Chapter 1: The Mission
James Bond swiped into Q Division just past 0900 on a Thursday. Q knew this only because he had set not one, not two, but three different alarms to notify him any time Bond entered his domain.
On that particular Thursday, however, Bond was expected, which was hardly the case with his many earlier visits. Ever since he’d returned from an alarmingly successful venture to Russia—an escort job for M, nothing more, nothing less—he’d taken to loitering and prowling the main floor like a predator circling dying prey. Q blamed himself; he’d praised the agent for returning his Walther in mint condition, without even a single shot fired. Privately, Q was glad no one had been killed (or, if Bond had killed someone, he hadn’t used his gun like a civilized contract killer), but the return of the weapon had felt like a truce, or, at least, proof that Bond didn’t destroy everything he touched.
That very same Walther was now going to be handed back to Bond for his latest mission to Pakistan. Q just hoped Bond wouldn’t take offense when it was R, not Q, who handed it to him.
From his desk and within the confines of his office, Q pulled up the feeds to the main floor. There was Bond, right on time, and there was R, intercepting him as he headed to Q’s office. Q didn’t have audio—it was a safety risk, and besides that, Q really didn’t want to know what was said when he wasn’t running the floor himself.
Long story short, Q had enabled the audio before, which was how he’d found out that one of the junior quartermasters had started a betting pool regarding how much longer it would take for one of the double-0s to make a move on Q. They considered Q an oddity because unlike every other member of staff in the entirety of MI6 (and most of MI5, as well as both of the French services) he’d never once (to common knowledge) been propositioned by one of the double-0 programme. The agents tended to flirt rather openly, so the quartermasters guessed that if it had happened, they would have seen it. Q was an attractive young man; certainly the agents must be interested?
(As far as Q could tell, there were spreadsheets, bribes, testimonials from other members of staff, and intrepid interviews with at least one member of the double-0 section involved in the background of the pool. It was something Q would have rather not known, thank you very much.)
Out on the floor now, Bond accepted his kit from R. He seemed to be acting normally, though defining normal for someone like Bond was something of an oxymoron. They talked for a moment—R was doing most of the talking, Q saw, which was far from unusual given that talking to Bond was often like talking to a wall. Then R shrugged, said something as a parting shot, and walked away.
Kit in hand, Bond made a beeline for Q’s office.
Q should have picked a better hiding place than his own office. Someone—Bond, obviously—knocked at the door. Q saw no way around it.
“Do come in, 007,” he called, doing his best to enunciate. He sniffed, momentarily unable to breathe, and tried to swallow. He reached for a tissue just as Bond opened the door. He stopped without crossing the threshold, staring openly at Q.
“What can I do for you?” Q asked, hoping he sounded less nasal than he thought. Bond didn’t immediately answer, no doubt taking in the lovely image he presented.
Q had wrapped himself in an extra cardigan for warmth shortly after arriving to work, though he couldn’t stop himself from shivering. His nose dripped constantly, his eyes were swollen, red and puffy behind his glasses, and his throat was painfully hoarse.
“You’re ill,” Bond said.
Q snatched up the tissue he’d been going for just as Bond came in and blew his nose loudly. He felt lousy, like his head had been stuffed with cotton. He’d taken a fever reducer earlier, so he couldn’t have one, but the symptoms refused to let off.
“I have a cold,” Q said, as if that contradicted Bond’s statement.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
Q frowned and sniffed. “Neither should you,” he said. “You have your equipment.” He could hardly get the word out right, but he wasn’t going to damage his pride any further by trying again. “If you don’t need something, go away.”
“You’re going to make everyone else sick, too,” Bond said, ignoring Q’s protestations. “Go home.”
“Don’t act a child.”
“You’re not my caretaker, 007,” Q said. He cursed his sickness for the way it twisted the consonants in Bond’s title.
“You clearly need one.”
Q glared at Bond.
“Have fun in Pakistan,” Q said. The words were hardly intelligible.
Q waved at Bond. “Bye,” he said.
Bond stared at Q for a long moment. His posture shifted subtly as he rolled his weight onto the other foot, considering.
“Rest well, Q,” Bond said, turning for the door.
“I will try,” Q said, but Bond was gone.
Bond walked through Q Division and headed to the lifts. Rather than getting off on ground and heading for the car, he keyed in an access code and headed for the admin levels.
Q was sick. Very sick.
He looked like a child, all snot-nosed and petulant. It was pathetic, in a way. He wasn’t going to recover like that, coming in and working as if nothing were wrong. Stubborn as Bond was—and he knew it, there could be no denying—there were certain things you did not do. Trying to work through illness when circumstances do not demand it? Do not attempt.
The doors opened, and Bond stepped out onto the plush carpeting and opulent décor that screamed administration. He hated it. He passed several offices before coming to the desk of one Eve Moneypenny.
“You’re supposed to be in a car, heading for a plane,” Moneypenny said without so much as looking up from her work.
“Good to see you, too,” Bond said, putting on his most charming smile.
Moneypenny finished typing something, then shut the lid of her laptop. “Whatever it is,” she said, “the answer is no.”
“So I’m not supposed to operate in the best interests of MI6?” Bond asked, teasing. Moneypenny glared.
“I’m serious,” she said.
“I believe you,” Bond answered. “You managed to kill 007. No mean feat.”
Moneypenny took in a deep breath. “You’re never letting me live that down, are you?”
“As I remember it, I’m the one who went down.”
Moneypenny shut her eyes and hunched over. “What do you want, Bond?”
“I need a favour.”
“I gathered so much.”
“Don’t be sour,” he said. “I need you to send Q home.”
Moneypenny stared at him. “The Quartermaster,” she said. “You want me to send the Quartermaster of MI6 home.”
Moneypenny shut her eyes. “He’s not some errant schoolboy, Bond.”
“He’s acting one.”
“What’s he done now?” she asked. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s less severe than some of your infractions.
Bond ignored the barb and said, “He’s very ill. I saw him downstairs. He’s going to get everyone sick.”
Moneypenny sobered up, straightening. “How sick?”
Moneypenny groaned. “Lovely,” she said. “Did you tell him to go to Medical?”
“He shouldn’t be here at all.”
Moneypenny glared at her. “I don’t do scheduling,” she said. “I don’t send people home.”
“I’ll owe you,” Bond said, smiling lasciviously.
“No,” Moneypenny said.
“I’ll buy you a drink, then,” he said. “Dinner, somewhere nice.”
“You’re bribing me to make sure Q goes home and gets some rest.”
“He can’t work like this,” Bond pressed. “He’s a wreck.”
Moneypenny squinted at him. “You’re worried about him,” she said plainly.
Bond had several easy answers on-hand, and he picked one. “Because he’s the Quartermaster.”
Moneypenny squinted harder. “You care about his well-being,” she said, in that same tone of voice.
“Of course I do.” Moneypenny sat back in her seat. “What?”
“I’ll help,” Moneypenny said. “I’ll have him sent home and I’ll make sure he stays there for a few days.”
“A week,” Bond insisted.
“Until he’s recovered,” Moneypenny said.
“He’ll lie and say he’s fine,” Bond pressed.
“Until I say he’s recovered,” Moneypenny allowed.
Bond considered the terms and said, “Thank you.”
“But,” Moneypenny said, and here it was. “I’ll take you up on your offer of dinner, but I want you to answer a question.”
“What’s the question?”
Moneypenny pursed her lips before she asked, “Are you and Q…?”
“Are you trying for it?”
Bond shook his head.
“Really?” Moneypenny pressed.
“I’m just saying,” Moneypenny said, “he’s your type.”
“Why do I feel like you have a personal stake in whether or not Q and I are together?”
“I might,” Moneypenny admitted, shameless. Bond remembered why he liked her so much. “If you’re not, you’re not, though. Nothing I can do about that.”
“Hm. I guess I can tell 002 that my hunch was wrong,” she said. “Q’s fair game after all.”
Bond had no tells. “I suppose,” he said, making a mental note to call 002. “You’re sure he doesn’t have someone?”
“He certainly doesn’t,” Moneypenny said, eyes glinting. “Otherwise, they would have had him stay home today, wouldn’t they?”
Bond smiled. “Thanks for that,” he murmured. “I’ll text you when I get back.”
“I’ll book the reservation,” Moneypenny said. “Somewhere expensive. You’re paying.”
Bond’s smile widened. “Naturally.”
As soon as he was around the corner, Bond allowed his posture to soften, though his grin didn’t die down. Lying to Moneypenny was a difficult business, mostly because of how well they knew each other. Bond would have to call 002 on the flight to make sure he didn’t try anything untoward. Bond had worked damn hard to make sure the rest of his section remained away from the Quartermaster; he absolutely intended to keep it that way.
Q refused to believe that the notice currently sitting in his inbox was real. It couldn’t be. It had to be Bond, being an ass.
Q called Moneypenny.
“I take it you got my message,” she said when she answered the phone.
“You’re joking,” Q said. He sniffed, then coughed, then sputtered into his tissue. His supply had begun to dwindle. He cursed his lack of foresight; he ought to have picked up more on the way in, but it had taken all that he had just to get himself out of bed, never mind picking up supplies.
“You’re ill,” Moneypenny said.
“I see Bond found you.” Q couldn’t even say his name for his congestion, damn it all.
Moneypenny made a noncommittal noise. “I talked with Morse. You’re off for the week.”
“Morse? The Devil of the Schedule?” Q asked.
“She’s sitting right here, you know,” Moneypenny said. Q felt his blood pressure drop. “I’m joking, Q. Are you still there?”
“You don’t joke about Morse, Eve,” Q said.
“Sorry, sorry,” Moneypenny said. Remorseless. Q might have laughed at the unintentional pun, but it would have sent him into a coughing fit. “I did talk to her, however. I went down to her office and suffered through that nasty perfume she likes, and you’re off for the week. I braved the beast for you, Q. The least you could do is go home.”
Q sighed and shut his eyes. The darkness felt soft in his brain.
“You survived Morse,” Q said. “Fine, I’ll go home, but if there’s an emergency—”
“You’ll be called back, I assure you,” Moneypenny said. “Now go home. Rest up. Eat something.”
Q frowned. “I don’t have anything.”
The pause on Moneypenny’s side seemed to extend endlessly. “What?”
“I haven’t bought groceries in a few days,” Q said. “I wasn’t planning on going home tonight.”
“What were you going to eat?”
“There’s a granola bar in my desk—”
There came a sharp bang—Moneypenny hitting her desk, most likely. “Christ, Q.”
“It’s the truth.”
Moneypenny sighed, rough and loud in Q’s ear. “Go home, Q,” she said. “I’ll work out the rest.”
“Are you going to bring me food?”
“I might,” she said. “I’ll call you when I get off. Tell me you have some cough medicine? Pain killer? Water?”
“I do have a flat, Miss Moneypenny,” Q said. Damn those nasal consonants.
“I’ll hope that’s a yes,” Moneypenny said. “I’ll call you later. Let me know when you get home.”
Q sighed and said, “Okay. Bye.”
After Moneypenny hung up, Q set his mobile on his desk and leaned back in his chair. His legs felt like cement and his head like a cloud. He didn’t think he could move if the world depended on it. The thought of his empty fridge didn’t help, but then again, neither did his stomach, which was torn between hunger and nausea.
Slowly, and with fumbling fingers, Q called Six’s valet service and asked for a ride home.
“He has what?”
“No food,” Moneypenny said. “I’ve sent him home, but he’s going to die. He has no concept of how to care for himself—none.”
From the plane, Bond could see Moneypenny, hunched over her desk and fuming, as if she were sitting across from him.
“You only just realized?” Bond asked. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“You’re on a plane.”
“Mm, and you’ve already done me a tremendous favour. Thank you,” Bond said.
“I’ll take care of it.”
Bond hung up before Moneypenny could get in a word edgewise.
Of course Q didn’t have a drop of food in his flat. That would be too easy. He would go home and languish, and without the proper nutrients, he would take more than a week to recover, depending on his ailment.
Bond steepled his fingers. He’d already spoken with 002. The thinly disguised threat of castration would keep him and all others of the double-0 section away from Q for the time being—a blessing and a curse. Blessing, because they couldn’t hit on Q without contact. A curse, because Bond couldn’t call in any favours with them.
Bond couldn’t get Moneypenny to bring food, either—Q wouldn’t cook for himself, and Moneypenny lived almost entirely on takeout. Not exactly health food. He needed something hearty, something fresh; he needed medicine, and tea (not that he was short on that, no doubt), and warmth. Rest. Relaxation.
Thankfully, Bond had a few ideas. Drastic times called for drastic measures; Bond had a few contacts who owed him a thing or two. It was time to make a few calls.
Chapter 2: Chicken Soup for the Quartermaster's Soul
The driver who had picked Q up from the front of Six, a fellow by the name of Danvers who talked too much, leaned out the window after Q got out of the car.
“Are you sure you don’t need anything?” Danvers asked.
“I’m fine,” Q said, nose dripping obstinately. He prayed to be sucked into the pavement to be spared the embarrassment of standing there, leaking from every hole in his face. “Thanks for the ride.”
“Any time,” Danvers said, speeding off. No doubt he was going to disinfect the passenger seat lest he get sick. That’s what Q would have done, anyway.
The stairs up to his flat felt taller than usual. The building was made up entirely of MI6 personnel; he didn’t see a soul on the way up. It lessened the shame of being sent home somewhat that there was no one else to witness his personal hell.
By the time he reached the door, he felt fit to collapse. He was sure he hadn’t felt so bad in his office; why couldn’t he have just stayed?
Q all but fell into his flat. Anna and Aubergine, his two cats, startled at the sound of the door but blinked at him serenely when they recognized him.
“Home early,” Q mumbled. Aubergine meowed, stretching to come see him. “Hello, lovelies.”
They still had food out from earlier—he’d put out extra that morning, thinking he’d be at the office for at least twenty-four hours. That plan had gone so well.
Q kicked off his shoes by the door and walked the short distance to his bedroom. It was small, but what else was new?
He toppled over face first on top of the sheets and shut his eyes.
Or, it might have been, had his nose not felt more congested when he lay down. Anna hopped up on the bed next to him, massaging one of his legs with her paws, demanding attention.
“Too sick,” Q said. If he was willing to admit so much to his cats and not anyone else, well, his cats couldn’t talk, and he had more than a scrap of pride.
Q took off his glasses and set them on a bedside table. His mobile was somewhere in his pocket—he hadn’t even taken off his coat, much less his second cardigan—so if someone needed him, he could be reached. There could be no harm in sleeping.
A sharp, persistent rattling woke Q almost as soon as he fell asleep (or, that’s how it felt to him). Disoriented, Q fumbled for his glasses, caught his thumb on one of the lenses, and when he finally got them on his face right-side up, could hardly see for the smudges.
Someone was at the door. They seemed to be attempting to knock the damn thing down.
Q sighed and sat up. Whoever was there had to be affiliated with MI6 by virtue of the fact that they’d gotten into the key-coded building. Q was obligated to go look.
Finding any movement beyond strenuous, Q managed to drag himself to the door and stare through the peephole. An old woman he’d never seen before stood outside his door. Her arms were full of bags, and she wore the surliest expression Q had ever seen.
Q opened the door, leaving the deadbolt on.
“Hello,” Q said.
“Hello,” the woman said, accent thick. Irish, Q realized distantly. “These bags are something awful heavy, laddie, open the door.”
(At least, that’s what Q got out of it. Her accent was thick.)
“I’m afraid I can’t,” Q said. “I’m sick.”
The woman made a noise and said something under her breath. “James from 007 Bond Street sent me. Happy, laddie? Now you open this door and sit yourself down.”
She fixed Q with a glare. Without another word, Q undid the deadbolt, and the woman brushed past him, heading straight for the kitchen.
James. 007 Bond Street. Q didn’t think Bond could have been less subtle if he’d tried, though that was likely the point.
“Excuse me,” Q said, watching as the woman set to work in Q’s kitchen. She moved everything around, pulling an apron and several utensils out of her bag, and began unloading more food than Q had seen in one place outside of the market onto his counters.
The woman caught sight of one of the cat bowls and clicked her tongue. Didn’t approve, Q supposed.
“Excuse me,” Q said again.
“If you’ve something to say, out with it,” the woman snapped.
“I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name,” Q said, feeling sheepish in his own flat, of all places—
“It’s rude to demand someone’s name without offering your own,” the woman snapped. “If you’re just going to stand there swaying like a pole, you go sit down. Food’ll be ready when I say it is.”
All right, then. “Food?” Q asked.
The woman glared at Q again. “James told me you needed feeding,” she said, snapping a dishtowel, “and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.” After a pause, she turned to face him, a frown on her face but most of the ire gone from her expression. “He did tell you I was coming, didn’t he?” The look on Q’s face must have said it all because she let out a string of something that was far from the Queen’s English. Irish, Q’s mind helpfully supplied. The woman spouted Gaelic when upset, one of the many languages of which Q had never learned a single word.
“I’m Ciannait Bébhionn Ó Broin, née Killough,” the woman said. “You call me Mrs. Ó Broin and sit yourself down.”
Q took in a deep breath and let it out. “Thank you,” Q said, at a loss for how to cope with the absolute maelstrom that had taken over his kitchen. “I appreciate it.”
“Thank James,” she said. “The rat bastard didn’t even tell you?”
“No,” Q said. “I didn’t— I’m sorry, if I’d known you were coming, I would have prepared—”
“You’re sick,” Mrs. Ó Broin said tartly. “That’s why I’m here.”
“I’m Q,” Q said.
“My name. I should have told you when you came in.”
“That’s a letter, not a name, laddie,” Mrs. Ó Broin said. “Are you a spy like James?” Q found himself at a momentary loss. Who was this person? “Ah, you don’t have to answer that. Secrets and contracts and all that. Mindless silliness, if you ask me, but you know, didn’t ask.” Mrs. Ó Broin fired up Q’s stove and got out his biggest pot.
“How do you know James?” Q asked, the name sticking in his throat. He’d never called Bond anything other than Bond or 007. His first name felt too personal.
“I was his landlady,” Mrs. Ó Broin said. “Years and years, until they sold his flat for him.” She clucked. “Thinking his was dead, silly fools. No wonder your government’s a wreck. If my husband—God rest his soul—if my husband’s curry couldn’t kill him, nothing will, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a damned loon.”
Q sucked in a breath and finally went to sit down on the small settee that sat in his living room, connected with the kitchen. Bond had sent Q his landlady to make—based on the ingredients Q could see—some variety of chicken soup.
“You one of those lunatics what don’t eat meat?” Mrs. Ó Broin demanded out of the blue.
“No,” Q said.
“Good,” she said, nodding to herself. “Can’t get better with just vegetables. Need the protein, a little,” she curved her arms up as if flexing her biceps, shaking a little bit to emphasize her point, “you know?”
“Of course,” Q said. He felt like he’d been hit by a cab in more ways than one. He fumbled in his pocket for his mobile and pulled up the number Bond would be using for the duration of his stay in Pakistan.
Mrs. O Broin? Q sent.
After a pause, Q got back: *Ó Broin.
Your landlady, Q sent.
Bond: For nearly a decade.
Q: Old man. Then: She’s a menace.
Bond didn’t respond, and Q didn’t know what to make of it. He pocketed his mobile after a minute passed. Bond had no way of knowing that Q didn’t have any food in his flat, except—
Q pulled his mobile back out, then put it away again. There was no sense in asking Bond—it was obvious enough that both Moneypenny and Bond were in on this, whatever it was.
“Q, you said your not-name was?” Mrs. Ó Broin said. “I woke you, didn’t I?”
“No ‘buts’, young man,” she said. Either Q’s head was swimming, or her accent was getting harder to decipher. “You go back to bed. I’ll wake you when it’s time.”
Q made no move to stand. He felt awful.
Mrs. Ó Broin huffed, then came to stand beside him on the settee. She placed her hand on his forehead—Q had flashbacks to his mother doing much the same—and tsked. She pulled him up by the armpits and half-dragged him into his bedroom, where she scared both cats off of the bed and plopped Q into it like a package of groceries.
“Down,” she ordered when Q tried to stand. She went rummaging through the toilet, looking for something, and returned with a bottle of painkillers. She went to the kitchen and came back with a glass of water.
“Take two, now,” she said, staring at him intently. “Nasty sickness you’ve got, but we can fix this. How long’s it been?”
“Since what?” Q asked, swallowing two pills. He gagged on them, but they stayed down, barely.
“Since this started.”
“Started last night,” Q said.
“Did you eat last night?”
Mrs. Ó Broin had a fire in her eyes that, had Q been himself, would have recognized as one of Bond’s I’m-dangerous-and-I-know-it looks. As it was, Q just looked at her blankly, still confused as to how Bond had managed to get her in the building from Pakistan.
“You fool child,” she said. “We’ll get you on your feet.”
She tucked Q in. He would have been mortified, but it felt like comfort and care and he was too sick to do anything other than hunker down and try to breathe. Satisfied that he wouldn’t move, Mrs. Ó Broin checked his blinds to make sure they were as closed as they could be.
Q was asleep before she left the room.
Bond received Q’s texts almost as soon as he hit the doors to his hotel in Islamabad. He drew stares—it was the blond hair, he thought—but no one troubled him.
By the time he checked into his room, Moneypenny had also contacted him.
Do you want me to bring him food or not? she sent.
It was obvious enough who “him” was.
No, Bond replied. Handled it.
Favours. Thanks, darling.
It was their passphrase for when a conversation needed to end. In this case, it wasn’t necessary so much as desirable; Bond didn’t feel like explaining how he’d altered the security protocols on Q’s building to let Mrs. Ó Broin in with what was no doubt several tons of groceries.
“He’s my friend,” Bond had told her on the flight, as he disabled the security protocols that required a keypad entry into the building. “He’s quite sick.”
“James,” Mrs. Ó Broin had warned, “if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times—”
“Please,” Bond said. “I’d go myself, but I’m out of the country.”
Mrs. Ó Broin had grumbled in Gaelic—something Bond pretended not to understand for her sake, never once betraying her tacit assumption that he wouldn’t understand when she called him a big-eared buffoon just as she never questioned his profession, the odd hours he kept, or his need for everything to remain locked at all times.
“Since you asked nicely,” she said. “And because I don’t accept charity.” She referred to her husband’s funeral, which Bond had covered in full. Mrs. Ó Broin’s husband had been a drinker, and toward the end he’d all but pissed away their savings. Bond hadn’t killed him, but when the coffin was in the ground, he rather wished he had. “What’s the address?” she asked.
Now, in his hotel room, Bond considered Q. Bond hadn’t been sick in ages—he liked to think it was his training, but he knew that microbes were persistent bastards and he’d just been lucky—but he thought he knew the basics. Food was a definite. Mrs. Ó Broin would take care of that.
What else had been on Bond’s list? Good tea—not that cheap bagged stuff that even Q winced at that Six stocked in the breakrooms. Anything that would keep Q warm would likely help, too. Something comfortable. Q’s cardigans were fashionable and all (Bond cringed) but they weren’t very warm. Q’s hands were always cold—not that Bond had felt them, because he hadn’t, but they were always white with poor circulation and cold. That could be fixed.
Oh, and cold medicine. That ought to have been at the top of the list, but the food situation had taken precedence.
Bond could fix all of those things. Q would be right as rain.
When Mrs. Ó Broin woke Q, it was nearing nightfall. She said something to him, low and soft and utterly nonsensical to his ears.
“Up,” she said finally, in English. “Time to eat.”
Q blinked at her blearily. He felt stronger than he had earlier, to be sure. She brought him to the kitchen and sat him down at his little table with a glass of water and a big, steaming bowl of soup. It was at that moment that Q noticed the cross hanging around her neck.
Even if Bond had forced her to come check on Q, she had made him food. Q wasn’t religious by any means, but he knew enough to know that someone like Mrs. Ó Broin would say grace before eating.
Clumsily, Q crossed himself and set his hands in what he hoped was a prayerful posture. Mrs. Ó Broin’s eyebrows shot straight up, and her hands rose to match his.
“Bless us, O Lord,” Q said, croaking, “and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty.” He hoped to whatever God there was that he was getting the words right. “Though Christ, our Lord. Amen.” He crossed himself again when he saw Mrs. Ó Broin do so.
“Amen,” she echoed back, staring at him. To avoid it, Q turned to his food, which, even though he was congested, tasted divine. (He hadn’t eaten anything substantial in twenty-four hours, but suffice it to say, he wasn’t exaggerating.)
He ate through one bowl, and then another, before Mrs. Ó Broin sent him back to lay down again.
In the dark, Q heard as she called someone.
“James?” she asked. Q listened harder, though he already felt himself slipping into sleep. The soup Mrs. Ó Broin had made had been filling, and so tasty… “Your boy’s a darling,” she said. Q couldn’t hear Bond’s reply, but Mrs. Ó Broin went on to say, “Oh, he’s sick as a dog, but I’ll get him back on his feet.” Another pause, and then, “Absolutely, I am. You’d better do the same; he’s a darling thing.”
“Mrs. Ó Broin,” Bond greeted when he saw the number pop up. He’d been wondering if she’d call.
“James?” she asked. “Your boy’s a darling.”
“Isn’t he?” Bond said. “How is he doing?”
“Oh, he’s sick as a dog, but I’ll get him back on his feet.”
Bond smiled. “Sounds like you’re fond of him already. Are you keeping him?” he teased. It was something of a joke; Mrs. Ó Broin liked to tell visitors that she “kept” Bond, when the reality was that she’d more adopted him, convinced that he needed a good, steady woman in his life.
“Absolutely, I am,” Mrs. Ó Broin declared. “You’d better do the same, he’s a darling thing.”
“I’m working on it,” Bond murmured. He startled himself by how much he meant it. He hadn’t intended to make his move on Q yet—he was still planning, still trying to decide if it was a good idea, still, still—and yet…
“Good,” Mrs. Ó Broin said. “Now, I’m off. I’ll let you know how he is tomorrow.”
“Mm. When you come back tomorrow, use the keypad.”
“I thought you said it was broken.”
“It was. It’ll be fixed tomorrow. The code’s 5309.”
“Spies,” Mrs. Ó Broin muttered, adding on a colourful statement about pompous men. Bond knew she didn’t really mean it. “Fine. Good evening, James.”
Chapter 3: Just a Taste
Q’s first thought when he woke the next morning was that he was late for work and needed to get up immediately.
A glance at the clock and another few moments calmed him down. It was four o’clock in the morning. Hardly time for work. Besides that, he had a mandatory week off. He couldn’t go into the building, though he supposed he could manage a few of his projects remotely. He wouldn’t, though. He was meant to rest and recover, and whether he admitted it or not, it was exactly what he needed.
Q shut his eyes and shifted under the covers. One of the cats—Anna—had curled next to him sometime during the night. Anna blinked at him now, content.
It struck him that Mrs. Ó Broin—how was she real? had Q vividly hallucinated an Irish woman?—didn’t like cats. She probably hadn’t put out anything for them before she left the night before. What if they were low?
Aubergine padded into the room and hopped up on the bed, kneading at the comforter until it was perfect for laying. The cat plopped down, rolling merrily and stretching before settling into place. Neither one seemed distressed or hungry; that helped Q relax the rest of the way.
Relaxed or not, though, Q was far from tired. He hadn’t kept track of how long he’d slept since arriving home, but he hazarded a guess that it was more than eight hours. He felt awake, though lethargic.
Tea, Q thought. He needed tea, then he could think.
The thought of getting out from under the covers, where it was warm and comfortable, had him staying put. Short of carrying his comforter with him—which he was not above doing, now that he thought of it—there was no real way to stay warm. Even then, his legs would hang out. He didn’t like the thought of cold feet, not when they were so toasty under the covers.
From his bedside table, Q’s mobile pinged. Q reached for it and pulled it in close to his face so he could see.
Bond. Are you awake?
Q smiled without knowing why. He shouldn’t have been—it was four o’clock in the morning—but could hardly help it. Yes, he typed back. Just woke up. Thanks for sending your landlady.
Any time, came Bond’s response. You have a delivery.
Q tilted his head. What?
Mme Carpenter. She’s early.
Carpenter who? Early for what? Q asked. He was sure he knew a Carpenter, but a Mme Carpenter? What had Bond done now?
Q forced himself to sit up, the comparatively cool air hitting his shoulders an unwelcome wake-up.
Mrs. Ó Broin had gotten him into pyjamas the night before, which had been a small miracle, so if this Mme Carpenter was indeed there, Q wouldn’t be completely indecent, though he was hardly in a state to receive company. He tugged the comforter out from under his cats and wore it like a cape as he walked to the window. From there, he looked down to the street.
A woman in a wide-brimmed hat and an enormous black coat stood on the sidewalk, looking at her mobile. She was difficult to see in the not-quite light of the morning, but Q guessed her to be Mme Carpenter. Almost as soon as he spotted her, she looked up and caught his eye. Immediately, she pocketed the mobile and made a motion with her hands. Q opened the window and let in a gust of early morning air.
“Good morning,” the woman called up. “James darling sent me. From 007 Bond Street—did I get that right?”
She had an odd manner of speech, as if she were trying to exaggerate how high her voice could go without increasing in volume.
“Are you Mme Carpenter?”
“I am,” she said. She curtseyed, or it looked like she did. Q half-believed himself to be dreaming. “May I come in? James wouldn’t give me the access code to this door and he’s not texting me back, that scoundrel.”
Scoundrel. Q was definitely dreaming.
“The door will be open in just a second,” Q said. He stepped away from the window and found the remote he kept by the door—everyone in the building had one to allow guests up. Q guessed he was breaking company protocol by letting some woman he’d never laid eyes on before come upstairs, but he couldn’t be arsed to care.
In a minute, she was at the door to his flat. Q opened it and let her in.
“Oh, thank you,” she said theatrically, removing her hat. Up close, Q saw that it had feathers stuck in the brim, as if she were a pirate. Her coat had a highly stylized, peculiar cut meant to convey a narrow waist and large breasts, and she wore black leather gloves that looked well-worn. Mme Carpenter’s heels more closely resembled knives than shoes, and in them she was more than a head taller than Q. Her face was done up dramatically, with pale powder and sharp eyeliner and red, red lips. She belonged in a magazine, not Q’s flat. “Dreadfully sorry to be early,” she said. “I had a last-minute booking for this morning.”
“Right,” Q said. He had no idea what to make of anything about her.
Mme Carpenter turned toward him. “Now, James didn’t tell me if this was an appointment or a tasting.” Q didn’t know how to respond. Mme Carpenter waited.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Q said.
Mme Carpenter smiled. “Oh,” she said, “now, none of that. We can’t play games until I’m sure of what you want. I take boundaries very seriously, you know.”
Q blinked at her. “I was being honest, Mme,” he said. “Bo— James didn’t tell me you were coming until five minutes ago. I don’t know who you are.”
“A tasting, then,” Mme Carpenter said. “He did say you liked tea—that ought to have been the hint. Silly, silly me. Thankfully, I came prepared for anything.” She walked to the kitchen and began opening cupboards.
“Please, I don’t—”
“There,” she said. She’d found his current stash of tea. “Ah, you do have some good here, but they’re not so good as mine.” She opened her coat and began drawing cylindrical canisters—containing tea, presumably—from pockets Q hadn’t been able to see from the outside.
The cylinders weren’t what drew his eye, though.
“These are some of my newest arrivals,” she said, not looking at Q. “We have a black tea—think Earl Grey with lavender but not the citrus of Lady Grey, quite lovely and smoky; there’s this green, which is bitter and actually Korean in origin, though it reminds me of one of our old Chinese brews; here’s a white—blooming, very light, rather like the champagne of the teas here; and oh! here is my personal favourite of late. It’s a play on classic darjeeling—I won’t give away the kicker.”
She turned to face Q. Her coat fell all of the way open.
“Well?” she asked.
Mme Carpenter giggled. “Oh, he didn’t tell you anything, did he?”
“No,” Q managed finally. “He didn’t.”
Mme Carpenter walked over to Q on those high, high heels and lifted his chin with a finger. “Oh, I can see why he likes you,” she said. “Such lovely features. Would that one of my girls looked like you.”
“I run a teashop across town,” Mme Carpenter said.
“Do you,” Q murmured, eyes drifting down even as his eyebrows went up. She jerked his chin and he looked back up.
“That I do,” she said. “What goes on in the back is a little different, but that’s on a need-to-know basis.” She looked him up and down. “Funny, you don’t seem to need to know.” Q sputtered, and Mme Carpenter laughed again. “You’re the wrong kind of interested, dear. Oh, tell me—ah, that’s it, isn’t it? James was worried about— Oh, so sorry.” She stepped away, still smiling. “James has never been a client of mine, so I had assumed he went the other way. I’m glad he’s got someone so cute.”
Q felt all of the air leave his chest.
“I’m not— We’re not—”
“Fucking? Together?” Mme Carpenter asked. She clearly didn’t believe him. “Maybe you ought to be. He seemed right worried about you when he called last night.”
Q needed to sit down right now. Mme Carpenter went to put the teas onto his shelf.
“How do you know him?” Q asked. His voice came out high and wheezy.
“The wild whims of fate,” Mme Carpenter said, voice sing-song. She winked at Q. “A few absolute ruffians caught up to me as I was leaving work. Nasty, nasty brutes. It’s been years and I don’t think they’ve left the hospital. I told James he could come around any time for his payment, but this is the first he’s asked for anything at all. We’ve spoken since then, of course. He’s always so polite. Sends me new clients, sometimes—and they’re always the sweetest, discrete people.”
Q bet they were.
“At any rate, unless you’d like an appointment, my work here is done,” Mme Carpenter said, buttoning up her coat until she was the very picture of modesty. “If you change your mind about that—or if James does, or if you come together, oh, we do couples all the time—be sure to look me up. The shop’s in my name; ask whoever’s running the front for Siamese-Picked Oolong.” Mme Carpenter winked. “It’s a real favourite.”
“Of course,” Q said. He didn’t think his face would ever be anything other than beet red, not after this. He was going to kill Jam— Bond, Bond, if it was the last thing he did. “Thank you for the tea.”
“Don’t thank me, thank your lover boy,” Mme Carpenter said, picking up her hat from where she’d draped it on the counter. “I’ll see myself out. Let him know I said hello. I sincerely hope you feel better soon.”
With that, she was gone. Q sat down on his settee. He’d just had a madame in his flat. She’d come prepared to— Q swallowed. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t be interested in that kind of thing, with the right person, but preparation. Warning.
Q returned to his bedroom to find his mobile where he’d left it. He threw the comforter back on the bed and clambered under it, feeling woozy and flattened after his encounter with Mme Carpenter.
Still, he had enough energy to call Bond.
“I was beginning to think you’d taken the appointment.”
“You are a right bastard,” Q spat. “You don’t send a madame into someone’s flat without telling them.”
“I take it you were surprised.”
“I did say it was Mme Carpenter. Did you know several of your quartermasters—”
“Don’t,” Q said, screwing his eyes shut. “Don’t finish that sentence.”
“They have a betting pool about your sex life and you don’t want to retaliate?”
Q sighed. “I should ask how you know about that, but you’re probably the one they interviewed.”
“No, that was 003. He was the one who told me about it.”
“Is that why I haven’t been jumped yet? You all are working together to scam my quartermasters out of their salaries?”
“Something like that.”
“Figures,” Q muttered. “Anyway, is there anyone else you’re planning on sending my way? Because I’d like more than a few minutes’ warning, if you please.”
“That ruins the surprise.”
“There are too many surprises, 007,” Q said. “I’m surprised you’re doing this. Why are you doing it, again?”
“You’re going to have two other visitors,” Bond said. “Micah should be by later today. Julio’s on a plane now and should be arriving tomorrow morning. I’ll be wrapping up here within a day, so I’ll be coming sometime after that.”
Q blinked. He hadn’t actually expected—
“Why are you doing this?” Q asked.
“That’s not a reason.”
“It’s good enough for me.”
Q grumbled and buried himself deeper under his comforter. “Well, thank you,” he said.
“You are quite welcome,” Bond said.
“Sorry to disturb you,” Q said, “I just had to get that out. It— She was unexpected, is all. Sorry. I’m sure you have work to do.”
“Nothing to worry about. The operation’s going swimmingly.”
“Would you tell me if it weren’t?” Q could see Bond’s shit-eating grin as if they were face to face.
“Rest up, Q,” Bond said. “I’ll see you when I get back.”
Bond hung up and tossed his mobile onto the bed.
“Now,” Bond said, staring at the waiter tied up in front of him, kneeling, gagged, and shaking at the foot of the bed. “You picked the wrong time. You know, I almost missed his call?” Bond stared down at the man. He’d broken in and tried to kill Bond with a salad fork not ten minutes ago—the worst attempt on his life thus far, not that Bond had been keeping score. Bond would have thanked his assailant with defenestration, but he’d had to improvise when Q called. “Still, sorry about that. It’s hardly professional, but I need to make sure my Quartermaster recovers nicely. He’s sick, and he refuses to take care of himself. Now that that’s settled, though, we can get back to business.”
Chapter 4: Drugs?
Tired but very much awake, Q sat in his living room and waited. Q didn’t know a Micah beyond the one in the Bible. At least, he thought there was a Micah in the Bible. The name sounded Biblical.
He went to brew himself a pot of tea while he waited. The types that Mme Carpenter had left behind smelled and looked good enough, but she ran a— Q wasn’t precisely sure, but it was a sex shop of some variety, likely a brothel, definitely not just a tea shop. Then again, he had taken tea from the basement lounge of MI6 headquarters before, and even he knew that one knocked before one went in, no matter how quiet it seemed. With a grimace at the memory of that incident, Q picked the nearest canister—the white tea she’d described as champagne—and set about brewing it according to the instructions that Mme Carpenter had left on a piece of paper.
He noticed, just as the water came to a boil, that the cat bowls were full of food and water. Mrs. Ó Broin had put out fresh the night before, and rather a lot of it. No wonder they were lazy and content this morning.
“Get away!” someone shrieked. Q jolted in place, then turned around. The sound was coming from— Oh, he’d left the window open.
“I’m supposed to be here!” a man said. His voice shook and cracked.
“You’re not supposed to loiter here,” the first person—Q recognized the voice as belonging to a woman who lived on the second floor who worked in accounting at MI6. “Get out, get out!”
“James sent me! You’ve got know James!” the man cried. Q heard nothing for a moment, then, “Come on, please let me in! I’m supposed to meet someone— Uh, wait a second, are you…? Did James send me for you?”
Q heard a resounding clap, followed by a yelp.
“Ouch,” the man said. “What was that— Hey!” Q heard the unmistakable noise of the ground level door shutting. “Fuck.”
Q poured his tea and took a sip. Hot, but oh, that was good. Only after that did he tentatively approach the still-open window and look outside.
The sun was starting to come up, at least, so Q could see better than he had earlier. A scrawny, raggedy man stood on the sidewalk. He had a dirty, stained hoodie that covered his head, and his hands were shoved in his pockets. It was clear enough looking at him that he wasn’t meant to be in this area.
Junkie, Q thought just as the doors to the building opened again.
“Hey—AAHHH,” the man shouted, taking a step back. “Hey, no need for—”
Q watched as the junkie ducked a punch, then narrowly dodged a sideswipe. Another man, a brawny, no-nonsense looking fellow, had emerged from the building.
“You get out of here,” the man growled. “No loitering. You heard the lady.”
“I’m just— I’m just looking for a guy, I got a call—” The junkie wasn’t fast enough, and another punch caught him unawares. He hit the pavement hard. Q grimaced at the display. He’d never been a fan of senseless displays of violence. The junkie was smaller than Q was, and probably had the body mass of a beanpole. Couldn’t he see—
“Get out,” the big man said, “and don’t come back here.”
“Hey, no can do, James Bond—”
Q’s ears perked up and the thought of you have to be kidding me crossed his mind.
The big man just laughed. “James Bond,” he said. “That’s rich.” He hoisted the junkie up by his armpits. “Who do you work for, then?”
“Stop,” Q called out the window. Both men looked up at him. The junkie’s right cheek was already swelling from where he’d been hit, and the skin had been split. “You, are you Micah?”
“That’s me,” the junkie said, blabbering. “I’m Micah, James Bond told me to deliver cold medicine—said someone needed the good stuff and ow ow ow ow.”
“Stop,” Q said again.
“You know this guy?” the big man asked. Q couldn’t see his face clearly, but judging on the hold he had on the junkie, he assumed he was a field agent.
“Sort of,” Q said. “Let him up.”
The big man dropped Micah, who fell to his knees and had to bounce back up.
“I don’t like this,” the big man said.
Neither do I, Q thought. He shivered as he realized the lie. Yes, yes he did. There was no way he was going to think about how he enjoyed that Bond had sent him a landlady, a madame, and now, a junkie, presumably to make sure he recovered nicely. No way.
In a couple of minutes, the junkie stood at the door to Q’s flat. The big man—Carson, Q remembered finally as he saw his face up close; an agent who often was sent to the United States because of how well he could pull off the accent—stood behind him.
“Uh-uh…” Micah said. “You’re the one I’m supposed to give these to, right?”
Q stood in the door with his tea and stared as Micah fished a plastic bag full of unmarked white pills out of one pocket. Carson turned his eyes on Q, suspicious.
“What is this?” Q asked. His nose was starting to bother him again, and he had a headache coming on. The pills didn’t look dangerous, but then again they never did.
“Medicine,” Micah said. Carson tensed behind him, and Micah started. “For colds, for colds! It’s not anything bad or anything. Just your average over the counter stuff with unpronounceable names.”
“Why’s it in a bag like this?” Q asked. He looked at Carson, pleading, afraid the agent would report him for a drug problem he didn’t have. Fuck you, Bond.
“‘Cause it’s easier to carry, that’s why,” Micah said. “Yeah, it looks sketch, but it’s harmless. Bag was clean, too. Promise.”
A bustling up the stairs drew Carson’s attention.
“Move it, laddie,” came the now-familiar voice of Mrs. Ó Broin. “These bags aren’t getting any lighter.”
Carson moved, tugging Micah out of the way as Mrs. Ó Broin came barreling up the stairs and into Q’s apartment. Q had to step aside lest she crash into him, too. He cupped his hands around his mug and took another sip of tea. It was good, too good…
“What’s this?” she asked, glaring at each of the three men in turn. She set the groceries down by the floor and snatched the plastic bag from Micah’s shaking hands.
“Ma’am, I have to ask—”
Mrs. Ó Broin leveled Carson with a glare. “Don’t you talk down to me,” she snapped. She turned to Q. “If you needed more medicine, y’ought have told me, laddie. Could’ve picked them up from the market.”
“Ma’am—” Carson tried again.
“See?” Micah said. “It’s cold medicine, I swear! I was told to come here by James Bond—”
“James sent you?” Mrs. Ó Broin said, staring at the junkie. She whistled low under her breath. “That boy meets worse scum every day. Now, Q, sit down, you look fit to fall.”
Q felt fit to fall, that was for sure.
“If you two are going to stand there, make yourself useful,” Mrs. Ó Broin said. Q could hardly understand what she was saying, she spoke so rapidly.
“Don’t ‘hey’ me, boy,” she said.
Micah swallowed and turned to Q. “Tell him I did it right, okay?” he asked. “I don’t wanna— He’s—”
“You’re fine,” Q said. “You can go.”
Micah looked one way and then the other, glancing back once at Carson. “I don’t sell the bad stuff anymore,” he said. “I promise. I don’t even make it. I got out of that—tell him. I got back in uni. I’m clean. The money he gave me? I didn’t waste it, I promise. I’m saving it. I got an account at a real bank.”
He didn’t look clean, Q thought, but he looked so wrecked Q couldn’t help but say, “Sure.”
“Tell him. Tell him,” Micah said.
“I will,” Q promised.
Carson clicked his tongue. “Madness,” he said. “I’ll take him out. Take care with those, though,” he said, looking at the pills Mrs. Ó Broin had set on the counter. “Can’t trust them.”
“Right,” Q said. Carson shut the door when he left, leaving nothing but the sounds from the street and the kitchen as Mrs. Ó Broin set up.
“Did you get to shopping?” she asked. Q turned to see her looking into his tea cabinet.
“Ah— No, someone came by to drop those off,” Q said. Talking felt impossible. Everything was so hard all of a sudden. He realized that he’d been up for a few hours without eating anything—there was the problem. He went to sit down.
“James sent them?”
“Yes,” Q said.
Mrs. Ó Broin didn’t just laugh—she cackled. “Oh, he’s fallen harder than a—” She caught sight of Q, then and came to his side. She muttered something Q couldn’t understand, feeling his forehead again.
“All this commotion,” she said, “and you’re right back to where we started. What am I going to do with you?”
Q looked up at her balefully and wished for death.
“To bed with you,” she said finally. “Up you go, now.”
It was slow going, but Mrs. Ó Broin managed to get Q back into bed and got the comforter on top of him, his mug of tea cooling on his bedside table.
“I’m going to get food started, and call James,” she said. “If you need me, holler.”
Q’s head swam less horizontal. His throat hurt more, though, and even though Q was a scientist at heart, he couldn’t help but wonder if the two things were related. Aubergine hopped up on the bed beside Q and sniffed his face. Mrs. Ó Broin made a face at the cat before leaving the room.
Q knew that sleep wasn’t going to be it. He’d slept a lot, lately. His brain wouldn’t take it. His body, though, needed rest. He snuggled under the covers until something crossed his mind.
His mobile was nearby, right where he’d left it. He snatched it up and texted Bond. Mrs. Ó Broin was no doubt calling him from the kitchen, but…
Micah wanted me to tell you that he’s clean, Q said. Back in school. You gave him money?
There was a very, very long pause—compared to previous experience—between Q’s message and Bond’s reply.
Good, Bond sent back. Yes.
Q stared at the little bright screen. It certainly wasn’t helping his headache any.
Feeling better? Bond asked.
Nasty headache, Q sent back.
I’m almost done here. Will be back soon.
Q hesitated to ask what he really wanted to, but he couldn’t help it. If Bond called him on it, he could always blame cold medicine highs.
What will you do when you get back? he asked.
Supposed to debrief, Bond replied, fast as anything. Might make a stop or two before that, though.
Q figured that was as close to an answer as he was going to get. He set his mobile aside and stroked Aubergine’s head as the cat rubbed against his free hand. In the dark, everything hurt less. The world had been compressed to a few walls, a comforter, and one—no, two, there was Anna—cats, with Q square in the middle.
Then, of course, there was James Bond. For all that he was a classic field agent in so many regards, with his drinking habit and his cars and his women and his good looks, he was by far the least concrete concept in the room. Q’d never really considered him before.
(Except, he had, but those were times he would admit to no one. Q was of the school that one doesn’t show interest first. It was the more feminine approach, as one of his old “friends” at uni had told him, but Q didn’t give two shits. He wasn’t going to be made a fool of because of a silly crush, thank you very much.)
((He did not, did not, have a crush on James Bond. Bond’s gifts and entourage were certainly not furthering it. Nope. Absolutely not.))
“How is he?” Bond asked. He’d had to burn a very nice suit along with a handful of mobsters and one set of Thai statues that had been covered in someone else’s blood, but other than that, the mission was a wrap. He was on the way out of the hotel now, smiling away, ready to go home.
“A right wreck,” Mrs. Ó Broin reported. Bond could hear her cooking in the background. “He’ll be glad to see you.”
“Who said I was coming there?”
“I did,” Mrs. Ó Broin said. Bond could see her standing, one hand on her mobile and the other holding a spoon with which to stir, a disapproving look on her face. Had they been face to face, she’d have put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “You’re mooning over him like my Éamonn did when we first met. You come here and you sit down and talk to him.”
“Can’t,” Bond said, mostly to be contrary. He had every intention of going straight there, damn Mallory and his rules to the eighth circle.
Mrs. Ó Broin cursed him rather colorfully. Bond didn’t respond so as to pretend not to understand.
“You damn well will,” she said in English. “I’m doing the best I can, but you’re going to come in here and you’re going to sit with him and you’re going to tell him what you told me, or I’ll do it for you.”
Bond took in a deep breath. “Well,” he said, “when you put it that way…”
“You’ll be here,” Mrs. Ó Broin said. “I’ll know if you decide not to show.”
“Taken up my business, now?” Bond teased.
“Never underestimate women, James,” Mrs. Ó Broin said. He could see her shaking that spoon. “I’ll know.”
In his line of work it didn’t mean much, but he would have killed to have seen that meeting.
Chapter 5: On the Care and Maintenance of Quartermasters
Q spent much of the rest of the day in bed. He ate breakfast all right, but come lunch his fever spiked. Mrs. Ó Broin worried, or Q thought she did; it was difficult to hear her over the numbers that screamed at him in his skull. If he closed his eyes, he could see them as they announced themselves, seven nine eighteen one hundred and twenty three zero negative four three thousand two hundred fifty six—all of them multicoloured and flashing back and forth, going past at lightning speed.
Mrs. Ó Broin didn’t leave his side until his fever broke. It took hours—until just after six in the evening, give or take. Q’s throat had gone hoarse from coughing, and his nose and lips chapped fast. He might have been able to eat something and keep it down, but the smells that had enticed him just yesterday now turned his stomach.
To make matters worse, he shivere, and shivered. Mrs. Ó Broin wrapped him in all of the blankets she had, but it wasn’t enough.
Around eight o’clock in the evening, Q received a call.
“Hello?” Q asked, congested and exhausted. His voice cracked. Mrs. Ó Broin had gone home an hour ago. A light flashed through the window, the headlights from a passing car.
“Rimaykullayki,” the man called up. “I’m looking for a friend of James. He told me to say, from 007 Bond Street, yes?”
“Julio?” Q asked. He could hardly get the name out. He looked to the window, but didn’t have the energy to get up just yet.
“Julio, that’s me,” the man said. “Building is locked?”
Q considered MI6 policy, then decided that the rules could stand to be broken once more before the day was up. He gave Julio the combination and waited until he heard the knock on the front door, and only then did he haul himself up.
A man, swarthy and shady, stood before him with a floppy parcel under one arm.
“You’re the one,” Julio said, running a hand through his hair. He made a gesture, and Q welcomed him inside as elegantly as he could given the fact that his lips and nose were chapped to a bright red, his hair was a veritable rat’s nest, and he very much wanted to go lay back down.
“James told me, you have a bad sickness,” Julio said. He had a thick accent, but it was a far cry from the now-familiarity of Mrs. Ó Broin’s thick Irish. Spanish? No, not quite. What had he said over the phone? Q hadn’t understood it.
“Sit,” Julio ordered.
Q obeyed. He didn’t feel so steady on his feet, a feeling which worsened with each passing second. He watched as Julio unwrapped the package he’d brought to reveal…
“Alpaca,” Julio said, smiling with severely yellowed teeth. “From my home.”
“You’re from Peru?” Q asked.
Julio nodded. “I flew,” he said. “James said emergency.” He shrugged. “He likes you, yes?”
Q had no intention of trying to explain the apparent intricacies of an agent-quartermaster relationship to a complete stranger while his voice was shot, so he said, “Yes.”
Julio’s smile widened. “That’s good!” he said. “I told him, he needed someone at home. Me, I could not imagine life without my wife María.” Julio held up the sweater. “Got to make sure it fits.”
Q raised his arms obediently, and Julio slipped the garment over his head. It was very warm—Q could tell from the moment it hit him, even through his pyjamas, that it was the warmest article of clothing he’d ever put on. It was also soft—so soft, Q ran his hands over his covered arms, reveling in the feel of the stitches.
Julio stretched out Q’s arms and had him sit up as straight as he could. He eyed the sweater critically as he smoothed out the wrinkles and checked the lengths of the sleeves.
“Perfect,” Julio said finally. “I was worried. James said he ‘eyeballed’ measurements and I told him, no, never works. Seems to work this time.”
Q sat in silence while what Julio said sunk in. “Did you make this?” he asked, sniffling loudly.
Julio nodded, making a pleased face. “My job,” he said. “Or, half of it.”
“What’s the other half?”
Julio winked. “Not legal at home. Or here, I think.”
Q snorted, then choked. Julio clapped him on the back, as if that would help.
“I’ve heard that a lot today,” Q said.
Julio ran a hand through his hair again—nervous gesture? Q was too tired to read him properly. “Ah,” he said. “Then you will not be surprised at how I met your James.”
“I daresay I wouldn’t.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Julio nodded sagely. “Nearly ended me,” he said, conspiratorially. “Drank all of the good stuff.” Q must have looked confused because Julio said, “Pisco, chicha. Some beer. The rest,” Julio said, then made a sound effect to the effect of boom. “All gone.”
Alcohol. Figures Bond would have run into someone who—illegally, judging by his earlier remarks—made his own liquor. He’d probably blown up the bar—or, whatever Julio kept his wares in—in a firefight.
Julio clapped his hands and stepped away from Q.
“Got to be leaving,” he said. “Flight’s soon.”
“You’re flying back to Peru?” Q asked.
“To my wife,” Julio said. “Can’t be away for long. My dear María, she’s too beautiful!”
Q smiled. “Thank you for this,” he said, gesturing at the sweater.
“Tell James,” Julio said. “Thank you.”
“For what?” Q asked.
Julio smiled again, this time softly as he edged toward the door. “He’ll know,” Julio said.
Then he was gone, leaving Q alone with a fridge full of food, a shelf full of tea, a bag full of pills, and the warmest sweater he’d ever had the fortune of owning.
Q was sick as a dog, but life wasn’t so bad after all.
Bond drove fast.
He always drove fast, to be sure, but this was something else. He knew Julio had already come—Bond had booked his flights for him. Julio was good at many things, but planning that didn’t involve knitting or distilling seemed utterly beyond him much of the time.
Bond shifted gears and headed into London. He figured he had a good hour before Mallory realized he wasn’t checking in, and then another hour before he was found—
His mobile rang. Moneypenny.
Bond debated the merits of answering and not answering for a split second, then decided he could talk his way out of whatever she threw at him.
“Eve,” he said, putting on his most charming tone of voice.
“Twelve hours,” she said.
“I’ve bought you twelve hours. There was a complication with your flight, and you were delayed. You touch down 0700 tomorrow, debrief 0800.”
Bond smiled. “I owe you,” he said.
“You owe me double from where I’m standing,” Moneypenny said. “And you owe your landlady more besides.”
“How do you like Mrs. Ó Broin?” Bond asked.
“Like a house on fire,” Moneypenny said. “I’m heading over for coffee the day after tomorrow at two.”
Bond didn’t know what kind of damage Mrs. Ó Broin could do when armed with Eve Moneypenny, but he was absolutely looking forward to the wreckage.
“I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow.”
“Good night, Mr. Bond. So sorry you’re stuck in Pakistan.”
“Mm, the heat’s something terrible.”
Moneypenny hung up, and Bond revved the engine. What a night to be alive.
Bond came in through the window because of course he did.
Q surprised himself at his lack of surprise. When had he gotten used to this sort of nonsense?
“Hello,” Bond said.
“Hello,” Q said. His voice gave out at the end, and the flat went silent for a long moment until Aubergine—it was always Aubergine, Anna was the silent menace—began meowing from the kitchen.
“Aubergine sings to the food bowl,” Q said when Bond turned at the sound.
“You named your cat Aubergine?” Bond asked.
Q felt himself flush. “None of your business,” he said.
“Who’s this one?” Bond asked as Q’s other cat hopped up on the bed.
“Anna,” Q said, watching as Bond held out a hand. Anna sniffed his fingers, then rubbed her head against his palm.
“You’re a lovely girl,” Bond said.
“I don’t gender my cats, Mr. Bond,” Q said. “Gender is a human construct.”
Bond smiled. “You’re feeling better, I take it,” he said.
Q absently rubbed the arms of his new sweater, reveling in the feel of it under his fingers. “Thanks to you, I suppose. I can’t imagine how I would have managed without Mrs. Ó Broin, at the very least. And, speaking of,” Q said primly—no sense beating around the bush—“she thinks we’re dating.”
“She thinks we ought to be dating,” Bond said, coming to stand at his bedside. He looked down at Q. Bond looked so large, looming above him. Q wondered if he knew there was a little bit of blood spatter on the cuff of his shirtsleeves. He wondered how the job had gone, though it hardly mattered at the moment. “She knows we aren’t and doesn’t approve.”
“Doesn’t approve? Isn’t she Catholic?”
“Very,” Bond said. “She has a complicated relationship with it. She’s decided that she and the Almighty are going to have a long chat about modern society and Catholicism. You should ask her about it sometime, if you find yourself with several days with of downtime.”
Q understood that Bond spoke from experience and laughed at his expense, though it ended in a coughing fit.
“Well, your other female friend thinks we’re together,” Q grumbled, still choking on nothing. The tips of his ears had gone red, he just knew it. “Mme Carpenter.”
“She thinks everyone’s together,” Bond said. “Everyone who doesn’t frequent her shop, anyway.”
Q hesitated, then said, “Micah wanted you to know that he’s clean.”
“You told me.”
“He didn’t look it.”
“He never does,” Bond said, “but I know he is. He’s going to turn out all right. He matched in Oxford’s chemistry department, but he’s going with biology—something with plants. He likes growing things. His advisors adore him.”
“How do you know that?” Q asked. Bond just smiled, and when it became apparent that he wasn’t going to spill, Q said, “Fine, keep your secrets.”
“I’ll let you in on a different one,” Bond said.
“I’m still in Pakistan.”
Bond shifted back. Q read his body language once, then twice. Bond was making an effort to make himself…smaller?
“According to Moneypenny, my plane’s been delayed. I’ll be touching down at 0700, debriefing at 0800.”
“So you’re staying, then?”
“Are you offering?”
Q made a face. “If you get sick, don’t blame me.”
“Is that your only concern?”
Q blinked at Bond. “I’m not tired,” he said instead of answering. “I had a fever most of the day, but I slept. Are you?”
“Very much awake,” Bond said.
“Then,” Q said, patting his bed—which Anna took as invitation before Bond could sit—“do stay.”
Bond’s mobile ping ed as he went to brew Q a fresh cup of tea. He recognized Mme Carpenter’s canisters when he checked the shelf; he despised tea himself, but every time they crossed paths (not as often as she would have liked, Bond suspected) she insisted on having him try a new one. (Perhaps she’d stop if she knew he dumped them as soon as she was out of sight.) ((Perhaps he ought to start funneling them to Q instead of throwing them away.))
All on you, this morning? It was from Moneypenny.
Bond smiled and sent back, I’m making you a lot of money, aren’t I?
Twelves hours wasn’t very long, all told. As Bond returned with the tea, he wondered how he was going to begin.
I’ve had a schoolboy crush on you for the past three years and only now decided to act on it because one of my colleagues decided they also wanted to jump your bones and I couldn’t stand for that could hardly be called a good or healthy start.
You’re adorable and precious and I want to protect you for all of time could have been romantic, but Bond knew when he was being patronizing. Q would go through the roof.
“Bond,” Q said crisply as he came to Q’s bedroom. Both cats—Anna and Aubergine, Bond would have to learn which was which—had snuggled in around his legs and stared at him, unblinking and wary at the unfamiliar face.
“Q,” Bond said, setting the brewing mug of tea down on Q’s dresser beside his mobile.
“We should talk.”
Q watched as Bond’s face shifted. It was subtle, but Q had trained himself to notice all of Bond’s little tells.
“What you’ve done,” Q said, gesturing around his flat, “for me, it’s…” He hesitated, and Bond didn’t interrupt. “I appreciate it.”
“I’m glad,” Bond said, voice carefully neutral, Q guessed.
Q took a deep breath, hoped he wouldn’t choke on air, and said, “I need to know why.”
“Why you’ve done this. This is—normal people don’t do this, Bond.”
“Am I normal now?”
Q glared at Bond as best as he could given the circumstances.
“You’re dodging the question,” Q said. “Why won’t you tell me?”
Bond did something with his mouth—a minute gesture, but one that had Q staring. Bond had always had such a nice mouth.
“I’ll tell you what it looks like to me if you promise not to laugh,” Q said, giving ground. Bond arched an eyebrow. Q hid behind a sip of the tea Bond had brewed—a little too strong, but that was fine. They had time to work it out—
Q banished the thought. He was getting ahead of himself.
“I’m listening,” Bond said.
“I think this is the most unconventional courtship tactic I’ve ever seen,” Q said, blurting the words. “007, are you attempting to woo me?”
“Is it working?”
Possibly not the smoothest comeback he’d ever come up with, Bond admitted that wholeheartedly. He couldn’t cringe too much at himself, though; it elicited a full-body flush in Q that said yes .
“Well,” Q said. “I would— Yes, yes it is.” He bit his lip, his eyes wide. “Damn it, don’t look at me like that.”
“Like what?” Bond asked, a smile creeping onto his face.
“You’ve got those eyes— I’m sick.”
“What about when you’re not sick, then?” Bond asked.
Q swallowed. “Yes, very much yes.”
Four days later
“Q,” Mallory said, standing in the lobby of headquarters. All about, agents not-so-surreptitiously stared. Q had only just arrived, back at work for the first time since Bond had unceremoniously sent him home and upended domestic life as he knew it.
“Sir?” Q asked. The coffee cup in his hands (full of tea, naturally, one of Mme Carpenter’s blends) steamed his glasses as he held it close to take a drink. Under his jacket, the sweater Julio had made him sat by his skin. He’d taken two of the pills Micah had left behind (after Bond checked them over, naturally) for a headache from staring at his laptop too long, and his kitchen at home now held more food than Q thought either he or Bond could eat in a week. Mallory’s disapproving stare wasn’t enough to dull the cheer that came from the lot of those things combined, not by a long shot.
“My office. Now.”
Well. That was rather ominous. Q followed Mallory and hoped this wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be.
Bond really disliked Mallory’s chairs.
“Really not comfortable, are they, sir?” he asked as Mallory switched on the lights. Mallory cursed in an undignified fashion, evidently not expecting Bond to be where he’d situated himself. Bond turned to see both his boss and Q, who was doing his best not to laugh. Bond winked at him, audacious as ever.
“Eve,” Mallory called back over his shoulder in warning, “I thought you told him to leave.”
“I tell him to do lots of things,” Moneypenny called back. “He doesn’t listen.”
“It’s one of my problems,” Bond said, cheeky as anything. “Hello, Q.”
“007,” Q said crisply. His voice had recovered nicely, as had the rest of him. He was in tip-top shape.
Mallory came around to the other side of his desk and sat down.
“First things first, Q, tell me you’re back on your feet,” Mallory said.
“Naturally,” Q said. “I had an excellent caretaker.”
Mallory stared at him for a moment before looking to Bond.
“If you’re curious, I’ve something of a head cold, sir,” Bond said. He failed to look contrite, even as his nose dripped in an undignified manner. Under his breath, he added, “And some rather interesting bruises.”
Mallory didn’t hear, though Q nearly choked on his tea. “Now, Q,” Mallory said, as if he were explaining something to a small child, “007 came to pick up equipment from you while you were sick, and now he is sick. One of my best agents is grounded because you came into work ill.”
“Sorry, sir,” Q said, utterly remorseless. He hid as best as he could behind his tea. “It won’t happen again.”
Mallory looked between the two of them. “See that it doesn’t. 007, out. Q, get to work.”
Both men rose and left the office. Q shut the door behind them. At her desk, Moneypenny stifled a laugh with one hand.
“I don’t suppose we should have told him when I got sick,” Bond said.
“No, I don’t think so,” Q said. “Though that was really rather admirable of you given that I looked like absolute shite.”
“Couldn’t wait. Told you.”
A giggle escaped Moneypenny’s lips.
“Good morning, Eve,” Bond said. “I’ll have to take a rain check on dinner. I’m a little sick. Can’t imagine where I picked it up.”
“No,” Moneypenny said, staring at the line of hickeys that covered most of Bond’s throat, “I can’t imagine, either.” (Q’s were rather expertly hidden by his sweater and scarf.)
“It’s a good thing,” Q said, positively straight-faced, “that he has someone to take care of him, isn’t it?”
It took all of Moneypenny’s not-inconsiderable self-restraint not to throw her stapler at Bond, who had the audacity to wrap his arms around Q’s waist and smirk.
“We’d best be off,” Q said. “Places to be, things to do.”
They’d already begun to move down the hall toward the lift, but Moneypenny could have sworn she heard Bond ask quietly, “Am I ‘things’, then?”
“Naturally,” Q said. “You’re lucky you’re cute, you know, even when your nose drips.”
“I thought that was my line.”
Moneypenny resolved to get a drink as soon as possible, rules be damned.