Such an ugly word , Bond thought breathlessly as he fell to his knees on the cold, damp London street. Rainwater just shy of freezing cold soaked through his perfectly tailored suit trouser knees but the shock of sensation did nothing to help derail Bond’s attack. His heart continued to attempt escape, to beat its way free of his ribs, fluttering with a panic that cried escape escape escape .
Trigger, from the Dutch trekken — to pull or draw.
Bond didn’t know the woman who screamed. He could care less about the idiot of a cabbie who’d nearly clipped her. The scattering of brightly-coloured store packages from the woman’s arms would perhaps have been entertaining, if he was in place to to be entertained. In fact, if Bond hadn’t been locked in paralysing, consuming fear, he probably would have been deeply amused at the woman kicking the cab’s bumper in retaliation for scaring her so thoroughly.
Fucking trigger . Fucking pull , sapping him of his rationality, his strength, his resilience, his sharp observation. There was nothing but the echoes of the scream, flashes of other women, other moments, other cries. Bond’s skin prickled with tropical winds and phantom fires long since gone out, and he slapped his hands into the puddle he’d fallen in to try and make himself present in the moment. Dark, cold, damp London. Nowhere else.
“Are you alright?” a voice asked from behind Bond. It took every ounce of frayed self-control for Bond to not pull his gun on the owner of the unwelcome voice, and his hands shook with the effort of it.
“I’m fine,” he muttered, closing his eyes and drawing a deep breath. He pushed himself up off the alley’s dirty ground and turned to face the good samaritan; even in London, Bond refused to have his back turned on someone he didn’t know when he was even remotely vulnerable.
“Do you have someone you can call?”
Bond peered at the man, assessing. His worried citizen was an older man in his late fifties, with chocolate-coloured skin and worried brown eyes, physique giving him away as an office worker and someone Bond could easily take down. The man wore an unremarkable, dark-coloured, off-the-rack suit and a fedora, and even in the evening darkness Bond noted a complete lack of the telltale bulge of any weapons. The man held himself not as someone ready to fight or run, should the occasion call for it, but with a concerned world-weariness that somehow made it easy for Bond to relax enough to pull out his phone.
Once the mobile was out of his pocket, however, he stared down at it, frozen with uncharacteristic uncertainty. Did he actually want to call someone? Who would he call if he could? Alec was out on mission. Danielle wouldn’t turn him down, but what could she do other than order him to medical for drugs or, worse, invite him over to dinner with her grandchildren? Mallory would refuse to give him anything more to do than paperwork once he saw Bond’s haggard face and knotted muscles.
“If I were a god and not just a man,” the stranger said quietly, breaking Bond’s thoughts, “I would make it so that every soldier had somewhere to go, and someone to love him, when he came home.” He shook his head sadly, and Bond stared, wrecked enough to not bother hiding his shock. “I’m sorry, son.”
Bond wasn’t entirely certain how he ended up on Q’s front step; there hadn’t been any conscious decision, no recognizable moment of intent. Bond only knew where Q lived because he was a nosy bastard and of the mind that knowledge is always power. An address in a database was more than enough for his feet to travel a path his mind hadn’t quite visualised.
Q lived less than a half a kilometer’s walk from Haggerston Station in De Beauvoir Town. The house was gorgeous: white and three stories high, with black scrollwork fencing and window treatments. It was attached on either side to other houses, which surprised Bond; he assumed Q would be the type to want absolute privacy.
Bond himself felt out of place. Most days he did an excellent job of adapting his external camouflage — his clothes, his attitude, his body language — to fit whatever environment he was in. Here, in this quaint northeastern London borough, he should have been walking tall and proud, sarcastic smirk firmly in place to better blend in with the well-off young professionals that dominated this district. But he just… couldn’t. He moved quickly and defensively, eyes sharply aware of his surroundings. The faintest edges of his earlier panic attack still cut at his insides like broken glass, and his hypervigilance would not allow Bond to appear as anything less than what he was: a wounded predator seeking shelter and solace.
When a few rings of the doorbell failed to summon Q, Bond didn’t hesitate to break in from the back entrance. The security system was actually quite underwhelming — at least, the one Bond found and disabled was — and he was in the house with the door shut behind him before anyone could get suspicious. He made his way through the empty garage, shoes clacking lightly on the cement floor, and picked his way through the second lock.
After getting in, Bond just stood for a moment, taking it in. The house didn’t have any kind of foyer and he found himself in a small but cozy sitting room. There was fireplace along the back wall surrounded by built-in bookcases. They were filled with books that were too oversized to be anything but technical manuals, with one exception — one of the shelves was overflowing with all of the Oz books. Early printings, it looked like. A large screen filled the wall to the left, and low table under it held a variety of remotes, various tablet computers, and the obvious signs of occupation: a half-full water glass, a stack of mail, a sketchbook, and a handful pencils. The room held only one chair, a large, over-stuffed maroon leather monstrosity, and Bond wondered of Q ever had company. A set of stairs to the right led up to ground level, and Bond went up them slowly, wary for any sign of further security measures.
The second floor was much larger, and much brighter. This floor held the kitchen and dining room, cupboards and shelves painted white, filled with white appliances. The kitchen filled most of the space, with a small rectangular glass table in the back book-ened by soft, white, luxuriously-upholstered chairs. It was perfectly clean, but the air smelled like coffee and oatmeal and honey. Street lights flooded through not only the massive windows in the front, but through the floor-to-ceiling windows and double french doors in the back. Bond walked through the unfamiliar space without bumping into anything, pulled in by the sight of an obviously well-tended garden.
The garden was surprisingly whimsical and full of healthy-looking bushes and plants. Fist-sized decorative bulbs hung from strings that lined the wooden garden walls, hung delicately from trees, and draped over the rose-laden pergola. There wasn’t any actual grass anywhere, but a paver-stone patio lined with a low, bricked wall. The colorful and varied pots, full of not just flowers but also tomatoes and cucumbers and other vegetables, crowded the wall, broken by the occasional terrace. The centre of the garden held a wrought iron outdoor table and a set of chairs that matched the iron filigree on the outside of the house. There wasn’t enough light to look for the wear of scraping patterns on the patio, but the area felt very personalised, in a way that couldn’t be achieved by letting a hired gardener do all the work. Bond would bet that Q spent a lot of time out there.
The next, and final, floor was the real living space. Q had obviously invested a lot of money in redesigning the Victorian home, opening the entire top floor to be one massive bedroom with a luxurious bath area sectioned off by a wooden and scrollwork divider. The bed was surprisingly small — queen-sized and covered with a black quit — but Bond suspected it was to make room for the workspace. A waist-height desk edged the entire room, the surface alternately bare, covered with papers, and covered with tiny metal parts Bond couldn’t identify in the low light. Shelves were built above the bed, all the way to the ceiling, and were stuffed full of clear plastic cases the size of shoeboxes, books, papers, knick-knacks, and photo frames. Tools were left out in various places along the desk surface, and the room smelled oddly of molten metal, paint, lavender, and more that Bond couldn’t immediately identify. There was an office chair on wheels in front of an area of the desk the held a small tower of mugs, a kettle, and what looked suspiciously like a biscuit jar painted over with flowers.
“Sorry it’s a mess,” someone said quietly from behind him, and Bond was turned, gun cocked and aimed between Q’s eyes, before he had time to consciously think about it. Q seemed completely unruffled by the threat, however; he leaned against the doorjamb and looked at Bond lazily. “I wasn’t expecting company.”
Bond’s hand trembled a bit as he lowered the gun. He wanted to curse Q for being stupid enough to sneak up on a double-oh like that, but the words didn’t come. Under normal circumstances, Bond wouldn’t have been caught off guard. Under normal circumstances, his control would have been intact enough to not have him worried that he might completely unintentionally pull the trigger.
But if these were normal circumstances, Bond wouldn’t be here.
“I activated an alarm,” Bond guessed as he holstered his Walther.
Q nodded. “Fortunately, I saw it was you over the cam before MI6 sent anyone out. There have been enough incidents with Brrr that they give me a few minutes to call them off before charging in.”
“Brrr?” Bond asked, letting the familiar cadence and rhythm of Q’s voice settle him.
“You named your cat Brrr?”
“To be honest, Prrr was my first choice, but he shivers more than he purrs,” Q said, than snickered at himself.
A laugh was startled out of Bond and something inside him unfurled, making it just a little bit easier to breathe.
“Come on,” Q said, turning away as he pulled off his scarf. “I’m making dinner. Nothing fancy, I’m afraid. Cheese on toast and tomato soup.”
Bond followed him down the stairs, relief flooding through his system like oxygen after being underwater for too long. As much as he’d chafed against M, as much as he’d baited her, he needed her. More than just ordering him around and refusing to take his shit, she was his guiding hand. She was the force to his action, the primer to his hammer, the line of gasoline that Bond followed to start the fire — perfect in terrible, destructive exactitude.
Mallory couldn’t hold a candle to the former M, all soft edges and pacifying smiles. He had mettle, which he’d proved more than once, but Bond knew that if he pushed hard enough and in the right ways, Mallory would break.
Q, however, was much more like M than anyone currently gracing the halls of MI6. He wielded Bond like a precision weapon, demanded nothing but excellence and obedience, and held Bond accountable for his errors and carelessness. But he also didn’t question Bond’s judgement or methods, content to let him achieve the means to Q’s ends however Bond saw fit.
This knowledge, this need , was what had Bond following Q back down a level to the kitchen. Q made a signal with his hand that Bond didn’t quite catch, and soft light flooded the room.
Q motioned to the glass table and went about turning on the lights and preparing the meal.
Silence filled the kitchen as Q worked, but Bond didn’t feel uncomfortable. He sat at the table so that he had a good look at both Q and the garden, and watched. Most of the time, when Bond was in someone else's presence, he had a task or goal. Get information. Seduce the girl. Find out what task he needed to carry out next. Silence was very rarely an option, and here in this moment, he let it wash over him like a rare wine to be savoured.
Q seemed to sense this and, unlike so many others driven by the nervous whispers of their own insecurities, he didn’t try to break the silence for the sake of noise. He moved confidently through the kitchen, pulling out tinned soup, bread, and cheese, and went about the business of making dinner quietly and efficiently. Bond let the simple sounds of activity beat a calming drumbeat in his mind, and against all his baser instincts, he closed his eyes. He couldn’t relax , exactly — his shoulders were still knots of tension, his spine stiff with the need to be vigilant and ready — but he still felt better.
“It’s not quite the fare you’re used to,” Q said minutes later, sliding a mug full of tomato soup and a plate of melted cheese over thick bread across the table. “And I’m afraid you’ll have to deal with paper serviettes, but I’m not in the habit of generating extra washing if I can avoid it.”
Bond opened his eyes and looked down, lips twitching at the blue pinstripe patterns on the napkins. “It’s fine,” he said, pulling the mug and plate close. “I appreciate it.”
It would have been a perfect opening for Q to ask what Bond was doing here, to make a biting joke about Bond not having been invited and therefore had no right to expect more, but Q didn’t. He merely turned to the kettle, rinsed, and refilled it.
“Excuse me, Q,” a soft, feminine voice queried, startling Bond enough that he dropped his spoon just as he was reaching towards the soup. His hand immediately went to his gun, but Q’s utter calm, his disinterested blink at Bond’s behaviour, stayed Bond’s hand.
“You have a new priority two message in your secure inbox.”
“Thank you,” Q replied, scooping tea into an infuser.
“Ozma?” Bond asked, trying to remember why that sounded familiar.
“O.Z.M.A.” Q spelled out. “Outer Zone Multifunction AI.”
“You have an artificial intelligence system that runs your home?” Bond asked, not sure why he was surprised. “And you call your home the ‘Outer Zone’?”
“Of course,” Q said, turning back to the kettle as it clicked off. “Believe it or not, MI6 doesn’t want me working on experimental artificial intelligence in the R&D labs at the office. I have to go to a special lab at Baskerville for that.”
“Oh, I believe it,” Bond said, taking a deep, appreciative inhale as the scent of Q’s tea filled the kitchen.. The smell of cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cloves, cocoa, and other spices wafted through the small space, and Bond watched with interest as Q brought the pot to the table. Apparently Q prefered something sweeter than Earl Grey for his evenings. “The man who made that policy, your predecessor, was not only a great fan of the Phillip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov, but he was also a loyal devourer of 1980s American science fiction.”
“And the fact that his early prototype caused the biggest denial and deception failure of British Intelligence in second half of the twentieth century had nothing to do with it, I suppose?” Q retorted. He set a pair of mugs, a carton of milk, and a jar of honey on the table, and turned away again.
Bond watched Q’s familiar movements, struck by how the change of location did nothing to alter the Quartermaster’s regular circuit of a room. He suddenly wondered if he had it all wrong about the chair in the entry room; perhaps it wasn’t for Q at all. Did Q abhor sitting in his own home as much as he did at work?
“Frankly, I prefer improving my AI skills here at home. I can tinker and fumble and be as whimsical as I like without fear of doing anything significant enough to cause problems with our mutual employer,” Q said, leaning a hip against the counter.
“And the priority two e-mail?” Bond asked.
Q’s nose wrinkling in amusement. “Personal e-mail and personal prioritization order. I actually prefer to leave work at the office so that I can indulge in my hobbies without the burden of being constantly on alert for situations that might potentially need my intervention.”
“Hobbies like Ozma?” Bond asked, thinking of the bare first and second floors of the house, and the mess of electronics and kitsch that filled the third.
“More than you know,” Q agreed.
With a shrug, Bond turned to his meal, enjoying the delicious simplicity of it in comfortable silence. After a several long minutes, Q set about preparing the tea, not bothering to ask Bond how he took it. He mixed generous amounts of honey and milk in both mugs. When Bond was finished with his soup and toast, more than a little curious about Q’s apparent lack of appetite despite his earlier declaration, Q took the dishes away, washed them quickly, then turned back to lift the mugs.
“Come on, agent,” he said, gesturing towards the stairs. “I’ve a problem I’ve been working on for months. Perhaps you can help.”
“Perhaps,” Bond offered cautiously. He wasn’t a technical genius like Q, but he was certainly more intelligent and savvy than he wanted people to give him credit for. He wondered if Q was aware of that fact; after all, Bond had invested a fair amount of time and effort in keeping it hidden. He had absolutely no interest in allowing administration any excuse to put him behind a desk, and flaunting his technical ability (beyond the occasional, necessary hacking of high-level MI6 personnel laptops and security systems) could certainly capture the wrong sort of attention. He preferred to be thought of, by the administration at least, as merely a clever assassin.
“I’m working on a couch. A special kind. A gump, actually.”
“What is a gump?”
Q spared him a quick backward glance, then shrugged. “Perhaps I’ll show you, but not just yet. I need to solve a little bit of a coding problem, first.”
“How can I help?”
Q led him into his bedroom/workshop. He set the mugs on the bedside table, and pulled down the duvet and topsheet. “Take off your shirt.”
Bond didn’t even think before doing as Q asked. He shrugged off his shirt and jacket, letting them pile in a heap on the floor. There was something about being taken care of, being safe, being directed by someone he knew, implicitly, that he could trust. It was easy relief, and he stood in unselfconscious half-nudity, at ease and ready.
“Leave your trousers and shoes, but if you could put your gun in the drawer,” Q said, waving a hand a the bedside table as he turned to his shelves, “then you can lie down. Face first.”
“This is helping?” Bond asked. He was grateful to be allowed his shoes more than his trouser — the need to run still sang under his skin — but was equally grateful to be told he could put away his gun.
The mattress was soft and the sheets cool. Bond sank onto them, feeling his heart slow as he folded his arms under his head, closed his eyes, and waited.
“Sometimes it helps to change up the way I see words. Typing is like a first draft. Sometimes I move on to writing in shaving cream, or on the window,” Q said as he rattled around. “Marker on skin works well, too.”
Bond’s mind… went elsewhere. The last piece of uncertainty and tension unfurled in him and that was it. He didn’t need to talk, or think, for this. He didn’t need to react. He just needed to be , to exist as a different canvas for Q’s thoughts.
“I’m going to work for awhile. You just keep still, except for when you need some tea. Or water. There are water bottle in the cupboard under the shelf.”
Bond didn’t respond. He didn’t need to. And when Q settled on the bed next to him, between the window and Bond’s body, facing the door, Bond felt himself let go. He sank into the feel of wet marker drawing in tight, complicated patterns on his shoulders, and didn’t think about a damn thing.
The morning light was a subdued butter yellow through Q’s somewhat sheer curtains when Bond blinked to consciousness. Q was tangled around him, his chest pressed to Bond’s back. He remembered cuddling with him after he’d finally solved his problem, hours after they’d begin, and falling asleep to Q’s murmured plans for his gump, whatever the hell that was.
“How are you feeling?”
Bond felt… fine. Better than fine. Settled and centered in a way he hadn’t been since M’s death.
“Good,” he said simply.
“Breakfast?” Q asked, rolling flat on his back. Bond felt a momentary jolt of unbearable loss, but Q’s hand settled on his side and tugged him flat as well.
“No, thank you,” Bond said, staring up at the ceiling. He felt like he should be processing, but he couldn’t do it here, still under Q’s hand, in his bed, with his marks still on Bond’s back. There was no panic, no apology on his lips, just a sense of gratitude.
“You did great, thank you,” Q said. His hand didn’t move, and it was soothing — the lack of suggestiveness or expectation. “I couldn’t have solved my coding problem without you.”
“Listen,” Q said, voice serious, and Bond turned his head to look at him for the first time since he’d fallen into bed last night. “This important. But if this helped — and I think it did — you need to do it more. If not with me, than with someone.
“It sounds ridiculous, I know. But what we do… It takes a toll. There is a profound exhaustion of the spirit that can’t be overcome by simple rest. Or a massage. Or the foods we love. Or the fabric that makes our skin hum.
“It’s an unfair dichotomy. We are the good guys who must act as if we aren’t. The cause can only get you so far when the action, up close and personal, is the same.”
“What does this have to do with solving a coding problem? With me?” Bond asked when Q stopped talking. He knew he sounded obstinate, but it really was a request for an answer for his own peace of mind.
“For me, combating that exhaustion of the spirit takes an absolutely harmless, selfish project. Something ridiculous and useless. Something to fascinate and compel me, with absolutely no consequence whatsoever. Nothing to feel guilty about. Pure indulgence in the context of my favourite escapism.”
“The Wizard of Oz,” Bond realized now that his brain was back online. “The couch.”
“Childish, I know. But I killed sixteen people yesterday, James. Terrorists, but still a vile act even if done to prevent worse. If I can’t live in the beautiful middle ground, the balance of good and evil, then I might as well take my guilt-free indulgences as extremely as I take my job.”
That… actually made sense. And it felt fucking good to hear. Bond, on some level, needed to hear it.
When Bond could finally bring himself to rise from the comfort of warm cotton, smooth skin, and a soothing heartbeat, to his surprise there was no sense of discomfort or regret.
Bond turned his head to look back at Q’s still-sleeping form, an easy smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He had no idea how Q had managed it — how Q had brought him down from the edge with nothing but firm hands, mathematical theory, a palette of watercolor markers, and a nonsensical words about AI and elk heads — but he wasn’t going to dwell on it. That would bring him right back to where he started, and Bond had no interest in undoing Q’s hard work.
The snap and tug of timeworn bones and muscles for once didn’t bring Bond back down to his nightmare’s precipice as he stood and stretched, leaving the watercolour-stained sheets behind to greet the morning.
“Thank you,” he said, gathering his shirt from the floor. He pulled it on and spared a glance for Q’s chaotic hair, his sleepy smile, his relaxed stretch over comfortable sheets. His chest was smeared with a wash of color, and Bond was torn with wanting. Wanting to reach out, touch, prolong the peace he’d found despite not looking for, but also wanting to preserve the last twelve hours without regret.
“Any time,” Q said, and there it was. An out, and an invitation. Bond didn’t have to struggle with decision. He didn’t have to prolong leaving, because he could come back.
He turned to leave, then, with a quirked smile, turned back to pick up one more thing from the bedside table.
He’d almost forgotten his gun.