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the queen of spades

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The second Saturday in January finds Q in his office, ostensibly working on the latest prototype for the exploding pen but in reality being continually tripped up by the overzealous safety mechanism. He’s just begun disassembling it for the fifteenth time when a reminder pings from his phone at quarter to seven.

"Early night, sir?" Sharon asks as Q flicks off the light in his office and pulls the door shut behind him. His office is really more of a lofted glass box where paperwork goes to die, but it's MI6 regulation that he lock it up whenever he goes offsite.

"Yes, well, it is the weekend," Q says mildly, zipping his anorak carefully. He's had more than one tie eaten by this zipper. "And yourself?"

Sharon looks down at her computer, which appears to be three monitors of spreadsheets. "The financial quarter ended last week," she says, "and our liaison in accounting will probably suck all of the blood out of my corpse if I don't have these in her email by Monday." She clicks one spreadsheet in the middle monitor and drags it to the left one, revealing what appears to be an endless line of Excel files. "Any recommendations for what I should say about 007's disaster last month in Warsaw?" 

Q finishes fiddling with his zipper and suggests, "Divine vengeance? That is, if we're abiding by the party line that the train car was struck by lightning."

"Perfect," Sharon says. She resumes typing, 90% of her attention now back on her work. "Blame Christ, why didn't I think of that." As Q passes her to get to the elevator, she adds, "Have a nice night, sir."

"You too," Q tells her. "Let me know tomorrow if you--need any assistance." He offers this mainly because he knows he should, as Sharon's supervisor, but there's a reason why they hired someone to be his assistant.

"It'll be a cold day in hell, sir," Sharon says without looking up. "See you on Monday."

~

Q takes the Victoria to Green Park and then the Piccadilly to Covent Gardens. It's a beastly cold evening but that hasn't ever dissuaded anyone from visiting London and it looks unlikely to now; he has to elbow his way off of the train like the embittered city denizen that he is.

The outside of the Royal Opera House is a low-grade disaster, like always, but no one important appears to be attending tonight's performance so the security is minimal and Q is able to enter the building and find his seat with ten minutes to spare before the curtain rises. He spends this time struggling out of his anorak, draping it on the back of his seat in such a way that he doesn't unduly irritate the person sitting behind him, and leafing through his program.

On the last page of the cast biographies, right before the set and light designers, is Margarethe's headshot. Principal dancer, Royal Opera Company , it says. Of the previous performances it lists, Q has seen approximately half of them. He reads her biography slowly, like it will somehow contain new information he has never seen before. The emotion driving this impulse is a queer mixture of guilt and pride, something that makes him flip through the rest of the program to see if she's been caught in any of the photographs.

The opera opening tonight is The Merry Widow ; Q has never heard it before, but everyone up in the nosebleeds of the amphitheatre seem excited to see it. Downstairs in the orchestra stalls it might be coats and tails and diamonds, but this high up it's mostly grandmothers and uni couples. Wearing a tie--the only survivor of the ravenous anorak zipper--and a not-hideous checkered button-down, Q blends in well enough. Crowds have made him nervous since he started working at MI6; the idea of blending in helps, for god knows what reason. Probably something one of the field agents Stockholm'd into him.

Q had paid £75 for his ticket, which is a lot for someone who is not much of an operetta enthusiast, but it hadn't exactly been an optional expense. Elise had called him at home and told him in no uncertain terms to show up for opening night or else she'd sneak into his flat and poison his plants.

"That seems unnecessarily vengeful," Q had said at the time. He'd been home--that was a rare one--and in the middle of trimming his thyme before it completely took over the herb bed. 

"You missed the last two, " Elise had said, as if Q had been personally responsible for both a month-long high security alert that had put his office in lockdown and 006 burning down half of Siberia.

"I had work disasters," Q had said, carefully snipping the head off of a particularly weedy-looking stalk of thyme. "I sent her flowers both times."

"The LSE is not going to collapse if one of their IT minions takes a Saturday night off," Elise had said, sternly, her voice crackling through their connection with the force of her breathing. "Go to opening night, or I will pour bleach on all of your weird cactuses."

"Touch my weird cactuses and I'll shave your children," Q had threatened right back, but a week later when the box office had opened for The Merry Widow , he had bought as cheap a ticket as could be managed.

Briefly, just as the house lights dim and the conductor appears to a spattering of applause, Q thinks, This is just the sort of thing I'd be hearing through 007's earpiece right before he blew up the opera house. It's almost a giddy thought. Q is not enough of a child to want to be a field agent, but the perks seem nice sometimes.

~

As soon as the show is over, Q texts Margarethe, You did wonderfully, can I buy you a drink? He filters out with the rest of the amphitheatre level, anorak hooked over his forearm, phone in his hand so he can feel it buzz. The energy of the place seems very high; Q's entire section had laughed at the right parts, giggling at the innuendos and cheering for the can-can dancers. The whole thing has felt more like a raunchy East End play than the Royal Opera, which is why 007 is the last person on Q's mind right up until he sees him.

Shit , thinks Q immediately as he comes down the stairs and spies 007 straight off. The main floor is packed with stereotypical opera-goers; the woman on Bond's arm is approximately two meters tall and has on a dress that looks like a melting disco ball, only more expensive. Bond himself is in a suit, of course, but this is one that manages to look quite formal. Q couldn't actually identify what makes Bond's formal suits different from his casual ones, but he can recognize them.

Q tries to duck behind a marble pillar at the bottom of the stairs but he careens instead into a tiny old man and nearly sends both of them crashing to the floor. By the time Q has recovered his footing and enough of his pride to risk glancing up, Bond is looking right at him. He inclines his head and then turns to look solicitously at his companion. They are an ocean of severity in the sea of bright, chattering people; Q has a difficult time picturing Bond laughing at any of the dirty jokes that Q's mezzanine had found hilarious. Q has, in fact, never actually seen Bond laugh.

It is while Q is going through these embarrassing mental gymnastics, holding up a spot of wall and waiting for Margarethe to check her mobile, that Bond saunters up to him out of the middle of the dissipating crowd.

"Quartermaster," he says quietly, coming to a stop to Q's left and casually placing one hand in his pocket. Q gives him one very quick look and then turns back towards the crowd, hoping it looks intentionally dismissive.

"Bond," he says. "Enjoy the performance?"

"It was a little trite, I think," Bond replies. He's being sarcastic and quiet. How very trite it must've seemed to him, all of the songs about wives cuckolding their husbands and true love triumphing over jealousy. Q had had a nice enough time, but his enthusiasm seems ridiculous now that Bond is here to throw it under shade.

"Yes, well," Q says, and then he stops. He wants Bond to go away, so he adds, "Can I help you? I believe the exit is to my right."

Bond pauses. "Ah," he says, shifting his weight minutely. This catches Q's eye enough for him to turn and look at Bond fully; he realizes after a moment that Bond is thrown off by something--by him.

"Ah," Q echoes. "No, this is not a repetition of the National Gallery, 007. I am not here to send you to Shanghai. Our evenings simply intersected."

Bond relaxes at this; both hands go into his pockets and his shoulders round downward slightly. "I'm glad to hear it," he says. He's looking over Q's shoulder and then around, nearly a 270 degree read of the room performed in a lazy, subtle way. "Do you often come to the opera, Q?" His eyes are now back on Q's face. Something about the color of his suit makes them look very blue, tucked up into his skull. What a marvelous evolutionary advantage, those eyes. They give 007 a leg up over sexual competitors, like nice spots on a toad.

"Occasionally," Q says. He tries to sound very bored, to discourage further questions. "And yourself?" 

"When I have the itch for it," Bond says. This is about as subtle an innuendo as the one that the henchman had made in Act I about a dancing girl's bosom, but Q doesn't feel the urge to laugh at Bond's quip. 

"Quite," Q says crisply. He makes a show of looking at his phone, unlocking it with his thumb and busily pressing icons; there's still no reply, but WhatsApp shows that Margarethe has at least read his message. "Better get cracking on that then, 007. Have a nice evening."

Just beyond the edge of his mobile, Q can see Bond's thighs tense underneath the fabric of his trousers, and then one toe turns ninety degrees and faces away, a point of pivot for a departure. Leave , Q urges that shoe. He hopes to god Margarethe isn't anywhere nearby enough to see this.

"You as well," Bond finally says, and Q makes a humming noise in the back of his throat, not looking up. He closes WhatsApp and opens his email. Bond's second foot pivots, and he steps away. For a long second, Q stares at the screen of his phone, swiping at nothing, trying to clear out the smell of Bond's cologne from his lungs. He doesn't even like cologne--that Bond smells so good should be categorically impossible.

A few seconds later, Q hears his name shrieked at an impossible pitch and he looks up just quickly enough to catch Margarethe as she barrels into him. She smells of hairspray and cold cream and is still wearing her grisette costume, the flounced skirts airborne as she hops into his arms.

"Congratulations, you were marvelous," Q tells her. He's scared to see if Bond is still within earshot, so he forces himself to look over Margarethe's shoulder. Through the mess of her hair, he sees 007 disappearing towards the side entrance across the hall, arm curled around the waist of the beautiful woman in her melted disco ball. Far enough away not to have heard, at least.

"I can't believe you came!" Margarethe shrieks in his ear. "Did Elise threaten you? I'm so sorry, she's upset with you but it's nonsense, I understand completely about work." Margarethe gives him a firm wiggle of a hug and then settles back on her heels. "Did you promise me a drink? I want a drink, and I want to hear every single thing that delicious man said to you while you were both standing here."

"Trust me," Q says, unable to keep a long-suffering weariness out of his voice, "you don't."

~

Expecting that to be that would be an underestimation of the full annoyance of working with field agents; on Monday, ten minutes after Q has settled at his desk with a cup of tea and Sharon's summary of their financial quarter, Bond appears in the doorway to Q's office.

"Why were you at the opera?" Bond asks with absolutely zero pleasantries. "I keep trying to imagine you as an enthusiastic fan of operetta, but I can't make it stick."

Q thinks about lying, but it's frankly just too early. "My sister was a grisette," he says, looking back down at the budget summary. An awful lot of it is red and bolded.

"What, Frou-Frou?" Bond says.

"No, I believe her official title was Grisette #4," Q says absently, and then he processes Bond's tone and realizes he is being sarcastic. That Bond can even be here in his office interrogating him at this hour should be illegal.

"Of course," Bond replies. This time the sarcasm comes through very clearly; he must not believe Q, which seems strange. 

"They only give numbers to the ones that don't have speaking parts," Q says. He doesn't know what else to say, since he's hardly going to provide Bond with Margarethe's name or any other details. "Hence: number four."

Clearly exasperated, Bond says, "I have a rudimentary understanding of the concept, yes." His mouth compresses into a thin line; Q has trouble understanding what is irritating him, but the revelation that something is makes Q's day seem much brighter.

"If that's all?" Q prods, looking deliberately down at his desk. "I've got work to do, 007, I'm sure under your own initiative you can find some chaos to cause far away from here."

Instead of acquiescing, Bond says, "How long has your sister been dancing for the Royal Opera?"

"I don't know, a few years?" Q lies. He doesn't think that Bond will systematically seduce every principal dancer in the company in order to find out which one is Q's sister, but he also would not put that level of perverted dedication beyond him. "It hardly matters, I should think."

Bond smirks at this. "Of course," he says. "If you'll excuse me?"

Q stares after Bond as he leaves Q branch, saying something polite to Sharon as he goes, judging by the poisonous glare she shoots him over her shoulder. Technically Q's name and personal details are classified and beyond the purview of field agents, but he's worked for Q branch for ten years and had gone by his actual name for eight of them. His identity is as much of a "secret" as his ineptitude at filing financial reports.

"What was that about?" Sharon asks, pushing her wheeled desk chair over to the doorway. She waggles her eyebrows at Q inquisitively.

"Who knows, with field agents," Q says. He then shrugs and pushes his glasses up his nose. "I ran into him when I went to Margarethe's show on Saturday."

Sharon's eyebrows wiggle even more furiously. "Well that must've been awkward. Who was with him? Someone dangerous-looking and beautifully-dressed? Or was he stag."

"Please," Q says. "There was a woman there--she was either a model or an extremely wealthy praying mantis. You should've seen them, standing out like a pair of sore thumbs amongst all the old ladies with walkers."

This stills Sharon's eyebrows. "It always seems terribly glamorous on the comms," she finally says, sounding almost disappointed.

"I'm sure 007's life is full of glamour we can hardly comprehend," Q says drily. "That's what comes from having family money ." He doesn't actually hook his fingers into air quotes, but Sharon can undoubtedly sense them. "Fortunately, the Royal Opera is an available venue for entertainment even to us poverty-stricken government workers."

Sharon takes this opportunity to ask, pointedly, "Speaking of poverty-stricken..."

Q sighs. "Yes," he says tiredly, "I'm reading it now."

“It’s not that Xiaolei is going to dismember us, necessarily,” Sharon continues, “but I would be concerned about our budget for next year. She said not to get very attached to the idea of having a flight simulator.”

The back of Q’s eyes are actually throbbing, like his optic nerve is violently protesting the contents of Sharon’s financial report. “We need the flight simulator,” he says. “005 crashed a helicopter into an aircraft carrier and nearly sent us to war with the United States.”

Sharon says, “Well, I know that, don’t I. But Xiaolei remains to be convinced and she’s our accounting liaison.”

Once upon a time, Q had been a quartermaster staff boffin who’d spent most of his spare time tinkering with the air conditioning in the server room and watching the webcam he’d set up for his cat. In these halcyon days of yesteryear, Q had been under the impression that the upper-level quartermaster staff was able to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted and damn the cost. He now knows better.

“Which one of the staff did we poach from the Space Agency? Was it Marianna?” Q asks; he finally gives in to the urge to rub the corners of his eyes. 

“Edith,” Sharon says. She sounds distinctly unimpressed, as she always does when Q forgets the name of one of his staff. In his defense, they last an average of twenty months before being poached by well-heeled private defense contractors and they are all about 1.6m tall and have thick plastic-framed glasses in an array of primary colours. It’s impossible to keep them straight.

“Of course,” Q says, even though he’d hadn’t the faintest idea that there was even someone named Edith on staff. “Edith. I know the Space Agency’s tinkering around with an astronaut programme that they’re keeping under wraps--set up a meeting with her and see if we can’t get her opinion on our cheapest options for simulators.”

“Nice,” Sharon says. “Stealing it right out from under the Space Agency. Just the kind of thing I’d expect from MI6. Good one, sir.”

“We’re not--” Q says, and then, wearily, “all right. Add it to my schedule, if you wouldn’t mind.”

Sharon is already rolling her chair back to her desk. This has left Q alone with the financial summary, the terse commentary of one Xiaolei Chu, and a stone-cold cup of tea. Running into Bond at the opera seems like a distant dream, something that happened to someone who has an exciting sort of life full of costumes and melted disco balls. There is very little mystery in Q’s life, except whither all of his very expensive equipment vanishes when he sends it out with field agents.

Next to the line item about radio expenditures is, XC: Is this realistic? It’s an absurd number. Q wishes it were false.

Q: Unfortunately, yes , he writes.

~

There had been a very brief and harrowing period of Q’s life where he had run field agents. 

His fourth year of working for MI6, H1N1 had completely eradicated the quartermaster staff and left a skeleton crew of approximately seven individuals who were only moderately sick instead of deathly ill and vomiting, one of whom had been Q. The second day of the epidemic, he’d been yanked quite suddenly out of his cubicle, shoved into a conference room on the seventh floor, and forced to give on-the-fly directions to a field agent on how to engage one of Boothroyd’s old suitcase bombs. Everyone in the room had called him R, even though he was not R and she would’ve taken his head for the presumption, and Q had been uncomfortable with both the fake promotion and the fact that he had been wearing an extremely lumpy jumper and ratty skinnies, technically in violation of the MI6 dress code.

It had been one improbable disaster after another--first the bomb’s detonation mechanism wouldn’t engage, then the field agent was on top of a bus, then there was a hand-to-hand combat interlude with some mercenary who died but not before kicking the suitcase off of the top of the bus--and although Q eventually figured out a run-around on the mechanism, it had felt like the entire experience drained twenty years off of his life.

After the bomb had exploded, presumably blowing up its intended target, the field agent had said, “Well, isn’t that nice. Good work, R.”

“I’m not--” Q had tried, and then he’d sighed and allowed his hand to be shaken by some extremely happy department heads, all of whom had also called him R and commended him for his service. The field agent’s handler had taken her head out of her hands long enough to shout something down the comms about not blowing up any more government buildings; that was the last of it that Q had heard before being hustled back down to the Q branch offices.

The rest of the week, Q had been called to various conference rooms and been referred to exclusively as R as he had shepherded the same field agent through the violent eradication of an art theft ring in Thiruvananthapuram and been forced to improvise a truly horrific number of solutions in response to the field agent’s unending stream of disasters. It had not been as exciting as Q had thought it would be and he’d gone home every night--or, gone home the nights that he wasn’t required for damage control--with every joint in his body aching. He began grinding his teeth in his sleep and developed an ulcer. The following Monday, when R had shown up at her desk looking wan and pale but ready to resume running her agents, Q had bought her a brownie from Pret the size of her head and been pathetically grateful to return to server maintenance.

Literal years later Q had figured out that he’d run 007--it came up in his performance review when he was promoted to Q, like some kind of barometer of his prowess, but he hadn’t been privy to those files right away--and so, in some ways, it is not only Bond’s fault that Q has a budget for radio expenditures that rivals the GDP of a small nation but also that he’s even the head of Q branch at all. That wanker .

~

It takes an embarrassingly long time for Q to realize that Bond doesn’t actually believe that he has a sister. There are field missions in the interim, of course, during which other agents run Bond and Q is forced to hear about his daring escapades after the fact, watered down into a distressing series of itemized equipment repair requests: agent, 007; item for repair, radio; reason for repair, spat acid upon by lizard. But Bond always manages to find time to visit Q’s office between missions and he always looks alarmingly flushed and mysterious, murmuring, “And how are we today, Quartermaster?” followed up, inevitably, some number of barbed exchanges later, by, “Any more performances by your sister?”

At first Q doesn’t have an answer for this, because he’s a terrible brother and he misses the entire run of The Pearl Fishers because 001 is undercover as some kind of Silicon Valley tech darling and Q is literally never off of his comm, feeding him lines about League of Legends and satellite development. Sharon takes the tickets for the show off of him and reports back that it had been horridly racist but Margarethe had been phenomenal. Two days later, when Bond says, “Any more performances by the grisette?” Q says, “I don’t know, ask Sharon.” He gets an eyebrow in response, with a slow and guarded smirk, and then off Bond swans. Q observes that he doesn’t bother stopping by Sharon’s desk to ask after Margarethe’s performance--thank god --and then he’s distracted again by the mountains of work needing to be done.

This turns out to be a mistake; the next time, a few weeks later, Bond stops by to pick up his Walther--polished and nearly new, after an unfortunate incident with the back of the skull of a member of an organized crime syndicate in an unpronounceable Italian village--and says, “How is the sister, by the way? Any developments?”

Q says, “Not as far as I’m aware. Do you have--season tickets, or something?” It’s uncomfortable to imagine Bond as someone who’s sat in the audience at the Royal Opera House and ogled Margarethe’s legs from a distance. She has, Q knows despite being extremely uninterested in any women’s legs, let alone his own sister’s, a particularly marvelous pair of them. Knowing that Bond is improbably sexually successful is a very different kettle of fish from imagining him as the sort of lech about which Margarethe vociferously complains.

“No,” Bond says. “I have a friend I escort when I’m in town.” That Bond manages to say this without sounding like a sex worker is, presumably, testament to his expensive public school education. “Do let me know when the sister situation becomes more dire, won’t you? I hate to imagine what would require your presence in the field.”

Q looks up from the paperwork he’s filing to fix a confused stare on Bond, but Bond is already tucking the Walther into his shoulder holster and disappearing towards the lift. 

In his defense, Q is massively sleep-deprived. It takes about five seconds for him to realize and say, aloud, “He thinks my sister is an asset ?” 

Does he ?” says Sharon from her desk, instantaneously whirling around in her chair and pushing herself towards Q’s open door.

“Unbelievable!” Q says. He’s holding a pen but has forgotten why. He decides to hold on for the time being, in case it’s one of the exploding prototypes.

Massively paranoid,” Sharon observes, twisting in her chair to watch Bond disappear into the lift. “Do you think he’s stalking you, sir?”

“I hope not,” Q says. “If he is, he must be awfully bored by now. All I do is fill out paperwork and water my plants.” He turns the pen over in his hands a few times, carefully, and then realizes that he’s holding it because he’s meant to be replacing the ink cartridge. Some days it is truly astonishing to realize that his brain is the best that Q branch has to offer MI6, since Q can barely trust it to function prior to 10AM.

“Do you, sir?” says Sharon, presumably because the yearly reviews are now two days overdue and M isn’t likely to get them before the end of week and she knows it.

“I’ll get them done,” Q says, somewhat feebly. “I still haven’t met with Edith for her review--have you got that scheduled yet?”

“You had me reschedule it again, sir,” Sharon reminds him. “Because of the flight simulator?”

“Oh,” Q says. “Yes, of course.” When Q is stabbed to death by Xiaolei in a dark corner of the sub-basement, the cause of death on the coroner’s report is going to be flight simulator . “Let me sign the last of these and then we’re nearly done. At least--the interim head of IT is doing performance evaluations, isn’t she? I don’t have to do theirs, do I?”

The look that Sharon gives Q at this is so pitying that it’s nearly insulting. “Sir,” she says.

“Of course,” Q says. “Silly question. Have you got the personnel files for me? Great. Send them in.”

~

There are many irritating aspects of having sisters, one of which is the necessity of a semi-regular brunch appointment. Q is forced by his own sense of responsibility to meet Elise and Margarethe for brunch at least a half-dozen times a year, since they all live in London, as well as by Elise herself, who has never quite grown out of the reign of terror she’d enacted over Q and Margarethe as children. “I’m the biggest, therefore you have to do what I say,” had been her catchphrase until puberty, at which point she had stopped pointing out that she was biggest--although this continued to be true--because she’d been socialized into being horrified by it.

Can’t make it, in the middle of massive disaster at work , Q texts in response to her somewhat imperiously forwarded email, subject line: Fwd: Re: Your Upcoming Reservation at Poissonnette. This is even true, as he has yet to meet with Edith regarding her yearly performance review.

LIAR , Elise texts back almost immediately. Some other LSE IT minion can handle your job for one fucking hour on a Saturday, you twat.  

I’ve got performance evaluations out of my bloody arse , Q types, and then he remembers that he’s not supposed to have people to manage--it’s much easier to explain Q’s terrible hours as being at the bottom of the totem pole--and he deletes this message and replaces it with, Do you even understand how legal employment works .

If you stand us up again I’m going to Mum and Dad with pictures of Margarethe crying , Elise sends back.

I fucking hate you , Q replies.

10AM on Sat , Elise replies--smugly, Q imagines.

Although Q arrives at 10:15 on Saturday, he finds Margarethe, on her second glass of prosecco, alone on the restaurant terrace. She’s wearing an enormous pair of mirrored sunglasses and a gigantic black straw hat that makes her look like some kind of mid-century Italian starlet. “What’s this look, Evading Riviera Paparazzi?” Elise asks when she finally arrives, leaning across the marble-topped table to kiss Margarethe on the cheek.

“No,” Margarethe says grimly, “I’ve got a massive hangover from being stupid enough to party with the props department last night. If any part of my face sees the sun I’m going to burst into flames. You’re even later than usual, Elise.”

Elise rolls her eyes and slings her purse over the back of her chair. “I’ve got three children under the age of five,” she says. “I haven’t been on time anywhere in a decade. It’s nice to see you, our long-lost brother, outside of your normal cave.”

“What on earth are we doing here,” Q says as soon as Elise has dropped into her seat. “If I’m not gay enough for brunch here, you certainly aren’t.”

“Are you sure about that?” Elise says. She looks for the nearest attractive waitress and smiles at her. “Hello, darling,” she says as the waitress immediately materializes next to their table, drawn inexorably by the power of Elise’s smile. It’s nauseating. “A glass of prosecco, please,” she says. “Have you ordered anything?” she asks Q.

“An extremely large coffee,” Q says.

“Prosecco for my brother, too, please,” Elise says, and the waitress staggers off, looking thunderstruck. It’s no wonder that Q’s immune to Bond’s terrible flirting, having grown up with Elise. “You’re hardly going to be done in by one glass,” Elise says dismissively when she finally looks up and catches Q glaring at her. “You always say that an idiot monkey could manage server maintenance, and even drunk I would say you have better dexterity than an idiot monkey.”

Two sparkling glasses of prosecco appear in front of Q and Elise, and Margarethe lifts her half-empty flute in a brief salute. “Cheers!” she says, adjusting her enormous sunglasses. “Are you going to take a snap for Mum, Elise?”

“Later,” Elise says. “She’ll want to know what we ate.”

A glass of prosecco is, sadly, not enough alcohol to make Q any more comfortable with his surroundings. They’re crammed onto a patio with about fourteen thousand other gay Londoners, all of whom are pointedly ignoring Margarethe like they think she’s someone famous in disguise and they’re too posh to call attention to it. Q’s facing out towards the street, his knobby knees crammed under the table, and he’s uncomfortably wedged in place by Margarethe’s enormous hat and Elise’s hard-edged stare. Feeling extremely conscious of his own lack of options, Q orders an avocado toast.

After Elise has taken a picture of Margarethe and Q smiling toothily over their food and pronounced it “passable” for maternal inspection, she settles back into her seat to pick at her quiche and Q sees behind her something so out of place that for a second he thinks he’s hallucinating: a car, with MI6 plates that Q recognizes because he had approved the paperwork that would result in them being affixed to the car in question, being driven erratically in a way that suggests a field agent at the helm. There is another car speeding in pursuit.

“For fuck’s sake,” Q says, reflexively.

“What, is it awful?” Margarethe says. “Oh, don’t eat it with your hands like a heathen. You’ve got to use a fork and knife, it’s got a poached egg on top.”

There’s egg dribbling down Q’s wrist. Both cars disappear with a screech around the corner; no one else appears to have noticed anything amiss. “Ah,” Q says, helplessly, and then he grabs the glass of prosecco with his egg-smeared hand and takes a large swig.

“How’s the season?” Elise is asking Margarethe as Q strains his ears to see if he can hear anything--for example, gunshots--in the distance.

“Remarkably good, actually,” Margarethe says. “Loads of good dancing this year. This new artistic director I was telling you about, when we were at Mum and Dad’s in August? He really understands that we have a role in the production beyond wagging our tits at the audience.”

Elise’s eyebrows go up. “Progressive of him,” she says, acidly, and Margarethe says, “Elise, you twat, it’s progress for opera.”

Q can most definitely hear gunshots. He polishes off his prosecco and then begins to mix milk into his coffee. He’s distracted enough to not realize until he’s drinking it that it’s some kind of horrid vegan milk--oat, probably, judging by the color. 

By now Elise is saying, “Oh, not much happening with us. Leah has a new client and she’s hemorrhaging billables. Naomi and Daniel were both suspended from school last month.” As Margarethe says, “ How , they’re four!” Q smells burning rubber and the car with MI6 plates comes roaring back around the corner, this time positioned so that Q can see who is at the wheel, not that it was ever in question.

You fucking twat , Q thinks.

“They were psychologically torturing some other child,” Elise says dismissively as 007 roars off down the street; the other car, sporting what appears to be some kind of rocket launcher nailed to the roof, is in hot pursuit. “I don’t know how much psychological torture a pair of four-year-olds could enact, but it apparently wasn’t appropriate for the atmosphere at Solomon Schechter.”

“What little monsters,” Margarethe says indulgently.

“Excuse me,” Q says to their waitress as she makes to squeeze past him. “Can I have another glass of prosecco? Thank you.”

~

Edith, who had been seduced from the Space Agency with sweet promises of a glamorous life in intelligence, turns out to be rather under-informed about flight simulators but very interested in the concept of an exploding pen. Her performance review interview, which Q finally fails in putting off about a month after it’s due--the emails from M about it have been getting increasingly poisonous--ends up being primarily about stabilizing explosives and safety mechanisms. “Fifth generation clock repairer, sir,” she says about halfway through, when Q professes himself impressed. “But it’s rather boring, isn’t it? Old clocks. My brother can’t get enough of it, though. He’ll inherit the shop.”

“Indeed,” says Q, unable to shake the suspicion that he should know this about Edith already. Probably it’s buried somewhere in her personnel file, which Q had read a year ago when they’d originally poached her and has since forgotten.

Edith’s performance review is glowing, as befitting someone who had run 002 for most of July without murdering the woman and had only needed thirty minutes and blueprints of a prototype to offer up a handful of useful suggestions re: exploding pen. Q is happy enough to hand off the entire project, which he’d only been fiddling with because of the irritating allure of Bond’s hypnotizing blue stare.

“There’s no funds for purchasing a flight simulator and not enough institutional knowledge to build one,” Q tells M a few days later, during his own yearly performance review. This is after their banal and shameful discussion of whether or not Q felt his department understood the concept of deadlines. “That said, we might be able to enact some kind of--quid pro quo.”

M’s eyebrow goes up towards his hairline. “Indeed?” he says.

“Perhaps we could offer something to the RAF in exchange for training,” Q suggests. “Collaborations. Technology. We could give them back 002.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t believe they would take her,” M says, more exhausted than wry. “It’s a good suggestion, Q. I’ll take it under advisement.”

“Thank you, sir,” Q replies.

That feels rather final; Q braves a glance at the analog clock to his left and feels cautiously optimistic about the concept of actually having lunch today, which is when M says, “One last item of business.”

Of course. “Sir?” Q asks, trying to look like a man who is wholeheartedly dedicated to his job and not thinking about lunch.

“I’ve heard of some unusual patterns of movement for 007,” M says. “Any particular reason why he’s been haunting Q branch of late?”

Q thinks for a moment, although of course it hasn’t felt anything like haunting --007 is always underfoot, isn’t he? And he takes particular joy in bothering Q for some reason, rather like a child would. Elise’s offspring have a similar tendency to ferret out the vulnerable, like it’s an animal instinct that hasn’t yet been bred out of them. 

“I couldn’t say, sir,” Q finally says. He feels reluctant to discuss Margarethe, although M must know of her existence. He seems the sort of person who doesn’t forget the details of a personnel file. Undoubtedly M would have remembered that Edith is a fifth-generation clock repairer. “He might be interested in the exploding pen prototype.”

M’s sharp stare softens a little at this. “Exploding pens, Q?” he says with a flare of humor. “I thought we were phasing out those sorts of things.”

“The field agents seem to have a soft spot for them,” Q says. “The double-os will never be actually docile but they are willing to be a little nicer to their standard-issue firearms and radios if I promise them that something ridiculous like an exploding pen is in their future. The carrot rather than the stick, you know.”

“Well,” M says, looking now very amused. “As long as your accounting liaison approved the expenditure.”

The line item about the exploding pen (“camouflaged portable incendiary device research and development”) had been annotated XC: This is ridiculous, but I’ll allow it , Q assumes because he’d assigned it to his personal research chartstring.

“Of course, sir,” Q says. It’s not even much of a lie, really.

~

Now that it’s been pointed out, Q notices that he is seeing a rather lot of 007 of late. Undoubtedly the man is just itching with boredom; he’s being held at SIS until he finishes his annual physical and psychological performance review and the scuttlebutt, according to Sharon, is that he’s failed the psychological evaluation three times.

“Surely not,” Q says when Sharon tells him this over a mid-afternoon coffee and biscuits interlude. Sharon has provided the biscuits, which are slightly more droopy than they perhaps should be but are nonetheless delicious. MI6 has provided the coffee, which strongly resembles and tastes faintly of motor oil. “Don’t you have to be--suicidal, or a psychopath or something?”

“You can fail it by getting perfect marks, apparently,” Sharon says. It’s astonishing what she can learn when she takes her lunch at the canteen on the third floor. “Which he has, three times. They can tell that you’re faking it and then they fail you.”

Q’s psychological assessment, mandated because he’s a department head, had been a forty-minute appointment with a nice, nondescript Welsh woman named Sian who had had a humidifier in her office that smelled of eucalyptus (“Essential oils,” she had told Q when he had inquired as to the scent) and a soft, pleasant voice. She and Q had discussed how difficult it was to keep to deadlines when one ran a department of incredibly intelligent and curious people who wanted to work in research and development or run field agents rather than perform basic tasks like server maintenance. She had had a printout of how to build managerial skills that Q had taken, somewhat gratefully, and then lost almost immediately afterwards. He’d made the mistake of setting it down on his desk and it had vanished within the hour, presumably to the same place all his other important documents seemed to go.

How ,” Q says now. He tries to think of some aspect of that discussion with Sian that he could have faked and comes up alarmingly blank. “It’s hardly an exam. It’s just a discussion.”

Sharon shrugs and dunks her biscuit into her coffee, which is certainly one way to get around their somewhat unpleasant texture. “Field agents,” she says. “There’s all sorts of trauma rattling around in there, I suppose. Doubt their big issues are whether or not they can get their staff sorted.”

“My staff is sorted,” Q says, a statement that wobbles between truth and artifice at any given moment.

“Oh, you’re loads better at it than Boothroyd,” Sharon assures him. “I’m surprised that man ever passed a psychological assessment.”

“I strongly suspect that the previous M did not really care about things like yearly performance reviews,” Q says, and since she had been the one to promote him, Q feels very qualified to make this assertion. 

“Undoubtedly that’s why 007 made it as long as he did,” Sharon muses. “Old M really was a battleaxe, wasn’t she? As long as you could stand upright she’d send you back out again. Rather Le Carre of her. Do you suppose that’s what happens when you cut your eyeteeth on Russians?”

Both Q and Sharon begin to cackle, presumably at their shared mental image of the previous M gnawing on the leg of Vladimir Kryuchkov, and this is of course when Bond appears, looming, in the doorway to Q’s office. “Good afternoon,” he purrs politely and Sharon startles out of her chair, sending the wheels rattling.

“007,” Q says, laughter dying instantaneously at the sight of him. It was a little ghoulish of them, wasn’t it? But Sharon’s eyes are still glinting with humor as she collects her chair and rolls it back out to her desk. “How can I help you?”

“You’re from London, aren’t you, Quartermaster?” Bond asks pleasantly, sauntering into Q’s office and closing the door behind him.

This instantly sends Q into high alert. “Finchley,” he says, cautiously, as befitting a conversation with Bond about his personal life.

“Good, then you might be able to help me,” Bond says. He unbuttons the front of his suit jacket and then puts a hand in the pocket of his trousers, slowly, like he’s thinking about something. All Q can think about is how much Bond looks like one of those advertisements for Savile Row tailors that can be found in the magazines that Margarethe is always leaving splayed open around her flat. Bond never looks like a real person. Did he have spots as a teenager? The very thought of it is absurd.

“Oh?” Q says politely, when Bond has yet to speak. “Well, perhaps we might discuss it some time this century.”

“I’m in the market for a new solicitor,” Bond says. “If you’re from London, perhaps you know someone working in the City.”

Q’s sister-in-law is a solicitor at a firm in the Square Mile. It’s her absurd per-hour rate that keeps Elise and their barbaric offspring in expensive shoes and brunch dates. Q squints at Bond suspiciously and cannot help saying, “How on earth did you find that out?”

“Your accent made it quite clear you’re London-bred,” Bond says, neatly sidestepping the accusation re: Q’s sister-in-law. 

“Accents are easy to fake,” Q says. “Yours, for example, hardly screams Scottish aristocrat and yet you’ve got that mouldering heap in the Highlands.”

“Well,” Bond says drily, “I did attend Eton.”

“Of course you did,” Q says, unable to keep himself from rolling his eyes. “Well, if you went to Eton surely you can manage to scrounge up a recommendation from one of your school chums.”

“I can’t say that I’ve kept particularly in contact with anyone I knew at school,” Bond says. He’s still gazing at Q in a way that suggests he could wait ages--eons, even--for Q to give in. Eve has the same patience, which is what makes her so good at overseeing personal security for Mallory. Tanner had had it as well, albeit with a more pleasant demeanour thrown on top. He’d been known to blink occasionally, for example.

Eventually, Q gives out a huffy little sigh and drains the last of his chilled coffee. “Your obsession with my sisters is bordering on the farcical,” he tells Bond.

“Oh, there’s more than one now?” Bond replies, with a faint sheen of skepticism.

“There’s been two the entire time, 007,” Q tells him. “I don’t know what sort of horrible plot you’ve imagined, but it has no relationship to reality. I’ve got two sisters, they live in London, you’re being strangely obsessive about them and I’d prefer if you weren’t. There, that’s settled.”

Bond hums, withdraws his hand from his pocket, buttons up his suit jacket, and then turns on his heel and leaves Q’s office. Q notes that he has not agreed that they have settled the matter to his satisfaction.

The phone on Q’s desk rings. After he’s unearthed it from where it’s been buried under piles of paperwork and prototypes, he picks up the receiver and before he can say anything, Sharon is demanding, “What was that ?”

“Can you call Leah’s office and tell her that someone’s asked if I know a solicitor?” Q says. “I don’t want her to be alarmed if he shows up. You might as well tell her it’s Bond, I doubt he’ll use a false identity.”

“Oh, of course. ‘Keep your calendar open for mysterious, attractive blonds,’” Sharon says. “Right away, sir.” After a moment’s pause, she says, “Did you?”

Q huffs, “What, recommend that Bond go hire my sister-in-law? Of course not! That man is a menace. How did he find out about her?”

“Field agents, sir,” Sharon says, like Bond is a puppy they have yet to properly house-train, and then she hangs up.

~

Friday evening finds Q at home, performing emergency surgery on the mother-in-law’s tongue. “This is completely unacceptable,” he’s telling Quincey Morris as he trims away the brown edges of a frond. “First of all, this species is poisonous to you, which should be obvious because of the vomiting.”

Quincey Morris yawns, unfurling his pink tongue, and then he turns in a circle and settles down on the kitchen counter so that all Q can see of him is his butt and the flick-flick-flick of his tail.

“Secondly,” Q continues, adjusting the spot lamp so he can cut around the damaged tissue, “it can hardly have escaped your attention that something vastly more appetizing awaits you in the kitchen.”

The buzzer goes off, with a shrill zing that Quincey Morris had once loathed and now mildly tolerates. Q puts down his shears and answers, a little surprised that his food delivery has come already. It’s usually a full hour’s wait on the weekend. “Yes, I’ll come down,” he shouts into the intercom quickly, on his way out the door, and he stumbles down two flights of stairs to the front door of his building only to find that it is not, in fact, the delivery bicyclist from Shah’s but instead: Bond.

Of course.

“Bond?” Q says.

“Good evening,” Bond says. The streetlights are doing unfair things to his cheekbones. “May I come in?”

For a moment, Q entertains the possibility of saying no , but his sense of self-preservation comes ratcheting back into full force before he has the chance. Bond has certainly been acting strangely of late, but he is a field agent and he is, unfortunately, rather well-known for making house calls during times of national crisis. For all Q knows, half of London is about to explode.

“Oh, very well,” Q huffs and he climbs back up the stairs to his apartment with Bond at his heels. After he’s locked the door, he turns on Bond and demands, “Well? What’s going on?” 

Bond does not answer right away, apparently occupied in staring at various features of Q’s flat that are visible from the front entryway. It empties into the kitchen, which means Quincey Morris is perfectly visible as he licks his butt. 

“You have a cat,” Bond says, with a vague note of puzzlement in his voice.

“Yes,” Q says. “Quincey Morris.”

“From-- Dracula ?” Bond hazards.

“Yes,” Q says. It seems absurd to be embarrassed by something he’d done at sixteen, so he says nothing in his own defense.

“Where are Arthur Holmwood and John Seward?” Bond inquires, politely, like they’re old friends just come across each other and are catching up on their various children.

“In Nottinghamshire, with my parents,” Q says and Bond’s face undergoes a bizarre series of expressions that Q cannot interpret, sliding from slightly less vague puzzlement into something else. Q could, he supposes, explain that John and Arthur had been Elise and Margarethe’s, respectively, but Elise’s children are terrors who can’t be trusted around animals and Margarethe’s high-flying lifestyle isn’t suited to responsibility for a dependent. But he does not.

The intercom buzzes once, and then, after a brief pause, twice more. “That’s dinner,” Q says. “For reasons I cannot fathom, I am going to go down and collect it and leave you alone in my flat. Please don’t--do anything.”

He returns to find Bond in the living room, looking at the contents of the bookshelves: books, of course, his sound system, the photos of his family that his mother has gotten framed for him over the years--them all as children, Elise’s various brats, Elise and Leah’s wedding, Margarethe’s first performance with the Royal Opera--and the tea set that Elise and Leah had brought back for him from their honeymoon in Japan. Bond is inspecting one of the tea cups with that same strange look on his face.

Q stands at the part of the kitchen counter that is open to the living room and tries to unpack the contents of his takeaway bag, but he fumbles with the knot at the top of the plastic bag and can’t quite manage it. Eventually he gives up and says, “All right, Bond, out with it. Is half of London about to be on fire? Because I haven’t heard from anyone at SIS.”

Bond says nothing for long enough that Q can actually feel the stress ulcer beginning to form in his stomach lining, and then Bond turns on his heel, rotating about sixty degrees, and lifts the tea cup in his hands. “You do know that this is mass-produced for tourists, don’t you?”

Unable to help being slightly offended by this, Q says, “That was a gift !”

“You can see the seam where the screen-printing was applied,” Bond says, offhand, apparently for the joy of seeing Q splutter.

Q stomps across the living room and yanks the tea cup out of Bond’s possession. “If you’re quite done insulting my personal possessions?” he sneers, placing the tea cup back onto the shelf where it lives with the rest of the set. Elise is massively annoying and apparently raising her children to be psychopaths, but she’s still his sister and she’d bought him a present on her honeymoon, knowing that Q would likely never see Japan himself--he’s so hugely afraid of flying that the only trips abroad he’s taken have been by boat. 

When Q is finished and has whipped around to glare at Bond, he finds Bond staring at him with a slightly more open version of that strange expression. Q is beginning to suspect that it’s surprise, like Bond has been set off-balance by the contents of Q’s flat.

“Surely,” Q says, “you don’t still think that my sisters are some kind of long-term cover story?”

“I am beginning to realize that they might, in fact, be real,” Bond says. It’s hard to interpret his tone. It seems massively unfair that his eyes are so blue. They are deeply unsettling, flat in affect, but also have a faint allure to them that Q finds difficult to resist. It’s their fault that Q has been spending his extremely rare free moments developing a camouflaged portable incendiary device.

“It can’t be that shocking,” Q says. “Half of the population of the UK with children have more than one.”

“M was fond of saying that SIS took particular care of lonely orphans,” Bond murmurs. “It’s true of most of us.”

Q can’t help making a quiet pfft noise. “Sharon’s got four brothers,” he says. “Eve’s sister is some high-ranking diplomatic attaché--they share a flat, you would not believe the nightmare of securing her work-from-home setup--”

“Moneypenny works from home?” Bond says, the way Elise might say you’re canceling brunch plans?  

“Occasionally. Loads of SIS staff have work-from-home setups for low-security business,” Q says. When Bond stares at him blankly, Q clarifies, “Because they have children?”

It’s obvious that many aspects of this conversation are revelations for Bond. For all that Q and Sharon joke about the peculiarities of field agents, it’s becoming clear to Q that they have completely different jobs. Bond spends his working days investigating and infiltrating various criminal activities and he’s so good at it because he’s innately glamorous--old money, well-educated, extremely handsome. Of course someone like that would be totally disconnected from reality. 

This is a man who has failed his annual psychological evaluation three times, Q suddenly remembers.

“Bond, I don’t want you to be very offended when I ask this, but what do you do when you aren’t working?”

Bond looks at Q blankly, before shifting into squinty suspicion. “I dine out,” he says, voice casual. “I have a few acquaintances I escort to the opera or the symphony.”

He says nothing else for what feels like an eternity to someone who is still coming down off of the electric high of an incipient stress ulcer. “That’s it?” Q finally says, when they’ve been staring at each other for, he feels, long enough. “You eat and take praying mantises to musical events?”

Bond’s expression is clearly mutinous, but his mouth says, “Yes.”

“My god,” Q says, suddenly struck by something. “You do have a flat, don’t you? You don’t live in--a hotel, or something, like Eloise?”

“Your sister lives in a hotel?” Bond answers, raising an eyebrow.

“No, the--oh, for fuck’s sake,” Q says, “that was such a patently obvious deflection I’m going to ignore it. You do, don’t you? You live in a hotel.”

“Yes, well, I only spend a few weeks at a time in London, if that,” Bond says.

Against his own will, Q can feel himself falling for it all: hook, line, sinker. The deep blue eyes, gone cold like a brittle shell over something tender. The hints that there is no home and no family waiting for Bond. The idea of any human being saying that they dine out when they aren’t working. This is either the result of being so rich that a person can’t help but be bored by everything--a distinct possibility from someone who went to Eton and lives in a hotel--or being obsessed with work. Perhaps some unholy combination of both.

Three psychological evaluations, with suspiciously perfect marks.

“I know that you’re manipulating me,” Q tells him, “and to what end I cannot possibly fathom, but it is, unfortunately, working.” He heaves a massive sigh and feels the last of the adrenaline finally fade out of his system. “I don’t suppose you want to stay for some curry, do you? I was going to eat it and watch that new BBC show about the yakuza. Perhaps you might like to make disdainful comments about its inaccuracies.”

They are still standing in front of the bookshelves, only half a meter or so of air between them. Bond’s cold blue eyes are boring holes into the side of Q’s face and then, abruptly, he finally blinks. “Thank you for the invitation,” he says, politely.

And then, of course, the most appalling part: Bond sits on the sofa next to Q in his extremely expensive and beautiful suit, eats precisely half of the curry, remembers to use a coaster for his bottle of lager, and then leaves without any cat hair on his person whatsoever. He only scoffs a few times at the various yakuza scenes and offers a single disparaging comment about the quality of the subtitles that’s so funny Q almost snorts a grain of rice up his nose. 

Q has a wonderful time. It’s horrible.

~

Despite it having taken Q literal months to proceed from 005’s disastrous helicopter escapade to flight simulator to RAF exchange, it only takes M about a week to organize said exchange, proving that there’s probably a good reason why he runs MI6 and Q nominally organizes paperwork in a glass box. 

Q finds out about the exchange very swiftly. He receives an email from x.chu@six.gov.uk at 7.30AM on Monday--a truly horrific hour of the day that Q is only awake to witness because he’s been in his office since midnight, burning through cups of Q branch motor oil as he tries to ride the wave of a breakthrough in his attempts to fix the recently stroppy MI6 VPN--with no subject line or contents, just an attached JPEG of a gold star.

“That’s probably not good,” Q says to himself before he’s distracted again by the VPN’s myriad tantrums. 

A few hours later he comes back to himself to realize that Q branch is populated by staff again, Sharon typing industriously at her desk on the landing of the platform on which Q’s glass box sits and the work stations throughout the floor below them all occupied by 1.6m-tall people in plastic-framed glasses and lab coats. Q blinks a few times and realizes that his office looks particularly terrible, even for a Monday, and then a few more blinks later he realizes that the issue is that he’d apparently gone out and stolen one of Sharon’s monitors because he’d needed another one. The occupants of his desk--minus his Scrabble mug, with a cold white film on top of its scant remaining liquid contents--have all been shoved to the side to make space for the monitor. His desk phone might be on the floor.

“Sharon?” Q calls, not quite sure if he’s remembered to leave the door open, but she stands up and comes over within a few seconds, so perhaps the door is open. This is the trouble with everything in the new building being made of glass.

“Coming down, sir?” she asks. “Do you need more coffee?”

“No, thank you,” Q says. He looks around his desk futilely for a few minutes, trying to recall why he’s called Sharon over. “Ah! Right, sorry to have hoofed it with your monitor. Have you done all right without it?”

“I’ve got two more,” Sharon says, extremely unconcerned. “How’s the VPN looking?”

“Stroppy as all get-out,” Q says. He’s starting to feel tired, now, like it’s dragging at the edges of his words. “Functional, though. I don’t suppose you know why Xiaolei emailed me a gold star this morning?”

“I believe the flight simulator has finally gone to its demise,” Sharon says.

Q asks, “More canteen scuttlebutt?”

Sharon waggles her eyebrows at him and Q has just enough life left in him for a spurt of laughter. “M called in a favor at the RAF and got remedial training on just about anything with wings for the double-os and a few of the higher-ranked field agents. I hope you didn’t have your heart too set on that simulator, sir.”

“Thank god that whole mess is now someone else’s responsibility,” Q says. “I am grateful, as always, for your prodigious capacity for gossip, Sharon.”

“Perhaps you should go home, sir,” Sharon suggests, looking pleased at his compliment. “It’s half-past two, which is nearly three, and that’s basically the end of the day, isn’t it? And you’ve been here since last night.”

“I’ve nearly gotten it,” Q says. Sharon looks appropriately skeptical at this, but she doesn’t argue. She comes to collect Q’s Scrabble mug, looking distinctly unimpressed with its contents, and she must return it at some point because Q unearths himself from his unrewarding work on the VPN around 6PM and his mug is at his elbow, full of cold liquid that smells distinctly burnt.

He blinks down into his mug for a few seconds and then up, to where Bond is standing in the open doorway to his office. Sharon’s desk is deserted and her monitors are dark. Q has a vague memory of her shouting farewell but he can’t remember when exactly that interaction had taken place. “Good evening, 007,” he says.

“Productive day, Q?” Bond inquires. “You’re looking particularly gravity-defying.”

Q blinks at Bond for a while before he realizes that Bond is likely referring to his hair. “Quite,” he says. “Can I help you with something?”

“I believe we have you to thank for remedial lessons with the RAF?” Bond says, casually, putting his hands in his trouser pockets and leaning his shoulder against the doorframe. He looks immaculate, as always. This suit is somewhat less formal than the one he’d been wearing on Friday, or perhaps Q just thinks that because of the color--it’s a lovely pale grey.

“Really, you should thank 005,” Q says. When he looks at his computer monitors all he sees are lines of gibberish. Probably this is indicative of it being time for him to go home. He’d left extra food out for Quincey Morris, knowing that it would likely be a while before he got home, but the greedy bastard is probably already preparing some sob story about how he’s been cruelly starved and left for dead. “If none of you crash something into an American aircraft carrier again, it will be too soon.”

“I make no promises,” Bond says lazily.

Q glares beadily at him from over the top of his spectacles, in the process realizing that they are unimaginably filthy. He takes them off, gropes for a moment at his waist before he remembers that he’s not wearing an undershirt under his button-down, and then puts them back on. Bond is still standing in the doorway, looking simultaneously bored and like he could stand there for a geologic age.

“Well, you may consider your gratitude tendered,” Q says, pointedly. “Was there anything else, 007?”

Bond has the gall to actually look amused at this. “Want to be rid of me, then? And I thought we were beginning to get along.”

Were we?” Q mutters to himself, although it is true that he had had a rather lovely time on Friday. He’d rather be literally dragged over hot coals than admit it to Bond, though, who is the sort of man to scent that kind of crack in a veneer and pry it open for any vulnerabilities he might find therein--and Q is not making him a new suitcase bomb, no matter how nicely he asks.

“Come have supper; my treat,” Bond says diffidently. “Unless you’re actually going to eat that.”

“Eat what?” Q says. Bond smirks at him and tilts his chin up towards the front of Q’s desk. Q has to grope around a bit in a nest of HDMI and USB cables to find something squishy and wrapped in cling film, unpleasantly warm to the touch. When he pulls his hand back, he’s holding an egg salad sandwich from the canteen, with a sticky note on top on which Sharon has written, DO NOT EAT ME AFTER 7PM ; a rather optimistic projection of the fortitude of a canteen egg salad sandwich. “Do you have the time?” Q asks Bond.

The look on Bond’s face is one of sheer disdain. “Bin that,” he orders, lazily, the way Bond seems to prefer telling Q what to do. “We’re going to go get some actual food.”

“Oh, yes, dining out ,” Q says, snootily, and Bond actually laughs as he comes into the office to unhook Q’s anorak from its hook and shake it out, like he’s Jeeves removing wrinkles from a dinner jacket. Q could play the petulant child and sit at his desk, refusing to move, but he’s finding himself more ravenous by the minute. Laughing has done something novel to Bond’s eyes, making them warm and appealing rather than chilly and frightening, and rather like a hypnotized rodent Q finds himself obediently getting up from his chair, coming around his desk, and letting Bond help him into his anorak. 

Bond takes him to an extremely dimly-lit restaurant in Kilburn where they eat various grilled chicken organs and a five-man band plays bossa nova so loudly that it’s impossible to hold a conversation. This is for the best, really, since Q is so tired and Bond is so very attractive in the dim light that god only knows what sort of horrible nonsense Q might have uttered. I’m having a wonderful time , for example. Or, Would you categorize this as a friendly outing or something more akin to a date?

After they have finished with their skewers of chicken bits and gone outside, ear drums faintly ringing, Bond ignores Q’s insistence that he will take the tube home and instead flags him down a taxicab. “Wouldn’t want you falling asleep and missing your stop,” Bond says, opening the door of the cab and ushering Q into the backseat.

“That’s extremely insulting,” says Q, who is nonetheless too tired and full to really get into the spirit of complaining about Bond’s high-handed ways.

“Have a good evening, Quartermaster,” Bond murmurs as he shuts the door, and then--the unbelievable condescension --he opens the front passenger door of the cab, says something to the driver, and hands over a folded clump of pound notes.

“Bond!” Q huffs, but Bond just steps back onto the kerb and watches with a lifted brow and a faint smirk as the driver pulls back into traffic. Q, infuriated beyond measure, comes very close to giving him a two-finger salute out the back window and, instead, settles for quietly seething for the entire thirty-minute journey home. He tips the driver, whom Bond most definitely overpaid but does not seem to have any moral qualms about accepting a few additional quid, and then he stomps upstairs to his flat. 

Quincey Morris is wailing as soon as Q bangs through the door and disables the alarm system, winding in between Q’s feet and mournfully complaining about his status as a starving orphan. Still seething, Q kicks off his shoes, wrestles with his anorak, trips over Quincey Morris three times, and then upends half a tin of turkey paté into Quincey Morris’ supper dish next to the fridge. 

He calms down as he listens to Quincey Morris’ snuffling. Bond is, of course, infuriatingly high-handed and one could interpret his actions as those of a man taking a child out for a meal and then seeing it home for the evening--that condescending prick --but they could also, if one were delirious from lack of sleep and the kind of idiot who is easily hypnotized by a pair of beautiful blue eyes, be interpreted as those of a gentleman chivalrously inclined towards his date.

“That man is being deliberately confounding,” he tells Quincey Morris, who is occupied in slurping down the contents of his dish and can, unfortunately, offer no insight into Bond’s behavior.

~

“007 passed his psych eval this morning,” Sharon announces when she bursts into Q’s office on Wednesday morning. She’s still wearing her coat.

“This morning?” Q parrots, pausing with his mug halfway to his mouth. “But it’s only half-nine.” Having one’s psychiatric analysis performed at this hour--an hour when no human being should be expected to be anything other than asleep--should be in direct contradiction of the tenets of the Geneva Convention.

“He’s being sent out immediately, you should be getting an email any moment now. Turks and Caicos , can you imagine? It must be gorgeous there right now. I’d kill my mother for a trip to the Caribbean this time of year.”

“Sharon,” Q says as he puts down his mug, “I mentioned this in your yearly performance review, but you should know: You truly do physically embody the concept of intelligence-gathering.”

“Thank you, sir,” Sharon says, beaming at him. “Shall I have Faiza fetch 007’s gun and radio from the stockroom?”

“Yes, please,” Q says, navigating to his email. Sure enough, he has an unread message from Eve with a brief overview of the purpose of Bond’s trip to Turks and Caicos--arms smuggling, of course, with a dash of drug-dealing and some question of tax evasion--and the parameters of his cover identity. “Passport, as well.”

“Which one?” Sharon asks politely.

“April 1971 should do it,” Q says, scanning the rest of the email. “I believe that’s the one with the various cocaine arrests.”

“I can’t believe you remember that, sir,” Sharon says, finally appearing to notice that she’s still wearing her coat. She shrugs out of it as she makes for her desk.

“I could be wrong,” Q calls after her. “Double-check it for me, would you?”

He is correct, of course. Q can’t remember the contents of his staff’s personnel files, but he apparently has instant recall for any number of 007’s false passports. It’s almost galling, but Q decides to pretend that he hasn’t realized this peculiarity of his own brain and instead evaluates Bond’s radio and gun for their field-worthiness, does a spot check of the stamps in the April 1971 passport, and then pulls up the roster to see who is available to run agents at the moment. There are only a handful who can actually handle 007, unfortunately, but R has just signed off on 006, Q sees with a spurt of gratitude, and so he calls her into his office and hands off the radio, gun, and passport with a quick summary of the assignment. She has deep, exhausted lines carved into the corners of her mouth and Q finds himself promising her a nice chunk of personal leave once 007 has finished wreaking havoc in the Caribbean.

“Much appreciated, sir,” R replies; she doesn’t actually smile at him, but she gives him a brisk nod as she carts 007’s items back to her cubicle and that’s as good as a smile, coming from R.

After she’s left, Q remembers he still has half a mug of tea remaining; it’s cold but still palatable. He’s draining the last of its frigid, bitter contents, gearing himself up for more VPN wrangling, when klaxons start going off out in the bullpen. It takes him a moment to recognize them; Q branch, notorious for its ability to generate disasters, has a complex alarm system based on, essentially, ringtones that is meant to inform its staff of various dangers.

“Is that airborne chemical contaminant?” Q shouts over the blaring klaxons.

“No, sir, I think it’s the alarm from the firing range,” Sharon shouts back, standing up from her desk as though that will give her a better view of the firing range, two floors above them. “Ah, wait, here comes Penelope, looking on the warpath.”

Indeed, a bare second later, heralded by blaring klaxons, Q branch’s senior biochemist barrels up the stairs to Q’s office and breathlessly announces, “It’s the neurotoxin darts, sir.”

“Of bloody course,” Q mumbles to himself. “Do we need medical staff?” he asks her as he comes to his feet, half-shouting to be heard over the noise.

“We’ve never gotten a chance to test the antitoxin in a human subject,” Penelope says, looking both thrilled and a little trepidacious. “We had better have medical supervise it, I think. The rats were all fine, otherwise I would never have advanced to dart development--”

“Yes, I recall,” says Q, who had been forced to watch not a small number of iPhone videos of rodents exposed to various iterations of Penelope’s novel neurotoxin. “Sharon, call medical and have them send emergency staff to the firing range, if you would? Have you got the antitoxin, Penelope?”

“Ready, sir,” Penelope assures him as they take off for the lifts. “We have twenty minutes before it’ll be debilitating, and about forty before it’s irreversible. Do you--well, we ended up not being approved for non-human primate testing, is the thing.”

“Penelope, if you’re asking me to approve you deliberately delaying administration of the antitoxin so you can make observations of a human test subject, you’re barking up rather the wrong tree.” Although Q is well aware that Boothroyd’s morals had been rather lax in that department, Q had drawn a hard line on human experimentation when he’d been promoted. He’d even written a memo about it and had Sharon distribute it to the staff.

This renders Penelope appropriately shame-faced and she’s quiet as they’re waiting for the lift. Once they are ensconced in its blessedly silent domain, free from the brain-rattling barks of the alarm, Q’s curiosity sparks to life and he asks, “Who’s been poisoned?”

“005, sir,” Penelope says.

Her request suddenly makes sense. “We most definitely should not be poisoning field agents, even ones that we all loathe,” Q says, trying not to sound like a kindergartener teacher and, he assumes, miserably failing, since Penelope bites her lip at this scolding instead of looking properly ashamed of herself. Running Q branch is like herding cats. “For all we know, his replacement could be even worse.”

The lift stops on the fifth floor and Q and Penelope step out into a chaotic mass of medical staff milling around the corridor outside of the firing range, throwing bags of saline at each other and shouting confusing acronyms. “You won’t let me hire interns anymore,” Penelope says, her lips twitching. “Whom else am I supposed to poison?”

“Next financial quarter, I’m letting our accounting liaison cut your animal husbandry budget,” Q threatens, and Penelope laughs as she bustles off to administer the antitoxin to 005.

~

May is a bloody mess: At work, 007 has made enemies of what seems to be all 31,000 residents of Turks and Caicos and it’s all hands on deck at Q branch to make sure he isn’t murdered by some angry hotelier, let alone the arms dealers; at home, Leah breaks her ankle in three places chasing Daniel, pursued by ducks, out of the Serpentine and Elise demands that Q step up to provide additional parenting when she finds her hands too full for all three of her children plus her bedridden wife. Q has to work from home for a week while he’s saddled with his smallest nibling, Sarah, who is old enough for shrieking but not quite old enough for real words.

This is a blessing, of sorts, since it means Q has no time to really think about Bond; but it is also not a blessing, because Q is too distracted to process the implications of approving R’s request for personal leave when it appears in his inbox. He signs it, forwards it to HR, and goes back to frantically shoveling emails out of his inbox, trying to get as many of them handled as possible during Sarah’s afternoon nap.

Later that evening, after Q has Facetimed with Leah and Elise to provide proof-of-life and, tiredly and not quite truthfully, promised the twins that they too may one day visit their uncle’s flat for a special vacation, his buzzer goes off. 

Q, who is expecting neither visitors nor a delivery, leans on the intercom button and says, “Yes?”

There’s a humming buzz and then, “Quartermaster,” fuzzy and quiet.

“Is London on fire?” Q demands.

After a brief pause, Bond answers, “As far as I am aware, no.”

“Good to hear it,” Q says briskly. “I’ve got company, so if you would be so kind as to bugger off?”

Sarah, who is sat on a blanket in the middle of the kitchen floor with a truly absurd number of soft toys--she’s particularly enamored with a stuffed pickle with a lopsided embroidered face and an annoyingly high-pitched squeaker that Q strongly suspects began its life as a dog toy--looks up at Q as though she knows that he’s used foul language in her presence.

“I’ve brought supper,” Bond says, tone impossible to interpret due to the staticky nature of the intercom system.

Sarah squeezes the pickle and then chortles with glee at the resultant squeak. It is true that Q has not prepared any sort of supper for himself, having been occupied with feeding Sarah her daily helping of pureéd yams and Quincey Morris his pureéd turkey giblets. 

Q presses the button that opens the downstairs door and sighs, giving himself a moment of introspection-- what the fuck am I doing --before undoing the deadbolt and throwing open the door. Bond is just coming up the stairs to the landing, holding a brown paper bag with a logo stamped on the side, although it’s smudged and is, accordingly, illegible. “Evening, Quartermaster,” Bond says, not at all winded by how swiftly he’s taken the stairs.

“Does the phrase I have company mean nothing to you?” Q asks waspishly, stepping aside so Bond can get into his flat.

“You let me in,” Bond points out. He makes it about three steps into the kitchen before he spots Sarah and stops, dead still. “Ah,” he says. “Company.”

“Bond, Sarah,” Q says, shutting the door and engaging the deadbolt. “Sarah, this is Bond. We work together. Show him your pickle, will you?”

Sarah obligingly squeezes her pickle. She’s at the age where it’s hard to tell if she’s actually understood Q’s request or is simply so infatuated by her dog toy that a lucky coincidence has occurred. She’s a remarkable amiable creature; unlike anyone else in her immediate family, Sarah is rather laidback and easy to please. She and Q have actually had quite a nice week, with only two bath-related meltdowns and one scare when Quincey Morris had made off with the pickle and hidden it under the sofa.

“Charmed, ma’am,” Bond says to Sarah. He’s wearing a suit without a tie, perhaps in deference to the uncharacteristically lovely May weather, and he puts down the brown paper bag to shrug out of his suit jacket. “I don’t suppose you’ve managed to reproduce in the last month, Q. Is this another sister?”

“This is the one who dances at the opera, don’t you recognize her?” Q says, taking the suit jacket from Bond and hanging it on the coat rack next to Sarah’s tiny yellow rain jacket. 

“Grisette #4, of course; lovely to see you again,” Bond says. He goes down into a squat next to her blanket and offers Sarah his hand. She looks at it for a moment, tiny eyebrows furrowed, and then hands him the pickle. “Thank you,” Bond says gravely. He inspects it and then flicks a look at Q up through his eyelashes. “Is this--?”

“I didn’t buy it for her,” Q says, picking up the abandoned bag of food and lifting it onto the counter. It’s gratifyingly heavy. “If my sister wants to buy her offspring pet toys, it’s her business.”

Bond offers Sarah the pickle and she accepts it back into her possession with enough cheerful vigor that it squeaks. Sarah responds with her own squeal of joy, and then they’re off to the races. “If you want something to drink, there’s probably something in the fridge,” Q says to Bond absently over the squeaking, ripping open the bag to see what Bond’s brought with him. It smells amazing and Q suddenly realizes with a lurch that he’s ravenously hungry. It is possible that Q had forgotten to eat lunch, as Sarah’s own lunch--peas--had required bathing almost immediately afterwards.

By the time Bond has poured them two glasses of cider and Q’s dumped the contents of various delicious-smelling paper containers onto two bowls of rice, Sarah is clutching the pickle to her chest with fingers that are starting to go lax and she’s flat on her back on her blanket, blinking slowly at the ceiling of the kitchen. “Bed for you, I think,” Q informs her, hefting her and the pickle into his arms. She slumps forward, as always surprisingly heavy for something of her miniscule size--babies are so dense --and buries her head in the intersection of Q’s neck and shoulders. She does not offer any opinion on the topic of bedtime, which is as good a sign as any that she agrees.

“Don’t wait for me to eat,” Q tells Bond as he takes Sarah into the guest bedroom to put her down. He puts the odds at about 1:2 that he’ll be listened to, and that turns out to have been about right; Bond is on the sofa, most of his cider gone, but his bowl is untouched. He’s staring into space, a contemplative expression on his face, and he’s petting Quincey Morris, who is perched on the arm of the sofa with all twenty of his claws firmly latching him in place.

“I would ask you why you waited when now we both have to suffer chilled Chinese, but I know the answer already,” Q says as he comes around the sofa.

“Eton?” Bond says, like it’s a question.

“Well, you’d know, I would think,” Q says, not so much sitting on the sofa as slumping so that his entire body crumples into place. “Should I even bother asking what you’re doing here?”

“I want to know how Kenzo gets out of his mess,” Bond says, and it takes Q a rather embarrassing amount of time to realize that Bond actually has the gall to tell Q to his face that he’s come over to Q’s apartment with dinner and a bottle of cider because he wants to finish watching that wretched yakuza show.

“And you don’t have Netflix?” Q says. “Oh, of course not, I forgot, you haven’t even got a flat, have you?”

“Quite,” Bond says. The man looks so utterly relaxed on Q’s sofa, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, that Q would be forgiven for thinking that his recent month in Turks and Caicos really had been a vacation. He’s all burnished, glowing with good health, et cetera; the tips of his eyelashes look like they’ve been dipped in sunlight. It’s honestly so unfair that Q feels like bawling, like a child.

Instead, he digs up the remote from between the sofa cushions and turns on his television. “Do you want me to reheat that?” he asks Bond, flicking a glance at the bowls on the coffee table.

Bond’s fingers, stroking along Quincey Morris’ head, dig into a spot just above his left ear and a rattling purr suddenly erupts out of Q’s cat like an engine turning over. After a few gargles, it settles into a steady rumble.

“No,” Bond says. “But thank you.”

~

Bond is only back in London for ten days before Q has to dig out his May 1974 passport--flagged by Interpol on suspicion of human trafficking--and yet somehow they have time to finish the BBC yakuza show and start a documentary series about Michelin-starred chefs. Bond is much more enthralled by the chefs than he had been by the yakuza, predictably, so Q saves the rest of the series and watches other things while Bond is gone. Not that he has much time for television: Penelope’s neurotoxin darts have hit a wall, R&D-wise, since she can’t get enough of the neurotoxin into a micro-dart, which means Q has to order a liaison between the engineering and biochemistry subsections of Q branch and then force them to play nicely with one another. This goes, in a word, poorly.

It’s late when he’s finally furious enough to be typing up a strongly-worded email about departmental efficiency. Sharon had gone home an hour ago, fleeing after the rest of the staff, and most of the lights on the floor are turned off. Q isn’t expecting to see anyone in front of her desk when he looks up, but there is in fact a dark shadow standing there, looking tall and lean and dangerous. It’s hard to tell if he’s just arrived or has been there for a while. “Good evening, Quartermaster,” the shadow says.

“Evening, 007,” Q replies. “When did you get back? I didn’t get a notification that the May 1974 had gone through customs.”

“I hitched a ride,” Bond says. “Didn’t fly through Heathrow.” 

“Ah,” Q says. He probably shouldn’t be surprised at this; Bond seems to know people in every single branch of the UK government and military, not to mention that his commission in the Navy is still technically active.

“You’re burning the midnight oil,” Bond observes. He’s somehow managed to make it to Sharon’s desk without activating any of the motion detectors for the lights. Q can just barely make out his eyes and tie pin from the way that the glow from Q’s desk lamp reflects off of them.

“Hardly,” Q says. “It just looks that way because it’s summer and I’d have to tie everyone to their desks to keep them here much past six.”

“The famed Q branch dedication at work,” Bond murmurs. He’s so still that it’s becoming the littlest bit upsetting.

Q is uneasy enough that he finds himself asking, “How was Dubrovnik?” as though a polite exchange is going to make Bond start acting like a normal human being.

“Chilly,” Bond replies. “Crawling with tourists.”

“Pleasant?” Q says.

“Enough,” Bond says.

They’re sat there for an entire geologic age of silence and then Q finds himself saying, “Do you need something, 007?” It does not, unfortunately, emerge from his mouth as a waspish reminder that Q has work to be done that Bond is interrupting. Too many evenings spent on the sofa eating takeaway are presumably to blame. Q has done his best not to think about the whys of what he and Bond have been doing, as it seems a recipe for nothing so much as an aneurysm, but the hows of it have been working their magic on him. Bond does not seem nearly so irritating now, for all that he is equally inscrutable.

“I meant to ask you to join me for supper,” Bond says. His voice is strange; a little soft. It might even be uncertainty, which seems unfounded. For all of Q’s pointed remarks, he’s never actually said no to Bond.

“Well, I’m nearly finished,” Q allows. “If you want to buy me supper, I’m hardly going to refuse--although I’m not in the mood for bossa nova. I’d murder some chips.”

Bond says, “All right,” and Q goes back to his email. The worst of his rage has burned off, enabling him to rephrase some of the meaner things he’d said. He ends it with, I would appreciate professionalism from you both moving forward , in the hopes that it’ll shame Penelope and Zahra, his senior engineer, into better behavior. 

“Right,” he announces briskly, once the email’s been sent. “That’s dealt with, let’s get some chips.”

He collects his bag and umbrella and steps out onto the platform, turning around to lock his door behind him, and still Bond has said nothing. Bond is never particularly loquacious, but he can usually be relied upon to supply some manner of conversation; likely that pedigreed breeding is to blame. 

“What’s wrong with you, then?” Q demands as he finishes locking the door and swiping his ProxCard to turn on the alarm system. “You’re never this quiet. Skipped out on medical or something?” He turns around and runs his eyes up and down Bond’s body, trying to see anywhere that bandages might be disrupting the impeccably tailored lines of his suit. There’s nothing in Bond’s bearing suggesting pain, of course, but that’s hardly surprising.

It takes a few seconds for Q’s eyes to adjust to the dimmer lighting. Bond has a bruise under his left eye and a scrape along his chin that looks like it’s been cleaned; Q’s extensive personal experience with skinned knees tells him that it’s not bad enough to need bandaging. “I suppose you look fine,” Q allows, “but if you’ve got a rib sticking out or something Eve’s going to skin me for letting you leave without it being looked at.”

“Would she?” Bond murmurs, which is about when Q realizes that Bond has not moved away to accommodate Q’s having joined him by Sharon’s desk and there’s about ten, maybe fifteen centimeters between them and it’s faintly sizzling. Oh, fuck , Q thinks, quite distinctly. All of the hair on his arms stands on end.

For the first time in his life, Q’s mouth is too dry for a smart comment. Is this what it’s like to be a field agent’s target? Q had thought their meeting at the National Gallery had given him a substantial taste of the experience, but that had been, apparently, a paltry bout of nerves in comparison. He’d sweated a bit and his knees had felt a bit loose but he’d otherwise come out of it all right. Q has the appalled but distant realization in this moment that his knees might actually buckle if Bond touches him, like he’s fucking Marianne Dashwood.

“I’ve never known anyone like you,” Bond says softly, sounding baffled.

“I don’t know how that’s possible,” Q replies faintly. “I’m a genius, of course, but otherwise quite normal, I would say.” He then pauses. “Or do you mean that in the plebian sense?”

“You have no--” Bond says, and then he stops and exhales loudly. He moves back a step but it does not, unfortunately, make Q’s chest feel any less tight. “You introduced me to your niece.”

“I didn’t really have much of a choice about that,” Q points out. “You were already in the flat. It seemed rude not to tell you her name.”

“Q, this weekend I killed twenty-seven people,” Bond says, delivering this statement like he’s irritated that Q can’t differentiate a simple quadratic function. The air is starting to leak back into Q’s lungs. “I do not, generally, find myself introduced to small children by my colleagues.”

Anyone with the remotest chance of running field agents--which is to say, all of the handlers and anyone in Q branch promoted above research technician--has to undergo biannual training for the situation in which Q has suddenly found himself. “Er,” he hedges, trying to remember the bullet points that Tanner had always had at the beginning of the PowerPoint. Don’t lie had been one of them; field agents were trained to spot lies and generally didn’t respond well to them during periods of emotional vulnerability. 

Identify the trigger , that had been the first one. “Is that--upsetting to you?” Q asks quietly.

“I found Sarah quite pleasant,” Bond says. And then, after a long moment--Q is frantically trying to remember the next bullet point--he adds, in a voice that is a little raw, “There were some children the same age. In Dubrovnik.”

Q reflexively squeezes his eyes shut. He hadn’t realized the trafficking was of children. “Oh, Bond,” he says, before he has any chance at all to think about what he’s saying or the tone in which he’s saying it. So it’s that sort of meltdown, then. 

“What did you call it?” Bond says. “The inevitability of time?”

Q opens his eyes and blinks at Bond a few times. “What?” he says.

“I think I’m beginning to feel it,” Bond says. “I thought I did, the last few years before--well. But it transpired that I was just bored.”

Q snorts, totally forgetting he’s meant to be comforting someone having a crisis. Only a field agent would be bored by the kind of disasters that Q had run Bond through in Thiruvananthapuram. Of course Bond would consider fighting someone on top of a bus insufficiently exciting.

“I’ve done this for a long time,” Bond says, like this will be somehow a surprise to Q. But perhaps that’s unkind; he does sound exhausted by it. “I told M I thought it was too long. The game’s changed. Maybe it’s not boring anymore but it’s--different.”

Q does not remember many details of their conversation at the National Gallery; he’d just been promoted, his predecessor and half of their colleagues having been recently murdered, and he’d had to supervise Q branch’s relocation literally night and day until every bit of dangerous equipment had been either moved or neutralized. He’d been sent to meet 007, whom Eve had been certain that she had recently murdered, to the detriment of both of her sense of self and her employment prospects, and the man had had the gall to have those fucking eyes. Q had probably been swotty and mean. He always is when he’s attracted to someone against his will.

“I suppose it’s true that the nature of intelligence work has changed,” Q allows. It’s a topic he’d been forced to extensively discuss with Mallory, right after he’d been made M, when he was making the department heads map out what they thought the future of their branches might be. “When I started working at MI6 I don’t think anyone--myself included--realized how important what I was doing would turn out to be. Maybe M did, as she kept promoting me.” He can’t keep the irritation out of his voice. “Boothroyd thought I was some kind of interesting toy, like a rare species of poisonous spider he could extract something out of.”

Introduce personal details but don’t cloud their narrative , Q now remembers, had been another bullet point. It seems rather late to eat his words back; before he has more than a half-second to think that he’s fucked up helping Bond get through his meltdown, Bond asks, “How long have you been here?”

“SIS?” Q says. “Ten years. Boothroyd got me right out of graduate school.”

“Ten years,” Bond says, like he means to say fuck right off . “You’re twelve if you’re a day.”

“I’m thirty-two,” Q says irritably. “I wasn’t even the youngest department head promoted out of that mess, you know--Natalie Kipyego is twenty-nine.”

“Kipyego actually adheres to the MI6 dress code,” Bond says, which is a depressingly fair point that Q elects to ignore for the time being. He grins at Q as he says it--boyishly charming--and it doesn’t seem that he’s quite so emotionally compromised anymore. Maybe they’ve moved out of the danger zone. 

“Bond,” Q says, “you do realize that this isn’t a job you have to do forever, I hope.”

“Yes,” Bond says flatly, “I think I’d do a bang-up job as the attaché to the ISC.”

“Only an idiot would let you anywhere near Parliament,” Q says, rolling his eyes. “I just mean, people age out of shooting things with big guns whilst hanging out of helicopters. If you think that’s shameful, you’re welcome to go to hell and argue with M about it. Even she had to give up garotting Soviets eventually.”

Bond does not smile at this, but something truly horrible happens with his eyes, which are piercingly blue even in the low light. For a brief second, Q feels like they are the surface of a large, beautiful lake and Q is descending underneath their surface, being swallowed up by them. It feels like if Q keeps going, he’ll manage to find what Bond has been hiding inside of himself. Q has never done LSD but he feels alarmingly similar to what Margarethe had told him it was like--as if he only has to tilt a little bit more to the left and then all of the mysteries of the universe will align themselves.

“Come on, then,” Bond says. It’s impossible to know how long Q has been staring at him like an idiot cow but it’s probably a very embarrassing length of time. Despite this, Bond looks neither smug nor perturbed; his mouth has relaxed into a loose, gentle curve. “I believe I promised you some chips.”

~

Q is in the bathroom of his flat a week later, spraying his ferns with the shower attachment, when Elise calls. “Do you suppose she has me under surveillance?” he asks Quincey Morris, who is supervising the ferns’ bath from atop the closed toilet lid. “Otherwise, I don’t know how she’d always know to call when I’m home and feel obliged to answer. Yes, hello?”.

The Queen of Spades closes in two weeks,” Elise says. “It’s Margarethe’s last show of the season. You have got a ticket already, haven’t you?”

“No,” says Q, “I do not.”

“She has a solo, or a pas de deux or something,” Elise says, somehow managing to sound officious despite obviously not knowing the details of which she speaks. “It’s famous. You ought to be there.”

“I only ever manage a few per season and Margarethe clearly doesn’t mind--” Q tries, which he already knows from past experience will not work. 

“It’s! Famous!” Elise says. “Mum and Dad are coming down the last Saturday, so you ought to try to see if you can make it--of course, we bought our tickets ages ago, so you probably won’t be able to manage sitting with us, but we can get supper afterwards or something.”

“At half past eleven?” Q says skeptically. “Mum and Dad’ll be right out, if Dad even manages to stay awake for the whole thing.”

“Leah and I have a babysitter,” Elise informs him. “We’re making a night of it.”

“I can’t believe you’re wasting a babysitter on the possibility that Mum and Dad will be able to wait until midnight to have supper,” Q says. 

“If you don’t come, I’ll tell Margarethe that you called her dancing a waste of a babysitter,” Elise says and then she hangs up. A few seconds later, his phone buzzes with a calendar invitation-- OUR BABY SISTER’S BIG NIGHT --7.30pm in two weeks. 

Do you ever think about how you’d be a happier person if you’d kept working after the twins and had all those minions to boss around instead of just bothering us? Q texts Elise.

I’d still tell you what to do , Elise replies swiftly. She’s probably right; it’s not like she was that much easier to deal with back before she’d had children.

Q takes out his aggression on the ferns, which get a rather more thorough washing than they had originally been in for, and then he goes after the pile of coffee cups in the sink with the hose attachment. Quincey Morris, perhaps sensing that Q’s current mood might result in his own bath, disappears into the guest bedroom for the rest of the afternoon.

“She’s so high-handed,” Q finds himself complaining later that night to Bond. “I really think she ought to have gone back to work after the twins, although I suppose she might not have then had Sarah, and I like Sarah rather more than the twins. Someone like Elise is only happy when they’ve got everyone under their thumb--oh my god!” he realizes, paralyzed. “She’s M !”

“The English love breeding battleaxes,” Bond observes. He sounds almost Scots by the end of his sentence; it’s the first time Q has heard anything more than a whisper of rhoticity to betray his origins.

“I haven’t got time to contest that absurdly hypocritical remark, as I’m too busy dealing with this reckoning,” Q informs him. “No wonder I always got along better with M than Boothroyd--I’d been Stockholm’d into it by my own sister.” 

Bond smirks at him. He’s leaning against the opposite end of the sofa, his elbow propped against the back so he can rest a hand against his temple. He’s as casual as Bond gets--no jacket, slacks instead of a suit--and he’d rolled up the sleeves of his button-down to wash up after supper and never turned them back down. “Is your mother the same way?”

“God no,” Q says. “I mean, she’s hardly a mouse. But she’s not a high-handed twat and you’ll notice that only a third of her children turned out to be psychopaths.” He fiddles with the drink in his hands--Bond had made him an old-fashioned after supper, with the whiskey and bitters that had appeared in Q’s kitchen cabinets some time in the last few months without his having noticed--and somehow musters the courage to ask, “Your mum?”

Bond lifts an eyebrow. “A battleaxe? Hardly.” His mouth twitches in the corner, like he almost wants to smile but can’t quite manage it. “She was French.”

Q can’t help but bark out a laugh at this. “Why am I not surprised,” he says. “You live in a hotel. You have a family seat . Of course your mother was French.”

“I hardly see what that has to do with my living arrangements,” Bond replies, but his mouth is still twitching.

“Which did you grow up speaking?” Q asks. “I’m a monoglot, I’m massively curious.”

“German, actually,” Bond says. He takes a sip of his drink and clarifies, to Q’s inquiring eyebrows, “Nanny Gruber. And both my parents spoke it, so.”

“The problem,” Q says, “is that I’m sure we’re going to reach the point where you start saying this sort of thing just to be a prick and I feel like we’re nearly there.”

“Probably,” Bond says, “but I can promise you that Nanny Gruber was very much real.” When Q stares at him beadily, he says something very seriously in German that could mean, for all Q knows, fuck you, you gullible idiot . “She taught me golf,” Bond says in English. 

“You golf?” Q says.

“Every Scotsman golfs, Quartermaster,” Bond says.

“I suppose, with varying degrees of enthusiasm,” Q allows. “It just doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you’d enjoy. Not nearly enough explosives involved.”

Bond laughs. “I’m an equal-opportunity projectile enthusiast,” he says.

“So before, when I asked you what you do when you’re not working, what you really meant was: you eat at posh restaurants, go to the opera, and golf?” Q says. “My god, no wonder you’re so massively bored. I’m bored just listening to that.”

“I play poker,” Bond says, looking more amused than offended. “I’m the best player in the service.”

“Is that an objective or subjective assessment?” asks Q, who has very little interest in either gambling or card games but has found himself, against his own will, very much interested in any details of Bond’s personal life that he finds himself willing to share.

“We play a tournament every few years,” Bond says. “Keeps everyone sharp. There’s always a few who buy in from Q branch--were you really unaware of it?”

“Oh, probably it’s been mentioned in my presence,” Q says dismissively. “That seems rather like R’s bag. You know how branch politics go: R’s got her little fiefdom, I’ve got mine, never the twain shall meet except when I have to do everybody’s performance evaluations and suddenly they remember I’m the boss.”

“I don’t know that I did,” Bond says, a spark of something in his eyes that might be curiosity. “Were you never part of R’s little fiefdom?”

“Running agents, you mean?” Q pauses in the middle of a long sip and lowers his glass, suspicion creeping over him suddenly. “That’s an awfully specific question, 007.”

“I’ve had this nagging thought, you see,” Bond says, his voice dropping to an intimate register. “You said something a few weeks ago that struck me as familiar and I couldn’t figure out where I’d heard it before.” When Q flushes, he says, “Oh, so it was you,” and he sounds like he might be actually delighted, somewhere under all that well-bred ennui.

Q clears his throat. “It was just the once.”

“Just the once for me?” Bond says.

“Just the once for anyone,” Q says. “I do it from a rather thirty-five thousand-foot perspective now, of course, when it’s necessary because no one else can be trusted to say witty things about MMORPGs, but when I was your standard-issue Q branch boffin I only did it the once. Which was, frankly, terrifying enough that I never felt the urge to repeat it. How did you get on top of that bus? I’ve always wondered--”

Bond leans across the sofa and kisses Q. He smells so appallingly delicious that Q makes a huffing noise in the back of his throat, trying to inhale. Bond kisses in a very autocratic way, either confident of his welcome or assured that he can defend his claim, and even though he’s not touching Q anywhere other than his mouth, Q feels crushing waves of sensation down the whole length of his body. That’s adrenaline , he thinks giddily as he puts his hand on Bond’s cheek and feels warm skin and the faintest rasp of hair against his fingertips.

“Did you shave before coming over?” Q asks, when they have to stop for a heaving breath.

“Yes,” Bond says.

“That was very considerate of you,” Q tells him. “I’m very susceptible to beard burn.”

“I had suspected as much,” Bond says and then he kisses Q again, this time apparently feeling welcomed enough to put his hands on Q’s shoulders and bear him down into the cushions. Q has gone from being pleasantly warm and cheerful to extremely aroused in the last twelve seconds and it’s making him quite light-headed. He can barely think. Why does Bond smell so good? For fuck’s sake. 

~

“Your mother was French,” Q realizes aloud some time later. “Oh my god, of course . It all makes sense.”

~

Q is sat at the living room side of the kitchen counter, reading through an apologetic email from Penelope, when Bond prowls out of the bedroom the next morning. He’s in his briefs and undershirt and his hair is a mess but in a sexually-appealing and, dare Q say it, French sort of way. His thighs, as Q had discovered last night, are massive. At some point Q will have to try to figure out if he plays rugby, as he has the distinct look of it.

“Morning,” Q says. “Coffee?”

“I thought you hated the AM,” Bond says, squinting as presumably his eyes adjust to the sunny brightness of the living room. Q’s bedroom, with its dark furniture and blackout blinds, is purposefully designed to let in the absolute minimum amount of light. It can be disorienting to leave his cave for the rest of the apartment during the daylight hours.

“I find it morally objectionable to force a person to wake up at this hour, but I haven’t slept yet, so it’s different,” Q says. He means to get up from the counter and make Bond a cup of coffee, but he’s prevented from doing so by Bond, who comes around behind him and puts his chest to Q’s back, his hands braced on the counter so he’s bracketing Q in. He smells only faintly of his usual cologne, but it’s overlaid now by the lavender scent of Q’s laundry soap.

Bonds puts his face in Q’s hair and his chest swells, pressing against Q’s back, as he inhales. “Good morning,” he says, into Q’s hair. “Do you never sleep?”

“Not often,” Q admits. “I dozed for an hour or so.”

Bond shifts his weight, presumably lifting his head so he can see Q’s laptop screen, because he says, “What’s this?”

“Neurotoxin darts,” Q says. “Maybe. If Penelope can ever figure out how to make the dart small enough to be worth the trouble.”

“Is this what got Stuart?” Bond asks.

“Yes,” Q says. “That idiot.”

“Hmm,” Bond says, instead of defending the honor of his fellow double-o, which Q takes as proof that everyone truly does hate 005.

They linger in this almost-embrace for a while, Q absently stroking Bond’s right forearm with his fingers. Who knows what Bond is thinking; Q is preoccupied by how sore but also magnificent he feels and how good Bond smells. It’s been a long time since Q was able to take someone to bed; being Quartermaster of SIS is not the sort of job that is conducive to dating, not unless the person doing the dating of said Quartermaster is a professional tactician with equally terrible hours.

Q’s laptop makes a soft pinging noise. “That’s an email from Eve,” Q says, for Bond’s benefit. He taps around until he’s opened it, at which point he can’t help but make an irritated steam kettle noise.

“What is it?” Bond asks. His head has gone back into Q’s hair at some point. Q is starting to feel almost drowsy from his warmth and steady breathing. It’s hypnotizing in a way that’s far more relaxing than Bond’s trademark blue stare.

“You’re for Istanbul this afternoon,” Q says. “I suppose we ought to head for SIS so I can see you sorted before you go.” He can’t keep the palpable reluctance out of his voice; now that he’s feeling sleepy, the absolute last thing he wants to do is put on clothing and get on the tube. It’s going to be wall-to-wall brunchers and tourists.

“At quarter to eight?” Bond says. “I think we can take a few hours.”

“Oh, yes, please, 007, tell me more about how long it takes to kit out a field agent for an assignment,” Q says, all faux-solicitousness. He drops the act to add, “I’m not even sure I have a radio ready for you, since you dropped the last one into a volcano.”

Bond has the gall to actually laugh at this. “Come back to bed,” he says, moving a hand from the counter to Q’s stomach. He doesn’t try to slip it under Q’s waistband or anything; he just lays his palm flat and puts a bit of pressure behind it. Q’s whole body goes zing with an almost audible snap. “I’ll buy you breakfast and then we can sort out the radio.”

We ?” Q says waspishly, but he doesn’t object further when Bond dips down to kiss his neck.

~

The last Friday in June finds Q for once not in his office but instead outside of Containment Suite C with half of the Q branch engineers--minus Zahra, who is audibly shouting at Penelope in Containment Suite F and getting back as good as she’s giving--waiting on Edith. “All right,” Edith says from inside the suite, turning to look over her shoulder at one of the engineers. “We’re recording?”

“Recording,” the engineer says.

“This is test 27 of item Q-E-089, camouflaged portable incendiary device subtype pen,” Edith says loudly, for the benefit of the iPhone recording her. “I’m activating the device, start the timer,” she adds, and then pauses so they can hear the audible click . “Writing tip is released--looks good--okay, putting it down--” and she puts the pen on the reinforced steel table in the middle of the suite and walks briskly for the door. Once she’s through, one of the engineers not glued to her iPhone slams the door shut and twists the handle to seal it.

“Five seconds,” says the engineer with the stopwatch.

“Fire in the hole!” Edith announces and they all turn away from the door, except for the one brave idiot who is recording through the reinforced window. She’s wearing PPE, although she hadn’t been until Q had come down from his office to watch and ordered her into it.

There’s a muffled bang from inside the containment suite and the engineer with the iPhone whoops. “Right the fuck up!” she says. “We’ll have to measure the blast radius but it looks pretty tight.”

Edith thrusts her fist into the air and yells excitedly as she’s piled on by various engineers, all of whom are shrieking about how they’d known she would manage it, she’s a genius, et cetera. Q goes over to the window while they’re busy cackling and finds himself also impressed by the tight blast radius; the introduction of other materials will make shrapnel a concern, but the device itself seems to be well-contained. “Well done, Edith,” he says.

“Oh, sir, I just tightened the radius--you did most of the work,” she says, and then she blushes furiously. Q lifts an inquiring eyebrow--Edith had not struck him as the sort of woman who took praise for good work as anything other than her due--but a bare second later he hears the clack of heels on linoleum and he realizes why she’s so pink.

“Sharon,” he says, turning to greet her as she swoops down the corridor towards them. “I’m afraid you’ve missed the test.”

“We recorded it, if you’d like to see,” Edith offers.

“Nice, I’d love to,” Sharon says, smiling at her and apparently totally oblivious to being the cause of Edith’s subsequent flush. “Sir,” she says, turning to Q, “007 is here to see you. I had him wait in your office.”

“Oh, thank you,” Q says. “I’m off, then. Have a nice evening, everyone. Edith, please have those videos and your summary to me next week.”

A chorus of “evening, sir!” and the muffled yelling from Containment Suite F follow him back out to the bullpen of cubicles, finally fading as he goes up the stairs to his own lofted office. Bond, wearing an extremely beautiful black suit that looks like a tuxedo, sort of, turns when he hears Q’s footsteps on the metal stairs. “Quartermaster,” he says, eyes dragging up and down Q’s form. “I see you’ve dressed up for the occasion.”

Q is back in his checkered button-down and tie. “Yes,” he says, because Bond’s statement is factual even if it had been intended ironically. “Ready to go?”

Bond languidly stalks in Q’s direction. “You smell like smoke,” he observes.

“I have a surprise for you next week,” Q says. “Not too horribly, I hope?”

“No,” Bond says. “It’s not unpleasant.” He looks like he’s considering whether he’ll be able to get away with breaking Q’s rule that there be no canoodling at work--or, if there absolutely must be, that it not occur in Q’s glass box of an office--and before he can make up his mind, Q shoos him out of the office and rushes to lock up.

When Q suggests they take the tube, Bond says, “Not in this suit, I’m not,” so Q agrees that Bond can spring for a cab to Covent Gardens. It’s a beautiful evening, surprisingly clear and warm, and it’s accordingly wretched going. They get to the opera house with just enough time to show their tickets and be ushered into their seats; Q doesn’t even have the chance to pick through the program to find Margarethe, as the lights dim almost as soon as they’ve sat down. 

Q, despite being forced by familial obligation to attend between two and four operas a year, would not consider himself a fan of the genre in any sense. He finds The Queen of Spades particularly baffling and informs Bond of such during the first intermission, after they’ve watched various schoolchildren run about the stage and the romantic lead fall through a window. Down in the orchestra stalls it’s difficult to read the subtitles where they’re suspended above the stage, so Q is mostly running on instinct and guesswork.

“My poor monoglot,” Bond says, laughing from his eyes.

“Russian, too?” Q says, despairingly. “My god, is there a language you don’t speak--no, don’t tell me, I’ll be too furious to pay attention and I think Margarethe’s shepherdess business is next.”

“I can whisper the translations in your ear, if you’d like,” Bond offers.

“Don’t even think about it,” Q says.

The rest of the opera is, if possible, even more bizarre--there’s some business with a gigantic skeleton--but Margarethe’s shepherdess tableau is very lovely and she looks beautiful, dressed all in white and green. Q hasn’t seen her dance traditional ballet in a long time and he’s surprised by the little spurt of nostalgia it engenders; it reminds him of the many Christmases of his adolescence that he’d spent watching her tackle various parts of the Nutcracker.

Q is not quite following the plot by the end of it, but he’s had a nice enough time. “I ought to say hello to Margarethe,” he says to Bond as they file out with the rest of the crowd after the curtain drops. “If you’d prefer, you can meet me back at my flat.” He does not make eye contact as he offers this convenient escape hatch, looking directly ahead of himself so he doesn’t accidentally step on any little old ladies. He and Bond have discussed, in their usual mean and roundabout fashion, their inconveniently sincere feelings, but meeting Q’s family seems a whole other kettle of fish.

Accordingly, Q is a little surprised to hear Bond say, “No, that’s all right. I’d like to meet her.”

“Oh!” Q says. He can’t help looking pleased, which in turn seems to make Bond look pleased. “Well, all right, let me,” and he fumbles for his phone. Want to get a drink? I’ve brought someone , he texts Margarethe. You’re not to tell Elise , he adds a bare second later, when he sees the two check marks turn blue.

OOOH , Margarethe sends back, and then ???? aren’t you with her?

“Oh fuck ,” Q says, whipping his head up and around furiously. They’ve just exited the orchestra level opposite the grand staircase and it’s too much of a crush for him to have much hope of spotting anyone in particular. Almost as soon as he’s thought this, along with thank god, he realizes that there does look to be an older couple, taking photos on the landing where the staircase divides in two, that seem sort of familiar from the back. He’s considering bolting for cover behind the nearest marble pillar when the couple in question turns around; somehow they immediately spot him and begin furiously waving.

Bond stiffens at his side. “There’s still time to run,” Q tells him, smiling grimly and lifting his own hand in a brief acknowledgement. “No one knows you’re here--I’m sure I can tell Margarethe to stuff it.”

Slowly, like he’s doing it deliberately, Bond’s body loosens and his shoulders drop. “And miss the chance to meet your horrible sister in the flesh? I couldn’t possibly,” he says, clearly set on pretending like he hadn’t been ready to engage the flight side of his fight-or response. “Which one is she--the tall one with the hair or the short one with the nose?”

“Hair,” Q says, “as if you couldn’t tell,” and Bond’s mouth twists into a rueful little smile. Q makes an effort to mime that they’ll all meet outside on the pavement, where it will hopefully be less of a horrible mess of people, but he’s subsequently ignored as Elise and Leah make a beeline for them. He loses track of both them and his parents, but Bond must keep an eye out because he murmurs, “Incoming,” just before Elise erupts from behind someone dressed in a gigantic bright pink dress.

“What a surprise,” Q says, allowing himself to be kissed on both cheeks by first Elise, and then Leah, and then his mother. “Yes, yes, lovely to see all of you. What happened to Saturday night?”

“Well, somebody didn’t bother trying to buy a ticket until they were sold out,” Elise says.

“I traded nights with someone at my office,” Leah explains, because of course she works at the kind of firm where everyone has opera tickets. “Sorry about this,” she adds to Q in an undertone. “I meant to give you a ring to warn you but Elise said she’d text.”

“I emailed you,” Elise says, clearly eavesdropping.

“Did you?” Q says, narrowing his eyes at her. “I must’ve missed it.”

“I’m ravenous,” his dad announces from a distance. If he hadn’t slept through all of the last act, Q will eat the exploding pen prototype. “Are we for supper, finally?”

“Yes,” Elise says. “Margarethe’s coming and then we’ve got a table held at Margot, as apparently Margarethe knows the sous chef.” At this point they’ve elbowed their way to the front doors of the opera house and been vomited out onto the pavement. The flow of traffic is leftwards, towards the taxi stand, so they all move right to be out of the way and then it seems that Elise notices Bond, hand pressed to the small of Q’s back like he’s being anchored in a hurricane, because she says, “Who’s this, then?”

“Oh, this is Bond. Bond, this is everyone,” Q says. Elise shoots him an exasperated look.

“James Bond,” Bond says, smiling at Q’s mother. It’s his field agent smile, which is dirty fucking pool, and Q can almost see her spine visibly wilt at the sight of it. “It’s lovely to meet you,” he adds, taking her hand as she offers it. If he kisses it, Q is going to kick him into traffic.

Perhaps sensing this, Bond shakes her hand, and then Q’s father’s, and then Elise’s, and then Leah’s, who says, “Oh, Mr. Bond, nice to see you again.”

“You as well,” says Bond, looking charming and not at all like the kind of man who might stalk his coworker’s siblings. “I don’t want to intrude on your evening,” he says, hand now returning to the small of Q’s back. “I can meet you back at the flat,” he murmurs to Q, just audible enough that Q’s mother, who has ears like a bat, will be able to hear.

“Oh, no,” his mother says loudly, looking so excited that she’s about to levitate from pure joy, “you must join us. They can add another at the restaurant, can’t they?” she says to Elise. “We never get to meet anyone that you’re seeing,” she says to Q, as if there’s not a good reason for that. And then, to Bond, “Please, do come.”

Eventually it’s agreed that Bond and Q will wait for Margarethe while everyone else proceeds to the restaurant. When they’re finally alone again, Q lets himself relax enough to slouch in relief. “Just Margarethe left,” he tells Bond. “I don’t know why I offered you an escape hatch; you’re so charming and well-bred, they’re going to love you. Mum especially.”

“She looks like you,” Bond says.

“I know,” Q says. “It’s a little disconcerting, isn’t it? I’ve never been tempted to grow my hair out, as I know exactly what I’d look like--which is to say, an electrocuted chihuahua.” Which is perhaps a mean thing for Q to say about his mother, but she had been the one to provide the genetic material that had resulted in his useless mop of hair.

Bond says, “I like your hair.”

Before Q has a chance to offer any response, Margarethe bursts through a pair of double doors halfway down the block. She does a half-circle turn, spots him, and then shouts, “You wanker , did you really tell Elise I wasn’t worth a babysitter?”

Q shouts back, “I’m here, aren’t I?” 

In the time that it takes him to yell this, Margarethe has crossed the distance between them and is very clearly giving Bond a thorough once-over. She’s probably figured out that his suit is bespoke and his wristwatch is an antique; those are the sorts of things Margarethe notices. “Who’s this, then?” she says, in a pitch-perfect imitation of Elise.

“James Bond,” Bond says, shaking her hand and then, when she leans forward, kissing her cheek. “You must be Margarethe. You’re very talented.”

Margarethe waggles her eyebrows at Q and then smiles at Bond. “I am, thank you,” she says. “How long have you been seeing him?” she asks Q. “It’s been ages since you brought anybody around for our inspection. I think it was another year eleven--Gavin or something.”

“I wonder why that is,” Q says.

By unspoken accord they make their way towards the restaurant, Margarethe brightly informing Q that she’d slept with the sous chef a few months ago--”The props department party?” Q asks, and Margarethe says, crossly, “You always spoil the ending of my stories”--and he’d promised her that he’d keep the kitchen open long enough to feed their horrible family if she agreed to go on a proper date with him. “He seems nice enough,” Margarethe says as they turn the corner. “Besides, he knows all the delicious new places--we’re going somewhere in Kilburn.”

Q bites his lip and sees, out of the corner of his eye, Bond’s polite expression turn into a small, satisfied smile.

“Anyway, enough about my sous chef,” Margarethe says. “How did you two meet? Are you at the LSE, too, James? No offense, but you don’t look like you’re in IT.”

Bond says, “I’m not offended,” and Q says, “Well, I think I am,” although he doesn’t really mean it; his sisters are always making fun of him for his work and he’s inured to it by now.

“I’m not at the LSE, no,” Bond says mildly. He flicks a look at Q, face turned away from Margarethe for a moment, and his eyes glint with mischief. “We were introduced by friends.”

Margarethe makes a little moue of disappointment that their grand love story is so boring. “Oh,” she says. “Well, that happens, I suppose.” She stops in front of an extremely posh-looking restaurant and Bond opens the door for her immediately. She gives him a bright smile and then calls, “Mum! Dad!” as she disappears inside.

“Quartermaster,” Bond says as Q makes to follow her.

“Yes?” Q says, pausing.

“I think,” Bond says, “that I would prefer to hear your name from you. Before I hear it tonight.”

Baffled, Q says, “But you know it already, don’t you?”

“Perhaps,” Bond allows. “All the same?” He looks so criminally attractive in his black sort-of tuxedo that the mind fairly boggles that Q is going to take him home after supper and unwrap him from his expensive bespoke trappings; he has always seemed to Q to be more of a mirage than a person. Q has only just begun to realize that Bond has struggled recently with feeling the same way--trapped, somehow, inside of the two-dimensional picture of himself.

Q says, slowly, “Bond, are you a romantic?” He can’t believe it’s never occurred to him before. He had assumed that Bond’s assiduous attendance of the opera was a facet of being wealthy and posh; he hadn’t thought that perhaps the opera itself was a draw, speaking to some internal aspect of Bond’s character. “Oh my god, you are ,” Q says, the longer that Bond says nothing. “I can’t believe I missed that. Were you wooing me?”

“I was indulging my curiosity,” Bond says, but then he smiles a little wryly.

Q knows that some stupid expression has come over his face; he can feel it, even if he can’t tell what it looks like. “Bond,” he says, and then Bond urges, in that velvet murmur, “All I want is for you to give me your name.”

Feeling unaccountably shy about it, Q whispers it into Bond’s ear. “Is that acceptable enough?” he asks more loudly, feeling flushed and flustered as he steps back. “We can go break into the National Gallery and reenact our first meeting, if you’d rather--” but Bond opens the door to the restaurant before he can finish his sentence.

“That is all I wanted,” Bond says. “After you, Quartermaster.”