothing like what was between them before, the easy back and forth, the innocence and the playfulness. And he misses it, can’t help but miss it, the desire to write, to touch his soulmate through words, yet lingering in his itchy fingers. Still, he has something even though he's a Double-Oh, and he's pathetically glad for it.

His soulmate is silent most of the time, occasionally long enough for James to panic that they might be dead, but somehow, when James needs them after a long mission or a ghastly kill or an agonizing torture session, they’re there with anything from a short line of code to a paragraph-long poem on his skin.

James doesn't know how they know or if it's just coincidence or if this is yet another thing that soulmates can do, but with all of the crap in his life, he's fine with just letting this one comfort be, lest it disappear as well.

He spends his fortieth birthday taking down a terrorist organisation, seducing and then watching a blonde widow die, trashing a motorcycle, and keeping himself afloat in a lake for three hours before a helicopter arrives to get him out. When he collapses on the hotel bed, he finds:

"And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it." - Roald Dahl

It's a nice sentiment, although he's fairly certain that the secrets he's tasked with finding aren't nearly that innocent. Nonetheless, when he falls asleep after a shower, he's smiling faintly.

007 accidentally destroys another Aston Martin during the following year. He continues to explode something once every two missions and gains a reputation for poker and stunts and one-liners. When his birthday comes around again, he's given three very nice gadgets from Q-Branch.

Boothroyd enthuses about one of his subordinates, claiming extraordinary talent and ingenuity, but Bond tunes him out within moments, more interested in the repaired car behind him, shiny and lovely.

A thought occurs to him, and 007 interrupts Q to ask, “Have there been any changes in protocol lately?” He hasn’t heard of any, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer that his normal handlers are conversing with an outside source during his missions, especially during tough spots.

Bond isn’t complaining. The new intel is more thorough, the directions more concise, the support more all-encompassing. He can relax more easily nowadays, though he still gets shot at every other day. But it’s in a spy’s nature to be curious.

Boothroyd gives him a confused look and tells him no, nothing’s changed since the last time he was here. 007 frowns slightly but gets distracted by the keys being pressed into his hand.

"Live in the sunshine. Swim in the sea. Drink in the wild air." - Emerson

With the windows down, the breeze in his face, and the car purring sweetly, James grins.

When he turns forty-two, M gives him leave for a day and Tanner brings him out for a drink. Bond gets a martini and watches Tanner steadily grow drunk with amusement, the man alternatively complaining about and praising his wife all the while. He returns to headquarters the next day and is given an exploding pen, to his delight.

"Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure." - Rumi

On his forty-third birthday, Bond nearly bumps into a boffin in glasses and the most hideous cardigan. He gets a mumbled apology, and the boffin runs off before Bond can even get a word in. James eyes the retreating boy with amusement but when he returns to his cold, empty flat, he feels oddly more settled. Content. 

"But groundless hope, like unconditional love, is the only kind worth having." - John Perry Barlow

 "I said take the bloody shot!"

Bond spends his time on a small island near Turkey recovering from two bullet wounds and yet another betrayal.

He drinks his days away, spends the nights with a woman he barely acknowledges otherwise, and carries on with the help of painkillers from the black market and quiet, simmering resentment.

All these years of service, and M has him shot by a green agent with shitty aim, throws him away with barely a second of hesitation, and for what? If Moneypenny nearly killed him, then their target got away with the information they needed anyway.

Bond knows he's been getting on in age as one of the oldest of the Double-Ohs, nearing mandatory retirement age, but the stab in the back from one of the few people he trusted was still a vicious surprise, even though he’s seen it happen over and over.

Oh, he knows the cost of being MI6 all right.

James first woke up with ink on his chest and a strange look on the local doctor's face.

"The woods are lovely,

dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

and miles to go before I sleep,

and miles to go before I sleep."

- Robert Frost

James turns the words around and around in his head as he heals, slowly and painstakingly. It sounds disturbingly like the closest his soulmate's ever gotten to depression, and it pricks at him, even as M's order continues to haunt him in his dreams.

They can't possibly know how close he came to death...can they?

"Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets." - Paul Tournier

James isn't sure of anything anymore. Not M, not MI6, not even his soulmate. Because, vague as they're being, as vague as they've been for the past five years, now that he thinks about it, it seems more and more likely that they're privy to who he is, or at least, very close.

With their technological prowess, he has to admit that there's a high possibility they could have hacked their way into MI6's network. But if that's true, then...they think he's dead.

"Damn," James says.

He manages to hold out for another three days before borrowing a pen from one of the natives. He's not 007, not Agent Bond; he'll bloody well communicate with his soulmate if he wants to. When he finally has the tip hovering a centimetre from his arm, he hesitates, and suddenly, it's like he's twenty again, trying to ease the imagined desolation of a young child.

James settles for sketching the shoddy hut he's staying in and hopes that it's innocuous enough to actually get through. He makes to put the pen down and finds he can't.

This, he decides, must be how recovering addicts feel. He's kept himself away from the temptation for so long, but a single hit, and abruptly, he wants more, needs more. The craving slips through his walls, sleek and innocuous, only to dig into his heart until it’s stuttering and exposed.

Momentarily, he recalls 'Sherlock' and his cocaine obsession. Has the bastard gotten over it yet?

Because he can, he writes the question down, right beneath his knee. When he falls asleep, it's with ink all over him and satisfaction thrumming in his heart. For once, he dreams of clever quips and entertaining puzzles and confusing code instead of Istanbul.

To James' surprise and disappointment, there's no response for the next five days. Helplessly, he wonders if they have had enough of him, if this final indication that he is alive after nearly five years of silence is enough to make them turn away from him, give him a taste of his own medicine.

It’s an agonising thought, and the what-ifs only compile from there, his years of experience a valuable resource for picturing every possible way this can go wrong. As a last resort, he distracts himself with alcohol and a scorpion, amusing himself by dancing with death as usual. And then:

"Emergency crews are still attempting to assess the damage as investigators hunt for leads in what now appears to be a major terrorist attack in the heart of London. No one has yet claimed responsibility for what sources are calling a possible cyber-terrorist assault on the British Secret Service..."

A thirty-year-old man stands in the heart of Q-Branch as squads run around facilitating the move from their old headquarters to the new underground base, fingers rapidly typing out yet another safeguard but tormented mind occupied with the notes on his skin from a so-called "dead" agent.

Chapter Text

The National Art Gallery isn't the strangest place Bond's ever met a colleague, although it's still pretty bloody strange. And if his new Quartermaster thinks he's being subtle by sitting him directly in front of The Fighting Temeraire, then they don't deserve to be in the business of espionage.

Briefly, James mourns his flat in the stillness of early morning. He doesn't like to be attached to material things - he knows better than that after so many years as a spy, where items lost are only topped by lives stolen - but he'd like the comfort of something familiar and safe now, although he'd never admit it aloud.

A hotel's security, after all, is abysmal, and his sleep deprivation is going to become a problem soon. He knows full well that he's far from his best at the moment, fighting off two bullet wounds, aching bones, and weeks of nothing but alcohol and shagging. It'll be a true miracle if he comes back this time.

Still, England calls. M calls. And 007 has always answered.

It's a shame about Boothroyd, though. Bond is well-accustomed to death, his one true companion throughout the years - but for a soulmate who has not written a single thing since his resurrection - but his old Quartermaster's death is still a bit of a shock.

All these years and goddamned smoke inhalation is Boothroyd’s cause of death. It’s deeply ironic, considering all the explosions Boothroyd liked to cook up. Seems a right shame, an anticlimax for the books, but then, no one is immortal, not even ancient geezers.

Not even Double-Oh agents, for all that he has the devil’s luck.

Bond doesn't try and delude himself into thinking this new Q will be able to fill the shoes of his predecessor entirely, but M would never promote someone out of their depth, no matter the crisis, so he should be adequate at least. This new game is being played on computers, and that’s just not 007’s forte.

If they're to beat this new enemy, then Q-Branch will need to be at the top of its game. 

A quiet shuffle to his right catches his attention, and he glances over discreetly without turning his head. A boy with dark messy hair, square glasses, and a truly atrocious sense of fashion sits down next to him, peering at the painting.

Uni student, Bond categorises. Art concentration, probably. No weapons, graceful but not combat-fluid movements, and judging from the way he doesn't look at the agent, more inclined to focus on completing his homework or project or whatever than causing trouble for Bond.

Fine with him. If England hadn’t been threatened, he would still be ignoring the world in favour of oblivion. If M hadn’t been in danger, he would have preferred to stay there. In the back of his mind, a sense of deja vu glows like an ember, but he dismisses it.

Where the hell is the Quartermaster?

Not here, obviously. Bond waits.

Time passes near imperceptibly in the silence, and gradually, James finds himself relaxing despite the continued presence of the stranger, tense muscles melting and impatience fading, mind segueing gently into a quiet, warm headspace almost without him noticing.

Training dictates that he never lose the acute spatial awareness that has kept him alive for so long, but the soothing atmosphere is...nice. He has to fight to keep his eyes open and maintain his military posture, fight not to simply sink into a stupor of languid comfort.

Here, there is no expectation, no need for the suave, lethal spy. He's allowed to just breathe. To just be. After so long struggling, enduring, burning too hard and too fast, he feels tethered, nearly stable, again, held to the earth by steel-strong, feather-light strings he welcomes rather than rejects.

James drifts.   

When the boy breaks the silence at last, after what could be minutes or even hours, it startles him to the point where it almost shows. God, he's so bloody rusty.

"Always makes me feel a little melancholy." His voice is rich and posh, if a tad stilted. High-class, probably flying through university on his parents' money, raised to be polite. "A grand old warship being ignominiously hauled away for scrap."

He sighs, soft and wistful. "The inevitability of time, don't you think?" Dark green eyes are turned to face him for the first time, unreadable but gentle behind the thick frames in the split second before they glance away again, as if in avoidance or unhappiness. "What do you see?"

Bond sees a proud, strong weapon of his country being thrown away when it was no longer useful. He sees tradition versus technology, the old versus the young, the past versus the future. "A bloody big ship," he says, moving to leave, the previous harmony shattered by misgivings. "Excuse me."

The Quartermaster can bloody well find him when he decides to show up.


...what the fuck?

“I’m your new Quartermaster."

Bond's eye twitches even as he sits down again with a long-suffering sigh. "You must be joking." Damn it, he can deal with greenhorns like Moneypenny, and yes, the boffins of Q-Branch typically make him look ancient, but this is just ridiculous.

Q, apparently, volleys back, "Why, because I'm not wearing a labcoat?" 

"Because you still have spots." Although that guileless projection obviously works, to 007's annoyance. 

"My complexion is hardly relevant."

"Well, your competence is." 

"Age is no guarantee of efficiency." Crisp, sharp words. Too sharp, for all that there’s a distinct lack of cruelty or malice.

Bond wonders which rumour Q got a hold of, that the man would be cross with him under the sheer veil of professionalism despite this being their first meeting. Maybe he broke one of his toys in his past? "And youth is no guarantee of innovation."

A pause, fraught with unspoken words and tense consideration, before Q says slowly and clearly, "I'll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pyjamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field."

Bond scoffs, mildly amused but more perplexed than anything else. "Oh, so why do you need me?"

"Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled." The words are all but gritted out with distinct reluctance.

Why? Pacifists don’t survive long in MI6, so it can’t be that. A dislike of field work, perhaps, or maybe just a dislike of 007 himself.

"Or not pulled," Bond refutes with dry humour and pointed charisma. Working with a Quartermaster who bears a grudge against him will be a bit of a challenge, and while never let it be said that 007 doesn't enjoy a challenge, he knows when to pick his battles. "It's hard to know which in your pyjamas."

Q doesn't respond immediately, but the corners of his mouth turn up for half a second in surprised amusement before he wrestles them down again to cling to whatever grudge he's nursing.

Bond studiously keeps his face blank of the faint triumph that flares in his chest even as he re-evaluates the other man, caught by how surprisingly red his lips are. He's suddenly uncomfortably aware of the fae-like beauty that Q boasts behind that awful parka and aloof demeanour, pale skin, dark hair, high cheekbones, and all.

But those eyes, those green eyes, are his most disorientating feature. Bond can't find an honest tell, and that reminds him unerringly of the last person he couldn't read, beautiful and pale and dark as well.

Bond smiles, charming and calculative, and holds out a hand. "Q."

"007." Q doesn't smile again, but his gaze is soft when he takes Bond’s hand, and... something flickers into being between their palms, warm and intimate and shivering up Bond's spine, sweet and raw. His heart stutters uncontrollably, mouth abruptly dry.

James furrows his brow slightly, immensely confused but not willing to show it, not quite sure if he likes this feeling or not, but it appears to be one-way because Q doesn't even blink and drops his hand after a nice, professional moment.

"Ticket to Shanghai. Documentation and passport." He hands over an envelope.

Bond takes it, off-balance and feeling like he's missed something. "...thank you."

"And this." A black case with a familiar gun resting inside. "Walther PPK/S, 9mm shot. There's a micro-dermal sensor in the grip. It's been coded to your palm print so only you can fire it," Q rattles off quickly, making it perfectly clear that the sensor is his own design.

Q hesitates - not long, scarcely a second, but enough for 007 to notice - before adding quietly, "Less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement."

Bond mulls over the unexpected sentiment behind that statement while he points at the small indent next to the gun. "And this?"

"Standard issue radio transmitter. Activate it and it broadcasts your location. Distress signal." Q hands the radio over, and this time, their fingers don’t even brush. Then, he goes silent, fidgeting with his hands.

Nervous, Bond notes. But why?

"Is that it?" he prompts, raising an eyebrow.

Q's glance is hard and cool, but he eventually sighs and drops a key into Bond's hand. "For your new flat. Structurally ninety-seven point five percent similar to your previous accommodations, furniture already moved in according to the blueprints, and security systems in place. Ready for residence."

James...stares, baffled, first at the key and then at Q. He doesn't understand. "Q - "

"And that's it. I'm afraid we don't go in for exploding pens anymore." Q stands up briskly and walks off, barely pausing to fling over his shoulder, "Good luck out there in the field. And please return the equipment in one piece." He's gone seconds later.

If 007 didn't know better, he’d think that his new Quartermaster was running away.

Bond is left absolutely speechless for a long heartbeat, a true rarity after so long in the field, before barking out a reluctantly admiring laugh. The smile that tugs on his lips feels unusual after the solemnity of the recent months, bright and fascinated. "Brave new world."

He's long since gained a love for puzzles. 

Although he's been known to improvise, Bond fully believes in the classics of wooing, and so he brings Q a gift: the laptop of a cyber-terrorist and rogue Double-Oh agent. Uniquely tailored for the recipient and certain to yield important information, personal and professional; two birds with one stone.

From where he rules his technological domain, Q arches a vaguely unimpressed eyebrow but a faint, pleased smile quirks his lips, and yes, that's definitely a victory for Bond.

Bond decides that it’s perfectly acceptable to smirk and preen despite having been relegated to a dusty old corner of Q-Branch where he can't get in the way of the boffins running around like headless chickens. How they make order out of this chaos even Bond doesn't know. Then again, his job usually results in the exact opposite.

"Talk to me, Q," 007 murmurs after several long minutes of silence. While he's quite excellent at speaking, coaxing, and flirting with body language alone, that only goes so far when the mark isn't even looking at him.

Q sighs through his nose and doesn't stop typing. "He's established failsafe protocols to wipe the memory if there's any attempt to access certain files. Only six people in the world could programme safeguards like that."

Bond shifts slightly, another baffling sense of deja vu washing over him. He chases after the lingering memory those words elicit even as he says, "Of course there are. Can you get past them?"

"I invented them," Q replies matter-of-factly, and James can't help but smile.

Because it's simply one of those days, one typing of 'Granborough Road' later, the situation spins rapidly out of control, and 007 finds himself running after Silva yet again. That bastard needs to learn how to stay put, damn it.

Of course, this time around, he has Q in his ear, although it's rather frustrating that, after the initial hint of self-recrimination, Q sounds more at ease than he did during their first meeting.

Precisely which part of this anarchy is less stressful than meeting and arming an agent? He talked with 006 briefly before his mission, and he said Q was just fine with him when they first met two weeks ago. There was a fondness in the other man’s voice that wrenched at Bond’s gut despite all reason and logic.

Still, at least his new Quartermaster doesn't lack in wit. Maybe Bond can persuade Q to forget about whatever he got into his pretty little head, or at the very least, establish a decent rapport just in case 007 ever needs some questionable technological support.

The snark is infuriating. Fantastic but infuriating.

"It won't open."

"Of course it will. Put your back into it."

"Why don't you come down here and put your back into it?" Bond pushes against the stubborn door with his shoulder, grunting with the effort. It doesn't so much as move a millimetre. "No, it's stuck."

An ominous rumble reaches his ears, rapidly followed by bright lights coming around the curve. "Oh, good. There's a train coming." Because God forbid anyone ever make anything simple and uncomplicated for him.

"Hmm. That's vexing." Q's voice remains calm and even, but through the pump of blood and rush of adrenaline, Bond manages to pick up a thread of strain. Because God forbid Q be reasonable and predictable for him, too.

Jesus Christ. Bond snarls and rams against the bloody door three more times. Fuck, it's like trains have a vendetta against him now. He's very, very tempted to blame Moneypenny for this. Or, better yet, just snip at M herself to make himself feel better. The sodding door doesn't budge.

The train bears down on him, lights near blinding, and, out of options, 007 falls back on old strategies and just shoots the doorknob. He throws himself out of harm's way just in time. "I'm through," he reports, leaning against the wall.

"T-Told you," Q says, something incomprehensible behind the shakiness that's most likely a product of his first experience with the stress of monitoring a Double-Oh agent's mission. "We alerted security. Police are on their way."

Bond grunts and gets moving.

Some part of his mind notes how peculiarly familiar Q's guidance is. Every handler has their own way of directing missions, but as 007 chases Silva down through a train and across London, he falls easily into the rhythm of predator and prey with Q's instructions in his ear.

It's almost like a routine. A habit.

He shuffles that thought into the back of his mind and resolves to think about it later. Deciphering his Quartermaster can wait for a time when he's not avoiding falling trains.

Damn it, it's a fucking conspiracy, they do have a vendetta against him!

Bond asks Q for help because he's shit with technology and this is going to be a technological battleground until he can get M to Skyfall. Silva's evidently bloody fantastic with hacking, and this is Q's expertise. Once bitten and twice shy; 007 knows Q won’t let Silva get the better of him twice.

The possibility of Q reporting him, of Q refusing him, of Q contacting the higher-ups, crosses his mind, but it's a risk he has to take with the stakes so very high.

James asks Q for help for reasons he can't quite understand, a purring warmth in his chest and instincts whispering of faith when he thinks of the lanky man and his cheeky quips and that lovely smile, for all that he wasn't planning on testing their budding relationship so soon.

He is fully aware that, for whatever reason, his Quartermaster is mad at him, upset for a reason he can't fathom, and probably not inclined to be lenient or helpful or indulgent. He asks anyway because taking gambles are what he's staked his entire life on.

Q sighs into his ear, half-exasperated and half-resentful. "So much for my promising career in espionage."

James relaxes. Smiles. "Thanks, Q."

Focused as he is on driving, keeping an eye out for danger, and listening to Q grumble quietly, 007 nonetheless doesn't miss the way M's eyes narrow. "Something you want to tell me?" he asks blandly without taking his eyes off the road.

"No," she says.

He doesn't believe her for a second.

M whispers, "I did get one thing right," and dies.

This, this must be what drowning feels like. 

Bond enters his new flat for the first time with a suit covered in blood and numb down to his bones after two days of heavy sedation and four days in a hotel, after trashing the first room he was given and then shagging his frustrations out with strangers in the second.

In the end, he got into a fight after seducing a brunette while her husband was still in the pub and barely managed to leave before the police came knocking. The hotel staff are oblivious but not that oblivious, and he’s honestly lucky that only one of his wounds started bleeding again.

Bond can’t bring himself to care.

Q wasn't exaggerating. Except for the smaller island in the kitchen, the larger walk-in closet in the bedroom, and the more spacious shower in the bathroom, this place looks exactly like his old flat. A dull sense of gratitude brushes against the edges of his apathy and is promptly buried beneath grief.

007 strips and washes off the blood, stares at the pinkish water running into the drain and tries not to shake. The emptiness in his veins is frigid although the heat is turned all the way up, the steam fogging over the mirror. His weary, abused body protests painfully, but he pays it no mind.

When he steps out of the shower at last, sparing a minute to slap a bandage on his reopened wound, half an hour has passed, and he wants a drink. Or ten.

James stumbles out into the kitchen in sweatpants and an unbuttoned grey shirt, all of his other clothing in neat boxes in the closet. The bar is stocked, whisky and scotch, bourbon and vodka. Gin. Someone knows his tastes well.

He doesn't bother fumbling around for a glass. Instead, he drinks straight from a bottle of scotch.

It burns down his throat, a sweet fire, and he sighs, stumbling over to the sofa and collapsing on the soft leather. Everything hurts, everything aches. He's so bloody tired. Seven days isn't nearly enough time for him to get over the shock of her death. Maybe he never will.

There are the days when he loves his job, those times when he's high on victory and adrenaline, and then there are the days when he hates his job, when he's covered in blood and the last one standing above enemies and allies alike.

This is definitely a case of the latter.

James steadily consumes the scotch, but, despite himself, his thoughts begin to wander. About M, of course, because he can't not think of her, no matter what he does to try and distract himself.

She was the strongest woman he knew, all hard practicality and knife-sharp words and burning eyes. Fire and ice combined to form a dragon with a treasure hoard made of spies and lies and loyalty. Willing to sacrifice anyone and anything for the sake of her country and duty, yes, but also known to fight tooth and nail for her agents, her agency.

Bond remembers the day he met her, the expectations and the demands. He was a cocky little upstart back then, but he fell in line regardless, brought to heel by the weight of her gaze. Years of field work only sharpened his edges and carved his confidence into a dagger, but M's authority remained an absolute despite Bond's constant defiance.

She was, he thinks hazily, the closest thing to a mother he'd had since his actual mother had died.

(She, he's known but refused to acknowledge, has been sprinting towards her own coffin since he died.)

And now? Now, M's dead, just like everyone else he's ever loved. He takes another swig of his scotch and closes his eyes.

Who does he even have left? Tanner, maybe, but while James appreciates the input and support MI6's Chief of Staff provides, they've never quite been friends. Close acquaintances with the bonds of blood and fire and death between them but not friends in the conventional sense.

Moneypenny shot him, but he thinks he could grow to like her warm companionship and fierce attitude. They’ll never be lovers, not after she made it clear that he, broken and empty, is not who she wants, but friends, perhaps. One day. At the moment, however, they're nothing more than comrades.

James sags against the sofa and finds his bottle three-fourths empty. Green eyes appear behind his closed eyelids, and steady, grounding tones echo in his ears over the white buzzing, and he can't help but yearn for the gentle peace he found in that art gallery, floating in the silence.

Was it just a fluke that time, two strangers with none of the burden of espionage and responsibility between them? James doesn’t know, but he wants that warmth, that unfamiliar glow of understanding and belonging.

He wants...wants...

There's a train wreck in his brain.

Something died in his mouth, it's too goddamn bright, and the world is spinning around him even though Bond's training is telling him very clearly that he's not moving. No, he's lying on his back, and the soft sounds of breathing are right by his ear.

Bloody hell.

Despite the weakness in his muscles and the blurriness of his mind, 007 snaps awake without a sound, automatically cataloguing his surroundings without moving or opening his eyes. It wouldn't be the first time he woke up in captivity or in the middle of some nefarious plot.

He's laying on something warm with a cushion underneath his head, and there's a soft, heavy material thrown over him. A bed, pillow, and blanket. His hands are by his sides, unrestrained, and he finds his feet free as well. The slight shift pulls his clothes against his skin, confirming his suspicion that he's still completely clothed.

Bond concentrates on the quiet exhales and inhales, looking for and quickly finding a pattern, deep and rhythmic. Whoever’s in the room with him is asleep. A guard, perhaps. A real shitty guard, but...there's something strange about the tempo, something that makes him more confused than wary.

It's hard to think with the headache pounding away happily within his skull, but Bond tries to recall the last thing he can remember. He was in his new flat, certainly not on a bed and without a blanket, drinking away, after...M's death, and then.

Then...the gloomy haze of night in London, the piercing glare of the streetlights, the sound of a door opening before pure darkness.

Vaguely, he recalls dreaming of tender forgiveness and soft touches, strokes through his hair and fingers petting his nape, but that’s impossible. (Isn't it?) If he isn’t in his flat and if he isn’t passed out on the street, then where in the world is he? Jesus fucking Christ, if someone has kidnapped him this week of all weeks, he'll make them regret it.

Although, he's currently leaning towards more benign intentions or some truly idiotic kidnappers. Who leaves a Double-Oh agent with a full range of movement and an unconscious watcher?

Slowly, cautiously, Bond opens his eyes and instantly winces away from the harsh light. His headache spikes malevolently, but he breathes through it and finds himself looking at an unremarkable white ceiling. A quick glance to the left finds his 'guard'.

007 stares at the enormous Russian Blue cat curled up on the pillow next to him, sound asleep.

...well then. If this is some strange plan to get him to lower his defences and leave him confused as hell, it's working. Bond judges the cat as non-lethal, provided he doesn't startle it into going for his eyes or suffocating him with its bulk, and takes in the rest of the room.

He was right: he's on a bed. Queen-sized, hedonistically soft mattress, pristine white sheets, pillows, and blanket. There's a wooden bedside table, and his eyes are immediately drawn to the taser, glass of water, and bottle of paracetamol.

Training dictates he grab the weapon at once, despite the groan of his shoulders and the stiffness of his fingers, and a rapid glance-over confirms that it’s in perfect working condition. Having a weapon in his possession is somewhat reassuring, although he remains excruciatingly aware of his otherwise unarmed state.

Bond eyes the medicine warily and decides not to touch it until he knows who the benefactor is.

A cream rug covers swathes of the floor, and he can see snatches of gray cat fur here and there. The blinds are over the small window, thankfully, and a wooden dresser is settled close-by. A closed laptop and some wires, screws, and gadgets litter the larger table that rests against the far beige wall.

A sneaky suspicion begins to grow in James' heart. He isn't familiar with many boffins.

The halfway opened door to the left of the table leads to a bathroom, and the completely open door to the right leads to a hallway. Whomever the owner of this flat may be, they certainly know who Bond is; every sign points to them trying to alleviate 007's inevitable paranoia.

There's nothing else in the room that could give away whose bedroom he was sleeping in. James frowns, fiddling with the taser absently, and almost gives himself a heart attack when he lays back down and turns his head to find feline green eyes staring at him unblinkingly.

007 and the Russian Blue have a stare down. The cat successfully manages a feat terrorists the world-over have failed at and wins a staring contest with MI6's finest.

James frowns sternly. "That doesn't count," he whispers.

The cat yawns indolently and squints at him. He is left pondering his life choices...which inevitably reminds him of M. Bond can't help but picture what she would say if she saw him now. Probably scoff and ask him how soft he's gotten in her absence.

He's startled when the sting of her memory is duller now, the shrieking depth of his mourning a whisper quieter, as if muted sweetly in thick cotton wool. What happened last night? It hurts to try and remember, and suddenly staying right here in this heavenly bed with its cocoon of softness and warmth sounds much more preferable than actually getting up and doing something.

It's a shame he doesn't know if the bed's usual occupant is trying to kill him or not. Generally, it’s easier to fall asleep when the answer is ‘no’ but Bond can’t really remember a time when he slept deeply without a belly full of liquor.

007 buries his nose experimentally in the pillow, searching for traces of gunpowder, blood, or anything else suspicious but finds only something herbal and tea-like along with a whiff of a citrus and woody cologne. The cat watches him questioningly, still curled up in a ball, and he can feel the acute judgment.

"If your owner is anywhere near as docile as you are, we won't have any problems," James murmurs amiably, keeping his voice down for the sake of the element of surprise and his own headache. "So long as they don't try and beat me at a staring contest as well."

The Russian Blue huffs, unimpressed, but relents a moment later with a purr. It nuzzles affectionately against his cheek, and Bond rolls his eyes but runs a gentle hand down its back, marvelling over its fur, plush and soft to the touch, like the finest velvet.

Just as James is relaxing back into the bed, he sees the cat's ears perk up. A heartbeat later, he hears the footsteps himself, quiet but precisely enunciated. Grimacing, Bond pulls himself into a sitting position as the cat gets up and jumps lithely down to the ground.

In retribution, his body triples the magnitude of the headache and reminds him vindictively of the many wounds it still suffers from. Nonetheless, when a figure leans against the doorway, 007 has the taser up and directed, eyes blue chips of ice.

"007, if you taze my cat, I will be very displeased," a familiar, posh voice warns dryly.

James blinks, a bit befuddled. "Q?" It's one thing to suspect and quite another to find himself right.

His Quartermaster arches an eyebrow at him, hair even messier than usual and cardigan rumpled. In his arms, he cradles a white Turkish Angora cat, even as the Russian Blue winds itself around his feet. "Good morning, 007. It's ten in the morning, you are in my flat, and I would advise you to swallow some painkillers before attempting to get to your feet."

"Why am I in your flat in the first place?" he demands, letting the taser fall to his side.

Q hums and lowers the Turkish Angora to the ground, gifting the Russian Blue with a scratch behind the ears while he's at it. James finds himself wondering just how many pets Q has. He does seem like a cat person. 

"You were drunk," Q says succinctly and then turns around and begins to leave. "Take the painkillers, Bond. Breakfast is ready."

...James could be wrong, but isn't this the same grouchy, snarky boffin who was stroppy with him earlier? Did something change? Shouldn't his failure at Skyfall only make Q more mad at him?

Headache only made worse by the puzzle of Q, he decides to take the advice for once and swallows down three paracetamol with a gulp of water. He wants to lounge about for five more minutes while the painkillers do their work, but it's much harder to relax now that he knows that this is Q's bed.

It figures the sheets smell of tea.

Damn, he's been in plenty of awkward situations in the past, but he never thought he would end up in his Quartermaster's bed because he was drunk and passed out. Other, more pleasurable circumstances may have crossed his mind, but this is a certain level of humiliation he had no intention of going near.

Sighing to himself, James drags himself up through sheer will power and makes a slight detour to the bathroom, head pounding away all the while. The white sink and white-spotted grey tiles echo the bedroom decor, and he takes the chance to splash water on his face and gurgle some water in his mouth to get rid of the bad breath.

The man in the mirror looks terrible, reminds him of the man on that small island off the shore of Turkey. Dark bags, deep lines, defeat and pain written all over him. Weak. Pathetic. Useless. Nothing like the self-assured 007 or even the rakish Agent Bond.

James is honestly surprised Q let him crash at his place instead of kicking him out the door.

Before he leaves, he takes the chance to button up his shirt and starts mentally reviewing all of the morning-after tactics he knows in the hopes of alleviating at least some of the upcoming discomfort. Maintaining a somewhat cordial relationship with his Quartermaster is looking more and more unlikely by the second, but he has to at least try.

True to form, when Bond walks out into the living room area, Q is sitting at a square table pressed against the wall. Plates of poached eggs and toasted bread are already laid out. The Russian Blue is nowhere in sight, but the Turkish Angora is in Q's lap, purring contentedly.

Q is messing around with something on his laptop, his plate pushed off to the side with a half-eaten toast slathered with marmite waiting on it mournfully. Fingers typing at lightening speed, he frowns at something on his screen and momentarily grabs the mouse with one hand.

James opens his mouth to refuse the breakfast politely and tell Q he's going to go back to his flat after a pleasant thank-you.

"Sit. Eat," Q orders in a distracted tone, waving briefly at the chair to his right, and goes right back to typing. There's no sense of awkwardness about him whatsoever. In fact, he acts like this is a perfectly normal occurrence and an agent with a hangover eating breakfast with him is less interesting than whatever’s on his laptop.

James closes his mouth and feels the odd urge to smile. He doesn't obey it, but it's the first time in eight days he's felt anything more than numb or angry or devastated, so he'll take it. He sits down and puts an egg and toast on the plate already set out for him.

A pot of steaming tea is next to Q, but the cup of coffee is clearly meant for him, and James picks it up, ignoring the sugar and creamer. "What are you doing, Q?" A thin layer of butter is enough for him, but he puts off eating in favour of pinning a gaze that he knows is uncomfortable on his Quartermaster.

Who doesn’t show the least sign of being intimidated or, indeed, even noticing. "Upgrading our firewalls," he explains, clever eyes flitting here and there. "MI6 can't afford to be vulnerable to cyber attacks right now."

" No, we can't," Bond agrees slowly, but Q darts a quick glance at him and doesn't elaborate further.

Silence settles gently over them then, as soft and warm as the blanket James was just sleeping under. He finishes all of the food, surprised to find himself ravenously hungry, but feels no desire to break the silence when he's done. A cold, wet nudge at his ankle nearly makes Bond flinch, but it's only the Russian Blue, who meows imperiously.

With a rueful smile, James bends down and lifts the cat up into his lap. It cuddles close, purring encouragingly as he begins to pet it. Q doesn't even seem to notice, so intent is he on his coding.

The clock ticks on.

Just like before, the quiet sinks through James’ skin, vanishes into his bones, and coils deeply inside of him, as calmly content as the cat he's stroking. It reminds him a bit of late nights with his parents, ever so long ago, sitting by the fireplace and watching his laughing mother tease and provoke his long-suffering father, surrounded by love and comfort and some intangible notion of home.

Which is ridiculous, this is all ridiculous, but...

James relaxes and lets his head fall back a bit, eyes going half-lidded. It goes against his training to let down his guard completely, but for all that this is ridiculous, he wants to warm his soul in this feeling for as long as he can in the hopes of melting the ice that has formed around it.

Or maybe he simply doesn’t want Q, brilliant, reassuring Q to leave as well. He can’t quite decide. Nothing about this makes any sense, but he can’t bring himself to care. Doesn't want to examine it too closely for fear of losing it. Instead, he divides his attention between lavishing the cat with attention, thinking of nothing at all, and watching Q.

Under close scrutiny, Q looks only mildly better than James himself. Dark circles are prominent beneath his eyes, and he worries his bottom lip with his teeth occasionally, brow furrowed. He's pale, clearly exhausted. 

It's a reminder that while James was off drinking away his sorrows, Q must have been dealing with the fall-out of their not-so-legal actions and holding MI6 up. Guilt claws at him, but there's nothing he can do it about it now. He dedicates himself to basking in the remission while it lasts instead.

Approximately an hour later, the two cats wandering in and out of their little circle of peace as is their wont, Q smiles in satisfaction and hits the enter key with a decided finality to it. God knows what he's finished; James certainly doesn't.

And then, Q glances up and seems to notice James' presence again. "You're still here," he says, blinking rapidly behind his glasses.

Inwardly, Bond is surprised. Not many people can turn their awareness of him off at all, not with the aura of strength and danger he knows he radiates even now, their hindbrains perpetually screaming in fear at the cold-eyed predator. 007 has a licence to kill, and no one should know that better than Q, who has no doubt read every last line of his file.

Q, who either completely lacks common survival instinct or subconsciously trusts James, both of which are beyond foolish. M demonstrated that quite nicely.

"I'm still here," he replies.

Q's forehead crinkles, and he shakes his head, as if trying to disperse his confusion. "I...need to go to work," he says, standing up and frowning at the mess that remains on the table. "If you're going to stay, then please don't blow up my flat. I'm rather fond of it."

James considers pointing out that it's Sunday and even Q could stand to stay at home for one day. He doesn't. "How could I without my exploding pen?"

Q snorts. "I'm sure you could find a way." A plaintive meow has them both looking at the Turkish Angora, who peers at them with blue eyes from the kitchen. "Oh, that's Morgana. Rayleigh..." he looks around helplessly. "Rayleigh should be around here somewhere."

"Morgana and Rayleigh?" James echoes, a faint smile pulling at his lips. "Didn't expect you to name your cats after an evil sorceress in Arthurian legend and a market town in Essex."

"Of course not," Q says haughtily, curling his lip. "A fata morgana is a complex mirage with elements both compressed and stretched, introverted and right side up, combining into visions that change quickly. John William Strutt was usually referred to as Lord Rayleigh. He discovered the elastic scattering of light or other electromagnetic radiation - "

Q cuts himself off abruptly and blushes a fetching shade of pink. James is leaning back in his chair and smiling slightly, feeling lighter than he's felt in ages. He can't help it; intelligence has always been his...catnip. "Well, don't stop," he teases. "Electromagnetic radiation?"

Q sighs but completes, "Electromagnetic radiation by particles much smaller than the wavelength of the radiation. You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," James refutes with faux innocence. Q plainly doesn't believe him but pulls on that hideous parka and grabs the briefcase leaning by the front door, doing something complicated to the security pad on the wall and then on his phone.

"I have an automated feeding system for the cats; don't let them deceive you into thinking they survive on snacks," Q instructs absently. "Security systems aren’t designed to stop people from leaving, so you're free to go whenever you like. Just don't try to get back in. Erm...that should be it. Good day, Mr Bond."

"Good day, Q," James says, voice quiet with a sincerity that most people never hear.

Q catches it, judging by the way his head snaps up, but after a long, searching look that James can't understand, he only nods and leaves with one final scratch for Rayleigh, who has come to see his owner off.

The sound of the door closing behind Q is harsh, and suddenly, the flat feels much colder than it was before.

James can't help but shiver. He wonders at himself, at why he stayed, at why he continues to stay. He wonders at Q, at why he let him stay, at why he continues to let him stay.

"What am I doing?" he whispers aloud. Morgana meows and twines herself around his legs. All at once, James remembers that he didn't ask Q what happened last night. "Shit."

James investigates Q's place because he's a spy and he's curious. He also doesn't want to return to his empty flat, the company of the cats still better than the hollow, haunting silence that Q has left behind him.

For such a complicated perfectionist, Q’s flat is a bloody mess.

The bedroom, kitchen, and dining room are the only places even remotely approaching neat. A small telly sits in the middle of the living room, but there's a layer of dust over the screen. On the other hand, the table in front of the telly is cluttered to the point it affronts James' navy training.

It's essentially Q's bedroom table to the nth degree. Pieces of convoluted machinery, an open toolbox with half of the tools scattered everywhere, a tablet mostly buried under blueprints and dismantled bits of prototypes, and electric components are splayed over every square centimetre of the table. 

James doesn’t want to disturb the top layer for fear of an uncalled for explosion, but he suspects there might be a plate of forgotten toast at the bottom.

Dryly, he muses that he isn't sure what else he’d expected from the boffin.

Random projects are scattered over the sofa. A large bookshelf completes the living room furniture, and he spends a good half an hour looking over the books, all varied and well-taken of.

Q has an eclectic selection, sorted first by fiction and non-fiction, then by genre or subject, and then finally by author. The books to the far left on the top shelf are on programming, coding, and computers. Next to those are engineering, followed by physics and electricity, and then anything from weather to history to mathematics.

On the second shelf, James finds more mundane books, on cooking and cats with a smattering of other...subjects. His hand hovers over The Scientific Reasoning Behind Soulmates for a few hesitant seconds but only the cats are there to witness when he draws back.

He's 007, and everyone he loves dies. Bond hasn't kept up with the recent breakthroughs in soulmate ideology for a reason. He assumes Q hasn't found his soulmate yet either, if he's reading books like these.

The world is unfair. Karma dictates that James will never find that sort of happiness because of everything he's done, every life he's ended, every life he couldn't save, but Q is lovely, kind, should be adored by his soulmate. James frowns, throat strangely constricted, and hurriedly moves on to the last shelf.

Fiction, mostly classic books with a dot of poetry here and there. An encyclopaedia of quotes leans against Dracula and The Tale of Two Cities. Moby Dick and The Hobbit are happily nested with the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Iliad and The Odyssey share space with The Great Gatsby and Revolutionary Road.

James smiles, flushed warm although he does not know why. He ghosts careful fingers over the worn spines and spares ten more minutes to pet the cats and dig out a bag of treats for one each before slipping out of the flat, leaving the plates in the dishwasher and the bed made with military-perfect corners. He even unearths the toast from the living room.

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning." - Albert Einstein.

When 007 walks into Q-Branch two weeks later, poised and confident and assigned to a mission in Argentina, Q is ready for him. Glancing up from his computer for a second to scan the agent and presumably finding him fit for duty, he goes straight back to work.

Neither of them mention the forty-fourth birthday that passed five days ago nor the five tickets for skiing at Revelstoke that appeared in Bond's email. 

"Really, 007? A Komodo dragon?" Q drawls, sceptical and exasperated.

Bond grins, unrepentant, with his hands in his pockets. "That sensor came in handy."

"You fed my gun to a Komodo dragon. I should send you out in the field with nothing but a glow stick."

"I'm a secret agent, Q. I prefer to make my entrances much more dramatically."

Q pushes a kit into 007's chest with unnecessary force. Naturally, Bond rocks with the impact as much as a stone wall would.

"Bring me back my equipment in one piece this time, 007, or I'll replace your Aston Martin with a Fiat Multipla in bright neon orange."

Q has withdrawn behind walls of professionalism and cheek, his flimsy threats not quite distracting from the stiffness of his body language, the purposeful distance between them. Not a single word is spoken about their previous encounter, and if Bond didn't know better, he'd think it never happened.

007 saunters out of Q-Branch with a gun, a radio, an earpiece, and a plan forming in the back of his mind.

When James - 007, 007, Bond if he must - is finally gone, Q breathes out a sigh of relief and quietly excuses himself to go to his office. After closing the door behind him, he slowly slides down until he's leaning against the cool metal, wrapping his arms around his bent knees.

He's always known that dealing with his soulmate wouldn't be easy, but, Jesus Christ, this is so much harder than pining away from a distance.

Chapter Text

Never let it be said that 007 is a bad spy.

There is a reason he was the youngest Double-Oh in history, is still the only Double-Oh who has survived for so long. Part of it is skill and experience, but most of his success comes from vicious, single-minded stubbornness, the willingness to reach out and grab and take what he needs.

It has suited him well, if he says so himself. Few of his 'acquaintances' would say the same.

The first step in any successful mission is reconnaissance, especially if the agent has no prior information.

Bond has already researched his Quartermaster as much as possible. He was naturally stonewalled at practically every turn, which isn't so much as a surprise as it is frustrating. The paper files he got his hands on had nearly everything redacted, up to and including the boffin's name, age, birthday, and residence.

In other words, absolutely useless.

Even before Silva taught Q caution and paranoia, Bond wasn't so foolish as to think he could beat the Quartermaster at his own game. MI6 has moved with the times, and the few ways it lagged behind before, Q has pushed into the 21st century forcibly. Nearly everything is electronic now, as the now-dead rogue agent proved ever so nicely.

He tried hacking into the online files anyway. He didn't get in, of course, but then, he would have been disappointed if he had actually succeeded.

To this day, James still doesn't know why M - Olivia Mansfield, and damn it, it still hurts like the kiss of a bullet - left Q's address for him at the very end of her video message. Her poker face was as brilliant as ever, but he doesn't think he imagined that flicker of regret before everything went dark.

So, he has profession, address, appearance, and surface personality. Not exactly the most optimal preparation for a complex mission, but 007 has dealt with worse. Even if paper in his hands and files on a computer can't tell him what he needs to know, the human body is far more inadvertently revealing.

A glance to the left when embarrassed, two blinks when lying, a nervous habit of tracing circles on the knee - he knows how to read people, both at a poker table and in a corner of Q-Branch. Q's harder to make out than most, but Bond is confident that he'll figure the boffin out eventually.

He always does.

Still, at the moment, Q is wary, closed off to most everything that has to do with Bond for reasons still unknown, so Bond graciously gives him three missions' worth of relative peace to lull him into a false sense of security before doing anything serious.

He can be patient when he wants to be, staking out a target or waiting in the stillness of a sniper’s nest.

Notwithstanding the time he spent accustoming himself to M's, his M's, death, it's still bitterly disturbing to answer to Mallory. 007 prefers to listen to Q instead, all three missions spent with that rich, steady voice in his ear, directing him through crowded streets and secret corridors, every last one of the electronic doors opening for him without so much as a hitch.

Unlike before, however, Q's demeanour is perfectly professional, only the vaguest hints of snark and wit behind his crisp words when Bond does something reckless and dangerous as is his wont. James finds himself unaccountably annoyed by it.

Perhaps this distance is because of the failure at Skyfall, perhaps it's because of that night; he doesn't know Q well enough to tell. He would still kindly appreciate it if Q would stop.

The missions go surprisingly well, for him at least, but he still breaks or "loses" all of his equipment. The stroppy looks and vexed lectures Q throws his way are both adorable and a welcome interlude from the stiff aloofness.

Plus, it's not his fault that particular terrorist decided to throw his gun into the Pacific Ocean after tearing it out of 007's hands and that other megalomaniac crushed his radio under his surprisingly stylish high heels. The corset was a nice touch, almost pretty enough that Bond felt sorry when he ripped it apart.

Personally, he thinks that it's a right miracle the only injuries he's sustained so far are countless bruises and cuts, and the one bullet graze on his arm. When he points this out to Q, he gets the most frigid look and a stern order to go to Medical. Which is outside of Q-Branch. Right now, if he would.

Bond goes but that doesn't mean he has to be happy about it.

After he returns from his fourth mission, which started in Cuba and ended in Argentina, 007 walks into Q-Branch with his customary smirk and the pieces of a spectacularly wrecked gun in his possession. Several boffins glance at him uneasily as he passes by but return to their computers within seconds, preoccupied with some disaster in Hong Kong.

Q is, as usual, standing in the heart of his technological kingdom, typing away, eyes focused on the five major screens. Bond has learned that Q rarely uses his actual office, preferring to work out in the common area where he can talk freely with his subordinates and issue the necessary orders. From the few boffins 007 has already approached, the new branch head is a rather benevolent overlord and the minions are becoming quite loyal and attached if they weren’t already. He'll get nothing from them without ludicrous amounts of threats and blackmail.


"Q," Bond greets, briefly eyeing the depleted scrabble mug next to the laptop as he comes up on Q from behind. If he recalls correctly, 004 was sent to contain the drug ring setting up shop in that region of the world. He rather likes the other Double-Oh; she's beautiful and lethal and not at all afraid of castrating a man when he needs it. "How's Marian?"

"Trying to get herself killed," Q answers shortly, scanning the blueprints he brings up on the screen and then darting a quick look-over at Bond. "Put whatever you have for me on the table, please. And try not to make a nuisance of yourself today, 007; we're in a bit of a tight spot at the moment."

Bond isn't the obedient kind, never has been, but he knows when to push forward and when to pull back. “Whatever you say, Q.” He smirks and places the black case with the remnants of yet another Walther inside on the table before retreating to a familiar little corner of Q-Branch and fading expertly into the background.

And then he watches, still and silent as a wraith in the night.

Q-Branch is, as he’s noted before, chaotic at best, but theirs is always a controlled chaos: constant, rapid typing, murmuring voices, a calm atmosphere nearly completely at odds with the way the boffins hurry around on soft feet, their normal high-strung nature blurred into focused competence.

If Bond listens closely enough, he can hear the roll of chair wheels on plastic floor protectors as people bend their heads together and discuss something urgently in hushed tones. Their voices blend into the hiss and squeal of the electric kettle as someone takes on the all-important duty of keeping a room full of nerds and techies caffeinated enough to maintain coherence.

Which is a tricky balance, Bond is certain. Too much tea and things’ll probably start exploding before they’re meant to.

It's times like this that 007 is reminded that the small, easily frightened boffins he bullies and coaxes into performing favors for him are also the ones who put together the gadgets that have saved his life more times than he bothers to count, the ones who guide him through difficult missions and send medical and evac when he needs it.

A tad humbling, all things considered.

In the midst of hushed conversations and frantic coding, Q stands tall and calm, face impassive, body language carefully neutral. He takes a sip of tea from his refilled mug and speaks into the comms evenly, every ounce of his attention on the screens that change rapidly in accordance to his desires.

Here, now, there’s something very entrancing about his image: a man with the universe at his fingertips, a stranger with the command of everything that’s welcome in the field. A port in the storm, a well of information and safety, an anchor and an armour against the hushed evils of fieldwork.

Solitary, with the world on his shoulders.

James wonders whether he's ever lonely. Sad. Q seems to him, at times, infinitely heartbroken in a way that tears at James’ heart even as his gaze remains as sharp and aloof as ever.

"Get to the rooftop, 004," Q says, nine camera views up on one screen and a map on another. Marian's red hair is tangled, darkened with dirt and blood, and her dress is torn although her gun is still in her hand. She's lost her shoes somewhere and is bleeding from multiple shallow wounds. "A helicopter will be waiting."

The sound of Marian panting is audible. "How, Q?" she snaps, frustrated and breathless with pain and exertion. "If you haven't noticed, I'm being chased by a squad of hired muscle, each with their own illegal machine gun. One of them has a fucking flamethrower. Why don't we get flamethrowers?"

That's a good question. Bond sometimes wonders the same thing.

"Because my budget is constantly taken up by missing equipment. Take the second door to your right." Deft, elegant hands move over the keyboard, finding their marks readily although Q has not looked away from the camera screens. There's a whirling click and then Marian is pushing the door open. "Close it behind you."

"Now what?" Marian asks after she has done as Q requested and the lock engages again with another click. She leans against the brick wall and dashes away the blood starting to run into her eyes, grip on her weapon never loosening. The motion pulls at her scarlet dress, and Bond realises she was shot in the upper thigh.

Q has zoomed in on 004's position on the map with a few quick taps of his fingers. "Keep on going. There should be two men at the end of this corridor. There'll be a staircase behind them that leads to the roof. You'll be home free after that."

She laughs lowly, beginning to creep down the hall, Beretta at the ready. "I want first class," Marian tells Q. "Window seat, mind you, with the best food you can get me, good television, and a luxurious comforter. Maybe a glass of good red wine."

Q doesn't stop typing, but he smiles, almost fondly. It's much more open than anything he's ever given Bond, and he's startled by the flare of resentment, almost jealousy, in his gut. It doesn't make sense - Q is only his Quartermaster, even if he once sheltered James in an incident they have never spoken of - and, troubled, Bond ignores the bruise.

"Dully noted. Guards in seven meters, four o'clock," Q warns.

It takes Marian only thirty seconds to knock out one guard and shoot the other despite her weakened condition. She races up the steps and emerges out into the rooftop, blinking furiously against the harsh light. As promised, the helicopter is waiting, already hovering a meter off the ground and ready to leave.

"Q?" Marian prompts, distrustful.

"Mission accomplished, 004. Time to come home." Gentle words, for all that Q's tone never changes. About the closest he's ever come to being that kind to Bond on the comms is giving him directions to the airport and the smaller details of what his ride home is going to look like when he is on British soil once more.

(Technically, the Quartermaster isn't obligated to supply his agents with that type of assistance once the mission is over and done with, but selfishly, Bond has never informed Q of this.)

007 recognises the kamikaze sort of smile that graces 004's lips before she takes a running leap and latches onto the landing skids, unbalancing the helicopter dangerously. Even as a hand appears to help Marian on, the door that leads to the rooftop is slammed open and armed men begin to pour out, shouting in Cantonese and guns already raised.

Marian blows them a kiss with her free hand before throwing herself fully inside the helicopter and making her escape. It's a convenient reminder of why Bond respects the other Double-Oh agent in the first place, and he finds himself confused, torn between envy and relief now that Marian is out of danger and Q no longer needs to talk to her so sweetly.

Completely unnecessarily, Q doesn't turn off the comms until Marian is back at a hotel, an MI6 approved doctor seeing to her wounds. As soon as he does, the barely noticeable tension underlying Q-Branch disappears, leaving brighter smiles and teasing words and slower typing as the normal pace of work resumes.

Q braces himself with his hands on his desk for a long moment, head bowed and shoulders relaxing, before straightening and turning to look at Bond as if aware that the agent was there all along, expression detached once more. "Well. I'm impressed, 007. You are capable of behaving for more than two minutes at a time."

Bond smirks, skillfully covering up his confusion, and saunters out of the shadows to stand next to Q. There's a fierce, triumphant light in those unreadable eyes that calls to his own after-mission adrenaline, and he can't help but reply, "Q, you have no idea how well I can behave."

He regrets the words a second later when Q stiffens, what little receptiveness there was in the first place immediately replaced with multi-layered walls. "I'm perfectly happy not knowing, ta," Q says, voice carefully modulated, and spins around to start typing away again. "Is there anything else I can help you with, 007?"

Bond hesitates but knows better than to provoke a siege when he can wait and coax instead. ""

"Good. Stop by Medical before leaving; I know you fractured your wrist."

"There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it." - Edith Wharton

James lays flat on his back on the bed and traces the familiar handwriting with his pointer finger thoughtfully, mind and heart in turmoil.

It's been quite some time since his soulmate wrote anything, but he hasn't noticed, thoroughly distracted by the enigma of Q. In the dark depths of his subconscious, an alarm bell goes off but he fails to detect it, unsure whether to treasure the continued assurance of his soulmate or follow his training.

After Silva, after M, the small, neat letters are an uncomfortable reminder of what he discovered on that inconsequential island near Turkey. He supposes he's always suspected the truth subconsciously but preferred not to think about it in favour of keeping this last comfort close to his heart.

The depression, the near-mourning just when James Bond was believed to be dead by all and sundry in England isn't something he can overlook though, no matter how much he may want to.

That it's now very likely that his soulmate has been aware of his missions, aware of his status, aware of who 007 is, for years is...confounding. It means that they have known what he's done and not abandoned him. It means that they're a security risk, and he might end up being the next cautionary tale told to green agents.

James grits his teeth and covers the ink with a spray of mark concealer. He won't tell MI6, he decides, not yet. Mallory remains an unknown, an M he doesn't trust, and as much as the information leak bothers him, he'll do some investigating on his own before throwing his soulmate to the wolves.

It's the least he can do, after all that he's done to them. After all they’ve done for him.

It's only been two days since Bond was last in Q-Branch, and Q's frown is vigilant, suspicious. "Back so soon, 007?"

Bond smiles and sits on a nearby chair with his arms thrown over the back and his feet planted firmly on the ground. He doesn't mind the hush that has fallen over Q-Branch but discreetly assess the clear wariness of the boffins. It doesn't look like anyone will call security yet. Excellent. "Afraid so."

Q furrows his brow and runs a hand through his hair, only messing it up even more. Bond wonders if this is what Q looks like after a long, pleasurable night of writhing in silk sheets. Q, he thinks, deserves high-quality silk, at the very least. "What do you need? You haven't been assigned a new mission, as far as I know."

Bond shrugs. "I don't have a mission. I'm just bored. Don't you have work to do, Q?" If nothing else, there are five different stacks of paperwork on the floor by Q's desk that most likely need looking through. 007's own paperwork is lying neglected on his table at the flat.

"'re bored," Q repeats blandly, looking supremely unimpressed beneath the thin veneer of professionalism he stubbornly maintains despite the twitch of his eye. "007, I trust you are aware that Q-Branch has not recently been converted to a circus for your enjoyment."

"I would hope so. Any decent circus act should have a lion or two." Although, from the way the minions are staring at them in both awe and horror, Bond and Q might as well be the best bloody circus act they've ever seen in their entire lives. 007 would probably make a great lion.

Q's frown only deepens, creases lining his forehead. "You're gravely mistaken if you think that my job is to provide you with entertainment whenever you want," he says, and there's something sharp to his voice now, ominous.

Normally, Bond would flirt his way through an obstacle like this, but that only backfired last time. Contrary to popular belief, he does learn from his mistakes. "I'm not expecting you to, Q. Just do what you have to. I can behave myself, remember?"

Q blinks and hesitates, thinking it over. After a few beats of agonising silence, he exhales slowly, apparently giving up further arguing as a lost cause. "Fine. Stay there and stay quiet. I don't have time to argue with you all day, but I reserve the right to have you removed if I think you're being disruptive. Back to work, everyone."

There's a general sigh in response that lingers in the air when their audience realises the spectacle is over, but everyone compliantly turns to squint at their computer screens. Bond smirks when Q isn't looking his way anymore, smug but willing to keep it to himself.

And so, the clock ticks on.

007 sits and watches, silent as a ghost. His eyes constantly track over the entirety of Q-Branch, aware of the movement of every shadow, even as he lounges in the chair like a king on his throne, decadent and casual and lethal.

The boffins of Q-Branch are entirely too cognizant of the predator in their quarters, constantly keeping half an eye on 007 and squirming whenever he so much as shifts. Regardless, they seem to trust in their leader's judgment and don't ask him to leave even as the hours pass.

In contrast, it takes peculiarly little time for Q to become accustomed to Bond's presence. For the first twenty minutes, he flicks uneasy looks at the agent, checking on his stance, mood, and actions, understandably not too trusting of 007’s ability to keep his hands to himself. When Bond keeps his word, however, he eventually relaxes subtly, beautifully, and focuses entirely on his laptop screen, blocking out the outside world as he did during 004’s mission.

James wonders if Q knows that he angles his body towards James at all times, like a flower following the sun. He suspects not. Most of the time, Q doesn’t even consciously know where James is, where anyone is, while he’s engrossed in his work. How is it that Q can feel so at ease when he's around yet flinch away from the most innocuous comment?

It would be easier if it was just the flirting but sometimes, it’s not.

Sometimes, Q looks at James like they're playing a game of Russian Roulette and he knows exactly how this game will end.

Bond learns plenty about Q throughout the day, not saying anything but looking, seeing like the spy he is.

Q can work for hours straight without stopping, a workaholic to the core. It’s almost as if he doesn’t notice the time passing, doesn’t realise the clock is ticking away while numbers and letters flow from his knowing fingers, doesn’t understand that he’s a human being with needs, too. He blinks faster, pauses more, when he's tired, fingers tracing patterns on his desk even as that genius brain goes on spinning like a well-oiled machine. He takes breaks in the form of short conversations full of technological jargon with his subordinates.

He can forget to eat whole meals but drinks around seventeen cups of tea, ten of which are straight Earl Grey and seven of which are Earl Grey with a little something extra that the minions sneak in to offset the caffeine a bit. James suspects calming herbal teas like chamomile. Snacks are also left on his desk, small, neat ones throughout the day that he can reach out and grab absently while continuing to type with the other hand. The implication appears to be that he wouldn’t eat otherwise.

James finds his neglectful behaviour nearly worrying. And then is immediately startled and perturbed at his uncharacteristic reactions. What is it about Q that entices him so?

Q dismisses most of the boffins at precisely eighteen hundred but doesn't make any move to leave himself. Ten minutes after the last minion leaves, he frowns at Bond and doesn't have to say a word.

"Goodnight, Q." Bond doesn't smile as he rises to his feet, but his voice is soft, his footsteps silent.

For once, there are no blades or iciness in Q's tone when he replies, only pleasant politeness, something almost like a caress of warmth buried underneath. "Goodnight, 007."

As James leaves, adjusting his cufflinks and tugging at his jacket, there is no restless humming in his bones or disdain at an unproductive day of simply sitting in a chair and staring at his Quartermaster. Instead, he finds a small smile on his lips and an odd warmth in his chest, something painfully like...contentedness.

It's a foreign feeling, and so, he ignores it to let himself into his cold, empty flat and curl up on his bed, falling into a deep, restful sleep.

The nightmares stay away.

"The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have." - Vince Lombardi

James escapes Medical with ink on his upper arm and two broken ribs. It's easier than usual, but he is far more preoccupied with the sudden realisation that overtook him while he was sedated into compliance and floating painlessly to wonder why.

He calls up a cab easily once he's off MI6 premises and is back at his flat five minutes later after a series of green lights. There, he pours a glass of scotch, smokes a cigarette, and cracks open the laptop he bought on a whim two years ago.

Bond may not be a boffin, but all field agents are at least somewhat familiar with modern technology. He pulls up Google search and types in 'Sherlock', the name having come to him while he was draped over a hospital table.

He really should have done this sooner, perhaps when he was first inducted into MI6 or even before that, but some part of him remains that eighteen-year-old boy who gave up his soulmate without ever knowing them. Some part of him still stubbornly clings to the ideal he has inadvertently built up in his mind of a cute, young boffin with a wicked tongue and harmless intentions, and it was easy to let his soulmate remain nameless, faceless, blameless, especially after becoming 007, after Vesper.

Bond doesn’t have that luxury now.  

To his surprise, hits in the triple digits for one Sherlock Holmes and his partner, John Watson, appear. Bond's eyebrows shoot straight up. Well. This is a surprise.

Further research into the two most prominent blogs, The Science of Deduction and The blog of Dr John H. Watson, reveals that, indeed, the doctor from Afghanistan is Sherlock Holmes' partner and soulmate. From Watson's posts, he reads to be constantly in danger, exasperated by his soulmate's antics, and relatively happy.

James is glad. He didn't work with Watson for very long, but he saved Bond's life, and he was one of the better men he knew. Watson deserves a good, exciting life with his soulmate, and 007 is hardly one to judge a man for playing with fire. On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes seems at least half mad from Watson's fond and tender recounts of their misadventures. Frighteningly intelligent and brilliant with complex crimes but odd and ignorant of basic social norms at times.

Bond recalls what Watson said of his soulmate's messages, as well as his own's soulmate's comments, and mentally applauds the doctor for putting up with Sherlock. "I suppose he's why they were writing down police reports when they were a child," he muses to himself, memorising the pair's address just in case he'll need it later.

Opening up a different tab, James types in 'Mycroft'. Mycroft Holmes, a low-level government official, comes up, confirming what his soulmate's last name is, at least. There's precious little on him, only a note in one of the smaller branches of the British government that he's an employee.

Which...considering Sherlock's genius, considering James' soulmate's genius, is rather dubious.

James spends nearly the entire night on his computer, searching for information on the Holmes family. Mrs Holmes is a revolutionary mathematician, and Mr Holmes is the CEO of a private company. By all accounts, Sherlock Holmes is a celebrity detective, and Mycroft Holmes is a humble government official.

There isn't a single mention of a third child. For a moment, he considers the possibility that they are not a part of this family at all but dismisses the idea quickly. These names are not common, and he doesn't believe in coincidence.

His soulmate is a technological genius. They know classified information, have been keeping an eye on a Double-Oh agent, and are all but nonexistent on the internet. The logical conclusion would be that they're doing something unsavoury, don't wish to be found, and are an enemy of Queen and Country.

As the first rays of light start creeping over his floorboards, James props up his chin on his palm and reconsiders his plan of attack.

"Do I need to check for poison, 007?" Q doesn't so much as glance up from his laptop when a mug of steaming tea is placed next to him, brewed flawlessly to his taste and at just the right temperature to drink without burning his tongue off.

Bond smirks and leans his hip against the desk, amused by how resolutely Q refuses to look at him. Apparently, lines of indecipherable code are much more interesting than an agent who refuses to leave. "I don't know, Q. Have you done anything recently that would warrant being poisoned?"

"Putting up with you all the time should earn me sainthood," Q grouches but reaches out blindly and takes a sip of the tea anyway. His hum is faint and satisfied, his faith in 007's spying and tea-making abilities obviously rewarded.

Bond chuckles. Since the first time he argued Q into letting him stay in Q-Branch for hours on end, he's dwindled away four more days in much the same manner, complete with the meagre protest at the beginning and the peaceful farewell at the end. "You don't seem like the religious kind."

"Funny, you don't either." Q jabs at the enter button and finally deigns to peer at Bond over his scrabble mug. "What do you want today, 007? I assure you, the chair you stole from my poor intern is right where you left it five days ago."

"I procured a better one for her, and I'm growing quite fond of that old thing," Bond says, placing a piece of paper in front of Q, "but it'll have to stay empty a while longer. I need information on these two."

Q picks up the paper and frowns at it, nose crinkling and shoulders stiff. "'Sherlock Holmes' and 'Mycroft Holmes'? Is this for a mission?"

"No. More of a...side project." Bond trusts Q for some strange reason, far more than he should, but his soulmate he trusts only with himself. Losing them at this point would utterly ruin him, and isn’t that ironic, isn’t that exactly what M predicted and tried to prevent?

"And what have they done to you that you're hounding them like this?" Q adjusts his glasses, looking up to direct his frown at Bond.

Bond merely flashes a smile, infusing every ounce of charm he can into it. "Tell me what you can about them, would you, Q? You know I wouldn't ask unless it's important." He places a coaxing hand on Q's shoulder and doesn't miss the slight shudder that rolls over all that soft, lovely skin.

It's not the most intimate touch, only a flirtatious gesture meant to fluster the boffin into agreeing to whatever he wants, and yet, Bond finds that it’s his own mouth that goes dry, his heart tripping helplessly over itself.

Oh, he thinks, a bit feebly. Oh.

Q takes a step back, face going blank as Bond's hand slides off and shields slamming down visibly. "I'll see what I can do," he says curtly, turning back to the schematics on his laptop. "If that's all, then I'll have to ask you to leave, 007. You're distracting my subordinates."

Bond has to take a moment to respond, confounded both by his own response and the bereavement that steals over him now. "And God forbid I do that," he says, turning to walk away. "Two days, Q."

"I hear Antarctica is nice this time of year."

J.B. is making inquiries. - Q

Not about you, I hope. - MH

No. About the two of you. I suppose he remembers your names from my childhood antics. - Q

So he’s looking. Why is he interested in you now? He never was before. - SH

I may have given myself away when I thought he was dead. - Q

Understandable if reckless. Double-Oh agents have a habit of dying but not staying dead. -MH

Don't give him access to your handwriting, preferences, files, or DNA. Spies don't care about privacy. - SH

I know. What do I tell him? - Q

Sherlock's life is already splattered across the internet. J.B. has high security clearance but exercise discretion with my information. - MH

I will. He might come to Baker Street, Sherlock. - Q

I'll tell John. - SH

"Right, so, Sherlock Holmes calls himself a 'consulting detective' and works with the New Scotland Yard. He has a long history of solved crimes, often with little details others take for granted or overlook, and lives at 221B Baker Street with his soulmate and partner, John Watson, a former British army doctor."

"Go on," Bond murmurs, peering at the two pictures on Q's laptop over his shoulder. Sherlock is tall and lean with dark curly hair and striking green eyes shot with amber. Watson hasn't changed much from his military days, but his hair's grown out and his smile is brilliant.

"Holmes has been arrested several times, but there's nothing serious on his record. Watson's arrested mostly because of Holmes. They're both capable of fighting. I'm not sure what you're looking for, 007. Outside of their clear inclination to find life-threatening cases, neither of them appear dangerous to MI6."

Bond hums noncommittally. "And Mycroft Holmes?"

Q purses his lips in a very distracting way, fingers dancing over his keyboard. The pictures of Sherlock and Watson are sized down and relegated to a corner. A new photo appears, this time of a middle-aged man with murky eyes of dark blue-green and a receding hairline, flaunting a very expensive suit.

"I don't know what you're up to, but Mycroft Holmes is nearly above your security clearance," Q warns him, voice remaining neutral. "He's nearly above my security clearance. Just know that he's incredibly influential in the British government and occasionally orders MI5 around."

Bond quirks an eyebrow. "MI5?" Admittedly, that does sound more in-line with the rest of the Holmes family, including his boffin genius of a soulmate.

"MI5. Try not to go around aggravating Mycroft Holmes if you can avoid it. You already threaten to give M a heart attack every five missions." Q takes down the pictures and sips at his tea. He keeps his eyes straight on the screen and doesn't look at Bond.

"Only every five missions? I must be slacking then," Bond teases, drawing back a little at the tension he can feel is starting to leak into Q now that he's not longer distracted. "Are there any other living members of their family?"

Q furrows his brow. "There's the mother and father. Do they need to be looked into?"

"No." So even Q can't find any traces of his soulmate. That's...disturbing. Bond has the uneasy feeling he'll have to inform M of this security breach soon and has to fight not to scowl and inflict physical violence on someone who isn’t Q. "Well done."

Q turns to stare at him, unblinking despite their close proximity, frowning slightly at the rough purr. "Let me guess. You want me to keep this to myself."

"I would be much obliged." Bond doesn't touch Q but keeps their faces only a quarter of a meter apart and lets his eyes bore gently into his. "Will you let me keep this between you and me?"

"You haven't even told me what you're looking for," Q points out but doesn't flinch away. Bond counts that as a win on his part and tries not to look directly at those rosebud lips.

"It's not necessary. This isn't MI6. It's a...personal matter." Up close, Q's bone structure is exquisite, so very delicate. Clothed in his efficiency and intelligence, Q portrays a demeanour that's much stronger than his slender build suggests, the lines of his vulnerable throat elegant.

Bond is uncomfortably aware of how easily this lovely, stubborn creature could be broken. The jolt of fierce protectiveness burns, but he keeps it tucked away for later examination and instead analyses those sharp cheekbones.

"Fine," Q concedes after a second, glancing away unexpectedly. "But I expect you to report to M if anything dangerous comes up, 007."

"That's a given,” Bond lies.

How did it go? - MH

Fine. He doesn't suspect anything. - Q

You want him to. - SH

Shut up. He doesn't know your exact position, Mycroft. I also kept our family’s predilection for intelligence out of the report. - Q

That's acceptable for now. - MH

And then, in a private chat:

Is it the MI6 regulations? You know Gareth Mallory would have to listen to me. - MH

No, it isn't. Please don't interfere. I have this under control. - Q

Having a soulmate isn't so bad. Sherlock has improved tremendously. - MH

Don't pretend our situations are the same. I'll be fine. Don't you dare arrange to have J.B. kidnapped. - Q

Not until you're seeing him properly, no. Then, all bets are off. - MH

Q is always silent when Bond is seducing a mark. As per protocol, he thinks, but no, somehow, it feels more than that, as a strange amount of other things do with Q. His instincts, normally precise and accurate, are perplexed whenever this situation rears its head.

On one hand, he finds Q's constant presence a comfort, as he normally does, knowing that there is someone watching over him, keeping an eye out for danger, staying with him throughout the mission while he's on foreign land, perpetually in danger, alone with no one else to depend on.

On the other hand, despite years of work in the field and in the military, something about Q listening to him shagging other people strikes him as uncomfortable, like a gun with the weight a tad off or the fit of a suit a millimetre too tight, barely noticeable but an ever-present itch.

Bond sits on the edge of the bed, back to the beautiful blonde he spent all night exhausting into a whimpering, shaking mess. It's three in the bloody morning here in Tunisia, and he knows that it's three in the bloody morning back in London. "Q?"

"I'm here." Q sounds clinical, indifferent, exactly the way a handler of a Double-Oh should be. It's disheartening fuel to the weariness that already dwells within his old, tired bones. Bond calculates at least five cups of tea in that alert, posh voice.

Bond turns the flash drive in his hands over and over. "Grey PNY, 128 GB, USB 3.0?"

"Yes, that's the one. The Tunis-Carthage International Airport is 25 kilometres to your west. The details are on your phone, as always. Do you require further assistance, 007?"

A question hovers on the tip of his tongue. This is one of the easier missions, not one necessarily meant for a Double-Oh, one that even one of the junior members of Q-Branch could handle without any problems. There isn't even a body count and retrieving this small piece of tech is as technologically advanced as it gets.

"No," Bond says now, but later, when he's trying to get comfortable on the plane, which is no picnic despite his plentiful experience, the after-mission adrenaline rush buzzing in his ears and numbing his fingers, the words slip out unbidden anyway. "...why are you on the comms, Q?"

There is a startled pause even as the earpiece crackles back to life again. "I am your handler for this mission."

"There must be other, more strenuous, missions you could be overseeing. And it's four in the bloody morning. Another all-nighter?"

"I am your handler for this mission, 007," Q repeats blandly. "Is there anything else?"

Bond sighs through his nose and stares blindly up at the ceiling. "No. I'm fine."

There's another long pause and then the audible click as Q goes offline. Five minutes after that, the speakers start playing quiet blues, and Bond relaxes slowly. He drifts off to the sound of Eric Clapton.

"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." - Dr. Seuss

It’s his birthday, his forty-fifth birthday. Today, M granted him leave with a wave of his hand and a meaningful look, Tanner passed along a bottle of good scotch, Moneypenny pressed a cake into his hands and a kiss to his cheek when she caught him in the hallways, and James didn’t so much as catch a glimpse of Q.

But. He did find several emails waiting for him when he checked his inbox. Apparently, he’s won several email sweepstakes he never entered, the rewards ranging from a free trip to an expensive golf course to a full-on spa treatment.

James is fairly certain that Q is trying to tell him something, but he can’t quite bring himself to focus on that at the moment.

The buzz permeating MI6 is quiet and cuts off as soon as he walks into a room, but he knows full well what everyone's gossiping about. Forty-five is the mandatory retirement age for Double-Ohs. But 007 hasn't been called into M's office for a respectful but short chat, hasn't been sent away with nice words into a deathly retirement, and no one can quite figure out why.

Bond doesn't fool himself. He's not indispensable; he's just influential and infamous, as Olivia Mansfield was. It's been more than a year since she fell but the shockwaves are still rippling through the world, and Mallory's good but he hasn't proven himself, isn't the legend she was. He needs Bond to bolster MI6's reputation and moral, aging body or not. 

As soon as MI6 is properly on their feet again and Mallory's been acknowledged by all and sundry as a proper M, James Bond will be retired quickly and quietly. But until then...

Until then...

In the fading grey-purple haze of twilight, James brushes his fingers reverently over the words in black ink. Either his soulmate is the most twisted villain 007 has ever known, so far down the bend that they seem normal, even kind, or they are nonexistent for a legal, logical reason.

He wants desperately for it to be the latter, even as his past advocates the former malevolently in his ears.

"Take a right turn, 007. No, your other right." Q's voice is dry and calm in his ear, the wind is rushing past him, honks and screeches of startled cars and indignant drivers are mere background noise, and Bond grins.

"I know where my left and right are, Q." Slamming down hard on the accelerator, he almost clips a van and bypasses five other cars, swerving in and out of lanes expertly. The sky is an almost painful shade of blue today, so very bright, the breeze warm and comfortable. "Where is he?"

"Heading towards the Pantheon from the East. Which, if I may point out, you're heading away from."

Bond's grin widens. "Ever been to Rome, Q?" he asks casually, turning into one of the smaller, gently-paved roads not actually meant for cars. It's an old city, this place, and he's more familiar with it than most others, all graceful history and awe-inspiring monuments.

"No, I - 007, what are you doing?"

"Taking a shortcut," Bond murmurs as people scatter before him with shrieks and curses. "Lots of those around." All but bulldozing over a stand, cutting across open paths and back streets, he smiles faintly as the massive Pantheon comes into view. It's bittersweetly nostalgic.

He remembers meticulously drawing the temple on his chest back in his early thirties, wanting to give his soulmate a piece of the glory of Rome while they were still stuck in England. It's hard for him to imagine now, being so carefree and open, having his soulmate so close but yet so far, leaving them gifts on his skin.

James' hands tighten on the steering wheel. He has to fight not to reach for a cigarette or a glass of scotch, the ache in his chest a familiar one. He wonders if he would have been able to stop writing if M hadn't died, if the shock of that loss hadn't overridden the compulsion to continue to communicate with his soulmate after half a decade of silence.

Even now, knowing that they have secrets, his fingers itch for just a quick sketch, nothing more but so much more.

Q's slow sigh is an appreciated distraction. He doesn't bother to protest Bond's unorthodox methods, but informs him, "He's driving around Via di Santa Chiara."

"Pull up a picture of the Pantheon, Q." 007 wrenches the borrowed car to the right, hovering on two wheels for moment before touching down again and zooming off. In the distance, he can hear police sirens, but he ignores them.

"I've got it. What now?"

Bond smiles and sees his target's black Audi in front of him, perfectly average except for the scratch on the left side, the one created by a bullet from his Walther. "Beautiful, isn't it? You should go on a vacation with me sometime. Get some perspective, learn new things, and all that."

There's a very long silence from Q's end. Bond rams the front of his car into that nice black Audi and drives his target off the road and into a ditch. "Q?" he prompts, worried.

When Q's voice comes at last, it's quiet and cool. "We need him alive, 007. Keep that in mind."

And for the rest of the mission, no matter what Bond says or does, Q talks to him only when necessary, in as few words as possible, and even his quietude seems chilly. Bond is left frustrated and confused, not quite sure where he went wrong, even as the familiar sights of Rome wrap him in muffled memories of kinder, happier days.

Anyone else would be discouraged by now. He's hitting dead ends everywhere, it seems.

M told him to kill Marco Sciarra as a final mission for her. 007 lost Sciarra's trail in Poland.

Bond wants to have a good, healthy, maybe even pleasurable, relationship with his Quartermaster. Q is quite possibly the most contrary creature he's ever had the fortune of meeting.

James needs to understand what the bloody fuck is going on with his soulmate before he's ordered to kill them. They are a genius phantom with powerful brothers, no records, and coding that is beyond even Q-Branch.

It's a very good thing that he's never been the type to give up.

The second step in any successful mission is the operation.

Bond has all the information he'll ever have through just watching. He knows that Q doesn't react well to flirting or innuendos or private questions. He knows that Q likes sweets and books and cats. He knows that Q is afraid of planes and dislikes archaic testaments, knows that Q wants to keep a nice, professional distance between them.

James has no intention of letting that happen.

On some level, he questions himself. Were it any other MI6 official, he would have let it go. He doesn't expect everyone to like him; hell, he expects everyone to hate him or fear him, be in awe of him or look down their noses at him. Why can't he simply accept Q's coldness and move on?

But no. Maybe it's because having the Quartermaster on his side can only ever be a good thing. Maybe it's because he can't understand why Q can be unbearably kind to him one day and then years away the next, and that's a riddle, an enigma, a distraction that has nothing to do with his mysterious soulmate or the latest death on his conscience.

Or maybe it's just because it's Q, lovely and familiar in a way he can’t understand.

These days, when Bond walks into Q-Branch, the minions rarely spare him more than five seconds of wary looks before going back to their work. Q glances up and offers him either a cheeky remark or a neutral acknowledgement, and from that, Bond can tell what sort of day it will be.

If he gets the cheeky remark, Q's in a good mood and willing to tolerate him so long as Bond keeps the flirting and interrogating locked down. Most of the time, Q will let 007 watch him work with only a few comments here and there, competent and purposeful about what he does, calm and relaxed in a way that soothes James as well.

If he gets the neutral acknowledgement, Q has retreated into the safety of his mind and the parameters of MI6. He is the Quartermaster, and Bond is the Agent, and they are nothing more. Had James marked these rare times down, he would have realised they corresponded with anniversaries of ink, but he doesn't, normally too moody himself.

Today, Q is wrapped up in a crisis in Pakistan. He takes one and a half seconds to check that Bond doesn't need anything from him and goes right back to barking orders at 002 over the comms.

James doesn't try to catch his attention. He sneakily abducts the empty scrabble mug instead and brings it back to Q filled with tea. As he leaves Q-Branch with no one the wiser, he places a call that will have ten boxes of hot pizza delivered by noon.

007 informs the baffled security guards of this and takes a cab to the airport. He has a mission in Yemen to complete.

When Q comes on the line, he is wholly proficient and efficient, every word enunciated and clear. In fact, 007 only receives confirmation of his efforts after his mission is complete and he's on the plane ride back.

"Thank you for the tea and pizza. Shall I tell M your paycheck is growing a bit too large?" Q asks archly, a warm undertone to his voice that makes Bond smile.

"I'd prefer if you wouldn't actually," Bond replies, leaning back in his seat and closing his eyes briefly. "How else will I continue to feed you?"

"'s not necessary," Q says. "If you need something, you should just tell me outright - "

Bond wonders if Q is being difficult on purpose. He suspects he is. "I don't want anything, Q."

"Then why?"

Bond shrugs although Q probably can't see him. Probably. He wouldn't put it past the boffin to hack the security cameras. "You're too skinny. I could break you in half without effort."

"Thank you for that. Are you telling me you're attempting to fatten me up?" Q sounds incredulous. "Is this some bizarre rendition of Hansel and Gretel?"

Bond huffs out a surprised laugh. "Did you just compare me to a witch and yourself to two lost children?"

"You're the one who's offended by my weight. I'll have you know I have a perfectly healthy body mass index for my height and age."

"What, one hundred fifty centimetres and eighteen?" Bond shoots back despite being well aware of Q's height. He's a bit iffier on the age, sadly, but he suspects late twenties to early thirties.

Q makes an offended noise that reminds Bond of Rayleigh and Morgana. "007, I am only two centimetres shorter than you."

"No comment on the age?" Bond is delighted by this turn of events, the easy banter, the light-hearted back and forth he hasn't had since Skyfall. If he knew a bit of food would lull Q this much, he would have drowned Q-Branch in pizza months ago.

Of course, just as he's thinking this, Q's voice chills several degrees. "I would think that my innovation has already been proven. Your ride will be a silver Porsche with the number plate of LW96DSW. That's all I have for you."

"Wait, Q - "

There's the crackle of static in his ear. James grits out an exhale and struggles with his frustration for a minute or two. When he's under control again, he takes out his phone and begins plotting out his next move.

This is a battle of wills, and he doesn't plan to lose.

"So, I hear you've been trying to make nice with Q." Moneypenny leans against the doorway, resplendent in a bright red dress, eyes twinkling and a knowing smile on her plum lips.

Bond looks up from where he was attempting to glare the paperwork into submission and raises an eyebrow at her sardonically. He knows full well what she's here for, the nosy wannabe-matchmaker.

It's been more than a year and a half since Skyfall, and he's found that it's surprisingly easy to talk to Moneypenny. They've even developed a friendship, of sorts, wherein Moneypenny complains to him about M and Bond grouches to her about finding good tailors nowadays.

He thinks that it's the longest strictly-platonic relationship he's ever had.

That doesn't quite mean he isn't aware of how beautiful the woman is, her rejection no deterrent. That doesn’t quite mean he isn’t aware of how manipulative the former agent can be, her desk job barely having dulled her edges.

"Listening to gossip now, are we?"

"Oh, come off it. It's practically my job," Moneypenny says, propping one hand on her hip. "How goes the wooing? Is the great 007 stumped?"

Bond blinks. "People think I'm trying to seduce Q?" It's unpleasant thought - he’s more than self-aware enough to know that he’s deeply attracted to the boffin - but just a stable, amicable workplace relationship has been his objective. Anything else should reasonably come after.

Although, now that he thinks about it, he can see how people came to that conclusion. In addition to his now-customary refilling of Q's scrabble mug, he comes into Q-Branch bearing food more often than not and that is a classic courting move. Typically, he leaves the food with Q, who always tells him off for "being the gingerbread witch" but ends up eating it all nevertheless.

James still hasn’t figured out why he leaves those encounters all but purring with satisfaction.

"Trying and failing," Moneypenny confirms gleefully. "Hard to tell whether the minions are ecstatic or terrified, really. I hear there's a betting pool going around."

"I'm not trying to seduce Q." Bond stands up and walks around the bulk of his seldom-used desk, unable to resist adding, "Although if I was, Q would hardly be complaining."

Moneypenny only looks amused. "I'm sure. Well, in the very unlikely case that the minions aren't mistaken, just know that Q likes caramel and peppermint bark." She lets herself out with a smirk, sauntering down the hallway.

Bond looks after her for a long moment and wonders if he wants to know how Q is reacting to this rumour. Probably not. He’s only just getting mildly non-bipolar interactions, although the exploding pen is still out of reach. Shame, really.

No matter how many times 007 has endured it, torture still tends to be a highly disagreeable experience. All MI6 employees are trained to resist torture, of course, and field agents are prepared more thoroughly than most. Double-Ohs tend to laugh their way through their advanced training and learn the rest through brutal, hard experience.

Bond has been through many varied and creative methods of torture. He prides himself on his pain tolerance, but there's nothing for it when there's no pain to resist.

Instead, there is nothingness.

Deprivation chambers are frightening, really, even for an experienced agent like Bond. Human beings are social creatures, require constant sensation, and the absence of both can lead to insanity when it goes on for too long. He's seen the victims himself. They shy away from light, from interaction. They talk to themselves, to whatever hallucination their brain has conjured up in an attempt to stimulate itself.

Each brand of madness is unique, but there is one similarity: their minds are broken, their reality shattered into so much dust.

Bond has been placed in a nine by seven cell. There is most likely concrete beneath his fingers, nothing padded. No natural light, no sense of time; he knows how this works. He has been given three bottles of water, two packets of stale biscuits, and a bucket in the corner for him to relieve himself. The walls are soundproof. No sound will reach him here.

Well, that's not quite true. His captors stripped him of his clothing, but they underestimated the cleverness of his Quartermaster. The earpiece hidden deep in his ear canal was not found, and he is ever so grateful.


"Still with you," Q reassures, the sounds of rapid typing distant. "It's eighteen hundred fifteen here in London. It should be twenty hundred in Syria. We don't have a tracker in this earpiece, but we should be able to narrow down your position."

Bond slumps to the floor and leans against one of the four walls. It was meant to be a relatively simple mission, in and out with no one the wiser. The bloody terrorist organisation that Bond accidentally stumbled upon was a complete surprise, and it cost him.

"How long?" he asks, keeping his voice even, unaffected.

"We're estimating four days at the moment. M is aware of the situation and has instructed me to locate you. Tanner has a rescue squad waiting in Iraq. It has been approximately five hours since you were knocked out and captured, by the way."

Bond smiles, humourless. "What would you have me do then?" He's already tested the door. Even with all of his strength, the locks are beyond his ability to force open. While he's not cuffed, for once, there's really not much he can do at this point.

"Sleep," Q says, not unkindly. "It'll help the time pass faster."

"That's a matter of opinion," Bond replies but closes his eyes anyway. He's been trained to value sleep as the commodity that can be taken away in the time it takes to snap his fingers. "Good night, Q."

"Good night," Q says, and James can almost pretend he's back at MI6, leaving Q-Branch after a day of lazing around, fascinated by that dark, messy hair and the gentle slope of that nose, contented and lulled and maybe even a little happy.

007 snaps awake soundlessly without moving a muscle. He assesses his surroundings, but finds nothing of note, although the lack of light is strange. As soon as the thought crosses his mind, Bond remembers where he is and grimaces, hands fisting.

"Q?" he whispers, fighting the urge to reach up a hand and assure himself the earpiece is still there.

"007," comes the immediate response, and he breathes out a slow sigh of relief. "Good morning. It's nine hundred over there. We're still trying to track you down, but so far, we've had little luck. I've found my poor car though. Christ, what have you done to it?"

Bond manages a short laugh, standing up to stretch out his muscles. He has to be careful, only marginally aware of the limitations of his cell. "From what I saw before gaining a concussion, the steering wheel can be salvaged."

Q makes an abject noise of disgust that makes Bond smile despite himself. "The only thing that surpasses your kidnapping rate is the amount of equipment you unsuccessfully bring back intact. I wouldn't have to scold you nearly as much if you'd just stop using your Walther like a boomerang."

"Now, that's an idea," James muses, deciding he might as well be productive and do push-ups on the hard, cold floor. The utter darkness grates against his ingrained training, the uncertainty of his environment uncomfortable, but he does his best to ignore it. "You should make me an exploding boomerang."

"There's no point in making a boomerang that comes back to you if it explodes along the way," Q says tartly. "I know that you think that my budget is limitless but try to hold onto a shred of reasonableness, 007."

"I'll let up on the exploding boomerang idea if you make me an exploding pen," Bond bargains.

"Absolutely not. Pull the other shoe; it has streamers on it."

James smirks, on his fortieth push-up. The burn of his muscles is an excellent distraction along with Q's familiar voice. "Cruel. Will you at least rebuild my Aston Martin?"

"I shouldn't. Just to teach you a lesson."

"Come now, Q, there are so many other, better, ways to teach me a lesson." A split second after the words have left his mouth, James freezes in the front leaning rest position, pressed against the stone floor, suddenly remembering the last time he said something similar, wary of Q's reaction, of being left in the darkness and silence -

"Down, boy," Q says dryly. "I'm afraid I'm more of a cat person; there’s less training necessary."

James huffs out a laugh, mostly out of relief. He starts moving again. "I noticed. How are Rayleigh and Morgana?"

"They're as spoiled as ever." The fondness, sweet like sunshine, is apparent in Q's voice, and James wants to stretch out and bask in it like one of Q's cats. "Morgana almost clawed up my sofa yesterday. It was dreadful."

"I imagine you deserved it."

"Nonsense. I didn't even withhold snacks from the spoiled beast. Did you, perchance, get a glimpse of your captor's face or any sort of landmark?"

"No. Sorry." Bond takes a second to catch his breath after the one-hundredth push-up and then goes right back at it. "Still no luck?"

"I'm not a miracle worker, 007, and Syria isn't nearly as small as you seem to think it is. Have some patience for once in your life."

"I find that offensive," James informs Q. "I have great patience."

Q snorts. "I very much doubt that, but we'll agree to disagree. Are you tired out enough to go back to sleep?"

Bond refuses to show his surprise on his face, even though there is no one here to see it. He didn't think Q was listening to his breathing. "I can try," he says, "but then I'll be keyed up tomorrow."

Q hums. "Let's not risk it then. One moment, please." The line goes silent, and the first creeping tendrils of unease shiver through Bond’s blood, threatening to close around his rapidly pounding heart. Now that he's paying attention, the sheer lack he’s been doing his best to deny seems overwhelming, spilling into his thoughts like misbehaving ink -

"007." M's crisp voice isn't so much of a comfort as it is a distraction and a mild surprise.

Bond discreetly takes a deep breath before answering. "Sir."

"Tanner has been informed that the CIA were originally investigating this terrorist organisation, and it's highly likely that your kidnappers don't actually know you're MI6, just some poor sod in one of the lower branches of the CIA. If they knew who you were, they would be much more...hands-on."

"Wonderful," Bond drawls. He supposes he should be glad they don't think he's worthy of more brutal torture, but really, he's just annoyed. "Shall I take this to mean no one will mourn for these chaps if they happen to die when I get out of here?"

"Feel free," M says. "Just don't set anything on fire. Q, how are we doing?"

"R's systematically eliminating the places 007 can't be, and I'm searching for the most optimal spots to hide a terrorist organisation's headquarters," Q reports, voice coming in faint and remote. "They're clever, but their activities have churned up some waves and we're tracking that."

"Good. Keep at it. 007, I look forward to seeing your report on my desk when you get back," M hints, none too subtly, and then is gone.

Q, James discovers, is bloody fantastic when he's not trying to block Bond out or freeze 007 into an icicle through the power of his glare alone. They share the same sense of dry, mildly sarcastic humour, and once they get going, James finds himself losing track of time without caring, falling into the easy push and pull that has always lived and sang between them.

It's odd, because it's not as if they are abruptly sharing their deepest, darkest secrets with each other. No, it's the meaningless snark that comes without effort that fills up the silence, holds back the devastating darkness.

Q only goes off the comms once, somewhere around fourteen hundred. To be honest, were Q not updating Bond every time an hour goes by, he would have been lost, his own finely honed sense of time giving up in the nothingness that surrounds him.

"Enjoying your vacation, Bond?" Moneypenny's laughing voice comes on, and Bond's grin, which faltered when Q told him he was ducking out for a bit, returns.

"Could be better. Could be worse."

"I'm sure. Aren't you lucky, though, having Q all to yourself now?" she teases slyly.

Bond chuckles and goes along with it, although he's long since stopped thinking about Q in a purely romantic context during the past five hours. He's become much more important than a potential one-night stand. A safeguard, perhaps, a tether to sanity.

"Somehow, I think that I could come up with healthier ways to do so, Miss Moneypenny."

"Now, where's the fun in that? I thought you were a lover of excitement and all that." There's the sound of papers being shuffled, which is a bit jarring after hearing nothing but Q's voice and the click-clack of typing, but Bond welcomes the interlude.

"Tsk, tsk. What are they teaching you these days? I thought you’d already know that the most important rule of seduction is knowing what your partner wants. And Q most definitely does not have a fondness for field work."

Strangely enough, Bond doesn't think he'd be very happy if Q were to be sent out into the field either. The thought of Q in a situation like the one 007 is in at the moment is bone-chilling. Better for Q to stay safely within Q-Branch, controlling the world through his laptop.

"Speaking of Q," Moneypenny says, and her voice is serious now, intent, "you may have taken a nice little nap, but Q hasn't slept in more than twenty hours. He's surviving on tea and spite right now, so be gentle, okay?"

Bond frowns, calculations flying through his mind. "That means he hasn't stopped working since I was first taken," he says, stunned.

"Exactly. It's taking half of Q-Branch to force him to eat something at the moment, and the only reason he's complying somewhat is because I'm here holding the fort. Be an arse, James Bond, and I'll bury you in paperwork the minute you get back, got it?" Moneypenny doesn't raise her voice, but he doesn't doubt her threat for a second.

"Should I be flattered by your faith that I'll survive this?" he says, running on autopilot while his mind tries to puzzle out this new development.

Moneypenny scoffs. "Don't be ridiculous. You survived me shooting you off a train. Besides, Q would never settle for anything less than you coming back home in one piece, although I think he's given up on the equipment for this mission."

Before Bond can respond, she's talking again, "Time for me to go. Hang on in there, Bond. I'll give you more tips on how to woo Quartermasters when you're in Medical."

There's the clacking of heels on smooth floor, a shuffle of clothing, and then, Q's back on the line again, the posh sound of his voice an unspeakable comfort. "007?"

"Here," James says, resting his chin on his bent knee. He doesn't understand Q at all. "Did you have a good lunch?"

"I see Moneypants was tattling," Q observes, rueful but not upset. "Yes, I had a grilled cheese sandwich. Happy?"

"Boring. You should let me introduce you to genuine Italian pasta. It's an eye-opener."

"Is that so."

"Well, if you'd prefer Chinese..."

Bond knew it was coming, but when Q says, "It's twenty hundred, 007. Get some sleep," it's still a bit of a shock, like feeling cold water close over his head even though he was anticipating the frigidity of it after diving off a building and falling towards an icy winter lake.

He's an agent, though, appreciates the pragmatism of the suggestion, even if he doesn't like it. He takes his time replying, trying to find some comfortable position on the unyielding concrete. Even though he tends to run hot, the cold threatens to seep through the thin white t-shirt and sweatpants he was given to wear.

"Goodnight, Q," James murmurs, closing his eyes though it makes no difference in the lighting. For some reason, after the day he's had, hours of doing nothing but exercising and listening to that voice, this farewell seems different than the ones before. Warmer, more...intimate.

(James is not accustomed to thinking of intimacy in any other terms but sex and even that is only on his targets’ side, never his own. He associates the word with graceful gondolas and hazy sunshine, the gentle rock of a boat and red lips, and perhaps that is why he shies away instinctively.)

"Goodnight, 007," comes the expected response, tone gentle and even, much like what he heard Q give 004 way back then, except kinder, perhaps, with a hint of affection hidden within that ever-present professionalism, and it makes something in James purr and curl up into a contented ball.

Bond tries to go to sleep, he really does. He deepens his breathing, relaxes every muscle he can in his body, one by one, meditates, and thinks of nothing, or tries to. Here, he can almost pretend he's back in his flat at England.

However, the hardness underneath him is all wrong. There are no patterns dancing across his ceiling from the street lamps and the moon and her stars. Although he concentrates, he can't pick up on the persistent drone of cars, only the maddening thump of his own heart.

Thump. He's alone. Thu-Thump. There is no one else here. Thu-Thump. There is nothing else here. Thu-Thu-Thump. He is alone.

Bond inhales. Opens his eyes uselessly. Even his training cannot overcome this hollowness. "Q?"

"I'm here." Calm, steady. James' heartbeat starts to slow down. "What do you need, 007?"

It's a completely legitimate prompt, could be something out of a handbook they toss to new handlers. But the inherent generosity in the often-heard words threatens to take James' breath away. It's been a very long time since someone would just give him what he wanted if he asked, no strings attached.

"'s too quiet," James manages at last. "I can't sleep."

A thoughtful hum and then the usual sounds of typing. Half a minute later, the melodic, soulful notes of blues tickle his ear.


James closes his eyes and smiles through a yawn. "...yeah. Thanks, Q."

"My pleasure," Q whispers, low and sweet, and James sleeps, dreamless.

Bond wakes up on the third day of his captivity to the earsplitting noise of a rusty old panel in the door being shoved open and piercing light spilling across his protesting eyes. He throws up a hand to shield himself from the agonising brightness and hears an ugly laugh, masculine and rough.

The sheer amount of stimulation is overwhelming.

"Ready to talk yet?"

"Afraid not," 007 says, a cold smirk twisting his lips. "Come back later."

"Hmph. You’ll break soon enough." Before his eyes can adjust to the light, the panel is slammed back shut, and he is in darkness once again.

Bond waits a full two minutes to ensure the man is gone before saying softly, "Q?"

"Here." The answer comes swiftly, which means the Quartermaster was probably listening in. "Did you get an appearance?"

"No," Bond grunts. "Tell me you have something."

"We're closing in," Q confirms, weary but focused. "Give us a few more hours. Ten, at the very most, I promise you."

"Alright. It's not like I can do anything anyway." Bond sits up with a groan, already knowing it'll take ages for his back and neck to get straightened out again. "Time?"

"Eight hundred. Feel free to go back to sleep. I doubt they're going to check on you anymore today." The vigorous sounds of typing serve as background noise, but James frowns.

"Q? Have you gotten any sleep at all since I ended up here?" Because, combined, that's around forty hours without sleep, and that's insane for a boffin who's not even in the field or involved in a highly volatile situation that requires constant supervision.

And for him, for Bond, who Q appears to tolerate at best? Why?

"...I took a nap," Q says, sounding defensive even through the earpiece. "And I hardly think that's relevant right now. Focus on not going mad. I know what sensory deprivation can do to a psyche."

"You are worried about me," James says in that manner prophets the world over portray when having a brilliant epiphany. "Why, Q, you could have just said so."

"I worry about all of my agents, 007. You just happen to be the one that gets in trouble the most. And never, ever returns the equipment I spend all of my valuable time creating.”

"It's a talent, I know. Will you let me make it up to you later with curry?" The request is a wholly serious one on James' part, and even he is surprised by how free of suggestive undertones it is.

Q hesitates. "Maybe," he allows although his tone says 'no'. James is too tired, too empty to push, and he merely grunts in acknowledgement, sitting against the concrete and letting his head drop back against the cold wall with a muted thud.

Now that the adrenaline is draining away, he feels curiously like he's floating, not quite contained by the prison of his own skin. He's had this happen to him before, after particularly hard, brutal missions, when he's past the drink and the cigarettes and the shagging, drifting at sea with no lifeline. Gaze fixated at nothing at all but finding it difficult to move, James just...sits there, not sure if this is reality or a dream, if he's really, truly here or somewhere very far away, where even the silence and the cold and the dark can't touch him.

"...7! 007! Answer me!" The voice is sharp and faintly panicked, and he finds that disturbing on some level. That's not right, he thinks, this voice should be soft and smooth and serene. Not...upset, and definitely not upset because of...James.

The crushing numbness grips on hard, shakes and demands and refuses to let go without a fight, but James forces his mouth open and croaks out a "Q" and the frantic calls ease up.

It sounds like Q takes a deep breath, but when he's talking again, he's composed and authoritative once more. "Fell into a bit of a rut, did we? That's fine. You don't have to move or do anything but concentrate on my voice. Can you do that?"

"Yes," James replies obediently, still detached from the world but willing to answer Q.

"Describe what you're feeling at the moment." And then, muffled, "R, take over, please."

"Floating. Distant. Hard to focus," James recites, knowing he should move, do something, but frozen in place by the heaviness that weighs down on him, the lightness that keeps him lost in his own mind. There's a word for this, he knows - "Dissociating."

"Alright. Okay. Breathe in for me, would you, 007? Good, that's good, count of seven, here we, two, three, four, five, six, seven...okay, breathe out, count of, two, three, four, five, six, seven. In, seven. There's nothing wrong, it's just your mind trying to deal with the deprivation. Out, seven. Good. In, seven..."

Q's voice remains soothing, rhythmic, and James falls freely into the cadence of Q's directives until his breathing is stable and steady. From there, Q guides him through a series of gentle exercises that involve every part of his body, and James slowly sinks back into himself, reacquainting himself with this version of truth.

When Q goes quiet at last, James is wracked by a full-body shiver, still reeling a bit but far more centred than before. "Done this before, have you?" he asks, voice hoarse as if he's been screaming. "Or is this in the training they give to all handlers?"

"No," Q admits, the warmth in his tone curling around James like a phantom hug. "They should though."

"Then how did you...?"

"...let's call it instinct." Q goes on quickly before James can protest that "instincts" don't work like that, "Alright, I really need to focus on this algorithm I'm running, so occupy yourself with this: what comes down but never goes up?"

"A riddle, Q? I would have thought you were more into scrabble or sudoku." James smiles, however, bittersweet memories completing what Q started and bringing him back fully into this realm of existence. He wonders where his soulmate is now, how they're doing.

"I like scrabble. Sudoku's too easy. Focus, 007. I want the answer."

"Bossy," James comments but goes quiet, turning the riddle around and around his head. Over the comms, the white noise of rain intermingles with the ever-present click-clack of typing in a soothing blend, and he sighs, head lolling back. Q must have some sort of app or website on that simulates the sound of precipitation.

Isn't the age-old saying: what comes up must come down? What comes down but not up...down but not up...down but not up...

Time runs away from him, but when the answer comes to him at last, he groans, smiling ruefully. "Really, Q? Really?"

Q laughs softly, a bright, mesmerising sound James realises he hasn't heard before. He wants to hear it again. Again and again and again. "Well, 007? Do you have the solution?"

"It's rain, you little prat," James growls, annoyed at himself for not getting it earlier but still hopelessly charmed in an odd reversal of events.

"Well done," Q compliments dryly. "It's eleven hundred by the way. We're searching through an 80 km radius. Do you feel up to another riddle?"

James stretches absently, somewhat surprised to find out that three hours have gone by since he woke up. A shiver runs down his spine; it would be terribly easy to lose track of time in this place, minutes stretching to eras, years passing in seconds. So this is how people go insane.

"Go ahead," he says because distractions are the only thing left to him until Q tracks him down.

"I'm tall when I'm young. I'm short when I'm old. What am I?"

This is harder to figure out, although he can't decide if it's because the riddle is more difficult or because his mind is resisting his attempts to concentrate. Everything seems to be slowing down, suspending him in cold honey, leaving his thoughts sluggish and disordered.

Somewhere, sometime, Bond recognises this isn't good, but he can't bring himself to care.

As the aeons pass, beyond the rain he can still hear, beyond the typing, beyond his own limbs and the pounding of his heart, James feels isolated from the rest of the world, locked up in a vacuum. The darkness crowds closer, and he is suddenly so, so small in the scheme of the universe.

Abruptly, he wants Q back, isn't sure how long it's been since he heard that gorgeous voice over the white noise, and so he forces his mind to work at the riddle, picking it apart piece by piece. "...a candle."

"Good. That's good, 007." There is something exquisitely tender in Q's voice, as if he knows exactly how close James is to the edge. "Remember, in, seven, out, seven. The number should be familiar to you at least."

James manages a small smile but feels scraped out and vacant on the inside. "What time is it?" he whispers, curling his fingers into his palm, the small hurt of his fingernails digging into flesh there but not seeming to connect with his faraway conscious.

"Twelve hundred. We're almost there. Just a little bit longer now. Do you want another riddle or something else?" It should be galling that Q is handling him with baby gloves, but James is only relieved that Q isn't going away again, the gentleness in those tones assuaging a fraction of his loneliness.

"Something else. What are you doing right now, Q?"

"Assessing the blueprints and schematics of every building within the radius we've established," Q says promptly, followed by what sounds like a long sip of tea - Earl Grey, if James had to guess. "I've already eliminated seventy-five percent, so we should be clear within the next four hours."

"Four hours, huh?" Q was right; to search the whole of Syria must be more than a little intimidating. "Are you sure you don't want me to repay you with dinner? I swear I won't bite." Raw as he is, the flirting falls a tad flatter than usual, but Q only snorts.

"Never mind that, 007. What do you know about Greek Mythology?"

James quirks an eyebrow although Q cannot see him, attention caught. "Oh, more than enough, I think."

When the rescue team shoots through the front doors five hours later, when the terrorists are all either captured or killed in an immense shoot-out, when CIA and MI6 agents pour into the building, James and Q are debating the creativity of Hera's retributions.

"She forced her husband to turn his mistress into a cow," Q insists. "A cow. Say what you want about how appropriate that punishment would be today, but it was more than a bit of a new trend for the Ancient Greeks. People normally didn't go around being turned into cows."

"Come on, Q, she's a goddess," James disdains. "She could have done so much better. That lovely widow from Berlin; now she knew how to make her lover regret cheating on her. Threw his mistress' decapitated head at him like a football."

"And the time she tricked Zeus into killing off his mistress himself?"

"Unoriginal. Margaret from California forced her ex-husband to admit to his affair, dump the mistress, and beg forgiveness at the most important party of his life. His boss and coworkers were there. Parents, too, I think. I have never seen a man so embarrassed."

"She was pregnan - excuse me for a moment." There is a short pause while James tries not to squirm at the sudden renewal of the silence. "That was 004; she's nearing your position. She says she'll be knocking on every door she comes across. Answer in Code 29B."

"Got it," 007 answers, standing up immediately. Thanks to the constant stretching, he isn't numb, his muscles just fine. Feeling his way across his prison, he pauses when his questing fingers meet the outline of the door. Turning, he leans against the wall right next to it and breathes slowly and carefully.

Instinctively, James knows that when he is out, when he is back in MI6, being beleaguered by Psych and Medical, this will end, whatever this is. Be it the effortless banter, the unusual openness, the lack of barriers and aloofness and professional distance, it will all melt away as if it never was.

It's almost enough to make him want to stay here, where the only thing he knows is Q's voice, now as familiar as James' own. "Q?" he asks, wanting to know why, why Q won't let them be something more, something magnificent.

"Yes?" Like always, Q's tone comes across even and mostly indecipherable, but he thinks he hears a strain of regret, as if Q, too, doesn't want this to end. That only intensifies his desire to get to the bottom of this undeniable grudge.

They could be so good together, and despite all of his reservations, despite every last death that has haunted him, despite the sky-high, thorned and bloodied walls around his heart,  James wants.

He opens his mouth, but the knock comes on the door, jarring and startling, and the moment is gone. Q is forced off the comms, R takes over, and Marian arches an eyebrow at Bond, hand on hip. “Why, hello there, handsome.”

007 is back on a plane to England approximately three hours after he set his temporary prison on fire and burned it to the ground. 004 helped, a wicked smile on her lips and laughter on her tongue, careless disregard for the orders they were disobeying.

They're creatures created of the same mould, the Double-Ohs, and they thrive in hell and war.

The medical team wanted to keep him in Syria for a while more, but he isn't physically injured, isn't so much as bruised, and they didn't have any grounds to hold him. Psych will be a different story, but for now, Bond is free to leave for brighter pastures.

Although he isn't injured, Bond's lovely time with his captors remains with him in every throb of his head. Even the steady hum of the plane engine and the low murmurs from the other passengers are a shrieking cacophony to his sensitive hearing, the bright lights from above sharp needle pricks through his eyeballs despite the dark sunglasses he wears.

004, no stranger to sensory deprivation herself, found the softest cotton shirt and sweatpants she could for him, the material of his usual suits too irritating for his current sense of touch, but still, he feels like the world is burning down around his ears, too much, too much.

James finds himself longing for something familiar. Comforting. As if in response, a balmy warmth flares on his forearm, like sitting by a fireplace after a long, satisfying ski, like a lover's embrace after too much time and distance. He stiffens instinctively, but it doesn't hurt, only washes over his heightened senses gently.

He glances around discreetly to be certain no one is watching him before drawing his sleeve back, casual as can be. As he half-expected, half-hoped, black words are appearing slowly on his skin. He watches, fascinated but confused; this has never happened before. Is this some new aspect of the soulmate rules the scientists still cannot agree on?

“Home is where one starts from." - T. S. Elliot

Home. Such a strange concept, he thinks, swirling the glass of water in his hand like it's vodka. He supposes he should be concerned about more evidence that his soulmate is keeping an eye on him, but he's too bloody tired to. Home.

To be honest, James doesn't think he's had a home for a very long time. The flat in London is just that: a flat. MI6 is his job. Before, he thought Vesper could be home. When she was gone, he still had M, who was a foothold if not a home.

Now, home is an abstraction, not a place. Home is somewhere in London, he knows, meandering down this street and that, but never settling, like a stray alley cat with teeth and claws and a wariness of kindness.

Above, soft strains of blues start playing, and the flight attendants nearby exchange startled looks. James relaxes into his seat, the faintest hints of a smile on his lips despite everything. The lights above dim gradually, and the night sky outside is beautiful.

James dozes, secure in the knowledge he's being watched over. It's not necessary by any means, but it feels...nice. Surely, if his Quartermaster is happier keeping an eye on the agent he kept sane for three, almost four days, then who is he to argue with that?

"So, I hear you're driving Psych crazy again." Moneypenny catches up to him at the front door, the click-clack of her stilettos on the hard floor worsening Bond's headache although he doesn't show it.

Bond slows down in concession to her shorter stride but doesn't stop walking. His plane touched down on English soil thirty minutes after midnight, and after a brief, cursory visit to Medical, he was, indeed, forced to undergo a psych examination. "Did you expect anything less?"

"No, but I do wish you would stop trying to give M an aneurysm. If he goes down, so will my salary. Q's on a five-day mandatory leave, by the way. Looked like he was going to have to be carried to Medical after staying awake for almost ninety hours with only three three-hour naps in-between." Moneypenny's smile is impish, the non-sequitur not the least bit subtle.

"I know," Bond says dryly. "It was the first thing Psych told me. When Tanner came down, he opened our conversation with that, too. Should I expect M to spare a minute or two in the middle of his inevitable lecture to tell me the same as well?"

He refuses to admit, even in the privacy of his own mind, that he was wondering about the absence of snarky, mysterious boffins in the vicinity before his psychologist informed him.

Moneypenny laughs and hands him a piece of paper. "Five-day mandatory leave for you, too," she says. "Go home, Bond. MI6 will still be here when you come back."

Bond goes to his flat and breaks out the good scotch, expensive even by his standards. That edge of painful sensitivity is starting to fade, and he pushes through the rest of it with all of the dogged determination that has kept him alive to this point despite the world's attempts to kill him.

He chokes down two glassfuls and collapses on his bed, every last one of his security systems on. Bond sleeps the sleep of the dead, exhausted and worn-down, and wakes up with not a clue as to what time it is, a far cry from his usual impeccable internal clock.

He thinks he should get up and do something. He doesn’t move. Instead, Bond lies on his bed and stares up at the blank ceiling, the silence in itself a monstrous thing threatening to devour him. He can’t quite bring himself to care.

Time washes over him, away from him. It’s a familiar experience by now. His mind tunes in, tunes out, tunes in, over and over and over again, but every time he focuses once more, only the white ceiling greets him. He wonders what he was hoping for.

Nothing. Nothing. Surely he knows better than to hope by now.

When he rolls out of bed at last, his watch says that it’s six in the evening. Like a robot, James goes through the motions: taking a shower, putting on a suit, strutting out the door in search of something, anything, to ease the cold emptiness that continues to taunt him.

The one upside of the use of sensory deprivation as a torture device, he thinks sardonically, is the lack of injuries and thus the lack of necessary break-outs from Medical. Even that might be better than this nothingness though. 

James wanders into a bar and sits in the corner for three hours, nursing his martini. He smiles at a beautiful brunette and shags her senseless when she takes him back home. After putting himself back to rights, he stumbles home and promptly falls asleep.

He dreams of darkness, suffocating, maddening darkness, only as beautiful as it is terrifying. He dreams of the sea, endless and magnificent, his eternal love, his heart’s murky grave. He dreams of silence, of falling, of drifting around aimlessly without his anchor.

James wakes up at noon the next day and does it all over again.

On the third day, he jerks out of a nightmare at six in the morning and goes for a run. The wind cuts into his cheeks as he sprints past the familiar buildings of London, the steady pump of his heart loud in his ears. He jumps over rails, flips over walls, and runs.

It’s the most alive he’s felt since he burned his jail to the ground.

James goes home and starts unpacking. He’s ten minutes in when the inanity of it catches up to him. There’s no point in inconveniencing himself or the moving crew. Either someone’s going to find this flat and bomb the hell out of it or someone’s going to find him and do the same.

Knowing himself, knowing Q, the latter option seems most likely. Nonetheless, there’s absolutely no reason to put effort into unpacking.

James pours himself a glass of wine and settles down in front of the telly for a long night, lighting up a cigarette. He ends up falling asleep on his sofa, dreams restless and filled with blood.

"It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop." - Confucius

James goes for a run at four in the morning on his fourth day of leave and takes a shower when he gets back home. Instead of ordering take-out, he wastes almost an hour figuring out how his kitchen works and cooking a simple breakfast.

By now, his military training has come back to haunt him. Keep moving, his old trainers shout, keep running, don’t ever stop, you’re wasting daylight, sailor! The room, the empty room next to his bedroom, is soundproof and padded, and he hangs a punching bag from the hook that was already there.

James boxed in Fettes, long before he studied the many other forms of martial arts he’s versed in. It's almost nostalgic now. Today, he finds his gloves, slides into the correct form, and just wrecks the punching bag until sweat is running down his skin and the violence that churns relentlessly in his mind ceases momentarily.

He takes a shower once more and eats the leftovers of his breakfast for lunch. The silence is starting to echo in his ears once more, a constant, shrill ringing that threatens to give him a headache, so he settles himself on the couch with some rum and the newest tablet from Q-Branch, sleek and fast and quiet.

Q handed it to James himself, merely two weeks ago, although it seems much longer. He wonders what the boffin is doing right now but rapidly derails his thoughts before he starts wandering down that well-worn path again.

There are already several sites bookmarked, detailing new developments in technology and terrorism, and he easily loses himself in what guns villains are using today, where their minions are coming from, the lesser-known details of guerrilla warfare…

Drowned. Countless articles later, James physically jerks when that word crosses his path, suddenly stricken. His rum is all gone, and there's not enough air getting into his lungs. He looks at the date at the top of the screen, thinks of storm blue eyes and that red, red dress.

Fuck it, he thinks and gets up to grab the scotch.

"I forgot," James slurs the instant Q opens his door.

Q observes him for a long moment, blank-faced.

James knows why he’s not surprised, at least - the conspicuous cameras in the upper corners of the walls and the other features of Q’s security system must have alerted him to the identity of his visitor - but he can find nothing else, and it almost makes him uneasy of his welcome.

“I forgot,” James repeats, softer this time. From behind Q, there is a familiar meow.

Q sighs through his nose and steps aside. James stumbles inside, not yet smashed enough to trip over his own feet and faceplant into the floor although he was in the process of getting there when the silence finally became too much.

Q’s apartment hasn’t changed much, still all barely controlled chaos. Morgana and Rayleigh waste no time greeting James with purrs and nuzzles, and when he collapses on the sofa, surprisingly devoid of random trinkets, they leap up and settle down next to him.

It helps. A little. He pets them and stares blearily at the bookshelf. Behind the familiar buzz of intoxication, he’s...tired. So tired.

James barely has time to register Q’s absence before Q is in front of him again, pressing a cup of water into his still rock-steady hands. James doesn’t want water, he wants more alcohol, but he drinks the water anyway.

Q sits down on the sofa, Rayleigh between them. He’s quiet until James finishes the cup and then Q takes it away from him and says, “What did you forget?”

“Vesper,” James says, unthinking, and doesn’t see Q flinch minutely. The second the name falls off his tongue, James wonders what’s wrong with him; even completely and utterly drunk off his ass, whether to M or to the parasitic psychologists, he’s never spoken of Vesper in detail. But now, it’s like a dam has broken, and more words are flowing out of his mouth. “I - she - we broke. Tomorrow. Six years ago.”

Q says nothing.

“She was beautiful. And clever. So clever. Not afraid. Of me.” James laughs raggedly. “She was never afraid of standing up to me. Even. Even right before the end. And what a bloody end that was. God, why am I telling you this?”

Q says nothing still but gently shoos Rayleigh off the sofa. James wishes he would say something, he’s missed that voice, oh has he missed that voice, but then there’s a hand sliding around his nape to cup the side of his neck.

James shudders, head lolling back.

When Q draws him down to rest his head on his lap, James doesn't resist. He blinks up at Q, whose face remains unreadable with the exception of his green, green eyes, soft with kindness and something terribly, awfully like sorrow.

James frowns, reaches up to touch his fingers lightly to Q’s cheek. He doesn’t want Q to be sad. “After she left,” he whispers, “everyone else left, too. My fault, ‘course. Mathis...I got revenge for him. But Fields - she was an innocent. Camille was right to not get involved with me.”

He pauses, smiles humorlessly. “But you already know that, don’t you?” James lets his hand fall back down, listless and not caring. “You read my file, you know everything ‘bout me.”

“No,” Q says evenly, running his fingers through James’ hair, and it’s a relief, it makes something in him click and unlock. “I don’t.”

And he remembers -  

"She's gone," James mumbles into Q's shoulder, hands flung around his waist. He clings like he's adrift at sea and Q is the lifeboat, confused and hurt in equal measure. "She's gone."

Q merely hums, breath hot on his ear. Something in the way he holds onto James just as desperately seems to suggest he needs this, too. By all rights, James should be squishing him, but he hasn't complained once.  

"It's my fault." There is something nearly childlike in the whispered condemnation.

Q is quiet for a while, and James knows he agrees. But then he asks, "Is it my fault, too?"

James looks up at Q, frowning, bewilderment cutting through his grief. "No, I...why would you say that?"

"I let Silva into our systems." Fingers pet James' nape absently while the other hand draws small circles on his back. "I let him escape to hurt M."

James shakes his head and reburies his head in Q's collarbone. "Not your fault."

"Then not your fault either."

"That's not it works."

"Yes, it is."

James doesn't want to argue. "Mmkay," he says and closes his eyes. Q smells strangely like home and comfort, and when he falls asleep, it’s with the sound of Q’s heartbeat echoing in his dreams.

James...stares. “We’ve done this before.”

Q doesn’t try and deny it. “Yes.”

James groans, brow furrowing. “I don’t understand,” he says, a tad helplessly.

“Don’t understand what?”

He doesn’t understand why his instincts seem to automatically categorise Q as a non-threat. He doesn’t understand why he goes to Q when he’s dead drunk and vulnerable and should know better. He doesn’t understand why his secrets can’t stay secrets around Q.

James doesn’t understand why his trust in Q is so absolute when Q says one thing but does another, when Q blows hot and cold with no warning, when Q is his Quartermaster and James is 007, and as Silva so nicely demonstrated, MI6 has no compunctions about expendable assets.

“You,” he replies at last because that’s the easiest response. And then, his brain shorts out and his mouth continues on with, “Me. Us.”

Q smiles, wryly and tinged with something James can’t comprehend, almost like irony or self-mockery. “There is no ‘us’,” he says but his voice is soft, gentle. “I have no interest in becoming a one-night stand, Bond.”

Not ‘007’, he notes hazily and wonders why. “I don’t want you to be a one-night stand.” James throws away his one-night stands, and he doesn’t want Q thrown out of his life.

“Then what do you want?”

James just shrugs and burrows deeper into Q’s cardigan, closing his eyes. He’s warm and comfortable, safe and content, and he wants to go to sleep now.

Q won't let him. “Bond. What do you want from me?

Huffing, he forces himself awake a little and thinks about it. He wants Q to stay, not go away like M and Vesper and everyone else. And since Q refuses to be tied to James with sex… “Be my friend.”

Q is silent for a long time but guides James off the sofa and into his bedroom, tucking him in and then sitting on the edge, watching. James steadily dozes off, lulled by the tea and citrus scent from the bedsheets, too tired to worry about the implications of his request.

At last, dimly, in the floating darkness, James hears Q whisper, “Okay,” and brush a kiss over his forehead.

That doesn’t seem like a very friend-like gesture but then, what does he know?

The third step in any successful mission is dealing with the aftermath.

It’s almost like a message from beyond, Q thinks wistfully as he strokes James’ hair, a touch his soulmate would doubtlessly refute violently were Q any other, were this situation any better. Q has failed at being a mere colleague, acquaintance, and so, he must become a friend.

It’s almost cruel, the things James says, does, when he’s drunk and his instincts can fully come to the forefront, the leash of his wariness and training slackened. Of course, it’s not James’ fault. He doesn’t know.

Because Q doesn’t want James to know. Because James can’t know.

“Friends,” Q tells himself. “Only friends. I can do that.”

Chapter Text

007 has a license to kill, and oddly enough, that has never let him sleep soundly.

He’s accustomed to the fast life. All Double-Ohs live extravagantly and desperately, for their job pays well in money and in death. They deal out both in fair amounts to others and one day, they all know, in their heart of hearts, the same will be doled out to them.

James Bond may have the nine lives of a cat, but he has certainly not gotten where he is by being stupid. Reckless on occasion, perhaps, but not stupid. While sleep can have more value than gold at times, it also brings about a sitting-duck feeling that all agents despise.

These days, he rarely even needs the training the Navy and then MI6 pounded into his skull to wake up in the span of a finger snap, silently and without even the flicker of an eyelash to give him away. The nightmares that haunt him, of fire and of water, of last words whispered and mouthed, of wintry eyes and red dresses, of ghosts and blood and death, are more than sufficient.

Ironically, on this morning, enclosed in warmth and comfort, an odd contentedness clouding his mind, the world fuzzy and sweet around him, this is what jolts James awake. For the first time in years, reality embraces him with a gentleness he hasn’t been treated to since childhood, and it’s an utter shock to his system once his mind catches up with the situation.

How long has it been since he felt this sense of easy leisure, as if 007 is a bloody ordinary man lazing around in bed on a Sunday morning? How long has it been since he felt safe and secure enough to surface out of sleep in gradual, hazy interludes?

Which is stupid, is what it is, because who protects a Double-Oh? No one. Double-Ohs are the ones who protect others, and really, it’s tried and true that James Bond is rubbish at that, no matter who it happens to be.

No. No, there must be something wrong with him, with the situation. Bond feigns sleep and concentrates on his hearing, discreetly evaluating his status at the same time. No injuries, although he’s almost painfully thirsty and rather dizzy. A strange, new drug, perhaps.

After about a minute of pure silence, a meow sounds about a metre away.

Everything clicks in a moment, and James groans faintly as the memories from last night finally work their way past the hangover.

Buggering fuck.

Abruptly, he is stricken with the sudden desire to bolt right out the window; it’s worked well for him in the past, guns, daggers, and scorned women aside. The only thing that stops him is the knowledge that Q is his Quartermaster, and Bond cannot - doesn’t even want to - avoid him forever, even with his unneeded secrets now clouding up their formerly stabilising relationship.

That, and Q’s security system would probably electrocute him, and 007 would honestly prefer not to go out flailing on the rug like a fish out of water.

Sighing, James is entirely unsurprised to open his eyes to a familiar unremarkable white ceiling. He’s tangled in blankets that now smell a tantalising mixture of Earl Grey and James’ cologne, and Morgana stands primly in the doorway, looking highly unimpressed.

Upon seeing that he’s awake, she flicks him a judgemental look.

He scowls, propping himself up on his elbows and noting to his discomfort that there’s a glass of water, a bottle of paracetamol, and a taser on the bedside table. Again. Fuck, it’s been awhile since he last screwed up so badly. Even the torture in Syria came of better decisions than this.

“Oh, shut up. Don’t act like you could have done better,” James grumbles, downing the paracetamol and draining the glass.

Morgana stares flatly, eyes narrowed, tail lashing.

“Cats don’t have painful anniversaries,” he informs her waspishly. Flinging back the covers, James rolls his neck and makes a face at the horrid taste in his mouth. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

The blasted cat jumps onto the workbench table to pointedly look down her nose at him.

“Bloody cheek.” Of course Q’s cats have just as much sass and attitude as he does under that proper, professional exterior.

After taking care of his morning breath, Morgana watching him silently the whole time, James lets himself linger in the bedroom for another two minutes, agonising over the revelations of last night, his frankly mortifying request, the kinks in his armour he made so. Very. Obvious.

Christ, what possessed him to come to Q in the first place, much less talk about Vesper? Because although the memory of the entire evening is rather blurry in his mind, he remembers this vividly.

He doesn’t talk about Vesper. James Bond doesn’t ever talk about Vesper Lynd, not to anyone. Not even just Vesper, but Mathis and Fields and Camille, too.

James can’t make heads or tails of his behaviour when he’s drunk around Q. Or in general, really. He briefly considers going to Psych before deciding he’d rather get shot off a moving train again.

(It’s a shame he doesn’t. Any psychologist worth their salt would have identified the ‘problem’ as an effect of the well-known, instinctive, dangerous trust between soulmates within seconds.

Textbook case in espionage, really, the inability for ancient and mighty walls to stay put, for trembling, broken hearts to remain in the right hands.

Secrets never remain secrets for long.)

Besides that, even looking past the raw vulnerability of the question and the surprising answer, James knows, knows, that Q will never be his friend like Moneypenny or Tanner. Their dynamic is simply too different but -

This could be a step forward, regardless of what may be waiting for them at the end. This could be a blessing in disguise, however unplanned. No agent is one to overlook a gift horse in the mouth, not unless betrayal is in the air and their back is wide-open.

Certainly, James never sees any of his one-night stands again - not positively anyhow; more than a few have turned out to be assassins - and his record with lovers is even more bloodstained.

Mathis aside, Felix, Moneypenny, and Tanner, all people he would reluctantly consider friends although he wouldn’t admit so under torture, are still alive despite all odds and field risk, so that should mean something, right?  

Being a player in the world of espionage means knowing the landscape of your mind and personality and wants and dreams and needs and desires like the back of your hand. The triggers and the buttons and the weak points - James is much too familiar with himself and hates it.

But. He knows now that he would rather Q stay with him as his friend than try and push for anything more only to hold the boffin’s limp, cold body in his arms one day and mourn until he’s six feet under and nothing but bones.

Hasn’t this been his goal from the very start? A useful, friendly relationship with his Quartermaster? James isn’t certain what his feelings are doing by this point.

And what does Q think of all this?

Morgana meows impatiently when James remains frozen by the door and prowls off, taking no notice of the thoughts wreaking havoc in the famed 007’s already-besieged mind. Twitching at the realisation that he’s being an idiot and standing in place won’t solve anything, James follows.

Q is splayed over the sofa they occupied the night before, laptop safely on the table, right arm flung over his eyes, feet still bare, breathing deep and rhythmic. Rayleigh dozes at his side, wrapped tightly in a little ball. Morgana wastes no time in joining the duo.

In the fluttering lights of early morning, Q looks heartwrenchingly young and vulnerable, all tousled hair and soft lines, too gorgeous by far.

James watches over the boffin and his cats for a moment, fighting the bizarre urge to bundle Q up and hide him away from the world so willing to do him harm, or, at least, tuck a blanket around him.

It’s August. No one needs a bloody blanket.

Fuck, he needs to get a hold of himself. Why can’t this be as simple as the usual car chase followed by a shoot-out? Bond would be so much more comfortable if someone was pointing a gun at him.

Alas, from the sounds of the soft snoring, no can do.

Reluctantly leaving Q to sleep, James moves into the kitchen and with his customary stealth, begins to re-familiarize himself with the place. He can’t change what’s happened so he might as well salvage the situation. That’s what 007 does, after all.

Of course, most of the time, he’s trying to salvage a world on fire or a bloody hole in the ground but explosions are a necessary component of life.

The contents of Q’s kitchen are somewhat pathetic, even by James’ standards. There’s take-out in the fridge, instant ramen noodle cups in the pantry, and some bread on the counter. And of course, the machine that feeds the cats is stocked almost to the brim.

It’s good to know his Quartermaster has his priorities straight.

By the time Q begins to stir, James has the bread toasting and some water boiling. Not unsurprisingly, Q has more than enough tea despite lacking pretty much everything else. “Good morning,” he calls casually, finding both marmite and butter in the fridge.

There’s a sleepy, befuddled silence. “...007?”

James turns to look at Q over his shoulder, smirking playfully. It’s easy enough to pull on the role of morning-after charmer; he has quite a bit of experience in that department even if this doesn’t fit the bill completely. “Codenames between friends, Q?”

Q groans after a moment of recollection. “I knew you would be insufferable.”

James laughs and just like that, the faint tension in the air disappears, leaving behind an ease and intimacy that defies explanation and time. “Now, is that any way to talk to the one who made you breakfast?”

A shuffling sound and two complaining meows mark Q’s attempt to leave the sofa. “Insufferable,” he repeats and wanders off to the bathroom with the most ridiculous bedhead. It’s oddly endearing.

James carefully refrains from imagining a scenario where such a sight would be a common one.

By the time Q wanders back into his kitchen, dressed in one of his customary, hideous cardigans and tapping impatiently away on his phone, James has the toast on the table and a mug of tea ready, made precisely the way Q likes it.

“Ta,” Q mutters, still sounding half-asleep. He covers up a yawn, possibly dismantling a government eight thousand kilometres away at the same time. Rayleigh meows demandingly and flicks his ears before meandering over to James to be petted.

This appears to set the tone for the rest of breakfast. Q is evidently not exactly a morning person, and James is content enough to be preoccupied with the cats while Q dedicates a minuscule amount of his attention to making sure the food in his hand gets in his mouth.

He manages remarkably for someone whose eyes are either half-lidded or focused entirely on the screen of his phone.

When James gets up to grab the plates, Q graces him with a sweet, absent-minded smile that he’s never seen before, entirely devoid of barriers. Q seems to realise what he’s done seconds later, mind finally catching up with a lag time that’s in amusing contrast to his normal diamond-bright intellect, and freezes.

There’s a long, awkward moment as a multitude of emotions flash across Q’s face, his struggle with himself painted in delicate, clashing colours. James takes pity and pretends not to notice, moving to set the plates down in the sink instead.

As far as he knows, friendships that last aren’t built on their kind of tension. Best to ignore it, however it might make him itch right down to his soul.

Morgana pads into the kitchen behind him and rubs up against his left leg with a needling meow. James rolls his eyes and throws the clingy cat a treat before it has the chance to ruin his clothes further.

Q’s abandoned his phone for his laptop when James returns, not so subtly trying to avoid meeting Bond’s gaze. Silently walking around the sofa to lean over Q’s shoulder, James arches an eyebrow at the familiar MI6 network on the screen. “Aren’t you on leave?”

“What about it?” Q doesn’t startle although he couldn’t possibly have heard 007’s approach, his deft fingers flying over the keyboard to form lines of indecipherable code with impeccable command.

James smiles slyly and thinks, with a truly frightening amount of fondness, that, of course, Q, beneath his prim cardigans and sensible voice and professionalism, isn’t afraid of breaking the rules when they don’t suit him.

But then he already knows that, doesn’t he? Has known since Skyfall. “Nothing, Q. Nothing at all.”

Q flicks him an unreadable look but doesn’t ask him to leave, so James doesn’t. Collapsing gracefully on the sofa beside Q instead, James deliberately emits a placid and comfortable air - not hard to do in the circumstances - and turns on the telly.

Despite evidence to the contrary, it’s amazing what the power of suggestion can do. Q, unintentionally most likely, relaxes muscle by muscle, lulled by the white noise into lenient tolerance.

There’s nothing terribly worthwhile on, but when he flips to a channel with the new Doctor Who on, Q twitches, so James, who has seen Q continue coding without a hitch while lives are at stake, smirks softly and leaves it on.

He’s been meaning to catch up anyway.

Within half an hour, Q has set his laptop aside and curled up on the other end of the sofa, focused intensely on the screen as the Tenth Doctor runs around trying to resolve the newest crisis before the universe can get blown up. For the nth time that week.

James is grimly amused by the chaos. It’s always nice to see stakes higher than the ones he normally deals with and a man whose lives are worse than his.

While the cats alternate between stalking around and splaying themselves over their humans with purrs, Q remains purely devoted to the show. As if he’s a feline himself, he melts gradually into the cushions like he’s made of liquid.

He occasionally checks his phone but otherwise stays relaxed and pliant, a far cry from his usual professional behaviour. Right here, right now, there is only the vaguest hint of the Quartermaster, that lethal brilliance soothed into calm content, brisk demeanour blurring into languid enjoyment.

Only a fool would believe he’s an ounce less dangerous or formidable, of course, but this...this is certainly something. New.

In the end, James is the one who gets up and orders in some Chinese food from a good place he knows. Q hums a distracted thanks and replicates his feat from breakfast, paradoxically at ease and so wary, it’s clear he’s been hurt before.

Even with all the rot and cruelty James has witnessed in the world, he can’t comprehend why anyone would ever want to hurt Q.

Their Doctor Who marathon lasts well into the afternoon and then into the night. During the commercials, while Q occupies himself with his phone or his cats and the gentle thrumming quiet is filled with absentminded banter, James wonders at himself.

007 is not a man readily tamed. His vices tranquillize him to an extent, but when off-duty for too long, he’s been known to stir up all sorts of activity for an unimpressed MI5. Passive domesticity is hardly his area, and yet he is the farthest thing away from restless at the moment.

(Once, just once, James let himself be stroked into complacency by a smile that could outshine the sun and a passionate touch that brought to mind summer nights and the love of a bonfire. But Q so close is a shining beacon to the present, and James leaves her ghost be.)

When the time comes for him to leave, James is leaning against the arm of the sofa, the Italian pasta he ordered in for dinner still dancing across his tastebuds, feeling unbearably pampered by the day he’s had.

Two slender feet that don’t belong to him are pressed against the side of his abdomen. The sofa is much too small for two grown men, and propriety has long lost its fight against cosiness. His own feet are right by Q’s hip.

James isn’t quite sure when that happened, but he can’t bring himself to regret anything.

Q’s eyes are half-lidded, hand covering his third yawn in just as many minutes. He’s sleep-warm and right within arms-reach, looking so vulnerable, it makes James’ chest throb with bittersweet ache.

The moonlight turns him into a piece of art, and James is flying, crashing, wholly at peace with the world, burning as if he was soaked in gasoline, as slaphappy as a silly teenager on their first date -

James murmurs, “Thank you, Q,” and it isn’t until he gets back to his flat that he realises the silence has stopped ringing in his ears.

They don’t talk about what happened last night.

“Do bring your equipment back in one piece this time.”

“Of course, Q.”


“So cruel, Quartermaster.”

“Good luck.”

“Of course.”

"Life did not stop, and one had to live.” - War and Peace

007 blows up a terrorist organisation in Tehran after a long ski-chase and a minor avalanche and returns to Q-Branch only to be told by R that Q is down in R&D and Is Not To Be Disturbed on pain of malfunctioning gadgets and injured boffins, Q included.

For once, Bond decides to listen. He still escapes before she can tell him to go to Medical. It’s just a broken wrist, after all.

He leaves his souvenir - a splendidly-patterned scarf in red and black - and a box of peppermint bark on Q’s desk and doesn’t bother leaving a note or tampering with the security cameras. The minions know better. And Q will know either way.

When 007 reports to Mallory three hours late, there’s a suspicious tilt to the man’s head, but he doesn’t mention the rumours of his best Double-Oh agent and his Quartermaster that Moneypenny has whispered in his ear.

Doubtlessly because his concerns lean more towards the national side of things.

“There’s going to be,” M says, “a merge between MI5 and MI6 in less than five months. Behave yourself, 007.”

There have been whispers since Skyfall, of course, but the unholy meld, as Bond has come to think of it, has only become an official matter in the past few months. Personally, he isn’t at all enthused by it, but then, ‘old dog, new tricks,’ wasn’t it?

The tower, in his opinion, is just bloody unnecessary.

“I’ll do my best, sir. What are they calling it now?”

“The Joint Security Service, apparently. Bit ostentatious, but what can you do?”

Dr Watson’s blog is both marvellously entertaining and magnificently informative, Bond thinks as he takes a sip of expensive scotch. He’s on his way to Paris, and if Q is questioning his taste in travel literature, his earpiece has remained silent.

(This mission came a bit out of the blue for both of them, really. Bond had less than four hours of sleep before being called back into the field, and Q didn’t even have time to berate him for his lost equipment in-between handing him his case and frantically saving 001’s grateful arse.)

A Study in Pink, truly.

There’s certainly...something to it, reading about his former comrade’s descent into a mad, mad love in increasingly fond descriptions and a thousand subtle shifts in syntax. James can’t put his finger on it, the numberless facets of the courtship of John Watson and Sherlock Holmes.   

When Watson talks of late-night chases and ever-gruesome murders and a kill-shot waved away as an unsolved-mystery or self-defence, it almost feels familiar, bringing to mind rapid gunfire and explosions in the distance, the lashing heat of Afghanistan lingering in his veins.

Fast as death, violently chaotic, and more than suitable for an army doctor and his consulting detective.

But then Watson is trying and failing to conceal a deep fondness and affection behind exasperation in small little anecdotes about body parts in the freezer and a violin playing lullabies at midnight, and James can’t possibly imagine such a light-filled existence.

Slow as honey, serenely peaceful, and dropped crumbs from a soulmate romance straight out of the classics.  

007 closes his eyes and leans back in his seat, turning the tablet off. Above, the plane speakers play familiar blues.

“Thank you for the chocolate,” Q says nonchalantly as 007 runs down an uneven backstreet and back onto the main road, the soft glow of the lights dancing in the thin fog so the world seems magical and haunted at the same time. “It was delicious.”

Bond grunts, breath coming hard and fast, adrenaline placing everything in fast-forward and slow-motion simultaneously. “Not really the time, Q, but you’re welcome. Where is he?” His target is one of the leaders of a slave ring, and 007’s doing the world a favour, really.

“Coming up at you is an intersection. Take a left. And…now a right. Do please keep in mind that you’re not off the hook for all the tech you’ve managed to destroy this time around. I’m not susceptible to bribery.”

“Never considered it,” Bond claims and is only partially lying. Multitasking is one of his many talents, and if keeping Q happy will also get him favours, then there’s two birds with one pretty stone. “Happen to be partial to anything from Paris?”

“Intact equipment,” Q quips drily and then there’s an abrupt bite to his voice, and Bond knows, even before Q says, “Ten enemies fifteen metres ahead, spread out over a thirty metre distance. 007, it’s too foggy for me to get a proper read on them.”

“Noted.” Bond readies his gun and lets his footsteps soften until he’s a phantom with arctic blue eyes and death on his mind.

In the ensuing fight, 007 kills seven grunts, knocks out three, and manages to lose his earpiece in the Seine River.

...Q is going to be so pissed.

"Nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced.” - Keats

James, alternatively running away from and shooting at his target, has no idea what to make of this. Hence, he chooses to ignore it and shoot a hole through an utter bastard instead. The world’s been done a favour, really.  

When Bond trots into Q-Branch this time, he’s armed with a box of macarons and fifteen different bags of tea. He also has several make-shift stitches on his chest, dozens of colourful bruises painted on his skin, and two weeks off-grid under his belt.

Q is typing away at his desk, form much too tense. “Back so soon, 007?” he asks without turning around, casual tone strained.

Cameras, 007 assumes. Either that or a James-Bond detector. Sheer omnipotence might be pushing it a bit.

Bond hesitates but sits down on ‘his’ chair, uncomfortable but not willing to show it. He doesn’t know how to deal with this. It’s been so long since anyone was waiting for him to come ho -

“Afraid so.”

‘Did you miss me?’ lingers on his tongue, but he swallows it back, knowing better. “Mission accomplished.” After a chase across four states, three shoot-outs, two stolen cars, and one brief kidnapping, Bond misses his Aston Martin.

“Is my equipment still intact?” The tea in the scrabble mug is steaming, and Q still won’t turn and face him.

In answer, Bond stands up and places the souvenirs on his desk, too close for Q to ignore them. Up close, the circles under his glazed eyes are darker than ever, and there’s a paleness to his cheeks that’s ugly.

For me? James wants to ask, Really? Are you sure? Why all this for the likes of me?

“I’m in one piece.”

Colourless lips press together firmly, and rather than glance at his face, Q gives his battered suit a once-over before returning his attention to his computer. “Hardly. Be nice for Medical and check in with M, 007, or I’ll order a mandatory psych evaluation for you next Friday.”

“Cruel. At least eat a macaron first,” James barters, willing to bet a good sum of money that Q hasn’t eaten a proper meal in days. “Even you can’t survive on just tea, you know.”

Q rolls his eyes but reaches out and starts breaking open the macaron box. “Those,” he says, gesturing to the tea bags, “claim otherwise. And you’re not my mother, 007. Go. Shoo. I have work to do.”

But there’s a small curve to his lips now, and he’s wearing the scarf although it’s nowhere near cold enough for it to be necessary.

James smirks cheekily and saunters out, calling over his shoulder, “Exploding pen, Q.”

“In your dreams!”

James doesn’t tell Q about his dreams. The minions are already whispering amongst themselves, their eavesdropping not even the slightest bit subtle.

Friends, he reminds himself. They’re friends. Surely, this, that, is within the boundaries of friendship.

"There are plenty who regard a wall behind which something is happening as a very curious thing.” - The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Who are you, he wants to ask, what do you know? Are they afraid of a killer, is that why? Are they a bloody enemy of Queen and Country; is he meant to shoot them down in the end?

Stop. Christ, just stop this, he doesn’t want -

But he traces the elegant words, a bit shaky as if his soulmate’s hand was shaking, and can’t bear the thought of losing this.

James has been pushing. Whispering, asking, searching for the third Holmes brother. But he’s gotten nothing, and the only two venues open to him now are going directly to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson or shaking the system so much he gains an audience with Mycroft Holmes.

Instinctively, he knows that if he does either, the status quo will shift. The catalyst will spark and whether the outcome will be in his favour, in his soulmate’s favour, isn’t going to be his decision.

There’s a high chance he’ll lose to those odds, by his own hand or otherwise.

007 makes a career of hard choices and unbearable sacrifices. And still, James lies in his bed, fingers resting reverently on the ink on his skin as if afraid it’ll all disappear the second he loses contact.

Bond returns to Q-Branch bright and early three days later and walks in on Q delivering the mother of all dressing downs on 003, who looks appropriately shame-faced and very inappropriately wary for someone whose credit score hasn’t even been threatened yet.

Eyebrows raising, Bond crosses his arms and leans against the doorway, entertained and mildly disconcerted. There’s nothing quite like seeing an enormous, muscular man cowering before a slender boffin, but…

Q doesn’t even look angry, is the thing. His face is entirely impassive, his voice a sharp, clear scalpel with no mercy. He is eerily implacable, coolly ruthless, and remarkably skilled in tearing down inflated egos in a few well-chosen words.

James watches, torn helplessly between admiration and intrigue. He can definitely understand the sparkles in the gathered minion’s eyes as they watch their boss flay a Double-Oh alive without so much as a flinch:

Q’s glorious, combining the composure of a centuries-old glacier with the rapid-fire efficiency of cyber-destruction. He’s breathtaking, he’s formidable, and 007, for all that he burns so much more than 003, has never had that rage directed towards him.   

That’s. That could be interesting. Useful.

James swallows hard, mouth abruptly very dry.

“...and that’s quite enough out of you. I’ll see you in three days for your mission to Prague, 003, and I’m sure I’ve made my expectations more than clear enough for you. Do let me know if you need further clarification. Good day.” Q turns away, the dismissal evident.

It takes 003 a few minutes to pick his jaw off the ground and shove past 007, a particularly dazed look on his face. Bond has to admit, it’s possible his face might be doing the same thing. Taking a moment to gather his wits, he walks in with perhaps a touch less arrogance than usual.

“Ah, 007,” Q greets with a bland smile and hard eyes. “Come to wreck more of my equipment?”

“Is that what 003 made the unfortunate mistake of doing?”

“Sadly not. 003 made the mistake of threatening one of my employees in an excessive fit of temper and possessing the dubious nerve to attempt to intimidate me into procuring a grenade launcher for him. He has since learned better.”

Bond starts making plans to pay 003 a visit one of these nights.“Hell of a lesson,” he teases, expertly concealing his suddenly murderous thoughts.

Q blinks. Arches an eyebrow. “Are you implying you’re interested in learning? And here I thought you’d left the good classrooms of education behind a long time ago.”

“We never truly do, now do we? Not to worry, though, I don’t doubt that you’d make a marvellous teacher. You remind me of a feisty professor I once met in Cambodia. Quite brilliant, he was.”

“The chemistry professor who eventually ended up blowing up an entire shopping complex?” Q’s tone is sheer disbelief with an added side of vintage dryness, but there’s a smile lurking on the corners of his lips now.

“That’s the one.” Smirking, James leans his hip against the edge of Q’s desk, peripherally noting the slow scattering of the crowd of giggling, whispering minions with amusement. “Just as magnificent with martinis as he was with Molotov cocktails.”

“Is that where you got your obsession from?”

Obsession? Q, where do you get these strange ideas from?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just assume that’s where most of MI6’s budget is directed to instead of being put to actual good use.” The rigid line of his shoulders relaxing, Q settles into his chair and starts typing, ostensibly ignoring the agent looming over here.

James isn’t deterred. “The martinis I have are worth it. Have you ever had one?”

“I don’t drink on the job, 007.”

“Pity.” An interesting idea occurs to him. “You wouldn’t happen to be a lightweight, would you?” There are just so many fascinating possibilities to be had with that.

Q splutters for a long moment before throwing an adorably stroppy glare at Bond. “A lightweight? Is that the best you could come up with?”

“Well, I’ve hardly seen any evidence otherwise. Shall we break out the scotch?”

“I am working, 007, and unlike some people, I do have a solid work ethic. In fact, I seem to recall something about behaving while in Q-Branch. Are we re-negotiating? Do I need to call security?”

“Of course not,” James says, perfectly blameless. He promptly ruins it by adding, “As if they could do anything but squeak like mice and run in the opposite direction anyway.”

Mute, Q points at ‘his’ chair. James chuckles and smoothly obeys the unspoken order, settling in for a long, peaceful afternoon. He says nothing of the small smile that still lingers on those red, red lips.

When Q leaves at eighteen hundred, James goes with him. Intent eyes study him for a long, endless moment, but Q doesn’t comment or refuse. A few taps on his mobile and then there’s a taxi pulling up two blocks away from MI6.

The walk there is calm and eventless with meaningless banter and sarcastic comebacks filling up the air, the still-humid summer breeze tugging at their clothes and ruffling Q’s already messy hair.

James imagines the texture of that thick, curly hair to be akin to silk, so soft and heavy and cool, but he wouldn’t know, now would he?

James pays for the cab fee, so Q ends up calling in Mexican takeout. James lounges on the sofa like he owns it and picks through the crap telly to come upon an episode of Star Trek he’s never seen before.

“Shall I tell you the ending?” Q offers generously as he shuffles around his kitchen, pulling out drawers and retrieving plates.

“Shall I throw popcorn at you?” mimics James, eyebrows raised and the bag of warm popcorn in his lap.

“If you really want to pick it up from the floor, then go ahead.”

It slips out, playful and comfortable and relaxed as he is. “If you really wanted me on my knees, then all you had to do was ask.” James freezes, panic flaring in his chest and stifled just as quickly.


No, he doesn’t do this, he doesn’t make these kinds of mistakes. He knows flirting is off-limits; they don’t have that sort of a relationship; he’s just made a sodding mess of things. He’s bloody 007, and -

Forgive me, is on the tip of his tongue, and James swallows it back. He can’t remember the last time he apologised for anything. He can’t start now, not for Q; he can’t, he won’t be able to stop.

Q freezes, too, for the barest of seconds, but then, like Morgana’s graceful prowl away from the crime scene after she fell off the tabletop counter ten minutes ago but pretended nothing at all had happened, he’s plating up their food again, staring resolutely at their pasta.

“You need not be a masochist in my house, 007, when you can be one in the field and find far better success there,” he says, dry and even, and leans down to scratch Rayleigh under his chin.

James isn’t so sure. Out of all the people in the world, for all the megalomaniacs and terrorists and tyrants who want to kill him in slow, painful ways, he thinks that Q is the one who has the potential to hurt him the most, destroy him in ways beyond the flesh.

Just like she did.

Outside the windows, London winds down, although James knows better than most that her streets never rest.  

When Q settles down next to him, his shoulders are tense and curved inward like he’s trying to protect himself from a blow that hasn’t come, frustration in the creases of his forehead. James would think it’s him, but Q is close enough that he can feel his body heat.

James pretends he isn’t aware that Q is tense enough to snap. They don’t touch. It’s a breathtaking sort of torture, the sweetest kind, but gradually, gratifyingly, Q relaxes and becomes immersed in the show, as James knew he would.

And when even the London traffic has grown quiet, and they’re both ready to tuck in, Q shows James how to unfold the sofa into a bed and dumps clean blankets and pillows on him before wandering off with Morgana to brush his teeth and sleep in his actual bed for once.

James is stuck with Rayleigh, who makes himself useful by purring James to sleep.

There’s not the slightest hint of a nightmare.

“You’re spending quite a lot of time with Q,” Moneypenny says with a mischievous smile. It’s a bit of a surprise that she’s gone so long without prying, but they’ve all been busy with the merge. “How goes the courting?”

“Nonexistent.” Bond smirks and leans in, closer than necessary. “Are you sure you don’t want to grab a coffee with me, Miss Moneypenny?”

“Positive, you implacable flirt,” she refuses, playfully pushing him away with a hand on his chest. “And don’t think you’re getting off that easy, James. What happened? Surely Q didn’t turn you down.”

How are you so certain, Bond wants to ask but doesn’t. He won’t reveal such an acute vulnerability, not even to Moneypenny, who he is reasonably sure won’t betray him at the drop of a hat. “We’ve decided it’s better to be friends.” He smiles, inviting her to laugh with him.

She doesn’t take the bait. “You and Q friends?” The arch of her eyebrows is eloquent, as is the slight tilt of her head. But Moneypenny, above all, is careful with herself, with her dress and her actions and her words, so she says, “That’s a fantastic betting pool gone to waste then.”

Bond chuckles. “If you had only let me know earlier, I could have helped you win.”

“And risk Q erasing all my bank records? I’ll pass.”

“You’re like a bad rash,” Q complains when he opens the door on a Sunday afternoon to find James standing outside in a three-piece suit, hands in his pockets, but it’s fond, nearly indulgent. “Can I help you, 007?”

He may have a point, considering James stayed the night on Friday for Harry Potter, snuck out at five hundred on Saturday without waking Q, and is back already, but Bond considers the rules of society only when he feels like it, and he suspects Q isn’t too keen on them either.

Besides, if Q didn’t want him around, he could easily shoot lasers at Bond, or whatever other weapons his security system is packing.

James smirks charmingly, the ice-cold edge of his mood a deadly, bloodied weapon. “Nothing wrong with a proper visit,” he lies lightly, holding up a bottle of expensive red wine. “Why, busy?”

The truth is, of course, that he’s dangerous right now but would rather not go to MI6, stew in his silent, empty flat, or get himself drunk and shag a complete stranger who might stab him in the back.

That he’s flying on an adrenaline rush and will crash soon but doesn’t want to be alone, that he’s on a hair-trigger but would sooner turn into a seven-metre, scaly, grape-purple, millennia-old dinosaur than hurt Q.

But there’s no reason to burden Q with any of that.

Q frowns, gaze lingering on the blood stains on his white sleeve. A quick scan has him zeroing in on the slight tear in his right trouser hem and the shallow cut on his collarbone, meant to be hidden by his collar. “What have you been up to?” he asks sharply.

“Mugging gone wrong.” Responsible as his Quartermaster is, doubtlessly he’ll insist on taking care of the criminal gang Bond stumbled across rather than letting MI5 do their jobs. And after the week they’ve both had, Q deserves rest and recuperation, not more stress.

Granted, Q is a genius, so -

“That’ll show you to be arrogant,” Q chastises, stepping back to let James in. “You’re not actually invincible, you know. Do you need the first aid kit?”

So obviously he’ll believe James Bond, a world-class spy and known chronic liar, without a second of hesitation.

A bit baffled, James hesitantly walks into the living room, feeling like he’s waiting for the punchline or a conveniently placed taser on the ground. It can’t be that bloody easy. He knows he should be relieved or triumphant or amused, but lying to Q shouldn’t be this bloody easy.

It’s an advantage, he tells himself, just like knowing Q will break the rules for him, just like knowing Q favours him above all the rest of the agents. But the usual sense of cruel triumph is dull and hollow, a mere gnat to the giant vice of confused misery enclosed around his heart.


James looks up to see Q in the hallway that leads to his bedroom, the irritation on his face washed away in favour of concern. It takes him a moment to realise that he’s just been sitting on the sofa, frowning at Morgana, who stares back flatly.

Christ, that fucking cheeky cat.

“Did you hit your head?” Q inquires, squinting at him suspiciously. “I’m trained in basic first aid, but concussions do require Medical’s expertise, despite what all you stubborn agents believe.”

Shaken, James looks back at Q and wonders what Q’s doing to him. Wonders how he’s wrecking the very foundation of 007 with nothing more than his mere presence and that delightfully sweet smile.

But he deflects with his most suggestive smirk because that’s what he does and says, “And miss the chance to get your hands all over me? Not bloody likely.”

Q’s expression instantly flattens out to mirror Morgana’s. “Who says you’ll have that privilege?” he retorts tartly, stalking forward to throw the first-aid kit at him. It only seems to annoy him further when Bond catches the projectile with ease. “Take care of yourself.”

James widens his eyes in entreaty. “I would if I could, but I can’t quite reach my back like this and if these wounds aren’t treated, infection might settle in. Medical would be so displeased. I would be left to their cruelty for weeks.  Surely you can’t leave me to such a fate, Q.”

It’s all bullshit, of course, and Q’s face says he knows it. But he obliges with a grumble anyway, and despite his annoyance, his fingers are careful. Gentle.

The prowling, bloodthirsty monster beneath James’ skin sighs and lays down, hiding its teeth and claws once more. Purrs under the tender touches, adoring.

James just relaxes, all of his wounds taken care of. They order in some French take-out, and when the adrenaline rush has finally passed, Q pushes him towards the sofa and tells him to go to sleep so work can be done without constant disturbances.

He falls asleep to the familiar sound of keys clacking.  

On Wednesday, after spending the morning calling his contacts about the still-missing Mr Sciarra, James finds Q in the last place he would have expected the boffin: the shooting range. Safety gear firmly in place, Q shoots round after round into the target, textbook perfect stance and prototype gun.

James leans against the doorway and watches. Tastes the desire thick and sweet on his tongue.

Q has excellent aim. The head-shots are neat. Precise. The shots to the heart are even more so. His eyes are narrowed in concentration, fingers confident on the trigger. He’s easy with the gun, handling it with the familiarity of long-term lovers.

Competency, it must be admitted, has always been a particular weakness of James. Oh hell. He promised himself he wouldn’t, but. But.

Ejecting the magazine and flicking on the safety, Q places the gun on the table and removes his earmuffs. Then and only then does he turn to James with a mildly inquisitive look. “Can I help you, 007?”

James licks his lips unconsciously. “You could outshoot most of the senior agents.”

Q smirks, sly and amused. “Didn’t expect that now, did you?”

“No,” he admits, taking a step forward. Q is motionless, watching him with cunning eyes, and James wonders what he sees. He suspects there’s something hungry and predatory on his face; his skin feels too tight. Electric.

“This is beyond basic training.” It’s almost an accusation. James didn’t expect this, wasn’t anywhere near prepared, when he sauntered into Q-Branch looking for its overlord and was directed here by R.

“I’m the Quartermaster,” Q reminds him, crossing his arms casually. “All of the equipment that goes to you agents - and generally doesn’t come back  - passes through my hands. It would be remiss of me to not personally test and approve of the weaponry.”

James has to swallow back the first five responses that spring to mind, none of them work-appropriate. “So dedicated,” he says, and it’s only half-mocking.

There’s a reason the majority of the agents adore Q. There’s a reason the majority of the agents under Q’s care come back from their missions fucking alive.

“Are you here to patronise me or are you actually here for a reason?” Q asks, sharp, and that’s not right, James isn’t trying to patronise him, but he feels nearly out of control, off-balance, and the suave skin he normally pulls snugly over the predator underneath is stretched thin.

Even Q, it seems, is not entirely oblivious to the raw, dangerous energy that sparks in the air, his fight-or-flight instincts prickling at the way James has prowled half the length of the room to stand before him.

The flat line of his lips is wary, his shoulders rigid and tense.  

James falters. Starts to think past the scorching desire being pumped into his bloodstream with every beat of his heart.

Christ, what the fuck is he doing?

James takes a step back and attempts to frantically reign himself in, five minutes too late. He is familiar with lust, knows how it consumes and devours like hungry flame, is more than well aware of how to manage it in himself and others.

This, whatever the fuck this is, is entirely unfamiliar.

Because, God, dreams and fantasies and short moments of longing aside, his self-control is shredded to high hell, his blood is running hot, and he -

He still feels as if he’s losing his mind in the best way possible and almost can’t bring himself to care. As if surrendering would be the greatest adrenaline rush of his life, the luxury of burning in the roaring bonfire without any of the pain.

Until he’s nothing but ash and cinder and yet can’t help but want more.

Fuck . No. I can’t. I told myself I wouldn’t. Q, Q, Q, what are you doing to me?

Preoccupied with regaining control over himself, James doesn’t notice the tormented disappointment that flickers over Q’s face, the slow unravelling of anticipation in his body.

“How’s your hand-to-hand combat?” is James’ non-sequitur because he doesn’t want to go, can’t bear to go, and this is the first idea his beleaguered brain comes up with. Possibly because fighting and shagging are two sides of the same coin.

Q blinks, startled. “Passable. I’m not exactly preparing myself for the field.”

James’ feral grin is comparable to the tiger who has just decided what he wants for dinner even as he backs himself up to the doorway. “‘Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.’”

“Vince Lombardi?” Q identifies with disbelief.

James chuckles. “Pack up your things, Quartermaster. We have a sparring mat to get to.”

A thought finally occurs to Bond while he’s in New Delhi, and he could kick himself for not having considered it earlier. Nearly a year and a half knowing Q, and he’s never found out, never even speculated past that very first time he ended up in Q’s flat -


“Yes, 007?”

James hesitates, because Q has more than a few sore spots, and he’s found most of them by poking at it and then suffering the resulting cold shoulder. But now that the idea has occurred to him, it’s a disease under his skin, and he has to know.

“Your soulmate,” he starts and then trails off. James doesn’t know how to continue, doesn’t quite understand what he’s asking, what he hopes the answer will be.

There’s a minute of damning silence. The topic of soulmates itself is a bit of a touchy one, either a sign of great intimacy if shared or the equivalent of a crude joke about your mother or sister. Certainly not a common subject among coworkers or even, indeed, friends.

“Irrelevant,” Q says finally, cold and clipped.

Never let it up said that 007 can’t read in-between the lines. The sheer amount of relief behind his exhale is probably inappropriate. He can’t be fussed to analyse why.

“In that case, there’s a new Chinese restaurant opening on Lexington Street. Let’s have dinner,” he proposes casually as he saunters to the hotel room of his latest paramour.

“Oh for God’s sake - !” Q cuts the connection off, but not before James hears the exasperated smile.

They do end up going to the restaurant with R’s blessing when James comes back to find Q hasn’t left the branch in two days and hasn’t eaten a decent meal in the same amount of time, sleeping on the sofa in his seldom-used office.

After nudging Q into eating a few pieces of the jalebi he brought back from India purely to keep his blood sugar up by bribing him with the return of his earpiece, James gets him to dinner by waving his surprisingly still-intact gun around like the carrot on the stick.

Q is still grumbling about it when they’re shown to a two-person table with their menus. “The sheer bloody audacity of you, Bond, leveraging me with my own sodding equipment. I should send you out on economy, right next to screeching toddlers!”

He flips open his menu viciously and glares. James is reminded of a kitten with puffed up fur and a sullen look on its small face. It helps that this level of irritation is nowhere near what was directed at 003.

“You would never be so cruel. Besides, I’ve brought back two out of five this time. Doesn’t that deserve a celebration?” James takes five seconds to decide to order the roast pork slices, butterfly shrimp, and three spring rolls.

Not because he likes spring rolls, but because Q adores them and yet never orders enough for himself.

“If you would bring all of your equipment back like you should, then there would be no need,” Q grouches, only to smile politely at their waitress when she steps up hesitantly. As predicted, he orders a hot and sour soup, fried wontons, and a single spring roll.

James resists the urge to roll his eyes. “Then where would you get your fun?” he teases when he’s finished ordering.

“I think I could manage,” Q replies, drier than the desert.

James knows better than to believe him. “You would spend all day and all night underground,” he starts slowly, “and never leave your computer for more than five minute stretches. Your skin would grow all pasty and your cardigans would begin to stink of tea - ”

“Yes, thank you, Bond, for your contribution. The moment I become an official zombie, I’ll be sure to inform you.” Q rolls his eyes, but his smile is exasperatedly amused, previous irritation washed away.

“You believe in zombies? How unexpected.”

“A grudge against science fiction? Really?”

James, who has explored every last genre on his long plane rides, shakes his head slightly. “Hardly. There’s nothing wrong with being a connoisseur of entertainment. Movies or books?”

“Both. Although I have been accused of book favouritism.”

“Sensible. The extra effects in movies can be positively absurd. To clarify, books, true books, not e-books?”

A pointed look. “Despite what you may think, I don’t do everything electronically. There’s something quite satisfying about holding a hardcover in hand, actually.”

James’ smirk ends up looking more like a smile than was intended. “Well, well, well. That’s a surprise. I thought you were one hundred percent technophile.”

“And I thought you were one hundred percent ancient dinosaur.” Q offers him a sardonic grin. “For the sake of both our egos, let us pretend such assumptions never occurred.”

He laughs, delighted, unrestrained, a wild giddiness inappropriate for his age and experience thrumming through him at that perfect, undeniable pitch that prophesies disaster. “Just as Atlantis never existed?”

Q bolts upright, eyes narrowed. “Oh no you didn’t, James Bond,” he growls and is off, words spilling out of his mouth, evidence and sources and recent findings all locked up inside that marvellous mind.

James listens to him talk, chin braced on his palm, and can barely breathe through the warmth spilling into every vein, nerve, muscle, tissue, bone, and cell he has, imprinting right into his DNA.

He feels as if he’s in his twenties again, on top of the world, in glorious free-fall, with nothing to worry about and only too willing to listen to the rough gallop of his heart.

It’s dangerous, too much so. This is quite possibly the most lethal weapon he has ever encountered. But James couldn’t leave if all of the Italian Mafia started storming through the doors, guns out and cigars lit.

Especially, not when, in the end, Q boldly snatches up the spring rolls James has left untouched on the outskirts of his plate and narrows his eyes at the smirk already lurking on his lips.

“Not. One. Word.”

Am I the only one dealing with a sudden surge of surveillance? - Q

No. This merger is proving to be rather troublesome. - MH

Serves both of you right. Never quite as fun being watched as it is being the watcher, is it? - SH

Shut up, Sherlock. What’s this deal with the Joint Security Service, Mycroft? - Q

I’m looking into it. Keep a low radar for now. - MH

Easier said than done. - Q

Four days later, during one of Bond’s frequent vacations to Q-Branch, there’s a crisis in Serbia with 008 at fourteen hundred.

By twenty hundred, everyone has been run ragged trying to contain the mess, seeing as the local authorities, national authorities, and an exponentially-growing terrorist organisation are all eventually caught up in the disaster.

Q in his element is always a sight to behold. But even Q is limited by the constraints of the human body.

As Bond watches, Q is finally exhausted enough to be covering up a yawn at twenty-two hundred. He suspects at least two mostly sleepless nights behind the minor loss in control and the eight hours of straight-up frantic damage control isn’t helping.

Subsequently, Bond regards the chain of yawns that proceeds to travel down this row and then that with bemusement and a hint of amusement. Boffins, it seems, are used to late nights but not happy about them.

A certain petite blonde's sole job seems to be walking around with tea and crumpets. In the span of five minutes, two boffins fall asleep at their desks and need to be shaken awake by their neighbours, who get the favour returned not long later.

Bond has no idea what the phrases that are exchanged between the boffins mean, but he is aware of when the fiasco has begun to wind down because the minions start to pack up and leave in small groups of twos and threes.

One truly exhausted boy nearly smacks into the wall before his colleague tugs him towards the door.

Q wears his lethargy in the little gestures, from the accelerated blinking to the tired creases lining his forehead. Even his typing speed looks a bit more sluggish than usual, and when the disaster is finally over at two in the morning, he dismisses R with a slow wave of his hand.

There’s no indication of when he’s going to leave.

James sits through Q giving 008, who’s just as worn out by the sounds of it, his last instructions and then sending him on his way. Then there’s reports to the right authorities, safety measures, a corralling of the last few vestiges of the terrorist organisation...

By the time Q is propping his forehead up with his palm, looking askance at whatever he has on the screen like it’s personally offended him, James has had enough. He stands up abruptly, cracking his neck.

Heavy-lidded eyes are directed at him a second later, blearily questioning.

"Q." James approaches slowly, careful to broadcast harmless intentions. This isn't the time to scare Q back behind his locked castle of glass, intellect, and authority; James would never be able to draw him back out again, not in this overtaxed state.

"007? You're still here." Q looks endearingly confused, although he must have known James was sitting in the corner for the entire time. It's almost as if the simple fact that he stayed for so long is hard to process in Q's sleep-deprived brain, which is frankly ridiculous.

And entirely validates James’ hastily made decision to get Q out of MI6 before he collapses.

"I'm still here," James replies in a conscious echo of the past, stopping a metre or so from Q. "But you shouldn't be."

Q blinks twice in rapid succession, trying to fight off sleep somewhat unsuccessfully. "Why not?" he asks, almost petulantly.

"It's almost four o'clock, Q," James points out. "You need to go back home and sleep."

Q frowns, half-hearted irritation sparking in his eyes and chasing away wisps of lassitude. "You're not my babysitter, 007," he says, more stinging now. "There's no need for you to remind me of my bedtime. I am perfectly capable of continuing - "

"That's not my intention," James cuts in before Q can go on a full-fledged rant.

"Then what is?"

James can't honestly reply to that, not when the answer is simply utterly unacceptable. He’s still mostly convinced that he’s deluding himself, actually, and that it’ll all pass like a brief spring shower. Thankfully, he has a convenient excuse for Q.

"Friends take care of each other, don’t they? Come on," he says flippantly, retrieving car keys from his pocket and spinning it in the air lazily. "I'll give you a ride, and I won't even charge."

Q blinks at him sleepily. Once, twice, thrice. “ shouldn’t even have a car.” His frown is befuddled. “No, wait, I don’t want to know. Plausible deniability. And I can take a cab. I haven’t finished finalising this program. I should - ”

"Go home and sleep." James keeps his voice undemanding but firm, daring to place a hand on Q's shoulder. He gets a slow blink but not much else, to his silent relief. He urges Q up out of his seat and frowns at the screen. "Shut down the computer, Q."

"Am I being kidnapped? This is a terrible kidnapping attempt," Q protests but begins to close the systems anyway. "This is my branch, you know. You shouldn’t even be here, much less bossing me around."

James considers pointing out that, for a terrible kidnapping attempt, it's working, but keeps his mouth shut. After Q closes the laptop, he nudges him out of Q-Branch and quietly tells the agent on night guard to lock the place up.

At the staff parking lot, he presses the convenient button on the car keys to locate the car and a  silver Volkswagen Golf beeps obnoxiously. James resists the urge to rolls his eyes - Tanner is incredibly predictable at times -  and nudges a somewhat-suspicious looking Q towards the car.

The wariness passes quickly, no match for the utter exhaustion taking over that genius mind. Once in the passenger's seat, seat belt on, Q curls up into a tiny ball, eyes fluttering shut. He falls asleep in two minutes flat, snoring softly.

Stubborn man.

James smiles at the sight, a small, golden ball of warmth pulsing steadily in his chest, before being distracted by the many safety protocols he has to clear before they're allowed out of MI6. He keeps his driving fluid and moderate in deference to the very asleep Quartermaster next to him.

At a red light, he happens to glance over and almost bites his tongue off. The dim light flirts with Q’s hair, his skin, turns him into a creature out of myth and legend and entirely unreachable but oh so lovely. James wants to touch, pet, stroke, and -

That’s not how it works, is it? One way or the other, and the other promises to be a complete and utter catastrophe. Being in lust is one thing, but this is something else entirely.

Thankfully, the light turns green before he has more time to make another terrible life decision, and it’s smooth driving from there on.

James pulls up to Q’s flat and hesitates. “Q,” he says at last in a gentle tone that rarely sees the light of day. “Q.”

Q stirs with a groan but doesn’t open his eyes. Curling farther into himself for warmth, he grumbles incoherently at the outside interference, unwilling to wake up.  As a whole, it’s far too adorable, and Christ, what’s wrong with him?

Like a spring shower, just like a spring shower -

“Q,” James calls, louder, more insistent, frustration and longing roughing his voice. “Q, wake up.”

He regrets it immediately when Q jolts violently, eyes flying open only to be screwed up again when confronted with the glaring streetlight. “Bond…?” he murmurs huskily, questioning and uncertain.

James can’t help himself. He really can’t. Maybe not a spring shower then, more of a summer storm.

He reaches over to cup Q’s cheek, thrilling guiltily in his soft skin and the resulting small, happy smile as Q liquefies once more. For reassurance, he justifies to himself, because there’s no need for his Quartermaster to be afraid. Not when James is here. “Come on. Time to move, Q.”

“Don’ wanna,” Q protests, turning his face to nuzzle into James’ palm, and sod it, that’s not fucking fair. “Sleepy.”

James takes a deep breath and fervently prays to a God he doesn’t believe in for strength. Even in this current state, Q would probably remember if James kisses him, from the shock value if nothing else. Still, the desire tugs at him like the fiercest of autumn gales, and fuck. Fuck.

“I know you’re tired,” he tries, removing his hand to shake Q’s shoulder. “But you’ll be much more comfortable in your bed.”

Q just pouts.

Through a combination of vicious self-control, coaxing, prodding, wheedling, and out-right manhandling, James manages to get an impossibly pliant and very distracting Q out of the car and up the stairs.

Q, boneless and draped all over James’ chest with his head buried in his neck like he’s trying to fall asleep right on top of James, murmurs suddenly, “I’m glad it wasn’t you.”

James almost stumbles. The flash of pain from his ignored wounds is born out with gritted teeth. “What do you mean?” he asks, even though he thinks he knows.

“I’m glad it wasn’t you at Serbia.” Q doesn’t remove his face from its hiding spot but tightens his grip on James as if he’s worried that he’ll leave, as if he doesn’t know that leaving isn’t an option for James at this point.

“I would be worried,” Q whispers into James’ skin, and James feigns deafness, heart doing all sorts of inadvisable actions in his chest. “I am worried.”

And maybe this is more of a Russian winter, inescapable, obvious, and undeniable.

James is devastated in the wake of it.

It’s almost a relief when he finally gets Q into his flat and on his bed without any more secrets pressed into his neck. James removes his glasses, shoes, and socks, before turning to leave, unwilling to trust himself with anything more.

A hand catches his sleeve. “Stay,” Q pleads, stark and beautiful, and James knows he shouldn’t. Q’s so tired, he probably won’t even remember, and this could have dreadful consequences, both professionally and personally. He knows better.

He should leave. He’s going to walk out the door right now. He waits for himself to do just that.

James gets into bed.

As soon as James slips under the covers, Q burrows into him, snuffling drowsily. He wriggles and squirms until James has to clamp his arms around him purely out of self-survival, and then they’re so tangled up, it’s impossible to know where he starts and ends anymore.

It’s hard to think. He can’t. Not with Q so heavy and warm in his hands. He just.

Fuck regretting this later. James is regretting this now, because he knows this won’t be enough, will never be enough, but he won’t ever forget this night, and he’d much rather have just a small piece of Q than lose all of him.

“I’m scared,” Q breathes plaintively in James’ ear after five minutes of blessed, tormenting paradise.

James goes still, every protective instinct screeching. No one gets to hurt the man in his arms, not if James has anything to say about it, and he has a bloody lot to say about it. “Of what?”

A soft snore is his only answer.

Predictably, James doesn’t get a wink of sleep.

“Quick decisions are unsafe decisions.” - Sophocles

James scoffs at the quote on the back of his leg before continuing on his morning run, having left while Q was still asleep. He doesn’t need his soulmate to tell him that. His entire life is a never ending cycle of unsafe decisions and the devastation that follow.

To his surprise, when he’s back in his flat, washing off the sweat, he finds that they’ve changed their mind:

“Quick decisions are unsafe decisions.” - Sophocles

“If you have difficulties making decisions, choose the lesser of the two evils.” - Rajneesh

He really should put more effort into tracking his soulmate down. Do something. Make certain they’re not an enemy of Queen and Country. Prepare himself for a bloody showdown and getting his heart torn to pieces all over again.

James gets dressed and decides to go golfing with Tanner.

“You’re welcome,” Tanner says as soon as they meet at the golf course, genial and sardonic. “Did you take good care of her?”

Bond smirks, unrepentant, and tosses him the keys. “The best.”

Tanner sighs. “And how is the Quartermaster?”

“Alive and well,” Bond deadpans. “I didn’t kidnap him and hold him hostage in his bedroom, if that’s what you were worried about.”

“I would never dare.”

“Then let’s get on with it.”

Mallory smiles faintly when he hands over the mission. The merger between MI5 and MI6 is tomorrow, the fifth of September, and by that time, 007 will be wrestling crime lords in Uzbekistan.

“Try and limit the damage this time,” he says, placing his hands on the armrests. “Q’ll be too busy with the revised protocols to clean up your messes like he usually does.”

“Yes, sir,” Bond lies. They both know that all the Double-Ohs but 009 and 004, the most well-behaved of the group, are being sent out on missions rather than participate in the pomp and ceremony of the Unholy Merge.

No need to fuck things up before the ink’s even dry, after all. And if there’s one thing that Double-Ohs are infamous for doing, it’s rocking the boat.

Mallory eyes him with clear wariness, the dents in his budget clear evidence against his lies, but knows better than to continue the conversation. “Very well, 007. Report to Q.”

“Of course, sir.” It’s just as well. Bond has something he wants to ask Q anyway.  

Q is nowhere in sight when Bond walks into Q-Branch. The minions are busy with their coding, and in the case of that boy who almost ran into the wall on the other day, Minecraft.

No one takes much notice of 007, which is now both expected and vaguely boring. It wasn’t particularly helpful when he was trying to lull Q into lassitude, but at least the frightened squirming and startled jumping was amusing.

Maybe he’s losing his touch. It’s a sobering thought.

As a test, on his way to R, Bond throws a cutting smirk at the off-task minion as he passes by and gets a jolt. The boy squeaks softly and stares back at him with wide eyes, giving every impression of a deer in headlights.

No, not quite a deer. A mouse, perhaps?

Without daring to glance away from Bond, his hand tip-toes across his keyboard to tentatively press a key. A screenful of code appears over the minimised game tab, and the boffin has the bravery to slip a puppy-dog look over the please-spare-me face.

Hah. He’s still got it.

“007.” R’s tone is both exasperated and resigned.

“Yes, R?” Bond flicks one last amused glance at the boy before turning to face the lovely Second of Q-Branch. He looks her up and down suggestively, lowering his voice to a purr, “You’re looking gorgeous today.”

He wonders where Q is. It’s not like him to leave equipping his agents to less capable hands. In all the time James has known Q, he’s never been given his Walther by anyone else.

Already, he feels on-edge, although his mission hasn’t even started yet.

“Don’t even start,” R says, crisp and professional. It’s probably why Q works so well with her, her infatuation with 004 aside. “The priority request came in approximately ten minutes ago. We’re not ready for you. Q’s assembling your gun at R&D right now.”

“Then I guess that’s where I’m going.”

It’s rare that Bond wanders down to R&D, a subdivision of Q-Branch located directly below the main, more technological portion of their section of headquarters; he’s had more than enough bad experiences with dark tunnels and conspiracy trains, and agents with the misfortune to stumble into R&D tend to turn into lab rats or get wrangled into testing out new toys.

A blonde with short, fluffy hair in a questionable and rather stained jumper points him towards Q with a wry smile and a wink behind quirky glasses. “Might not wanna startle him,” she advises, slurping loudly from the straw in her fast-food soda cup. “It’d be pretty bad if our supreme overlord accidentally shoots himself. Or, you know, you.”

Bond quirks an eyebrow, offering her a sardonic smirk with the sultriest edge of flirtation. “Oh, I think I could take him.”

She cackles and saunters off, throwing over her shoulder, “That’s what you think.” Imbedded within her words seems to be the implication of a future apocalypse waiting in one of the wings of R&D. Bond is pretty sure he doesn’t want to know.

The paperwork to file any of that in isn’t worth the trouble.

Boffins are odd and dangerous, Bond muses as he strolls down the brightly-lit corridor. He has no idea why they’re so often bullied in primary and secondary school. Don’t those idiots know they could be threatening the next nuclear engineer?

(Granted, Bond bullies them all the time - or, to be more exacted, bullied them because God knows Q would get his revenge if he ever got wind of anyone taking advantage of his minions, as discovered so nicely by 003 - but most people aren’t secret agents with a license to kill.)

When Bond finds him at long last, Q is assembling his gun, as fast as any senior field agent and apparently adding modifications to it on the go, which, in his humble opinion, only proves his point. It’s also awfully alluring.

“Became impatient, did you? I’m almost done.” Q pushes aside some of the crap on the table - Bond spots capacitors, resistors, three circuit boards, a multitude of tangled-up wires, cannibalised remains of other guns, and more - to locate a clip.

If he recalls anything from the last time they spoke, there’s no sign of it.

“Been slacking, Q?” James leans against the doorway, smirking in a way he knows infuriates Q, if only to keep himself from doing something stupid.

As expected, he gets the dark glare as Q snaps the clip in without looking. “Slacking? The only reason I’m rushing now is because you’re so bloody irresponsible with my equipment. And if you Double-Ohs would refrain from causing havoc everywhere you go, then I’m sure M wouldn’t have had to scramble to find last-minute missions to keep you lot occupied.”

“Sounds like you’ve been slacking to me,” James chuckles but deigns to take on the labyrinth of half-used engineering parts to retrieve his gun when Q holds out the Walther PPK/S. It’s a familiar weight in his hands, the three little green lights a reminder and a relief. “Is that all?”

Q stomps out of the room in a strop, muttering under his breath about ungrateful agents and his poor budget. James follows far more sedately, hands in his pockets, gun already tucked in his holster, wickedly amused smirk on his lips.

Breezing in and out of various rooms while James waits outside with exaggerated patience, Q shoves - carefully - a radio, an aerosol can, and an envelope in 007’s arms. “There. Christmas. Or Halloween, in this case.”

James smiles, hopelessly fond. “Thank you, Q.”

Q sniffs and adjusts his glasses, turning away but not before James catches the soft pink of his cheeks. “You can thank me by refraining from throwing your Walther like a boomerang whenever you run out of bullets,” he says crisply, leading the way back to his office.

“It’s a tried and true method of distraction,” James protests, ambling along behind him with all the easy grace of a well-fed lion simply waiting for his next amusement to be laid at his feet. “Saved my life more times than I can count.”

“I’m fairly certain that says more about your aptitude for mathematics than your dubious combat tactics.”

“Not all of us can be a genius like you, Q.”

“Yes, but most of the population can count from zero to ten after primary school.”

James chuckles. “Are you saying it took you until after primary school to learn basic math?”

Strolling easily into his lair of dormant technological bombs, Q turns slightly to offer him a disdainfully arched eyebrow. “If you must try and insult me, at least make it reasonable. I was excellent at basic math before primary school.”

James smirks. “Of course you were.” They come to a stop before Q’s main computer, which he wakes up and promptly logs into, uncaring that 007 is watching. The password probably changes every thirty seconds or so anyways.

“Anything else, 007?” Q questions when he realises Bond has made no move to make his goodbyes or leave.

007 hums noncommittally, sliding his hands into his pockets. He’s trained to use all of the resources at his disposal, and Q is certainly one of the best advantages he has, guilt or not. There’s no bloody reason for it, anyway. He’s done far worse to other allies for far less.

And besides, his contacts have come up with nothing. This is the only way, really.

Damn it.

“Maybe a little something,” he says, deliberately vague.

Q eyes him suspiciously but doesn’t refuse at once like a normal sane person would. He never does. “Well, do spit it out. Your plane leaves in approximately an hour, and I hear traffic’s going to be hell.”

“This coming from the man who commonly directs traffic jams whenever our government decides to check on his branch’s finances?” James remembers witnessing Tanner uncharacteristically torn between laughing hysterically and yelling hysterically at the chaos.

“I don’t know what you’re referring to.” Q smiles at the blonde intern who was in change of the crumpets. This time, she appears to be solely on tea duty and dutifully refills her boss’ mug with a returning grin and a sly glance at 007 before sauntering away. “Nothing was ever proven.”

“You’re a head of MI6,” Bond says, uneasily reminded of his decision to do this at work instead of somewhere more private. But he doesn’t want to taint Q’s flat with his lies any more than he has to, and this is best done on a secure network with brilliant tech. “It’s practically expected.”

Q studies him for a long moment, chin braced on his palm, and James wonders if he should be worried that Q knows him too well. When he speaks, his voice is lowered in concession to the many minions bumbling around them and effortlessly disarming. “What do you need?”

Oh God, he can’t.

James has never quite wanted to kiss someone so badly before and been unable to. It turns his voice rough, and hidden from sight, his fingers curl. “Marco Sciarra. Find him for me. Quietly, if you know what I mean.”

Q sighs and drinks his tea. “Nothing’s ever simple with you, is it. Priority?”

Just like that? James wants to ask, but it’s always been just like that, isn’t it? He’s surprised all over again, although he didn’t truly think Q would disagree or out him. “Medium.”

“Fine. Go on now, 007. I’ve got work to be doing.”

Q has been providing Bond with a running commentary on how the merger has been going, complete with disgruntled complaints, disdainful observations, and displeased grumbling, when he suddenly pauses, just as 007 is preparing for bed in the dingy hotel he’s been guided to.

There’s a click that signifies a switch to the private channel. “Will you be careful?” Q asks, point-blank.

James knows better than to make promises, but he says, “I’ll do my best,” anyway.

"I hear the Day of the Dead festival is quite popular in Mexico City,” Q says, carefully neutral. “You might want to visit when you have the chance.”

El Día de los Muertos?” Bond draws the straight razor down his cheek, the Spanish rolling off his tongue with ease. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“It’s quite interesting, actually.” Q’s tone changes from neutral to intrigued easily, the click-clack of keys audible. “The traditions and beliefs behind the modern festival are more than three centuries year old…”

Q educates James on the history of the Day of the Dead while he finishes shaving, washes his face, and slips under the covers, voice even and steady, obviously pulling on a dozen resources at once, as is his wont.

“Should I stop?” he asks once, after Bond has been quiet for too long, drowsing.

“And deprive an agent of valuable mission intelligence? Do carry on.”

“Tosser,” Q says and continues elaborating on calaveras. James falls asleep with Q’s posh tones in his ear and his last thought is simply, I can’t wait to go home.   

If in the fuzzy depths of his subconscious James was harbouring the impression that he would have the time to properly contemplate and panic over his highly uncharacteristic thoughts, he was spectacularly wrong.

Bright and early the next morning, the door is kicked in and armed gunmen stomp inside. They have him in sturdy bindings within minutes, albeit with three of their members bleeding out on the floor and one particularly unlucky fellow rendered a eunuch.

The earpiece in his ear is silent, and Bond makes a note to himself to get his hands on whatever piece of tech his enemies have that has so efficiently cut him off from Q.

For the twenty-first time since he became a secret agent, 007 is carted off to an abandoned warehouse. From the shadows, a native man with blinding white teeth and a deceptively small voice greets him with, “James Bond. I’ve heard so much about you.”

He’s an unknown. Bond hasn’t spent nearly enough time here to break his cover.

And from there, it really only goes downhill.

James returns to a rainy and gloomy England two weeks after the estimated date, utterly exhausted and sporting enough cuts that it’s a good thing his suit is black, else the plane would never have let him on.

His poor Walther is a smoking lump of metal somewhere back in Khiva, and his ‘borrowed’ Beretta is almost out of ammunition. He’s been tracking and been tracked, followed close enough that there’s been barely a chance to breathe, much less contact MI6.

(And it will always be MI6 to him, just as M will always be Mansfield, for all that Mallory isn’t so very bad.)

Then again, with the rat lurking within headquarters, that was probably for the best.

It’s 0231 when James slips into a taxi and slumps against his seat. To add insult to injury, the rain took him by surprise, leaving him soaked to the bone.

“Where to, mate?” grunts the cabbie, looking none too happy, either at his position, the weather, or the world in general. It’s hard to tell.

James knows what he’s meant to do. He should tell the cabbie his address, return to his flat and lick his wounds until he’s ready to face MI6’s rat and the consequences of the merge and M’s inevitable lecture about the path of destruction he left in his wake this time around.

He opens his mouth, but what comes out is something else entirely.

“Sure thing,” comes the response and then the taxi’s pulling away from the kerb.

James exhales slowly and attempts to gather up enough energy to reprimand himself but fails. More than a hot shower and a soft bed, what he truly craves at this moment is Q, simply, always Q.

It’s an odd feeling, to miss nerdy rantings and ugly jumpers. It reminds James of that time he spent a morning in Venice longing for talk of estate agents and tourist sights he’s seen but would gladly see again if only to spend time with his partner.

He wonders who he’s fooling at this point. Q, probably. He doesn’t care about anyone else, but Q has to believe him.

“Here we are,” the cabbie drawls, pulling up a block away from Q’s address. Bond thanks him and gets out, fighting not to waver on his feet. He staggers home, because it’s dark and there’s no one around to see his weakness, and when he gets there, there’s a beep before he even knocks.

The locks disengage.

James stares. His befuddled mind isn’t nearly up to the task of figuring out Q’s security system or working out when his Quartermaster inputted a Double-Oh Agent as a known and safe entity with 24/7 access.

Running footsteps, and then five seconds later, the door is flung open. Q stands in front of him. “Bond,” he says, almost a question. His clothes are rumpled, his eyes are bright, and he’s panting a little, but relief is sunlight splashed across his face, and he’s too beautiful for words.

James tucks his hands in his pockets. “Q,” he says, so soft it’s barely sound.

They stare at each other. James takes the opportunity to drink Q in, even as that feral creature of nightmare and casual death inside of him finally closes its eyes and lays down its weapons.

Twin meows sound behind Q, and it seems to jolt him into action. “Come on in, then,” he orders briskly, already twisting away in search of the first-aid kit. “On the sofa; I have the covers on today, you lucky bastard, otherwise I would make you clean up the stains yourself.”

“I’m rather good at that,” James agrees, lowering himself carefully on the sofa and instantly gaining two very vocal and affectionate feline companions. “But enough about me. I think the bags under your eyes are going to start moving any day now.”

And the less said about the way his fantastically ugly jumper hangs off his lanky form, the better.

“You’re one to talk. Have you looked in the mirror?” Q shoots back, marching into the living room armed with bandages and antiseptic. “Jacket and shirt off.”

“If you wanted me shirtless, all you had to do was ask,” James says, but it’s half-hearted. Q scoffs but is silent, brows drawn together and lips white, as he patches James up.

When he’s done, he moves if to pull away, but James reaches up and closes his fingers over Q’s wrist. His skin is soft and cold, although Q keeps his flat five degrees warmer than James does. “Hey.”

Q stares at their hands with the utmost concentration. “Seventeen days, six hours, and twelve minutes,” he lists off, voice as cold and burning as dry ice. “Completely off grid, not a hint of contact - ”

“They had an informant in MI6,” James cuts in, desperate to sand off the razor edges in that normally smooth demeanour, remove the hurt that keeps Q’s posture closed-off and rigid. “I couldn’t risk it. Q, I’m fine. Look at me; I’m fine.”

Q blinks too rapidly and his shoulders are still too tense, but he manages a wry smile. “Like I ever thought for a second that Uzbekistan was too much for you, 007. Eve would never have forgiven me.”

James chuckles but sombers up quickly. “I can’t promise it’ll never happen again,” he cautions because it’s clear that Q is one of the few, few people negatively affected by his disappearances. “Things...happen.”

“Things always happen around you, James Bond,” Q says, pulling away. He smiles, though, and brushes his fingers over James’ cheek, prompting a subtle shiver. “I’m not even going to ask about my tech this time.”

“Probably for the best,” James murmurs and gets up, feeling much better. They order Thai and settle in for a night on the sofa. Q texts Moneypenny with all the data on their rat that James gives him and falls asleep before the second Lord of the Rings movie.

James smiles down at him, a smile he will never allow to be seen for the frightening amount of fondness inherent within it, and runs a hand through his hair. Q sighs and curls into James, and they fall asleep twisted around each other like vines, each feeding off the other’s warmth.

They trot back into MI6 the next morning like the good little employees they are - well, Q is, and Q’s the one who drags 007 in to debrief, traumatising half of MI6 in the process - and M, as predicted, throws a tantrum.

A quick search, courtesy of Q’s programs, and a greying, harmless-looking minion turns out to be the culprit. Q joins M in his tantrum, cold and sharp and aiming a death-to-all-traitors smile at the rest of his half-terrified, half-disgusted, all-upset division.

Moneypenny smiles beatifically from where she tackled the traitor and pinned him to the floor with a lethal stiletto heel to the chest when he tried to make a run for it. Bond judges the situation under control and places a quick call to a nearby bakery.

Ten minutes later, while Q is maniacally combing through the network for bugs, viruses, and backdoors, M is sorting everything out bureaucratically, Moneypenny is watching over the interrogation, Tanner is dealing with the rest of the agency, and the minions are a tense, under-caffeinated, overstressed mess, James wanders out and returns with five boxes of donuts.

The crazed eyes that are immediately aimed his way from every single direction are frankly enough to make even 007 question his life choices, for all that he can take down every last minion in the room and not even need to get his suit cleaned afterwards.

But, as planned, the sugar makes Q unwind a bit, though, slow down just a tad, and smile very, very faintly at James, so it’s worth it.

007 is called out on a mission again on the fourth of October. He’s off to California, where he has a drink with Felix, blows up three mansions and nearly drowns during a surfing shoot-out, and returns to England with two days to spare.

He has Q in his ear the entire time, the earpiece both waterproof and taserproof. Optimistically, Bond chooses to think that the oxygen-giving kiss Felix laid on him after Q yelled at them both about adrenaline junkies and CPR is somewhat like an indirect kiss from Q himself.

“Chinese?” Q asks when 007’s flying home, like it’s a given that James will spend the night at Q’s flat rather than his own.

The speakers are playing jazz, and Bond is at once on top of the world and wrung out like a mistreated rag. He should say no. “I know a good place.”

James goes home, and Q welcomes him back by showing him how to refill the cat feeders and rolling his eyes at the tacky tourist magnet James has brought back but sticking it on the fridge anyway.

Morgana nuzzles against his trousers, and Rayleigh twines himself around Q’s legs, and James is weary but at ease.

Q hits the training mat with a grunt and stays there, panting. James, not even out of breath, waits patiently with an amused smirk on his face, arms crossed and perfectly confident.

"This,” Q says in disgust, “is why I am the Quartermaster and not a field agent.”

James chuckles. “Don’t sell yourself short. A few more months of training, and you’d make a decent undercover agent. In that jumper you wore yesterday, no one with eyes could suspect you of any wrongdoing other than grandfatherly-manners before your time.”

“Lay off my jumpers, Bond. I’ve seen what remains of your suits after you’re done with them. At least I treat my clothing with respect.”

James merely shrugs. “Hazard of the job.”

“Doesn’t sound especially appealing from my point of view.”

“I don’t have to deal with MI5’s Quartermaster,” James points out, gleeful.

Q, who subjected James to his latest rant about his counterpart a mere two hours ago, lets out a very cat-like growl. “This merger is going to be the death of me,” he mutters softly despite having disarmed all the security cameras as soon as they arrived.

“Nonsense,” James insists, faux cheerful. “I’ve taught you how to throw a decent punch, haven’t I?”

“You’ve taught me how to take a fall and land the right way,” Q says with a roll of his eyes. “And I think that’s what I’ve got the most practice in.”

“Useful skill,” he agrees. “Got your breath back?”

Q groans but gets to his feet. “Ready when you are.”

007 is sent off to Iran with a smile and a pat on the head from M, who is still trying to keep his Double-Ohs from meeting their new leash-carriers. Q rolls his eyes and grumbles and complains but hands over a new prototype and sunglasses with a thermal vision option.

“Don’t ruin that,” comes the demand, and then a narrow-eyed look, tense shoulders. “And take care.”

James freezes.

He knows that look. In the eyes of his targets. In the touch of a woman in red. In the bloody mirror every damn morning.


It can’t be. He’s misreading the signs, but he’s a fucking Double-Oh; he doesn’t misread signs. His own feelings are affecting his judgement, but he knows better. He can’t be this damned unlucky (lucky), not with the blood on his hands, in his file, the one Q must know from front to back .

Q can’t possibly want James.

He’s seeing what he wants to see; this isn’t real, can’t possibly be real. They are friends, Q thinks of him as a friend, nothing more, however James might be losing his mind.

And even if...even if he’s not misreading this, James knows he can’t do it, can’t take the risk of shattering yet another beautiful, sacred thing with his brute, killer hands, can’t possibly trust himself with something so precious and fragile as Q’s heart.

“Of course,” Bond murmurs and saunters out without a hitch in his step.

James feigns sleep all throughout the plane ride, and Q lets him. Thankfully, the mission goes to hell the second he lands, and there’s no time for Q to do anything but bark instructions at him and warn him of incoming enemies.

Bond dislocates his arm after falling - jumping, thank you - three stories and snaps it back in place with a grunt before he turns his glare on the fool who he was chasing after in the first place. A few well-placed threats, cuts, and smiles later, he’s running off to the hideout.

Along the way, he seduces three women. The silence in his ear seems more inconspicuous than normal, but that’s got to be just his imagination.

Before he can even get to the hideout in Tehran, he’s ambushed and kidnapped, because, evidently, his hosts are more eager to meet him than he thought. One thoroughly disappointing interrogation later, Q cuts off all power remotely and tersely informs him of an escape route.

Which Bond follows but not until he shoots the bastard who raped a little girl in the forehead and ends up setting fire to the whole nasty place.

And by the time James gets back, a week before the Day of the Dead, he’s managed to wholly convince himself that the entire scene was born of his own wistful, wishful thinking, because, really, why the fuck would a genius like Q love the broken, irredeemable mess that is James fucking Bond?

No, it has to be a mistake, a fanciful fantasy, a trick of the light.

“Indian?” James asks as he ascends the plane.

There’s a startled pause. Both of them have been professional to a fault throughout this mission, with Bond starting with the cold shoulder and Q following his lead. “Alright,” Q says slowly, as if waiting for the punchline.

Other than despairing at life in general, snapping off intel, and laying down the law, Q has been quiet. It reminds James of this first few perilous weeks after the Skyfall Incident, and he doesn’t like it. “Tell me about the Tudors,” he requests out-of-the-blue.

“...the English monarchs from the sixteenth century?” comes the incredulous response.

James smiles, because, to date, Q has ranted over the comms about the history of coffee, the behaviour of ladybugs, and the science of thunderstorms and lightning. This is right up Q’s alley.  “Not up to the challenge, Q?”

“You know nothing, 007,” Q says, indignant, and starts in on the War of the Roses.

“You’ve been busy,” Tanner says, long-suffering and indulgent. “M’s threatening to quit over the paperwork.”

“M always threatens to quit,” Bond says. “He never actually does.”

“Where would we be if he did?” The grimace on Tanner’s face is a testament to how the aftermath of the merger is going, the Chief of Staff generally the meter by which all the agents judge the status of MI6. “He’s at a meeting at the moment. Something about that new shiny tower across the bridge.”

Bond hums noncommittally. “I heard it was finished last week.”

“That it was,” Tanner sighs, leading the way to Q-Branch. “No debrief today, or probably for the next week, so you may as well get your equipment signed in. Or lack thereof.”

“I would be hurt, Tanner, except you’re absolutely right,” admits 007, shameless.

Tanner acknowledges this with an unimpressed sigh and ploughs right into the domain of the boffins. Several of them glance up to eye him warily, and it doesn’t take Tanner long at all to notice that 007 warrants surprisingly little terror.

Maybe Moneypenny’s theories aren’t that far off the mark after all.

“Ah, Tanner. 007, there you are,” Q meanders out from his office, focused in that absentminded manner James has grown so used to seeing. “You’re late, as usual.”

“Terrorism doesn’t bend to the will of the clock,” Bond retorts, amused, for once in pristine condition. “Even if the will of the clock bends to you, my mighty Quartermaster.”

“Flattered.” But the warm glow of his smile says that he is. “Don’t suppose you have anything for me today?”

“Wellllllll…” Smirking, James slips a hand into his pocket and comes out with a tourist-sized model of the Azadi Tower. “I have this.”

Q glowers, even as he snatches the gift out of James’ palm without hesitation. “Yes, because this certainly makes up for a five thousand pound prototype. And that’s only one out of the four you couldn’t bring back.”

“Manners, Q. When someone gets you a present…”

“You say thank you, and you don’t break it.” Despite his words, Q places the gift carefully by his laptop and waves at a minion - the misbehaving one - who scuttles forward, places a form by the overlord’s hand, and flutters away, no doubt to play more Minecraft, all without meeting 007’s eyes.

Tanner’s disapproving look as he turns to leave is eloquent. Bond smirks and doesn’t even attempt to act innocent.

Mumbling to himself, Q fills in half of the form and hands it to James with an impatient jerk of his head. “Completed and turned in by Monday, if you please,” he says. “Accounting doesn’t need another excuse to cut my budget.”

“We’ll see,” James says, although they all know he’ll probably get around to it in three weeks, two if he’s spectacularly bored. He makes as if to fold the form into a small square, meaning to stuff it in his trouser pocket until its existence is useful, but reflexively scans it and freezes.

It’s an entirely ordinary acquisition form. He’s filled out hundreds throughout his career; most agents have, despite Q-Branch’s exasperation. There’s nothing odd about it.

Except Q’s handwriting, neat and graceful and as painful as a bomb in his face.

Everything goes eerily quiet for just a moment, a touch of Syria. Everything goes eerily cold for just a moment, a whisper of Skyfall.

All at once, 007 is aware that he has never seen Q handwrite, not when he prefers typing so much - but is it just because he prefers typing or was it merely a misdirection to avoid this? - and he almost can’t process -

He knows that handwriting.

Seen it a hundred times. Been an indulgent bystander during its infancy, watched it wobble and trip and bleed during its childhood, bantered with it in its adolescence, mourned and longed for it during its adulthood.

Q’s. His. His -  

It’s a mistake, it must be a mistake, but it’s not a mistake he can explain away. There’s no explanation for this, but there is one, and he thinks, with a rush of splintered ice and a roaring in his ears like he’s too deep underwater, that of course it would come down to this.

His luck, his fucking cursed luck, fuck it all to hell.

His training tells him to demand and expose, to threaten and yell, to go for the nearest weapon and inform the world of this too-fragile man’s treachery. His fingers curl, rebelling against even the thought of pointing a weapon against this lying, destroying piece of his heart. His soul.

James can’t breathe.

“007?” Q takes a step closer, concern in the hand he starts to extend. “Bond?”

He’s been silent and still for too long. James takes a step back even as every disloyal molecule in his body yearns to lean towards the offered contact. He watches hurt flicker past that dear face, and he can’t stand it anymore.

“Goodbye, Quartermaster.” 007 smiles, charming as can be and just as fake as his soulmate, clearly dismissive.

(Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.)

Bond walks out without any further interaction, his confident prowl unaffected by the mass of writhing, screaming despair carving out his chest, casual smirk betraying none of the fury-hurt-sorrow-pain blocking his throat and gorging his eyes.   

Christ, all this time and he’s the one he’s been fooling.

Bond borrows Tanner’s car and peels out of MI6’s garage in a screech of tires. Rushing through the security checks, he presses down on the accelerator and simply drives, single-minded and reckless and hurting.

London, graceful old lady that she is, takes him away into her dark streets and says nothing of the tight clench of his fingers on the steering wheel, as if it’s the only remaining thing that tethers him to her soil.

The clock tolls midnight, and he needs more than the constant green lights and his favourite jazz playing on the radio. He wants to be distracted from the CCTV cameras that turn to follow him, from the thoughts that poison his bloodstream until it’s a steady, burning ache.

(What are you doing, Q? I know already, there’s no need to pretend any longer. I don’t want your pity, Q. Just leave me alone, prove to me that you don’t need damaged goods, you deserve better than damaged goods. Q, Q, Q, why have you done this to me, to us?)

For the first time in a long time, Bond gets trashed at a pub. He knocks back martini after shot after bourbon and doesn’t hesitate to smirk at the curvy redhead who sidles up to him. They flirt. She takes him back to her place, and he fucks her into the mattress.

He can’t remember when he last shagged someone off mission.

And when it’s all over, James can’t ignore the nausea clawing up his chest anymore. He vomits in the toilet and stays there for half an hour while the redhead snores. When he raises a hand to wipe his mouth, he discovers he’s shaking.


Bond heaves himself to his feet and stumbles out the door. He stares at the taxi idling by the kerb until the driver shoots him an annoyed look and drawls, “Look, mate, you coming or not?”

“I didn’t call for a taxi,” Bond says.

The cabbie snorts. “In that condition? I would think not. Nah, a friend of yours called. Said something about giving you a water gun and glow-in-the-dark sticks if you kept on being stupid.”

James doesn’t understand Q anymore. Maybe he never did, not even a little, but it was nice to think so for a little while.

He needs to say no. Stop this before it goes any further. He’s not a bloody masochist, no matter what Psych says. He needs to reject this last act of kindness and make it clear to Q that their ‘friendship’ has come to an end before he crumbles anymore.

James gets in.

The cabbie takes him a block away from his flat. He’s drunkenly fumbling for his wallet when he’s told the whole trip’s already been paid for, and he’d better take a shower before someone comes looking for a distillery.

Bond screws his eyes shut for a second. He wants to punch someone. Either that or break down and scream. He can’t cry, won’t cry, that’ll make it much too real -  

He collapses on his cold, unfamiliar bed and can’t fall asleep. Instead, he thinks of a comfortable sofa and a cat sleeping on his chest, toast in the morning and takeout at night, movie marathons and laughing green eyes.

Oh, but he wants.

Fuck hindsight. It was so damned obvious, if he would have just put the pieces together. There were countless hints, both verbal and not. He’s an internationally-known spy, for God’s sake; he should have figured this out bloody ages ago.

You didn’t want to, an unwelcome voice that sounds irritatingly like Moneypenny points out in the back of his mind, you wanted to keep him regardless of the cost.

“Shut up,” James snarls into his pillow, ragged and jagged and unravelling at the seams. “Shut up!"

When he finally falls asleep, he dreams in black and white, soft skin and elegant ink, riddles and math equations and coding that never seems to end until it’s created a picture: a man with eternally mussed hair and a sweet smile, hand outstretched.

James reaches back this time, willing to trade the torment of the truth for the warmth of that touch, only too glad to be made a fool of if it means he can have that smile forever -

And falls, falls into deep waters devoid of sunlight and joy, enveloping him like a mother’s embrace, and he twists around but up and down aren’t concepts here, only the cold and suffocating grasp of death, and he gasps awake, reaching for a life that isn’t beside him.

James collapses back into bed with a sound that’s not entirely unlike a sob.

Bond can’t bring himself to leave bed for the entirety of the morning. He lays there listlessly, hollowed out as if a long, elegant hand has reached inside him and yanked his entrails out, devoured his heart with the utmost tenderness.

Like a recalcitrant pupil, he’s finally applying himself to the puzzle. Picking up the pieces he threw to the floor in a fit of petulance and examining them at long last to find the ugly truth he’s buried beneath the beauty.

All of the little quirks he never understood, the walls and the defences and the knowing, all those things and events and feelings he shoved into a box labelled ‘to contemplate later’ but kept firmly sealed shut, everything makes sense in the discordant music that is his world shattering.

“Your soulmate…”

“Irrelevant." Right to his fucking face. Never let it be said that Q doesn’t tell the truth with impunity.

He hates this part. When he understands at last and wishes he never did.

James finally drags himself out when his stomach protests, only to nearly trip over the Indian takeout set right outside his door.

In a brilliant contrast, Bond spends the entirety of his afternoon parkouring all over London, pushing his body to the limit in the hopes of bludgeoning his brain into halting its regretful and enlightening replay of every single minute spent in Q’s presence.

It doesn’t work.

To make matters worse, when he’s finally dripping in sweat and making his way back to his flat, his phone, the one on silent, beeps.

Are you alright?

     -  Q

James stares at the screen of the phone and briefly debates throwing it into the Thames. He can’t bring himself to do anything but keep his gaze away from the CCTV cameras and return home as if nothing had happened.

He doesn’t reply.

Can’t reply.

Instead, after smoking half of a cigarette pack, James chugs down half a bottle of scotch. He sits on the floor, leaning against the frame of his bed, and stares at the ceiling, trying to think of nothing and failing.

The worst part is, he can’t even blame Q for lying. Not when some sadistic, cruel God stuck him with James Bond, hot mess and death bringer extraordinaire.

He should probably be used to the ground crumbling beneath him by now, but he’s surprised each and every time. It’s a machine gun fired at his back from a man who’s become his sanctuary this time around, and he can’t bring himself to staunch the wound.

No. He’s just numb, pumped full of anaesthetic but aware that the pain’s going to hit soon, knowing the blood’s dripping off his skin and creating a puddle on the ground but not caring, wanting only to sleep.

Here he is, bleeding out, ready to die of major blood loss, and he can’t give a damn.

Bond pummels his punching bag from midnight to sunrise after the stupor wears off, and after his knuckles are red and bleeding, goes out in his most expensive suit and seduces a woman with light hair and pale mourning eyes, and they try to fuck the sadness out of each other.

It doesn’t work, but then, they don’t expect it to. She weeps into her pillow while he sits on the edge of the bed, a million kilometres between them, and when she’s done, she shows him the door and he goes.

As expected, the opiates are wearing off, and now there’s a resentful sort of fury left behind, the fire that led to him wrecking Quantum, the cold murderous weight of a gun in his hand and the world’s ashes at his feet.

James wanted more, that’s true, but damn it, he didn’t go after more. Q implied that more was off-limits, and James respected his wishes, and they were, if not happy, then content in their small bubble of felines and understanding, so why?

He knows he doesn’t deserve it, not after the blood and the fire and the death, but is it such a crime to have just a small sliver of happiness? He wanted green tea in the morning and tangled feet in the evenings, just that, only that, and now, he can’t even have that anymore.

Bond wants to rage at the heavens, tear apart destiny and fate and all that fucking nonsense apart with his bare hands, but he can’t.

He doesn’t have a target to go after, not a mark to chase, nor an organisation to tear down, operative by operative. There’s only Q, gorgeous, maddening, deceitful Q, who is his soulmate and who has known of this since who-knows-how-long-ago.

And he can’t hurt Q, regardless of. Anything. Everything. Can’t even be angry at Q, in the end.

James hates this.

He wanders the streets, ignoring the icy rain, until a gang of idiots try to rob him. He takes care of them and keeps going until he’s kept a woman from being raped, a kid from being beaten up, and two men from killing each other via drunken fight.

Bond? Do you need extraction? Medical? Anything?

      - Q

James looks at the message and wants to feel only ire again. Because here is the aching hurt and traitorous longing that’s been waiting in the wings. The bitter regret and pure, raw grief wind strings around his limbs and plays him like a marionette.

However forced or false or formulated of obligation they were, he’ll miss them. Miss Q-and-James. Miss the smell of Q’s shampoo and the imperious demands of Morgana and Rayleigh and the bad-tempered remarks Q used to cover up his helpless smiles when James was being ridiculous.

(Is that a lie, too? Please, please - )

He can’t ever return to Q’s flat again. He doesn’t want anything from Q that isn’t freely given, and everything will be tainted with the truth now anyway. But to be completely, terribly honest, James would rather Eve shoot him again.


     - 007

Bond sends in a leave notice to M and takes the first plane out of England.

He can’t stay in such close proximity to Q. He’ll go insane. Or worse, he’ll simply give in and pretend he didn’t notice anything. Let them go back to easy banter and a friendship built on lies and deliberate ignorance with nary a hitch.

It would be so fucking easy. So. Easy.

The temptation itself might kill him. Is killing him. He’s never wanted anyone or anything quite as much as he wants Q, in whatever form Q’s willing to offer him, and isn’t that just pathetic?

And what of the inevitable aftermath of M’s final mission? He can’t avoid Q forever. Even now, he isn’t sure whether he could, would.  

Returning to the professional relationship they had before Bond was stupid enough to start nudging barriers, merely a Double-Oh and his Quartermaster, is evidently the only option left to him. Them. Yet the mere thought...

Goddamn it. He throws back his glass of vodka.

Bond does his best to ignore both the vaguely drunk tint to his thoughts and the raging, wounded creature trying to pry its way out of his rib cage and lay waste to the world before crawling back to his Q and requesting one last affectionate touch.

He succeeds by focusing on the familiar blues playing from the plane speakers.

So, 007 goes to Mexico City. Nothing wrong with a little early reconnaissance.

He doesn’t bring his earpiece.

Q knows he fucked up somehow. That’s...obvious, but he can’t figure out where he fucked up, his genius mind spinning in circles like a mouse in a wheel. He doesn’t know what he did, he doesn’t know how to fix it, and he sure as bloody hell doesn’t know what to do now.

Eyes on the dot that shows the real-time movements of Bond’s plane, the vibration of his phone distracts him:

Time to relocate. All this surveillance is getting awfully stuffy, don’t you think? - MH

Chapter Text

Mexico City is loud and bright and cheerful. As El Día de Los Muertos draws near, the people make their preparations with stands brimming with decorations - marigolds, pan de muertos, and calaveras - littering the streets, happy voices raised in laughter.

“The best luck of all is the luck you make for yourself.” - Douglas MacArthur

007 steps off the plane with black ink sprawled messily across his left shoulder and a text message on his phone that leads him to a hotel and a reservation booked months in advance.

Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico: Avenue 16 de Septiembre No. 82, Cuauhtémoc, Centro, 06000 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico.

Room 52, Junior Suite.

Well. Hundreds of thousands of people travel here to participate in the holiday. The hotels are probably all filled to the brim by now. And official mission or not, he’s still a Double-Oh. Q’s just being an excellent Quartermaster as always.

He tries not to think about it.

Bond came here to find distractions, and distractions he’s found. The locals are happy to welcome him with shouted sales and flirtatious smiles from the women who brush by him deliberately.

The city buzzes, fast-paced and cheerful, and she generously offers to sweep him along in her wake.

But try as he might, he can find no joy in theirs, the light-hearted air merely serving to grate against him until he finally slips his gun - not his MI6 approved Walther, but an unregistered Glock 17 - into his shoulder holster and goes a-hunting.  

With four days until the holiday arrives, he walks through the streets with his hands in his pockets, smiling innocently at the store vendors and buying what he needs. He notes escape routes and dark alleys, side roads and the familiar criminal underbelly of the city.

A tug on some strings, a few phone calls to certain contacts, a gruesome grin here and a loaded gun there, and when 007 steps foot in his hotel room again, eleven hours later, he knows exactly which hotel Mr Sciarra will be staying in.

His arrival is a big event amongst the big crime lords here, apparently. Interestingly enough, regardless of how many holes he threatened to shoot into the small fry, no one was willing to tell him why.

Promising. Not for the first time, he wonders what that old witch was up to.

Bond secures the room and takes a shower, washing off the blood impassively. He’s accumulated several injuries, but none of them are severe enough for him to consider wasting the effort to find the nearest hospital and steal their supplies.

Instead, he dries himself off and crawls into bed, eyelids heavy and bones aching.

“Infection cares nought for your training or your determination, 007, take care of your wounds before conking out, for God’s sake!”

He lasts approximately five minutes with the familiar, stroppy words rattling around in his head like locusts let free of their cage before reluctantly flinging the covers back off again with a sharp growl. Even now, even here, nearly 9,000 kilometres away, he can’t escape Q.

Bond cleans the worst scraps and cuts with water and soap and dares to look in the mirror. He is, as he suspected, a fucking wreck. He could, should, return to bed and get some sleep before the second stage of reconnaissance tomorrow or...

Ignoring the security cameras that blink accusingly at him, James gets dressed once more and wanders down to the hotel bar.

It’s going to be a long night.

Bond drags himself out of bed at 0600 sharp the next day, uncaring of his migraine or the stinging of his wounds. He takes a trip to one of the local markets and buys some paracetamol, which he promptly dumps down his throat, and goes for a run.

When he returns two hours later, he’s mostly familiar with the area around his hotel. A shower and a nice suit later, and he’s walking confidently into the hotel lobby Mr Sciarra will frequent quite soon.

A lovely girl named Estrella, pretty, dark-haired, and red-lipped, is taking care of the front desk.

007 saunters towards her with his most charming smile, paying no mind to the cameras quietly watching. He has her in the palm of his hand within minutes, and then he has the room number of his “good friend.”

In repayment, he shags her in her office during her break, apathetic about the show he might be putting on.

Q, he reminds himself, won’t care.

While she’s busy trying to recover, he swipes the administrator key and slips out the back door. He’s back before she has time to notice anything’s wrong, and the bugs now infecting Mr Sciarra’s future hotel room go equally unnoticed.

Estrella is sweet, but her smile makes Bond feel nothing and her joy when asked out to dinner only leaves him numb. Still, he shaves and dabs on cologne because it’s nice to feel a little bit wanted, even if only by a total stranger.

Even if. Especially if his own soulmate doesn’t want him.

Wistfully, he recalls the days when he reigned on top of the world, when his scars didn’t itch at the whisper of ozone in the air and his joints didn’t throb at the end of a long day. When the future seemed bright and sweet, if tainted with blood.

When his soulmate was nothing but long rants on his chest about ladybugs and the science of thunderstorms, and once, the entire periodic table written down with painstaking detail and attention, o’s a little wobbly and 4s too slanted.  

But that’s not fair, is it? He hadn’t met M then. Hadn’t met Vesper or Felix or Camille.

Hadn’t met Q.

Dinner goes well. Estrella blushes and flirts back and leaves him with a kiss on his cheek and a date to the festival.

Bond wipes the red lipstick off and wanders the streets for a while, smoking through a cheap pack of cigarettes. The city winds down slow and easy, and in the wind, he hears slow whistling and shouted Spanish conversations.

When the stars above are twinkling dimly and the fall breeze is chasing out the warmth, James heads to the hotel bar.

The CCTV cameras continue to keep watch.

Bond spends the entire morning of his third day indulging in the hotel’s indoor pool. Only three or four other people walk in and out while he swims laps and no one disturbs him, not that it matters. He finds nothing but more questions beneath the waters, try as he might.

He didn’t think Q is cruel like this.

When he takes a seat on the bottom of the deep end of the pool for nearly two minutes, tired after a frankly embarrassing amount of laps, one of the other swimmers makes his way over and peers at him with obvious concern. Bond smirks mildly at him and waves.

Christ, he’s getting old.

By the time 007 pulls himself out at long last, his fingers and toes are pruned, and he’s barely a touch more centred than he was when he threw himself in. Scowling, he takes a shower and decides to investigate his room’s balcony.

Nice of Q to give him an unconventional exit.  

The streets below are bustling with activity, but he suspects there’s not yet enough excitement going on that someone won’t notice a man walking along the rooftops. Still, he’d like to scout for a good sniper’s nest before the actual holiday arrives.

There’s thinking on his feet and then there’s being fucking stupid. And he stopped being a green agent a long time ago.

Grabbing the sniper rifle he claimed to have thrown into the Indian Ocean around a year ago, Bond assembles it to ascertain that it’s working smoothly and refamiliarize himself with its range and scope.

Then, he puts it away and goes out for a stroll. Hands in his pockets, he identifies his balcony from outside and traces the route he’ll take with his eyes, eventually ending up with a rooftop directly opposite to Sciarra’s hotel window.

It’ll have to do.  

With nothing else left to do, Bond browses the stores.

The sky above is clouded over but nonetheless far too bright to look at for more than a few seconds. The warmth that lingers in the musty air is shooed away by the haughty wind, and the few leaves that remain on the ground sigh mournfully for their glory days.

A young girl in a loose red dress runs across the street, giggling, to her mother, who’s holding court over her stand of various goods. Bond wanders over and picks up a figurine of a blue cat. It reminds him of Rayleigh.

He doesn’t buy it.   

Instead, he buys a suitably distracting costume for Estrella and a bottle of local-made wine. He drinks straight from the bottle as he goes, because he’s feeling miserable and wearing casual clothes anyway and what facade does he have to maintain here, now?

There’s a small, ancient-looking restaurant tucked up in the corner of two streets. Bond walks in even though it looks like the roof is going to collapse, because he’s curious and bored and he wants to get away from the cameras.

It’s hardly logical to think that Q is watching every second - he has much better things to do, Bond’s sure - but for once, James resents Q’s ability to be everywhere at once. He just wants to be left alone right now, left alone to grieve for everything he thought they’d had.

Somewhere along the line, the constant surveillance has mutated from a comfort to disquiet, and he hates it.

An old Mexican couple greets him enthusiastically, waving him towards one of the empty tables. For all its shabby state, Bond notes, the restaurant is quite active. Most of the place is full of gossipy locals, who chatter loudly.

Bond assumes that he’s stumbled upon one of the local jewels, largely unnoticed by travelling tourists but well-loved and well-known among the residents. Indeed, the food they serve him is delicious, as are the margaritas they ply him with, waving away his bottle of wine cheerfully.

The atmosphere is easy and relaxed despite the somewhat claustrophobic setting, and Bond resigns himself to a night of drinking and fending off too-friendly drunk Mexicans. The shouted conversations flying over his head generally revolve around the upcoming holiday.

As expected, everyone’s excited. Apparently, a certain Mr Alvaro is even planning to propose to his long-term girlfriend. Bond has no idea who either of them are, but he gets treated to an in-depth discussion of their four-year relationship anyway.

He swallows hard as trickles of he brings her flowers every month and she has the most beautiful smile when he’s in the room infiltrate his mind. Not so long ago, James would have been able to sympathise with Mr Alvaro, although they never. There was never a -  

A ring? his mother’s voice, warm and knowing, whispers in his ear.

But that was all a lie, of course. A deception he brought upon himself because he wanted it so badly.

He tries to tune out most of the gossip after that.

The co-owner of the restaurant, along with her husband, Ms Castillo - Katia, she insists - takes the chance to sit at his table and ask for stories of his travels, perfectly polite but with a commanding tilt to her chin and curiosity in her fluttering fingers.

“What makes you think I travel often?” Bond asks.

She laughs, warm and lively despite the wrinkles around her eyes and the grey in her hair. “You have that look about you,” Katia says, dimpling beautifully. “My husband was like that, too.”

“And then I met you, and you demanded a stable life and our own house and then a restaurant,” Mr Castillo chides fondly, walking out from behind the counter to stand behind his wife and place his hands on her shoulders. “Very demanding, my Katia.”

“I knew what I deserved, and I spoke my mind.” Katia sniffs, but her smile, adoring and happy, gives her away. “And we’ve turned out well, no?”

“Of course, love.” Mr Castillo looks apologetically at Bond, white hair catching the light but overshadowed by the laugh lines around his mouth. “Say the word, Señor, and I’ll take her off your hands so you can eat your dinner in peace.”

“You will do no such thing,” she commands imperiously. “I haven’t gotten to hear about Singapore yet. And James doesn’t mind, does he?”

James smiles, the caustic mix of bittersweet amusement twisted with nauseating strands of envy safely hidden away. “I don’t mind. It’d be my pleasure to continue to entertain the Señora.”

She reminds him of M, he thinks. M those first few years he first knew her, before she lost her husband and soulmate, those small peeks she let slip occasionally of the woman behind the mantle of the leader of MI6 and the most stone-hard bitch he’s ever known.

Maybe in a different life, away from the world of espionage. If the lives of agents weren’t held in her hands, and she was Mexican and had dimples and was deliriously happy with life and had settled down in retirement and gotten everything she’d wanted out of the world.

James wonders how drunk he is. He suspects the margaritas are more potent than he thought. If M could hear him now, she’d slap him and tell him to get himself together and by the way, she has a mission for him that he had better complete without causing any international incidents.

“There. You see. Stay with us, Enrico; James has such lovely stories.”

“Love, I have to be at the cashier - ”

Katia wraps Enrico’s arms around her shoulders. “Nonsense, you know no one but the lost and workaholics will come in at this hour. And I know you’ve missed Ireland.”

Enrico sighs, long-suffering, but there’s a glint in his dark eyes now, and James knows it to be wanderlust. A side-effect of the steady existence the love of his life demanded, no doubt, and then finances and the exhausting minutiae of everyday life.

It’s a story he’s heard often. James remembers thinking that he won’t ever let himself be chained down like that, way back in his early 30s. And certainly, his lifestyle has never encouraged permanence.

Then, along came Vesper and the possibility of wandering the planet with someone he loved, though Venice was to be their epicentre. With her death came the end of that dream and the acceptance of a life lived perpetually on the winds.  

(As for Q -

Well. Any fantasies James may have had are dead now, aren’t they? They were delusional anyway, weren’t they? Nothing but smoke and mirrors and that warm, affectionate look Q sometimes got in his eyes when he looked at James.)

So James isn’t surprised at all when after ten minutes of his tales, all heavily edited and devoid of sensitive information and his more extreme acts, Enrico slides into the seat next to Katia, looking just as engrossed as his wife.   

“Do you regret it?” James asks fifty minutes later when Katia gets up, looking annoyed, to tend to a table the waiter - their daughter’s boyfriend - is too busy to take, grumbling under her breath all the while.

“No,” Enrico says, laughing and without hesitation. “No, I miss Ireland and Japan and even France, but saying no to Katia would have been the worst decision of my life. I would have regretted every minute I spent away.”

James says nothing.

“Sometimes one person is enough.” Enrico smiles, knowingly enough that James almost feels defensive though the old man is no threat. “Sometimes, the entire world is smaller and more inconsequential than one heart.”

“Romantic,” James comments, but he means something else, something more ugly and cynical, and they both know it. “I would grow terribly restless, I think.”

Enrico looks thoughtful. “Some are like that. I could give up the road for my Katia, but even if you can’t, it’s nice to have someone welcome you home, isn’t it?”

James doesn’t have the chance to tell him that he wanted that - hadn’t even known that he’d wanted it until it was within his reach and then torn away - but can’t possibly have it now, because Katia bustles back in, teasing, “And what are you boys talking about? Why so serious?”

“Komodo dragons are serious business, my dear,” Enrico deflects smoothly. “Why don’t we have some more margaritas?”

When James stumbles out at long last, a full three hours later, Mr and Ms Castillo feel vaguely like doting, long-lost grandparents, the earth is spinning rather alarmingly beneath his feet, and he closes his eyes and thinks:

‘Q would have loved it here.’

With one day left to go, Bond should be finalising his plan of attack and checking in on Mr Sciarra, whose flight was meant to touch down on Mexican soil at 0200 and should be at his hotel now. Instead, he sleeps peacefully until noon and then wakes up with an awful migraine.

Briefly, he feels as if he’s made a terrible mistake. Worse than usual anyhow. What the devil was in those margaritas?

Four paracetamol down his throat later, Bond feels marginally back to normal. To accelerate the process, he smokes a cigarette and then finally gets up and takes a shower. Pulling on a simple white shirt and black trousers, he walks a kilometre to have lunch at the Castillo’s.

There’s something sad about that, but he ignores it.

“James! Welcome!” Katia beams at him when he walks in and presses a kiss to his cheek. In the same tone of voice, she continues with, “You look absolutely terrible!”

“Thanks,” he responds dryly.

“It was the margaritas, wasn’t it? I told Enrico you aren’t used to them like our other boys are.” Katia tsks as she pulls him to the table he sat at yesterday. “Well, not to worry, we’ll take care of you.”

James doesn’t point out that she was the one who kept on refilling his glass. “I never doubted you would.”

After a hearty lunch and a reminisce of Russia and Sweden, Bond searches out Estrella. She’s all too happy to see him, and after a nice shag, all too happy to talk. His “good friend” is here with some good friends of his own.

“Very professional,” Estrella says, eyeing him curiously. “Your friend must be very important.”

Bond smiles. “Quite important, yes.”

He leaves her to do her job and plants a nice explosive he never exploded and thus never returned to Q in a storage closet two doors down from Sciarra. With the whole building empty but for his enemies, he won’t have to worry about collateral damage.

And, of course, he’ll make sure Estrella’s occupied.

Back at his own hotel, Bond checks on the status of his bugs. As expected, they’ve found one or two, but the rest are functioning perfectly, not that the sounds of unpacking are particularly interesting.

He leans back in his bed, weary, and sips from his bottle of wine for half an hour, trying not to think unpleasant thoughts without succeeding. Finally, with nothing else to do, he spends three hours working out in the hotel’s luxury gym with far too many breaks in-between and then freshens up to go to dinner.

“James. Welcome back.” Enrico smiles at him and places his menu in front of him. “You have more exciting tales for us, I hope?”

“I always do.”

But when he’s getting ready to leave two hours later after a rambunctious conversation about the merits of Chinese silk and Belgium chocolate, Katia cups his cheek in her hand and peers at him closely. “You are leaving,” she states. “Silly boy, not even a goodbye?”

James grins sheepishly, as if he’s five again, caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and Monique Delacroix is scolding him between chuckles. “I’ll make sure to enjoy a delicious meal here if I’m ever in the area again.”

Katia hmphs and draws him into a close embrace. “See that you do,” she orders.  

Enrico moves to hug him next, ignoring, as his wife did, the stiffness of his shoulders. “Remember what I said,” he whispers in James’ ear. “The right person isn’t a chain. They’ll give you wings if you let them.”

And then 007’s off.

Bond walks into his flat after an M Lecture, a meeting with C, and a date with Moneypenny, and promptly freezes. His alarm system hasn’t gone off, and there’s not anything even remotely out of place, but he knows there’s an intruder here.

He listens to his instincts. It’s why he’s still alive.

Before he even has time to draw his gun, however, a smoky, sensual voice drifts over to him from the living room shadows, “Hello, James.”

Bond goes predatorily still for a moment before relaxing deliberately and calling back, “Hello, Marian.” Casually unbuttoning his jacket and hanging it up, he walks into the living room and flicks on the light.

004 lounges on his sofa like she owns it, nursing a glass of scotch. The previously-untouched bottle sits on the table in front of her, now more than a quarter gone, with an accompanying empty glass.

She turns a blood-red siren’s smile on him, flaunting a skin-tight little black dress that shows off a generous amount of leg. “Hope you don’t mind. I helped myself.”

“Not at all.” Bond leans against the doorframe and arches an eyebrow. “Mind telling me how you got in?”

Marian taps nails the same colour as her lipstick on the surface of the glass. “Q told me the codes.”

“No, he didn’t.”

“How would you know?”

Because Bond knows that Q protects all of his agents, and even if that does mean he would give 007’s security codes to 004 in a pinch, he’d also send Bond a warning ahead of time. Because even now, James trusts Q, and it’s the most bittersweet thing.

He’d like to hate it.

“Q doesn’t believe in favouritism,” he says instead.

Marian laughs, low and seductive but genuinely amused. “That’s the worst lie I’ve ever heard you tell, James.”

“I’ve told an awful lot of lies. How can you be sure this is the one?”

“Because everyone, and I do mean everyone, knows you’re his favourite. That line simply holds no weight with you.” She sips at her scotch contemplatively. “Really, it’s almost enough to make a girl jealous.”

Bond has no desire to get into this with 004. “You went after R, didn’t you?”

Marian flutters her eyelashes at him. “I don’t know what you mean.”

He snorts. “I bet she crumpled like tissue paper.” Most people do before the 1950s bombshell that Marian embodies, all wild red hair and green bedroom eyes and curves to die for. Plenty of her conquests have died, in fact, for those curves.

R, who has been infatuated with Marian for months, wouldn’t have stood a chance. Between R’s technical know-how and 004’s talent for getting into wherever she’s unwanted, even Q’s systems would cry a little.

“Now, now. You have your resources and I have mine.” Unconcerned, she crosses her legs. “What happened in Mexico City would never have happened without Q’s help, and we both know it. I hope you recognise how terribly spoilt we all are.”

“We have a nice mutualistic relationship going,” Bond says mildly. “Do you really want to complain?”

“If you find that a complaint, James, I don’t know how you get any woman to maintain a conversation with you for longer than five minutes. It must be the eyes.” Marian sighs, put-upon.

“The eyes?”

“Don’t play dumb. I’ve seen the dreadful things you do to your poor marks with those eyes. Blasted genetics.” As if she can talk. Huffing, 004 throws back the remaining scotch and then casually asks, “Have you been fighting with our darling Quartermaster, James?”

Years of espionage keep 007 from giving himself away. He doesn’t know if ‘fighting’ is the correct word. “Such serious accusations. Should I be worried, Marian?”

“Yes,” she says bluntly. “And since you weren’t before you noticed me, I can only conclude that you two are fighting. I can’t imagine I would know before you if things are what they should be. Besides, the amount of dust in your flat is appalling, not to mention the unpacked boxes.”

Bond blinks slowly at her and manages to suppress the swelling panic solely because he knows, for all her teasing, that Marian adores Q and would not be sitting here so blithely if something truly had happened. “Do I need to kill anyone?”

“Probably.” She waves a hand carelessly, but the pull of her dress reveals the outline of a gun holster and a thigh knife sheath, which ruins the effect a bit. “M won’t be happy, though.”

“When is M ever happy?” Either of them, in fact. If that was a limitation, Bond would never be able to get anything done.

“Too true, but this time, it won’t just be a grounding for a few weeks. Killing the Director of the Joint Security Committee sounds like treason against Queen and Country to me.” Marian places her empty glass on the table and regards him with a raised eyebrow.

007 tilts his head slightly, thinking back to his meeting with Max Denbigh. Stuffy, uptight, yet another bureaucrat who doesn’t know the least about fieldwork or the warmth of freshly spilt blood... but there had been something to those depthless dark eyes, the quirk of his mouth.

Yes. There had been something there. A slick, oil-like polish over rough sandpaper that had rubbed Bond’s instincts the wrong way, even beyond his automatic distaste for his new bureaucratic leash-holder.

“And what has C done to aggravate you so?” Because C has done something. No agent breaks into another agent’s home for anything less than an absolute fucking disaster. Not only would it lead to a ghastly blood stain on the rug, but it goes against the honour code of killers.

Stirring up trouble is all fine and well, after all, considering the boredom that ambushes every agent left in London without an objective for too long, but an agent had best keep it to the bloody hallways of MI6. Intruding upon someone else’s explicit territory is grounds for a shot to the leg.

Unless an assassination is in order, of course. Nothing’s sacred when death comes calling.

Which, all in all, means that 004’s either here to kill him or fucking pissed, and the evidence’s leaning towards the latter. Bond would almost feel sorry for C, but with the mention of Q thrown into the mix, he just feels like going for his Walther.

Marian smiles, shark-like, to match the diamond-hard look in her eyes. “Our Q apparently had a reckless streak a few years back. C is his ex.”


James may as well have been punched right in the solar plexus. He’d prefer it, in fact. Instead, he’s staring, trying to breathe, to think past the shock of it, hating 004 a little for springing the news on him like a trap despite knowing, too, that he would do the same.

Q’s lovely. Brilliant, kind, intelligent, clever, so lovely; hasn’t James thought before that anyone would be lucky to have him? And it isn’t as if he believed Q’s a virgin or anything like that, so there’s no reason learning of his ex should be so devastating.

It still is. It still is, because, despite all logic and rationale, some selfish, nasty part of James hoped Q would be his in body and mind and soul, although that’s hardly fair with all that James has done to himself. Trusted that, soulmates aside, he knew every single facet of Q.

But he doesn’t know anything, does he?

And really, he chose C over James? That greasy, treacherous snake of a man? Q let C take him out to dinner, give him flowers, smile at him over candlelight? Let C kiss him, run those slimy hands over that soft skin, and whisper sweet nothings in his ear? That bloody bastard?

He could have done better. James could have done better. When he thought Q deserves someone better, he didn’t mean fucking Max Denbigh.

Before the unintelligible chaos of rage-jealousy-regret-hatred-howdarehe can stretch across his throat to asphyxiate him, Bond forces a smirk on his lips and says, “I thought gossip was beneath you, Marian?”

There’s a hint of cool calculation in the curl of Marian’s full lips, but she doesn’t elaborate on whatever she saw in his small tells. No doubt leaving it unspoken for future blackmail material. Never let it be said that Double-Ohs aren’t courteous.

“Hardly gossip. In fact, I’d wager no one else but me knows that he paid a visit to Q-Branch two days ago, near midnight. Had a nice chat with Q, the normal pleasantries, and then made some... pointed comments,” she says.

“Nothing wrong with trying to rekindle a spark,” Bond murmurs through the murder in his lungs, crossing his arms so he isn’t tempted to reach for his car keys and start the short journey to C’s house. Or Q’s for that matter.

“Turned into a bit more than that, I’m afraid. Q fended him off, but he was... persistent. Luckily, I happened to be nearby and intercepted before the situation could worsen.” Marian pauses. “James. He was backing Q up against his own desk.”

The world goes still and quiet for a moment like he’s back under the water, sound and light distorted, separated from everything else by the storm, yet resting right in the centre of the whirlpool.

007 says, voice idle and too similar to dry ice for comfort, “I know a number of places in London great for dumping corpses.”

“It won’t be easy to kill a head of espionage.”

“There are two of us,” Bond points out, eminently reasonable. The world is crystalline sharp around him, at odds with the fury burning his veins and the ice spreading through his mind. “Very little is impossible, and that’s all we need.” Double-Ohs specialise in impossible.

004 hums and pours scotch into both glasses. When she offers one to him, he accepts, and when she leans against one side of the sofa, he sits next to her, riding the razor-knife of protective outrage too much to care about any potential danger that might come from her.

He’d really like to meet Max Denbigh in a dark alleyway one of these days. Sooner rather than later.

“Q would be displeased,” she says, but it’s an observation rather than a half-hearted protest. “In fact, this time around, M might just throw us in jail rather than deal with the fallout.”

“Since when do we care about that?” Bond drinks the scotch, aware of the usual heat but detached from it. “I know for a fact you have ‘problems with authority’ in your file. And prison doesn’t have a chance in hell of holding us.”

“You’re a bastard, James,” Marian says brightly after swallowing a gulp of alcohol in the most ladylike fashion possible. “Stay out of my bloody file. And have you ever seen Q’s displeased face? He puts kicked kittens to shame.”

“What happened to the puppies?”

“Q’s good enough to project immense disappointment, fragility, and hurt, and innate superiority, claws, and access to your bank account, all at once. He’s too excellent at guilt trips and threats of technological havoc to be a puppy.”

Bond is on Plan E for Operation Kill-C-Slowly-and-Painfully. He still finds the brainpower to say, somewhat disbelieving, “I’ll give you the latter, but Q does very bad guilt trips.”

“On you, maybe. I’ve been keeping an eye on him, but C hasn’t approached him again. I assume you still have affairs to take care of?”

“...yes,” Bond admits reluctantly. With this new threat, the last thing he wants to do is leave again, but M was quite clear in her message, and, well, they’re. They’re.

He doesn’t know what they are right now. They’re wobbling on a wire suspended in the middle of limbo, and they’ll have to topple off one of these days, but the thought of saying goodbye is. Is -

“Then I guess I’ll just have to spend some more quality time with R. Honestly, the sacrifices I make.”

“Your life is so hard,” Bond agrees dryly.

Marian laughs and polishes off the rest of her scotch, rising to her feet in a languid glide. “C will keep,” she says with frightening certainty, sauntering towards the door. “And I’ll make sure Q stays safe. You go out and raise more hell, lest I become more bored.”

“Your wish is my command.” Seeing her out, Bond waits until she’s out of the building and has taken off in her sexy red Ferrari before shutting his door and stalking back to his trusty sofa.

Removing his gun from the holster, Bond dismantles it and begins to clean it absently. There’s an ugliness in his gut now, burying the ache and want of him beneath bloodlust and quiet, relentless focus.

When Moneypenny drops by an hour later, she finds nothing amiss, the cold-eyed predator safely hidden away for now.

“Q wasn't exactly feeling at home in Whitehall, what with the new merger, so he set up shop here, away from prying eyes, as it were. I hear he's got something rather special planned for you,” Tanner says, staring straight ahead with a blank face.

Bond easily recalls the grouchy whinging he was subjected to regarding the merger, but it’s not enough to dampen the sting of being caught off guard with something so very important but yet entirely unexpected. Again.

All those complaints, and Q never once mentioned a problem with surveillance or his intention to promptly move Q-Branch like a misbehaving cat being carted off to a new playground. Or did he think Bond was a pair of prying eyes himself?

If nothing else, James thought Q trusted him.

“I can hardly wait.”

While he walks towards Q’s new office, he automatically notes the dampness in the air, the unevenness of the bricks at his feet. It’s colder - Q probably needs better jackets, he’s terrible at keeping himself warm - and dimmer here.

He finds himself discomforted by the changes, having grown used to the Q-Branch of old when he wasn’t looking. It’s M selling off his flat all over again, only, this time, Q isn’t going to pop up and offer him another set of keys.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, about lonely, old roamers and warm, steady homes, but Bond doesn’t want to examine it too closely for fear of what he’ll find.

Q’s new office is exactly what Bond would expect to see if his previous workspace and his lab got tossed into a tornado together and miraculously, everything came down without breaking, although Bond notices a few broken equipment here and there anyway.

Complete organised chaos.

Training dictates he be aware of his surroundings at all times, but even before Bond glances around the room, he knows Q is to his right. His presence tugs on James’ heartstrings, as irresistible as the sun after months of miserable English gloom.

Bond grits his teeth and strolls right on in, heading straight for the intriguing rifle on the centre table. Its scope has definitely been tampered with.

“007,” comes the cool, clipped greeting.

So. This is how Q wants to play it. Hell of a welcome back. “Q.” Picking up the rifle to evaluate it some more, Bond finds it heavier than expected, indicating major internal changes even if the exterior betrays little. He peers through the scope.

Tanner lets himself out, pointedly closing the door behind him.

Near soundlessly, Q gets up and walks over to efficiently remove the rifle from Bond’s tech-destroying hands. “That’s enough out of you,” he says, placing the prototype back on its stand. “You’ve had a very bad history with rifles as of late.”

He’s too close. James wants to grab him, wrap himself around him, shield him from C’s swarmy hands. He wants to shove Q away, accuse him of being cruel and callous, interrogate him about Max bloody Denbigh.

(He wants to bury his nose in the slope of Q’s neck and ask why.)

Bond takes a smooth step back, but even he can sense how hollow his smile is. “Heard about my recent exploits then.”

“Everyone has. Everyone.” Q’s eyes flash with temper, his words so carefully controlled, it’s undeniable that he’s seething. “What the bloody hell did you think you were doing?”

Q doesn’t curse often, and under any other circumstances, that posh voice shaped around such vulgar syllables would be wickedly distracting. But at the moment, James is only suddenly, viciously enraged, the low-level simmering finally hitting boiling point.

“What was I doing? What have you been doing?” Bond growls.

“You promised me you would stay safe in Mexico City! That was the only reason I told you where Marco Sciarra was!”

“First of all, your job as the Quartermaster of MI6 is to provide your agents with the information they need to complete their missions. Second of all, safety is relative. And third of all, you’ve got some nerve lecturing me about safety when your ex almost molested you in your own office.”

Q goes pale and then flushes angrily, eyes too wide. “004 had no business telling you. None at all. And nothing happened.”

Bond scoffs out a jagged laugh, taking a step forward. “Doesn’t sound like it. Trust me, if a sexual harassment form can be filed, then something happened. Unless, of course, everything was perfectly consensual; in which case, you might want to educate Marian.”

“Either way, it’s hardly your business, is it?” Q raises his eyebrow, defensiveness sharpening his words to a biting edge. “I can provide relevant information just fine, and since you’ve made it clear that’s all you require from me, I’ll thank you to refrain from judging my personal affairs.”

“If I’ve been bothering you, Q, you need only have said.” For one heartstopping moment after the words leave his mouth, James wonders what he’ll do if Q calls his bluff and tells him to leave.

Maybe their tightrope will break. Maybe that’s how they’ll say their goodbyes.

But no. “Since when have you ever listened to anything I say?” Q asks bitterly. “You’ve always done what you wanted to, even when it leads to a month off-grid and cracked ribs, haven’t you? And certainly, my equipment never comes back to me.”

James could throw something. He takes a step forward. “Why are we talking about gadgets? Why is it always the equipment with you? Their purpose is to keep me alive, isn’t it? Well, if you haven’t bloody noticed, I’m alive! What more do you want?”

“That’s not the point! I spend hours on that equipment; the least you can do is respect my work! And stop changing the subject! You don’t listen to anything I say, which is why you’re perpetually getting yourself kidnapped!”

“I do not perpetually get myself kidnapped! In fact, I’ve been doing this much longer than you have, ta very much; you were probably still in diapers when I first took the field!” James shoots back and instantly regrets it, but not enough to take it back.

It hits too close to home, and Q feels it, too, judging from the fists his hands curl into. He takes a step forward. “Don’t patronise me,” he hisses. “I’ve proved myself in everything that matters, and you know it.”

“Proven yourself? By what? Fucking Max Denbigh?” James shoots back, deliberately crude, the jealousy that never died flaring back up. “Oh yes, very mature. If you’re really that insecure, you could have let him fuck you against your desk a second time.”   

Some part of James’ mind, detached from the pent-up maelstrom, wonders numbly when he lost control of this particular vehicle and let it crash head-on into a tree, down a cliff, and into a lake, bullet-ridden and screeching.

This doesn’t happen to him. He doesn’t behave like this. He doesn’t lose his temper, doesn’t explode, at anyone like this, no matter the circumstances. No one gets under his skin to this extent. No one except Q apparently.

The rest of him can’t care one whit right now, too angry to think coherently.

Q flinches back but stands his ground. “I believe I said before that it’s none of your business, 007, and I mean it. You could listen for once in your life.”

“I’m not your dog, Q,” James sneers, shifting closer intimidatingly. “I won’t come to heel at your whistle.”

Abruptly, he notices his final step forward has brought them standing nearly chest-to-chest, barely five centimetres apart. When did that happen?

James can count Q’s eyelashes from here, can see the faint lines between his brows, the mole on his cheek and another one right above the curve of his upper lip, the lip he can kiss if he just leans forward a little.

He goes still.

Q opens his mouth but tenses up and shuts his mouth again before saying anything, apparently taking note of their position as well. His eyes widen, and from so close, James can feel his body heat, rolling over his front gently.

They just breathe for a moment, frozen in place. The shining, golden potential of the moment stretches out, stretches and stretches and


Q blows out a breath and shoves hard at James’ chest with one hand, sending him rocking back. “If you’re not a dog, why can’t you understand the basic concept of personal space? I’m your Quartermaster, not one of your marks.”

James smirks, taunting and barbed, through the sting of renewed rejection. He should know better than to hope. “I wouldn’t want you as my mark for all the money in the world.”

Hurt crumples Q’s expression for the barest second, a splash of ice water on James’ fury, but then he scowls ferociously and shoulders past James to leave, the contact rough and electric. “You are infuriating.”

“Don’t talk like you aren’t.” James follows him out, still irate but more in-control of himself. He didn’t mean...he doesn’t understand...  

“I’m not the one who broke a promise, hasn’t apologised for said breaking, and then tried to distract me from the previously stated offences,” snaps Q, who turns his head briefly to glare at him.

Like Bond hasn’t gotten into the same scraps for, oh, the last twenty fucking years and survived them, like 007 isn’t one of the many replaceable agents Q is obligated to watch over, like James’ promises are really worth all that much to Q in the long run.

Like Q’s offences aren’t far more painful.

Irritation flashes once more. “Are you still going on about that? I did what I had to do to complete the mission.”

Yes, I am still going on about that. Nice excuse but still an excuse.” Q stomps down the hallway, broadcasting enmity so loudly, the Minecraft boffin, who was leaning against the wall playing on his phone, scrambles up as soon as he catches sight of them and runs off, presumably to warn the other minions. “Try again.”

“At least I have one. Why haven’t you reported C to M yet? Or done any of the things you normally do when someone makes you cross?”

“With all of the nagging you’ve subjected me to and 004’s attempts to babysit, I doubt M will need to do anything to C at all. And I have my reasons, thank you very little.” Q pushes open a door a hallway down and gestures curtly to the fancy chair in the middle of it. “Sit.”

Bond does so with an incensed huff. “You’re taking this too lightly, and it’s going to come back and bite you in the arse.” Not that James won’t cut off C’s hands with pleasure if it goes anywhere near that arse.

“If I were you, I would be more worried about your Walther mysteriously malfunctioning next mission. Roll your cuffs up, please, and arm here.” Pulling on latex gloves, Q fits a mechanical cuff over his right arm smugly.

On the screen in front of them, a blue x-ray appears of his arm and hand. “Just relax.”

Easier said than done. James wants to grab hold of Q’s shoulders and shake him until he can concentrate on the actual bloody problem here, which is C, not the shitshow of Mexico City which honestly wasn’t that much of a shitshow anyway, compared to some of his other missions.

He doesn’t, sharply pulling on a veneer of professionalism instead to sit very still in his chair and glare a hole into Q’s head, who pretends not to notice.

Q places his thumb on a trigger. “Now you may feel a small…”

A fierce, cutting pain slices across Bond’s arm unexpectedly. “Christ!” he snaps because Q’s a cheeky brat and he’s fucking agitated.


A muscle in Bond’s jaw twitches. “What is it?” he grits out as Q removes the cuff and presses a cotton ball against the puncture wound and maps appear on the other two screens.

“Cutting-edge nanotechnology. Smart Blood. Microchips in your bloodstream. Allows us to track your movements in the field. You see those readouts? We can monitor your vital signs from anywhere on the planet,” Q recites neutrally.

Bond isn’t fooled for a second. “This is your revenge, isn’t it.”

“No, actually. Direct order of M. Call it a post-Mexico insurance.” Which is as good as a “yes, 007, I created this new technology in the past three days in a fit of spite-fueled insomnia purely because you broke a promise to me and nearly fell out of a helicopter.”

He’s not entirely sure what to make of that. “Well, that’s just marvellous.” Bond stands up and readjusts his sleeves, revising his plans. He wanted to storm right out of this godforsaken place the second Q was done, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to be happening. “Anything else, Q?”

Q stares at him, the vile realisation creeping into his face like night leeching into day. “You’re not done.” It’s not a question.

James doesn’t look at him. How dare Q look at him with those heartbroken eyes when he’s the one who lied with his omissions and strung James along for years? What right does Q have to be angry when James was the one betrayed?

When James had to learn about the situation with C from bloody 004?

“Anything else, Q?”

In the quiet of the room, he can hear Q swallow harshly. In the stillness, the fall of his shoulders is too noticeable. “Well. I’ve just, um, got one last thing for you, and you can be on your way,” he says, soft and flat, all traces of anger gone.

James can only nod silently. He thinks he prefers the angry Q.

The minions give them a wide berth when they walk into the main working hall, but Q’s already recovered his professional aplomb by then. He walks the length of the room until he reaches R’s desk, whereupon he turns to regards Bond blandly.

“I don’t suppose you’ve brought back that rifle you reported as ‘missing’ a year ago, have you, 007?” Q inquires evenly.

Bond forces a smirk, as incorrigible as they come. “Fell into the Atlantic, I’m afraid.”

Q nods curtly and throws a meaningful glance at R, who paused in her work and is listening with a frown. She sighs and types something in her computer - logging in the missing equipment again, most likely - before nodding back to Q.

In the corner of his eye, Bond notices a flutter of red that disappears seamlessly into the shadows. My, 004’s keeping a very close watch, isn’t she?

The thought of C touching Q in any way still makes him clench his jaw. Mine, some possessive part of him that’s long-since been asleep, snarls savagely, mine.  

He tells himself to shut up. To stop deluding himself, to recall that Q has never been his.

Doesn’t want to be his. Even if James...

Q strides off, but not before grabbing something from R’s desk. Leading the way to the closed garage built into the end of the hallway, he punches the code into the keypad on the wall next to it - 2703196119640326, Bond notes - and the thick metal doors slide open gracefully.

The gleaming silver beauty within steals Bond’s attention away immediately.

“Magnificent, isn’t she?” Q comments rhetorically, as Bond prowls closer to better admire the gorgeous, sleek thing. “Zero to 60 in three point two seconds. Fully bulletproof. A few little tricks up her sleeve.”

Q wanders closer to stand beside him, a nice, professional distance between them that promptly splits James’ focus in two. “It’s a shame, really,” he says, light and vindictive, turning the object in his hands over and over nervously. “She was meant for you, but she’s been reassigned to 009.”

007’s eye twitches. 009? That stiff, boring tosser without any appreciation for the finer things in life? Hell, Michael specialises in stealth missions; he probably wouldn’t take this beautiful specimen of a car above thirty-five! A bloody travesty, that’s what this is -

Through the transparent windows, he sees the car keys lying innocently on the driver’s seat.

Bond finds himself deflating so abruptly, he’s vaguely surprised there isn’t an audible balloon-like noise. The rage flickers and is replaced with a blurry sense of awe and confusion instead.

Most people aren’t anywhere near so generous, much less while furious at the recipient. Most people aren’t anywhere near so accommodating, much less with their job on the line. Bond hasn’t even asked (yet). Why is Q…?

But he’s done this once before, hasn’t he? With the whole Silva catastrophe.

“So much for my promising career in espionage.”

“But you can have this.” Q holds out what he was fiddling with, which, when Bond takes it, careful not to let their fingers touch, turns out to be a lovely Omega watch.

It doesn’t look particularly remarkable, however. “Does anything?”

“It tells the time,” Q says unhelpfully. “Might help with your punctuality issues.” He presses the code in reverse into the keyboard, once again angled so that Bond has a clear line of sight and fingers slower than they should be, and the doors slide closed.

007 shifts to make his way back to Q’s workspace. “M’s idea again?” His other emotions are a fucked-up ball of yarn doing the tango, so he gladly tunes into the pitch of his displeasure at the situation in general, which thrums loudly.

“Precisely.” Q keeps pace with him, adding quietly, “One word of warning. The...alarm is rather loud, if you know what I mean.”

James brushes his fingers lightly over the smooth metal case of the watch, feels the way it twists ever so slightly. “I think I do.” Two gifts at once, and it’s not even his birthday yet.

He realises suddenly that it wouldn’t be the first time Q gave him a car for his birthday.

The thought clashes badly with the knot of pain and hurt pulled tight in his chest, the aggravation and frustration clogging up his throat, the worry and protectiveness pulling on his shoulders, and so he pushes it away in favour of a skeleton of a familiar car.  


In the light of what he now knows, Syria makes no sense at all. Pity and compassion only go so far, and. And.

One mystery after another. James thought he had solved everything, but that’s evidently untrue. Q’s layers upon layers of enigmas, isn’t he, a puzzle entwined with secrets, and was James an idiot to ever believe he could know him, all of him, even some of him?  

Probably. But that doesn’t mean the challenge of it has lessened any in its alluring taunting, and James has always been weak to those. Resentment like cooled lava on the merge of solidifying sluices into the chaos stewing in his chest to mingle with curiosity and bewilderment.

(The contradictions, the inconsistency, the conundrum of Q - if they weren’t so painful, if he wasn’t so tired, they’d be as irresistible as cigarette smoke waved in front of a recovering addict, blood encircling a great white shark on the hunt.

Maybe still is, according to Psych, whose fools insist he harbours certain “self-destructive, masochistic desires.” It’s a good thing James never listens to Psych.)

“Oh, yes. That old thing is taking quite a bit of time.” Q places his hands on his hips, but his expression is faintly nostalgic, the veneer of rigid formality wearing thin for a beat. “Mind you, there wasn’t much to work on. Just a steering wheel.”

“I did warn you,” James says.

“And I believe I said ‘bring it back in one piece’, not ‘bring back one piece’.” Q laughs, but the attempt at levity falls flat, and his smile holds only self-depreciating humour and maybe a wisp of wistfulness.

James can only stare at him and try to breathe through the wave of sweet fondness, rising and cresting so slow and measured that he can feel every last drop seeping into his bones and flooding his mind, crashing over every other emotion with laughable ease.

God, how can anyone be so unbearably delightful?

(And how pathetic is it that he can’t even remain angry at Q for long? But then, who could ever remain angry at Q in the face of all of... this?)

Q coughs and glances away for a moment, lips pressed tightly together. When he looks back, he’s every metre the head of Q-Branch once more. “Anyway, enjoy your downtime, 007.” Pulling his jacket around him like a shield, he makes for his desk.

The dismissal is evident, the break clean. And still.

Don’t go.

“Q,” Bond calls after him.


Adjusting a cufflink and caressing the face of the watch absently with his thumb, Bond leans against Q’s desk and can’t bring himself to look at Q. He studies the ceiling casually. “Will you do something for me?” he asks because he’s a selfish bastard still, and watches Q flinch.

“What do you have in mind, exactly?” Q won’t look directly at him either, choosing to blink down at the debris on his table. His voice is too empty for all its artificial airiness, and James’ stomach sinks to his feet.

“Make me disappear.”

And Q does.

Later, when he gathers up the car, he isn’t surprised to find his Walther in the compartment.

James leaves behind some of the champagne he was drinking. It’s excellent champagne. A suitable gift for a colleague who's done him several favours.

The Thai takeaway is only because the champagne needs a compliment, of course.

Rome calls upon raw, excruciating memories of sunshine days and lazy afternoons spent doing nothing but constructing a hand drawn gift for his soulmate. With the cruelty of hindsight, James finds new meaning in Q’s previous sullen silences.

He supposes that, were their positions reversed, he wouldn’t want to be reminded of his unwanted soulmate’s pathetic attempts to communicate either.

And although Ms Sciarra is magnificent and Spectre and Franz Oberhauser are decidedly not, although most everything’s going his way, he’s uneasy, balance listing off to the side when he needs, more than ever, to be perfectly on top of his game.

(But he hasn’t been that in a long time, has he?)

Q has been his counterweight for too long. Long enough to cement expectation into habit and habit into dependency. It makes him angry all over again. He knows better than this. He was supposed to have learned his lesson a long time ago.  

Bond snarls, hands fisting on the steering wheel until his knuckles are white, and hits the ejector button, spitefully leaving the car behind to crash into the Tiber.

009, the bastard, doesn’t deserve it anyway.

Madeleine Swann embodies the frigid landscape he finds her hiding in, beautiful, pale, and oh so cold. She’s the daughter of an assassin, and he sees all the signs in the ice of her guarded greeting and the sharpened steel in her eyes.

She throws him out and threatens to call security on him, fear well-hidden but not well enough. And as he lounges at the bar, waiting impatiently for those ten minutes to be up -

“He’ll have the pyrolytic digestive enzyme shake.”

Bond twitches, the voice one he most assuredly does not welcome here.

Even if his last memory of Q’s face has haunted him for over one thousand kilometres; even if the touches of technological favour he’s so accustomed to have been sorely lacking for the past several days and driven him near mad with speculation as a result.

Even so.

Q’s supposed to be safe under 004’s watchful eye in MI6.

Goddamit, Marian.

“If you’ve come for the car, I parked it at the bottom of the Tiber,” Bond says, refusing to turn his head and look properly at his wayward soul - Quartermaster.

“Well, not to worry, 007. It was only a three million pound prototype,” comes the dry reply as Q takes a seat next to him. His arm brushes against Bond’s own, and Bond has to shift slightly away to have any hope of maintaining composure.

Bond takes a deep breath for patience. God, that’s an atrocious sweater. “Why are you here, Q? And where’s 004?”

A hum. “Oh, I just fancied a break, to be honest, and 004’s hardly my babysitter. I’d been a tad stressed at work what with C’s people crawling all over us - mind you, not C himself - and the fact that M wants my balls for Christmas decorations.”

Q pauses before adding tartly, “Not to mention, someone wouldn’t answer their phone, because someone left their phone at the bottom of the Tiber to keep my car company.”

Bond refuses to think of Q’s balls. He is, however, mildly disappointed that 004 hasn’t shot C yet. Granted, that means he has more chances to shoot C himself. Fuck, Q is distracting. It’s vexing. “Get to the point, Q.”

“The point, 007, is that Franz Oberhauser is dead. Dead and buried. And unless you come back with me right now, my career and Moneypenny's will go the same way. Do you understand? All hell is breaking loose out there and - ”  

“I saw him,” Bond interjects shortly.

Q hesitates, but carries on in a more subdued fashion, “You thought you saw him. We've been through the records. He died in an avalanche with his father twenty years ago.”

“Yes, I know that.” James wrestles down another flare of stricken irritation. It’s to be expected, but it still prickles that Q doesn’t trust him enough to take him at his word. Then again, no one said trust has to be two-sided. “But I saw him. He’s not someone I’ll ever forget.”

There’s a pause, longer this time. James expects Q to continue to needle at him, but what he says, at last, is, “You have a lead?”

“I have a name. L'Américain.”

“That doesn’t narrow much down. Bond, we don’t have enough time for this.”

James can feel Q pulling away, so he finally turns around, only to catch a lost, anguished expression on that familiar face, quickly wiped away as Q busies himself with his bag. The twist of guilt is both entirely expected and so much more uncomfortable than the ire.

“Q,” he says, entreating.

Q freezes. “What now, 007?”

Bond knows he shouldn’t. Recriminations are already entwining with the frustration to form a gag, and he’s a bloody bastard for doing this, he knows.

His reasons aside - what are his reasons? Why does he does this to himself over and over again for James Bond? Or is it for 007? He doesn’t know anymore - Q hasn’t said ‘no’ to him before. This. This is just taking advantage.

But he needs this information, and Q’s already here as Quartermaster for his recalcitrant agent, and this is the job, isn’t it? This is what they are, who they are. Something niggles at him - planes - but then Q’s looking at him with that furrow in his brow, and he can’t hesitate any longer.

(Theirs is a young man’s game without these fits of sentimentality and attacks of conscience. Maybe M was onto something, after all.)

“Do one more thing for me. Then you’re out.” He drops the Spectre ring into Q’s hand. Their fingers brush, and James nearly swallows his tongue, barely keeps his face straight. “Find out what you can from this.”

Q blows out a breath and tries to glare at James. It comes out more like despairing resignation, leaving James cold down to his very soul. “I really, really hate you right now,” he says, far too softly, with absolutely no heat.

James almost wishes there was some. “Thank you, Q.”

It’s a little like torture, watching Q’s back as he leaves once more.

When James knocks on Q’s hotel door, it’s with an utterly furious Dr Swann in tow and the remnants of a plane-car crash weighing on them both. Q opens the door a fraction so he can peek out at them, and Bond approves of the paranoia.

At least until he notices how pale Q seems to be, the stress lines etched into his forehead, the way he frowns deeper when he notices Dr Swann.

“...Bond.” Reluctantly, slowly, Q lets them in.

A quiet, glowing thought sneaks through his defences to wind its way around his heart. Could Q be jealous? He would only be jealous if… But no, James stamps on that stupid notion, puts a few metaphorical bullets through it, and throws it into an early grave.

He’s done being so gullible, so easily misled by the dreams incubated in his heart.

Then. Then, if not jealousy, what…?

“Dr Swann, Q. Q, Dr Swann.” Bond scans the hotel room but doesn’t find any sign of trouble. There’s the bed, table, several chairs, and the familiar laptop. Behind him, Q and Dr Swann exchange cautious pleasantries.

James categorises the bite in Q’s words as yet another sign that something’s amiss. Professionally speaking, Q’s in the state he should be, where he should be, and with the people he should be. So. Something personal then.

Another secret, proposes the nasty monster within, wounded, bleeding, and lashing out. James ignores it to the best of his ability.

Whatever it might be, Q’s problem is none of his business.

Q said so himself.

“Bond, we need to talk. Alone.”

“She knows.” What with the recent kidnapping attempt, it’s unwise to leave Dr Swann alone right now. That’s the justification he’ll provide if anyone asks anyhow. In truth, James simply doesn’t think he’s capable of being alone with Q at the moment.

Not without doing something he’ll regret.

Inhaling slowly, he strides over to look out the windows. There’s nothing but desolate snow outside.

“But Bond - ”

She knows.” Jittery with adrenaline and fighting Q’s pull, James’ voice is sharp, and when he turns around, arms crossed, he catches the rigid line of Q’s shoulders with contrition. He gentles his voice helplessly. “What have you got?”

Q presses his lips together and avoids Bond’s gaze to seat himself before his laptop. He debriefs them as skillfully as always, taking in Dr Swann’s contributions without blinking, impeccably polished.

He just...doesn’t meet James’ eyes the entire time.

It’s unnerving. Discomforting. But they’ve never fought like this before, so perhaps this is how Q deals with anger. It doesn’t have to mean anything.

Yet. Something’s wrong, whispers a little voice in the back of his head. Something’s wrong, something’s wrong, something’s wrong, fix it, fix it!

James plays deaf even as frost begins to collect in the pit of his stomach at the names on Q’s screen. Le Chiffre, Greene, even Silva...what the fuck has Franz been up to? They never had a particularly warm relationship, that’s true, but this is bloody ridiculous.

It makes him wonder what M knew, to send him after Sciarra. Already, he’s forming plans in his head, deciding the most efficient way to go after the few leads he has. From the corner of his eye, James counts the beats of the pulse thudding in Q’s throat.

Too fast.

Damn it.

Q leans back in his chair, dismissal evident in every line of his body, briefing wrapped up. Bond knows very well what duty would have him do. Q has a flight back home lined up, Dr Swann has just offered to lead him to L'Américain, and.


(He finds himself occasionally resenting duty nowadays.  Duty and all the sacrifices she asks of him.)

“Go ahead,” Bond says to Dr Swann. “I’ll meet you in the lobby in five minutes.” Those men are all out for the count, and he made sure no one tailed them to this hotel. She should know better than to run off after what happened not ten minutes ago. Trauma is a very effective teacher.

It’s fine. It’s all fine.

She narrows her eyes but, eager to leave his company, no doubt, nods and closes the door behind her.

The room is quiet, and Q studies his laptop like it’s the most interesting thing he’s ever seen. “What else can I do for you, 007?” he asks dully. His left hand, not currently preoccupied with the mouse, flexes into a fist and then relaxes.

James leans against his desk, thinking back to stiff shoulders and restrained movements. Q’s been showing all the hallmarks of using formality as a shield, but there’s another explanation as well. “Why are you wearing your gloves, Q? It’s warm in here.”

“I have poor circulation.”

Yes, James knows. A while back - what seems like a lifetime ago - he had to deal with Q’s cold feet pressed against his shins. He would give almost anything to return to that terrible, wonderful night. But that’s not the issue right now, the issue is -

“You never wear gloves when you’re working. Not even when R&D is woefully cold for some disastrous experiment, and you’re shivering in your lab coat.” James would know. He supplied a great deal of the hot tea that Q generally resorts to in those troubled times.

Q twitches. “What are you trying to get at, 007? If you haven’t noticed, it’s cold outside, and not all of us run at high temperatures. I’m trying to warm up. If you’re attempting to find some hidden symbolism in my clothing choices or something, you’re looking in the wrong place.”

This isn’t working. James switches tactics. “What happened after you left, Q?”

“Nothing of note. Aren’t you going to go after Dr Swann? She’s a target now, which is a rather common and somewhat worrying streak for all the pretty playthings you pick up on your missions,” Q jabs but it’s half-hearted, more as a defensive offence than true insult.

He still won’t look at James.

James doesn’t bother being offended. “Q,” he says. That, and only that.

Q shudders.

James holds out his hand.

It takes Q a few moments, but eventually, he notices the gesture and goes perilously still. A deer in headlights, he stays motionless as the clock ticks on, brow furrowing as he struggles with himself.

James waits, patient as the stars before supernova. And at last, Q closes his eyes and sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose but gives James his hand. With the utmost tenderness, James draws back his sleeve and exhales slowly at the bruise on his arm.

He’s going to kill someone. Or, he would, but he suspects he doesn’t have to.

“Q,” he says again, so soft it’s nearly soundless.

Q turns away to stare resolutely at the wall, the words tumbling out one after another. “The gondola lift. I. There were two of them, watching me. I ran, lost them for a few minutes, but. Well. I brought along a gun. And I know how to hide bodies, don’t worry.”

He’s not fucking worried about that.

Two deaths. And if one of them got close enough to inflict this bruise, then some hand-to-hand combat as well. James curses himself brutally; he should have noticed sooner, would have noticed sooner had he not been so damnably self-centered.

He’s slipping, damn it.

James evaluates the wobble in Q’s bottom lip, the tiny shivers he can feel through the arm he still holds gently, the brittle way he’s been holding himself since James arrived, and feels every last one of his reservations crumble into nothing before Q’s pain.

Soulmate or not, lies and betrayals and deception or not, James can’t stand here and watch Q hurt.

He’s not capable of it. No one can ask that of him. They’re welcome to take everything else, his blood, sweat, flesh, but this is his, the most inviolable law etched into his heart and soul.

Without letting go, James makes his way around the desk so he’s standing at Q’s side. He presses his free palm to Q’s cheek, nudging at him until dull green eyes, valiantly hiding behind dark spectacles and austere defences, are finally looking at him.

James feels himself go calm. Grounded. The confusion and anarchy that’s wrecked havoc on him since that damned acquisition form vanishes to make way for the implacable certainty that smoothly takes control of the situation, seeing as Q can’t right now.

His vengeance can - and will - come later. Q doesn’t need any of that violence at present, and James is willing to be whatever Q needs, which, instinct whispers to him, is what Q usually is to him: a lighthouse, an anchor.

Obligingly, the always-burning inferno within him lowers into a steady hearth, giving off warmth rather than malice and the burnt, wrecked skeletons of those who didn’t heed the warning and approached anyway. With nary a growl of protest, the predator closes its eyes and goes to sleep.

This is James Bond at his most unarmed, most exposed, and it’s all for Q. Only for Q. A small, minuscule part of him remains leery of a knife stabbed into his back, a gun pressed to his heart, but the rest of him honestly can’t give a damn.  

If that’s the price, then so be it.

(Beneath even that, however, is the agent who remains watchful and alert, bristling protectively. Q’s vulnerable now, can’t adequately protect himself, so James will do it for him until Q is back on his feet again. And if that means snapping a few necks, well, that’s alright.

But that’s something else entirely.)

As if he’s approaching a skittish fawn or coaxing a falcon to his hand, James slides his hand down and around to Q’s nape, taking a firm but reassuring hold. Q quivers, vicious cracks gouging down his aloof mask, and doesn’t move away.

Gliding his other hand up his arm and along his back, James waits a moment to check for any sign he’s pushing too far. But all he sees is a trust that humbles him in the way Q leans into his assassin’s touch and a forlorn plea in the clench of his fingers on James’ arms.

“I can’t stop seeing them,” Q confides, searching James’ face for an answer to a question he hasn’t asked yet. “I’ve never killed anyone like this before.”

James didn’t think so. Briefly, he recalls the spray of a shower gone cold and trembling fingers in his mouth, but he shoves the memory away; Q needs him, Vesper doesn’t.

“Shh, shh, I know.” James tugs at Q, cajoling, offering safety and sanctuary and solace, and it’s a measure of how shaken Q must be that he only hesitates for a heartbeat before burrowing into him like he wants to dive into James and never come out again. “I know.”

Q tucks his face into James’ neck and wraps his arms around his waist even as James’ own arms tighten protectively. They breathe together for a spell, and when Q lets the mask shatter at last, he doesn’t beg repentance, doesn’t ask for forgiveness, doesn’t cry out for absolution.

Shaking apart in James’ embrace, Q muffles the slightest ghost of a sob against his skin instead, and cries silently, hot tears dripping down James’ neck to disappear into his suit.

Only vaguely cognizant of time and danger, James holds Q close, swaying from side to side. Shushing him kindly, he murmurs comfort into his ear. He keeps them both upright and tries not to become hooked on the solid weight in his arms and the intimacy melting his naked heart.

Of course, he fails miserably.

“Shhhh, it’ll fade. Trust me, it’ll fade. And until then, I’ve got you.” Unable to help himself, James brushes a light kiss over Q’s incorrigible hair, stroking his hand up and down his spine slowly, soothingly. “I’ve got you.”

Q’s fragile in his arms. So terrifyingly fragile, so terrifyingly strong.

After what James’ decidedly scrambled mental clock tentatively suggests is nine minutes, Q’s tears stop. Neither of them move, however, and so they just stay there for a while longer, breathing in union, hearts beating in the same slow rhythm.

It feels like...peace. Like belonging and being whole. Sinking and flying all at once, protecting and protected, a precious oasis in a firestorm.

James never wants to let go, never wants to be anywhere else.  

But because Q exists to be contrary, he sighs after another two minutes of quiet contentment, the damp breath hitting the side of James’ neck and prompting goosebumps, and pulls away with visible reluctance.

Q’s paradoxes are too much right now for James’ mind, still pleasantly hazed over and riding the pang of loss. While James blinks slowly, hands falling to his sides, Q wipes the tear tracks off of his face, a mild flush sweeping up his cheeks.

But he squares his shoulders, tilts his chin up a fraction, and right before James’ eyes, Q reassembles his walls, pulling his professionalism around him like a cloak of protection. In seconds, he’s the Quartermaster of MI6 again.

It’s almost beautiful to watch. Almost.

“Apologies, 007. Forgive me for the lapse in composure.” Q looks him in the eye, calm and regretful. “It won’t happen again.”

James is being shut out again. It hurts, but it’s a dull ache, one he can think past within the fading echoes of his unflappable, assured headspace.

Everything else he can - mostly, somewhat, barely - rationalise away, but this doesn’t fit into the mould, has very few explanations and none that feed the vile creature gnawing at his organs.

Masks, he thinks. Masks and walls and hidden technological gifts like hand wrapped chocolates and lit candles. Open doors everywhere, in his flat and in his branch and on his missions, wherever James may be, but not in his heart.  

Q’s a puzzle, an enigma, but one James is gradually starting to piece together.

All the same, the already crushed pieces of him demand caution, and he’ll be damned if he leaves even more of his bruised heart unarmoured for Q to torment in the event that he’s wrong. So Bond protects the budding seeds in his mind with an unreadable smile.

“Of course. Don’t mention it, Q.”

He’ll make his decisions when he has the whole picture, whatever those decisions might be. Whatever the consequences.  

When Bond saunters into the lobby, he finds Dr Swann’s standards for company are still as abnormally high as they've been for the past day or so.

“James!” 004 smiles coquettishly at him as if there’s nothing at all wrong with this picture, seated elegantly on one of the two chesterfield sofas. “There you are. We’ve been waiting for you.”

“You’re late,” is all Dr Swann says, face blank and arms crossed. She’s on the one-seater to Marian’s left, and she’s not wrong. It’s disconcerting to look at the clock and find himself eight minutes behind schedule, the time passing both too fast and not fast enough.

“Hello, Marian.” 007 takes the other sofa, confident and laidback as a lazy lion. Outwardly, at least. “I see you’ve met Dr Swann.” They don’t look cosy by any means, but there’s a distinct lack of tension and animosity between them. It’s more than Dr Swann’s ever given him at any rate.

004 sniffs. “Dreadful mess you’ve gotten her all mixed up in,” she observes. “And speaking of, where’s our dear Q? Don’t tell me you’ve lost him, James.” Embedded within her words appears to be the promise of castration and other horrors if she receives the wrong answer.

Charging him with negligence; how brazen for a woman in her position. But then, offence is the best defence. “How could I?” Bond returns smoothly. “He’s packing his bags. I imagine he’ll be here now any second now.”

“What does Q stand for in the first place?” Dr Swann asks with detached curiosity, almost impressively fearless in the face of breaking into a conversation between two trained, hardened assassins. But then, she did grow up with killers, so perhaps she’s reliving childhood nostalgia.

“I’m afraid that’s classified, dearest,” Marian tells her, artfully careless. “He’s most certainly not meant to be here in Austria, though.”

“Yes, why is he here in Austria?” Bond leans back, tilting his head to the side, eyes frigid. “I thought we had an understanding, Marian.” Q got hurt. He was hurt, and yes, Bond wasn’t there to protect him and that’s his fucking fault, but he was also never supposed to be in the field.

She pouts and crosses her arms, the resulting cleavage more than enough distraction for the average questioner. Pity for her that Bond ceased to be impressed by such tactics almost a decade ago. “Are you accusing me of something here, James?”

Of course he is. “Of course not. Just an innocent question.”

“Nothing’s ever innocent coming from you.”

“Now who’s the one making accusations?”

Dr Swann glances between them and stays silent, apparently deciding to stay out of it. Probably for the best.

“Well?” Bond demands, utterly nonchalant, hand itching for his gun.

Marian huffs but a dash of chagrin flicks across her face for a millisecond. And Bond has his answer as to whether or not Q got to Austria with 004’s knowledge and approval. Good to know that’s one less crime to lay at his colleague’s sky-tall stilettos.

Then again.

“He’s barely 176 centimetres, weighs around ten stones soaking wet, and has a habit of not sleeping, not eating, and drinking astronomical amounts of tea while at work,” Bond says incredulously. “He even has a fear of planes, and you couldn’t stop him from leaving Britain.”

The Queen’s best, really.

“Have you ever tried to stop Q from doing something he really wants to do? Because let me tell you, it’s not anywhere near as easy as you might think,” Marian protests indignantly, pout deepening.

“What, did he threaten your bank account?” Bond scoffs, disdainful and not in the least bit placated. Q has some deep-muscle bruises and grazes, but it could have been far worse. Q could have been killed , and just the thought is intolerable.

James refuses to think of it, refuses to consider it.

“No. He - ” Marian cuts herself off, eyes sliding to the left, and James knows Q has walked into the lobby. Everyone turns their head slightly to watch his progress; he’s wearing a parka that’s even more atrocious than his sweater, and the shape of his mouth indicates irritation.

There’s nothing that might indicate something went wrong, no sign of weakness. He’s in control, competent and powerful, and James’ trigger finger stops itching.

Briefly, he wonders whether Q’s any good at poker.

“004,” Q greets dryly, coming to stand in front of them, completing the little square they have going, “fancy meeting you here.”

“Oh, you know how it is, I came here for a nice ski and bumped into James here, and we got to talking. What a coincidence that you’re here, too!” Marian smiles, so innocent butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. “Why, it’s almost as if none of us are meant to be anywhere near here at all.”

Q’s having none of it. “What did you do to my second in command?” he demands, and yes, there’s that displeased face 004 was gushing over earlier. James has to admit, it really is more feline than canine and also undeniably adora -

He tells himself firmly to shut the fuck up.

A flicker of annoyance quirks Marian’s lips. “Nothing at all. I dare say R’s covering for you in Q-Branch right at this moment, safe and sane. Besides, if you’re so worried about her, you shouldn’t have thrown her at me in the first place.”

So Q distracted Marian with R? That’s...surprisingly ruthless and efficient of him; he’s normally far more protective of his minions. Was he really so worried about his job, or was he more worried about -

“I left her with two tasers and an alarm,” Q says, narrowing his eyes in warning. “And R is more than smart enough to keep up with you.”

“Well, there you go. She’s fine.” Marian stands up, throwing a mischievous grin at Bond, the quicksilver mood shift almost too fast to catch, as is the wont of a Double-Oh. “Looks like playtime’s over then; I suppose we have a plane to board. We’ll see you around, James.”

James reminds himself that he’s supposed to be glad that 004’s here to take Q off his hands. He doesn’t particularly have the time to escort Q to the airport, and Dr Swann presumably wouldn’t be happy at the detour.

It doesn’t work. He’s still miffed and halfway tempted to stain Marian’s beautiful grey suit. Bond nods back and tries not to wince at the small, shallow smile Q forces himself to offer in farewell.

So, they’re back to this then. Christ, he needs a drink. And a ‘Deciphering Quartermasters for Dummies’ handbook.

“To liars...and killers...everywhere.” Madeleine drifts off, drunk on too much wine and a grief she won’t accept.

007 sits on the armchair she ordered him into and closes his eyes, the taste of old champagne on his tongue and exhaustion weighing down his bones. She wasn’t wrong; it’s both his job to keep watch and what he’s good at. Doesn’t mean he has to like it.

The room’s too quiet.

Back in the good, old days, it used to be a wonderful thing. It meant no enemies, no gunshots, nothing to worry about. And today, no one around but a woman who hates him and righteously so. James takes another swig of champagne and misses the weight of an earpiece linked to Q.

He’s gotten too used to company on nights like these, with nothing else to do but stare at the ceiling of his current hotel and wait fruitlessly for another lead.

Q’s an insomniac and a workaholic with bizarre hours, and the majority of the times 007’s still awake and restless, Q is up as well. And if he doesn’t have another mission he needs to monitor closely, Q is more than capable of doing his work while carrying on a conversation.

(Is this another sign of the favouritism 004 accused him of? Isn’t there an explanation that fits with all of Q’s actions and decisions rationally?

Yes, says his mother, but James turns away.)

They talk on nights like these. Well. They talked on nights like these. About...anything, really. Anything and everything. James has travelled extensively and knows far more than anyone expects from a blunt instrument, and Q is a genius with a laptop’s resources.

In that shitty hotel in Tianjin, they commented rudely on Chinese politics, debated the ethics of zoos, and finally concluded that pandas are badass herbivores. Busan was a playful argument on the validity of Homer’s works and the intricacies of the Industrial Revolution.

While in Yangon, James complained endlessly about the service and Q had him send a picture of the city nightscape. Q likes descriptions of exotic foods, even if he’d never try some of the more unfamiliar ones, and that one was Toronto. Cairo was aliens and cats in Egyptian mythology.

Casablanca became a witty back-and-forth on the merits of Casablanca, the movie, as could only be expected. It’s a favourite of James’, but Q is more ambivalent on it. Even a quick rewatch the day James returned to England in Q’s flat wasn’t enough to change his mind, to James’ outrage.

They tangled their legs on the sofa that time, the remembered softness of Q’s woollen socks still enough to make James’ ankles tingle. Morgana wandered in and out, but Rayleigh slept on James’ chest, his occasional fits of purring a steady counterpart to the movie’s audio.

And Baghdad... Baghdad.

James exhales slowly through his nose and chases the memories away with the last of the champagne. It’s growing humid and sweat beads on his forehead, but he can’t be bothered to wipe it away.

God, he’s pathetic, he thinks with wry, empty amusement.

When he sleeps, it’s superficial and troubled, silent and white but for the faintest echoes of laughing, loving tones that fade away each time James tries to identify what Q’s trying to tell him.

It’s almost a relief when a mouse wakes him up.

“Is this really what you want? Living in the shadows? Hunting? Being hunted? Always looking behind you? Always alone?” Madeleine asks perceptively with a psychiatrist’s air, prodding at the proverbial shark without flinching.

Bond tilts his head and smiles, every centimetre the charmer. He doesn’t show the pangs where her darts met their mark, because although psychiatrists in general are shitty, Madeleine is a damn good one. “But I’m not alone.”

“Answer the question,” Madeleine commands insistently, head held high, a queen in silver and pacifistic aggression.

She thinks she can save him, he realises. He’s become her new client in truth, a pet project to work on while they chase after the clues Mr White left them. Rehabilitating a paid assassin must be so much more interesting than the rich headcases she’s used to dealing with.

It’s a little amusing. But only until her words burrow into his mind and remind him of the truth that’s been hounding him since Mexico.

“I did,” James says, and he’s only lying a little.

Above, the speakers play jazz.

”What do we do now?” Madeleine asks, looking at Bond like he’s meant to have all the answers, breathless and exhilarated despite all her claims of how disgusting this life is, desperate for reassurance after that jolt of terror.

Bond chuckles.

He shags her, because he needs a way to bind her to him beyond the fragile strands of alliance they have now. Because he’s coming down from an adrenaline rush, too, and she’s willing and beautiful and the farthest thing from black hair and green eyes.

She kisses him back like she would drown otherwise, and briefly, he wonders who she’s thinking of as he tears moans out of her throat, because it sure as hell isn’t him.

To be fair, James isn’t thinking about her either as he fucks her into the mattress.

It’s only when Franz leads them to the screen of M and Eve in the heart of MI6 headquarters that James begins to panic.

On the screen, Q stands with Tanner by the door, dressed in an ill-fitted suit and standing with stiff propriety. 004’s nowhere in sight, and Franz shouldn’t have this kind of access in a million bloody years.

(No, no, no, not again, not after Vesper and M, and please. Please, not Q.

Anyone but Q.)

“I’m guessing our mutual friend, C, is one of your disciples,” 007 ventures coolly, forcibly pushing past the mix of black bloodthirst and red worry to pick out all the strands of the spiderweb that’s closed around them without anyone noticing.

Franz smiles at him, the reptilian amusement of something not entirely human in the way most people think of ‘human’. “You could say that.”

James briskly reshuffles his priorities. He’s going to kill Franz, destroy this facility, and then get back to England as soon as possible. He likes 004, but he only trusts her so far. And if his home soil isn’t safe anymore, if MI6 isn’t safe anymore…

He won’t bet Q’s life on chance. On anything or anyone but himself. C’s already shown an interest - or re-interest, and Christ, does that make his blood boil - in Q, and without the regulations and limitations 004 and 007 assumed he was under, who knows what he’ll do?

No. James won’t be satisfied until Q is safe and unharmed. C’s bloodied corpse would be nice, too.

But mostly Q.

007 has a long history of torture, but brain surgery via a very uncomfortable chair and needles is a new one. He has to give points to Franz - he refuses to think of him as ‘Blofeld’, what sort of fucking name is that, or ‘Oberhauser’, that’s for Hannes - for originality.

“If the needle finds the correct spot in the fusiform gyrus, you'll recognise no one. Of course, the faces of your women are interchangeable, aren't they, James? You won't know who she is. Just another passing face on your way to the grave.” Franz’s faux-pleasant smile hovers over him.

He thinks Bond is in love with Madeleine, James suddenly understands. It’s so unexpected he almost laughs out loud. What evidence did this belief come from? Two death threats, a psychiatrist session masquerading as dinner, and a one-time shag?

007’s had better romances with actual marks.

It suits him to let Franz think so, though, because if Franz doesn’t know, then he can’t hurt Q, won’t know just how much it would ruin James to witness Q hurt. Years of spywork lend credibility to Bond’s poker face, and Franz buys it, just like every other monster Bond bankrupts.

It hurts. Of course it hurts. Nothing quite like a drill forcing its way through the skull and into the brain, but Bond’s pain tolerance is high and he’s aware enough to feel sorry for Madeleine. She’s not trained for situations like this, nor is she as enured as the Q-Branch minions.

Even in the midst of excruciating pain courtesy of a terribly noticeable lack of anaesthesia, he can tell she’s not shaking purely out of stubbornness and an iron will, even as Franz goads her relentlessly.

It is because of their childhood together, after all. All of this because Hannes chose to show kindness to an orphan. How spectacularly petty. Narrow-minded. He threw away both of their lives for a metaphor about birds ?

It’s a good thing 007 has never tried to claim he understands the trite villains he comes across daily because he really bloody doesn’t.

But the one excellent aspect of villains like Franz is that they monologue. Like to hear themselves talk, gloat about their nefarious plans for world domination, bask in their own brilliance. And while they jabber on…

“The alarm is rather loud. If you know what I mean.”

Q saves him. He always does.

But with his hands locked into place behind his back, he doesn’t have any way of throwing the watch after he arms it. Not without killing both himself and Madeleine in the blast. Franz, the lucky devil, would probably get away scratch-free.

“He dies not knowing who you are. The daughter of an assassin, the only one who could have understood him. Shame.” Franz is still talking.

But this seems to be the last straw for Madeleine because Bond can hear her heels clanking on the floor. She comes into view seconds later, distress in the press of her lips and a plea in the cup of her hands on his cheeks.

Blue eyes like the sky on a harsh winter day, devoid of all clouds and so harshly bright no one can bear to look at it for too long, search Bond’s face desperately for a solution, and he thinks fondly of Mexico City.

He wonders what the Castillo’s would think of Q.

Bond looks back at Madeleine calmly, urging her to keep calm and go with it.

And perhaps Franz does have a point, because the daughter of an assassin nods minutely and presses a light kiss to his forehead. “I love you,” she says, loud enough that everyone in the room can hear.

“Does he still recognise you?” Franz calls mockingly.

Bond smiles dazedly. “I would recognise you anywhere,” he slurs, and against the brush of Madeleine’s lips, whispers, “The watch.”

And she does beautifully. In the face of a passionate, frantic kiss, no one notices the hand she sneaks down to his, the deft transfer of a time-ticking bomb.

It isn’t an exploding pen. But it’ll do.

“I said, doesn’t time fly?”

He’s going to turn forty-six in a few short weeks. And then.


“What are you doing?” Madeleine asks, confused, as Bond uncaps the pen he grabbed from the base before he blew it up in wreaths of black smoke and plums of orange fire in rapid, brutal movements.

They need to leave soon before anyone else can come after them - villains are like agents, like cockroaches: appallingly hard to kill - but first, James yanks up his sleeve and writes down in thick, black ink for the first time in years, “C’s the rat.”

He doesn’t know if this will work or not. Every law he knows about soulmates says it won’t - “If they’re in love, truly in love, soulmates can converse through ink,” murmurs his mother - but he has to try.

“Sending a warning,” grunts Bond and starts up the helicopter. They need to get to the nearest airport.

Max Denbigh is the rat. - Q

Source? - MH

I trust him. - Q

I’ll take care of MI5. Prepare MI6. Inform Gareth Mallory. - MH

Don’t be an idiot. - SH

Noted. - Q

“It’s Q, isn’t it?” Madeleine says, two hours into their flight towards England. The silence she breaks is comfortable and half an hour old, but her question automatically strings tension into James’ muscles.

He doesn’t like her knowing tone.

“You’ll have to be a little more specific,” Bond responds, keeping his expression relaxed. “What about Q?”

“He’s the one you were protecting from Blofeld.” She pins him with an astute look, eyes narrowed as if daring him to bullshit her. “Your soulmate.”

His first instinct is to protect and deny and talk in circles until she loses faith in that belief. But 007 has been saved by that iron spine twice, and now probably isn’t the time to underestimate it. His second plan is to ignore her until this topic is dropped.

James takes a deep breath and asks, “What gave it away?”

Madeleine scoffs. “I’m not a psychiatrist because of my pretty face, you know,” she says dryly. “Your body language at the hotel and that warning on your arm tell me everything I need to know.”

Despite the anxiety playing hopscotch with calculating unease, Bond can’t help but be a little offended. “I’m a secret agent. I have perfect control over my body language.”

She arches a disdainful eyebrow. “Since the moment you entered that hotel room, you were angled towards him at all times, you put yourself between me and him as often as you could, and you two orbited each other like planets. All textbook examples of a soulmate pair.”

James blinks, caught off guard. He doesn’t like it. “Was it that obvious?”

“No,” Madeleine admits. “But my childhood taught me to pay attention to the little hints.” She pauses, tilting so her shoulder brushes against his in undemanding support. “Does he know?”

He doesn’t want to tell anyone, but he really wants to tell someone. And she’s better than most; trauma and danger have a way of entangling people together; he knows that more than anyone. “...yes.”

“Then what’s the issue?”

James’ laugh is rusty. “He didn’t tell me. He knew we were soulmates for years, and he didn’t tell me. I had to find out by myself, through a careless mistake no less.”

Madeleine hums carefully. “Have you talked to him about it?” She reads his grimace with ease. “Well, you should. It’s the only way you’ll ever get closure. Staying like this isn’t good for either of you.”

“We’ve been like this for years,” James points out although her words merely echo his previous thoughts.

“Yes, and he’s known the entire time. If you think these past few - what, days, weeks? - have been miserable, imagine what he must have felt for years.” Madeleine’s words are tart, but the pat of her hand on his is compassionate. “I’ve told you before, James. You deserve more.”

“...I’ll think about it,” James says.

Madeleine frowns at him. “Are you just saying that so I’ll stop talking about it?”

She catches on quick, he acknowledges with a small smile. “No,” he says and is even mostly sure he’s not lying. “Tell me about your soulmate, Madeleine. Maybe I’ll learn something.”

The unimpressed look on her face tells him she’s well-aware of the topic change, but Madeleine huffs and lets it go for now. A radiant smile lights up her eyes moments later, leaving the few smirks she’s offered Bond a washed-out imitation.

“She’s a poet,” Madeleine says, “and she writes me little poems every few days. They’re in Hindi so it took me some years to learn the language and understand everything, but I’m fluent nowadays. She’s a gardener by trade, I think, and she likes to create bouquets on my arms…”

She goes on, gesturing animatedly, a snowflake sparkling under a golden shaft of sunlight with every dendrite and plate outlined in brilliant white, so evidently besotted, that James does understand, a little.

If James acts like this around Q, then only a blind, deaf, and unobservant idiot could possibly miss the fact that he’s head over heels for his soulmate.

It makes him wonder what other people think of Q’s behaviour around James, and that inevitably leads to Eve and Marian’s comments echoing inside his head, all thoughtlessly dropped as if common knowledge.

And isn’t there a betting pool somewhere in MI6?

“007,” M greets as soon as he steps into the safehouse. “Can you confirm Q’s accusations of C?”

So. That’s that then. All the cards on the table. If he didn’t know before, then Q knows now. “Yes. I heard it from the mouth of Spectre’s leader, Ernest Stavro Blofeld, myself.”

M nods curtly. “Then we’d best get moving. Q’s already busy hacking into Nine Eyes with 004 as his backup. Moneypenny and Tanner are waking up the chain of command. We’re going after C.”

“And after this is all over, 007...” M’s look is complicated, pity and compassion and good old British fortitude, “...we’re going to have a long conversation.”

No, Bond thinks, their conversation will be very short, but he nods anyway.

M’s plans don’t work out like they’re supposed to, of course, but the thought was nice.

“Finish it. Finish it!” Franz demands, cold and quiet and as maniacal as ever.

007 smiles like liquid nitrogen, still panting from the chase. Mercy is for the angels, and he’s no angel. “As you say.”

And his trusty Walther ends it all with a single bullet.

Two minutes after Franz is pronounced medically dead, Bond’s phone rings.

“James,” Marian says without greeting. “Q’s safe, not a scratch on him, but C got away while I was busy with his goons, and Q was preoccupied with taking down Nine Eyes. I got a bullet in the bastard’s stomach, though, so he won’t be coming back for a second round anytime soon.”

007 stares out at the night sky, the calm river. “Acknowledged. Stay with him for now. Q’ll be an even bigger target than before, and Spectre remains a threat even with Blofeld dead.”

“That was a given,” she scoffs, then pauses. “What are you going to do now, James?”

“Tie up my strings,” he says and hangs up.

Bond walks away from the scene of the crime because he knows how it’s going to go. There’ll be an investigation, he’ll be called in for a hearing, piles of paperwork will be dumped on him, and then there’ll be inquiries for another seven weeks.

No, thank you.

James walks away from the corpse of his once-brother and guides Madeleine away with a hand on her back, because she’s almost been killed tonight for the fourth time this week and he promised her dying father that he would look after her.

He escorts her to the airport and goes with her to New Delhi, India. He even goes as far as to take her to a nice hotel, where she finally presses a hand to his chest and a kiss to his cheek.

“Talk to him,” she says with the sweetest smile she has ever shown him. “Go on, be happy. And don’t ever show up at my doorstep again.”

James smiles back at her fondly. “Goodbye, Madeleine. I hope you find who you’re looking for.”

“So do I. Goodbye, James.”

It’s two in the morning when James finally makes his way back down to Q-Branch. The lift groans and shudders around him, poor old thing, and he closes his eyes briefly, trying to catalogue all that he’s feeling.

He has a mostly-complete puzzle in his hands, one that dictates loyalty and affection and selfless devotion, but there are still pieces missing, ways for this to go catastrophically wrong. He could lose everything he has with Q, could ruin everything, could find himself saying goodbye, but.

But -

They have to choose. They’ve been balanced on the dagger’s edge long enough. They can’t stay here - James knows better than most the dangers of keeping still - and this is the only way to move forward.

He’s frightened. He can confess that to himself now. He’s more frightened than he ever was at the mercy of a drill or a whip, facing down megalomaniacs and terrorists with novella-long kill lists. He’s jittery with restless anxiety and tense with the anticipation of a gunshot wound.

There’s that swoop in his stomach like he’s three thousand metres above ground and getting ready to fall, the quickness in his breath like he has his hands on the match and the gasoline is just waiting to be ignited. He’s standing on the edge of a cliff, arms splayed out, the wind tugging at his hair, his clothes, the ground a million kilometres away, and the fall calls to him, taunting him with one misstep, one hesitation.

But James has always been an adrenaline junkie, a gambler, prone to taking risks. He doesn’t put much faith in fate, but he’s always believed in himself. And he trusts Q with his life and his secrets, so surely, surely -

The lift doors open.

A single lonely lamp valiantly attempts to light up the gloom of Q-Branch but fails quite miserably. It’s near-perfectly silent but for the rumble of machines and the rasp of breathing. Q is sitting at his desk, the workaholic, alone, his minions nowhere in sight.

Presumably, they’re actually sleeping like human beings do, he thinks, hopelessly fond and more than a little relieved. He didn’t doubt Marian’s word, but seeing Q with his own eyes, safe and healthy and beautiful, has no equal.

Q’s already looking up, squinting into the light. “Bond?” he calls out falteringly, and this time around, James doesn’t doubt his ears when they pick out a delicate thread of delighted joy. “What are you doing here?”

James strolls easily up to Q, who’s risen out of his seat and walked around his desk to face him. “Good morning, Q.”  

Q’s face contorts, sorrow and fear in the lines of his forehead, hope and relief in the slightest tilt of his lips, confusion and hesitancy in the beetling of his eyebrows. “I thought you’d gone,” he says, so soft it sounds like waking up from a nightmare to find sunrise.

“No,” James replies evenly.

“Then why are you here?” Q bits his lip, glancing away for a moment as if asking for a reprieve. He must know, they both know, all of the cards are on the table for the first time, but he says anyway, “It’s the car, isn’t it?”

“No,” James says again, a bit exasperated, a bit sad.

“I won’t give you an exploding pen, Bond,” Q admonishes quietly, but even he must hear how weak and hollow the words ring, lined with an exhaustion that’s far older than several weeks and a bone-deep resignation that James instantly despises.

“I’m not here for an exploding pen, Q,” James asserts. “I’m here for a long overdue talk.”

Q clenches his jaw, eye flickering. He leans away subtly, defences snapping into place. “Don’t do this,” he says, but it sounds like a plea.

James can’t do anything but ignore that, however much he might want to. They have to see this through. “When did you know?” he asks, keeping his voice low and steady, although the remembered betrayal stabs knives of renewed anger and pain through his ribs.

Q hunches his shoulders as if trying to ward off a blow and stares at a spot on the wall about a metre to the left of James’ head. “Do you really want to know?”

“Yes.” And he isn’t lying.

“...six years ago,” Q grits out, vibrating like a livewire stretched too thin.


“I came looking for you.”

What? That makes no sense -

Six years ago. That was when…

A puzzle piece tumbles into his hands. Click. “Vesper.” James can barely recall that night, drunken out of his mind and drowning under a wave of grief and shredded wishes, but the following morning is clear as day, sharpened by panic and guilt.

Q nods tightly, the curl of his mouth bitter. “I hacked into the MI6 databases, but it was sloppy work. Naturally, I got caught, and then. Well.” He laughs hoarsely, completely devoid of humour.

James shakes his head a little, feeling full understanding hover just out of his reach to his frustration. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he demands helplessly.

And this. This is the crux of the matter, isn’t it?

Q breaks. Detonates. That’s the only way James knows how to describe it, all of the tension shattering into an explosion that’s been quietly building for years, a corroding melting pot of fury, denial, and unhappiness brought to overflowing at long last.

He whirls on James, the violent transition from stillness to movement almost enough to startle 007 into taking a step back. “How could I?” he yells, voice echoing off the walls. “You were in love with Vesper, you were mourning Vesper! What was I supposed to do, walk right up and introduce myself as your soulmate after it was obvious you weren’t interested?”

James flinches, dumbfounded and speechless for a beat, before his own ire surpasses his calm. “Yes, you bloody well should have! It’s better than what you ended up doing anyway!” he snaps back. “And what about the other five years? That excuse barely works for six months!”

“Six months?” Q repeats incredulously. “Less than six months ago, you were torn up over your anniversary!”

And... click. “Q,” James says slowly, outrage sputtering out as if doused in Arctic ice, “you can’t think I’m still in love with Vesper.”

Q hesitates, eyes flickering uncertainly. “You’re hung up on her,” he says but there’s doubt there now. “Everyone says so.”

James stares at Q like he suddenly sprouted blond hair and became the head of an international terrorist organisation. “No,” he says for the third time this morning. “Everyone says I’m hung up on you.

“No one says that,” Q argues weakly.

“Don’t try and tell me Moneypenny hasn’t told you about the betting pool, because I won’t believe you.”

“Since when do you care about what other people think?” Q asks, quickly getting over his confusion to return to fury. “Besides, my subordinates bet on everything from the day’s weather to when the next M Lecture will occur; I fail to see your point.”

James narrows his eyes. He knows a stalling tactic when he sees one, and Q’s hiding something. There’s something else beyond Vesper. “Fine, let’s just say for argument’s sake, I was preoccupied with Vesper for the first year. What about everything after that?”

“There’s nothing else. Coercing you with a bond you never had any say in and didn’t want seemed like more than enough.”

There isn’t a visible tell, like a twitch when bluffing or a habit of drawing circles on the knee when nervous, and Q’s poker face is as flawless as it was in that museum, in Austria, but James still looks at him and knows Q is lying. He doesn’t know when that happened.

Plus, there’s - “How could you know?”


“How could you know I don’t want a soulmate?” James hasn’t talked to anyone about his soulmate, not since Vesper and M -


Fuck. Her.

“M,” he says, and it’s only because he’s watching Q so closely that he catches the two blinks. James should have expected this, really; he witnessed the wreckage M’s soulmate left behind him, has been labouring under her rules since he was made 007. “M told you that.”

“M doesn’t even know!” Q doesn’t wear obliviousness well.

“Not Mallory,” James scoffs because apparently they’re going to go through this song and dance before getting to the heart of the matter. “M. Our M. Olivia Mansfield.”

Q says nothing which is, in of itself, a confirmation.

“What else did she say?” James demands, his temper a creeping, unstoppable sheet of ice spreading over the horizon in stark contrast to Q’s volcanic explosion. “Did she have you sign a contract? Did she threaten you? What did she do?”  

“Bond - “

“Answer me!”

“That’s private - “

“Like hell it’s private. This has nothing to do with M and everything to do with us. What did she do, Q?”

“I promised!” Q bursts out and promptly winces in self-reproach. The words are out, though, and James is already connecting the dots.

Damn that cunning old bitch. No wonder she looked so regretful in her video; she’s been stabbing him in the back for years.

“You promised,” he repeats, icy and vehement. “You promised her you wouldn’t tell me, wouldn’t so much as hint at it, didn’t you? And when she died, you continued to honour that promise.”

Q shakes his head slightly, but it’s a feeble refusal. He’s retreated to the safety of his desk now, leaning on the wood like he’d collapse otherwise. There’s still a stubborn tilt to his chin, though, and what more can possibly be left?

James isn’t leaving until he’s dug out every last puzzle piece. “What did she say to you to get you to agree that, hmm? I don’t want a soulmate? I’ll never get over Vesper? MI6 policies obligate you to repudiate your soulmate? It’s for the greater good of Queen and Country?”

Q clenches his jaw tight and doesn’t say a word.

It’s not that. Maybe some of each, because M was a master manipulator and would do whatever she could to get what she wanted with what she termed “reasonable” sacrifices, but Q’s smart, Q’s brave, Q wouldn’t have stayed silent for six years for any of that, for all of that.

Q -

“You’ve always done what you want, even when it leads to a month off-grid and cracked ribs, haven’t you?”

James looks at Q and thinks of coming home after weeks without the slightest of contact to find heavy bags under his eyes and exhaustion lining his face, the expensive and time-consuming equipment shoved into his arms, the way Q stays on the comm even when he doesn’t have to.

And he thinks of M, who was shattered by 009’s death, who tried to protect her agents when she could - not always, not most of the time, but to the best of her ability - and who looked James in the eye and told him it was for the best that he never contact his soulmate again.


“She said you would put me in danger,” James says, very softly, and Q’s face crumbles.

“I’ve ran the statistics,” he mumbles miserably after a long moment of silence. “Not the bullshit ones, the actual statistics from MI6 records, and before M’s rules, 20% of agents were...removed from MI6 because of some soulmate-related issue.”

“Q - “

“No, don’t. Reasons range from execution for treason, defection, homicide, murder-suicides, double suicides, distractions at the wrong time, leverage, hostage situations, etcetera, etcetera. One out of every ten agents who found and connected with their soulmate died.”

James can only stare, speechless.

Q takes a deep breath. “In a 90% confidence interval, unbound agents have a higher survival rate than bound agents by 23% to 54%. I’ve run probability tests, regression tests, sample tests - some of it may just be propaganda, but the numbers don’t lie.”

He pauses and then repeats, “The numbers don’t lie, Bond, and unattached agents are better off, trust me, so just.” He swallows hard and juts his chin out, eyes too bright, meeting James’ gaze with a wild, desperate obstinacy.

“Just...forget about this, alright? Forget about this, all of it. We can go back to - to being what we were, and it’ll be fine. Or, if you don’t want that, you can have the car, if you like. Dr Swann’s probably still waiting for you, isn’t she? And you - I - what do you want me to - ”


“Q,” James says, very calmly. “Shut up.”

Q shuts up.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he states, “and I’ll be back soon, but I have a few affairs I need to take care of. Eat some food before you starve, for Christ’s sake, and take a nap before noon.”

James turns on his heel and walks out of the room.

It’s nine at night when James stumbles into Q’s flat and makes his way up to his place wearily. He stands in front of the door and looks up at the cameras, wondering if Q’s revoked his access.

There’s a familiar whirring sound as the locks disengage. That’s a no then.

It’s dark inside, which means Q is most likely still working away back in Q-Branch. He tends to throw himself into work when he’s upset about something, but hopefully, he’ll have noticed the phone notification - because he must have one - and will be on his way home soon.

James flips on the light and is greeted with Rayleigh half a minute later, the Russian Blue streaking out of the bedroom to nudge his head against his knee and meow loudly in welcome. Morgana follows more leisurely, obviously above such enthusiastic displays, and sniffs at him.

Oddly enough, James gets the impression that that’s as much of an honour as it gets.

“Hello there,” he murmurs, bending down to pick up Rayleigh, who’s much heavier than he looks, even with all of the fluff and bulk. Rayleigh purrs and rubs his head against his chest, taking no notice of the hairs he’s getting all over James’ suit.

He finds he doesn’t really care.

Taking him to the sofa, James sinks down with a sigh, relishing the feeling of warmth and home that instantly wraps around him. In his brief absence, Q’s clutter has once again taken over the table. If all goes well, maybe James will clean it up later, when he’s not so tired out.

Something familiar catches his eye before he turns away. Buried beneath the blueprints is one of those special felt-tipped black pens he remembers so well from childhood.

He stares at it for what feels like an exceedingly long time.

Six years. That’s...a bloody long time. To watch and wait without any expectation of reciprocated affection. To. To improve systems and second-handedly conduct missions and invent better technology and dance with death and stay fucking put in MI6 for James Bond.

James unearths the pen carefully and uncaps it. He rolls up his sleeve and writes on his upper arm:

Inside a maid’s hand is a box.

Inside the box is evil.

I am inside evil,

And humanity is inside me.

What am I?

A heavy weight lands on his legs, startling a full-body jerk out of him. James raises his head, but it’s only Morgana, circling around - and stepping repeatedly on - his legs until she finds a suitable position and settles down with a disdainful meow.

“Sod off,” he tells her, putting the pen back.

She yawns at him and closes her eyes, curling into a tighter ball. Rayleigh is already asleep on his chest.

James smiles faintly and closes his eyes. He’ll just rest for a little until Q comes home  -

Q dawdles outside of his own door for a good five minutes, pacing with nowhere to go and twisting his hands, knowing he needs to take a chokehold of whatever courage that remains after the day he’s had and face the lovely farewell awaiting him beyond that familiar door but.

But -

And he’s always known this time would come, didn’t he? Q’s not a genius for nothing, and he might not be Mycroft, with his gift for manipulating people into doing exactly what he wants, or Sherlock, who can read an individual’s life story in a glance, but Q.

Q knows how to look at a set of data and predict a situation, run simulations and design programs for attacks that haven’t occurred yet, and he saw this coming a long time ago.

Knew it the first time he saw James Bond, hiding from behind a computer screen and anonymity, strut into Q-Branch, confident and magnetic and with the most gorgeous smirk when presented with another small, charming gadget created beneath Q’s careful fingers.  

Knew it when they first met, truly met, and despite himself, despite every attempt to steel himself, despite his fury over the nerve of Bond, to write to Q after years of silence right when Q thought he was dead, Q found himself enraptured by the respect in his voice when he said, “Q.”

Knew it when one day, Q looked up from his work to find a perfectly-brewed cup of tea next to him and his favourite pastry sitting right next to it and his scarf hanging off his chair and smiled, only to realise Bond had been conducting a siege, had already won, and Q hadn’t even known.  

Q swallows hard and closes his eyes against the tears welling up. He doesn’t want to turn that doorknob, doesn’t want to enter his own flat. Doesn’t want to confront Bond - James, James, it’s okay now, isn’t it? - and the inevitable goodbyes.

Will he be pitying? Angry, as he’s been? Not gentle, please not gentle, not like that hotel room in Austria, Q won’t be able to stand that. He’ll bear everything else, but -

...well. This wasn’t going to work anyway, right? He knew they’d end up like this, didn’t he? So, why, why -

Q takes a deep breath and pushes down a sob. That’s enough. That’s enough. He’s not here for a self-pitying fest, for God’s sake. “All lives end. All hearts are broken. Caring is not an advantage,” he whispers to himself and unlocks his door and steps inside.

Mechanically, he removes his shoes and hangs up his jacket. When he glances into the living room, the sun is sinking down the horizon, flooding the space with a warm, soft light and illuminating the beautiful man sleeping on his sofa with gold.

Q’s breath catches.

James sleeps, limbs splayed out carelessly, Rayleigh on his chest and Morgana on his legs. He hasn’t stirred since Q walked in and froze and, for a Double-Oh, that. That -  

Q doesn’t know how long he leans against the wall, desperately drinking in every last detail he can, while he still can. The light plays tricks on James’ hair, turning it a wheat yellow one moment and then a mellow cream.

There are several strands of silver there, he notices with a jolt. It only adds to James’ charm, because he’s a lucky bastard like that.

James has his eyes closed, and that’s. That’s good. Q’s proven himself helpless against those brilliant blue eyes time and time again, but here, now, on Q’s sofa, there’s a peacefulness, a serenity, to James’ distinguished features that he’s rarely ever seen and it’s just as effective.

Figures James can do this to him without even being awake.

Q shivers. It’s then that he takes note of the darkness engulfing the sky and the chill sinking into the floorboards. The nights in November can get a bit cold, and shit, he’s being selfish again, isn’t he? He told himself he wouldn’t, that he would be better, but he’s not good at this.

Cursing himself the entire time, Q tiptoes to his closet and grabs one of his best comforters. Moving back to the living room with every ounce of stealth he possesses from trying to sneak up on Mycroft and tracking criminals with Sherlock, he shakes out the duvet.

Carefully, lightly, he covers James with the comforter. Rayleigh sleeps on, so he ends up covered as well, but Morgana twitches awake the instant the material touches her back. Pinning him with a disapproving look until he consents to picking her up, she snuggles into his chest with a purr.

James never so much as shifts.

That. That sort of instinctive trust - soulmates, he tells himself, reminds himself. They’re soulmates, it’s just evolutionary instinct; it doesn’t mean anything; doesn’t - James doesn’t even know what he’s doing. Not doing.

(Does it matter?)

Q knows he shouldn’t. Should keep his distance, should not torment himself any further; he’s supposed to be smarter than this, damn it! But if this is the last time he’ll see James, see his soulmate and the love of his fucking life, then, then, it’s okay, isn’t it?

He buries his face in Morgana’s fur for a moment, shoulders shaking. It has to be okay.

Q sits on the armrest James isn’t using as a pillow and swings his legs around so he’s facing James. He sleeps on, and Q’s heart hurts, and -

Please don’t go.

The tears fall into Morgana’s fur and down into his collar.

James wakes to the understanding that he’s being watched.

He doesn’t open his eyes immediately. Morgana’s weight has disappeared from his legs, but Rayleigh continues to sleep on his chest; he can feel the movement as the cat’s chest expands and compresses evenly.

Someone is watching him.

A thick comforter has been tucked around him. He feels well-rested and comfortable for the first time since that damned, blessed acquisition form. His brain feels like it’s been muffled in cotton, everything slow and groggy.  

It’s quiet, and he’s warm and safe, and he opens his eyes.

The living room is dark. He’s slept for some time. The only light comes from the moonlight and streetlight, both gently invited in by the drawn-back curtains. Shadows soften the edges of the furniture like the careful rubbing of an artist’s finger over firm charcoal lines.

Q sits on the armrest across him, Morgana nestled happily in his arms. The faint light glides over him, picking up the strong line of his jaw, the barest arch of his left cheekbone, the furrowed line of his eyebrows, but leaving alone the beautiful green of his eyes, the slope of his soft lips.

He’s looking straight at James and thus is in the perfect position to see his eyes open. James sees him stiffen, sees the way he draws back slightly.

His feet are only a few centimetres from his own, and it only seems natural to James to wriggle forward slightly to touch them together. “Good evening,” he says, voice rough from sleep and affection.

Q shifts a bit but doesn’t pull his feet back. The angle of the light changes, and James realises there are tear tracks on his face. His smile fades. “Q,” he says, sitting up, the comforter falling off of his shoulders to pool on his lap.

He forgot about the cat.  

Rayleigh wakes up with a protesting whine, squinting up at James with censure, only to settle down again when James bodily repositions him on one of the few pillows Q keeps on the sofa.

Silently, Q lets Morgana go, who joins Rayleigh on the pillow.

When James reaches for Q, he doesn’t flinch away. James cradles Q’s face between his hands and wipes away the lingering moisture with his thumbs. He searches Q’s expression for any explanation why...beyond the obvious, that is. “What’s wrong?”

Q bites his lower lip. His skin is soft and cool to the touch, and his eyes are still too wet. “Why are you here, 007?” It’s the weakest attempt at professionalism James has ever known from him, and Q must know it, too.

James looks at Q for a long time, letting the silence stretch out, tasting this moment on his tongue. They’ll never be who they are right now after this point.

He’s glad for it.

Removing his left hand, he reaches into the inner pocket of his suit and gives Q a DVD. “Play it.”

“Bond - ”

“Q.” He locks gazes with his soulmate and smiles, naked with affection and not bothering to hide it. “Trust me.”

Q laughs a little at that, bittersweet and sad. “I didn’t think you were cruel,” he accuses tiredly.

That stings, but James reminds himself that Q doesn’t know; James hasn’t told him yet; Q’s been waiting and heartbroken for a long time; James once thought the same thing. “Trust me,” he repeats steadily.

Q sighs and closes his eyes tightly. Weariness is etched into the corners around his mouth, the dark bags under his eyes, and of course Q hasn’t slept a minute since he last saw him despite James’ reminder.

Without a word, Q jerks out of James’ grip and nearly trips. Righting himself with a mumbled curse, he makes his way across the room and inserts the DVD into the technological contraption he houses in a drawer below the telly.

He fiddles with the remote and visibly stiffens when M’s face appears on the screen.

James leans against the armrest that Q just vacated and watches. He’s seen this clip so many times he can recite the words from memory. M, regal and stern and unafraid in the face of her own death, gives him her final mission from beyond death.

And then she hesitates. She presses her lips together and squares her shoulders and lifts her chin and asserts crisply, “Don’t make me turn in my grave, Bond. I’m telling you this in the interest of national security. Use the information wisely.”

The address of Q’s flat, the flat they’re both standing in right now, spills into the silence, and when she’s done, M looks straight at the camera. “Good luck,” she says simply, fierce and defiant to the end, and the screen fades to black.

Q stands there a minute longer, stiff and tense as if frozen to the spot.

James stands up soundlessly, leaving the comforter on the sofa. “She gave us her blessing.”

When Q turns to face him, there’s something bewildered to the turn of his mouth, something terribly, beautifully vulnerable to the way he looks at him. “Bond - ”

“You’re not bound by your promise to her anymore.” He strides around the table.

Q shakes his head minutely. “Bond.”

Slow and inexorable as the tide coming in, called by the gravity of the moon, James comes to stand in front of Q and places his hands on his cheeks once more. “I’m not,” he breathes into the air they share, “in love with Vesper. I haven’t been in love with Vesper for years.”

Bond,” Q says, and there’s a plea in his name now. He’s afraid, they both are, and yet.

James doesn’t stop, murmuring the words against Q’s temple, “That night when I came to you, I was mourning her, yes, but only for who she was. She’s in my past. If any part of me does still love her, it loves my memories of her, not her, not Vesper Lynd.”

“007, please.” Q’s hand darts up, quick as a hummingbird and trembling slightly, to wrap loosely around James’ wrist.

And here they are.

James smiles, wry, and rests his forehead against Q’s. “Q,” he whispers like a secret, “I broke into M’s office twelve hours ago and nailed my resignation letter to his table with a throwing knife. I’m not 007 anymore.”

Q jerks, eyes flying wide open, gaping, but James was prepared for that and keeps him in place with the gentle pressure of his hands.

“You what?” he hisses, hand clenching tight on James’ wrist. “How could you - this is because of what I said earlier, isn’t it? You can’t - not for me, come on - if you call now, M might - ” He twists in James’ grasp, already looking for his phone, but James doesn’t let him go.

“Well now, that’s a tad presumptuous of you, isn’t it?” There’s a very faint timbre to his words that suggests a pleased smugness, and Q stops struggling to frown thunderously at him.

“This isn’t bloody funny, Bond! You love your job! You love what you do! You’re - devoted to Queen and Country and all that and - I’m not letting you throw all that out the window, because I was stupid and tea-deprived. Where is - where did I put my damned phone - ” He starts struggling again, turning this way and that.

Q’s protests parallel James’ own reservations, the ones that have held him back since Mexico. But he’s made his decision, and he’s made his peace with it, and now that Q’s reiterated everything, he finds he can’t possibly care less, and Q really needs to stop squirming.

“Q, I’m forty-six,” James says, quiet but blunt. “The retirement age for Double-Ohs is forty-five. I’m past my expiration date already, and to keep MI6 going, M needs to save face after this fiasco with Spectre. He can’t defend an agent who went rogue without losing all credibility.”

Q stops moving.

“I won’t be harshly punished because I did take down Blofeld, but I’ve brought too much attention to myself. M can’t blatantly flaunt governmental policies, not now. It was either he fire me or I quit. And I’ve always gone my own way, you know that. Besides.” He nuzzles against Q’s forehead, and he regrets some of it perhaps, will miss the fire and ice of field work, but not enough to regret this: Q, home, and joy. “I have you now.” It’s a fair trade in James’ opinion.

Q opens his mouth. Nothing comes out. He shakes his head again and closes his mouth, apparently speechless. Were it any other scenario, James would be amused, but now, he merely waits, impatient and anxious but trying not to show it.

Q stares at James, wonder in his shining eyes, and tries again. “You. I. I - all three?” M and Vesper and MI6.

He hums. “All three. Of course. I would have done whatever you wanted, whatever you needed.” James curls himself around Q, hands sliding down his neck, over his shoulders, and then down his sides to wrap around his waist protectively.

Q doesn’t move for a second. Two. James holds his breath and waits, heartbeat too fast and throat dry, tightrope straining beneath his feet.

Slowly, hesitantly, Q leans into James, relaxing one muscle at a time until he’s boneless. He embraces James in return, grip possessive and desperate and just as tender, and rests his head against James’ shoulder. Q’s cold nose nudges against his neck.

They’re pressed together, entwined around each other, and they’re safe, they've stepped off the tightrope and onto solid ground and he's never loved stability more.

James sighs slowly, melting a little.

This was what they were meant to be doing all along. This has always been their end goal, regardless of what they’ve each thought individually. Here. Just like this.

“Are you sure, Bond?” Q whispers, uncertainty polluting his touch, still holding back a centimetre. “Are you positive?”

“James,” he insists, rocking them slowly in place to a lullaby he faintly recalls his mother used to sing to him at night. “Call me James.”

“Are you sure, James?” His name is lovely on Q’s tongue, in that precise, rich voice, and James smiles.

He breathes in Q’s scent - stale tea and citrus cologne - and thinks of the bright, radiant light in his heart. It’s been there for a while now, growing and glowing. “Inside a maid’s hand is a box. Inside the box is evil. I am inside evil, and humanity is inside me. What am I?

Q blinks at him. And then, at last, he smiles back. “Hope.”

Chapter Text

It’s not perfect. Things aren’t easy. Not everything is magically fixed.

James has been an agent for seven years and retired for less than twenty-four hours. After believing he’d never have a chance with his soulmate for six years, Q first seriously considered the alternative approximately thirty minutes ago.

They don’t do much that first night. James holds Q until Q’s yawning into his shoulder, and then he guides them both to the bed. They sleep wrapped around each other, and in the morning, James wakes up first, warm and comfortable and enveloped in the soothingly familiar scent of Q.

It’s quiet, the lulling, cotton-like type of silence that breathes like the rhythmic wash of the waves and settles over him with the warmth of a tucked-in blanket. For the longest time, the only sound James can hear is their breathing, and he doesn’t know when the two sounds became one, only that it has.

As the sun wakes from its slumber, he hears scratchy sounds from the kitchen that he presumes are the cats eating breakfast. There’s a brief conversation in which purrs of varying tones are exchanged, but the cats behave. Not long after that, the erratic hum of early traffic layers itself on top of cheerful birdsong.

It’s going to be a good day.

He lays there for a long time, watching the depthless sky fade into the softest blue and then the shy path of the sunlight as it tiptoes through the window, over the beautiful man who sleeps so trustingly on James’ chest. There’s an itch in his bones born from midnight training exercises and a life spent running, but he doesn’t go.

Q’s limbs are holding him captive, after all. And James has no intention of freeing himself.

Mostly, he watches Q, absently carding his fingers through that soft, incorrigible hair. Q’s bedhead is even worse than his normal mess. His nose wrinkles a little sometimes, for no reason James can determine, and his only reaction to the increased volume and light is to snuggle harder into James. It’s ridiculously endearing.

When, upon waking up, it takes Q several seconds to recognise him and the first thing he does is jerk back in alarm, James says nothing.

“I’m sorry,” Q whispers when comprehension filters back into his eyes once more. He sits up and reaches out tentatively, hands hovering over James’ face, and James doesn’t hesitate to take them into his. “I just - it’s hard to - ”

“I know,” James breathes, pressing his cheek to Q’s open palm. “It’s alright.” It hurts that it’s come to this, but they both need time to accustom themselves to the new status quo, and he’s waited so long, they’ve both waited so long, that this is nothing in the grand scheme of things.

Q closes his eyes and sighs slowly, deeply. He leans into James, who envelops Q in a snug embrace, quietly thrilled that he’s able to do so, allowed, encouraged even. He plants a kiss on top of Q’s head and says, “We’ll adjust.”

“Yes,” Q replies, soft but certain. “We will.”

They stay like that for the majority of the morning, doing nothing but basking in each other, until Rayleigh and Morgana pad in, meowing in demand. Then, James unwinds himself to get up and start breakfast while Q pays Their Majesties the attention they deserve.

They eat breakfast at the dining table. The silence is born small and stifled but grows in comfort and contentment until they kill it by chatting easily about Shakespeare and the new movies coming out.

“We should see one,” James says, voice confident in an attempt to hide the fact that he’s actually dipping his toe into cold waters, trying to decide whether to dive in or to flinch back.

Q’s blink is startled, and his expression is uncertain, but he smiles and he looks at James like he’s done something worthy of medals and explosive pens. “I’d like that.”

James smiles back, and icy water or not, perhaps this is something worth drowning for. It’s the closest he’s ever come to understanding Vesper’s final moments. “It’s a date then.”

And so, they spend their Sunday afternoon in the theatres. The Martian isn’t as bad as James thought it would be. Still, he finds the way Q tentatively reaches for the popcorn in his lap and the light brush of their shoulders far more interesting.

They sit in the very back to appease James’ paranoia, such that when James, staring intently at the screen, places his right hand carefully over Q’s in the space between their armrests, no one else notices. No one else cares. It's a delicious freedom.

He feels Q go still and tense, shifting back as if to pull away. James keeps his hand where it is, touch light and undemanding, and reaches for some popcorn with his free hand, feigning complete disinterest in anything but the movie. The stuttering of his heart is expertly masked.

“What the fuck? What the fuck?” Mark Watney says on screen.

Gradually, Q relaxes and curls his fingers in response. James eats his popcorn, flushed with warmth. Later, they eat curry at a place James knows and very pointedly talk about everything but James’ resignation and MI6. Instead, they argue about Q’s cardigans and James’ hatred of fennel seed.

And much, much later, despite Q’s wary eyes and tense posture, they fall asleep in much the same position in which they woke up, tangled in each other and sharing the same sweet air.

Things aren’t magically fixed. But that’s okay. James is stubborn as a mule, and Q’s a mechanic by nature. They’ll fix things themselves. They don’t need magic; what has magic ever done for them but craft the initial link? They’ve done the rest themselves, and they’ll do this, too.

It’s not perfect, but it’s them, and that’s perfect in its own way.

When James was thinking of retirement, he thought of the fire and brimstone. He mourned the missions and the gunfights and the magnificent cars, the adrenaline in his veins and the righteuosness in his fists, the dutiful driving force of Queen and Country.

He wasn’t thinking about the grains of time that fall through the hourglass, the small moments that make up a lifetime. That’s Q’s job, the little details, the fastidious flourishes that save or doom an agent, and Q didn’t know until it was done.

He’s not 007 anymore. Not Agent Bond anymore. Not a blunt instrument or the trigger finger on a gun or a soldier or a sailor, barely a servant of Her Majesty and only in the sense of a civilian, and God, he’s a civilian now.

To be fair, a civilian far more dangerous unarmed than the local authority en masse and with far too many international secrets tucked away in the crevices of his mind, but still. A bloody civilian.

A civilian with time on his hands and no job and nothing to do.

For the first week, James occupies himself with moving some small stuff into Q’s flat. There’s not much to do. He barely has anything in his old flat, not when his shaving kit is under the sink and his scotch lingers in the kitchen, unopened. What little furniture he has, he’s reluctant to bring up to Q while they’re still shaky beneath the veil of safety.

Still, he buys another, bigger bookcase and hangs paintings on Q’s empty walls. Sometimes, when Q thinks James isn’t looking, he’ll trail a finger down the painting to feel the texture of the paint and smile, wistful and lovely.

Most of the time, of course, Q is busy at MI6, which moves on without Bond as is the wont of national security and secret services, doing more damage control and running his branch. He remains the Quartermaster, and James doesn’t do him the insult of expecting any less.

“No one knows yet,” Q says when he comes home on Tuesday. He’s smirking with an edge of impish mischief. “They just think you’re on another one of your unwarranted vacations. M hasn’t said a word.”

“‘Unwarranted’?” James repeats, mock indignant. He’s curled up horizontally on the sofa with Rayleigh and a copy of Q’s The Great Gatsby, having given up on constructing the bookshelf today. “I’ll have you know that you would be envious of my days-off if you knew about them.”

“I’m sure,” Q says, perfectly dry, as he hangs up his jacket and walks over to sit next to James. Their thighs brush. James loses his spot on the page. “The alcohol poisoning and the one-night stands are exactly what I’ve been missing.”

James stops pretending he’s still reading to raise his eyebrows at Q over the book. He’s not wrong, but - “And how would you know that?”

Q freezes in the act of reaching for Morgana, who followed him, and blushes a pretty pink. He picks up Morgana and buries half his face in her spectacularly fluffy fur. “It’s common knowledge,” he claims.

“Ah yes, bluffing to the best poker player MI6 has ever known.” James smirks and puts the book down on the (cleared and cleaned) table, splayed open to keep his place. This is far more interesting than reading about Gatsby mooning after Daisy.

Q scowls immediately. “Stop that, you’ll ruin the spine,” he scolds, stretching forward to insert a piece of crumpled steel from some ill-begotten project he probably started in the middle of the night between the pages and snap the book shut.

James eyes the makeshift bookmark dubiously. “Won’t that be worse for the book?”

“‘Course not. And watch the ego or we won’t be able to fit the cats on the sofa. You are not the best poker player in MI6’s history.” Q sniffs imperiously, settling back down with a roll of his neck.

James quiets under a flicker of sadness - “Take the next one. There isn’t room enough for me and your ego.” - but he meets Q’s gaze, warm and relaxed, and lets the past go. “And how can you claim that? What proof do you have?”

“Bond. I don’t need proof to know you can’t possibly be the best,” Q says, exasperated.

“James,” he reminds gently and moves on before recrimination can bleed into Q’s face. “Most MI6 employees think I’m - I was the best Double-Oh in MI6 history.” It’s not regret that plagues him. It’s a vague sense of aimless bewilderment now that one of the strongest ties that kept him tethered to Earth is broken, sawed away by a knife in his own hand.

But not regret. Never regret. He won’t do that to Q, won’t poison them like that, every passing thought coloured with resentment another drop of acid splashing over both of their hearts. He’s seen it happen so many times, and it’s ugly and pitiful always.

Besides, he’s in no danger of losing himself. Not when Q sits so near and tints his vision with glorious sunshine, reminds him with every passing moment how lovely it is to be alive and in love.

Q doesn’t mention his slip, nor his faint grimace. “Well then, more’s the fool of them,” he scoffs, but his teasing smile gives him away. “You were the greatest hazard to my tech in all the world, but that’s hardly a compliment.”

“I’ll take it anyway.” James winks, leaning back on the armrest. “You didn’t answer my question. Were you stalking me, Q?”

Q flushes soft pink. “...I wouldn’t say ‘stalking,’” he says at last. “Stalking is such a harsh word. Strong negative connotations. I wasn’t - villains stalk, and I didn’t mean anything by it, really -

“Q - ”

“It was just a peek through the CCTV cameras when I didn’t have anything else to do, I swear. Or, well, maybe a little directing of the traffic lights, but that’s nothing to what I can do - not that, um, I would do any of that for you. It’s technically illegal. Well, I would, but that’s not the point - ”


“It’s just - I was doing my duty as Q; you said it yourself, and once a Quartermaster, always a Quartermaster. I wasn’t Quartermaster at the time, actually, not most of the time, to be honest, but I wasn’t trying to be creepy, I only wanted to make sure you were okay - ”

“Q!” James lunges across the sofa (ignoring Rayleigh’s outraged wail as he’s knocked unceremoniously to the floor, which is promptly echoed by Morgana as she joins him) to cup Q’s face in his hands and press his lips to Q’s.

Q stops talking.

There are stories. There are many stories. Isn’t the pinnacle of emotion that of the love between soulmates? Since the written language was created, poets have cooed reverently of the first time soulmates find ink on their skin, the first time soulmates look into each other’s eyes.

The first time romantic soulmates kiss.

James has kept away from it for the most part. Why read of what he can never have? Why torment himself with the forbidden fruit when the lingering gifts on his skin already make him ache? No, better to let the sleeping dragon lie and get on with it.

He hasn’t been able to avoid everything, though. There was Romeo and Juliet in primary school and then Antony and Cleopatra in Uni, before the variety of books he found himself reading because Q was - is - an unrepentant bookworm and a cheeky little shit even way back then.

The most celebrated writers and poets of all time tend to describe that very first kiss as magnificent events, so grand and brilliant that it seemed to James that they were as inconspicuous and private and harmless as an atomic bomb. Fascinating to a point but mostly terrifying and not at all like something he’d like to experience personally.

His kiss with Q is nothing like that.

Q’s startled and astonished and utterly unprepared. He’s stiff and uncooperative while James waits patiently, brushing his lips against Q’s in small, coaxing kisses until, slowly, oh so slowly, he begins to respond.

The angle isn’t the most comfortable, and James is in an awkward position due to his lack of forethought, so they’re forced to do some reshuffling. Q ends up straddling him, kept steady by the strong hands on his hips.

Q remains doubtful still, and that translates into his every movement, from the slight tilt of his head to find a better fit for their lips to the shift of his hands linking themselves behind James’ neck to the careful way he presses himself against James.

For his part, James closes his eyes and follows Q’s cues, letting him lead their dance instead of taking over as instinct urges him to do. He relaxes deliberately, lowers all his walls because he needs to for this to work, because Q needs him to do so, and for one of the few times in his life, simply gives.

It’s a cautious, mindful kiss, sweetly chaste and almost innocent in its purity, thrumming with the novelty of this intimacy and grounded in the familiarity of their affection, and unlike any other James has ever had. It’s not fireworks. Not the be-all end-all of his existence, not a perfect culminating second of bliss, not instant enlightenment. Not lust-filled and irresistible nor intoxicating and drugging as heroin.

Their kiss isn’t any of that. It’s just...the comfort of a home in each other, the assurance of an enduring love come what may, the tenderness of new lovers and old souls, and the warmth, as slow and sweet as honey, trickling into his heart. The contact is almost familiar, the taste of Q almost a long-ago memory. James loses himself in the push and pull of the touch of their lips, feels the imprint of it carve itself into his bones until it thrives in his bloodstream, and delights selfishly in the knowledge that he’ll never again be free of Q.

When they break apart at last for want of oxygen, Q’s eyes are dilated and considerably dazed and so heartbreakingly green. “James….”

James smiles and nuzzles his nose against Q’s, at peace with the world and supremely content. “I don’t mind, Q.” It’s flattering - comforting, really - that Q watches, has been watching, has cared enough to watch over James for years. “I just didn’t think you were into voyeurism.”

Q splutters and whacks his shoulder weakly while James chuckles into his neck.

And they’re happy.

James kisses Q often in the next few days.

As a morning wake-up call after James has woken up at the crack of dawn as is habit, gone for a parkour run, returned, showered, and circled back to Q, although the bad breath can necessitate a mint afterwards. As a goodbye and a ‘have-a-good day’ on the doorstep, a welcome home that’s slow and luscious, a soporific goodnight in a peck on the forehead to soothe out all those pesky lines.

A barely-there press to his neck at three in the morning when Q wakes up briefly to go to the loo and then fluttering kisses to his hair when they’re curled up together on the sofa watching whatever has caught their fancy that night. And sometimes, many times, just because James has wanted to kiss Q like this for so very long and Q is starved for affection, whether he knows it or not.

(And maybe, maybe, so is James.)

He keeps his touches innocent and light, knowing better than to push here and now, but it doesn’t matter, not when Q’s hands on his jaw send shivers down his spine and a light caress to Q’s nape has him audibly losing his train of thought.

They’re so terribly, uncontrollably sensitive to each other, and it’s divine.

James finds himself walking away from their deeper kisses hot and aching, weak in the knees and nerve endings trembling. For a man who’s been desensitized to pleasure for years, it’s an exquisitely brutal shock to the system and one he embraces with hedonistic glee.

At first, Q reacts to this sudden influx in kisses with pleased confusion and uncertain reciprocation after a second or two to process and adjust. This eventually devolves into ‘I-know-what-you’re-doing’ looks and a roll of his eyes. But he begins to tilt his chin up whenever James is close and returns the kisses without prompting, melting gorgeously into James rather than flinching away.

James smugly counts this tactic as an absolute success.

Even if - oh, God - the slowly-simmering heat building up in his veins is going to kill him one day. One day quite soon.

It rains all throughout Wednesday. Q goes with James anyway, bundled up in a thick coat and holding the flowers while James holds up the umbrella for the both of them. They say their piece separately, and when it’s James’ turn, he kneels and touches his hand to the white stone of the grave.

“I wonder what you would say to me now,” he murmurs over the susurrus of the rain. “Retired and breaking every soulmate regulation you ever set in place. I’m not 007 anymore, M. You probably would have scolded me to death before anything else could do the trick.”

Only the howl of the wind answers him.

The dead don’t speak.

James stands up and regards the grave to the left. “Or maybe you would have approved,” he says with a hint of a rueful smile. “You chose to be buried next to your husband in the end, despite everything, after all.”

He sets the bouquet of gladiolus they brought together on Olivia Mansfield’s grave and turns to leave.

James doesn’t linger.

Q’s waiting for him.

On Thursday night, James lays his head on the armchair of the sofa. It took a bit of coaxing, but Q is sprawled out on top of him, the warm weight of him an inexplicable comfort. On the telly, the latest episode of Doctor Who ends, the familiar theme song fading out. Morgana is napping at their feet, and Rayleigh has curled up on the (still) uncluttered table.

It’s been a long day for them both. James spent much of his time rearranging Q’s - their - flat. He finally got the bookshelf to work, entertained the little monsters, who have been unaccountably clinging and demanding, and made some discreet calls.

The remnants of Spectre still haunt him, and although Franz is dead and James isn’t 007 anymore, he needs to know what happened.

His contacts tell him that Spectre is spinning, dazed and aimless with the death of their leader. Between their words, he hears foreshadowing of an imminent power struggle because a power vacuum never lasts.

And then there’s that rat bastard he never got to kill.

“You never really explained C to me,” James murmurs into Q’s hair, his hands stroking along the curve of his back gently.

Q grumbles into James’ chest. “Wha ‘bout him?” he slurs, drowsy. He neatly sidestepped the question of what he was doing today, but the way he inhaled his lasagna and succumbed to James’ cajoling with only half of his usual reluctance suggests intensive work in R&D.

James taps his fingers lightly on Q’s spine in admonishment for playing at ignorance. “He was your ex,” he starts.

“Hmm. You can’t mean you’re still jealous,” Q protests faintly.

James scoffs. “He was rather obsessed with you if you’ve forgotten,” he reminds, somewhat petulantly, depositing a kiss to a very unruly curl.

Q opens his eyes halfway to peer at him. “You are jealous. Why the hell are you jealous? He tried to kill me, and here you are, in my flat, spoiling my cats.”

“I don’t spoil them. They’ve just learned from your bad example and are impossibly dictatorial when you’re not here to rein them in.”

“Ah, yes, the great James Bond, defeated by two cats who can’t possibly weigh more than two stones together,” Q mocks with a shake of his head. “What has the world come to?”

“A complete and utter disgrace, no doubt, just like MI6’s inability to successfully track down a Max Denbigh, a single criminal who shouldn’t have any great resources left and was last seen wounded via GSW.”

Q lifts his head up to frown at James, eyes now wide open. “Is that why you’re asking? And how do you know that anyway? Your security clearance…isn’t what it was.”

James ignores the pause. Of the two of them, Q has taken to James’ retirement with the most discomfort, but James knows that can be cured only through time and stability. Good thing he’s nothing but obstinate when he sets his mind to something; Q will understand that James isn’t going anywhere if it’s the last thing he’ll do.

There are worse lifelong goals. “I called and asked,” he replies, smirking.

Q’s glare is blatantly unimpressed. “Called whom and asked what?”

James chuckles and noses at the curve of his ear. “Q-Branch, of course.”

“Not possible,” Q refutes at once. “All calls from Double-Ohs get transferred to me or R. I would have known.”

“Mmm, but you were busy eating those cupcakes.” The ones James sent from the local bakery at 1300 precisely. It would have taken around fifteen minutes for the delivery to get to MI6, ten for the sweets to pass security despite James’ voucher, and five for the twelve boxes to get to Q-Branch.

Upon which Q could be reliably distracted for around ten minutes. More than enough time for James to phone in a minute beforehand, capture an unlucky minion who doesn’t yet know he’s retired, and pry out any relevant information about Max Denbigh.

James watches Q work this out in less than a minute and doesn’t bother avoiding the hand that comes up to slap at his chest. It doesn’t hurt. “You bloody manipulative bastard,” Q says. “You better not have threatened my subordinate.”

“‘Course not,” James soothes, smirk only widening. “He accepted the cupcakes as bribery.” He doesn’t mention the side-deal that James was never to bring about the Minecraft hobby again; the boffin’s a good minion otherwise.

“Terrible man,” Q chastises, but a smile is tugging on that generous mouth. “Don’t go bribing and manipulating my hapless employees again or I’ll make you rewatch Mr and Mrs Smith.”

James groans dramatically. “Please no, Q. Anything but that.”

“Well.” Q pretends to reconsider. “They were delicious cupcakes.”

“You said I wasn’t to bribe your employees. Does that mean I have permission to bribe Quartermasters?” James murmurs lowly, pressing a kiss to his earlobe.

Q shivers delightfully in his arms but manages to pin a haughty look on him, regardless, prim and posh. “Mr Bond, you can try.”

Yes, James thinks suddenly. Yes, because he’s always known that Q deserves the best, knew from the very beginning that Q deserves a soulmate who will cherish and adore him as he is meant to be cherished and adored, but -

He is that soulmate, isn’t he?

“Then I’ll do my best,” James promises with a depth of sincerity he’s surprised he still has, a little breathless, a little amazed at how lucky he is. He knows he won’t ever deserve Q, but he can try. Oh, but he has to try.

Q freezes, searching James’ face with wide eyes. James doesn’t know what he finds, but it must be adequate because Q’s face softens into a wondering smile. He pushes himself up so he can lean down and kiss James with disarming tenderness, the first time he’s ever initiated a kiss between them.

James arches into it, sighing into Q’s mouth. He never feels quite as loved as he does beneath Q’s touch. When they break apart, Q rests his head on James’ chest, and James curves his hands lightly around his delicate hipbones.

They listen to each other breathe for a while.

The time between James first discovering the truth and his resignation wasn’t very long, really, but it felt like a century. Luxuriating in Q like this now seems the greatest of indulgences, better than the softest silken sheets and hour-long hot showers.

He would be content to stay here forever, but that crick in his neck isn’t going to get better anytime soon.

In the end, James is the one who ends up shooing them both off the sofa and towards the bedroom when Q starts yawning dangerously. Tucked in bed and isolated from the rest of the world, safe and warm, he entwines his legs with Q’s and says, “So. Max Denbigh?”

Q groans. “James.”


“Is it really necessary to finish talking about him today? What about tomorrow? At breakfast? You know, when I’m actually awake.”

James doesn’t mention that people tend to be more truthful and open to telling secrets when they’re tired or that he’s been trained to pursue answers until he gets them. Q probably already knows both pieces of information anyway. “I’ll buy you tiramisu. The good kind.”

“What did I say about bribery?”

“That I should do it and do it well.”

“...fuck. I did say that, didn’t I?”

James chuckles but sombers up quickly. “He’s obsessed with you, he’s threatened you, and no one knows where he is. Tell me what I need to know, Q.”

Q squints at him blearily. “Just like old times then?” A Quartermaster providing intel to his Double-Oh agent.

No. He doesn’t want to return to the mould that caused them both such pain. “Well,” he allows, “it’s possible that I might also be asking out of personal reasons, but that’s not particularly relevant to this conversation.”

Q’s lips curve minutely. “Personal reasons, hmm?”

“Not relevant.”

Q snorts and seems to shake himself out of sleep again. “Yes, alright. I met Max four years ago at a tech conference.”

“You were working at MI6 by that time,” James comments, already passably irritated but doing his best to remain neutral.

“For two years,” Q agrees, frowning. “We dated casually for three months before I broke up with him. Max was...intense. Brilliant, which was what caught my attention in the first place but with very radical views even then. We only saw each other sporadically, so it took me some time to catch the red flags.”

James is frowning. “He never hurt you, did he?” he asks, the faintest dagger-edge sheen to his voice.

Q shakes his head. “No, but he would speak contemptuously of the UK government and how they run things. I never let on that I was anything more than a computer systems analyst, so he didn’t know about my brother - ”

“The minor government official?” James can’t help but mock.

Q’s look is droll. “Yes, that one.”

James is at once both vaguely impressed and somewhat miffed by the memory. “You lied right to my face, you cheeky little shit,” he accuses mildly despite stroking his hand down the curve of Q’s back.

The brief flicker of guilt and recrimination that manifested in the twist of Q’s lips lessens by a degree but only by a degree. “I’m sorry,” he says, quiet and direct. “I know it’s not much, but I hated lying to you.”

James presses a kiss to his forehead and doesn’t say he forgives Q. He thinks he does - after everything 007 has done in the name of achieving his objective, everything James has done because he didn’t know, he must, right? - but he murmurs, “I understand why.”

Q studies him and nods like he heard everything James didn’t say. “Max didn’t know about Mycroft, so he couldn’t use me to get to him. But his morals were always...greyer than your average civilian and he started showing far too much interest in my hacking skills.”

“So you broke it off.”

“So I broke it off. He accepted the breakup really easily,” Q notes almost ruefully. “It wasn’t a messy end with screaming or fighting or any of that. We just...went our separate ways. It’s not as if we ever had a close or particularly meaningful relationship.”

James carefully hides the vindictive smugness in his chest before Q can see it. It’s petty and unreasonable, but he’s stupidly glad C never held any piece of Q’s heart, never had anything James has or will have.

“I made sure to wipe all of my contact information and render myself untraceable to him from there on, though, and I hadn’t seen him until I realized he was C,” Q adds.

James muses this over. “Why was he fixated so heavily on you? If you didn’t have a close relationship.”

Q hums. “I don’t think he was focused on me actually. Not really.”

“What do you call him backing you up against your own desk?” James scowls, brows drawing together and muscles tensing. “If that’s not personal harassment, HR needs to rework their policies.”

Q favours him with a roll of his eyes and kisses the temper right out of him. “Nothing happened, I told you. And I was reaching for a taser anyway,” he says tartly.

James frowns sullenly, both pleased and annoyed that Q’s using his own tactics against him. “If he wasn’t focused on you, then what was he doing?”

Q hesitates but admits slowly, “I think he wanted to recruit me.”

James makes the connections in a heartbeat and curses harshly. Franz did have some idea of who Q is to him, after all. Vesper stares at him accusingly from his mind’s eye, and M goes limp in his arms, and no, James won’t let him - “Did he know - ”

Q’s already shaking his head. “No, he never made any sort of indication that he knew. And I have no doubt that if he had, he would have rubbed it in my face and made some sort of vague threat, so I can’t imagine Max knew anything about us.”

Us. A measure of calm saturates James despite the dread still cold and coagulated in his chest. He likes thinking of them as a unit, as a team in all things. He noses at Q’s soft, thick hair. The touch helps anchor him, pushing back the panic spurring on his heartbeat so his words come out evenly, “Did he want you as his own personal Quartermaster then?”

“You know,” Q says, staring up at the ceiling, “I don’t think you’re far off. I was the only one who could have taken down Nine Eyes, my security clearance isn’t too shabby, and I all but built MI6’s systems from scratch. I could have been very useful to them.”

James tenses. “In my experience,” he rumbles into Q’s ear, “it’s never a good thing to be ‘useful’ to people in power. They don’t let you go.”

Q blinks up at him. “Are you suggesting I’m in danger?” He pets James’ chest idly, not even seeming to realise what he’s doing, until James settles down again with a huff, muscles unwinding.

He considers the idea. “Not at the moment, no. Spectre is still in tatters, and C is wounded. There’s no one left to go after you. But’s not implausible. We’ll have to monitor the situation closely.”

Q yawns widely. “Noted. Now, may I please go to sleep, Mr Bond, or do you have more intensely relevant and jealous questions to ask before sunrise?”

James contemplates protesting the jealous description, only to decide it’s not worth it. He nips playfully at Q’s earlobe instead, grinning at the indignant squeak that earns him. “I could think of far more interesting things to do than sleep,” he teases cautiously.

Q snorts and rolls his eyes at him. “Good night, James.” He yawns again, nose scrunching up adorably, and closes his eyes, snuggling into James’ chest.

And there was a time when Q would have jumped out of the bed at such a remark like a cat ambushed with an icy shower. James marvels quietly at the difference and presses a goodnight kiss to his forehead. “Good night, Q,” he whispers back.

And even while he drifts off to sleep, James begins to plan.

Moneypenny calls on Friday at noon. “You sly bastard,” she says as soon as he picks up.

“Good morning to you, too, Ms Moneypenny.” James frowns at the mess of plates on the kitchen counter. Q is easily distracted by his gadgets and not even close to the neatest person on the planet, and they spent last night cuddling on the sofa with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. playing instead of doing chores.

James, however, is Navy through and through, and those unwashed plates are taunting him.

“I can’t believe that’s how you quit!” Moneypenny says, half admiring, half reproachful. “Haven’t you ever heard of a two weeks notice, James?”

He hums. “Can’t say I have. Double-Ohs generally don’t have two weeks to make up their minds on whether or not it’s time to die yet.”

“Don’t be morbid. You’re not dead unless Q’s been working on zombie formulas without M’s approval. You two have made up, haven’t you?” There’s a snap to her voice that calls to mind the knives she hides among her pens in the Moroccan mug on her desk.

James would be intimidated if he wasn’t James Bond and Q doesn’t keep a stash of weapons in their panic room - hidden behind their clothes and the secret entrance in the wall of their closet - and that’s all without mentioning the weapons James likes to tuck here and there in the rest of the flat.

With Q’s full knowledge and permission, of course.

“You seem awfully interested. I thought you’re already taken by that mysterious paramour of yours,” he murmurs, giving the dirty plates the stink-eye but moving to arrange his books on the new bookshelf. It looks awfully innocent for all the trouble it gave him. Those directions were such shit.

Moneypenny tsks. “Don’t go fishing,” she says. “This isn’t about me. Am I to take that as confirmation the two of you have kissed and made up?”

Keeping in mind Q’s current filing system, James slides the books on weapons, explosives, survival, and culture next to the ones on coding, programming, and engineering on the top shelf. “I suppose you could say that.”

There’s a pause that informs him she wasn’t expecting him to admit to anything. “Oh?”

James smirks. “I’ll tell you the date if you can wrangle me permission to enter MI6 anytime I like from M.”

Moneypenny curses. “What sort of bargain is that?”

“A good one.”

“You’re retired, James. You can’t just waltz in whenever you please.”

“Then I’ll tell Marian.”

“I despise you with all my heart,” she declares calmly. “Fine. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Nice doing business with you, Ms Moneypenny,” James says and hangs up.

Three hours later, Moneypenny calls again when James is adjusting the new picture on the wall. It’s tilting a fraction too far to the right. “I can get you a consultant position. You won’t have your previous access, but you’ll be able to get inside Q-Branch.”

James was in the business for too long for him to accept that without reading the fine print. “And…?”

“And you’ll have to a teach a class or five every year and mentor some trainees, but that’s nothing. Come on, James.”

James has tackled the plates in the intermission and now is frowning at the floor beneath the table. God, when was the last time Q swept? At least James pays people very generously to clean his flat regularly, even though he’s rarely there.

“How’s M?” he asks, not agreeing but not disagreeing either.

“Pissed. But he would have offered you the position anyway if you hadn’t decided to be such a drama queen about your resignation.”

James is honestly offended. “I am not a drama queen.”

“Think whatever you like, James; you’re really very dramatic. Well? When did the kissing happen?”

“Do you want to know when we kissed or when we made up?”

“...there’s a difference? Oh, my.” There’s vindictive glee in Moneypenny’s voice, and James feels somewhat sorry for Q, who’ll be under siege for information quite soon. But better Q than James. “Hmm, when did you two get together?”

James thinks about it. “Six days ago.”

There’s a silence before Moneypenny curses a blue streak.

“Who won?” he asks, curious.

“Tanner,” Moneypenny spits out. “Tanner won. Oh, I’m going to kill him and steal all his money.”

“Watch out for Mrs Tanner,” James warns nonchalantly. “She knows how to use a gun.”

Moneypenny hisses like a provoked viper. “I have stilettos, and I know how to use them. She has nothing on me.”

And with that, she hangs up.


“In the kitchen.”

When Q comes home, he finds James cooking pasta sauce on the stove, the strained pasta in a bowl next to him. The domesticity they’ve fallen into should be concerning, and sometimes, when James is bored and restless in-between all of the moving in, he thinks that he should be alarmed. But mostly, it just feels right.

Q sidles up behind him. There’s hesitance in the arms he wraps around James’ waist but also a growing confidence in his welcome. Q hangs his chin on his shoulder, resting some of his weight on James, who takes it with ease. “You caused quite a stir at MI6 today,” he says, quiet.

“Did I?” James replies, equally quiet, and stirs the sauce. He’s a much better cook than Q, and he doesn’t mind cooking for the both of them. It satiates the traditional heart of him, which loves nothing more than providing for his partner, and assures him that Q is eating properly.

Q hums and tucks his face into the crook of James’ neck. “Yeah. Everyone finally figured out that you retired. No more misuses of Q-Branch resources for you.”

James chuckles, feeling light and happy and incandescently alive. His only basis for comparison is his early days with Vesper, when he was so drunk on love, he never noticed the shadows in her clever smile, but that isn’t right, isn’t a fair comparison at all.

“And here I thought the stir was over the betting pool. How was our lovely Miss Moneypenny?”

Q groans into his skin, the vibrations sending gleeful little shivers down his spine. “Sod off,” he says without heat. “She was insatiable, wanted to know every detail. I thought I was going to have to call down security, only to realise they don’t deserve to die because Eve is a monster.”

“A stunning monster, though. They would have died happily beneath the stylish shoes you made for her.”

“You keep on complimenting my best friend. Should I be jealous?”

“She shot me off of a moving train once, so I don’t think you need to be worried.”

Q sniffs. “Your conquests have been stranger.”

“Even so,” James says, mostly teasing but also perfectly honest. The truth tastes strange on his tongue. He thinks he could get used to it.

James pours the sauce onto the pasta and turns off the heat, turning within Q’s arms to return the embrace. Q lets him with a frown and a furrow in his brow that he then proceeds to hide against James’ chest, cuddling into him closely.

He’s had a bad day, James recognises after automatically cataloguing the lines of strain around that generous mouth and the degree to which his shoulders slump. Nine Eyes left its mark, and Q has been hard at work cleansing all of MI6’s systems, not to mention outfitting all of the agents being sent out to rip apart the remaining Spectre bases.

It’s probably why Moneypenny called in the first place. She’s very good at distracting Q when he needs it.

James stands there for a spell, just breathing with Q. He sways them slightly on the spot, contemplating the pasta that still needs to be tossed before it clumps together in a disgusting mess and the magnificent motorcycle that he caught a glimpse of two hours ago and the solid, warm weight of Q in his arms, growing steadily heavier as Q relaxes into slinky liquid boffin.

It’s probably a minor lapse of fate that Q isn’t a cat himself. Or maybe he’s been around the cats so long that he’s slowly becoming one of them.

Finally, he murmurs into Q’s hair, “Come on, darling.” The endearment slips out before his mouth can communicate sufficiently with his brain, startling James into blinking and Q into shifting a little. He doesn’t regret it, however, and Q doesn’t protest either, although whether that’s because he’s simply too tired or because he actually likes the nickname is hard to tell.

He’ll worry about it later.

Through a combination of manhandling and coaxing, James gets Q out of the kitchen and to the dining table. Having lifted up his head to see where his seat is, Q stares at the table in astonishment, taking in the white tablecloth and the floral centrepiece composed of the purple heliotropes that Q loves best. “James…”

And it does things to James to realise that Q, observant, intelligent, guarded Q, came back home and searched out James like a ship following the path of its lighthouse, so single-minded and focused that he didn’t even notice the new additions to his home. “Sit.”

Q does so sluggishly, still blinking at the semi-formal dinner settings like he expects them to disappear any time now. James presses a kiss to his hair and returns to the kitchen to stir the pasta and place it into a bowl. He brings the caesar salad he made earlier and stashed in the fridge out in a large bowl first, a bottle of good red wine in his other hand.

Rayleigh has cottoned on to Q’s return by now and is happily enjoying his attention on his lap. Morgana is probably still napping on their bed, the spoiled beast. Q smiles at James as he places the salad in the middle of the table and opens the wine. “You didn’t have to,” he says despite the obvious pleasure in his voice and the renewed light in his tired eyes.

James would beg to differ but that would be counterproductive so he merely pours the wine with a practised flourish and says, “Hmm, but I want to. Let me.” And it’s not a question nor a statement, but Q looks at James, looks through James with all his secrets and pretences - he’s trying, though, he’s trying - and hesitates for but a moment before nodding, shoulders relaxing a fraction.

“Well. I suppose I can endure being wined and dined for now,” Q replies, lifting his chin in faux pretentiousness. But his smile widens sweetly and his gaze is open and glowing, and James grins back helplessly.

“Why, thank you, my Quartermaster. It’s an honour, truly,” he says, dry as a desert.

Q raises an eyebrow and takes a closer look at his cutlery, only to frown, bemused. “How did you go to all of these cocktail parties and fairytale balls without knowing how to set a table properly? The forks are supposed to be on the left side.”

“Oh, I know.” James sits down next to Q. He places some salad on Q’s plate, because he seems to be more preoccupied with petting Rayleigh, and then grabs some for himself, making sure to give the majority of the croutons to Q. If he doesn’t, Q will just steal them anyway, because he’s a greedy shit like that.

“You know but you still put the knife above the plates?”

“You don’t like formal dinner settings,” James points out casually. He likes formal dinners himself, but he’s had so many that he can live without one for the rest of his life.

Q squints at him between bites of his salad, appearing puzzled but not wary. “...and you would know that how?”

“Am I wrong?”

“Don’t avoid the question.”

“I’m not the one avoiding the question, Q.” James crunches on a crouton and smirks at Q’s exasperated scowl.

“Tosser,” Q grouches. He steals a crouton from James’ plate in petty retaliation while James rolls his eyes but doesn’t stop him. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely not.”


“Still not answering the question.”

Q exhales petulantly. “Fine. I don’t like formal dinners. Now, how do you know?”

James swallows a large piece of lettuce and decides he needs to add more lemon juice next time. “I didn’t exactly learn the basics of formal settings from MI6 or the Navy.”

“Your parents?” Q inquires hesitantly, fork hovering three centimetres above his plate.

James shakes his head, a small burst of excited anticipation fizzling in his chest like a child with a secret. “No. You.”



“I don’t remember this,” Q says, frowning suspiciously. “James, what did you do?”

James wonders if Q is imagining an amnesia-inducing gun from his predecessor or sneaky Double-Oh interrogation techniques. “Do? I didn’t do anything. In fact, I’m rather hurt that you don’t even remember our special time together.”

Q treats him to the most unimpressed face he has ever seen, which is, in itself, impressive. “You’re such a bastard. How the hell did I teach you the basics of formal dining? And why wasn’t I aware of this?” He stabs his fork into the innocent lettuce for emphasis.

James feigns a thoughtful look while he continues to polish up his salad, gleefully aware of the annoyed set of Q’s eyebrows. He’s cleaned off his plate, and Q is clearly ready to rip into him with his blunt fork, when he says at last, “It was a long time ago. You’ve probably just forgotten.”

“A long time ago...” Q repeats, eyes flickering, and really, James expected him to catch on five minutes ago. Whatever he was doing today must have been spectacularly bad to have shorted out his genius’ brain to this point. But - “Oh!”

James smiles faintly at the startled yet pleased expression on Q’s face, the warmth of sunshine after weeks of gloomy clouds. He was right. It’s all worth it.

“But that was…” Q trails off, shaking his head a little in wonder. “That was decades ago. How do you even - ”

“It made an impression.” Of a rigid household and heavy expectations on young shoulders and a determined spirit and a boy with skinned knees and a stubborn slant to his mouth, not that he had ever admitted anything like so to himself back then.

Q looks at James for a long moment in a way that makes him want to squirm, makes him feel ten metres tall and capable of conquering the world but also utterly disarmed. “James Bond,” he says, soft and amused, “you’re a bloody closet romantic, aren’t you?”

“We should go to Rome one of these days,” James deflects blatantly and drinks his wine.

“‘Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning,”’ Q quotes. “Giotto di Bondone.”

James hums and gets to his feet to step into the kitchen for the pasta. He distributes it evenly between them and then comments mildly, “Dreadful artist. Too religious.”

Q almost chokes on the mouthful of pasta he just shoved into his mouth. “Excuse me?

“You heard me.” James eats his pasta without any mishaps.

“He’s the most important Italian painter of the 14th century! Art historians have referred to him as the father of European painting and the first of the great Italian masters! His frescos still decorate the Scrovegni Chapel!” Q sounds positively scandalised.

James continues to eat pasta and lets his expression speak for him. Q glares and points an imperious finger at him. “You are an art heathen,” he announces. “Obviously, you didn’t learn anything in the National Gallery. We’re going to have to go back.”

James looks up from his plate to raise an eyebrow at Q. “Are we?” he teases.

The corner of Q’s mouth twitches, his eyes sparkling. “Yes, we are. I’m going to educate you on how to appreciate the fine arts, James Bond.”

James chuckles between another bite of pasta. “And this is coming from someone who has, on occasion, spent more than 49 hours in front of a computer before collapsing on a bed in Medical with an IV full of fluids?”

There’s definitely a smile on Q’s lips now, no matter how much he tries to hide it. “That was once. Once! And we agreed to never talk about that again.”

“I don’t remember agreeing to anything,” James denies playfully. “And you don’t have any proof that I did.”

Q narrows his eyes as he chews on pasta. “Oh, is this the game that we’re playing now?”

“I think it is.” James lets the very faintest whisper of a smile curl his lips.

“I’m the Quartermaster,” Q says primly. “I have access to all sorts of resources. Including surveillance cameras in my Branch and Medical.”

“And what are those supposed to do?”

“Well, if I recall correctly, you guided me to Medical and then stayed with me until I woke up, whereupon I took it upon myself to extract from you a promise that you wouldn’t mention this incident ever again.”


And if I pull up the surveillance film from a year, three months, and twelve days ago, I have my proof.”

James pauses and sips at his wine. “You know, Q, I’ve met a few lawyers during my time, and all of them say that nothing is binding unless a contract is signed - ”

Q bursts out laughing, and it isn’t long before James starts laughing, too. As their chuckles die off, James leans back in his chair and grins at Q, who beams back, feeling happy and satisfied and light as air.

Almost as if by accident, their eyes meet.

And catch.

And hold.

And the atmosphere changes. There’s something hot and focused in Q’s eyes like burning stars, and James has never seen it before, but he recognises it for what it is, and his breath catches in his throat.

He is frozen to his chair, being seared alive, and he can’t possibly look away.

The tension, heavy and pleasant and intense, saps the light-hearted air from their table. Q is still smiling at him like that, and James can’t stand it, but he’s the greediest man in the world where Q is considered so he also desperately wants Q to never stop smiling at him like that.

His heart thuds in his ears, the only sound in their otherwise quiet flat. The cats have wandered off to do whatever it is that cats do when their owners aren’t watching them. James has been less nervous in front of a firing squad.

Q licks his lips slowly. James swallows hard, mouth dry.

Oh, Christ.

He wants. He wants so fucking bad, but they’ve been cautious, testing the ground before every step in fear of falling - and there was a time when James Bond would have rolled his eyes at that and went right on seducing whichever pretty thing he had taken a fancy to that night - and he doesn’t -

He doesn’t want to lose anything. They’re past the stage where he can leap without certain knowledge of a security net. They’re too important for him to gamble.

James wrenches his gaze away with more effort than it once took to scale a 25-floor building. “You’re washing the dishes,” he orders hoarsely.

“No, I’m not,” Q says. He sounds lightly amused, which James can handle just fine. It’s the tenderness that makes him ache. “And you’re not either.”

“This might surprise you, but we don’t actually have a house cleaning fairy - ”

Q thrusts his chair back with a harsh scraping noise, strides around the table, and then pushes James’ chair back with a loud screech, straddling his lap without hesitation. Startled, James instinctively steadies him by the waist, and this is a mirror of their first kiss all over again.

Q leans their foreheads together, their noses brushing, and James looks back at him helplessly. Q’s eyes are spellbinding this close, moss green and alive with that electric intelligence. He’s beautiful, and even here, even now, James can’t quite believe how lucky he is. They’re breathing each other’s air, sharing body heat, and Q smells like tea and garlic with the faint smokiness of fire and the bittersweet comfort of gunpowder. He cups James’ face between his hands, which are soft and calloused and very warm.

This time, Q’s smile is shy and sly and just for them, underscored with a touch of eager timidness that doesn’t conceal the deeper fierce certainty behind it. “I think the dishes will keep, don’t you?”

James opens his mouth but isn’t given the chance to say anything before Q cuts him off with a kiss that’s more intimate than any they’ve had before, hot and wet and deep. He tastes like the pasta that James made, the wine that James bought, and James’ words turn into a groan, his back curving slightly off the back of the chair to get closer to Q. His hands tighten on Q’s hips as his mind reels.

Q nips at his lower lip, sending delicious shivers down his spine. James is just barely coherent enough to slide his tongue along Q’s in retribution, eliciting a full-body shiver that presses Q along James more firmly. He’s lean and lithe, and the resulting friction makes them both moan.

James wants to hear that sound again. He wants, wants so much, wants everything - the old and long-suppressed hunger in his chest stretches, awakens, and uncoils through his muscles and bones and veins, potent and ravenous, leaving James flushed and drunk on lust.

When they separate, they’re both breathless and dazed, and there’s a smug look on Q’s face that James wants very much to kiss off.

“Q,” he says instead because he needs to know before they can progress further, “are - ah -, mmm, sure? You’’re tired, and - ” The question would be easier to get out if Q doesn’t insist on kissing him between every word, small, teasing pecks that leave James straining upwards, trying not to lose his train of thought.

Q looks torn between rolling his eyes and laughing at him. “I think I have enough energy for this. Come on, James.” And he leads James into the bedroom by the hand and locks the door so the cats won’t come in.

Touching Q is like dying and being reborn, all of the maddening, terrible heat of resurrection without any of the pain of it. James becomes addicted to the soft skin of Q’s inner thighs and relishes the wounded noises he makes when James presses him down into the mattress and kisses him as he has never before kissed any other lover, as if he wants to crawl into Q’s soul, where there’s undoubtedly already a place waiting for him, and live there forever.

James learns Q. Learns the mole on his right shoulder and the scar on his left knee and only succeeds in concluding that he’ll need the rest of his life to learn all of Q, and even that seems too short. There’s reverence in his slow strokes over every centimetre of Q’s body, wonder in his deep kisses, insatiable hunger in the touch of his mouth, and Q arches under him, exquisite in his pleasure.

Being touched by Q is nearly unbearable. James knew from the moment they met, the moment their hands brushed, that soulmates are raw and oversensitive to each other’s touch, but he never quite considered all that was involved, all that it meant.

With every brush of his hands, every touch of his lips, James’ nerves are scraped raw with bliss, his senses overwhelmed, until he doesn’t know up from down, doesn’t know what’s coming out of his mouth because the syllables of his words insist on snapping together like puzzle pieces in his wrecked mind, coming apart, and then rearranging themselves again and again.

He’s normally better at this, better at staying put together - what spy worth his salt can’t keep his mouth shut during a snog with the mark? - but Q makes him forget his self-control, his training, makes him forget that he’s supposed to pretend to be someone else when he’s being kissed with cherry lips and worshipped with clever hands.

He’s James, only James here, and Q forces him to remember that in-between gasped praises and keened pleas and Q, please, Q, Q!

When Q falls apart, he whispers a name in James’ ear. He understands even as he himself is unravelled, ecstasy making a devastated, shuddering ruin of him, and tucks the secret in the deepest, darkest vaults of his mind, where he keeps his most important secrets.

Contrary to what might be expected of a Double-Oh agent...a former Double-Oh agent, that is, James doesn’t house national secrets in these vaults, not the shadows of MI6 nor the international filth of foreign governments. No, here, he keeps Vesper Lynd’s bright smile and Andrew Bond’s last encouraging words and M’s stern glares, and it’s here that he places Q’s real name.

In the aftermath, they curl up together after James has cleaned them up since Q mulishly refused to move, claiming his legs had turned to jelly and it was James’ fault so he should do the rest.

James presses light kisses into Q’s hair, all but purring in contentment. Q is already asleep, worn out by his day and exhausted into compliance under James’ touch, but if he were awake, he’d probably swat him for his smug smirk. 

They spend Saturday morning doing nothing other than lazing around in bed, lazing around on the sofa, and lazing around on the sofa while watching television. James briefly considers taking Q out - London is his hunting ground, his territory, and he knows every nook and cranny - but he wants the dark circles under Q’s eyes gone more than he wants to show Q the glories of their city.

Next weekend sounds like a good time.

In the afternoon, Q finally notices the new painting. “James,” he says slowly after they take a break from their Game of Thrones marathon to go to the loo and eat some snacks, “is this one of yours?”

James hums, mock thoughtful. “I’m not sure, love.” Ever since Q’s non-reaction, he’s been trying out various endearments. They’ve both agreed that “sweetheart” is a bit much and “cupcake” will never be spoken of again, but “darling” and “love” are okay.

“Dear” is off-limits, now and always, and Q nods when James asks this of him with shadowy eyes and a sombre tone. He doesn’t ask for further explanations, and James is grateful, because he doesn’t want to think about the taste of canal water and his signature martini.

(It seems bitterly ironic now that he thinks about it. In the end, it was Vesper who brought him Q, wasn’t it? Well, no, that was James’ own stupidity and callousness, but indirectly, his most regretted tragedy has brought him his most cherished happiness.

The world is strange and awful like that.)

“What do you mean you’re not sure? This wasn’t here before.”

“Are you sure?”

“Wha - of course I’m bloody sure, James! I’ve lived here for three years, and I’ve never seen this painting before!”

“Maybe you just never noticed it?” James suggests impishly, pulling out some biscuits, the kettle already set.

Q pokes his head into the kitchen. “Are you pulling my leg?” he asks warily.

James hides his smile with the ease of practice and gets out the teapot. Q is very particular about how his tea must be made, but he mastered that skill years ago. “I wouldn’t dare.”

“That’s precisely the sort of thing you would say if you were,” Q points out.

“That’s shit logic.”

Q narrows his eyes and stabs a finger at him. “I’m onto you, James Bond. That most certainly is your painting.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“James - ”

He plates up the biscuits and turns around with a perfect pot of tea. “It’s our painting now,” James says with the smugness of knowing he’s irrefutably won this bout of banter.

Q gapes at him. James helpfully stuffs his mouth with a biscuit and smirks.

On Sunday, Q follows up on his threats and drags James to the National Art Gallery. James acquiesces because he likes being with Q and he likes making Q smile, but to his surprise, he finds himself enjoying the trip more than expected.

As a former agent, he has some knowledge of art, literature, music, and history since villains like to pretend they’re sophisticated and the rich like to flaunt their wealth. James has been to his fair share of galleries, many more impressive and interesting than the National Art Gallery of London - the Museo National Del Prado comes to mind - but it’s different now that he doesn’t have to worry about dead drops and rendezvouses.

Here, he has nothing to anticipate, no danger he has to circumvent. He’s exploring this museum with Q, who stops at almost every painting to read the small information plaques, and James ends up lingering in front of several paintings, tracing the elegant lines with his gaze and marvelling at the splendid use of colour.

It’s easy to look at the masterpiece as one big entity and appreciate the beauty of it, but James is trained to analyze detail, and his eyes catch on the strain of white that turn a stream of blue into moving water and the subtle play of shadow and light. The three different shades of the same colour that make up a tree trunk and the rippling contrast of perspective.

Q picks up on his mildly bewildered delight minutes in and beams before leaving him to it. They, James notices, have different tastes; Q prefers the grand architecture with clean lines and patterned abstracts, while James is drawn to portraits and sprawling landscapes, the scenes of war and conquest from ancient times.

As they wander farther into the museum, Q hooks his arm through James’ with every pretence of casualness. An old lady smiles at them like they’re adorable as she passes by. James is pretty sure he’s grinning like an idiot, but he doesn’t care.

“Here we are,” Q says as they stop in front of a familiar painting.

James smirks. “I still say it’s a bloody big ship.”

Q snorts but subsides once more into silence. They stand in front of the painting a while longer, and James admires the blurring of the colours, the vibrant shades that blend together to make up the fiery sky, and the subsequent stunning reflection on the sea.

“I was furious at you,” Q says suddenly.

James glances around. They’ve been blocking everyone else’s view of the art for so long that they’ve been left quite alone in the room. He’s glad. This is theirs and theirs alone. “What for?”

Q makes a somewhat derisive sound. “What for, he asks,” he echoes irritably. “Oh, I don’t know, maybe it’s because I thought you were dead for weeks, you tosser.”

James blinks. “Oh.”

“Yes, oh.” Despite his palpable annoyance, Q leans his head against James’ shoulder. “And that isn’t even going into the fact that you’d been silent for years, and the one time you were willing to talk to me was when your funeral was being planned and I was ready to cosy up with a bottle of vodka.”

James keeps his silence for a beat, measuring up the value of saying nothing versus the value of saying everything. It goes against all that he is to give away his secrets, to let himself be wide open, but.

This is Q.

“That’s when I started to suspect,” James says. “The timing, it was too much of a coincidence.”

“I know. It was stupid of me; I knew how outrageous Double-Ohs can be. You’d gone off-grid before. I just.” Q worries his lower lip with his teeth but carries on, voice steady if thin, “I was watching when Moneypenny shot you off that train, and it all seemed so. Final.”

James untangles them to wrap an arm around Q and pull him closer. “I knew you were probably a security breach. And M would have stripped me of my Double-Oh status had she known. But I wrote back as soon as I could anyway.”

Q tilts his head up slightly to smile sardonically at him. “To see if I was a threat?”

“No. Because you were sad.” James watches surprise touch Q’s gaze. Quieter, he continues, “You so rarely communicated anything of your own feelings to me when you wrote. Always, it was for me. But you were sad because of me that time, and I couldn’t let that stand. Not when I could change it for once.”

Q stares at him for a while longer, and James lets him look his fill, doesn’t bother pulling on any masks. At last, Q nods like he understands and turns to press a kiss to his suit-covered shoulder. James wraps his other arm around Q in response and rests his chin on Q’s soft curls.

They stand there and let the world pass them by.

“No. Absolutely not.”

James tries not to sigh. Q is the most stubborn creature he’s ever had the fortune of meeting. This was why he didn’t want to talk about moving in furniture, but it’s Tuesday night, and he’s been bored the entire day and itching for something to do that isn’t squinting at the painting to assure himself for the nth time that it’s not tilting to the right again. He’s starting to think the damned cats are butting at it when his back is turned. “Q,” he starts in his best coaxing tone.

“Turn that off,” Q orders instantly. “I’m not one of your marks to be outmanoeuvred. If you want to continue this discussion, there will be no more of that tone.”

Q’s listened to too many of his honeypot missions, he thinks irritably. A second later, that thought catches up to James, and he shifts uncomfortably. He’s beginning to both hate and love these moments, when something previously incomprehensible to him suddenly makes a ghastly amount of sense.

“Fine,” he relents with only a hint of a growl in his voice. “That table needs to go.”

Q folds his arms, unimpressed. “The table is fine.”

“It has scorch marks. The varnish is long gone. There are scratches everywhere, courtesy of those two monsters.” Sitting primly on the sofa, Morgana gives him the stink eye. Rayleigh purrs like a motor at Q’s feet. James pretends to ignore them both. “For Christ’s sake, one of the legs is being held together with duct tape.

“There’s nothing wrong with duct tape!” Q protests sulkily. “It’s sturdy! It’s useful! Lots of people use duct tape! The table’s holding up fine!”

“The table is not holding up fine. The table is ready to collapse under the weight of all your stuff, and why is there so much stuff again? I could have sworn I cleaned all of that up a few days ago. Do you really need a chainsaw on the table?”

“Yes, I do,” Q insists. “It’s important. I am an engineer. And I couldn’t find a damn thing after you cleaned up; there’s a system, and you ruined everything!”

“Well then, maybe you should clean it up yourself,” James hints not so subtly.

“Or you could just leave it as is, and we can stop discussing this and watch Doctor Who.” Q peers at James through his eyelashes with a hopeful, tremulous smile and James almost falls for it. Almost.

“You little shit,” he says. “If I don’t get to use that tone of voice, then you don’t get to look at me like that. You’re not getting away from this that easily. The table needs to go.”

Q promptly drops the act to scowl. “It’s a fine table! I love this table!”

Ah. Sentiment. “Q,” he says, patient and a tad indulgent, “my old table is made of better wood and more resilient to your experiments, and it’s barely used. Instead of waiting for this table to break and cause a bigger mess, wouldn’t it be better to just switch it out now?”

“No,” Q mutters, scowl deepening but doesn’t follow up with any more arguments.

James studies him for a moment, taking in the determined set of his brows and the contradictory embarrassed flush on his cheeks. Q knows he’s being illogical, he deciphers, is embarrassed by it because he prides himself on being logical, but he can’t bring himself to back down.

Because he’s invested in that bloody table.

“Alright,” he says, “I’ll compromise with you, how’s that?”

Q drops his arms, still suspicious but now curious as well. “What sort of compromise?”

“You switch out the table with mine, and I’ll leave the sofa alone,” James bargains. He genuinely wasn’t all that keen on bringing his sofa in, not when he’s already so used to Q’s, no matter how comfortable and immune to blood stains his is. So really, he’s not losing anything.

Q stares at him. “You were planning on throwing away my sofa?” His voice rises perilously close to a shriek as he reaches the end of his outraged question.

James smiles at him, so innocent, butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. “Well? What do you say, Q?”

For a long, long beat, Q musters up a fairly impressive glare that has James squirming to some extent on the inside. Outwardly, however, he maintains his taunting smile until, with a soft, kittenish snarl that James finds cute despite himself, Q strides around the disputed table and yanks him closer by the nape to kiss him ferociously.

It’s rougher than the fleeting, sweet kisses they’ve been sticking to, exhilarating and thrilling. Q bites James’ lower lip, hard, and he groans deep in his throat, trembling as the slow-burning ember ever present in his bones starts scorching its way through muscle and tissue.

Already, Q’s lips on his are as familiar a sensation as a gun in his hand, maybe even too familiar for just one lifetime. James doesn’t believe he’ll ever be able to think coherently past the haze of smoke obscuring his mind. It’ll char him every time, blister him always, and he’ll love it.

Q leans back, gasping for oxygen, and James chases after his lips without thinking. They kiss and kiss and kiss, and when they separate at last because the cats are meowing for attention, James feels dizzy and intoxicated, melted by the wave of blissful heat overtaking his system.

Swaying gracefully in his arms, Q smiles dreamily and whispers against his lips, “You can take the table but leave the sofa alone. Oh, and I want your king-sized bed; you’re such a bed hog.”

James’ eye twitches. “I don’t want to hear that from someone who hogs all the blankets,” he says, voice lower and huskier than expected.

Q smirks, chuckles, and drags him into the bedroom so they can prove each other right.

By the time James has moved in all of the furniture and gotten everything situated, it’s Saturday again. He stands in the middle of his now empty flat and muses that he never did spend much time here anyway. Sometime between when he first met Q and Blofeld, he just started going to Q’s flat after missions.

Looking back, it’s almost embarrassing how fucking oblivious he was.

Behind him, he hears Q run his fingers along the bare walls. James turns his head to see Q inspecting the dusty imprints on the floor with some bemusement. Most are rectangular and box-like. “Did you just leave everything in cardboard boxes?” he asks. “For years on end?”

James shrugs. “It never seemed worth the effort to unpack completely.” Because to be a field agent is to flirt with death, and to be a Double-Oh is to propose, and sooner or later, that day of marriage will come, regardless of any pre-wedding jitters.

The flat line of Q’s mouth says he hears what James isn’t saying, but he doesn’t pursue the topic. “Are you giving up this flat then?” he asks, and it’s only because James is paying attention - because James always pays attention to Q - that he catches the insecure lilt to his voice.

James turns away and pretends not to notice, because Q has his pride, too. “Of course. Unless you want to keep it as a safehouse or a place to stash your cats when they’re being little shits.”

Q chokes on an incredulous laugh. “Oh, my cats? They’re your cats, too.”

The nerve of him, using James’ own words against him. He turns away so Q can’t see his smile.

“Absolutely not.” James walks towards his seldom-used former bedroom. “When they’re being little shits, they’re your cats. In fact, if you could somehow communicate to them that they’re always your cats, it would be much appreciated. They’ve been dreadfully clingy these days.”

Q leans against the doorway, arms crossed. “You’re the one who keeps feeding them treats. They’ll grow awfully fat one of these days. And besides. They missed you.”

Three steps into the closet and hands full, James pauses and turns to look at him quizzically. “What?”

“They missed you. When you were rampaging about in Mexico City.” Q’s gaze is steady and open.

James considers the spaces between his words as he wanders out with a small black box in his hands. “...I’ll have you know that you’ve taught those dreadful rascals the worst habits. They’d make excellent agents, what with their willingness to lie, cheat, steal, and kill for a treat.”

Q arches an eyebrow. “Are you telling me you can’t handle two cats, James Bond?”

“I’m saying,” James proclaims lightly as he reaches out to hand Q the box, “that those cats are right terrors and we’re almost out of cat treats.”

Q laughs, bright and pleased, before glancing down at what he’s holding. “What’s in here?”

James smiles and watches the suspicion bloom in Q’s eyes.

“Do I want to know?” Q demands.

James’ grin only widens.


He chuckles, relenting. “Open it.”

Q squints at him but does as he’s told. His sharp inhale is audible, and when he tears his eyes away from the object inside to stare at James, he’s alight with something like wonder and astonishment. “You...this is…”

James softens his smile and dips his voice into something intimate and warm. “I think we can find a space somewhere for it, don’t you?”

Q’s returning smile is sweet. “Shouldn’t be too hard. An ugly bulldog like this fits perfectly into our decor.”

“James,” Q says on Thursday as soon as he gets home, a distinctly smug look on his face that has James instantly wary, “get your things packed.”

James, halfway through Revolutionary Road, is sure he didn’t hear that correctly. “What?”

Q quirks an eyebrow at him as if to say that he knows full well that James heard him perfectly fine the first time and saunters forward to say loudly, “Get your things packed.”

He’s almost afraid to ask. “...why?”

“You’ll see.” Q’s smile is very self-satisfied.

James puts his book on the table and swings his legs off the sofa to scrutinize Q. Before he can conclude anything, Q’s smile disappears for an aggravated noise as he strides forward to rescue the book. “How many times do I have to tell you to just use a bloody bookmark?”

“We don’t have bookmarks, darling,” James says absently and then realises. “Oh. You’re keeping a secret.” Secrets are an agent’s bread and butter.

Book in hand, Q says tartly, “And so what if I am?”

A slow grin spreads across James’ face. He leans forward, elbows resting on his knees. “Tell me.”




“Tell me.”


Tell me.”


“Since you told me to grab my ID Card - my actual ID Card - I can only assume that we’re staying in the EU, but where are we going?”

“James, it’s two in the fucking morning. Go to sleep.”

“But where - ”

“Go. To. Sleep.”

“But - ”

Q groans and buries himself in the duvet.

“We’re going to Rome,” James says as they move through the line, eyes wide. He looks at the board, shakes his head slightly as if to correct his sight, and looks again. Nothing’s changed. He turns to Q to repeat softly, “Rome.”

Q, who’s held out for the past sixteen hours against the brunt of James’ stubborn determination, smiles, so blatantly pleased with himself that it should be irritating but is instead charmingly adorable. “You did say we should.”

“I did.” James grins, delighted, and takes advantage of the fact that some arse is holding up the line by taking ten minutes longer than he should be taking with the airport employee to let go of his luggage and grab Q around the waist, kissing him playfully. “What’s the occasion?”

“Do we need one?” Q asks, looking amused. He slips the ticket he’s been hiding into James’ pocket.

James hums, nuzzling Q’s cheek affectionately. “No, but there’s usually one.” Besides, Q’s still been preoccupied with getting MI6 back on its feet; a vacation now, away from his beloved Branch, is surely no whimsical idea.

Q blinks at him and nudges him forward when the line starts moving again. “Do you really not know?”

James wrinkles his brow, searching his memory. He’s normally good at remembering special occasions, but the anniversary of M’s death passed weeks ago and other than that, he can’t recall anything else. Then again, he hasn’t looked at a calendar for a while. “No…? Should I?”

Q doesn’t get the chance to answer before an employee is free and James is called up to turn in his luggage and verify his identification papers and his ticket. They get through the rest of security without much fuss, and when they get to their lounge, Q quickly plops down on a sofa. He shoves a hand into his carry-on bag and comes out with a bottle of pills.

James is startled and then disturbed. “Q?”

“My medication,” Q explains and swallows two pills dry with a grimace. “I have a phobia of flying. I hate taking these - I’m high as a kite for a while and it makes me woozy and tired for hours afterwards - but it’s better than having a screaming panic attack on the plane.”

“Moneypenny mentioned,” James replies though he’s only just now remembered it. At the time, he thought she was joking and merely wanted to come make amends in person. “But Austria…”

Q shrugs, artfully casual despite the lines of strain already around his mouth. “I took medication back then just like I’m taking medication right now.”

It might even have been believable if Q hadn’t admitted only a second ago how much he hates dulling his mind like so. And that’s not taking into account how Q must have been alone, having escaped Marian and Moneypenny’s watchful eyes, alone and vulnerable and disoriented on a plane full of strangers.

For James.

He buries his face in Q’s hair to a muffled sound of surprise. “Darling,” he whispers, “I’m going to spoil you rotten.”

Q laughs lowly. “Oh no, you won’t. I’ve got plans, James Bond.”

Intrigued, James shifts back. “Plans?” he purrs. That sounds promising. He likes plans. Q’s just full of pleasant surprises today. “Do tell.”

Q smirks and says, “Nope. It’s a secret.” He yawns - that would be the pills kicking in - and leans his head against James’ shoulder. “And you won’t even be able to nag me about it, because…” Another yawn. “...because I’ll be asleep the entire plane ride.”

“You devious man, you.” Smiling, James brushes a few curls off of Q’s forehead. “All right, you can have your way as long as you tell me eventually.”

“I always do,” Q says pliantly and closes his eyes.

Q does, indeed, sleep for the entire plane ride. James watches over him carefully and when they land, rouses him with gentle nudges. As predicted, Q is barely coherent and clings to James like a needy octopus while he gets them off of the plane and gathers their luggage.

James is calm and patient with him, ignoring the amused looks they garner from the people around them, who see not a former agent who is well-versed in dealing with drugged individuals and a man with the highest IQ in any given room but a well-dressed man doting on his partner, who clearly doesn’t like flying.

It’s new and unfamiliar for James to be regarded in such an innocent and positive manner but not unwelcome. He could get used to it.

Thankfully, Q texted him their hotel address before taking his meds. James ushers them out of the airport and calls for a taxi. He has to all but pour Q into the backseat and then is promptly used as a prop by Q to keep himself upright.

James doesn’t mind. Q high on meds is remarkably like Q sleep-deprived or Q drunk: far chattier than normal, a little absent-minded, all over the place thoughts and movement wise, and completely, utterly, irresistibly adorable.

“Gonna build us a lightsaber,” Q informs him after snuggling deeper into James’ side.

James snorts, a smirk playing on his lips. He keeps Q close with the arm he’s slung over his shoulders and says, “Of course you will.”

At the hotel, James gets them their room with Q still wrapped around his arm. The receptionist’s smile is indulgent. The hotel Q has reserved them is five-star and opulent even by James’ distorted standards. They’re shown to an impressive honeymoon suite with a superb view of the ancient city, and once they’re inside, James pauses to look at Q, who blinks up at him innocently.

“Q,” James starts hesitantly. He’s not at all opposed to the implications here, but he does want to make sure he’s not misreading anything in a fashion that might lead to awkwardness and distress later on. Q’s gone to an awful lot of trouble to make sure this vacation will be comfortable and enjoyable; James has no interest in messing up his hard work.

Latched onto his side, Q’s movements are slow and sluggish. “Yes?” He smiles at James, so trusting and almost childlike in his guilelessness.

James chooses his words with care, shifting so he’s standing right in front of Q, his hands clasped on Q’s upper arms. He wants fiercely to protect this rare vulnerability of Q’s, and so he says at last, with a delicacy he used to employ when working with active bombs, “Are we here for our honeymoon?”

Q creases his forehead in confusion. “But we’re not married,” he says, not quite a protest but close to one.

James hums an agreement. “We can go on a honeymoon despite not being married,” he points out smoothly.

Marriage was traditionally viewed as an optional ritual when it came to soulmates. It was a way to publicly showcase a union and have it acknowledged by the local authorities. More often than not, marriage was for the families and the records rather than the couple themselves. Nowadays, it’s far more popular amongst couples who aren’t soulmates.

Binding ceremonies tend to be preferred for soulmates since the sentiment expressed isn’t solely romantic, as is generally the case for marriage vows. Instead, binding ceremonies emphasize eternal devotion beyond the barriers of time and space and can resonate with any kind of soulmate pair, from a romantic couple to a guardian and their ward to even a pair of nemeses, forever at each other’s throats.

Regardless, both are the ultimate commitment in the eyes of society, divorce and parting rites aside.

While honeymoons are more often linked to marriages, it’s become more and more prominent for bound couples to go on them as well. Everyone likes to take a bit of time off to go to an exotic location and spend some time with their soulmate and a martini.

James and Q haven’t taken part in a binding ceremony, but that can be easily rectified if Q so desires. Since they’re listed in MI6 - and thus on governmental records - as soulmates anyway, the only aspects that remain are the words that must be spoken and the tattoos of the bound.

It could take as little as half an hour if that’s what they’re here for. James fights not to shift his weight from one foot to the other. It’s odd; he thought training had long since purged any such tells from him. But he doesn’t know -

This is Q, and yet, he...

Even with Vesper, he never considered. They didn’t ever mention marriage.

James hasn’t so much as contemplated the prospect of binding himself to another since childhood, and even then, it was an abstract certainty that gradually faded into numb resignation rather than a concrete future. He isn’t sure -

Well. He just isn’t sure.

It’s the finality of it, he decides. That’s what’s setting his instincts off. For the majority of his life, to stop running is to die, and he adores Q with everything that he is, but he doesn’t think he can -

The ongoing silence finally registers. “Q,” James prods cautiously when Q continues to do nothing but blink slowly at him in a befuddled fashion, “are we here because you want to participate in a binding ceremony?”

Q shakes his head lethargically. “Noooo…I didn’t...that wasn’t. I would have. I would have asked you first.”


James is genuinely taken aback to feel the dizzying sensation of his heart falling. After a moment’s pause, he can only conclude that maybe, just maybe, he isn’t as opposed to the idea as he believed. There are bets in MI6 and living in the same flat, and then there are binding ceremonies, and the difference in devotion, in intent, is staggering.

Intermingled with the regret and disappointment, however, is crystal relief, and James finds himself recognizing that Q isn’t the only one who needs time.

James knows that Q will never be a limitation, will always be his wings even when Q himself is afraid of the air, especially when Q himself is afraid of the air because Q won’t ever allow himself to hold them down - the dazzling skyline behind them is a silent but undeniable testament to that, as are the pretty green dilated pupils peering trustingly at him - but he doesn’t know, and after all these years, the slightest chink of chains still raises his hackles.


Q’s tentative, drowsy voice draws him back out of his thoughts, and James shakes his head, dismissing his thoughts for later contemplation. Q’s frowning at him, aware enough even through his somnolence to catch on to the turn in James’ mood.

James smiles, all soothing charm. “Won’t you tell me what we’re here for before my guesses are forced to become even wilder?” he teases lightly. “I’ll start thinking that we’ve come to dig out the last remnants of Spectre next.”

The worried look on Q’s face fades so he can frown deeper. “No,” he orders. Sleepy as he is, though, the stern tone of voice he was obviously going for is more petulant and plaintive, and James has to bite back a smirk. “Absolutely not. No going after...terrorist groups.”

He stops for a second before adding again, “No” with the fullest conviction that if he says it often enough, James will listen.

James chuckles and starts ushering Q towards the very plush-looking bed, eager to avoid his own alarming thoughts and knowing that he should let Q sleep off the side effects of his meds as soon as possible. “Well then, maybe if I know our main objective, I won’t deviate from it,” he says reasonably.

Q narrows his eyes, which would have been much more effective if he didn’t yawn a heartbeat later. “Sleep,” he says, slurring his words a bit. He tugs at James’ sleeves. “With me. That’s your...main objective.”

Preoccupied with getting Q out of his clothes so he can sleep more comfortably - and perhaps so they can have some fun later, when Q is in his right mind again - James makes an amused sound. “Is that so, my Quartermaster?”

“Yes.” Q nods, which makes locks of his unruly hair flop around limply on his forehead. It shouldn’t be nearly as endearing as it is. “I say so. So it must be true.”

James laughs and presses a kiss to Q’s forehead. “As always,” he says, joking but also entirely serious, “I’m at your command.”



“Q, wake up.”

A meagre whine, muffled in an expensive and exceedingly soft pillow.

Q. It’s time to get up.”

“Go away,” is the barely-coherent response that James manages to make out only because he has abundant practice in deciphering sleepy-Q-speech.

“I can’t,” James says in a rare moment of rational sensibility. It’s somewhat ruined by the wicked smirk stretched across his face. “You told me to wake you up at seven on the dot for your super secret plan.”

A charming mix of a mewl and a snarl comes out of Q’s mouth. “Well, I lied.”

“No, you didn’t,” James refutes with a cheeriness that he knows to be obnoxious. “Come on, up you get.”

“Go to hell, you outdated Microsoft program,” Q declares flatly.

Having heard far more intimidating and sincere threats in his lifetime, James is fantastically unfazed by this. “Been there, done that,” he says, more amused than ever. And then, because Q is terribly predictable when it comes to his morning routines, “I have tea.”

Q grumbles but stirs slightly behind the plush duvet. If he were a cat, his ears would be perking up.

Grinning, James adds, “Room service is going to be here soon.”

Q twitches and deigns to turn his head to the side to peak at James. All but buried under the duvet as he is, he looks like a dark-haired groundhog poking his head out of his den to take in the world after a long and brutal winter. James has to stifle a laugh. “What did you order?”

“Cornettos - that would be croissants - with biscotti and brioche.”

Q hums but doesn’t get up.

Eyes narrowing, James deals what he knows to be the finishing blow without mercy, “I also asked for ciabatta and cheese.”

Q’s groan is deep and heartfelt, and he glares at James balefully. They both know that Q has the softest of soft spots for cheese. Finally, with clear reluctance, Q asks in a sleep-roughened voice that never fails to send a spark down James’ spine, “What sort of cheese?”

“Since you took the liberty of bringing us to such a nice hotel, they said they would send up ricotta for spreading and parmigiano-reggiano to put on top,” James says, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

“...I hate you,” Q mutters with a pout and closes his eyes, mulishly determined to get his last few seconds of rest.

“Your tea is going to get cold,” James says without missing a beat. “Come on, up you get, darling.”

Q whines and shoves his face into the duvet. “This is all your fault.”

“How is this my fault?”

“You wore me out last night,” Q accuses sullenly.

The memory of it makes James smirk, rather pleased with himself. Q woke up after a five hour nap, remembering exactly none of what happened between taking his meds and waking up in bed with James. They had a lovely time christening the bed and testing out the thickness of the walls in-between some delicious pizza and trying out the various channels on the telly.

“I didn’t hear you complaining,” James retorts, smug.

Granted, Q could point out that James muffled his broken cries in the crook of his neck, but instead, he hisses, having clearly spent too much time around his cats - who are being watched over by Q’s various systems and Moneypenny when she has time to swing around - and throws a pillow at James’ head.

Never one to refuse a challenge, James bravely takes up the gauntlet and spends the next ten minutes rolling around in bed with Q and succeeding in forcing him to get up at last, mostly by chasing him around the room with a pillow.

For some reason, James doesn’t think his parkour skills and intense training were meant to be used in such a fashion. He’s only more self-satisfied by this.

Room service is greeted by a James who has on black cotton trousers and nothing else, breathing a tad heavier than normal. It’s to the man’s credit that he barely blinks and merely rolls in the cart with a nod of his head and polite greetings. Q, who’s in the bathroom, is safely out of sight during the entire duration of the employee’s visit.

When Q comes out, dressed and yawning and smelling delectably of his aftershave, James is sipping at his cup of hot coffee with a newspaper in his hands. In the midst of brushing up on his Italian, he suddenly notices the date and freezes, a puzzle piece belatedly snapping into place.

It’s the 10th of November.

He inadvertently overlooked the day on their ticket, on the plane, during the hotel check-in yesterday, the nine slipping right past him without registering, but the double digits trip an association he’s somehow forgotten up until now, and oh, he’s floored.

He’s known that his birthday is coming up, of course, but the exact when of it has, up until now, escaped him, and James wasn’t expecting this, but looking back, he should have.

When James looks up, Q is smiling fondly, leaning against the wall of the short hallway between the main suite and the bathroom with his arms crossed. “Finally figured it out then?”

James manages to make his tongue work, only to find himself saying, “This is an awful thing to spring on me, Q.”

Q laughs, so gorgeous that it makes James’ heart hurt, and unfolds his arms to saunter forward. “How was I to know that you’d forget your own birthday?” he asks merrily. “I thought you were joking when you first said you didn’t know why we’re taking a vacation.”

“Forty-six is hardly a milestone,” James says although it is, although that’s why he retired. That and Q. Always Q. And then, because Q has walked into his arms and he still can’t believe how lucky he is, he buries his head in Q’s soft stomach and confesses quietly, “I never really kept track of my birthdays. I always counted on other people to remind me.”

Q strokes James’ hair with one hand and rests the other hand on his nape. The lack of pressure prevents any prickling of his survival instincts, and James relaxes into the petting with a soft sound of pleasure. “I was the opposite,” he replies. “I kept track obsessively. It was the one time I could almost directly communicate with you without feeling like I was betraying you. My guilty pleasure, per se.”

The corners of James’ lips are tugged into a smile. “You spoiled me. ‘Don’t really go for explosive pens anymore’ my arse.”

Q snorts. “Really? You choose to mention the exploding pen over the Aston Martin?”

“That was wonderful, too,” James concedes smoothly and listens to Q laugh, airy and cheerful.

It turns out that Q’s big plan is to play tourists for a day. Well, Q plays tourist, and James plays tour guide. He explains it as, “It’s not your birthday yet, and I’ve always wanted to go to Rome. And according to your file, you’ve already been here at least three times so you must know where the best places are.”

“Four times actually,” James corrects, nonchalantly ambling alongside his soulmate in a nicely tailored black jacket and old jeans. The sunglasses over his eyes lends Q’s horrendous striped sweater a darker tint. He really wants to burn that crime against sense and vision. “Took a relaxing vacation here two years ago.”

“You mean when you blew up two buildings, set a massive fire, and left while on the run from authorities?” Q asks, dry as good firewood. “That time?”

James smirks, hands in his pockets. “I rather enjoyed it.”

“I’m sure everyone else wouldn’t say the same.” A corner of Q’s mouth ticks up, though, so James knows that he’s more amused than angry.

Still, he suspects it’d be in his better interest to not continue this line of conversation, so he changes the topic easily, “Alright then. Where do you want to go, Q?”

Q smiles. The radiant glow of this magnificent city wipes the stress of his job from his face, from the set of his shoulders, and he looks remarkably carefree, more resplendent than all of Rome put together. “Everywhere,” he replies. “But we’re leaving the Pantheon until the end.”

James thinks of his thirty-fourth birthday and conversations over comms. He breathes in the cool answer - winter is coming, winter is already here in all but name - and relishes in the familiar rhythm of these streets, the dialects falling on his ears like glossy chocolate, and the lack of obligation.

He is here for himself. He is here for Q.

He is not here for MI6. He is not 007.

“Come along then,” James says with a smile whispering temptation like the Devil himself. “We have a lot of ground to cover.”

James takes Q to all the classic tourist attractions. An engineer at heart, Q greedily observes the graceful architecture Rome has to offer: the Colosseum, the Trevi Foundation, and the Roman Forum. There’s awe in the brush of his fingertips, joy in his animated motions.

They spare no expense, and they take their time, and it’s spectacular all around.

James has already seen everything already, seen everything dozens of times over, but the wonder and fascination that light up Q’s countenance never loses their appeal, and he happily spends the time murmuring to Q the small bits of history he’s picked up through his years operating out of Rome.

For lunch, they eat at a small but fantastic restaurant James discovered years back. He’s delighted to find that their food is as delicious as it always was, their service just as courteous. Q spends the time alternating between exclaiming over the architecture and complaining about the cold, although James barely feels it.

“It’s twelve degrees,” James reminds him, leaning back in his chair. He’s pretty much done with his plate; Q’s barely eaten three bites. He pointedly stares at Q’s mostly-full plate until Q takes another bite, looking sheepish.

“That’s cold,” Q insists with a little sniff. “Not everyone can be living furnaces like you, James.”

James pretends to consider this. “Maybe you’re just a reptile in disguise,” he poses in faux thoughtfulness.

Instead of being insulted, Q stares out the window for a moment, lips pursed. “I think I would make a great turtle,” he says. “I’d prefer it, in fact.”

“And why is that?”

“Turtles don’t have to deal with rude living furnaces who selfishly hoard all of their warmth to themselves.” Q frowns, just as pointedly, at James, who huffs out a laugh of acknowledgement. He is sitting on the other side of the table.

“I thought turtles get by just fine with the sun,” he teases.

Q raises his eyebrows at James in telling silence. It takes him a second to get it, but then James’ smile softens, and he consents to walk around the table to press close to Q, who indeed has very cold fingers.

James has never been told he’s someone else’s sun.

Q also insists on leaving the Sistine Chapel and the Piazza di Spagna for later, which James takes to mean tomorrow. They wander down the Via del Corso and the Piazza Navona instead, buying any food that catches Q’s eye from the street vendors and talking about anything that crosses their mind.

In the late afternoon, they go for a stroll around the Villa Borghese gardens. Early winter’s beauty is stark and unadorned but dazzling nonetheless, and it pleases James to kiss Q silly by the lake so that’s what he does.

And at last, just as the sun sets, they visit the Pantheon. Q takes in the towering columns and majestic dome with an impassive face. James stands a metre behind him and waits patiently while Q looks his fill, deja vu a cosy blanket that protects him from the wind chill.

Right before the light leaves the sky dark and black, Q takes a single photo with great deliberation before turning and going back to James.

“Satisfied?” James asks.

“Yes,” Q says simply. “Let’s go back.”

They eat dinner on their balcony, the room service more than sufficient. In the faint glow of the streetlights and the warm wash of light from their room, Q is the most gorgeous creature James has ever seen, all his sharp edges tucked away for a softness that James wants to wrap himself around and protect.

James has to remind himself multiple times that he’s allowed to stare. Q stares right back, after all, completely unabashed, and James fancies that Q looks at no one else like he looks at James. There’s solemnity in Q’s demeanour now, a quiet intensity that demands James’ in return, and they talk in low tones about nothing at all, keeping their legs tangled together under the table.

Q takes a shower first. James would follow him in, but the slant to Q’s mouth tells him that now isn’t the time and the weight to Q’s movements tell him that Q isn’t done with whatever plan he’s crafted. So James has two glasses of wine on the balcony and takes a shower himself when Q is done.

When he comes back out, James finds Q lying on their bed, wearing his pants and nothing else. He’s face-down and resting on his folded arms, eyes closed.

James thinks he’s asleep for a heartbeat and then sees: on the bedside table is his laptop, which has a blown-up picture of the Pantheon, the one Q took today, and a single black pen, all-too-familiar even from far away.

James freezes. Q refuses to stir from his position, and eventually, James finds his voice to say, “Q - ”

“This showed up on my chest once,” Q says without opening his eyes, voice languid and calm. “After I got the Colosseum on my right shoulder. I’ve always regretted that you don’t know how much I loved it.”

James doesn’t know what to say to this. He leans against the wall and crosses his arms, naked as the day he was born, and casts about for something appropriate. “It was just for a lark. And it wasn’t very good,” he says, striving for nonchalance. “You don’t have to - ”

“Sherlock was getting worse,” Q continues as if James didn’t say anything. James falls silent immediately; Q so rarely talks about his brothers, about himself. “Mycroft was busy, and I was at Uni, so I was the one who got to look over Sherlock when he was lost in his head.”

He pauses before continuing hesitantly, “Sherlock...was never himself when he was high. But he was still my brother, and I couldn’t leave him alone. It wasn’t....a good time for me, and the riddles and drawings took my mind off of everything, even if it was only temporary.” Q opens his eyes to lock eyes with James, unflinching and bewitching in his stark vulnerability. “So. Thank you.”

And what can James say to that sincerity, to the piece of Q that he’s just been handed? Nothing seems adequate, so he pads forward on silent feet and presses a close-mouthed kiss to Q’s bare shoulder. To tell him that he knows how difficult it was for Q to say those words out loud, to admit any kind of weakness because they’re both much too proud. To tell him that he treasures every last puzzle piece that Q hands him, treasures the fact that he doesn’t have to quest for them himself, not anymore.

Beneath him, Q sighs and relaxes, eyes closing once more, and James knows that Q heard.

“I wanted to give you the world,” James breathes against Q’s skin, moving to straddle his hips in one smooth move. He’s careful with the distribution of his weight, not wanting to crush his smaller partner. “I still do.”

Q smiles, lazy. “Start with Rome. And then we’ll see.”

James draws the Pantheon on Q’s back in long, black strokes with only the glow of the streetlamps and Q’s laptop to see by. He talks as he draws, talks about his early days in the navy and the quiet wanderlust of his twenties, the allure of a rush that could drive away ghosts.

“You were my only anchor sometimes,” he breathes into the accepting air between them like a secret. “My only constant when everything else changed with the pull of a trigger.”

In return, Q tells him of social events that never ended and people who stared at him without realising he was a person. Of an intelligence that kept him sprinting towards an unseen end goal, of afternoons spent frustrated and thirsty for knowledge that could fill the emptiness in his head.

“You kept me stable,” he whispers into the muffling cotton as if he doesn’t want James to hear him, though he must. “You gave me normalcy, something to hold on to.”

When he’s finished, James shifts back. It’s better than what he did nearly two decades ago, he thinks, not least because he has a better angle this time.

Q’s pale in the moonlight. His dark hair and the drawing sprawled on his back like a massive tattoo contrasts strikingly, and for a while, James lays on his side next to Q, watching the ink dry and pressing kisses to the slope of his elegant neck.

“Turn around,” Q finally says, opening his eyes partially. James was nearly certain that he was asleep, so relaxed and at peace had he looked. “I want to see.”

James obediently turns so his back is facing Q and shivers when Q traces the outer edge of the Pantheon with a single fingertip. When he glances over his shoulder, Q is smiling. “And you say you’re not a good artist,” he rebukes, pressing his hand flat against the small of James’ back.

“I’m not,” James denies automatically. He’s a liar and a killer, a spy and an assassin. He’s strangled life out of eyes with these scarred, broken hands; how can he claim to be able to create anything new and pleasing with such instruments?

Q hums. It doesn’t sound like agreement to James, but Q doesn’t chase the topic. He drapes himself over James’ back instead and says, “Go to sleep. We have all of tomorrow.”

Q, miracle of all miracles, is the one who drags James from bed the morning of his birthday. “Happy birthday,” he says, pressing a kiss to his forehead. “Now get up, you lazy arse; we’ve things to do.”

James chuckles and props himself up against the headboard, tucking his hand behind his head. “It’s my birthday,” he protests weakly. “Shouldn’t that mean I decide what we do today? What if I just want to stay in bed with you all day long?”

“Absolutely not,” Q says primly, though his lips twitch as he goes hunting for trousers. “We do that every Sunday at home. We don’t need to do that on your birthday here in Rome.”

They eat breakfast in a small cafe that was James’ favourite back when he was stationed here. Giggling over croissants and coffee like schoolgirls, James lures Q into a laughing kiss and tastes tea on his tongue. After breakfast, Q produces tickets with a secretive smirk and waves aside James’ questions of how he got them. They tour Rome’s many museums and art galleries, admiring ancient mosaics and sculptures of gods long gone.

“It really reminds me of you,” James tells Q in all seriousness as they stand in front of a painting of an old man asleep at his desk, scrolls and quills splayed about him and a single candle lighting up the small and cluttered room.

Q jabs his elbow into James’ side without missing a beat, without letting go of his hand. “Oh, shut up.”

They eat lunch at one of the museums, disregarding how ridiculously overpriced everything is, and debate, half-seriously, the history of the Mafia over stealing bites of each other’s too-greasy food. Afterwards, Q drags them to the shopping district of Rome, where they wander in and out of high-end stores.

“Do you think Moneypenny would like this?” James asks, fingering a neon-pink romper. He likes the texture.

“I think she would kill you and not even make it look like an accident,” Q answers, examining a deerstalker with a scheming look on his face.

James wisely keeps out of his way and buys the romper. He’ll give it to her at her next birthday party, he decides, when everyone’s too smashed to work up the coordination to try to attempt an assassination.

Q buys an elaborately decorated cane, several magnets, and a 10 metre-long tapestry.

“We don’t exactly have space for that,” James says.

“It’s not for us,” Q replies, and James suspects that, for once, he doesn’t want to know. The devilish smirk on Q’s lips looks rather delicious, though, so he kisses it off and ignores Q’s amused glance.

James has no particular item he wants to buy. He’s been here enough that common tourism has lost its shine, but they do pass one establishment that he finds himself lingering in. It’s a small but charming crafts store with paints and brushes and pencils in a dizzying array of colours and sizes.

Q leaves him to it, straying off on his own for a good twenty minutes. They leave after spending half an hour in the store, having bought nothing. James ambled down every aisle, however, marvelling and transfixed.

At six in the evening, Q tells James that they’re going back to their hotel.

James eyes the determined set to Q’s mouth and restrains himself with some difficulty from asking more questions. He’s been enjoying himself so far - very much - and watching Q be competent and commanding has ever been fascinating and attractive in equal measures.

Following Q’s lead is hardly anything new.

“Put this on,” Q orders when they get back, sweeping into the room with an edge of nervous anticipation that only arouses James’ curiosity further. He shoves a garment bag at James, grabs a garment bag of his own, and promptly locks himself in the bathroom with only an “I’ll be out in a moment,” for an explanation.

Whatever James was expecting, he wasn’t expecting a beautifully tailored dark grey suit.

Q stares in the mirror and frowns. He adjusts his maroon tie for the sixth time. It’s tilted a bit right.

He runs his hands through his hair again and sighs when an unruly lock flops over his forehead. Mummy always did hate how his hair never behaves without copious amounts of product. Sherlock wasn’t ever a problem, because he likes gel. An atrocious amount of it.

Q doesn’t. It makes his hair feel stiff and brittle. Plus, it makes his scalp itch. How Mummy would tut when she found his hair a mess during yet another party, her own curls perfectly glossy and tamed. Mycroft’s lucky; his hair is straight and thin, like their father’s.

Looking at his navy suit jacket and waistcoat, Q thinks that at last, those monotone hours are coming in handy. Stepping back into tailored trousers and polished shoes feels like the ill-fit of childhood. He adjusts his tie again.

Q’s been hiding in the bathroom for more than ten minutes, and although he can’t hear so much as a rustle of clothing from outside the locked door, Q senses James’ curiosity and anticipation like an itch under his skin.

He really is insatiable when it comes to secrets and surprises, and this is both.

Q squares his shoulders. That’s enough, he tells his reflection, annoyed at his own insecurity. He hasn’t been stuck in such a loop of self-doubt since primary. It’s just a fancy outfit, just a fancy dinner, nothing he hasn’t done before, except.

Except it’s a fancy suit for James, a fancy dinner with James because it’s James’ birthday.

What did he say before, the first time they properly met, skittish and frightened and angry and brimming over with guilt and joy intertwined?

The inevitability of time.

Intellectually, Q knows James would have hit retirement age eventually. For years, he wished for it, prayed to a God he didn’t believe in for the dream of never again having to attend James’ funeral, stayed up all night and performed acts of dubious morality and legality. All so James would live to see retirement.

And yet. He’s spent so long linking James Bond with soldier-sailor-sightseer-spy that sometimes, Q still can’t wrap his mind around it. The infamous 007 retiring? 007 leaving MI6 after sixteen damn years of service? 007 becoming James, just James, an incurable romantic and a secret cat-lover and a man with the gentlest hands?

For Q?

He doesn’t want James to change his mind one day, doesn’t want bitterness choking their newly-green relationship like a toxin. He wants to make it up to James; he wants to somehow maintain the illusion that Q is worth a lifetime of duty and the rest of the luminous world.

And James spoils him so with the indulgent kisses, the delicious meals every day, the tea at his desk when he’s been working for seven hours straight and the homemade snacks when he’s hungry at 2300, the small gifts and quiet consideration when Q least expects it. Q is so very desperately lucky, and he wants fiercely to spoil James back.

A knock on the door. “Q? Are you okay?”

Q takes a deep breath and grasps his courage in a bloodless grip. Forcibly turning away from the mirror, he wrenches open the door and strides out and -


No matter how many times Q has seen him in formal wear, James is breathtaking. His eyes are so terribly blue, and his suit fits flawlessly, as Q knew it would, highlighting those broad shoulders, that muscled chest, the coiled strength masquerading so skillfully as confident seduction.

And the way he’s looking at Q…

Q relaxes, the weight of a thousand anxieties lifted off of his shoulders. How foolish of him. How silly. How could he have forgotten? What was he so scared of? It’s James. He smiles slyly past the dryness in his mouth and says, “Like what you see?”

Because how could anyone ever doubt that they’re the most beautiful, most desired person in the world when James looks at them like that?

“Yes,” James replies, blunt and completely sincere, and Q loses his breath, heart racing in his chest. James takes a step forward, closes the distance between them, and brushes his knuckles over Q’s cheek, touch reverent.

Q sighs into the familiar starburst of bliss and leans into the contact, eyes fluttering shut momentarily. “Flatterer,” he accuses half-heartedly.

James chuckles. “No,” he murmurs. “All truth this time, I promise.”

Dinner is delightful. Magical. Candlelight and the city at night turn Q into pleasant shadows and blurred beauty, an artist’s muse. They drink wine that goes down like molten lust, eat food that delights, and exchange kisses that taste of expensive chocolate. Playful banter flows easily between them and their waiter finds them giggling over sex jokes during the third course.

To the man’s credit, he says nothing and doesn’t even give them a judgmental eyebrow. For that, James tips him an extra fifty euros, feeling giddy and twenty years younger, riding the flush of intoxication although he’s barely had three glasses.

They snog like teenagers in the back of the cab they call and stumble back to their room, clutching at each other for balance and sneaking kisses in-between steps.

Q tastes like the chocolate frosted cake they had for dessert, rich and sumptuous and with a hint of vanilla ice cream, and James presses him against the back of the door for more slow, shivery kisses. “You taste good,” he murmurs in Q’s ear between kisses.

“I thought I was the one with the sweet tooth,” Q gasps out, eyes crinkled at the corners with merriment. “You only taste like wine. We need to switch.”

“You’re ridiculous,” James says, not even trying to stop himself from grinning stupidly.

You’re ridiculous,” Q retorts childishly. As if in retaliation, he presses his palms flat against James’ chest and starts to push with a careful application of pressure.

James lets him lead them to their massive bed, doing his best to distract Q with his tongue all the while. Smugly, he notes that Q pauses once and stumbles twice before the back of his knees hit the bed, and he falls flat on his back, bouncing slightly.

Q climbs on top of him, smirking. “You’re all mine,” he proclaims gleefully.

James chuckles. “It’s my birthday,” he points out again. “Shouldn’t it be the opposite way around?”

“Nope,” Q says, popping the ‘p’, and braces his hands on either side of James. “I take care of you tonight. So lie back and think of England.”

“But I would rather think of you,” James says even as he dutifully relaxes back into the cool, silken sheets.

“You can do that,” Q allows with a king’s graciousness and promptly makes sure James can think of nothing at all.

“I presume the honeymoon stage is over.” - M

“Mycroft, don’t you dare.” - Q

“He has to meet the family sometime.” - M

“It’s about time. We should give him a warm welcome.” - S

“Oh, fuck off, Sherlock.” - Q

“Let’s make an appointment next week, shall we?” - M

A day after they get back, James finds out that Q has one more present for him.

He’s losing a staring rematch with Morgana badly when there’s a knock on the door. After obsessively cleaning the flat for the nth time, James has been bored out of his mind and contemplating breaking into Moneypenny’s flat simply for something to do.

Now, the unexpected visitor seems like a heavenly intervention, God himself begging James to cease and desist at once.

Curious, James glances over at the door. The undisputed winner, Morgana meows haughtily and wanders off in the direction of Q’s bedroom, tail held high. Ignoring Her Highness, Bond walks past the sofa and stashes the Beretta 9mm he hid under it in his jacket before heading to the door.

Q took the liberty of explaining his security system to James a day after he unofficially moved in. Certain individuals - Q and James - can gain access through facial recognition if they’re alone or together. Otherwise, it’s fairly easy to get into the flat when Q isn’t present.

It’s getting out that’s the problem. Q likes his neighbours and managed to stutter out “don’t want to shock them too badly” before bursting into a fit of giggles. Aware of the electrified everything in the flat, James rolled his eyes and let him work himself out of his laughing fit.

It’s twelve after noon. What purpose does anyone have here now?

Bond pulls up the app that Q downloaded in his phone with easy grace. It’s linked to the security cameras outside, and the screen shows…

A delivery man with three large boxes, fidgeting in place and looking at his watch. He knocks on the door again.

If it’s a disguise, Bond thinks, it’s a good one. If it was a bad disguise, Q’s facial recognition program would have caught it two minutes ago and sent him a notice, because this man isn’t even attempting to keep his face hidden from view.

He opens the door.

“Good morning! I have a delivery for a...Richard Sterling?” The man smiles politely at him. It’s vaguely amusing to see how fast his face transitions from irritated-and-bored to customer-service.

Bond pretends this isn’t a surprise. He’s very good at it. “Of course. Ta.” He takes the boxes, which are surprisingly heavy, and place them inside, taking care to never take his eyes off of the delivery man or show his back.

“If you would just sign here…”

Bond sends him on his way with the chicken scribble that Richard Sterling uses and closes the door, listening to the locks re-engage with pleasure. Then, he turns to scrutinize the boxes. He wonders if he should send it through MI6 Security. He normally wouldn’t, but there are the cats to consider...

His phone vibrates.

“They’re perfectly safe.” - Q

James arches an eyebrow at the message. Q must be bored during his lunch break to be keeping such a close eye on the security cameras. “What have you done now, Q?” he asks Rayleigh, who has come to see what all this fuss is about.

Rayleigh meows and headbutts the largest box. He pads around it, eyes wide and suspicious, probably scrutinizing its worth as a cat-box.

“I wasn’t expecting a useful answer either,” James tells him and puts away his Beretta. He grabs a pair of scissors from the kitchen and cuts open the smallest box, which is still relatively large. Peeling back the flaps, he looks in and freezes.

It’ supplies.

An entire box of art supplies. Five sketchbooks, each different in some way that the cover loudly advertises. Sets of unsharpened charcoal, graphite, and coloured pencils. Charming pastels and fine pens with differently coloured inks, narrow and wide markers.

An enchanting array of those special soulmate pens in lavishly vivid colours.

James is held motionless in place for another breathless moment before turning and tackling the other two boxes.

The second holds tubes of oil and acrylic paint, spanning the rainbow and with unique colours, like ‘metallic silver’ and ‘shining turquoise’. Batches of paint brushes and knives, equally as impressive. Two packs of watercolours, varnishes, and gesso.

The third, the largest, contains a broken down easel, handsomely untouched canvases of differing sizes, palettes, and organizing containers. Everything is obviously of high quality, crafted with stunning elegance but with a simplicity that gently suggests new beginnings.

James sits back on his hunches, devastated. His eyes burn, so he closes them. He doesn’t. He doesn’t know what to say.

He’s never been loved like this.

This isn’t fair, he thinks, smiling softly, helplessly. Q isn’t fair. How is James meant to repay him when he keeps doing things like this?

Then again, spending the rest of his life trying to repay Q sounds perfectly wonderful. James would be content doing just that.

He would be happy. He is happy.

Q has said nothing more, and so James picks up his phone once more. He brushes his thumb over the text message. Technology is how Q operates, how he communicates. But that’s not James. That’s not them.

James puts the phone down and cuts open a package. He selects a gift the dark green of Q’s eyes before flinging off his sweater and unbuttoning the first three buttons of his shirt.

Over the years, he’s gotten used to writing the wrong way and at an awkward angle. Doing both isn’t difficult.

He hesitates.

Thank you.

A minute later, gentle warmth spreads through his chest. Right underneath, in solid black, in that graceful, sprawling handwriting he’s seen so often throughout the years:

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.” - George Eliot

James smiles and brushes his fingers over the words. “Pretentious sod,” he whispers.

Chapter Text

“You’re a terrible person, you know that?” James says when Q comes back home. “You know how I am with secrets.”

Q drops his bag on the floor and turns a considering look on him. For all that he tries, he can’t quite hide the pleased smile on his lips when he catches sight of the warmth that James lets seep freely into his expression. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

James crosses his arms, leaning against their dinner table with a playful smirk. The dinner dishes next to him are still hot and steaming, his new art supplies safely tucked away in a corner of their living room. “No?”

“No.” Q takes off his coat and pads up to James to kiss him in greeting. It’s quick and chaste, and when Q makes as if to pull away, James brings him back with a kiss that’s slow and drawn-out, sweet with his gratitude and heavy with his desire to lavish his appreciation on Q’s bare skin.

“I did warn you,” Q murmurs smugly when they part, a pretty flush on his cheeks. He snuggles up to James, warm and languid. “I make the best plans.”

James chuckles, wrapping his arms around Q’s waist. “Since your plans have saved my life more times than I’ve bothered to count, I can’t disagree with that. But you do realise that now you have me at a disadvantage, and I hate being at a disadvantage.”

Q tilts his head back to peer at James through his eyelashes, looking perplexed. It’s a very beguiling look, so James sneaks two kisses in before letting Q mumble out, “What disadvantage?”

“I still don’t know your birthday,” James points out. Frustration threatens to turn his tone tart but he’s all too easily mollified by Q’s warmth and proximity. It’s hardly the first time he’s brought this up; he’s asked before, many times. Q always deflected, ignored, or outright refused to answer the question.

“Oh, that.” Q relaxes with a dismissive air. He eyes James for a moment before smiling impishly. “It’s a secret.” But the glint in his eyes says that it’s not so much a secret as a challenge.

James growls and nips lightly at his ear in punishment. How dare Q use his weaknesses against him. Perhaps the rest of their life together will be a series of chases, one right after another, mischievous and bright without the acrid desperation of their courtship.

He can’t wait.

“You cheeky little sod. Fine.” His grin is wild and thrilled, a predator picking up the scent of the hunt. “You’re on.”

James sits on the sofa and stares at the collection of art supplies in front of him.

He...doesn’t know what to do. How to start.

What the hell does he really know about art? Nothing. He knows lines and angles, blueprints and escape routes. The only reason he ever even started doodling in the first place was because of his mother, because of Q.

Now, confronted by the masses of paints and brushes and canvases that Q saw fit to give him for his birthday, James is suddenly overwhelmingly aware that he’s probably in way over his head. He isn’t the artist Q seems to think he is. For fuck’s sake, he barely knows how to draw a building!

How is he supposed to create anything close to the magnificent pieces they admired in the National Gallery or even the lovely paintings that hang from the walls of their home? Just thinking about trying to draw a human face frightens James more than live grenades ever did.

If only the other Double-Ohs could see him now, he thinks with a wry smirk. They’d never let him live it down.

A meow breaks his concentration. James glances down as Rayleigh butts his head against his shin. He meows again, peering up at James with wide eyes. Days of being left alone with the demanding beasts mean that James has no problem picking up on what he wants.

Snorting, James picks Rayleigh up and deposits him in his lap, ignoring the blue fur that instantly coats his white t-shirt. It’s just as well that there’s no need for him to wear suits at home. The amount of dry cleaning that would be needed would be downright ridiculous.

Stroking a hand down the cat’s back in a familiar motion, James looks out the window, shoulders relaxing as Rayleigh purrs quietly. It’s brilliantly sunny in that way it only ever is during the colder seasons, and while some leaves still cling stubbornly to their branches, most trees are bare.

A far cry from the last time he considered art, but…

The memory of it - cool moonlight and the taste of champagne on his tongue, the irresistible stretch of Q’s pale, beautiful skin beneath his pen and Rome’s soft bed sheets beneath his knees - sparks a strange sort of want in his chest.

James returns his attention to the pencils waiting patiently for him. His fingers itch.

Slowly, tentatively, he removes a graphite pencil from a pack. It’s slim and fragile in his palm. His hands are used to grasping pens and pulling triggers; his fingers have been broken half a dozen times. This level of delicacy and detail he normally leaves to disarming bombs and touching Q.

The pencil is unsharpened, although the words on the side inform him that it’s meant to be of a certain thickness. He spots a small, elegant knife included in the package, not meant for lethal intent although fully capable of it in James’ hands, and this - this, he knows how to do.

James gently shoos Rayleigh off of his lap but lets the cat curl up at his side while he expertly sharpens the pencil over the table. The pencil shavings fall in graceful long curls, testament to his skill with blades of all kinds. James finds the work soothing, a step back into his comfort zone.

Minutes later, James holds the pencil tip up to the light. It gleams, pointed and fine. A job well done if he says so himself.

He hesitates, the moment of familiarity gone, but even so, he can only hesitate for a second or ten before the silliness of it all catches up to him. He’s hesitating over a pencil and paper. James normally eschews delay, especially when he knows what the next step is; the first one to shoot walks out alive.

He picks a sketchbook at random. It’s a “mixed media pad” and when he tests the paper between his fingers, it’s heavy and slightly textured. A pleasant sensation overall. When he draws an experimental line across the page, the colour comes out light and grey, the sharpness of the pencil a foreign satisfaction.

James has seduced many an artist in his time, listened to their dreams in their beds and flirted with them over their lifelong works. Abruptly, he recalls something a sweet lady from Vienna once told him and drags his finger over the pencil line.

It smudges, and he hums thoughtfully. He can work with this. Surely it can’t be so difficult.

A lifetime of bullshitting and winging it leads him through the rest of the day, and when Q gets back, he finds James with a small mountain of pencil shavings in front of him, working on a half-decent sketch of the table.

Morgana and Rayleigh entwine themselves around Q’s feet, disgruntled. James has barely paid attention to them all day! The nerve of him.

Making sympathetic noises, Q pets their sorrows away and wonders out loud, “Are we getting takeout tonight then?”

“In a second,” James mutters, squinting at his work. “Let me get this shading right.”

By the time he looks up again, attention caught by the delicious smells in the air and the grumbling of his stomach, it’s an hour later and Q is shoving Chinese food under his nose. “Nice role reversal, this,” he comments with an amused smile.

James is faintly disconcerted. It’s been years since he was so blind to time and his environment. He consoles himself with the fact that the cats are only a minor danger and he never was able to categorise Q as even the slightest threat. “I like coffee,” he deflects smoothly.

Q looks absolutely appalled by the implication that he’s now meant to leave James cups of coffee all over the table. “We don’t have a coffee machine,” he says at once.

“That can be fixed.”

“Don’t you dare, James Bond.”

James takes it back. He takes it all back. Can’t be so difficult, his arse.

“Fuck.” Scowling, he glares at the sketch he’s been working on for the past hour. James just can’t get the damned angle right. And he’s already erased so much that his kneaded eraser is more dark gray than white.

Sighing and giving this one up for a lost cause too, he tears the page off and crumples it into a ball. Leaning back, James easily throws the ball into the recycling can, where it joins its many brethren with only a soft noise of complaint.

The new blank white page mocks him with its leftover indentations. His pencil, thinner and darker than the one he first picked up, is blunt once more. The angle of the sun has changed again, and Morgana, seated primly on the very table he was staring at, gives him an unimpressed look.

“Oh, shut up,” he tells her and puts the sketchbook and pencil on the table. Picking Morgana up with the ease that comes of experience, James gets up from the sofa and heads to the kitchen. They have a deal, these two devils and him. He’ll give them treats and they won’t break his pencils.

They renege on the unspoken contract more often than not, but James is a desperate man these days and he’s even willing to admit it from time to time.

Leaving Morgana happily placated, James deftly snatches a red pen from the kitchen counter. The set that Q gave him is slowly being distributed throughout the flat so he never has to look far when he wants to talk to Q.

Pushing back his left sleeve, he enquires on his arm: Lunch?

Sometimes, when Q isn’t preoccupied, James can coax the Quartermaster out of his den for a lunch break at a nice restaurant nearby. So far, he’s triumphed four out of nine times but he’s confident that he’ll be able to improve his success rate over time.

While he waits for Q to either respond or ignore him, James drinks a mug of milk. Rayleigh pads up to butt his head against his shin, meowing insistently for attention. James rolls his eyes and bends down to stroke a hand down the cat’s spine. “You’re too needy,” he informs him.

Rayleigh purrs louder in response.

It’s quiet but for Rayleigh’s purrs and the tap of Morgana’s claws against the kitchen floor. James closes his eyes, drinking in the peace. After years of gunshots and death sounding in his ears, this sort of quiet is still rare, still beautiful enough to kick him in the heart.

He honestly never expected to adjust to civilian life so well.

A familiar, gentle warmth brushes his arm a few minutes later.

Busy, Q’s written, letters sloppy and slanted, clearly in a hurry. He could be busy with any number of things but at the top of the list is a Double-Oh mission. And James will never be so removed from MI6 and his former colleagues that he’d place his own desires above their safety.

But if Q-Branch is so active that they can’t spare their Quartermaster for an hour, it’s not likely that Q will get his own lunch in the meantime.

Well then. James smirks and grabs his coat. He’ll just have to bring lunch to Q.

As expected, Q-Branch resembles nothing so much as a riled-up wasp’s nest when James arrives. He does so with a thoroughly self-satisfied air and a cocky swagger to his footsteps. Moneypenny certainly came through with that new security clearance.

A baffled silence and a few dozen stares follow him. Just as Q-Branch’s doors close behind him, the muffled whispers start.

“Is that…?”

“I heard he retired!”

“What’s he doing back here?”

Knowing the MI6 grapevine, the news will reach M within the next twenty minutes. Maybe ten if Moneypenny isn’t busy. Grinning like the cat that got all of the cream, James saunters into Q-Branch, nearly unnoticed in the chaos.

He’s come at a good time, relatively speaking. All of that time spent watching Q has made James well-versed in gauging the moods of Q-Branch, and he can say with assurance that while the situation - whatever situation that’s going on - is high-priority, it hasn’t exploded yet.

Or possibly, it’s exploded already and now the minions are doing clean-up. Regardless, although everyone’s either typing madly or running around with tunnel vision, a few minutes of distraction on Q’s part won’t kill someone.

James has made it halfway to Q’s base of operations before someone notices him. It helps that he’s wearing a black coat and black trousers instead of the sharp suit that most of the boffins have grown used to seeing him in. People see what they want to see.

Inevitably, though, the minion he blackmailed a few weeks back accidentally drops all of the files he was carrying in his arms upon spotting James. “Dou - Double-Seven?” he splutters, promptly alerting everyone around him to James’ presence.

It only takes a few seconds for the news to spread through the branch like wildfire. Half of the boffins stop working to stare at him, wide-eyed, while the other half are far too busy to do anything but dismiss him like an irritating fly.

James ignores them all, making his way forward with stubborn tenacity. Q, brilliant, mulish Q, hasn’t even noticed the wave of surprised silence sweeping the room, much too absorbed in his work. A single mug of steaming tea has been set down at his side, along with an unopened granola bar.

James huffs out an amused breath. Of course. Stepping forward on silent feet, he approaches Q, who has his head bent and eyes focused on his screen, oblivious to his lover standing half a metre away and the Indian takeout he places discreetly near his elbow.

Even after all of this time, even after knowing, it still unravels James a little to watch Q angle his body slightly in James’ direction, an instinctive acknowledgement of his soulmate that goes far beyond the conscious.

Madeleine said he does the same but James almost can’t believe it.

Very, very briefly, James considers being subtle and letting the rest of MI6 think what they want. He drops the idea like a hot potato. He doesn’t want Q to be known as available, doesn’t want to be thought of as the single, womanizing bachelor himself.

No, what he really wants to do is show Q off to the world.

“Darling,” James says, soft and dear but just loud enough for the nearest minions to hear. The low-level murmur instantly rises to a buzz across Q-Branch.

The easy dance of Q’s fingers falters as he jolts, the coding on the screen gaining a red squiggle underneath to indicate a typo. He looks up to squint at James, blinking rapidly as if worried that his vision is failing him. “...James?” he asks incredulously. “What are you doing here?”

James knows he’s smiling smugly, but he can’t help it, not when the whispered interest has lifted sharply into sotto voce gossiping. Q couldn’t have confirmed their relationship any more blatantly than if he’d shagged James in the middle of his de-facto throne room.

“Bringing you lunch,” James says, rather pleased with the world at the moment, and leans in to brush a soft kiss on Q’s lips. “Hello, my Quartermaster.”

Q-Branch finally explodes into loud exclamations, congratulations, and questions, the minions frantically speaking over each other and competing for coherency. Q catches on half a second later and flushes a gorgeous pink.

“James!” he hisses. Only after James grins like the devil himself does he seem to realise what he just said. Again. The minions nearby are all but twittering, their fingers dancing with hummingbird speed across their keyboards.

Q swivels his head around to glare darkly at James, who raises his hands, palms out, lips still twitching. “You said it, not me,” he points out, adopting a perfectly sensible tone only because he knows it’ll irritate Q.

For a moment, Q’s expression vies between embarrassment, annoyance, and resignation. To James’ delight, Q decides to settle on a grumpy sort of acceptance. He’ll be allowed to stay then, disruption or not.

With a small sigh and a roll of his eyes directed at James, Q turns to address his subordinates. “That’s enough,” he orders firmly. “Everyone back to work now. We don’t need a war with Spain anytime this century.”

It’s a measure of Q’s authority and the respect he wields within his domain that there is only mild groaning at such a command and everyone actually turns back to their monitors after a second or two, albeit with a good majority sneaking glances at them every two minutes or so.

“Oh, shut up,” Q says when he spots the look of self-satisfaction on James’ face. “You’re such a smug bastard. Look at what you’ve done; I’m never going to finish my work now.”

“Mmm, but look at what I’ve brought you.” James leans forward to tap the takeout on the table pointedly.

Exaggerated suspicion draws Q’s eyebrows together, and his eyes dart from the container to James and then back again. “It had better not be the remains of another gun,” he threatens even as he reaches for the box.

James waits with an easy kind of patience, cocking his hip against Q’s desk with anticipation a slow burn in his blood. He spies the exact instant Q recognises what’s in the containers by the way he smiles with startled brightness, seemingly almost despite himself. “You got me curry!”

“It’s the good kind, too,” James supplies with a slight tilt of his head. The half-smile that lingers on his lips is softer, warmer than his previous grins, the predator that lives deep within his soul basking in the light of Q’s happiness with a purr. “Authentic.”

Q hums, already rooting for a spoon in the plastic bag. He finds one with a triumphant look and promptly digs in with a moan that makes James twitch and two nearby minions blush to the tips of their ears.

He probably hasn’t eaten anything since the croissant James managed to shove at him in the morning while Q was basically already out the door, babbling about the latest cybersecurity threat. Typical.

“Am I forgiven then?” James asks with a cajoling smile the next time Q has his mouth mostly free.

Q’s responding look is droll. “Well,” he sighs, achingly put-upon, “I suppose I must for curry this good. How do you always know where all the best restaurants are?”

“It’s my best quality,” James agrees, deadpan. “My encyclopedic knowledge of excellent restaurants around the world.”

Q laughs, and that’s exactly when Moneypenny bursts in, Tanner hot on her heels.

“James!” Moneypenny exclaims before narrowing her eyes, her high heels clicking on the floor as she stalks across Q-Branch. Minions, ever intelligent, dive out of her way. “I should have known you were the one causing all this ruckus.”

Turning to acknowledge her with a hand absently placed on the small of Q’s back, James greets her shamelessly. “Moneypenny. You look as beautiful as ever.” That magenta dress really is a statement.

Coming to a stop before them, she plants her hand on her hip. “And you look thoroughly besotted,” Moneypenny teases lightly.

“Can’t imagine why,” James replies, staying exactly where he is. Tanner, whose eyes seem magnetized to the point of contact between James’ hand and Q’s back, looks torn between approving and pained.

On the other hand, Moneypenny beams, blatantly delighted. “About time.”

Tanner coughs and seems to recover his composure with a small smile. “Bond, M wants to see you,” he says politely, apparently having decided that avoiding the topic altogether is the best way to approach the situation.

“I’m busy,” James claims, knowing full well it’s futile but perfectly willing to make as much of a terror of himself as he can. He gleefully makes no attempt at hiding the lie.

Before Moneypenny’s eyebrows can rise too high, Q, who’s been preoccupying himself with his curry this entire while, huffs out a breath and puts his spoon down. “No, you aren’t,” he disagrees, charmingly unamused. “And I have work to do so if we could all vacate my Branch before another national monument gets blown up by 002…”

James grins, impervious as always to disapproval. “Come now, Q, we all have our little vices.”

“No, a vice would be the amount of expensive alcohol in our mini-fridge,” Q retorts with a pointed frown. “A blown up national monument is mountains of paperwork and no equipment brought back and a two week stay in Medical.”

“It’s all just a matter of degrees, really.” James rocks back on his heels, slipping his hand into his pocket. “I’ll pick you up at six?”



“Is this what you guys are like at home?” Moneypenny asks with open fascination.

Tanner just slaps a hand over his eyes like he can’t bear to watch.

The meeting with M goes about as well as James expects. M hems and haws and tries to chew out James for his unorthodox method of resigning but ends up just throwing a file of paperwork at him and ordering him out of his office with a warning to behave.

James walks out of MI6 with a spring in his step and a thousand pleasant rumours brewing behind his back and a bribed secretary.

Later that night, James positions himself purposefully on the sofa and stares down the window. Q’s typing at his laptop at the dining table, a familiar white noise. Even after prying him from his work at 1845, the Quartermaster of MI6 never rests.

He picks up his pencil and begins again.

James is staring down two potatoes in Waitrose when John Watson bumps into him.

“Bond? Commander Bond?” Watson blinks at him, the surprise on his face as genuine as the six tubs of ketchup in his cart, before a wide grin stretches across his mouth. “Fancy seeing you here! Glad to see you survived Afghanistan, mate. And not badly off, too.”

James rapidly masks away his own surprise and smirks back, pulling on the persona of a sailor of the Royal Navy like an old but well-worn suit. “Good to see you again, too, Watson. You’ a lot of ketchup there.”

“Yeah, I’m not sure why those are there either,” Watson shrugs, rueful. His gaze scans over James, the motion quick and skilled and familiar, and James knows the exact second Watson takes note of the gun holster, the knives, and the markers of a combat-ready fighter.

James wonders when he’ll begin to lose those. Whatever conclusion Watson comes to, his eyes narrow slightly, but he continues on without a hitch, without any defensiveness lining his body language. James can respect that.

“I figure Sherlock will tell me eventually. It’s probably for some ill-begotten experiment.”

Ah. Q did warn him a few days ago that his brothers are ‘smart, tricky bastards with no sense of boundaries.’ “Sherlock?” James repeats with a meticulously calculated dose of question in his voice.

“You haven’t spent a lot of time back here, have you?” Watson raises his eyebrows. “Sherlock’s been in the newspapers a few times now, but I guess you haven’t really had the chance to read those.”

“Not particularly,” James says drolly, and Watson chuckles.

“Thought not. Sherlock H - ”

A sharp baritone cuts in, the timing too perfect. “Sherlock Holmes. Nice to finally meet you, James Bond.” The man who strides up to stand beside Watson and offer his hand is unforgettable in a fascinating kind of way, not beautiful in the conventional sense but certainly eye-catching.

James observes the dark curls, cutting cheekbones, and indomitable air with familiarity. The hazel eyes and tall, lean figure are new, as is the professionally-made coat he swirls around and the near aggressive boldness.

“I would introduce myself, but you already know my name,” James murmurs, shaking Sherlock’s hand once before letting go.

“You already knew mine,” Sherlock returns at once.

Watson has gone quiet and still, eyes darting between them. “Sherlock,” he says slowly, “what’s going on?” But regardless of his confusion, he’s shifted immediately to both include Sherlock in the conversation and subtly insert himself between the two of them.

A guard against what he perceives as a possible threat and a shield in the event of an attack. All utterly subconscious. Is this what he’s like with Q?

As Sherlock turns to answer Watson’s question, his eyes soften. “This is Q’s soulmate and the cause of all that whinging,” he says, waving a hand dismissively at James. “Thankfully, they finally got their acts together and made up over a month ago. I don’t think I could have stood any more stupidity.”

Watson’s eyes have widened in abrupt comprehension. “Bond is Q’s soulmate?” he says with clear disbelief.

“Yes, isn’t that what I just said? Do keep up, John.” Looking back at James, Sherlock opens his mouth to fire off another comment, likely one not anywhere near as indulgent as the ones to his soulmate, but the beep of a phone cuts him off.

With a dramatic groan, Sherlock fetches out his phone and peers at the screen. He instantly looks highly disgruntled at whatever he finds there.

“It’s Mycroft, isn’t it,” Watson says.

Sherlock nods with a petulant roll of his eyes. “Yes, sadly. My meddlesome brother says not to cause a scene in Waitrose since Q is too busy to erase footage for us. Hah! As if he doesn’t have secretaries who do that for him on a daily basis!” He starts to text back furiously.

The quirk of Watson’s smile is more exasperated than anything else. “That sounds like Mycroft, alright.” He glances at James with a sympathizing tilt of his head. “You don’t have to come with us; it’ll just be easier if you do.”

James is familiar with these situations. “Don’t mind if I do,” he says, almost glibly. It’s not as if he has any other plans for the rest of the night, and he may as well start casing out what sort of family he’s getting himself into. But first - “After checking out.”

Sherlock glances up from his phone to cast him a quick once over, snorts at whatever he finds, and takes off for the checkout with a theatrical swish of his belstaff. “Whatever you’re assuming, don’t. You’re wrong.”

Watson, when James glances at him, can only offer a vaguely apologetic smile and a shrug before trotting off after Sherlock, frowning vaguely at all of the ketchup.

They all pile into a black taxi, sleek and pretty, whereupon Sherlock preoccupies himself with his phone, presumably in a texting war with his brother, and Watson leans over Sherlock’s shoulder to read and chuckle occasionally.

James just stares out the window, orienting himself on his mental map of London. Even without Q’s warnings, there are rumours about Mycroft Holmes when one cares to listen for them and old habits die hard.

Absently, he hopes that the food he bought will actually get back to the flat. The other, far more normal-looking cab took everything, including all those tubs of ketchup, and the cabbie cheerfully assured James that she knows where she’s going and what to do.

Maybe it’s just his paranoia but James very much doubts that. He has a feeling he’ll have to go back to Waitrose tomorrow. He might as well drag Q along, too, for getting him all but pseudo-kidnapped by his brothers.

They pull up at the Diogenes Club, which fits perfectly with what James knows about the Holmes family. Sherlock stuffs his phone back into a pocket of his jacket and sweeps off, Watson his calm shadow. James follows them both, unsurprised when the black taxi peels away at once.

They’re waved through briskly, yet another sign of power and wealth, and encounter a beautiful woman with long, curly brown hair in a perfectly-tailored grey suit. She smiles politely at them, makeup done with a delicate touch. “He’s waiting for you.”

Sherlock sniffs and sails past her to enter the room, John only a minute behind with a respectful nod, a returning smile, and a friendly, “Anthea” to offset his partner’s brusqueness. James follows them more sedately, hands in his pockets. “Nice to meet you,” he offers as he walks by.

Her hum is equal parts uninterested and knowing. “And you.”

He keeps an eye on her until the doors shut behind him. She was armed with two guns, one in a shoulder holster and one in a thigh holster under her skirt. He suspects the other thigh holster held a knife. Clearly not just a secretary then but also a bodyguard.

He hopes she never makes an acquaintance with Moneypenny.

Mycroft Holmes is sitting behind a large mahogany desk, a familiar cane in his hands. The equally familiar tapestry hung behind him somewhat undercuts his menacing image. So that’s where those little drops of Rome went.

“Sherlock. John.” He nods to each in turn and then smiles blandly at James. “Mr Bond. Please, take a seat.”

It’s not a request.

“Mr Holmes,” Bond returns. He sits in the chair placed directly in front of Mycroft with all the nonchalant insolence he can muster, which, after years of pissing off both Ms, is more than enough to make Mycroft twitch. “What can I owe this pleasure to?”

Who,” Mycroft corrects, leaning back in his swivel chair. “It’s ‘who’. And I think we both know the answer to that question, Mr Bond. This talk has been a long time coming.”

Watson, who has followed Sherlock to one of the side sofas, snickers. “Yeah, well, if the ‘Holmes Shovel Talk’ was normal in my case, then it’s been several years late.”

“Two years and a month to be exact,” Sherlock imparts nonchalantly. “Technically, Q first laid eyes on him around seven years ago, but he probably didn’t even know Q existed back then.”

Mycroft frowns at them both, equal parts chiding, exasperated, and resigned before turning his attention back on James. “While, as always, I must ask you both to refrain from conducting yourselves like children,” he says, “they are correct on this matter.”

He places his cane against his desk and leans forward, placing his folded hands on the table. “You broke our brother’s heart seven years ago and left it broken until very recently,” Mycroft states mildly. “Are we meant to leave him in your hands with the assumption that you’ll be gentler this time around?”

James swallows down the automatic anger, well aware he’s being provoked, and falls into the calm, detached mental state he’s developed for stressful situations with unknown parties. He doubts Mycroft - because in the end, Mycroft holds the power in this room - will actually have him hurt, not when it would harm Q in turn, but there are other ways to impact a life.

“You underestimate Q’s agency,” he tells them coolly. “Those were all his decisions. Respect them.”

Sherlock makes a derisive noise. “Q has a streak of stubborn martyrism for people he’s emotionally attached to,” he snaps. “His ‘agency’, as you call it, might very well get him killed one day.”

“You’re one to talk,” Watson mutters, frowning at Sherlock.

Sherlock clearly pretends not to hear.

James crosses his legs, projecting careless arrogance. “He’s tougher than you believe,” he replies, starting to grasp the surface level of the dynamics between these brothers. “And if he gets in over his head, that’s what I’m here for.”

“You,” Mycroft says, silkily calculating, “do not have a good record for protecting assets, Mr Bond. Your lovers have had ever shorter life spans.”

James takes the hit without flinching. He was expecting something like this. On the other end of the table, he would have gone for that pressure point without hesitation, too. “I have one life to give, and I’d give it,” he vows bluntly. “Name someone who could do better.”

There’s a beat of silence. “He’s got a point,” Watson admits cheerfully. Both Holmes throw sulky looks at him, but Watson merely shrugs in response.

“Besides,” James adds, “anyone who tries to bypass Q’s security systems wouldn’t need me. The cats would take them.”

Watson laughs. “Alright, mate,” he says. “I’m not here for whatever game those two are playing this time and I don’t have half of Mycroft’s confidential information, but I do want to know three things.”

To James’ surprise, instead of continuing the conversation with him, Watson turns to Sherlock, who has his arms crossed but is evidently listening. “Does he love him?” Watson asks.

“...yes,” Sherlock mutters.

Watson nods, looking unsurprised. “Will he take care of him?”

Another grumpy affirmative.

“Does he make Q happy?”

A long pause.


Sherlock heaves a dramatic sigh. “I don’t know why, but yes.”

“Then we’re good.” Watson grins at James, who smiles back. There’s that solid pragmatic nature that Bond found so admirable back in the war. He’s glad Watson hasn’t lost it. “Welcome to this utterly insane family of genii.”

James waits a few seconds for Sherlock and Mycroft to protest. Sherlock huffs, and Mycroft has a sour look on his face, but neither says anything. Not so much of an interrogation, he thinks, as it is a farce of one. They wanted to see how he would react, yes, but only for entertainment and out of pettiness.

If they had any doubts, they came to their conclusions about him a long time ago, and nothing he could have said or done today would have changed that.

“Thanks,” James replies wryly just as the phone rings.

Mycroft sighs. “Excuse me,” he says and turns his chair so it faces away from them. He takes the call.

“Lestrade.” Sherlock gives a put-upon groan. “That or Q, if he’s not busy enough with incompetent agents to keep an eye on what Bond’s doing.”

“Gregory Lestrade’s a Detective Inspector with New Scotland Yard,” Watson informs James. “He’s Mycroft’s...uhh...I guess boyfriend is the right term.” His frown is somewhat disturbed.

Sherlock makes a truly aggrieved noise. Watson rolls his eyes and says, “Oh, stop that. Anthea - that was the woman back there - is Mycroft’s platonic soulmate. You’ll probably see them both around.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” James says as Mycroft ends his conversation.

He turns around to face them again. “That was Q. I’ve been told that I must end this kidnapping within the next ten minutes or all of my electronics will begin to suffer from viruses.” Mycroft somehow manages to make it clear that, regardless of the threat, the only reason he’s considering obeying the order is because it’s his baby brother doing the ordering.

James smiles. “As I’m sure you know, he’s perfectly capable of it.” He stands up and nods goodbye to Watson, who returns the gesture. Before he goes, though, he adds, “I do have one question.”

“Go ahead,” Mycroft says, twirling his cane.

James absently murders another sketchpad and throws it across the room. It lands in the recycling bin perfectly. He says, “Your brothers are just like you.”

Q looks positively aghast. “Why would you say that.”

“Is the rest of your family like this, too?”

“Mummy invited us to dinner in four months, so you’ll get to find out for yourself.”

James pulls out another pencil to sharpen. The pocket knife he’s taken to using gleams sharp and sweet in his hand. “...look forward to it.”

“Believe me, James Bond, no, you don’t.”

A day later, James drags Q back to Waitrose and proceeds to buy wildly extravagant ingredients for the dishes that he’s always wanted to try out and never had the chance to while Q wanders around, looking for the tea and snacks and biscuits.

When he was an agent, James never really touched the money in his bank. Not significantly anyhow; expensive scotch doesn’t count. He wasn’t ever in England for long enough to buy anything material he could theoretically enjoy for longer than a week.

Now that he’s factoring in his near-mythical retirement fund, apparently having peacefully accumulated interest while 007 didn’t know it existed, he can basically spend money as they like without fear of living on the streets, so long as they don’t try to buy the palace on a whim.

Q has taken recently to doing James’ finances as well, because the one time he found James bent over their dining table, scowling at tax forms, he proclaimed it “disgraceful” and “ridiculous” and promptly absconded with the papers before James could blink. When questioned about it, he said something about an algorithm and overbearing big brothers.

Having now met them, James doesn’t doubt that he doesn’t want to know.

“Is that salmon?” Q demands when he wanders back over to James with his hands full of digestives.

James continues pushing their cart along without breaking stride. “Yes, it is.”

Q dumps his goods inside the cart and side-eyes James. “Why are you buying salmon? You don’t like salmon. I don’t like salmon. Whom is the salmon for?”

“You don’t have to sound so suspicious, love,” James says, deadpan. He scrutinizes the organic brown twelve-pack egg cartons. “There’s no other woman. You know you’re the only one for me.”

“Git,” Q says with great dignity. “Don’t change the subject. I’m not nearly insecure enough to feel threatened by salmon, of all things.”

“Nobody and nothing,” says James.

“You know, the recycling guy complimented me on how hard we’re working to keep our house in order. Saving the trees, he said. Saving Mother Earth. Doing our duty to help the planet.”

“Oh, shut up.”

Q snickers as another ball of paper joins its fellows in the nearly-full recycling bin.

“It didn’t look that bad this time,” he protests. “I think you’re getting that cubist style.”

“I was trying to draw the London Eye,” James points out. “Realistically.”

“Ah.” A pause. “Fancy a cuppa?”

“Coffee, ta.”

“Earl Grey, it is.”

“James fucking Bond!”

“How many times do I have to tell you that my middle name isn’t ‘fucking’?” James wonders as he walks into the living room, hair still damp from his shower. “Although I am exceptional at the act, if I do say so myself.”

Q glares at him, bent protectively over his laptop. “Your humbleness is astounding. And don’t try to change the bloody subject,” he says darkly. “Why the hell were you trying to hack into my system?”

James leans against the wall and deliberates this for a few seconds, eyeing Q’s steadily growing irritation with well-hidden amusement. “, I don’t think I did,” he says at last with a virtuous look that he knows very well drives Q crazy.

“What do you mean you don’t think you did?” Q demands, crossing his arms. “You either did or didn’t, and I know that you did, so there’s no use arguing otherwise.”

“Well then, if there are only two options and you’ve already ruled out one, I guess the other one has to be right,” James says. Having faced far more severe and heartfelt death threats in his life, it’s child’s play to maintain a light composure before Q’s ire.

Q narrows his eyes. “So you admit you were trying to hack into my laptop?”

“Now, I said nothing of that sort.” Bending down, James scoops up Morgana, who puts up a token protest in the form of a growl but then subsidizes happily into purring as he pets her down her back. Everyone looks more innocent with a cat in their arms, he knows.

As expected, Q’s face softens a bit, although the suspicion in the set of his mouth only deepens. “Why?” he demands again.

James decides to dig his feet in and be stubborn. “Why what?”

Q makes a growl that sounds remarkably similar to Morgana’s. “You are infuriating,” he proclaims, throwing his hands in the air. “What was so important and secretive that you tried to break into my systems instead of just asking me?”

James exhales gustily with more than a little drama. “Do you really want to know?”

Now, Q just looks downright wary. But he’s as stubborn as James and pushes through firmly with a, “Yes.”

“Are you sure?”


“Honestly,” and here James pauses for effect, “I was only looking for your birthday date.”

For a good minute, Q is struck speechless by sheer outrage.

James takes off before he can recover.

“James Fucking Bond, get back here!”

Q audibly pops a red cherry tomato in his mouth. There was an entire bowl of the stuff on the table last James looked. There’s barely four left now.

“You know, I didn’t buy you all of that stuff because I thought you would become an expert at everything,” he says, gesturing at the overflowing recycling bin with something like indulgent amusement. “You could try out some of the other mediums, see which one you like best.”

James, who spent the majority of their Sunday morning in bed, trying to sketch a respectful cat silhouette and failing miserably, hums doubtfully from where he’s chopping up an onion. This, at least, he knows how to do perfectly well.

Morgana sniffs at an onion piece from the kitchen stool and sneezes.

“That’s like saying I should try on a machine gun for size when I don’t even know how to use a handgun,” he replies. He takes the onion piece away from their much-too-adventurous cat and throws it away.

Morgana makes a protesting noise that he ignores. Insulted beyond human comprehension, Her Highness hops off the stool and stalks away, tail held high in contempt.

What a spoiled beast, James thinks. “No point in trying out more advanced materials when I can’t even handle a pencil.”

“Your metaphors are the worst,” Q informs him. “That’s not really the way art works, you know. Sketching takes precision and angles and shading. As far as I know, watercolour is just splashing paint on a canvas.”

“That seems like a vast simplification,” James comments, throwing in the carrots with an oily sizzle. “I hardly think I’m going to get a watercolour-style Fighting Temeraire by throwing paint on a canvas, Q.”

Q waves a hand dismissively and eats another tomato. “That’s what the internet is for. Have you looked on YouTube for video tutorials yet, instead of blundering about trying to learn everything yourself? They’ve got some pretty detailed stuff.”

“Is that how you learned coding?” James asks rather than admit that looking up resources online had come second to his pride and he hadn’t really thought about it.

“‘Course.” Q crunches audibly. “And speaking of guns, Moneypants wants me to remind you that your first session with your new students is coming up.”

James sweeps all of the remaining chives into the frying pan. He grabs some spices from the cupboard and turns to Q with a well-perfected clueless look. “Sorry, what was that? Couldn’t hear you over the stove.”

Q braces his chin on his palm and raises his eyebrows, unfazed. “You really think you can run from this forever? Moneypants will track you down, and she won’t be nice about it.”

“So long as she doesn’t rope in Marian again, I’ll be fine,” James decides wryly and shifts to add some pepper. “I’ll just barricade myself in this nice little hideout you’ve created out of our flat and never leave.”

“Coward,” comes the soft, taunting mutter behind his back.

James pauses for a short second before continuing to add the white wine and salt to the rice. It’s only after he’s done stirring them in that he wipes his hand on a cloth and turns to face a blank-faced Q. “What was that?” he inquires politely.

Q blinks at him with the innocence of a man who would never dream of lying. “What was what?”

Fighting the pull of the delighted grin he can feel on the corners of his lips, James turns off the heat and turns to stalk across the kitchen, quickly adopting an air of offended indignation. “Don’t play coy,” he chides. “You planning on backing up that statement?”

Q narrows his eyes, shuffling back in his chair in clear preparation for bolting. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says, mirth dancing through the bland tones of his voice like a mischievous butterfly.

James smiles as he steps out of the kitchen area. “No, I’m sure you don’t,” he allows graciously.

Q watches him approach with a wary look, steadily moving backwards in small increments. “What about lunch?” he asks without taking his eyes off of James.

James chuckles at the blatant diversion. “It’ll keep,” he assures...and lunges as soon as he’s within grabbing distance. He misses Q by a few centimetres only because Q threw himself off of his chair as soon as he saw James move. Laughing, he proceeds to run around the dining table.

Not one to be denied, James runs after him with a thrilled grin. They dash around the flat like a pair of children - to the open fascination of their cats - until James corners Q in the bedroom. There’s only one exit, and he’s standing in front of it.

A genius escaping into a dead-end - well. There’s only one way he can interpret that, right?

Q stands next to their bed, chest heaving and smiling with such joy that James’ heart, already pounding in his ears, gives a smitten little skip. “James…” he starts in what’s obviously meant to be a cautioning voice but merely sounds out-of-breath and elated.

James can feel his cheeks hurting from how wide he’s grinning. “Q…” he mirrors teasingly.

Q takes a step back. “Let me go,” he demands.

James takes a step forward. “Hmm.” He pretends to think about it. “No.”

“James!” If Q was aiming for a scolding Quartermasterly tone, he failed. Another step back.

Another step forward. “Q!” James mimics and watches Q’s faux frown instantly fold into an irresistible smile.

“Don’t,” Q warns. His eyes dart to the right for a fraction of a heartbeat as he takes another step back, and somehow, James manages to grin even harder.

“No,” James says shamelessly and pounces. Q leaps for the bed, probably aiming to roll off of it on the other side and out the door, but James is far ahead of him. He grabs Q around the waist and pins him to their already-messy sheets with his body weight.

“Get off of me!” Q insists, pushing weakly at James’ shoulders. His giggles, however, easily prove lie to those attempts, and James can only drink in the bright, gorgeous noises with wonder sparkling bright and bubbly in his chest like good champagne.

This wasn’t something he ever thought he would get to have.

He would, he thinks with sudden detached understanding, do anything, absolutely anything, to keep it. James isn’t entirely sure why Q is happy with him, doesn’t know for certain what he does that makes Q happy, only that he’s a damn lucky bastard, but he’ll do whatever it takes to keep Q happy.

Q’s laughter has faded, his smile puzzled and a little concerned. “James?” he asks, lifting a hand to cradle James’ cheek.

James smiles and leans forward to nuzzle their noses together. “I love you,” he says and the words fall off of his tongue lightly, easily, with none of the torment that he always thought would weigh down his heart if he ever expressed the sentiment again.

It feels a little like freedom, like the wings that a Mexican man once promised would be his.

Q freezes underneath him. His eyes are enormous, the surprise written across his face blatant and vaguely insulting. Christ, James hasn’t been that bad at making his feelings known, has he? “I - you - really?” Q blurts out and promptly cringes in embarrassment.

James opens his mouth, his first instinct one of baffled terseness. Whatever he was expecting, that wasn’t it. Before he can say a word, however, the whisper of vulnerable insecurity he hears in Q’s words finally catches up with him, and he shuts his mouth.

Oh. He’s loved Q for so long that he’s forgotten that Q’s spent even longer thinking the opposite to be true.

“Of course, love,” James breathes against Q’s lips, feeling a little melted. He brushes a kiss against those parted lips and then against his cheeks, his eyelids when they instinctively close, murmuring each time, “Of course. Of course. Of course.”

In the midst of pressing kisses to Q’s bare back, James decides that he’ll just have to remind Q often so he doesn’t forget. And then he stops thinking.

Much, much later, just as he’s on the cusp of sleep with Q in his arms, there’s a whisper in the dark, soft lips moving against his collarbone. “I love you, too.”

James falls asleep with a smile.

Two weeks later, the first thing Q says when he gets home is, “What is that?”

James pretends ignorance. “What is what?”

Q walks into the kitchen to jab an accusing finger at the shiny new appliance on the counter. “That.”

“Oh, that.” James smiles, oblivious and innocent. “It’s my new coffee machine. You said we didn’t have one, so I took it upon myself to fix that. Do you like it?”

Q looks at him with his blandest poker face and then directs a dark glare at the poor thing. “It’s an abomination,” he judges mercilessly.

“Now, now,” James says. “Just because it isn’t your beloved tea…”

“It produces bean juice,” Q derides, full of disgust, “that’s bitter and horrible and vile.”

James arches an eyebrow. “You do know your tea is just leaf water, right?” he points out mildly, leaning against the counter with a slight tilt of his head. “And that some blends - especially those so-called nutritious and herbal ones - are even more inedible than my coffee?”

Q mutters something uncomplimentary under his breath and continues glaring death at James’ new coffee machine. Sensing imminent engineer-minded destruction in the future, James quickly switches gears and turns around to busy himself with a spatula, all casual sensibleness. “I made turkey pot pie for dinner. Would you go set the table?”

This is sufficient as a distraction for the next two hours, although James notices Q sneaking glances at the coffee machine between bites of turkey and carrots. After doing the dishes, Q ever-so-nonchalantly cocks his hip against a kitchen drawer and stares down the machine.


“Oh, calm down. I’m just curious,” Q defends himself.

“You tend to take things apart when you’re ‘curious’, love.”

And, indeed, the next morning, when James comes back from his morning run - which has slowly been pushed back from 0500 to 0700 to 0900 - he finds his coffee machine missing. A sticky note has been left in its place.

Don’t worry.

James supposes Q didn’t write it on his palm because he didn’t want James to catch on too early and interrupt his nefarious plans for his poor, likely-doomed coffee machine. It’s going to die an untimely death, having only been used once.

Idly grabbing a green pen from a drawer, he scribbles on his arm, I am very worried. Should I buy a new one?

The reply comes barely ten seconds later, in bright pink. Below his question appears, NO. Trust me.

James sighs, because he’s a weak man and Q knows all of his weak spots. He goes about his day as usual, although by mid-afternoon, he’s browsing the web for highly-rated coffee machines without all of that fancy shit. Who needs foam in their coffee?

He’s half-heartedly decided on one and has finished cooking a pasta casserole when Q stumbles home.

“James!” he calls.

James obediently pokes his head out of the kitchen. “What is it?”

Q’s blinking like he’s been staring into bright lights all day, and the curve of his mouth is both tired and proud. The ghostly streaks of dark on his face and his hands indicate R&D, but the gift-wrapped box he offers to James says something else.

“I didn’t do it,” Q explains while James is a tad breathless. “R insisted, said she’s a pro at wrapping. So - ”

James swoops in and swallows the rest of the nervous, caffeine-infused sentence in a soft, gentling kiss. He takes the gift with careful hands as he offers Q his delight and gratitude in small caresses. The box is unexpectedly heavy, and a suspicion seeds itself into his mind.

“Thank you, Q,” he murmurs when he can bear to break contact.

Q beams at him, destabilizing his heart further, and says, “Open it.”

He does so at the dining table, trying to unwrap the box without tearing the paper until Q says laughingly, “Go ahead, I don’t mind.” The delicate wrapping paper falls to shreds at his hands, and he lifts the box to find -

A coffee machine.

A gleaming, sexy, state-of-the-art coffee machine.

“I upgraded it,” Q tells him helpfully. “And made a few adjustments here and there. Had to do some researching but now it’ll roast and grind up coffee beans on its own. I added my own filter, so you don’t have to keep buying the disposable ones, and the overall brewing should be better.”

“ just couldn’t resist, could you?” James asks, somewhat dryly, in an awful attempt to cover up the tightness of his throat and the wicked warmth pushing at the limits of his chest.

Q smiles like he can see it all anyway. “How could I?”

James laughs and steps back from the table to tug Q into a hug. He noses gently at the soft, secret place behind his ear and breathes in the familiar, grounding scent of Q - tea and citrus mixed with the rarer touch of oil and wood - and hums, pleased and elated.

“Thank you,” he whispers again in a warm breath that makes Q shiver and then again, later that night, against the divot of Q’s back and the sensitive curve of his hip bone.

A month later, Q slaps a patent on his new invention, and they end up making quite a bit of money off of it, to James’ everlasting amusement.

“Not so bad for bean juice, right?” he’ll tease every so often.

And every time, Q will roll his eyes and scoff and try not to smile. “My leaf water is still better,” he’ll say, his nose in the air.

“Did you - ” Q splutters, incredulous and disbelieving and starting to smile widely like James is the absolute worst, “did you make food for our cats?”

“No,” James says and sets the two salmon plates down, where the cats instantly converge with eager meows.

Q pushes him against the kitchen wall and kisses his smirk off of his face.

“Nice place,” Marian says, slipping her red stilettos off at the doorway. Her eyes sweep the flat, openly speculative, and James has to suppress a twitch. Inviting a fellow assassin into his home isn’t exactly what he wants to do on a Thursday afternoon, but needs must.

Morgana pokes her head out from beneath the table when he walks by. “Drink of choice?” James asks, pouring himself a glass of scotch.

“Mmm, I’d love me a White Russian if you’re taking orders.”

James snorts. Leave it up to 004 to make James play bartender. She’s lucky they even have coffee-flavoured liqueur at all. He had to discreetly sneak in it when Q was distracted by the peppermint bark on sale.

While he starts setting everything up, he hears an inquisitive meow faintly behind him. Marian inhales audibly and then coos in the same honey-sweet voice she uses on her marks, “Why, hello there. And who might you be?”

James grimaces a bit, deeply uncomfortable with this state of affairs. It feels like watching a great white shark nuzzle a goldfish. “That would be Morgana,” he says without looking away from what he’s doing. “Don’t let her con you; she’s an absolute demon.”

Morgana hisses and then purrs. Marian laughs. “Oh, nonsense. Look at her, she’s nothing but a pretty sweetheart. Aren’t you, hmm?”

More purring. James rolls his eyes.

When he steps out from the kitchen with a glass of scotch in one hand and a White Russian in the other, Marian is sitting on the sofa, petting Morgana and praising her all the while in that disconcerting voice. Morgana is purring up a storm but pointedly throws James a smug look when he joins them.

Ridiculous beasts, the lot of them.

“As the lady requested.” James hands over the drink with a polite smile.

Marian’s responding glance is abruptly sharp, a scalpel set to glide under his skin and rip it off. He fights not to tense - this game is one he gladly left - but her “thank you” is equally polite and inscrutable.

Leaning back but keeping her hand on Morgana’s back, Marian sips at her drink and smiles crimson. “Delicious. My compliments to the bartender.”

“I’ll be sure to pass it on,” James says and drinks his scotch. They sit in silence for a few minutes as they nurse their drinks, and James watches Marian canvas the flat with her gaze. It takes more effort than expected to maintain his composure and resist giving into his defensiveness.

He’s always known that this is the trade-off of having vulnerabilities that others can target.

When she breaks the quiet, it isn’t to talk about the message he sent her. “You really have given it all up, huh?”

He knows better than to mention the trace of wistfulness hidden in her words. “I have.” The only things he murders now are sketchpads and charcoal pencils.

Marian shakes her head but there’s admiration in the curve of her painted lips. “You lucky old dog. Of course you would be the one that got away.” A pause, while she carefully doesn’t look at him. Then, like a pebble dropped into a pond, “Do you regret it?”

James doesn’t hesitate. “No.”

Marian blows out a breath through her nose. She shakes her head again. Finishes off the rest of her drink in one gulp. When she looks at James again, she’s 004, one of the Queen’s Best, a merciless killer and seductress. “So.” She smiles coldly. “James Moriarty. That’s what he’s calling himself now?”

James doesn’t do her the insult of dwelling on that brief whisper of weakness. He nods, short and curt. “My sources say he’s in the process of taking control of what remains of SPECTRE.”

“Well, we can’t have that now, can we?” Marian leans forward to place her glass on the table James just cleared an hour ago and crosses her legs. There’s nothing but ice in her regard when she leans towards James. “Where is he?”

James smiles, drinks the rest of his scotch, and tells her.

“You sure about this?” he asks as he sees her off.

Marian laughs and flicks her fingers at him. "He got away from me once. It's not going to happen again."

He believes her.

When Q gets back home at 1920, James is watching a teenager on Youtube show him how to properly blend and shade drawings on a tablet he stole from Q-Branch a few years ago. “Now, hopefully, you can see it’s much darker on the edges here…”

Q sighs. “Another piece of equipment that I’ll have to re-label as ‘broken beyond repair’ I see.” He takes off his shoes and throws his bag on top of the table. So begins the inevitable cluttering process all over again.

“You don’t have to worry about it,” James says absently, frowning at his right shadow. “I’m fairly certain Boothroyd labelled this one as ‘fell into an active volcano’ years before your tenure.”

Q makes a noise that’s all indignation. “The Mount Etna incident?”

“That’s the one.” James smiles wistfully. “Those were the days. All of the villains lived in deep underground caverns and enjoyed melodramatics so much that they tripped over their own feet and fell into active volcanoes all by themselves.”

Wandering into the kitchen to investigate the fridge, Q snorts laughter and shakes his head. “If they did that these days, I wouldn’t have to work so late. 001 nearly froze to death in Moscow today. Is this pasta for me?”

“Mm-hm. Pop it in the microwave for a minute, and it should be okay.” James, irritated with this current YouTuber and her squeaky voice, vindictively clicks on another video.

A middle-aged woman with a motherly smile holds up a pencil and tells him that perspective is key.

“This way,” Tanner says as they walk down a hallway that James only barely remembers from his own training days.

He was just completing a routine in the MI6 gym - which is the best gym he’s ever going to have access to in all of London - when Tanner cornered him and told him that his students were ready for him. The perfect timing of it all is more than a little suspicious.

He suspects Moneypenny bribed Q with something.

Maybe those little Earl Grey cupcakes Q was ogling in the bakery down the street a week ago. It’s a good thing James still keeps a spare suit in MI6 for such occasions. Years of being an agent have taught him that it’s best to be prepared.

James strolls down the corridor with his hands in his pockets, signature swagger exchanged for a more leisurely stroll. No need to rush, after all, regardless of Tanner’s exasperated looks. In his wake, he leaves behind furtive glances and soft whispers, but the fervour has mostly died down by now.

There’s always new and more interesting gossip at MI6. No doubt the secretaries are more preoccupied by 009’s latest affair with a cute millionaire and his wife.

At last, they stop in front of an observation room and Tanner shows him in. James finds himself in front of a large two way mirror that shows the next door ‘classroom’. Ten trainees have been paired together and are taking turns tying each other up with miscellaneous materials.

James watches for five minutes and comes to the flat conclusion that, “They’re cannon folder.” He could wiggle out of that attempt in maybe thirty seconds. It wouldn’t hold a hardened criminal, and it’s going to get that kid killed if someone doesn’t fix it.

“It’s your job to change that, Internal Field Specialist,” Tanner tells him with far too much cheer. He drops a stack of folders on a nearby table. “Their files. If you have any questions, you can probably ask the other trainers. Good luck, Bond.” And with that spectacular piece of advice, he leaves.

James doesn’t turn his head to watch the door slam shut. He continues watching the newbies, so green, greener than grass, and wonders - knows - that he was once that naive. How did he survive? How is he alive?

Because he had good teachers. Because he had the devil’s good luck, because he had a guardian angel with genius level intelligence and terrifying technological competence. Because he was good enough and cold enough and enough at everything to survive.

A shiver of unease crawls up his spine. James is now responsible for these ten kids. He’s to teach them how to lie and how to spy and how to kill. If they die in the field, if they die from a training accident, if they die - it’ll be because of his incompetence.

And everyone knows that James was never the best at protecting assets. His expertise laid in exploding bridges and slitting throats. Protection is an ideal he reaches for but never quite touches.

The trainee closest to the door tugs too hard on his rope, and the whole thing falls apart. James grimaces. Watching them is almost painful.

Why the hell did M give him this assignment? He’s berated James for his lack of responsibility often enough. Did he think that going from barely taking care of himself to taking care of ten grasshoppers was the only logical leap?

His phone rings.

James rolls his eyes. But he’s smiling when he raises the phone to his ear. “Still stalking, Q?”

“You did give me permission.” Q’s voice is pithy, but James is certain that he’s blushing a little. Probably a flush of pink right at the top of his cheekbones, maybe a little on the tips of his ears. “Besides, you’re one to talk.”

“This is surveillance,” James protests with a weak attempt at innocence. “Information gathering.”

“Stalking,” Q ascertains. And then, softer, like it’s just the two of them in their bedroom, “What’s wrong?”

James closes his eyes briefly. When the words come, they come slow and hard like he’s pulling out shards of bullets from a wound, “I’m not exactly teacher material, Q.”

Q makes a musing sound. “Why not?”

“Why not?” James repeats with a scoff. “I’m impatient, reckless. I don’t like explaining myself, and I’m stubborn as fuck. I’m going to lead these kids to their deaths. Q - ”

“Hey,” Q says sharply, cutting him off at the first tint of panic. “That’s enough. Don’t - I don’t think you know just how much your experience speaks for you, James. This isn’t primary school; they don’t need someone to coddle them. They need someone to teach them how to survive and what the field is like. You can do that. You do that well. You’ve had junior partners, and you’ve worked well with them. It’s the same concept.”

A pause, and then while James soothes himself with the sound of his breaths over the phone, “I didn’t think I was ready when M appointed me Quartermaster either, you know. But a lot of it comes naturally after a while. It’s just another mask, James. Wear it long enough, and you’ll become it.”

James lets the words sink into him, a cool balm that lets him take a deep breath. He tenses up his shoulders and then relaxes, centring himself like he would before a difficult mission. “How do you know just what to say?” he asks with a wry smile.

A laugh. “It’s a skill that comes from hours of talking to annoying Double-Ohs who won’t listen to orders,” Q says. “Now, are you ready to proceed as scheduled, James?”

“Once a Quartermaster, always a Quartermaster, huh? Yes, sir,” James murmurs cheekily and ends the call on Q’s startled inhale. He’ll thank him later with an extravagant dinner and that thing with his tongue that Q particularly enjoys.

Pushing such distracting thoughts out of his head, James steps into that calm, confident space and draws authority around him like kevlar. Q’s right. He does know how to do this. He’s pretended to be business tycoons and server boys; what’s an MI6 trainer?

Striding out of the observation room, he walks into the classroom without warning.

The room instantly goes silent. Ten pairs of eyes swivel to look at him. The smart ones go still as they register his identity.

James smiles, and it’s hardly forced at all. “Good afternoon,” he greets mildly. “My name’s Bond, James Bond. You may know me as the last 007. And from today onwards, I’ll be your new trainer.”

“Honey, I’m home,” James calls out dryly as he slips out of his shoes and closes the door behind him. He flips the lock and rearms the security system, breathing a quiet sigh of relief as tension unwinds itself from his shoulders.

The training session...wasn’t terrible. His trainees were all too awed by his former codename to try and bullshit him or talk back, and by the time he dismissed them, he’d gotten that one baby agent to successfully and securely tie up his partner.

Sure, he still feels like a bloody imposter who has no idea what he’s doing, but faking bullshit and pretending he knows what he’s doing is second nature to any agent. He’ll make it.

“Welcome home,” Q returns with equal dryness. He’s lying on the sofa with the cats and a paperback when James walks into the living room, but he sits up straight when he catches sight of James, staring at him blankly.

James blinks back at him. “Something wrong?”

Snapping the book shut and placing it on the - crowded - table, Q stands up and prowls over, the heated look in his eyes rooting James to the spot and sending silken shivers down his spine. “Not at all,” he murmurs and grabs his tie to yank him into a searing kiss.

When James is breathless and burning, he pulls back and smiles, lips swollen and red and entirely too much temptation. “I really like this suit,” Q whispers, low and sly, dragging a finger lightly down his chest and leaving sparks in his wake, “but you should take it off. Right now.”

James huffs out a laugh, leaning forward so their foreheads touch. It’s been a while since he was in anything but casual wear, and he supposes the visual impact is unfamiliar now. “Your wish is my command,” he purrs and makes true on his promise to thank Q for his support.

Later, with Q snoring on his chest, James makes a note to keep this suit in his repertoire for the next time he accidentally pisses Q off by misplacing one of the tools that he leaves on their coffee table in the first place.

Honestly, the things he does for love.

Once and only once, James comes home late, with bruises on his ribs and vodka on his breath. Q is waiting at the dining table, CCTV feeds open on his laptop screen.

“I’m sorry,” James says. “I lost track of time.”

Q looks at him with dark eyes stark on a pale face and says nothing.

James never does it again.

For all that James is now an “Internal Field Specialist,” he’s still home far more often than Q. It’s more of a part-time position than anything else, really, and when he throws his pencil at the wall for the fourth time, he suspects it’s time he does something else.

He doesn’t want to go wandering around London, since Q mentioned on his inner wrist that he should be home in about an hour, and James is surprisingly excited to show Q the painstaking sketch of Rayleigh he drew today. It still looks rather unrealistic, but at least it looks like a catloaf now, instead of just a breadloaf.

But dinner is already done and being kept warm in the oven. The table is halfway cluttered with Q’s stuff, but James was instructed very sternly to keep his hands off it this week because Q is in the middle of designing some revolutionary taser. There’s nothing for him to do.

There’s nothing for him to do.

James paces about their flat for a good twenty minutes, glaring at tiny specks of dust and the little screws on the ground. He feels like he’s going to vibrate out of his skin by the fourth loop.





The cats keep out of his way, although he’s well-aware he’s being watched suspiciously from the safety of the kitchen. Tch, like they aren’t both little monsters in disguise.

Blowing out a breath, James throws himself back on the sofa. He doesn’t want to watch the telly. If he picks up another pencil, he’s going to break it. He’s read most of the fiction books on the bookshelf, but by this point, he’s frustrated enough to consider just about anything.

Not that he has much choice. He doesn’t want to learn the intricacies of C++, ta. The fine scientific details of electricity and light are right out the window. Why the fuck does Q even have a five centimetre thick book on the Great Molasses Flood?

That book on soulmates, he’s still too terrified to touch. But...

The Biggest Book of Riddles sits innocently on the far right of the third shelf.

James smiles and goes hunting for some post-it notes.

(If Q notices the bright pink post-it note slapped onto the cover of his laptop that night, he makes no mention of it. Two days later, James finds it hiding in one of his socks. The other sock has a green post-it note curled up snugly inside.

In no time at all, their house is absolutely flooded with post-it notes. The cats are Not Pleased.)

What costs nothing but is worth everything, weighs nothing but lasts a lifetime, that one person can't own but more can share?

Love, you bloody romantic.

Meeting the rest of the Holmes an entire Affair. One that James will never forget and quickly resolves to avoid at all costs in the future.

Q seems to approach the dinner with a mix of exasperation, dread, and annoyance. “Dress formal,” he orders, staring down their closet with a frown. “And pretend you’re classy.”

James snorts. Still lazing around in bed behind Q, he rolls onto his stomach and braces his chin on his palm. “Pretend? What do you mean ‘pretend’? I’m the classiest man you’ve ever met.”

“You threw popcorn at the telly last night because your favourite ice skater didn’t win.”

At that, James scowls. “He was bloody cheated of his victory! 2.82 points, really? Really?”

“There, there, honey,” Q says patronisingly. “I’m sure he’ll win next time.”

Just for that, James makes sure to wear the grey suit Q stripped him out of a month ago. He smirks at the smouldering look Q pins him with when he sees but swaggers out the door before anything can be made of it.

Mr and Ms Holmes are every influential high-society couple he’s ever met combined with the icy brilliance of the intelligence that characterises their sons. It makes for an intimidating experience, even for someone like James.

But he’s been in this position before: seated at a massive table in a mansion that seethes with wealth, surrounded by the beautiful elite, being served small portions of masterfully cooked food. With champagne glasses and forks on the left side and no elbows on the table.

James knows exactly how to behave, how to pull on that well-practised mask until even Ms Holmes smiles at him with a touch of approval.

On the other hand, Watson and Lestrade - who was introduced to James as Mycroft’s chosen partner - display their uncertainty in more overt ways, and James briefly feels sorry for them. He can tell at a glance that they come from more middle-class circumstances and are certainly not used to this sort of decorous behaviour.

And if he’s somewhat uncomfortable, they must be ready to throw themselves out the window.

The Holmes brothers, well. They’re another story altogether. Mycroft is cool and distantly affectionate with everyone, whereas Sherlock is sharp and disdainful. Q is polite and almost professional, and all three are so self-contained, it almost hurts James to watch.

He would have expected them to jab and insult each other, and perhaps they do. Outside of their childhood home and out of sight of their parents. Here, however, they behave like perfect, showcase children, and Mr and Ms Holmes smile like this is all that they ever wanted.

Beneath the tablecloth, James curls his fingers around Q’s wrist as they wait for the next course to be brought out.

Next time, James vows to himself, he’s going to make sure Q’s in Canada when his parents come calling.

What is it that given one, you'll have either two or none?

A choice.

A few weeks later, Q comes home at 2300 with only a brief message on James’ arm - “Emergency, be back late” - to explain why.

“What are you doing?” Q asks.

From the corner of his eye, James can see him hanging up his coat as Rayleigh comes streaking up to him with a meow. He frowns. James doesn’t like the rigid line of Q’s shoulders.

“Experimenting with watercolour,” James answers, directing his frown towards his canvas. Sometimes, pushing Q only makes him clamp up all the harder. Better to let him tell James in his own time.

It helps that he legitimately didn’t expect the red paint to spread everywhere.

Q hums and steps forward with Rayleigh in his arms. There’s stress in the wrinkles of his forehead, the set of his mouth, but James is glad to see his expression soften with amusement when he catches sight of the canvas. “You mean splashing paint on canvas? Is that a sunset?”

“A melting one.” James sighs. “I don’t think I like this medium very much. It’s a bit too flimsy and delicate for me.”

“Fun to play with, though,” Q points out with a weak smile.

James observes him for a moment before putting his paintbrush down, taking care not to stain the tablecloth with orange paint. “You ate dinner, right?”

“How could I not when you went to the trouble of getting it delivered to my desk?” Q drops the feeble teasing to smile at James with genuine gratitude. “Thank you for the Italian, James.”

“It was my pleasure,” James murmurs, abandoning his chair to lie down on the sofa, arms outstretched. “Come here, Q.”

Q sighs quietly and seems to slump all of a sudden, like all he needed was James’ permission. He drops Rayleigh - the cat landing easily on his feet with a disgruntled noise - and splays himself out on James, squirming a bit until he’s comfortable.

James calmly waits him out and wraps his arms around Q’s waist tightly when he’s settled. For a long time, Q just curls up against James’ chest, his head tucked securely in the crook of James’ neck, breathing deep and rhythmic.

James doesn’t say a word but strokes a hand up and down Q’s back and lets his thoughts wander. Trying to guess what happened can lead to nothing good, so he contemplates the dishes that still need washing from his solo dinner and how best to clean up his art supplies and what he’s supposed to do with his streaky sunset.

He could probably get away with throwing it away. He’d have to do so behind Q’s back, though. Q is sentimental about the strangest things like that.

When Q starts talking, he does so without moving a muscle from his position. “005 - Michael Gomez - went rogue today.”

James doesn’t flinch at the break in silence nor the subject topic, although he does blink and furrow his brow. “Michael went rogue?” he repeats, honestly staggered. “What the hell happened? He was the most well-behaved of all of us.”

Q fists his hand in James’ shirt and stays silent for a beat. Two. “You know how in the past few months, things have been so busy on the administrative side, what with the merger and the un-merger all?”

James makes a noise of agreement, staring blankly at the ceiling as he tries to absorb the unexpected blow. He was never friends with Michael, but they were coworkers, comrades as everyone in the Double-Oh program are comrades because no one else can possibly understand just what being a Double-Oh means.

Betrayal is never an easy pill to swallow, even if James has grown used to the bitter taste after years as a spy.

“M’s been too busy to really pay attention - and he’s always been more lenient than she was. There have been less ink detector tests recently. Last year, you went through three in six months,” Q continues, voice distant, “whereas before, the average was two in one.”

James has the feeling he knows where this is going. He was aware, of course he was aware, but at the time, he couldn’t have cared less, too distracted by Q. In hindsight, another clue he blithely waved away, but he’s grown tired of chiding himself with each realisation.

There’s no point in dwelling in the past.

“You’re right in that 005 was always thought of as the most well-behaved one,” Q says. “He’s had one ink detector test in the past six months. He’s never broken a rule before, much less one of hers.”

“But he broke this one.”

It’s more of a statement than a question, but Q nods minutely anyway. “Today, we found out that he’s been in contact with his soulmate for months. She...she was a Chinese spy. And he met her on his undercover mission.”

A chill goes down James’ spine. The use of the past tense tells him all that he needs to know. “Did he kill her?”

“Yes. He had to; she would have killed him otherwise, and with his cover blown, it would have jeopardized the three agents we had in the region,” Q rationalises. His tone is flat but James hears the horror behind his words nevertheless. “He completed the mission and told me goodbye before destroying his earpiece.”

James closes his eyes. It’s not a new story; he heard much of the same from as far back as his days in the Britannia Royal Naval College, and among MI6, such tales are the bread and butter of late night in pubs. “He could come back,” he suggests halfheartedly.

“Would you?”

James can’t reply to that. He recalls thinking that he didn’t need a soulmate in his teens, then convincing himself that he’s conversing with his soulmate for their benefit not his, and then finally resigning himself to a life without his soulmate with pain but only slight hesitance.

Now that he has Q, however, now that he has a taste of the happiness that is loving and being loved by his soulmate, James is of the belief that losing Q doesn’t bear thinking about.

In this, he really can’t blame 005.

Q nods as if James gave him a verbal answer. “It was cruel,” he says morosely, “what she did, but I never fooled myself into thinking it wasn’t necessary. Bad enough that you were a spy, a Double-Oh to boot, but the thought that I might be what would lead you to your death in the end was intolerable. I didn’t care what I made myself suffer through as long as you were still alive.”

This, James supposes, is that martyr streak Sherlock mentioned. He wants to say alive is an overstatement of what I was without you or I dreamed of you when I was lonely. Or maybe the closest I ever came to hating M was when she made me leave you.

Instead, he asks, “Don’t you know it’s the same for me?”

“I know it was,” Q says. “That was what I was counting on.”

The eight of us go forth, not back, to protect our king from a foe’s attack. What are we?

Chess pawns.

An unknown caller lights up his phone.

“It’s done,” is all that Marian says.

He doesn’t do her the offence of saying thank you. “And the rest?”

“We’re working on it.”

James picks up the acrylic paints at noon. The colours are vibrant, the texture firm. There’s no spreading, no falling. The red dot he puts as the base of the sun stays perfectly still on the canvas, like a sniper’s target against mountain snow.

He starts again.

“Can I draw on you?” James asks one night, slipping in bed after doing the dishes. The cats are taking a nap on the sofa, the rest of their flat silent and dark. Their bedroom is soft and smoky with shadows but for the single lamp lit on Q’s side and his ever-present electronics.

Q looks up from his tablet, the glow giving his face an awful pallor. The tilt of his head is both surprised and pleased. “Of course. You’ve had that right since I was born.”

“Well.” A smile tugs at James’ lips. What is he supposed to say to that? “I didn’t want to presume, now did I?”

Q snorts. “You can presume all you want, Mr Bond, as long as you keep on feeding me that apple pie you made today.”

“Why, Q, I didn’t know you liked it that much,” James teases, picking out the colours he wants to use from a pouch he stashed in the bedside table earlier. “You only ate three gigantic slices and spooked the cats into hiding in the bathroom.”

Q lazily brushes aside the accusation with a “lies and slander.” He puts his tablet aside and turns onto his front, displaying a mouthwatering stretch of unmarked skin. “What are you drawing tonight?”

“Hmm.” James smirks. “It’s a secret.”

“You wanker.”

What's at least 15 centimetres long, goes in your mouth, and is more fun if it vibrates?

James, really.

A toothbrush, love. Do keep that dirty mind of yours in check.

“Moneypants has invited us to dinner on Saturday,” Q announces when he gets home. “If we say no, a dreadful accident will befall us before tomorrow’s sunset.”

“That’s hasty of her. I would have expected more professionalism from Miss Moneypenny.” James lounges on the sofa with a sketchpad and a cat on each side of him. Morgana, the vicious little beast, has been kneading at his calves with her sharp claws for the past ten minutes.

“A good three month undercover mission? Luring us into a false sense of security? Ambushing us when our guard is lowest? No evidence left behind, not a single suspicion pinned on her?”


Q snorts and heads towards the still-warm bowl of soup out on the table like a compass towards true north. “I would pay to see you say that to her face,” he says through a mouthful of carrots and celery.

“Then it won’t even look convincingly like an accident,” James points out and adds some shading as best he can without elbowing Rayleigh in the ribs. He gets a grumble nonetheless. No one appreciates him in this household.

Q waves his spoon in the air, probably splattering their table with grease. Ah, well, he’s the one on clean-up duty today. “She’d still get away with it,” he says sagely.

James doesn’t doubt it. “Is it just going to be us?”

“No, apparently she’s bringing her mysterious boyfriend along, and 003 and 004 have also been given an invitation they can’t possibly refuse.”

A former Double-Oh, two current Double-Ohs, the Secretary and the Quartermaster of MI6, and a man who’s somehow managed to catch the indomitable Eve Moneypenny’s eye. James grins. And here he had been thinking he would be bored this weekend. “Sounds like fun.”

“I had hoped you wouldn’t say that,” Q comments philosophically and returns to devouring his bowl.

England doesn’t fall that night. But it’s a close thing.

James smiles until his cheeks hurt, and part of that is probably the vodka. The other part may or may not be the police chasing after them for defacing public property and the impromptu swim in the Thames.

But a good portion is definitely because Q is shouting and cursing at all of them as they sprint back home, dripping wet and hiding in the shadows of dark alleys.

“We should do that again sometime,” James comments when he crawls into bed.

Q hits him in the face with a convenient pillow.

I am a word. If you pronounce me correctly, it is wrong. If you pronounce me wrong, it is right. What word am I?

I have no bloody clue.



It’s ‘wrong’.

“For fuck’s sake, Q!” James yells.

It’s rare nowadays that James will have a nightmare. Sleeping with Q is something of a soporific, a peaceful easing into the world of dreams. But there are nights where Q gets home far too late, and then there are nights where the demons are simply too loud.

Today, he wakes up at 0547. It’s not one of those silent-gasping, cold-sweat, heart-racing, burning-freezing awakenings. He just opens his eyes from one heartbeat to the next, training coming to the forefront in a way it hasn’t for a while now.

Vesper’s dead, canal-stained eyes incriminate him from beyond the land of the living.

James slowly blows out a breath. Q is curled into his side, sleep-warm and beautiful and tired after a 12 hour-long shift. It’s unusual for them to sleep in the same bed without entangling themselves irrevocably in the other, but Q came back late and James was probably deep in the nightmare already.

If there’s anything James’ grateful for, it’s that despite his tendency to wrap himself around Q in his sleep as if protecting him from foreign bullets and crashing steel, he has yet to hurt Q whilst in the throes of a nightmare.

His instincts, it seems, are powerful even in unconsciousness.

James doesn’t want to taint their bedroom with his past, doesn’t want to disturb Q either, and so he gingerly slips out of bed without waking Q up.

Tugging on a pair of grey slacks, James pours himself a glass of whiskey and steps onto their small balcony. It’s late April, so the early morning air is chilly but nothing he can’t handle. The sunrise is peaking over the horizon.

He takes a sip of whiskey, and it burns as it goes down. The burnished-red of the clouds reminds him of embers, the blaze of Vesper’s dress as she fell, and he closes his eyes to better hear the crackle of the flames.

For James, love has always been fire.

Vesper, for all that she attempted to hide it behind a civilized mask and icy words, burned. It was what drew James to her in the first place: that fierce, stubborn flame in her eyes, the raw passion in her, hot enough to match him.

They were an inferno together, and it may be only fitting she died in the deep blue, that their light and heat flickered out as quickly as it burned.

The brightest fires are the shortest, after all.

He was never so much of a fool as to love a target, but they loved him sometimes, drawn to the danger and death of him. Marks taken in by the womanizing agent, charges who mistook him for a hero.

If not a romance, it was a one-night stand that was brisk and rapt with lust and love so entangled, there was no way to separate them. Like the clash of flint and steel, what arose could only be sparks. Sparks that grew into a wildfire, raging out of control, and inevitably, they were burned.

Occasionally, he was, too.

And yet -

“James?” Muffled footsteps behind him, the cadence one he could easily pick out in a crowded room. Warm arms wrap around him, a slender body presses into his back, and messy hair brushes his collarbone so Q can say, “What’s wrong?”

James luxuriates in the sincere concern in Q’s voice, the implicit care offered without reservation or expectation. Q...

Q doesn’t love like fire, like James is used to. Since the very beginning, their courtship has been slow and damn near inexorable, and in a similar fashion, Q loves like James’ first sweetheart, the ocean.

It’s somewhat of a shock for James, who has grown used to the concept of like draws like, who loves like an explosion himself. Q’s not one for big gestures in their day to day lives, but it’s impossible to miss the fact that Q loves James.

It’s there in his every move, every glance. Perhaps another, louder, more brazen man wouldn’t catch it, but James was a spy, and he knows how to listen for the spaces between words and the intent behind a touch. It’s there if he looks for it, and he looks for it, oh, does he look for it.

Q’s love is a perpetual shower that’s become white noise. Easy to take for granted, yes, but James has lived in an endless desert for so long. He’s happy to curl up beneath the raindrops and soak in all the water he can, well aware of how precious it is.

It’s with this knowledge that James answers quietly, “I had a dream. Vesper was there.”

When he glances at Q, there’s no pity or jealousy in his eyes, only concern and understanding. Q presses closer, as if he can ward off the ghosts with his own body as a shield. “Did she say anything?”

“No. She just...looked at me.” James blows out a breath and throws back the rest of the whiskey. Nowadays, he doesn’t drink as often as he once did; the alcohol’s burn settles hotly in his blood. “Did I wake you?”

“No,” Q reassures, pressing a kiss to James’ cheek. “I was dreaming about piloting a Jaeger with you when Tanner drifted down from the sky like Mary Poppins and stabbed a Kaiju with his umbrella. The surreality of it all woke me up.”

Faced with the utter ridiculousness of that, what can James do but huff out a laugh? And from the half-smile that quirks Q’s lips, that’s exactly what he was aiming for. No one else has ever acted as if James’ laughter is worth more than his secrets.

In the gentle light of daybreak, it’s in this soft generosity of love that James breathes the story of Vesper and Venice and lost dreams.

Q doesn’t offer pity nor condolences. There’s unending patience in his green eyes as he listens, an undemanding passion in the kisses he presses to James’ throat when he needs to stop and gather himself before going on once more.

But even the darkest shadows are banished by the light, and when James stops, it’s with a sense of relief, cleansed with all of his regrets spilt out into the air and Q a warm, cuddly presence at his side.

In return, Q says, “I don’t like being in the dark on my own.” And when James turns to look at him, a silent question in his eyes - because he’s observed this before but never quite understood - Q adds, “I was taken once. By some drug dealers. They kept me in pitch black for days.”

James pauses. He takes a deep breath to quell the molten anger beneath his skin, because that isn’t what Q wants or needs from him right now. He asks only, “Are they dead?”

Q tilts his head with an indulgent little smile. “Yes.”

“Good.” James picks up Q’s hand and presses a kiss to it. He waits. If Q wants to tell him more, then James will listen. If not, he won’t push no matter how much he might long to know.

But this is their push and pull, the rhythm they’ve settled into after so long living as a one-sided story, and Q moves to sit in James’ lap. With his head resting against James’ heartbeat, Q speaks of the uncertainty of the black, the cold terror of voices in the dark, the neverending dread of what was to come.

So, this, then, was why Q knew how to deal with sensory deprivation torture.

It’s an ugly thought, and James holds Q closer for it.

When Q falls silent, the sky is a masterpiece of pinks and yellows, the sun radiant without the cover of clouds. They remain outside for another hour, simply basking in each other, in a house without secrets, before James rouses enough to guide them back to bed.

He sleeps with Q tucked into the lee of his body and doesn’t dream again.

I can crack. I can hurt. I can be attacked. I can be given. I can be kept. I can be broken and yet be whole at the same time. What am I?

A heart.

Some months later, James is lying nonchalantly on their bed with his hands tucked behind his head when Q storms in. There’s a dark look in his gorgeous eyes, his tie is crooked, and his cheeks are flushed. James is a lucky, lucky man.

“What,” Q says, in a dangerously soft voice that makes James’ pants a bit tight, “the hell is this?” He waves three slips of paper at James.

James doesn’t even bother plastering on an innocent look. He just grins in that way he knows infuriates Q and says, “It’s your birthday present, of course.” Off to the side, two fully packed suitcases are being investigated by the cats.

Q makes an incoherent noise. Of frustration, delight, or arousal, James can’t tell. Maybe all three. That’s one of his favourite combinations. “You - you - ”

“Don’t worry,” James adds. “Ms Moneypenny’s already given you leave, and Tanner’s agreed to put up with the cats. Says his children will love them. We leave first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Oh my God,” Q says. “I hate you.” With that, he throws the papers away and tackles James with a war cry. The air is punched out of James with an oomph, but he gamely flips Q over with a fluid twist of his spine. They grapple on the bed, flinging pillows and sheets everywhere, which, well, quickly turns into something else entirely.

Left to drift desolately to the floor, a neon pink sticky note proclaims:

What day is the oldest you’ve ever been and the youngest you’ll ever be again?

Attached are two tickets to Mexico City.

Morgana, ignoring all of the ruckus on the bed, pads over to nudge at the papers with her nose. Then, she swats at it with a paw. The papers prove to be no match before her power but the insult alone is enough. Disdainfully, she huffs and unsheathes her claws.

“Get away from that, you little hell beast!”

“James! Ah - language!”

“I’ll show you language.”

“Just put your back into it, old man.”

Later, Q asks, “How did you find out?”

James tucks his hands behind his head. “I have my sources.”

There’s a pause.

“Sherlock told you, didn’t he?”

“Well, Mycroft offered to in return for a favour. I wasn’t satisfied with his terms. Eventually, Sherlock got tired of our haggling and spit it out so he and Dr Watson could leave.”

“He’s going to regret that,” Q promises darkly.

James would spare a second to feel sorry for Sherlock Holmes, but he really doesn’t care.

Somehow, they do manage to get to Mexico City, even with slightly ripped tickets.

“I’m not sure I trust that face,” Q says with narrowed eyes over a restaurant table. The slight breeze blows his dark curls away from his face. In a simple t-shirt and shorts, he’s still the most beautiful man James has ever seen.

James grins around his mouthful of taco. They slept in, courtesy of Q’s exotic mix of drugs, and it’s more brunch than breakfast at this time of day. “What face?”

“The one on your face right now.” Q crunches on a tortilla chip. Makes a face of his own and then double dips into the salsa.

“This is my normal face.”

“Yes, and I’m always suspicious of it.”

James chuckles and steals a chip from Q’s plate. “It’s your birthday tomorrow,” he says. “Who would I be if I didn’t have a trick or two up my sleeve? Be patient. Good boys wait for their presents.”

“At this rate, the only present you’re going to get is a dunk in that fountain in front of our hotel,” Q threatens and then promptly gets distracted by the dessert menu.

James takes the opportunity to sneak another tortilla chip and gets an irritated growl for his troubles.

Q really does take after his cats, he thinks idly and steals the bill before Q even sets eyes on it.

They spend the afternoon touring the sites and walking through art galleries. It’s odd to be looking at art through a beginner artist’s eye. Mostly, he just grouchily squints at colour play and wishes he could absorb the skill through spite.

Their last stop for the night is Coyoacán, which Q finds delightfully charming. For his part, James admires Frida Kahlo’s spirit but finds her paintings somewhat boring. He’s more of an...action-person.

When he informs Q of this, he’s told to his face that he’s an “uncultured swine” and then kissed passionately.

Master of mixed messages, his lover is. James is more than happy with this state of affairs.

Back in their hotel, James presses a kiss to that hidden spot behind Q’s ear. A wet curl tickles at his forehead. “Ready for your birthday tomorrow?” he murmurs and has the thrill of feeling Q shiver.

“I’ll have you know that Sherlock’s laptop is now unsalvageable and their kettle only heats up their water to lukewarm,” Q says without bite. “So you can stop looking so smug, lest you befall their fate as well.” He runs his fingers through James’ hair and tugs gently at a clump.

James laughs. “Good try but you’d collapse without tea in a day and you’d drive yourself crazy if a broken electronic dared exist in our flat.” He mouths gently at Q’s earlobe before drawing back with a leer. “Now, if you would. Strip.”

“Lazy bastard,” Q mutters, as if he doesn’t have a flush of red across his cheeks, an answering pleasure in his eyes. He turns towards their bed and pulls his t-shirt over his head, and oh, it’s embarrassing how the clean stretch of his back inspires James as nothing else does.

Still, if this is to be his lot in life, there are worse things.

James removes the bag of pens from their suitcase and yanks off his own shirt. The moon is absent in the sky tonight; laughing Spanish drifts through their open balcony. He can scarcely remember the agony of his last trip to this playful city.

Tonight, he’ll give Q the blazing sun and the misty moors of his homeland in the peak of summer, the fields where he ran wild in his childhood, so that Q knows he is James’ home, past, present, and future.


James is no longer 007, no longer Agent Bond. If he wants to give all of himself to Q, there’s hardly anyone who can stop him, now is there? If he wants to make vows, all he needs is for Q to say yes.

He’s almost ready. The promise lingers in the back of his mind. Forever isn’t so long, really.

There’s a rectangular thing leaning on the wall in front of the bed when Q wakes up. James is nowhere in sight, although the pillow next to his is warm. The sunlight slants gently over his hands, over the carpet, over the new object in the room.

Q very nearly closes his eyes and goes right back to sleep. He’s on vacation. Surely, an hour more of sleep won’t bring the sky crashing down.

But - oh! It’s his birthday today! It’s his birthday, and James has been so annoyingly self-satisfied all week, and -

Q is reaching for the bedside table before his eyes are even fully open yet. His fingers glance off a glossy brochure, a pile of pens, and finally land on his glasses. He jerks up, jamming his glasses on his face, and then forgets how to breathe.

It’s a painting.

A painting on one of the canvases he bought James, big enough that he has to wonder where James hid it in their flat. The length of one of his arms, at least. Leaning idly against the wall on the opposite end of the room, sheened in the glow that slips through the curtains.

Depicted are the backs of two figures in light and gold, sitting on a bench with their arms brushing ever so lightly. The world around them is soot and shadow, variations of grey, but the two of them together, oh, they gleam.

Q is brushing the thick brush strokes with the very tips of his fingers before he even realises he’s on his feet. He traces the lines of his own chin, the curve of James’ ear, the rectangular picture frame that the two men are facing.

In the distance, there’s something that could almost be a ship.

“Do you like it?”

And, of course, James is standing behind him now, without even a whisper of a sound to indicate his presence. Old habits die hard. Through something like delayed shock and stubborn habits, Q manages not to flinch.

He reluctantly turns half of his body to glance at James, his pointer finger still lightly resting on a bench leg. James has a cup of coffee in his hand, sweatpants hanging perilously off his hips, and nothing else but a tentative look in his eyes and a hopeful smile.

Q’s nearly forgotten the question. “Do I like it?” he repeats, and - James is a former spy, one of the best, and he must be able to tell that Q is just about ready to float off his feet with the amount of helium swelling within his chest. He must, so smiling like that at him is just an unnecessary and aggressive attack, and Q isn’t going to stand for this, he isn’t!

James opens his mouth, presumably to reply. Before he can say a syllable, Q whirls around all the way and grabs James’ coffee, chugging it back in two gulps. It’s bitter and disgusting, but it clears his head of drowsiness in a jiffy and the look of flabbergasted disbelief on James’ face is worth it.

What, did he really think Q survived uni during his middle teens with just black tea on hand? Q is meant to be the slow one in the morning.

Taking advantage while James is still speechless, Q tackles him back into bed and enthusiastically and incontestably communicates how much he “likes” his birthday present.

“So,” James gasps, with a sound that’s half laughter and half moan, “is this a yes?”

“Shut up, James,” Q commands and makes sure he does just that.

“Want to know a secret?” James asks much later, combing his fingers through Q’s absolute mess of a hair. His usual bedhead is bad enough; adding their morning activities to the equation has turned his curls into an efficient birdnest.

Q opens an eye and squints at him from where he’s using James’ chest as a convenient pillow. “You’re going to hold that over my head forever, aren’t you?”

“You should have known better than to wave that particular lure in front of a spy,” James says, unrepentant.

Q huffs but doesn’t disagree. “Fine, what is it?”

“Come on, up you get.” James tugs gently at his handful of hair and coaxes Q, groaning and whining, to his feet. He leads them to the painting he spent months working on and nudges Q in front of him, wrapping his arms around his waist.


James nips at Q’s earlobe in playful reprimand of his impatience. “What do you see in the Thames?”

Q leans forward to get a better look. After minutes of close scrutiny, he says with an air of deep suspicion, “Nothing, but if you let me scan your painting and upload it to my computer, I bet I could find something.”

James laughs. “Nothing so drastic, love. All you need is a microscope. You can look at it when we get home - ”

“I,” Q declares in tones of grave insult, “have a Q-Branch phone.”

And, indeed, he wiggles out of James’ embrace to grab it from the bedside table, only to come back and lean against him while he dances his clever fingers across the screen. Once past his seventh password - James smirks to himself - he zeros in on one of his many, many apps and the screen turns into a magnifying glass.

“Why didn’t I know about that?” James asks, disgruntled. That could have come in handy during one of his missions. Probably. He would have found some use for it somewhere.

Q is already leaning forward on his tippy toes to get the phone as close as possible to the painting. “I explained all of the functions when I gave you your Q-Branch phone,” he says absently. “It’s not my fault if you didn’t listen.”

“That’s hardly my fault.” James grabs Q’s hips to steady him before he collides head-first with the 007-shaped silhouette.

“And why not?”

“You were the one telling them to me. And you’re much too distracting.”

Q glances away from his phone squinting to throw a dour look at James. “Really? That’s your excuse? How many models and femme fatales have you met during your missions?”

“None of them were you, now were they?” James smiles his most charming smile and digs his thumbs into the hollow of Q’s hips.

Q squeaks. Before he can jab James in the chest with his elbow - who was already shifting to soften the blow - he stills and goes, “Oh!”

James curves his body over Q’s, feeling a bit like chocolate melting in sunlight, relaxed and liquid and oh so contented even as his heart races inside his chest. “What do you see?” he murmurs in Q’s ear.

“...what makes you think I know Latin?” Q asks weakly, a soft pink flush already creeping onto his cheeks.

“Do you not?”

Q rolls his eyes and turns in his embrace. Despite everything, there’s still something like surprise in his eyes. Before James can frown, worry, he sways forward and kisses James.

It’s a good kiss, James’ favourite type of kiss. Soft, slow, an open exchange that pours warmth down his throat, spiralling around his heart like a hug. It leaves a tight feeling in his chest, a tender ache that hurts so good.

They’re no good with words, either of them. James has spoken in lies for most of his life, and Q was raised in a den of genius vipers. But nonetheless, when Q pulls back, he whispers into the quiet between them like it’s the greatest secret of them all, “Thank you, James.”

James - smiles. It feels like the only smile that’s ever mattered in his entire life. “You’re welcome, Q.”

(Hidden in the quiet waves of the Thames, in minuscule text and enshrouded by the ever so slightly sheer black paint, are the carefully-written words: serva me, servado te.

Save me and I’ll save you.)

“I have somewhere I’d like to take you for dinner,” James says.

“Do I need to wear a suit?”


At that, Q does him the favour of glancing away from the National Palace of Mexico City to eye him warily. “You never pass up the chance to see me in a suit,” he accuses. “What are you up to now?”

James smiles with all of the innocence in his soul. Which is to say, none. “Have I ever led you astray before?”

“You got the spiciest salsa for us during lunch and didn’t tell me,” Q deadpans.

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“I nearly died choking.”

James slides his hands into his jean pockets and rocks back on his heels. He wishes he packed sunglasses. There does seem to be a handy street stall over there selling knock-off Gucci bags and Dior sunglasses... “As if I would ever let you die on my watch, darling.”

“You were too busy laughing to do anything more than shove water at my face.”

James pauses. “I stand by what I said.” And the face Q had made when the taste first hit his tongue was just too funny and adorable to resist. His partner has the unfortunate luck to possess the spice tolerance that most Londoners do.

He shifts his weight towards the left. There’s a particular pair of neon orange glasses that he thinks Moneypenny would really appreciate, but he knows better than to drag Q away from architecture before he’s ready.

“Don’t think I don’t notice you changing the subject.” Q sighs and snaps a picture with his phone. “Alright, I’m done. Let’s go get those sunglasses you’ve been drooling over.”

“No suit. I’ll take care of everything else. And I would never do something as undignified as drool,” James insists and leads Q over to the stall with a hand on his lower back.

“Fine. But my pillowcases say otherwise.”

They get the neon orange sunglasses for Moneypenny. And a knock-off Louis Vuitton bag for Marian.

“They’re going to kill you,” Q says. Because of course they would never place the blame on Q.

James grins so sharply that the stall owner backs away a step. “They’re welcome to try.”

Part of James was worried that the Castillos would have disappeared into the wind, into time, like so many other good things in his life. But here they are, worn-brick and crooked sign, light spilling out the window into the dusky evening, a bare five-minute walk from their hotel.

His shoulders fall, just a little. The air is rich with spicy, marinated meat and freshly cooked tortillas, and there’s a comforted note to his anticipation now. Warm chatter fills his ears, overlaid with roaring laughter and good-natured ribbing. Someone down the street is strumming a guitar.

“I’m not sure what I was expecting,” Q says, snug and gorgeous at his side, “but this isn’t it.”

James chuckles. “I do take pride in my unpredictability,” he reminds him and wraps an arm around his shoulders. “Shall we?”

“We’d better.” Q is all prim posture and posh diction. “I’m starving.”

The interior is exactly as James remembers, exuberant paintings on the walls and creaking chairs to uneven tables. A young woman bustles around, hands full of dishes, giggling and joshing her customers. There are familiar dimples in her cheeks.

A server comes out to greet and seat them, wiping his hands clean of flour on his apron and grinning from ear to ear. “Two, Señores?” A ring dangles from his neck, and it only takes one quick glance for James to find its partner on the waitress’ finger.

,” James says and wonders if they’re married already.

They’re ushered over to a corner table near the kitchen, awash in candlelight and with tortilla chips already on the table. Before the server can leave, James graces him with a charming smile and asks, “Are Señora Castillo and Señor Castillo in today?”

“They’re in the kitchen,” he responds, a curious glint in his eyes. “Is there a problem, Señor?

“Not at all. When they have the time, would you let them know that James is here?” Assuming they still remember him, that is. But domestic life must be good for him, Q must be good for him, because James finds that he thinks - hopes - that they do.

“Of course, Señor,” and from the snap to his stride as he strolls away, their server is more liable to barge in and loudly spread the word than to wait for a quiet moment.

Q is radiant in the soft glow, tousled obsidian curls and cat green eyes. There’s the tiniest arch to his eyebrow, but his smile is fond and oh so sweet. He picks up a tortilla chip and says, “Are you going to tell me what’s going on yet?”

“Not yet,” James replies and reaches across the table to take Q’s free hand in his own. “Are you feeling up to a margarita tonight? I have to warn you; they make their drinks strong here.”

From the way Q’s eyes narrow, he may have taken that as a challenge.

They talk over the menu for a bit, which then somehow devolves into a lively debate over global politics on climate change, and then -


There are, it must be admitted, very few people capable of calling his name with such genuine delight. James turns to see Katia marching towards him, parting the crowd with effortless grace and not just a little bit of terror in the eyes of her customers. Ernico trails after his wife, a smile wrinkling his face.

“There you are!” Katia scolds as she approaches. “It’s been much too long! And who is this you’ve brought to me?”

Q looks a bit flabbergasted, a chip pressed against his closed lips. Whatever he was expecting, it certainly wasn’t this.

James stifles a laugh and says, “This is Q, my… partner.”

“Oh,” Katia says. Her smile is so gleeful that Q’s expression slides towards apprehension. Not that there’s any chance to escape before Katia sets upon him with a barrage of welcomes and questions and potent margaritas.

Ernico sits down beside James and says to him, quiet but proud, “I see everything worked out.”

“Yes.” James looks at Q, who has been drawn into a conversation about the Tube of all things, and smiles, more honest than he’s been all his life. This is his heart on his sleeve; this is leaping off a bridge and knowing there’s a safety net underneath.

To be secure in someone else’s love is a privilege he hasn’t had since childhood.

Ernico favours his wife with a glance that’s much the same. “Good,” he says. “Hold on to that.”

“A lifetime isn’t nearly long enough,” James agrees.

“By the way,” Q says during a sudden spike in the crowd that draws the Castillos away to tend to their new customers, “I don’t suppose you know anything about what happened to Max Denbigh? His corpse washed up on the shores of Japan two days ago; it was such a wreck that they had to use DNA to identify the remains.”

James crunches on a tortilla chip. “No. Although that is one less thing to worry about. I hope you don’t expect me to shed any tears for that bastard.”

“Uh huh. What a coincidence that 004 took a two day off-grid detour after her North Korea mission a few weeks ago, right after Moneypants spent a solid hour in the Spectre file during her lunch break.” Q sucks pointedly at his margarita.

James watches the process of his mouth very closely. “An amazing coincidence,” he agrees.

Q favours him with a sardonic look through his eyelashes, which he doesn’t seem to realise would instantly fell a lesser man. “Is it going to happen again?”

“Of course not,” James says smoothly. “That would require the accumulation of certain specific circumstances, which seems improbable.”

For the amount of alcohol he’s sucking through his straw, Q’s voice is remarkably dry. “Noted.”

They stumble out of the restaurant to a bright full moon and a gentle breeze. Q leans against James, adorably tipsy. “I feel like I just found my long-lost grandparents,” he says and giggles. “Literally.”

James laughs. And then he pauses. “Literally?” he repeats.

Q is silent for a beat too long. “Maybe we should have this conversation when I’m sober,” he says.

James is fairly certain he should be worried. He’s not. His heart is too full of dreams and hopes and all the things he never thought could be his for anything so trivial as worry.

What the Castillos have - that’s what he wants. A lifetime together, infinity in his love.

Almost a full year later, James presents Q with another painting. It’s one of the most gorgeous things he’s ever seen, all vibrant colours and blurred lines. A scene in a park somewhere, it seems, with the lamps aglow and the walkway glistening as if it’s just rained, the leaves and bushes a whirlwind of rainbow hues.

In the distance, two male silhouettes walk towards the pale sunlit sky as if on an evening scroll, arms linked together. Within the light and the magic, they are the only focal point, and Q’s breath catches at the dreamy wonder of the scene, so different from what James usually creates.

“Did I miss an anniversary or something?” Q jokes, because he hasn’t yet found the words to convey how instantly and deeply he loves this painting. He knows he hasn’t - he’s got calendar notifications for everything.

James smiles. There’s a glint of anticipation in his eyes that makes Q wary. It’s a Pavlovian response by now. But there’s also something almost nervous in the touch of his hand to Q’s cheek. “Only a future one, I hope.”

Q wrinkles his forehead. “What?”

“There’s a secret in the painting,” James tells him, and it’s a repeat of his birthday all over again, the delight and the suspicion. “Come find me when you figure it out.”

And before Q can say anything more, he turns and leaves for a night exercise with his newest group of grasshoppers.

Q stares at his new gift and hopes it doesn’t explode. He thinks he might cry if he doesn’t get to keep it.

Nine hours later, James comes home to Q with his hands on his hips and the painting he slaved over for months hanging on their wall, right above their dining table. The special Q-Branch ink he persuaded the new third-in-command of Q-Branch - who still plays Minecraft when he’s bored - to “lend” him glows under the light of the candle that Q has placed on the table.

Neatly written binary spans the painting from frame to frame, covering the entirety of the yellow sky and curving around the two figures. As promised, the ink slides gracefully from yellow to orange to red, setting the canvas aflame.

The effect is even more stunning than James could ever have hoped for.

But it’s the look on Q’s face that James can’t tear his eyes away from. At last, the thundering anxiety leaves his chest, the quiet fear that still lingers at times evaporating away. Despite his exhaustion, despite his night of unbearable nerves, James feels filled to the brim with joy.

“Yes?” he asks.

Q’s smile is its own answer. Still, he answers, “Yes. Yes.”

(The binary is just a single word and a question mark, repeated over and over and over again.


Their binding ceremony is quiet and intimate, held in the splendour of a Russian chapel and memorialized by the painting James creates during their honeymoon, a work of shadows and light that invokes that specific way the heart stutters a beat.

Later, it hangs over their bed, and the cats sometimes bump their heads on the corners.

The tattoo they choose for themselves is simple. A small familiar ship that sails towards the sunrise, the dream that brought them both together at last. Hand-drawn by James himself, inked in gold and blue and a luminous green that James insisted on working in.

Just to be petty, Q countered by choosing the shade of blue.

That night, James presses a kiss to the centre of Q’s tattoo. Located on his right shoulder blade, leaving more than enough room on his lower back for James to draw to his heart’s content. His bonded will never be able to see his own tattoo but for in the mirror.

But then, that’s why James is here.

“Let me see,” Q says.

Obligingly, James lies down on his front. The special tattoos of the binding ceremony heal within the hour and will last on the skin until they’re dust and bone. Q’s fingers are cold as they glide across his back, and he shivers.

Q’s lips touch his tattoo, gentle and possessive. Oh.


James sighs and lets his eyes close. His heart aches in the sweetest of ways.

This, he wants to remember until the day he dies.

I can bring tears to your eyes. I can resurrect the dead. I can make you smile. I can reverse time. I form in an instant but last a lifetime. What am I?

A memory.

“You’re set to infiltrate a socialite party in two days,” James says to a sea of fresh-faced wannabe agents. “Attendance is invitation-only, and all 50 invited guests are friends of the host. You have no supplies, no suitable cover, and reason to believe that communications with Q-Branch have been tapped. What do you do?”

The clock ticks.

James idly plans out his weekend date with Q. He’s hoping to cajole him into attending a motorcycle show with him and then dining at the new Mediterranean restaurant that opened a few blocks over. The weather forecast looks good, although they’ll have to bring an umbrella.

He’s moved onto laying out his intended bouquet when the cockiest boy in the class says, “I would sneak into the venue, find a concealed location, and gather the information necessary to complete the mission.”

“Too risky,” the girl behind him disagrees immediately. “If you’ve got no supplies, then you’ve got no hope of fighting off 51 criminals if you get caught, and in backing yourself into a concealed location, you have no escape route.”

The boy sneers. “Yeah? Then what would you do?”

She thinks it over. “Find a spot near the entrance of the party location and wait for a guest of similar appearance to pass by. Then, knock them out with the advantage of surprise, assume their identity, and go on from there.”

“That’s also risky,” another newbie comments. “What if none of the guests are close to you in appearance? Then you’ve waited for two hours in a bush somewhere, and the party’s going on without you.”

James waits out the following ten minutes of aggressive discussion and then cuts in with, “Enough.” His voice, mild and even, cuts through the noise immediately. All eyes turn to him, and it’s gratifying, in a way. He felt the same rush when he was infiltrating the same party he laid out to these kids as a hypothetical scenario.

“You’re all thinking too rigidly,” he tells them. “Just because you have no supplies doesn’t mean you can’t get some. Just because the official line back to support is tapped doesn’t mean that you can’t find one that isn’t. And just because you don’t have a cover doesn’t mean you can’t make one.”

James pushes himself off the table he was leaning against and waves a hand at the materials laid out behind him. There’s more than one confused face as his students stare at the mess of wood, steel, rock, and wire, most of which he picked up on his way to MI6 and from the table at home.

“Well?” he says, with a smile that only shows a little teeth. “Have at it. You have ten minutes. First come, first serve. Nothing that won’t heal within three days allowed. I expect good construction and a reason why. Maybe a demonstration if we have time.”

There’s a beat. And then a screech of chairs, the pounding of shoes, and a rush forward. Elbows are applied judiciously. One girl goes straight for the groin.

Ruthless, these brats. He likes that.

James contemplates the contrast of azaleas and baby’s breath. He takes out his phone to look up which flowers are toxic to cats.

“Break the table, and I’ll treat you to a tour of Q-Branch,” he calls out without looking up.

Someone lets out a war cry.

“How do you have a forty-five percent passing rate?” Tanner demands, baffled. “The other trainers have thirty percent, at maximum.”

James smirks. “What can I say? I’m just that good.”

“Every last one of your students cussed you out in their final evaluations. Then they gave you the highest ratings possible.”

“I know. They told me.”

Tanner eyes him with a measure of deep concern before visibly deciding that it’s not his problem with a shrug of his shoulders. “Well...if they’re passing, they’re passing.”

James clasps him on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit.”

I look flat, but I am deep, Hidden realms I shelter, your world I nourish. Lives I take, but food I offer. At times, I am beautiful. At times, I am frightening. Often, I am both. No man can own me, yet I encompass what all men must have. What am I?

The ocean.

“James,” Q calls mid-afternoon.

There are figures taking their existence on the blank white canvas, beings of movement and grace and an aching, quiet humanity. James doesn’t look up from where his brush dips into black paint, thoughts on a night in Berlin. “Hmm?”

“I have an idea.”

“Mmhm.” He adds a flourish of bright red, shocking this world that knew only of shadows. Like the gunshot that had shattered that night, the blood that had spilt onto the age-old streets. He can still see it all so clearly…

“...James, are you listening to me?”

“Of course, love.” A gentle grey that’s more suggestion than reality, a play on the buildings that arch about the figures like silent witnesses.

A sigh. And then a kiss pressed gently to his cheek and the familiar scent of coffee on the table. James relaxes into the affection and continues painting.

Hours later, with the paint drying and a box of pizza on the counter, Q stands before him, hands on his hips. “You didn’t hear a single thing I said, did you.”

Uhh. James dries his recently-washed hands and tries to think back. He does remember Q’s voice somewhere in the interval, but whatever he said, it clearly didn’t hold enough fear or anger to kick James’ instincts into gear. He didn’t.

“Not at all, love,” James agrees and siddles in up-close to place his hands over Q’s. He presses a sneaky kiss to that sensitive spot behind Q’s right ear and smiles charmingly, hoping it gets him out of trouble.

Q mock glares at him, but there’s an upward twitch of his lips, so he’s definitely just pretending to be mad. James presses a few more kisses to his ears and cheeks just in case. Then, to his mouth, to be thorough.

When he leans back, Q rolls his eyes at him. There’s a definite smile on his face, though, so James smugly counts that as a win. “So tell me, what’s this brilliant idea of yours?”

“I said that I have an idea about all of the paintings that we’re slowly compiling.” Q gestures at the paintings hanging from their walls, stacked up on the table, being used as a cat-box by two rebellious beasts…

James has been trying to keep them out of the way, but they really do only have so much room in their flat.

“Not that I don’t adore them all,” Q continues, “but I’m afraid the cats are going to start using them as scratching posts soon.”

Well. True. It’s like a dumpster in here. And it’s not as if James is terribly attached to them. There’s not one that he’s completely satisfied with, and he’s only spent a few hours of his life on each. Once they’re all gone, he won’t have to wander around the flat every so often, spending a few minutes staring down each painting and scowling at its flaws.

All of his mistakes will be gone; a clean canvas for him to start over with.

“You’re right,” James says evenly. “I’ll toss them out tomorrow - ”

“What,” Q all but shrieks.

James stops. They stare at each other.

“Who said anything about bloody throwing them out?” Q demands, eyes sparking with outrage. “If you try, I swear to fucking God that I’ll tell Moneypenny about the Marmalade Incident of May 2016!”

James takes a step back in betrayal. A very small step. His hands don’t leave Q’s. “Q!” he hisses. “We both agreed that never happened!”

“Yeah, well, don’t test me!” Q very deliberately takes a deep breath and relaxes his shoulders. He ruins the impression of calmness by glaring though.

“Now, before someone decided to jump to conclusions,” he says tartly, “I was going to suggest selling some of your paintings online. If you were interested. If not, I was thinking about building a display case. If you notice, neither option included any tossing!”

James is so surprised that a chuckle escapes his iron-clad control. Q glares harder. This has the unfortunate side effect of making James laugh louder, until he’s burying his incredulousness into Q’s shoulder.

“James Bond,” Q announces, “I don’t care if you’re my soulmate. I’m going to pour marmalade over your unsuspecting head come witching hour, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

James can only laugh louder. After a few moments, Q sighs and seems to resign himself to his insane partner. He even gently pulls one hand away to pat James on the head like he would the cats.

Finally, James pulls away and shakes his head. His cheeks bloody hurt. “Q,” he says, “who the fuck would want to buy this useless crap of mine?”

Q narrows his eyes. “Wanna bet?”

Five days later, the mysterious J. B. has an official professional website, an account on every social media site, and is known to every art enthusiast in London. Whether this was done through illegal means or not, no one seems willing to say.

All three of the paintings that were put up for sale are bought. At a price that James considers exorbitant for what basically amounts to trash.

“I win,” Q crows, somewhat redundantly.

James grumbles and continues sorting through the remaining paintings. “Yeah, yeah. What do you think of this one?”

“I like it. Let’s keep it.”

“You’ve said that about the past ten I’ve shown you,” James points out.

“Yes, and we’re keeping all of them. See?” Q turns his tablet to show James blueprints for a lovely and very sturdy display case.

James wisely does not attempt to argue. The only stipulation he offers up is that they keep all of his paintings of and for Q. His other paintings are all odd plays of dark and light, full of harsh lines but for something indistinct in the background that stirs up a primal sort of wariness.

But Q. His paintings of Q are soft and out of focus in bright, saturated colours. Most of his face is always obscured, there’s no question of security there, and yet this is a Q that James wants to keep hidden from the rest of the world.

This is a Q that James keeps for their home.

Hard at work day and night, it counts the numbers over and over. Although it counts all its life, it never gets past twelve. What is it?

A clock.

They spend all of their anniversaries and birthdays travelling. Q has his calendar permanently blocked off for three weeks a year, and Eve - M - just smiles with bared teeth whenever agents ask why.

“Why don’t you ask him directly?” she says, silken, and laughs them out of the room with her eyes. A painting of Macao ablaze with lanterns and fire dragons hangs behind her desk and echoes the bright orange of her dress.

But, of course, if any of the newbies happen to be brave enough to walk up to the Quartermaster with grey streaks in his hair and crow lines about his eyes, elegant and aristocratic, the only answer they receive is an arched eyebrow and, “Go ask James Bond if you really want to know.”

And no one wants to approach the legendary retired agent, hair all silvery white and eyes piercing blue, well known both for his ability to thrash any of his students and his habit of flirting with Q, for something like this.

After all, most of them are his students, and none of them are eager for “remedial training”.

Just the thought makes their calves ache in horror.

In James’ opinion, all of his most beautiful masterpieces are on Q’s skin. The ones he recreates on canvas just don’t have that same magic. Sometimes, he tries to compensate by painting Q himself, the most beautiful subject he knows, but his paintings are never quite perfect, never quite Q.

Looking at his work, he can't imagine why someone would spend money to buy his pale imitations of life and death and Q. But Q somehow makes it happen, and James has learned to shrug and accept it. He isn't involved in the transactional process at all, and that's how they both like it. Q takes care of the posting and the bargaining and the maybe less-than-legal dealings with a glee that probably bodes poorly for the good citizens of London. James just does the painting part of the job. 

That’s probably why he’s entirely unprepared when Q wanders over and announces, “So. A local museum is interested in having you be part of one of their exhibits.”

James drops his brush. It leaves a splatter of bright blue paint on their floor.

“...don’t let the cats lick that,” is all that Q comments.

“What,” James says. His head hurts. He wonders if maybe he heard wrong. His hearing has been somewhat on the frizz lately. The doctors at Medical told him vindictively that this was karma for all of his past torment.

“Don’t let - ”

“No, I got that part.” James holds up a hand. “I’m talking about the other part.”

Q merely shrugs. His grin is as self-satisfied as can be, pride softening the edges. “I told you your art is good. This is what you get for not believing me.”

“Bloody cheek,” James replies affectionately on reflex. He still doesn't believe it, bloody museum or not. 

I can crawl, I can fly, I have hands but no legs or wings either. What am I?

One day, the new 001 walks up to James after a class with the grasshoppers. "I don't remember being so green," he comments with a jaded smile.

"You were," James responds. "I was there." And this seasoned agent was once incapable of tying knots.

He laughs. "I just wanted to come and thank you. You were the best instructor I ever had, even if you were also the worst. Without you, I would have died a long time ago."

James looks at him steadily. "If you really want to thank me, keep on surviving. Retire. That'll be the ultimate testament to my teaching."

He does. He's one of the rare ones. 


They fight sometimes. Over the dishes Q didn't do, over the table Q clutters. Over James's military strictness, over his fondness for onions, which Q hates. They fight over the rearranging of the living room, over closet space and cold feet at night.

They fight, and Q locks himself in the bedroom to sulk with his laptop, and James throws himself onto the sofa to brood and watch the Great British Bake-Off.

But never do they argue so sharp as to prickle insecurity into James's heart, and so, even in the buzzing silence, he is not afraid.

Just irritated and a touch fond for all that because only Q could be so pedantic about the ventilation and the heat levels of his electronics.

They always make up eventually. One shuffling behind the other to press an apology kiss on the neck. An offering of the chocolate mocha cake that is a well-known favourite. A bag of coffee beans that can be found only in a very specific little town of Sicily.

They find their way back to each other. They do.

What’s at the end of the tunnel?

“I’m scared,” Q whispers. They’re in bed, warm and snug under the blanket that smells of them both, and their hair is greying, their strength waning. Wrinkles line their face, the loving touch of time to denote lives full of pain and joy, anguish and love.

The sun is setting on the horizon. They sleep so early these days.

James hums with a note of concern and draws back to look earnestly upon Q’s face. “Of what, love?” he asks. There are more laugh-lines around his eyes than ever, and they crinkle in that beautiful, familiar way when he smiles at Q.

His eyes are still so brilliantly blue, and beyond his limp, beyond the glasses and hearing-aids, he’s still the man Q fell in love with, all those years ago.

A thousand answers spring to Q’s tongue, no longer as agile and quick as before. Of death, he could say. Of pain, of succumbing slowly to heart failure or being stolen from this world with a single unexpected stroke. Of the mystery of what happens after death, uncertainty still his most hated-enemy.

But - “Of losing you,” Q says. “Again.” James is older than Q, suffers from more ailments, and fights daily with a body that spitefully remembers all of the abuse it was made to endure in his younger days.

Q faintly recalls a time when he could live separated from James, when he could subsist on glimpses through a monitor and encounters in the hallway. He’s no longer that brave boy, so resilient, so alone. Loneliness is the monster that lurks in his nightmare, and if James goes first, he will be the loneliest man in the world.

They are old and fading, and he is afraid.

James makes a wordless, comforting noise of understanding and presses closer to kiss away the tears that have sneaked their way down Q’s cheeks. Golden light spills through their wide windows, throwing gentle emphasis on the paintings that line their walls, all in honour of Q.

Of them.

“Don’t be,” James says finally, brushing his lips against Q’s. He does so again and again, sipping away his acrid fear and replacing it with the sweetness of a love that has been so strong, so steadfast, so indisputably, irrevocably there that Q can’t possibly doubt the existence of it. “Don’t be.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’ll find each other again, remember?” James’ smile is the one he shows only Q, his kiss so very warm. “We’ll always find each other again. You won’t lose me, Q. You won’t ever lose me. I promised you forever, remember?”

The promise is one that sinks into him like warm molasses, unravelling the cold, hard ball in his chest at long last. Q closes his eyes and sighs, settled and rooted once more. He feels safe, cherished, loved. James is right; of course he’s right.

And looking into James’ beloved face, he knows what his bonded needs in return. Knows that for all his consoling words, James is not without his own fears. “And you won’t ever lose me either, James.” He manages a smile through his tears. “Stuck with me for all eternity, I’m afraid.”

“Not nearly long enough, but a good start,” James says, gathering Q close. He presses a kiss to Q’s forehead, the steady thumping of his heartbeat Q’s favourite lullaby. “Go to sleep, darling. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

Q closes his eyes just as the sun sinks below the horizon.


They slip into the great unknown together. When found by their friends, they’re tucked into each other, legs entangled, hands intertwined. With the small, peaceful smiles on their faces, they almost look like one of James’ paintings.

The ageing Director of MI6 herself speaks at their funeral, dressed in a resplendent golden gown, wearing stilettos that seem just a little too sharp. If there are tears in her heart, she does not shed them. Every Double-Oh who can make it is in attendance; half of them are former students.

As per their wishes, their ashes are flung into the ocean, where the waves claim them.

This is the end of James and Q.

But this is also their beginning.

In another time, in another place, it’s sunrise, and two young men - reckless, wild, strangers - meet in a local art gallery in front of a painting. It’s done in an old style, a relic, all soot and dusk. Two silhouettes created from words and the spaces in between.

“What do you see?”

“A sappy old man in love. What do you see?”

“I see a riddle.”

“A riddle?”

“James Bond, the artist here, is somewhat well-known for the riddles that he includes in his art. The general consensus among the local academic community is that they're love notes to his long-time partner, whose name has unfortunately been lost to us.”

The soldier’s smile is mocking. “So a sappy old man in love. What's the riddle here then?”

“Right up there, in the corners, you see. It's old, old Gaelic. ‘What is the greatest treasure that can’t be bought,’ would be the rough translation.”

“And you just know all of this off the top of your head.”

“Well, I've studied his work for a good portion of my life,” the art historian says. “If I didn't know, that'd be rather foolish of me, wouldn't it?”

“What's the answer then?”

“The answer to what?”

“You know what. The riddle.”

A soft laugh. “To love and be loved in return.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“And pray tell, where exactly did you get that sort of ridiculous, besotted answer from?”

“It's in the title of the artwork, of course. Redamancy.”