It starts in a briefing, of all places. M has actually wandered down from his office and joined him with Tanner and Q in the small conference room beside Medical, where Bond is getting a new tracking chip inserted just under the skin inside his navel. He smiles widely at the nurse who’s just dabbed a small dot of antiseptic cream over the tiny cut, and she blushes and fumbles the wrappings of a flesh colored bandage. He looks over to his right as he’s doing up his buttons and catches Q’s eyes behind his black-framed glasses. Bond can never figure out if they’re a retro knock-off or if Q actually found frames from the 60s somewhere and inserted his own lenses into them, probably with an astonishing array of secret technical functions. Right now the eyes behind the polycarbonate are amused, and as Bond watches, one eyebrow and one side of his mouth turn up like perfectly measured counterweights of each other.
Tanner drops a file on the table between them. “Bond, we need you to take out this target as quietly as possible. The region is extremely delicate right now and we need this to look like it’s at least possible he died from something accidental. Q, what’ve you got?”
Q fans the papers out in front of him, studying some photos and a physical profile of the man they need to assassinate. Bond watches his teeth, white and straight-edged, bite his lip in thought.
Q decides on something injectable. The target is diabetic, so Bond will switch his blood sugar meter with an exact replica laced with something in the needle that will stop his heart in ninety seconds and look like an insulin-related stroke. It’s brilliant, and it’s elegant, but for some reason Bond finds himself more riveted by the sight of the dark red indents in the plush of Q’s bottom lip. The slight bruise of his mouth and those spit-sharp teeth.
He returns his weapon unscathed, mostly because he never had to unsheathe it, which is a rare mission indeed. It was actually a little boring, even with the tense bit of breaking into the man’s bedroom while he was having a bath. Even when he tipped the maid over a bar in the guy’s pool house and made the clean glasses stacked to the side shiver and shake. He feels a vague sort of itch in his fingers that the scotch isn’t numbing. Usually, he would find some trouble to get into.
But Bond feels old now, in a way he never has before. It’s not just the ache in his knees and the injuries that heal slower and unevenly, but an accumulation of bone-deep weariness piled on top of it. His body is loosening its grip on the hot summer and slouching into the dying autumn, while his mind seems to be going the other way; it won’t loosen its hold on any of it, every miss, every bomb he doesn’t get to in time, every splash of collateral damage. It’s heaviness, and a sense of something running out of him, downstream.
And then there’s Q, limned in the unnatural glow of his wall to wall screens like a new breed of electronic angel, fresh-faced in his old-man cardigan and eternally mussed-up hair, and as much as Bond knows himself to have been a one-man brigade of lethal destruction, he has watched Q tap one long-boned finger against a computer key and erase an entire arms plant from the map. Q had told him once, the first time they’d met, that he needed Bond because sometimes a trigger needed to be pulled, but lately Bond has been thinking that maybe he isn’t so much pulling the trigger as he is the trigger. His traitorous mind that won’t delete flips through his missions like a gruesome scrapbook and he hears click, click, click, and if Q is an angel he is the same sort of ambiguous, Old Testament-terrible angel that Bond has been: dark and stingy with mercy.
Q watches from above while Bond fell a long time ago, and from the back of the room he watches Q sip his earl grey and send some code that locks a man in a warehouse that is losing to flames, his hand ghosting along the keyboard with a click. It wasn’t a nice man by any stretch of the definition, but then Bond isn’t a nice man himself, and he supposes that maybe Q isn’t, either. Nice is for people without nations on their watch, anyway.Click.
One evening Bond picks the lock on Q’s flat and lets himself in. It’s quiet, only a faint hum of monitors and the trembling, extended sigh from a window fan cutting the silence.
“You’re somewhat like a stray cat, Bond,” comes a voice from the next room, and Bond steps out of the entry and sees Q sitting in a puddle of light from a drafting lamp, knees drawn up to his chest where he’s sitting on a sofa, reading a book.
“Refusal to die, turns up randomly in the middle of the night hungry.”
“You knew it was me?”
Q gestures to the bank of computers lining a low table against the far wall. “Did you really think I’d only have a standard deadbolt and lock on my flat? I am the quartermaster.”
“What are you reading?” he asks, and heads for the small kitchenette in the corner of the open living space.
“Wendell Berry,” says Q, and puts the book down on the cushion beside him.
“I pegged you for the e-reader type, if you ever peeled your eyes away from computer coding.”
“It’s dangerous to assume, Bond. Besides, the old ways have their charm, sometimes.”
Bond has located Q’s glass cabinet and found a bottle of whiskey on top of his refrigerator. He pours two glasses. “Q, if I didn’t know better I’d say you were flirting with me.” When he turns around Q is a few feet away from him. He hands him one of the glasses.
“I’m fairly sure anything that’s breathing is flirting with you.” Q takes a drink. “And if not, you’re flirting with them.”
Bond raises an eyebrow and smirks. “I’ll not argue with a man in his own home.”
When Q has finished his whiskey, he sets his glass down on the counter and looks at Bond. “And what did you come for tonight?”
“Well.” Bond closes the gap between them. He can feel Q’s breath warming the space between their faces. “I seem to have an overwhelming desire to make a mess of you, and it won’t quite go away.”
“Oh,” says Q, somewhere between a question and an affirmation. Bond reaches over and gently untangles the tie Q obviously loosened when he came home but didn’t bother removing. He drops it beside the somewhat lighter bottle of whiskey.
“Say yes to me, Q.”
Q’s lips curve into that smallest of smiles, that snide little smirk that makes Bond want to punch and lick him at the same time.
“Alright,” he says, and a hard exhale escapes Bond. “Contrary little shit,” he bites out, and crowds Q back into the living room with his body, finding his lips as they move unsteadily backwards. When they hit something solid, Bond pushes into his mouth and runs his tongue over Q’s teeth, settling his finger against the pulse tapping out its Morse code from his neck. Q’s breath hitches underneath his lips. He tastes like something green, something shot through with pepper and sunlight.
His chest presses against Q’s, pinning him to the wall. One of Bond’s hands tangles itself in that ridiculous hair and pulls backwards so he can get at the expanse of throat with his mouth. The other curves around a bony hip, pulling everything hard about each of them together to a particularly explosive point of impact. Q is panting against his forehead.
“Christ, do you ever eat?” he asks him as his hand trails up over the bumps of Q’s ribs moving up and down rapidly.
“Was there something you wanted to put in my mouth, 007?” Q asks, calmly as ever even though his face is flushed and his glasses are skewed wildly across his face. Bond huffs out a laugh. He doesn’t know anyone else who could sound almost prim while delivering a filthy suggestion and shoving their hand down the back of his pants.
“More than one something, in fact. Let’s start with my cock and if you’re good maybe I’ll buy you a Happy Meal after.”
Q responds by ripping the buttons on his shirt and Bond doesn’t feel like exchanging banter for quite some time after that.
Bond has been with men before, of course. Sex is something he’s always done with an easy enthusiasm for a broad sampling. He just hadn’t done it in awhile. When he went to bed with women, Bond went as a man losing his sharp edges into an opposing but complementary softness. There is nothing soft left in Bond. His body is a spear to be thrown, and even if it’s an old spear, it’s never going to turn into anything else. For a long time now, his frequent but brief press into curves across a mattress has been the only time he’s felt like he was touching a world and a ghost of a life he has left firmly behind.
Q is nothing but lines and corners, and skimming rough hands over his body feels like a calculation of the various degrees of a hundred angles. Bond thinks that streams of numbers would probably flow out underneath his fingertips if he cut through that pale skin. It’s different; beyond the giving and receiving of an orgasm, it shouldn’t work, and yet he finds himself coming back again and again, folding himself into the impossibility of Q’s limbs and breathing in the ever present scent of bergamot and ozone that clings to the surprising warmth of Q’s body. It isn’t the same, but it suits him, and he craves it, this more precise geometry.
“I like you down here,” Bond says one afternoon when he meets Q in the armory to receive his mission equipment.
“You mean surrounded by guns and exploding things?” Q asks with a quirk of his lips.
“I mean down here with the guns and the exploding things —where’s my exploding pen, by the way?— surrounded by thick walls and the hulking mass of MI6 above you.” He runs a hand over the Walther in its padded case.
“I remain unconvinced of the wisdom in giving you a bomb you’re likely to shove into your trouser pockets. And I’m not sure if I’m charmed or offended by the rest.”
Bond looks up at him. “Settle on charmed, definitely. There’s nothing wrong with being safe.”
“Safe is an illusion,” Q says, eyebrows wrinkled as he watches Bond close up the gun case and slip the new radio and earpiece into his jacket.
“Q, do you really think what I do leaves me any illusions about safety?”
“Yes, actually.” Q taps the lid with his index finger. “I think it makes them worse.” He looks up. “I’ll be on the other end of the line, 007. Good luck.”
He’s lying across Q’s striped flannel sheets, hand on his chest and looking at the shadows on the ceiling. He strains to hear Q’s breath leaving his body and being drawn back in, but he can’t make it out.
“I’m just the bloody big ship,” he says quietly to Q’s naked back. “Someday soon there will be nothing but scrap.”
He’d thought Q was asleep, but he rolls over now and presses close against Bond’s side. A palm rests gently on top of the hand at his chest, and Q’s fingers curl in between his own. He can feel the breath he’d been listening for humid against his shoulder now, and then the slick press of Q’s tongue as he kisses across to the valley running under their joined hands, right up the middle of him, with a heart buried somewhere deep below.
“My retirement package is fairly extensive,” Q says, and straddles Bond. The fingers of his free hand work their way down and under his pyjama pants. “I can’t imagine yours is anything to sneeze at.”
Bond lets out a snort that slides into a heavy ah of breath as Q’s fingers wrap around him and begin to stroke. “I can’t even remember going over it,” he tells him. “It was never really important.”
Q hums, bending down again to lick the sharp line of Bond’s hip bone. “It’s that kind of disregard for detail that blows a mission, 007.”
“I don’t know…” Q’s clever tongue swirls around in his navel. “… what it is you… imagine… there is left for a double-O when… he’s not fit for the field.”
Q’s tongue stops its gentle assaults and he sits up, looking down into Bond’s face. “I imagine there’s whatever you want to have.”
Bond finds he has nothing to say to that, and maybe that’s the problem. The seconds drip by slowly, like water from a leaky tap. “Well,” he finally says, and pushes his hips up against Q’s body. “I can think of more pressing matters right now.”
Q meets his eyes again, searching like he sometimes does through the tangles of code on his computer, and then blinks and gives Bond one of those smirk-smiles. Like it’s a gift, and maybe it is. His hand returns to Bond’s cock and he slides his palm up and rubs a thumb over the head. “Not bad for such a relic,” he says, and they fall into the business of fitting themselves together in something like relief.
The green circle that is 003 moves jerkily across the main screen of Q Branch’s control room. The sound of gunfire sprinkles its way across the comm line, quieter than the harsh breathing of the agent wearing the radio.
“003,” says Q from his seat in the middle of the room, “The target exit is currently blocked, shelter in place for a moment while I find an alternate.”
“Yeah,” says 003. “I can hear the fuckers shooting at me, thanks.”
Windows are moving in quick flicks on the screen to Q’s right, pulled up and sent away again with the quick tap of his fingertips as he finds what he’s looking for. Long paragraphs of numbers flip by, and satellite imagines overlaid with grids, and blueprints. Moneypenny comes up beside Bond and they stand together in the corner as Q’s team works on their various screens and tablets and move in quick bursts around the room, Q the still center of the hurricane.
“There’s a supply closet 15 feet back down the hallway and on your left, 003,” he says after a minute. “Inside you should be able to remove a panel in the ceiling directly above the fuse box. It opens to an air duct. If you proceed along the duct until you come to a brick wall you’ll find yourself directly above the entrance to the west stairwell. I’m sending in an extraction team. Stay in place and wait for them when you reach the wall. I’ve lost visual on that side of the building and can’t give you an all-clear.”
There’s a sound of scraping metal and then 003 says, “Shit. I broke the mechanism getting in here, so I can’t lock the door behind me.” They listen as the agent moves something in the closet, then there’s a soft sound and a grunt. “Proceeding through the duct, Q.”
“I’m here, 003,” replies Q. “Tell me when you reach the outer wall.”
A few minutes later there’s a crash and a shout in the distance. “I’m at the wall, Q, but they must have followed me through the supply closet. I need to get out of this duct.”
“I can’t clear you, 003,” says Q, standing up. “Wait for visuals.”
“I’m going down through the ceiling.”
“The extraction team is almost there, 003. Stay in place, I have no eyes on the stairwell until they arrive.”
“I’d rather be shooting in the open than crouched in a three foot wide metal tube, Q. I’m going down.”
Q looks away from 003’s dot on the big screen toward the grey fuzz where the satellite feed had stopped streaming from the buildings indoor cameras. On a screen below it, one of MI6’s special ops teams moves into view along the outer perimeter.
“The team has reached the fence. Two minutes or less.”
Sound explodes through the line. “Fuck!”
“003.” Q puts his hands on the table and leans over them slightly.
“Guns on the landing!” shouts the agent. “Tell the team to-“
There’s a single, loud crack and then the line crackles. “003.” Nothing. “Walters.”
Everyone in the control room stops, the only movement coming from the screen tracking the extraction team.
“Agent down,” says Q quietly.
“Pulling in Medical,” says someone, and the room bursts into action again. Moneypenny touches Bond’s arm and then pushes through the door, headed to alert M. On screen, the agents swarm through the door and people move in and out of the control room, but Bond watches Q, silent and still, watching his screens. His throat works in a hard swallow Bond watches all the way down.
Q shows up at his suite two nights later. When Bond shuts the door after him, Q kisses him, tongue running around the perimeter of his mouth in a long, wet gasp, and his hands fold themselves behind his ears and into the short bristles of his hair. He steps back after a few minutes and walks toward the bed, taking off his own clothes as he goes. Bond follows, and watches silently as Q lays down across the mattress on his stomach. He looks back over his shoulder, and Bond runs his hand down the thin, pale thigh bathed in the lamplight from the nightstand. When he lowers himself over him and presses down, chest to back, Q lets out a long exhale and turns his face into the blanket.
Traffic has snarled in an ugly knot and Bond loses sight of his target in the crowded intersection. “Sod India and it’s sodding, bleeding cows,” he growls when he sees the bottleneck surrounding one placid heifer standing in the middle of the street, ignoring the gentle pleading of several people trying to move it into the grass beyond. He weaves through honking cars and bicycles easing their way through the congestion and when he gets to the other side he says, “Q, you with me?”
“I’m here, 007.”
Bond stops for a moment, breath trapped somewhere deep in his throat and his pulse pounding too loud in his head. He puts his hands on his knees and stares at the ground. His entire body hurts. He can’t remember a time when there was no pain lurking somewhere, like static on a radio.
“Which way, Q?”
“200 meters, then turn right into the next street,” comes the smooth voice from his earpiece.
They don’t retire old horses like me, he thinks, straightening up and breaking into a run again. We just die in our harnesses.
It happens on a dark street as they’re walking back to Q’s flat after a dinner out. A man in a red sweatshirt steps from the mouth of an alley and drags Q back into the shadows. Bond draws his gun and follows, moving easily along the bricks of the building and observing his sight lines. The man has Q in front of him, facing Bond, and immobilized by an arm across his chest and a glint of metal against his throat. Q is still and has his face turned slightly to the side. Bond can’t make out his eyes behind the slight glare of a light from the next street over across the lenses of his glasses.
“This is a very bad idea on your part,” Bond says, and the man pulls Q’s body a little tighter against his own. He could be someone after MI6’s electronics genius, or someone after Bond himself, or he could just be a mugger, randomly pulling a posh-looking kid off the nighttime street and hoping for a decent score.
“Oh yeah?” the guy demands, pressing the knife just above the notch of Q’s collarbone. “What’s he worth, then? Who is he to you?”
A line of code from across an ocean, a door opening ahead of him in a long hallway. The quiet voice in his ear and a taste on his tongue that lingers.
“My quartermaster,” Bond says, and sends a bullet neatly though his brain.
Just a mugging. Nothing more sinister than a junkie needing cash for his next hit and willing to draw blood to get it. He picked the wrong stragglers on the lonely street, in rather epic fashion; Bond has drawn so much blood the oceans of his dreams are pure red, and this drop bothers him not at all, except that all he can think about now is Q’s calm voice when he said safe was nothing but an illusion.
Q’s body in the moonlight is a smooth plain of want, a shock of electric definition across the duvet. He drags his knuckles over the soft, shallow basin of his stomach and then up his side, where the skin quivers in little ripples under him. He touches the dip inside Q’s elbow and the delicate, translucent-looking skin covering the veins in his wrists. There is a slight, thinly-scabbed scratch just above his collarbone where the knife sank into the borders of Q, and Bond presses fingertips against it, pressing down just a bit, and then a little harder. Q’s breath is light and quick under the pressure, and he is already hard and brushing up against Bond where he looms over him on the bed. His hand curls there around the base of Q’s throat, obscuring the mark, and he keeps it there even as he pushes himself into Q’s body, moving past another border of this boy, this smart-mouthed, shining genius of a young man that he keeps watching and wanting beyond anything sensible. Beyond anything reasonable. Long past anything safe.
Q’s voice when he comes is a splinter of glass, a fractal of his vocal chords broken down by Bond’s body and hands and mouth and breath, and only after he’s memorized it does Bond remove his palm from Q’s throat and slide off of him in the dark of the bedroom.
He volunteers the next day for an assignment M has been sitting on for weeks because the chances of success look so slim. M looks at him for a few minutes from behind his desk, lips pressed together and eyes hard and steady, but eventually says, “Alright, 007. Be cautious, and best of luck.”
He puts off going to Q until last, even allowing Medical to poke and prod as much they like.
Q is alone in the armory, standing in front of the table with a neat line of folder, gun, and radio equipment spread across it. He has a full cup of what appears to be cold tea off to his left. His collar is buttoned up over his neck and cinched with a black tie. He’s wearing a green cardigan and his hair looks soft and wild under the overhead lights.
Bond clears his throat. “I’m a bit tight on time,” he tells him.
“It’s all ready to go,” says Q. “Nothing you haven’t handled before.”
“We can’t do this anymore, Q,” he says, as he takes the case, and he hates himself a little for doing it here, for using this buffer of MI6 and Q’s duty as quartermaster.
Q just looks at him. His head is tipped down a little toward his chest, and his eyes are two dark mirrors over the top of his glasses.
“I should have gotten myself out of that alley,” he says finally. “But I just figured your gun was the easier choice for both of us. I’m not helpless, you know.” He leans back a bit against his hands, hips against the table edge. “It could just as easily be a traffic accident, or a pathogen, or something else that can’t be influenced with skill or intelligence. It could be you, too, right here in London, not even being shot at or blown up. That’s just life, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sorry,” Bond says. “I can’t.”
“You won’t,” says Q.
“As you like.”
Q’s chest rises and falls softly under his layers of cotton and wool and Bond watches it. “Here are your boarding passes and hotel information,” Q says, and hands him the file. Bond takes it and taps it once against his thigh.
“Thank you, Q.”
“Good luck, 007.”
When he turns on his earpiece for instructions it’s Rachel, Q’s second in command, on the other end of the line, giving coordinates and directions in her capable, not-Q voice.
It goes spectacularly, inevitably to shit. They strip him of everything but the earpiece, which is a flesh-colored number that sits inside the ear canal these days. He probably still has audio to headquarters, then, although he’s careful to keep himself from testing that until his captors leave and he knows he won’t be overheard. And there’s still the small tracking chip in his navel, if it works, but no other visuals left on him. He breathes, and waits, and they close the door and shut out the light.
He closes his eyes and thinks about earl grey and the taste of salt on the back of Q’s neck. He thinks about the slip of torn paper he had found tucked behind his airline tickets, the little piece of text he knew had been ripped out of the book that has sat on Q’s coffee table ever since Bond interrupted him that first night, when he broke into Q’s flat. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection. He thinks about the marks Q left with his teeth in the softness of his lips and his eyes when he spins invisible webs through his computers, causes and effects that clatter through the world like dominoes falling on each other. He thinks of Q, and lets the darkness come.
“Is there someone there?” he whispers, much later.
“007, what’s your status?” asks Rachel.
“Locked up,” he says. “Alone for now. Where’s Q?”
“I’m here,” Q says immediately. “I’m here, and I’ll find you.”
“I know,” he says. “I’ll just wait here, shall I?”
Q is a scrawny genius and Bond is like a stray cat that keeps coming back. And neither of them is exactly nice, but they do fold together in something like straight lines, and their luck doesn’t run out today.
A satellite-guided smart bomb is dropped from a drone a few hours later and rips a bloody big hole in the building they have him locked up.
Bond laughs, and runs.
In Medical, they stitch him up with small, tidy passes of needle and thread. His back hurts and his joints feel tight and swollen. Q comes in and stands in the corner until the nurse leaves. Bond watches him.
“Thank you,” he says.
Q gives a jerky shake of his head. “I’m your quartermaster. You shouldn’t thank me for doing my job.”
“You’re the voice in my ear, Q.” You’re there, always, he doesn’t say.
“Ah.” Q scratches the back of his head. “I thought maybe it would be easier if Rachel talked you through the mission. I was never out of the room, though. Won’t happen again.”
“Good,” he says. “And now I’d like to take you home and make you beg and writhe and forget your own bloody name. I’m cobbled together with string and painkillers and I feel old as fuck. I don’t know if I can be as brave as you need me to be, but I can try.”
“You’re ridiculous,” says Q. “Everything about you is impossible and somehow works anyway.”
“I’m just your trigger.”
“You’re my fox. My favorite one.” Q smiles at him.
“Well,” says Bond. “I’m here. I always come back.”
“I know,” Q tells him, and kisses him quiet.