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Reverberate and Carry On

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It's unusually cool for late March, making Calais seem all the sleepier in the brief respite before the influx of spring-seeking tourists. Bond stares out the window of his assigned vehicle – a standard company SUV, only flashy in its new coat of black paint and large touchscreen nestled into the dashboard. A single pedestrian walks the street he’s parked by, where he's tucked the car unassumingly within a row of equally-dull silver Peugeots and a blue Fiat. Bond watches the man with half-interest, playing the role of cautious spy and suspicious of anyone crossing his path for the sake of something to do. The pedestrian turns at the corner and disappears down a side street, promptly ending that fantasy.

 

The job was determined minor enough to not require a car with any hint of style. This proved to be the case when Bond caught his targets – smugglers with standard narcotics; how exciting – before they jumped the next ferry to England's shores to distribute their product. Now he must pretend to believe it's coincidence that the choice of his ride is too utterly dull for cruising around the French coast for the next two weeks, so that he may instead be prompted to return it immediately before anything could possibly happen to it.

 

The sky reflected in the side mirror is overcast and slumberous, threatening to soon bring more than hanging gray clouds over the city. Bond looks away from the somber weather and switches to the rearview mirror, where the reflection of another person has appeared on the street and is heading his way. There is also the coincidence that the individual he would normally return his equipment to happens to be on holiday in the same area as his mission, but this he can believe. Even someone as critical as the Quartermaster can only work so long before being pushed to mandatory holiday, and a quick jump to France is both convenient and closeby in case any particular disasters require his immediate presence. Q stops with a hand on the passenger's door to observe his surroundings, then pops it open and climbs in with a chilled exhale.

 

“You must have brought London's weather with you,” Q mutters under his breath.

 

“Me?” Bond watches him fiddle with the temperature controls to unleash a blast of heat in the car. “I wasn't aware I was responsible for your inclination to pack light.”

 

“Somehow you tend to be responsible for most things.”

 

And he has packed incredibly light, showing up with only a small backpack in one hand and his usual laptop bag slung over his shoulder. It's hardly enough for a couple changes of clothes, and presumably Q's wearing the thickest cardigan he brought with him. Bond knows for a fact that it's not the first time Q has chosen this city for his obligatory getaway, though he only has this knowledge through secondhand information from gossipy Q-Branch engineers and the casual mention from Moneypenny. It's a fragment of his internal reflection of Q, who sits next to him in the passenger seat of the bland car and rubs his arms for warmth. Lately, he's been itching to know more – what Q is thinking, if he's done any sightseeing, or if he can't stay behind a bit longer and enjoy the tranquil moment with the company he has. Instead, Bond opens the glove compartment and hands over a narrow black box from inside.

 

“As promised.”

 

Q's lips scrunch together as he looks over 007's generous gift, nearly rearranged in the original case it came in. Bond's fit the firearm back into its cut-out shape in the foam, and the earpiece in its own spot next to it, technically. The ragged split down the center and unevenly melted rubber along the cut required a bit of persistence to stuff it back into its designated place. Q clicks his tongue and shuts the pristine case, wisely choosing not to ask how the damage occurred in the first place.

 

“I don't recall being promised more than two pieces.”

 

“All a matter of perspective.” Bond taps a finger against the steering wheel, watching the quiet street ahead of them that leads alluringly to the coast. “What next?”

 

“Istaravshan in Tajikistan, or somewhere east of it.” Q slips the case into his shoulder bag to rest flat against his laptop. “I'll determine the coordinates by tomorrow, but M will make the rest of the calls from there. Presumably an opium trafficking ring is the least of Six's worries during these times.”

 

It is, compared to all the other threats weighing England's shoulders right now, and yet Bond was still shipped here for a task he could do half-asleep. His fist tightens around the steering wheel.

 

“How are you getting back?” he asks, looking over to Q.

 

“By ferry.” Q meets his eyes briefly before going back to rummaging through his bag. “I have a ride waiting in Dover. You can drop me off at the terminal and get back to your last checks around the city.”

 

“You could take a later ferry,” Bond says. “You're still on holiday until tomorrow. I know some places still open for lunch around here.”

 

Q ceases his rummaging, idly nudging a zipper tab on his bag with a fingertip. Calais' off-season silence echoes around them and grates in Bond's ears. He's already expecting what the answer will be, and he doesn't know why he continues to bother asking.

 

“Bond...” Q catches his gaze for just a second longer this time, before ducking his head and tugging his seatbelt on with an affirming click. “The ferry terminal, please. I'll see you back in London tomorrow.”

 

He starts the car without a word, leaves Q at the terminal as requested, and wastes the rest of the evening watching Calais sleep from his hotel room, obeying his orders because he might as well while he still has orders to obey. The local cognac is a stiff companion to entertain for the night and a sorry replacement for who he'd rather share his table with, nor does it help distract from what he knows is waiting for him when he returns to England's embrace, where he'll sit before M's mercy and pretend his file's name isn't highlighted in damning yellow. The sweetness of the cognac eventually stirs up syrupy thoughts, reminding him that now he has a whisper of something else to potentially look forward to tomorrow in London. It's enough to drag him into dreamless sleep with the rest of the city before midnight.

 

Bond doesn't see Q when he returns to London the next day.

 

---

 

Quartermaster: last seen yesterday at the port in Calais, France. Message received at 15:14 confirming his upcoming boarding on the 15:40. No contact with his arranged ride in Dover, and no responses back from the multiple pings to his mobile or laptop, neither of which can be detected via GPS. Bond doesn't become privy to the news until he strolls into Six late in the day and notes the hysterical rush of employees and high-ranking officials who rarely show their faces and usually leave their dirty laundry to M. He gathers what intel there is from the more loose-lipped researchers in Q-Branch and leaves fifteen minutes later, before M or Moneypenny or Tanner catch wind of his arrival and chain him in place.

 

There'll be hell to raise for Bond leaving England without an official blessing from Queen and Country, but his phone remains silent during his illegally-quick drive to Heathrow and his card isn't declined when he purchases the last available seat to Istanbul. Modern rules require procedure, meaning a colossal waste of time while stiff suits debate the appropriate response when one of their most valuable citizens has been abducted. Bond can pack, get halfway across the world, and finish the job in a fraction of the time if M just lets him work as he needs to. M would never allow him to leave the country with this kind of explosive situation on hand, or let him step beyond a three-meter radius from Six's building, so it's more efficient for M to tend to politicians' worries and conveniently forget where 007 physically is.

 

Bond washes his face in the airport bathroom during a brief layover, letting tepid water drip down his face as he checks his reflection in the mirror. He's flown to Istanbul dozens of times in his life, but tonight's flight felt like the longest out of them all. There's a pulsing pain behind an eyebrow that deepens his frown, and phantom aches from old bullet wounds make his shoulders hunch. He rubs his face again to ease the muscles around his mouth and stretches his arms back to force his shoulders to drop. The reflection doesn't change.

 

It's five in the morning by the time he lands in Dushanbe. His passport doesn't warrant any second glances and he's able to take out wads of somoni for the upcoming journey. He spends far too long locating a half-decent cup of coffee among all the options of green tea, and it's too early for any restaurants to be cooking up one of the traditional hearty meat dishes that Bond sorely needs. He wastes less time swapping stacks of crisp somoni for a '95 Camry than finding a car to rent, and a few extra banknotes on top of the stack erases the need for any official paperwork. As long as the license plates are legitimate and won't get him pulled over by Tajik police, Bond doesn't care. He turns the key in the ignition, turns it again harder when the car doesn't immediately respond, and hits the gas once it finally sputters to life.

 

The rising sun burns the side of his face as he heads north, diving into the fabled valleys of the old silk road and drowning between the behemoth mountain ranges swallowing the landscape.

 

---

 

The ancient routes carved around these mountains once carried old-world riches of spices and fabrics. In today's world, it's narcotics that make their merry way west. Bond's mission was to stop a newer, overzealous group from shipping those goods across Europe as they took advantage of the ethnic unrest in their home area to smoothly move product past pesky government eyes. This particular ring is holed up down a quiet road somewhere far east of Istaravshan, according to the chatty Q-Branch engineers, where a set of mud-brick houses and a few sheds give the illusion of a distant village – a clear front that Bond sees through when he notices the nondescript warehouses in the center of it all, revealing the immaturity of this group. The area is one of the few with decent vegetation, offering Bond just enough fruit trees and low shrubs to tuck the car behind. He checks his equipment: his personal Walther, an extra magazine in each pocket of his trousers and jacket, one knife secured to his hip and another tucked in his boot. His small suitcase remains in the trunk, only partly filled with the few changes of clothes and toiletries he bothered to grab before abandoning London.

 

He's been with far less before. Bond pockets the keys and makes his way to the target's building, his shadow just a small speck under the ever-close afternoon sun.

 

A single bullet masked by the silencer gets him past the guard next to the closest warehouse's front door and into an empty hallway where Bond can hear the creak of footsteps descending on nearby stairs. He makes quick work of that guard, then another taking a nap in the halls, and the surroundings fall into a surprising silence. This unit is strangely bare, nothing more than naked hallways and lazy guards watching them as though they aren't aware of the gravity of who they captured. Bond slows his pace briefly to inspect a few rooms, pondering if he should move to the neighboring warehouse, until he reaches the top floor, where each door is barricaded by wrought iron haphazardly screwed into place.

 

How convenient that the one guard on duty there has the keys on his person, which Bond plucks off his still-warm body after a lonesome shot. It makes sense to try the keys on the door that was seeming to be watched, which Bond kicks in once unlocked, falling to one knee and holding up the Walther in preparation of whatever may greet him on the other side.

 

“Ah, 007,” Q says from the desk he's sitting at, as though Bond's suddenly dropped by his front door for afternoon tea and biscuits. “You've arrived.”

 

“So I have,” Bond notes after a beat, cautiously rising to his feet. He closes the door behind him and observes the unremarkable scene. Q's prison cell appears to be more of an actual bedroom, complete with a rustic writing desk, a modest Western-style single mattress on a frame, and even its own small bathroom. The only noteworthy difference to the homely setting is the metal bars outside the single, dusty window to deter any thoughts of leaving via a four-story jump. All in all, a rather comfy scene.

 

More importantly – Bond approaches Q, sitting at the desk with a few books open before him. Sitting upright, talking, breathing, looking in just about normal health, save for a light bruise on his cheek and a surprising shadow of day-old stubble on his chin. Even his glasses are intact, sporting only a couple hairline cracks across each lens. Bond swallows dryly and holds his breath for a second. The moment passes, and when he returns to the present, Q is still sitting before him.

 

“I assume you made yourself too valuable to them.”

 

“Correct, though they're definitely in over their heads.” Q stands briskly and takes his cardigan off the bed, the same one that Bond last remembered him wearing in France. The worst it has, despite its dreadful color that Q tends to favor, is a bit of dirt on a sleeve. Bond bites the inside of his cheek to ensure it's all real. “We were seen in Calais, and they got me at the terminal in revenge for us taking a few of their friends earlier. They have a jet, by the way.” Bond chooses not to announce how positively green Q looks when mentioning that, and simply nods politely at the information. “They don't know the full extent as to who I am. I've passed myself off as a decent hacker, and now they're feeling overeager to build up what minimal tech they have here with my unwilling help. Just a few more days and I might have gotten a line to London, but it looks like M was able to let you act sooner.”

 

Bond stands in the middle of the room and looks at everything except Q. The poignant silence becomes telling on its own, and he has few solid arguments prepared by the time Q approaches with his hands on his hips.

 

“Bond, please tell me you're here on official capacity as ordered by M.”

 

“When have I ever acted outside of when it's needed?”

 

Q raises a suspicious eyebrow at the neutral expression Bond's trying to maintain, almost certainly not buying it, but soon he shakes his head and finishes buttoning up his cardigan. Bond lets the muscles in his shoulders ease, taking advantage of the brief reprieve to relax.

 

“I suppose your unconventional ways are sometimes faster. Just get us back to London in one piece.”

 

---

 

Any agent with a sliver of experience can confirm that escaping will always be harder than getting in. Q wordlessly accepts the knife from Bond's hip, then glances at the firearm in Bond's hand with a frown. It's not one of the latest Q-Branch models normally assigned to Double-O agents, undoubtedly verifying that 007 is not here on official means, but the Quartermaster kindly bites down any pestering questions in mind and silently follows Bond. He avoids looking directly at the messy scenes of the men taken out so far, but does keep looking down each empty hallway with a lingering gaze. Q's body language is dreadfully obvious and distracting enough that Bond stops them for a second to ask what he's searching for. Q waves it off, saying it's nothing, and Bond takes his word for it for the sake of their hasty escape.

 

They make it to the ground floor undisturbed, putting Bond on paranoid alert for the inevitable commotion. He opens a door and promptly closes it before the bullet waiting for him behind it can burrow into his forehead. He kicks the door open a second later, slamming hard metal into their assailant on the other side. Q drops to his knees in the hallway and holds the knife in both fists, keeping hidden while his agent takes care of what is hopefully their final obstacle. Bond rushes in and takes a fist to the elbow in exchange for a shot to the gut. His enemy falls, writhing at the cowardly wound, and Bond lets him squirm for an elongated moment before mercifully aiming at the head to finish the job.

 

A massive arm snakes around his neck the second he pulls the trigger. The Walther falls from his hand and clatters loudly on the concrete floor, only to be kicked further away from Bond's heel in his frantic attempts to resist the assault from their surprise second guest. The man behind him breathes between his teeth like a rabid beast, tightening his hold around Bond's neck while his free hand pounds into his stomach. Then Bond's released and thrown down suddenly, vision swirling with spots as he turns to his attacker, looking up just in time to see the guard grin and aim a pistol right at his head.

 

Bond stares down the dark barrel, imagining the waiting bullet smiling with his name on it.

 

A dull noise rings out – and the man thumps to his side unexpectedly. Bond shakes the remaining spots out of his eyes and observes his attacker: definitely dead, slumped over on the frigid floor, a sloppy shot to the base of the skull that's not the most accurate but good enough to solve the problem. The man's weapon has fallen alongside him, cold and still full with unused bullets. Bond slowly rises and turns around, already knowing the scene he'll face.

 

Q trembles in place, the Walther still gripped in his clammy hands. His eyes are fixed on his messy work next to Bond, pupils wide and blown and despairingly bright.

 

“Q,” Bond says as softly as he can muster. He lifts his hands and takes a guarded step toward him.

 

Perhaps blissfully, a new, louder shot rings out and tears away the scene's impending horror to a new, crippling urgency.

 

Bond watches the unknown bullet rip through Q's side, cleanly shredding through skin and cloth with a thread of blood lingering behind. Q lurches with the momentum, dropping the Walther between them, then follows the shockwave of two more shots, one grazing past his arm and another doing the same on his leg. Bond acts on autopilot, grabbing his gun as Q falls to take care of the two new guards arriving behind them from the hallway.

 

He only has a couple seconds to determine his next move. No further smugglers running down the stairs. Exit door to their right. Quartermaster: shot, apparently conscious, physically curled in to clench his side as blood seeps between his fingers. The scarlet color oozes out onto the floor and burns in Bond's eyes until it's all he can see.

 

“Up,” he orders. Bond pulls Q up by the chest and loops an arm around his shoulder, ignoring the pained yelp. “Move!”

 

Q's unable to say anything past his laborious breathing, but his legs are moving and his hand clings onto Bond's own, and that's the least 007 can ask for right now. There's no one outside the main door, but unmistakable shouts of alarm echo from the surrounding buildings. It's an agonizing hundred meters to where Bond's stashed the car in some shrubbery, and his shoving of Q into the passenger seat is less than graceful. Q grits his teeth but it does little to mute his cries. No time can be spared for comforting bedside manners that'll ease his pain, so Bond slams the car door without a word and rushes to the driver's seat.

 

Hysterically, it takes four attempts to kick the car into life. Bond clenches the key hard enough that it might break, and kindly the damn hunk of metal sputters and shakes alive right as the shouts behind them get louder. Bond slams the gas and hurls them through the bushes to make a direct line to the main dirt road. He glances into his side view mirror after a minute, only to have it blown off immediately.

 

“Get down!” Bond hunches and rolls down the manual crank for his window. He can't afford to look, but from the corner of his eye, Q seems to be slumped over and out of range from any stray shots. The car's engine roars unexpectedly as Bond's driving kicks its modest six cylinders into action, and he swears in that moment he'll carry the car back to England on red carpet himself if it gets them the hell out of Central Asia.

 

A quick check in the rearview mirror shows three vehicles in pursuit, promising to chase them all the way through the forthcoming mountain route if that's what it takes. Bond swerves hard and aims his Walther out the window to pop the front tires of the closest car. It spins frenziedly, barely scratching the car next to it as it rolls over and off the side of the perilous road in an explosion of dust.

 

Bond holds the wheel steady between his forearms as he changes his gun's clip, preparing for the remaining cars catching up. He looks over to Q during that brief pause and instantly wishes he didn't. The blood oozing from the wound has changed the cardigan's color from offensive to stomach-churning, glistening wetly over the hand Q has pressed against it. His other hand is yanking feebly at his seatbelt, which clicks in after a few failed attempts. Bond turns sharply when a bullet hits a tail light, and Q wheezes at the force and coughs for a frightful minute.

 

Bond resets his focus to the rural road clinging to the soaring mountains' edge. Another shot screams out, threatening to lick against their tires, and Bond knows they're dangerously close to the assailants deciding their captive's life is no longer worth the hassle. The road lurches upwards, then down in a pointed dive. Bond uses the brief cover to aim out the window, and pulls the trigger once the car behind them comes back in sight. The windshield cracks with a spray of red, and the car turns off the ledge of the road. In the short reprieve, Bond finally latches his own seatbelt and follows the declining road to the plateaus ahead, where distant houses dot the earth.

 

“Q.” Bond looks between the plateau and the mirror's reflection of the final car catching up to them. He fires two shots out the window; the car veers to avoid a hit to a tire, and lets the second bullet dent the hood.

 

“Q,” he says again, ignoring the vehicle closing in. A debilitating urge trembles in his fingers to reach out and touch the Quartermaster's arm, or squeeze his hand, or rub his cheek and beg to hear the voice that he's gotten so used to having in his ear when he needs it most.

 

Their pursuers ram the rear of the Camry with a mighty jolt. Bond releases one more shot behind them, then the world flips as they tumble down the unsympathetic cliffs and into the unknown.

 

---

 

When Bond wakes, the sun has dropped into the evening, cowering behind not the intimidating mountain ranges, but behind the head of someone staring down at him.

 

Instinct kicks in and attempts to electrify his body with dormant adrenaline, but all he can do is slowly blink at whoever it is, vision swirling in and out of focus. Eventually the shape molds into a young person – a girl after a few more blinks, surely no more than ten years old. He notices her hands on his shoulders once feeling gradually swells back through his body, small fists twisted into his bloodied shirt in her feeble attempts to pull him out of the car. Looking up reveals a grassy ground cushioning his pounding head, and looking down shows the open door of the car and his legs still halfway inside. Beyond that is half the windshield cracked, the dashboard painted with thick splatters of red, and a crumpled form sprawled over his feet.

 

Bond lets out a shuddering grunt when he tries to roll over and upright, pausing to let blood flow from his brain and back into his limbs. His left arm screams when he plants a palm on the ground – broken then, his mind calmly notes. He favors his right as he stands and uses the open car door for leverage. The girl takes a few frightful steps back and gapes in awe, shock, horror, whatever – Bond has better priorities than to ponder her reaction at the remarkable scene.

 

He heaves himself back into the car, cringing when his right knee suddenly spits heat up his thigh, and fumbles to grab the still form with his good arm. His hand brushes away Q's matted hair from his forehead, leaving strings of blood in its wake. His glasses appear to have made it into the back seat, no more broken than they already were when they escaped. The seatbelt has stayed locked – the girl must have undone his own when trying to get him out of the car – but the airbags remain unpopped, because of course the wretched car would only guarantee their safety halfway.

 

Bond nearly collapses on top of Q when his head swims anew. He thinks he would have passed out, if not for the girl grabbing his shoulder again and weakly shaking him.

 

“My house,” she croaks in accented English, strangely enough. She points down the road. “Over there.”

 

Bond's eyes hurt too much when he tries to focus where she's pointing. He sits properly in the driver's seat and blindly checks for the keys. They're still in the ignition, and with miracles upon miracles, the car groans to life after the first turn. Questionable sounds pop from the hood, and the engine wheezes like it's about to start smoking any second.

 

Bond waves an unsteady hand at the girl, motioning for her to get in the back seat. She does without a wasted second and guides him down the last stretch of the road, where foliage becomes nonexistent and the mountains overtake the night sky.

 

---

 

Bond's hands are shaking on the wheel by the time they arrive at the girl's home. It's on the end of a row of houses, all mud-brick and white plaster with front doors painted a cheery baby blue. She jumps out and yanks on the wooden double doors of a shed that's melded into the side of a courtyard's walls, just wide enough to allow the battered Camry passage. It sputters to a halt once inside and gives one fatal whine when Bond removes the key. The girl hastily locks the doors behind them and flicks the switch for the ceiling's single lightbulb while Bond struggles to get Q out one-handed and spread flat on the dusty wooden floor. His broken forearm cries anew as he tears open Q's cardigan with the remaining knife in his boot and peels away the shirt to assess the damage.

 

Gunshot wound, exiting just off the left side and almost exactly between the rib and hip, with barely a flap of skin holding its circular shape. An extra centimeter over would have just grazed harmlessly, while one centimeter the other way may have embedded in the edge of the bowels. Bond carefully lifts Q's side and notes the smaller entrance wound on the back. Perhaps a Colt, if not a choice he'd expect in this area, and nothing bigger than a .380 that's only sliced through muscle and fatty tissue that he didn't think Q had on his wirey frame.

 

Bond wants to shake his head in disbelief. A welcome discovery for their bloody rotten luck right now, not counting the chance of infection or organ damage from the supersonic impact of the bullet slicing through. Deep grazes are visible on the right forearm and outer thigh from the other two gunshots, but they're superficial and simple enough to handle. Terrible shots, really, considering that a fairly accurate firearm may have been used, but perhaps deliberate by their assailants if they really did want to keep Q alive and just scare him into surrendering.

 

Q's chest is bruised, primarily on the right. There's enough glistening cuts on his head to coat his hair in a sickly sheen, and the typical flush on his lips has an undercurrent of blue starting to rise. Bond looks to the girl behind him, gulping in air to ensure he doesn't stutter when he speaks.

 

“Medicine. Cloth or clean bedsheets. Needle. Thread. Hot water. Even vodka will do. Anything.”

 

She nods in acknowledgment, seeming to swallow her nerves for now, and steps past them to exit the shed from a creaky rear door. Bond sways on his knees and wills himself to concentrate on anything to stay awake: the single high window in the shed, the pulsing of the bare lightbulb above, the acrid scent from the car, the faint breath whistling past Q's cracked lips in hopes the voice he knows will come through and assure him. The girl soon returns and sets the requested supplies next to him with an anxious rattle, snapping Bond back into alertness so he can get to work.

 

The gunshot wound is cleaned and wrapped first. Bond soaks a rag in vodka and shoves it at the girl, who catches onto the implication and starts dabbing it around Q's head. Next is the thigh, high enough that it'd be easier to simply cut off Q's trousers, but Bond can't keep a steady hand on his knife. He hands the blade to the girl to cut for him and cleans the graze on the forearm in the meantime. Getting anything around the ribs would require lifting Q, so Bond hopes the bruising is as bad as it gets for now. The girl makes a second trip to bring just-boiled water in a massive pot that looks too heavy for her to carry. She rips up old sheets when asked and hands them over one at a time with shaking fingers. Bond uses the last rags to wipe down Q and saves only one cloth for himself.

 

By the time he's finished, Q's left only in his socks and underwear, stinking of booze and stale bedsheets. Bond slips his hands under him and grits his teeth, bracing for the forthcoming pain in his arm and leg once he lifts the Quartermaster. He nearly stumbles against the doorframe as the girl leads them out the back of the shed that opens into the walled courtyard. They go through the rear of the house and into the main room, where a kurpacha is rolled out in the corner on top of a massive handwoven rug. Bond grunts again as he sets Q down on the traditional bed, sweating by the time he gets the man under the quilts.

 

He limps back outside to the shed, bumping into every doorframe and clinging onto every wall along the way. He leaves the bloodied rags on the floor for later and pours vodka over his reserved cloth, wiping himself down then dunking the same cloth in the hot water for a second wash. There's enough spare wood pieces in the shed to make a quick splint for his arm, which he holds in place with his chin and the hood of the car, and ties it together with the blood-splattered rags using his one good arm and teeth.

 

He polishes off the vodka bottle in four large swallows and drags himself back into the house. The girl is draping more blankets over Q when Bond comes to her side. He opens his mouth to speak, then drops to his knees and lets gravity pull him down with the weight of the world. He closes his eyes, smelling iron, musty carpets, and smoke.

 

---

 

The girl is still looking at him when he wakes late the next morning.

 

Bond shifts and gets an unpleasant reminder of the state of his body. He's vertical, hopefully intentionally, and his cheek itches something awful from rubbing against the old rug beneath him. He struggles upright, putting weight on his – right arm, not the left while that's still pulsing sorely within the splint – and gets into some semblance of a sitting position.

 

New wounds make old ones resurface. Bonds feels the ache in his ankles, the past concussions reminding his head they never really leave, the sharp bite of Moneypenny's bullet, the years of damage surging all at once. He keeps his chin up despite the pops in his neck, and looks down at the child.

 

“Who are you?”

 

“Zarina,” she says after a hesitant moment, dropping her eyes downward. She sits cross-legged on the rug and nervously plays with her toes with boney fingers.

 

“...Bond. James Bond.” So he hadn't been hallucinating that she was speaking English through a whirlwind of adrenaline and head injuries yesterday. He glances around her to take in the main room. Furniture is sparse as expected for the area, ranging no further than a couple low tables and varied rugs hanging on every wall. The traditional rug in the center of the room is the most elaborate piece, though it shows holes and torn threads in random patches. Bond checks behind him; Q is unmoved, still unconscious and buried under a pile of colorful quilts. Breathing. Stable.

 

“You speak English,” he continues, looking away from Q for now.

 

“A little.” Zarina stops fidgeting with her toes. “Mother taught me.”

 

“Are your parents here?”

 

“No. Father is in Russia. Work.” Catching onto her uncertain tone, Bond nods to confirm he understands. “Mother left to find him. Last summer.”

 

“You haven't heard from them in almost a year?”

 

“Happens here.” She shrugs, then quickly points a finger at Q. “I know him. I clean that house sometimes. For money.”

 

Bond looks over his shoulder again. Q remains out of it, unable to confirm or deny her claim in that moment.

 

“Do you know what goes on in that building?”

 

“A little.” Bond's sight has cleared enough to take in more details of the girl in the daytime light. Almost certainly around the age of ten, eyes dark and cheeks slightly concave, with long brown hair loosely tucked into the scarf tied behind her head in a traditional knot. “They say I can have more money in Russia if I go, too. Entertain men.”

 

“Do you know what that means?”

 

She shrugs again. Bond sighs, satisfied with the introduction for now, and starts building the energy to stand.

 

“Will you tell people there is vodka here?” Zarina asks in a rush.

 

“No.” He rotates his shoulders, which only makes the ache worse. “In fact, I'll get rid of it for you. Then no one has to know.”

 

---

 

But first, an assessment.

 

Considering yesterday's winding route and roaring mountainous scenery, Bond's best guess is they're somewhere in the Zeravshan Valley. Zarina can confirm the name of her village, but without a map in the household, there's no telling of their exact location. They could be a few hundred kilometers from the capitol and closest embassy they can rely on, and there's no access to post without enduring a multi-day horseback ride to the nearest city. Jumping across the far-closer borders to Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan is out of the question in the current social and political environment, leaving a trip back to Dushanbe in the car as their only reliable and safe option.

 

And on note of the car. Bond hoists up the hood with his good arm and inspects the damage. The hood only goes up halfway from the various deep indents created during their crash, and the smell coming from the pathetic engine is nothing promising. The windshield is surprisingly in place, if cracked in a dizzying array, and the shattered lightbulbs remove the possibility of leaving at night. Bond tries the ignition anyway, and the car whines for a few twists before going quiet altogether. He inspects the flooring and finds his phone by the pedals with its screen more shattered than intact, and an unpleasant bend towards its center.

 

The dried streaks of blood across the seats and dashboard don't help his mood. He reshuffles his mental list of priorities, grabbing his bag from the trunk and putting the vodka next on his list.

 

Zarina shows him around the sparse kitchen and points out the alcohol in a cupboard – her father's from when he was still around, she explains, and certainly not permitted even though everyone in the village secretly partakes. Bond grabs the closest bottle and takes it with him as he inspects the rest of her home. The wood-burning stove doesn't look like an original part of the household, nor does the single tap for the sink that's unevenly installed in the corner. Zarina mutters that the water's safe, but Bond makes a note to start boiling some for later. The bathroom is also a mixed bag, sporting a bathtub and tap to his surprise, though the tub itself resembles a recycled animal trough. Toilet facilities are no more than a rectangular hole in the concrete ground opposite of the bathtub, and decorations include a small single mirror hanging on the wall and a shelf beneath it. Bond turns away from the plain mirror before he can see the state of his reflection and takes slower sips from the bottle.

 

“Here's what we'll do.” Back in the kitchen, Bond sets aside the bottle and pats the inside of his jacket. Zarina's eyes go wide at the wad of banknotes he pulls out of his wallet, and wordlessly accepts the wrinkled few he puts in her outstretched palms. “Is there a market around here? Go there and buy food. Bread, meat, vegetables. Anything. Medicine if you see it. Understand? Do not tell anyone we're here. Well? Do you understand?”

 

She jumps at his rising voice and nods, clutching the money to her chest.

 

“No one,” she gasps. “Promise. Q is nice to me.”

 

“...Good.” Bond straightens and waves his hand dismissively. “Get going.”

 

He continues picking through the house once Zarina leaves, finding only the vaguest remnants of family life which seem to verify her claim of her parents' lengthy absence. Some women's and men's clothes in musky trunks in the second room. An envelope of photographs under one of the low tables, with wrinkled corners as though someone handles them frequently. An old pack of cigarettes next to a short stack of books. Bond grabs those and rolls the pack around in his hand as he returns to the main room, with nothing better to occupy his time other than wait with eyes and gun aimed at the front door.

 

Two hours later, Q opens his eyes.

 

Bond jolts into rekindled alertness, batting off a new wave of physical exhaustion that last night's sleep couldn't cure. He sets aside his Walther and kneels next to Q, watching how his exhausted gaze slowly rolls over the single window blocked by plain curtains and the colorful rugs hanging from the white walls. Soon those eyes, glassy, bloodshot, but as cool gray-green as ever, rest on Bond and linger. Bond stares back and waits for the voice that normally rests comfortably in his ear. Q heaves a shuddering breath to speak, and instead, what comes out is worn and defeated.

 

“Status report, 007.”

 

Bond slowly sits and rests against the wall next to Q's head. Zarina's been gone a couple hours now with her fist full of somoni, and without her nervous shuffling behind Bond's footsteps, the house is as quiet as the nearby mountaintops.

 

“Tajikistan. Zeravshan Valley. Second of April.” He bites down a sneer. “Reasonable weather.”

 

Q drops his gaze and gives only the slightest of nods. Bond stretches out the fingers of his left hand and soaks in the aching flares that pulse up his forearm.

 

“Quartermaster kidnapped during routine mission in Calais, France, four days ago. Targets were English smugglers bringing narcotics out of Afghanistan and into Britain. Agent 007 found the smugglers' base near Istaravshan for retrieval, rather than sit and wait while the bloody bureaucracy picks its nose and argues over what to do.

 

“And the mission went fine, until we got ambushed and you got shot in the side, in case you're not already feeling that. It looks like they avoided anything vital to keep you alive. We were chased driving away and the car flipped off the road. Someone found us and we managed to get you and the car here before it decided to die.

 

“And now here we are. Stuck in some backwater village, maybe hundreds of kilometers from the capitol, with a car that won't run, with no basic medicine, and the remains of our criminal friends likely terrorizing every nearby village to hunt us down.”

 

But Q doesn't seem to be listening by the time Bond wraps up their sob story. His eyes are distant, boring into some undefined spot on the wall, and his complexion looks paler than when he first awoke. Bond tenses, knowing the look of a man whose mind opens up to first sounds of demonic whispers closing in. Q remembers plenty on his own.

 

“Q–”

 

“Don't,” the Quartermaster gasps. He grabs the edge of the quilt with a shaking hand and weakly pulls it higher up his chest. “Just – don't. Where's your mobile?”

 

Bond has it nearby, knowing it'd eventually be brought up. He first displays the shattered screen, then angles it to the side so Q can see how it bends in the middle. It technically is in one piece, and it's tempting to point that out and lighten the mood in their utterly dreadful situation. Q lets out a hard exhale, and his whole body shudders at the labor that requires.

 

“And our current plan?”

 

“Wait.” Bond throws the device aside. “The car's probably not a total loss. We leave when I get it working again.”

 

The front door suddenly rattles. Bond lunges for the Walther in an instant, lowly aiming ahead and reminding himself of the remaining shots left in the clip. A small foot emerges past the door, followed by cloth bags bustling with vegetables and rounds of golden bread. Zarina shuts the door behind her and double-checks the locks before toeing off her shoes. She gasps immediately when she faces the room, carelessly dropping the bags onto the floor and tugging her scarf away from her face to reveal her ecstatic expression.

 

“Q!”

 

“Zarina?” Q exclaims feebly in disbelief. The girl rushes across the room, all but rudely nudging Bond over so she can kneel next to Q. There's suddenly light in her eyes and color in her cheeks, looking nothing like the timid child Bond's only known her as so far. Getting the hint, Bond roughly gets to his feet and steps back. “Is this...?”

 

“My house.” Zarina drapes her tiny hands over Q's and carefully squeezes. “I saw you. Car crash with Mister Bond down the road. You're hurt, but you are safe here.”

 

Q looks over to Bond, a hundred questions visible in his face over their extraordinary circumstances. Bond has no answers to give right now, so he grabs the bags by the door and lets Zarina catch up with her apparent friend.

 

Once the sun sets and dinner bubbles away in the kitchen, Zarina rattles on about all the regional dishes she wants Q to try, fumbling between English and Tajik in her excitement, but Bond enforces a simple meal plan of bread and broth for tonight. He props pillows behind Q to get him upright just enough to take his soup from the kurpacha, and the girl fills the room with her folk tales and small-town talk. At least Q is more keen on trying the local green tea, and he's able to sip down a cup with his meal much to their host's delight.

 

Bond observes Q throughout the evening, noticing how he nods politely at Zarina's stories but his eyes don't seem focused on her. Some men can't handle the burden of taking life and lash out against invisible demons mocking their cowardice until they succumb. Others continue on quietly, moving forward because they must, even if it means allowing their insides to corrode over time. The latter may be the case here, but Bond doesn't know what to do or say to prevent Q from falling into the depths without a fight.

 

Once Zarina takes their bowls away and cleans up in the kitchen, Q brushes his knuckles against Bond's elbow.

 

“Toilet.” The madman's already trying to push the blankets off and sit up himself before Bond can lend his good arm, face blanching from the monstrous endeavor. “Just leave me to sit and I'll call you when I'm done.”

 

Bond raises an eyebrow, swearing his lips aren't quirking as much as they feel.

 

“Sit?”

 

Q blanches more.

 

---

 

Spare bricks from the shed are quickly assembled as a perch of sorts for Q to lean on whenever doing his business. It takes a good five minutes to walk him one small, agonizing step at a time over to the bathroom, with Bond clinging to him as best he can without placing too much pressure on any of the numerous injured areas. Q's body appears to revolt at every movement, but he pretends to brush off the flaring pain in front of his agent and continues forward one foot after another.

 

Bond has Zarina start boiling water for the tub and pours in one bucket at a time. It's cut with cold water from the tap until it settles at a lukewarm temperature – unpleasant in most circumstances, but Q lets out a relieved sigh once Bond helps him step in. The lack of modesty is mutually ignored for their current situation, even if Q can't seem to help looking away all the time. Bond undoes the makeshift dressings over each wound before attempting to sit him down, keeping all of Q's weight on his arms in hope that nothing tears and spills another pool of blood that the Quartermaster can't afford to lose.

 

“It's broken,” Q notes, seeing the rustic splint of bloodstained rags and flimsy wood.

 

“It's fine.” Bond grabs a cloth and his shaving kit from the shelf under the hanging mirror, avoiding his passing reflection.

 

For all their quips over age and experience, Q can grow an impressive spread of facial hair over a matter of days. Bond whips up a heap of lather and paints the chin, the defined cheeks, and the long stretch of pale neck that invites the eye to move lower. He gets as far down as the ugly wound on Q's side and promptly stops there. Q keeps his head tilted back and body still once the blade starts gliding over his skin, save for the anxious quivers from his fingertips resting on the edge of the bathtub.

 

“Nervous?”

 

“It should be no surprise that I don't trust the fate of anything that comes into your hands.” Q swallows before Bond moves to his neck. “A razor blade. You are a dinosaur.”

 

The familiar banter coming through his weakened voice is a welcome sense of normalcy, but the second Q's face is cleaned, it's back to business. Bond sits on the cold concrete floor and listens to Q's own status report, keeping his ears sharp for the first signs of exhaustion taking over the Quartermaster's words.

 

“Yes, I know Zarina,” Q finally confirms, resting limply against the side of the tub. “She came to my room a few times to clean and drop off food. The smugglers drove her from the village center to their warehouses. She said her father left for Russia two years ago for work, as is common here. And as is also common, the amount of money and contact coming from him dropped inexplicably. It sounds like her mother left last year to find him on her own.”

 

“Reckless,” Bond can't help but sourly note. Q shrugs faintly with a sigh, but he doesn't argue that.

 

“Her mother taught her everything. Highly educated from the city, but fell for a man living in the outskirts. I suppose she couldn't help chasing after her husband. Sick with love, as Zarina told me.” Bond looks down and stares at the concrete while Q continues. “Zarina left school and took on whatever work was available when her mother's money dried up. Our smugglers seemed to be paying her the best for cleaning a few times a week, though it sounds like they would eventually traffic her into Russia.”

 

“And entertain men,” Bond quotes. Q makes a pained grimace.

 

“I think she really was considering it, without even being forced to. There's no other family she can rely on out here. No doubt they've said she could find her parents on the way. I told her not to go. She's quite smart...”

 

Q trails off with a tired shake of his head, and Bond gets to work. It's easier to wait for the water to drain and pat Q dry directly in the tub. His wounds are wrapped again, and Bond doesn't bother with trying to get Q's hair completely dry. They lean against the plaster walls and each other as they limp out of the chilly bathroom, past the warm kitchen where Zarina is humming a traditional tune, and over to the soft kurpacha in the corner of the dark main room. Q barely stays awake while Bond helps him dress in borrowed clothing found around the household and is out within minutes, still hurt, still pale, but finally showing a vibrant flush to his bottom lip. Bond stays there until Zarina comes with her own bedding to roll out next to Q. She too falls asleep easily, the pair snoozing away side-by-side like a well-knit family.

 

Bond leaves them be and goes to the bed in the second room, the gun under his pillow his only companion. He pulls a thin blanket over his legs and stares at the ceiling to contemplate for the next hour. A stove, some indoor plumbing, and water that might not wreck havoc on their organs, he ponders. They can eat, they can rest and recover, and with girl able to run out for supplies, Bond can focus on the car to get them out quickly and back into England's arms.

 

---

 

Bond can't focus on the car.

 

Q spends the next few days delirious with fever. He shudders and squirms, making low noises in the back of his throat but never responding when Bond calls. His eyes clench and his body racks under the unforgiving concoction of illness and painful injury. Bond keeps a wet cloth to his forehead, risks shifting Q on the kurpacha when the blankets get too sweaty on one side, grabs a bowl when Q comes back into consciousness long enough to dry heave.

 

It makes little sense to Bond. He's certain the bullet that sliced through Q only hit tissue he could spare to lose. The cleaning and stitching weren't perfect, but a far cry from how much worse they could be. Any water given to him has been boiled twice as long as normally needed and Bond's felt no effects from drinking it himself. Such a sickly reaction seems too exaggerated and too soon, but they're stranded in a region with limited medical resources and Bond has no other means to diagnose other than guesswork. Zarina's trips around the village don't even bring back a single pill of paracetamol.

 

Perhaps it is infection from injury, perhaps it's a late strain of seasonal flu that Q caught from one of the smugglers along the way here, or perhaps it's all a cruel joke in return for the sins Bond's willingly committed for Queen and Country.

 

If only the bloody car worked, Bond finds himself thinking over and over again as Q's condition deteriorates. If only they weren't stuck in some village on the roof of the world. If only those damn drug lords didn't exist. If only Bond chose to obey procedure and wait for official orders from M. If only he weren't so impulsive. If only it wasn't Q.

 

Bond throws down the washcloth and heads to the bathroom, twisting the tub's tap hard enough to make it screech. He returns and peels back the soaked bedding, the makeshift wraps, the briefs, everything and anything until Q is bared before him. An embarrassed squeak comes behind him as he lifts Q, his arm pulsing harder than before, and he looks over his shoulder to see Zarina, tiny hands over her mouth and eyes pointedly aimed at the floor instead of Q's nudity.

 

“Change the blankets,” Bond orders, moving to the bathroom. “Put down something clean and wash the old ones.”

 

Bond clenches his teeth to hold in pained cries as he attempts to set Q down into the unconventional tub. Q is out for the entire process, never noticing how his agent's arms quiver or how his heart races. The ruthless gamble of infection from injury, Bond recalls from his earliest days of training as he cups cool water in his palms to dunk over Q and changes his bandages yet again. A single mantra whispers sickly in his ears over the roar of running water.

 

Either you live, or you die.

 

Zarina has just finished laying out new bedding by the time Bond returns. She averts her gaze again, but does help keep Q steady as they lower him onto the new kurpacha. Bond sits by his side, drapes a thin quilt over him, and doesn't move until nightfall.

 

The process repeats, day after day, until finally the tremors leave Q's limbs.

 

Bond holes himself up in the shed and smokes four cigarettes as fast as he can in a row, new health policies for agents be damned. The following vodka kills his appetite, but he forces down some bone soup that Zarina cooked earlier just so she stops looking so nervous. He knows she's terrified, always jumping at his commands when he's barking for more boiled water, more ripped rags, and more supplies even if she has to walk across the entirety of the old silk road to get them. She accepts his money, stays out all afternoon if that's what it takes to find what they need, cooks soup every night, swaps out blankets and lays a kind hand on Q's arm, all without complaint.

 

Bond sets aside his bowl to show he's finished, then changes his mind and sucks out the marrow from the bone. Zarina quietly takes the bowl when he's done and shuffles away to clean up in the kitchen. Bond knows he could say something to ease the anxiety in her careful steps, but that would mask Q's strained breathing in his ears.

 

At least there's now a moment for a shave. He rations the soap less than he'd like, and the lather is barely enough to properly coat. He stands in front of the bathroom mirror, simple and square and hanging off a single rusted nail, and works the blade, each stroke leaving a lingering burn in its wake. Bond's done this enough to get a decently smooth end result despite the sparse lather, finishing within minutes. He sets the razor down, wipes his face with a warm, wet cloth, and drags it away to check his reflection.

 

M stares back at him.

 

Bond slowly puts the cloth on the shelf. It's the old M, his M, the M that is six feet under and will never stop finding ways to reach out from the earth and prick at his ankles. She's dressed the same as he last saw her – bloodied, dirtied, and about to perish with the rest of Skyfall. Even in her final moments, she can still shoot him a disapproving look. She would now, if she were still here for Bond to crawl back to in London, and Bond would accept the inevitable tongue lashing, just if it meant seeing her once again. Her lips move, repeating the same damn saying that Bond's been trying to get out of his head for the past three days.

 

Either you live, or you die.

 

Bond wipes down the mirror with the damp cloth and replaces the reflection with himself. The old bat always did have to remind him of things he already knew.

 

---

 

The Quartermaster wakes on his own the next morning with a raspy voice and moderate appetite. Deep wrinkles crease his brow at the pain of slow healing, but his small breakfast remains in his stomach and his heavy nap after appears peaceful. He's beaten the odds of injury and infection, and soon he can make it back to England's loving embrace. Zarina's able to cool his forehead and steep regular rounds of green tea, so Bond finally gets back to the state of the car and their eventual escape plan.

 

He pops the Camry's hood, nudges it when it stops rising halfway, then shoves at it with his good arm to make it fully extend. It's enough to flare burning strains in his shoulder, and he tries not to cough on the billowing dust as he inspects the car under the shed's dim light.

 

The damn thing's in far too good shape for any of this to be real. Shot at in the back, rolled off a medium-sized cliff, and at worst the engine looks like it's been sporting the same coat of grime for the past decade. Bond tries the key again, hearing a click but no further action beyond that. Likely the starter and maybe a few stray connections or hoses here and there, if they're lucky. Nothing that a hammer, screwdriver, and wrench can't help him with to start out.

 

Bond looks around the dusty, bare shed. The only available tools he sees are mud bricks and a rusty nail in the corner.

 

“Wr...wrench?” Zarina makes a face at the strange-sounding word. Bond rubs a hand down his own and asks for ink and paper. He draws out the tools that she doesn't recognize from their English terms alone, mixed with Persian words in hopes they cross over closely enough with her native Tajik. It seems to work, and Zarina makes haste to the village center for the rest of the afternoon.

 

It's barely noon, and Bond's already completed as much as he can for the day. He parks on the rug next to a snoozing Q and works on his Walther during the downtime. It's taken apart, cleaned, and reassembled with the efficiency expected of Her Majesty's ward, even with the room's light dimmed from the curtains he's ordered not to be opened, just in case their smugglers are desperate enough to peek through the windows of every house in their search. Bond looks over to the still-sleeping Q, then checks his watch. Fifteen minutes have passed.

 

Push-ups aren't possible with his broken arm right now, so he settles for crunches. He then moves to squats, but succumbs to the pain in his knee after only five. Stretching is somewhat more tolerable, but has its downside of being deathly boring. He could shave another hour burning away at the borrowed cigarettes in his pocket out in the courtyard, if he weren't so paranoid on leaving Q alone in the main part of the house while Zarina is out.

 

He eventually settles on working through another bottle of vodka and watching water come to a boil on the stove. Q's awake when Bond comes back to his side with a fresh cup of tea.

 

“How are you feeling?”

 

“Like I've been shot below my spleen and thrown off the side of a mountain,” Q replies dryly. Bond interprets that as moderately better. They spend a couple minutes delicately getting Q propped up high enough on pillows so he can take his tea. Bond sits against the wall next to him, already feeling a bit more sore than he'd like.

 

“Nothing for you?” Q asks between sips.

 

Bond holds up the vodka, then takes a swig directly out of the bottle. Q clicks his tongue, looking like he's about to comment, but apparently decides to drop it and continues sipping his tea. Minutes crawl by, with not even a whisper of an echo crossing over the surrounding mountains. Bond taps his finger restlessly against the bottle, trying to fill the room with some sort of noise to prove there's life around them.

 

“How's the car?” Q frowns into his tea. “What is the car, anyway? I don't recall.”

 

“Zarina's out getting a few tools I need to work on it.” Bond takes another bitter swallow of his drink. “...It's a '95 Camry.”

 

Q's brow raises exceptionally high.

 

“You must be suffering.”

 

“Unbearably so. Does this mean I can get the Aston first next time?”

 

“Not a chance.”

 

The corners of Bond's mouth curl in a half-smile. He buries the temptation to check his watch again and concentrates on the domestic sounds of Q exhaling cooling breaths over the top of his tea.

 

“How are you feeling?” he asks again.

 

The exhales stop. Bond presses the bottle to his lips but doesn't take a drink. Another nagging urge rolls in the back of his mind to pressure Q further, to ask if he sees jeering demons when he stares at the white walls, or if he'd pull the trigger again if he had to. Bond doesn't, because he doesn't know how to best justify a license to kill to someone else, and he's always failed Six's psych evaluations for a reason.

 

“I miss my cats,” Q says blandly. Bond accepts that answer and tips the bottle higher for a proper drink.

 

They don't speak again until Zarina returns at sunset. She has no tools, but has splurged on mutton and halvah that she desperately wants Q to try. Bond accepts her apologies with a curt nod and spends the next hour in the dark shed burning through the cigarettes. Unproductive days are always the biggest tests for an agent. Sit and wait. Sit and wait some more, always hoping for the right opportunity when it never comes fast enough. He mentally reminds himself Q is alive despite the odds, and they have shelter and food to last for a while, so he'll wait a lifetime and more if that's what it takes.

 

That night, it's Blofeld's reflection taunting him in the mirror.

 

Bond pauses mid-shave, razor stopped halfway through a stroke down the cheek that's mauled on Blofeld's face – that smirking, smug, self-satisfied face that claims to know it all, tainted with ugliness clawed over a milky eyeball and scabbed skin. Bond slowly finishes his stroke and wipes the razor clean on the cloth over his shoulder. That mocking face could gaze at him eternally and never change in spirit, forever convinced he's laid out all the breadcrumbs and Bond will follow the trail no matter what.

 

The disfigured face leans toward the mirror, pursing its lips to mouth out the path of Bond's next trail.

 

Cuckoo.

 

Bond throws the razor onto the shelf and leaves the bathroom with stubble still present on his chin.

 

---

 

The next day isn't any better. The afternoon drags on like the last one, with Bond waiting in the main room and watching Q shift between deep naps, pained tremors, or staring blankly at the ceiling. He thought he'd enjoy a moment of peace, but the lack of Q's voice when he's so close entices Bond to bring up conversation subjects, any topic, whatever it takes to shatter the uneasy silence between them and help burn the day's hours away.

 

But on what? It's not like they can easily talk about how England's finest carelessly let one of their most valuable assets get whisked across the continent, or how Q could have handled matters on his own and established communication over to Six if Bond just waited a few days. They certainly won't discuss how Q must know that M has been deliberating over Bond's records and coated his age in blinding yellow ink, and especially not about how Bond can't seem to stop himself from asking Q if he's open to going somewhere together sometime, despite knowing what the answer will always be.

 

He wonders if he should at least offer a hand for Q to squeeze when the pain visibly ignites in his body and makes it shake. Bond swallows those temptations away with the burning weight of vodka to keep them down for good.

 

The silence continues until Zarina returns, having secured a screwdriver at most, which is more rust than metal, along with local pastries that's she's splurged on. Bond shoves a crumpled ball of somoni at her and tells her to try harder tomorrow. He walks away in the middle of her attempts to have him try a pastry and smokes down the rest of the cigarettes in the shed until nightfall. Dinnertime follows the same sickeningly sweet routine as the previous couple nights, with them sitting around the low dastarkhan table with a meager feast and the girl talking about the day's dull happenings while Bond reassembles his gun for the hundredth time.

 

The girl comes back early with a hammer the next day, but Bond can't go much further without a wrench. He does what he can for the Camry, double checking all the hoses, ensuring the battery still has some juice, reaching into the maze beneath the hood in pitiful hopes that a clue will drop into his searching hands. It never does, so Bond fills his empty grasp with the last vodka bottle from the pantry.

 

He stands in the concealed courtyard and indulges in throaty gulps under the blaring sunlight. It's unwise to be out here, concealed or not, the short wall not stopping any curious eyes from peeking over, but it's the first bit of sunshine Bond's had in days. Beyond the plaster wall is blue sky, brown mountain peaks with white patches of snow, and absolutely nothing else. The courtyard's small garden has long dried, matching the general lack of life swallowing them. Bond angles the bottle until his neck cricks, and eventually it's enough to dull the pain in his fractured arm, his battered knee, and his restlessness in their prison at the top of the world.

 

Cuckoo. Cuckoo.

 

He stumbles back into the house and bumps roughly into Zarina. She shrieks, he thinks, and hears her rushing into the main room rambling something to Q a mile a minute in broken, terrified English. Bond leans against the kitchen doorframe and hears Q speaking to her – soothingly, rationally, still with a bit of his dry humor and stunning wit that never fails to catch Bond's attention. He wanders into the main room to get closer to that voice, unable to distinguish between the white walls and colorful rugs covering them. The only guidance he has is that confident, comforting voice, which comes out clearly through the haze of drink and bleeding colors.

 

“Come here,” it says. “Lay down here. And don't you dare go anywhere.”

 

Bond obeys, dropping to his worn knee, his broken arm, his entire body which has faced trial and torture and the world's ugliest brutalities, but which still comes to life and crawls back at the sound of an ever-assuring voice in his tired ear, guiding his way home.

 

---

 

Unsurprisingly, the next day is hot, awful, and devoid of any sympathy.

 

“I believe her father may have been an alcoholic,” Q says pointedly once Bond's gotten up and washed the stench out of his mouth. He's not so prideful to deny the high possibility he spooked their young caretaker, so he pulls out a few extra banknotes for Zarina's daily trip and lays them gently in her timid hands, telling her to spend them on whatever she wants. She doesn't look at him during the exchange and keeps her head down all the way to the door.

 

Amends can come later. The car is as far as it'll go today and Zarina cleaned the kitchen last night, so Bond gladly takes on the mind-numbing task of manual laundry. It's a pain to slowly boil pots of water and scrub with only one working arm, but it passes the time and distracts from the hangover he's pretending he doesn't have. Bond rolls up the rug and sets a large bucket in the main room so he can wash while keeping an eye on both Q and the front door. His reflection wavers and breaks in the water as he scrubs sheet after sheet, never settling on one stable image.

 

“You should be drinking the remaining vodka,” he says. “It's the only painkiller we have.”

 

“I don't think I could stomach it.” Q pauses. “And I've had too many disastrous nights with it involved.”

 

Bond's scrubbing comes to a prompt halt, a brow raised in curiosity as he glances over to Q, who doesn't look like he's about to share any details, most unfortunately. The Quartermaster gives him a stern look in return.

 

“What?”

 

“Not going to elaborate?

 

“Many aspects of my life are now classified, 007, including my university days, which are thankfully buried where they deserve to be.”

 

Bond's not sure how much of the classified excuse is actually true, but matters of security clearance levels have never stopped him before. He thinks of what he does know beyond the appearance of messy hair, questionable fashion choices, unmatched brilliance and frequent fulfillment of Bond's under-the-table requests even when it puts his own livelihood on the line.

 

“Two cats and a mortgage.” He squeezes water out of a shirt as best he can in one fist. “What else can you tell me?”

 

The sound of swishing water fills the room with no answer to accompany it. Bond continues his washing, resigning himself to the end of the conversation.

 

“I never finished,” Q says suddenly. “University, that is. It was more of a distraction rather than a place to learn.”

 

“And after?” Bond slows his movements so the water doesn't make as much noise.

 

“Odd jobs here and there. Registering a few patents was enough to keep me well-fed.” Q releases a pained huff when Bond's snort of disbelief rises over the sloshing water. “Why does everyone laugh when I say that?”

 

“I don't think I've seen you consume anything besides Earl Grey until this week.”

 

“Sometimes it's English Breakfast.” Q drags a quilt off him and grimaces when he shifts each leg. “I need to stand. Let me see the Camry.”

 

They must look like quite the pair, leaning against each other like a night out at the pub and clinging to the few spots that don't hurt. It's obviously agonizing for Q, but he grits his teeth and bears it through each shaking step past the courtyard and to the shed. Bond sits him on a brick pile while he pops the hood, opens the doors, and grabs the pair of glasses that have been waiting in the back seat since they arrived. He then brings Q with his arm over his shoulder and leans forward slightly when Q plants a palm near the grille and peers around the engine, squinting through the hairline fractures in his glasses.

 

Bond should be observing with him, but his eyes are fixated on Q as they stand so close to each other. Hearty stubble is already back on his face, well on its way to a modest beard if Bond doesn't tame it again over the next couple days. There are no spots despite his initial mocking upon first seeing the Quartermaster, and most of the skin is smooth and showing the first signs of healthy color across sharp cheekbones. His eyes are clearer too, no longer reddened with fever or sunken from exhaustion, allowing their green hue to radiate forward.

 

“Incredible,” Q states after a minute, and Bond looks away before he can see his reflection in those eyes. “You can roll this down a mountain and have it still look like it's in working condition, and yet an Aston Martin you throw into a shallow river means I have to think of how to write off three million pounds to the government.”

 

“I almost always keep everything in one piece.” Q's mouth opens immediately to protest, likely with an accurate mental list to dispute every incident in detail starting with Komodo dragon, but Bond continues speaking before he can. “What do you think?”

 

Q reluctantly shuts his mouth and glances over the machinery again for another minute.

 

“Somehow it may just live. I'd want to check the starter, naturally, though I suppose that depends on whatever tools Zarina can find.”

 

The diagnosis is what Bond expected, but hearing Q reconfirm it makes their upcoming escape feel all the more possible. He shuts the hood and guides them both back into the house with an awakened energy bubbling in his core.

 

Zarina returns with another full bag and empty-handed on a wrench, but she quietly notes a fellow villager may be able to let her borrow one in the next few days. Bond rests a gentle hand on her shoulder, seeing her jerk at the light touch, and tells her well done and he'll help with tonight's cooking. That seems to be enough to lighten the timid steps she normally takes around him, and he follows her instructions to chop potatoes and dice carrots, ignoring how his arm throbs in its shabby splint with each movement.

 

“How old are you?” he asks for the sake of polite conversation.

 

“...Nine.” She doesn't jump at his sudden question, thankfully. The defensive curl in her spine eases away when she looks over to him. “How old is Q? He says it is a secret.”

 

“It is.” And what a task that was for Bond to unearth on his own, requiring several shipments of pricey Belgian chocolates to Moneypenny over a three-month period. “You're not going to ask my age?”

 

“You are older than the mountains here.” Zarina nods affirmatively. “Q said so.”

 

That will certainly be discussed later with the Quartermaster in private, but Bond doesn't correct her and passes over a handful of chopped vegetables.

 

Their nighttime meal soon turns into a proper traditional feast. Bond lays out the rug and sets the low dastarkhan table close to a wall, which Q can lean against during the dinner. Zarina takes the first sip of green tea as is customary of the host, and watches intently as Q drains his small cup. She passes around a plate of halvah, which Bond's rather sick of at this point but he takes a small piece anyway to make up for all the tea he refuses to drink. They dine on kabuli pulao and rounds of flaky bread sprinkled with dried fruit. Bond eats it all because an agent won't last long across the world otherwise, and Q eats it out of politeness to their host, despite his failed attempts to hide the funny cringe he makes when biting into any of the accompanying sour dairy items.

 

“Mister Bond, what is your work?” Zarina asks with a piece of bread balled in one cheek. Bond and Q exchange a cautious glance.

 

“He works for me,” Q responds for him, gaze narrowing over the brim of his teacup. “When he feels like actually listening to how he's supposed to do that work.”

 

“I thought the company-approved answer was imports and exports,” says Bond, stuffing a chunk of bread into his mouth.

 

“I'm stunned to hear you've actually read the employee manual.”

 

“So...” Zarina interjects, confusion written all over her face at the spiraling conversation. “Q, you are the boss?”

 

“Yes,” Q answers without hesitation, and he downs the rest of his tea in one gulp. Bond chokes on flaky crumbs as the bread muffles his laughter.

 

Zarina cleans up in the kitchen while Bond changes the wraps holding Q together. They're running low on ripped sheets to use as bandages, but Q's wounds have closed and aren't sporting any sickly colors indicating persistent infection. Skin bunches and twists into the gunshot wound on his side, already revealing the signs of permanent scars that Bond couldn't prevent in his patchy stitchwork. The bruises around Q's ribs have turned more yellow than blue, and Bond encourages him to cough to ensure fluid isn't building up in his lungs.

 

“What about you?” Q asks, eyes down at the splint on Bond's arm.

 

“Hurts like hell.” Bond helps him loop his arms through a clean shirt found in the house's decorative trunks. “It'll probably need to be re-broken when we get back.”

 

Q hums in acknowledgment, the low tone coming too-assuredly from his rumbling throat. The corner of Bond's mouth twitches as one of the Quartermaster's many subtle exasperated expressions comes forth, as expected when working with 007 according to Six's busy rumor mill.

 

“Unsurprised? You act like you know everything about me.”

 

“I already do know everything about you,” Q says softly. His eyelids flutter, body submitting to the healing it still urgently needs. “I have to read every agent's file if I'm going to work with them. And yet...”

 

Bond lays on the kurpacha next to him and tries to keep his own eyes open, just for a bit longer so he can watch Q sleep and ensure it's free of pain or demons whispering about murder in his dreams. But he can't, because the room is soothingly cool, the quilt is warm over his aching body, and Q's voice, as drained and broken as it has been since they crashed here, is closer to him than ever.

 

“And yet...I don't understand you one bit.”

 

Bond's lips twitch again, and then he's out for the rest of the quiet night.

 

---

 

They all stay indoors the next day, working through the food that's slowly piling up and keeping any small village talk off Zarina's shoulders. Some locals have mentioned her seemingly-growing appetite, and she thinks she may have seen their smugglers wandering through town. She keeps her face covered when out to be safe, which can draw attention for other reasons in the current social climate, so Bond instructs her to skip her daily run and let the rumors fade into the mountains.

 

Zarina takes the order with great enthusiasm, strangely, and Bond learns why when he later finds her sitting at Q's side with ink and paper in her lap. She draws out the formulas and functions he dictates, nodding at every word and repeating the ones she's not as familiar with to memorize them. Bond leaves them be to warm up soup and leftover rice on the stove as they chatter away, switching between mathematics to English to worldly subjects. In return she teaches Tajik phrases, speaks of her country with wonder and pride, and repeats folk tales of ancient kings and children taming rivers.

 

“What is London like?” Zarina asks once they've sat around the table for dinner.

 

“Dreary,” says Bond. “Foggy, rainy, or both all the time.”

 

“He's saying he likes it there,” Q says to a perplexed-looking Zarina. “It has its perks, if you don't mind some dismal weather.”

 

“Maybe I would like London?”

 

The conversation stalls there. Zarina's shoulders curl inwards as she swirls a spoon in her bowl. Q clears his throat and takes a muted sip of his tea, one finger tapping on the rim pointedly towards Bond's direction.

 

“We need to start gathering the last few supplies,” Bond continues. “Some water to take with us, and fuel for the car once it's working.”

 

“And when the car works...?”

 

“Q and I will leave.”

 

Zarina sets down her spoon, still half-filled with lentils. Bond gets up from the floor and finishes his last bite of rice on the way to the kitchen. He drops the bowl into the sink with a clatter and twists the tap all the way so that the screeching cold water deafens any other sounds that may be crying out in the house right now. There are only a few dishes and two cookpots to clean, but he takes his time scrubbing them with a cloth and lets the water gush and flood and drown all other sensations. The violent spray soaks his makeshift splint, and he lets the water continue running wastefully as he swaps out the fabric in it.

 

When he finally shuts the tap, the house is back to unobstructed silence. He wordlessly returns to his Quartermaster, who sits alone at the table with half-full dishes laid out for two people. Bond helps him shift to the bed, slips him under handmade blankets, checks his forehead for fever and waits for that voice to give his next orders. No voice comes; instead Q looks away and pulls his glasses off between two slim fingers. 007 sits at his side waiting for a discussion on their escape plan, or spot of banter, or the feeling of Q's gaze upon him even though Bond can only bring himself to stare at the floor in that moment, bracing for the inevitable that he doesn't want to hear right now.

 

“Bond, we can't just leave her–”

 

He surges to his feet before Q can finish, ignoring his knee and his arm and the familiar voice calling out to him, away from the damn homely room in the middle of nowhere that has no end in sight, and slams the bathroom door behind him to block it all away.

 

---

 

Bond throws down the razor and looks up to see that bitch in the mirror.

 

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before she decided to finally come visit and see the pathetic situation for herself. Vesper is wearing the same dress she wore on her last day on this miserable planet, soaked with Venice's dirty water dripping off her dark hair and wearing that damn necklace that Bond should have thrown down the canals with her. All she does is stare sadly, that same expression she usually had that Bond was too foolish to see past.

 

“Go away,” he says to the reflection.

 

She doesn't and continues staring with those beautiful, sad, traitorous eyes. That's what she is – a traitor, a liar, some bitch who doesn't matter and shouldn't be looking at him like she knows everything. But she did, claiming to know him front and back from the beginning, and that knowledge cost her everything.

 

“Go. Away,” Bond seethes between his teeth.

 

Again, she doesn't and continues staring wordlessly, for she knows there's nothing she needs to say.

 

Bond shouts and slams his right fist into the mirror, centered over the necklace protecting her heart. The mirror shatters violently and rains shards over the shelf and down onto the concrete floor. Bond stays in place, panting hard and keeping his fist against the spot on the wall once occupied by the mirror. Soon he peels it away and inspects the damage. Long slices on his knuckles bleed happily over his fingers in fresh rivers, decorated by a couple shards sticking out of the skin. He glances down to the broken chunks on the floor, seeing only partial reflections of himself in the pieces.

 

He doesn't know how much time passes before Zarina finds him and places a small hand on his elbow, escorting him out of the bathroom and into the warm main room despite her weak steps and tear-stained cheeks. She guides him to where he should have always been, and he sits next to Q while Zarina gathers supplies. He hears Q's voice but doesn't understand every word, only taking in the general tone in a heavy daze. Bond doesn't feel the shards leaving his hand when long fingers pluck them out, nor the sting of the warm cloth that follows after to lap up the strings of blood, nor the rags wrapping around his shredded knuckles to hold him in one piece.

 

He still doesn't understand when Q speaks again, but he does follow where Q's hands lead him to the kurpacha that's appeared beneath him. He rests against it, head angled towards Q, and lets Zarina drag a soft quilt over his aching body. The girl rolls out her own bed next to him and curls up beneath a blanket, shutting her glossy eyes and rubbing her cheeks dry in the pillow.

 

Bond doesn't deserve her forgiving form to his left, sleeping away like she's resting next to a docile beast, nor Q's soothing hand on his right, running down his arm and resting over his foolish injury. Selfishly, he accepts their presence and sleeps free of dreams.

 

---

 

Zarina returns with a modest wrench and uneasy furrow in her brow the next morning, holding it up to him with both hands like a prized jewel. The bloodshot haze in her eyes from last night has diluted, making the color of her irises regain their shine – hazel, Bond notices for the first time, nowhere near as dark as he originally thought. She jumps when he leaves the wrench in her palms and instead lightly pats her shoulder.

 

“Come on.” He waves his right hand lamely in its makeshift bandages. “I'll show you how it works.”

 

The afternoon sun burns slowly through the shed's small window as they attempt to revive the worn Camry with their meager toolset. Zarina nods eagerly at every piece of information that comes her way and does what Bond's fractured arm and split knuckles can't. Her tiny arms sink into the machinery easily and resurface with grease and dirt and laughter. Bond points out the smudges on her forehead, and she cheekily points out the grime on his own face.

 

The final step is the starter. Bond sits in the driver's seat, checks the handbrake, and holds the steering wheel steady. Zarina waits arched over the engine on the tips of her toes, one arm once again dipped between the maze of machinery to hold the slim hammer in place near the dusty starter. Bond grips the key in the ignition until his fingertips turn white.

 

“Now,” he instructs.

 

Zarina nods and begins tapping the starter with the hammer. She jumps away just as Bond turns the key. There's a click, a second click, a revving whirl at the third click – and then life as the engine roars awake from its lengthy slumber. Zarina watches the buzzing activity stirring around the engine, hands held up in awe and barely keeping a grip on the hammer. Bond taps the gas gently, hearing the tired Camry respond in kind, far from defeated and ready for one more adventure.

 

He slowly turns off the car, removes the key, and rests his forehead against the top of the steering wheel for several minutes, softly laughing at himself until Zarina comes to his side and places a hand on his arm. Bond returns to the present a moment later, seeing past the cracked, bloody windshield to where the path to tomorrow lies ahead, all within his grasp.

 

“Pick up a jug of fuel tomorrow morning, first thing.” He pockets the keys and starts climbing out of the car. “We'll all leave once it's light enough outside and drive straight to Dushanbe. The embassy can handle everything from there.”

 

“All...?” Zarina repeats, shoulders hunched and fingers clenched around the hammer's handle.

 

“You're coming with us.” The hammer does fall at that declaration – harmlessly on the wooden floor, thankfully – and Bond learns that the girl can hit with the force of a truck when she collides against him for a hug. He wheezes at the unexpected grip around his waist, but remains in place and lets her have the moment she needs. After a minute, he adds, “But only if you really want to leave.”

 

That puts a pause in her excitement. Zarina releases her hold to take a step back, gaze shifting left and right as conflicting thoughts visibly clash in her mind. Undoubtedly she's weighing the gravity of leaving behind the only life she's ever known in a nation she loves – a difficult decision for anyone, and exponentially so for a child. Bond waits and lets her ponder it over, feeling a small, guilty pang for not giving her enough credit since they tumbled off the mountain and into her compassionate arms.

 

“Do you...” She stops for a moment and shakes her head. “Can you find my parents?”

 

“Q could. He can find anyone – if they're alive.” The dark point doesn't appear to depress her mood further; she must have already thought of the possibility. “Do you want to find out?”

 

“I don't know.” She ducks her head and starts playing with the hem of her shirt. “Are your parents alive?”

 

“No. They died about when I was your age.”

 

“But you are okay now?”

 

“I had to be.” The answer doesn't seem to satisfy her, and Bond's uncertain she understands what that means. “Zarina, the men who hurt Q will also hurt you if they find out you helped us.”

 

“I know. You will kill them.” Zarina finally looks up to him, hazel eyes wide and agleam in the shed's vanishing daylight. “It is your work. Yes?”

 

“Yes.” The remaining sliver of sun ducks behind the mountains and drops the room into darkness. Bond shuts the car's door behind him and gestures at Zarina to leave the tools and exit the shed with him. “Does that scare you?”

 

“A little.” Despite the confession, she reaches for Bond's torn hand as they head into the courtyard. “But you are usually good, when you are not breaking things or stealing Ast-on Mar-tins. Q says so.”

 

The girl's been fed twisted information about his character for far too long. Bond accepts her small palm in his own and leads her back inside the house, reflecting on yesterday's impromptu lessons where Q acted as the schoolteacher and Zarina his most promising student, soaking in whatever knowledge was offered – book knowledge, that is, useful up to a certain point. It's high time Bond balances the scales a bit.

 

“How about I show you something I can put back together?”

 

---

 

“Bond!”

 

“Look, Q!” Zarina holds up the neatly reassembled Walther, deliberately aiming the barrel downwards per Bond's safety instructions. “I did it by myself.”

 

Q doesn't even feign appreciation at her accomplishment, instead shooting over a glare at Bond and narrowing his eyes further at the innocent shrug the agent gives in response. The judgmental look lacks weight when Q's hair sticks out in more angles than usual, freshly ruffled from the nap he was just taking. He contains his stuffy exhale until Zarina leaves the gun and moves to the kitchen to prepare a meal.

 

“I certainly hope you haven't taught her other skills, such as snapping necks or destroying entire blocks of residential buildings,” Q quips once their young companion is out of earshot.

 

“No, but I was thinking of teaching her how to drive next.”

 

“With your record–”

 

“The Camry works, by the way.” Q's protests stop abruptly. “We're leaving tomorrow morning. All of us.”

 

“Oh...” Q tugs at the edge of his quilt. Bond grabs his gun off the floor and heads to the kitchen, ensuring the “Thank you, Bond” he hears behind him doesn't trip the rhythm in his steps.

 

He spends extra time making Q's last bath here properly hot, boiling as many pots of water that the stove can hold and pouring them into the tub with Zarina's help. She busies herself with packing a single trunk of belongings while he guides his Quartermaster to the bathroom and into the tub. Q's knees no longer tremble and an arm around his chest probably isn't needed when sinking slowly into the water, but Bond assists anyway to help distract from the throb in his left arm and burning slices in his right hand.

 

Even with both limbs aching, he's still able to give Q one more shave before their final escape. He's rationed more soap than really needed during their captivity here, leaving all the more available to whip up into a thick mixture. Q remains still as the lather coats his face, his hands motionless under the water when the razor glides along his skin. A fat droplet of water emerges late from the tap and joins the rest of the bathwater, its splash echoing across the concrete walls surrounding them, but the noise isn't enough to deafen the pounding drum of Bond's heartbeat in his ears.

 

“Would you do it again?” he asks.

 

“Hmm?” Q's throat bobs from the hum and dips away from the blade. Bond places two rough fingertips on the side of the smooth neck, keeping it steady while he leans in to work on the chin. Once again the line of Q's neck encourages the eye to wander, over the faintly bruised chest and down the curve of his stomach, where the gunshot wound is a mere silhouette under the water's surface. The path stops there, blocked by his loosely crossed arms over his lap now that a return to modesty seems natural. Bond holds the razor away and watches that throat bob again when he hovers closer.

 

“Pull the trigger.”

 

The faintest shiver rumbles beneath his fingertips. Q lays still and stares at the wall as he normally has every night since they crashed here, perhaps counting the cracks in the plaster or observing the particular shade of white. A man will imagine anything possible to ignore the dancing demons screaming murder in the background, though Bond can't recall what he thought of when his license to kill was first used. Perhaps he thought of nothing and moved onto the next job to keep too busy to think, with the help of drink and beautiful company to carry him further away until he was too lost to find his way back.

 

Q slowly moves his head, brushing the tips of their noses from how close they are. In the subdued glow of the single bulb above them, Bond sees the faintest reflection of light in Q's eyes, and himself in the irises.

 

Bond takes the plunge first. He cranes his neck at a strange angle to close the gap and connect their mouths. The razor falls from his hand, clattering somewhere in the room to be forgotten for as long as he can stretch this moment. Q makes a muffled sound between them and exhales harshly from his nose. Bond assumes the following noise of agitated water signals the end, but it isn't – Q's hands emerge from the surface and blindly drag over Bond's hair to hold him in place, dripping ticklish lines of water down their faces. Bond wants nothing more than to cling back in return, but he keeps his broken, destructive hands on the rim of the bathtub and grips until his bones creak.

 

“I can't–” Q suddenly starts between their lips, and Bond's first instinct is to withdraw from both Q and the rest of this cruel, cruel world, but the Quartermaster continues speaking before he can fall away into the depths. “I can't give you what you want.”

 

So that's it – that's what it was this entire time, and what a blissful relief it is to hear. Bond leans in again as the weight of the world evaporates off his shoulders, and he catches the corner of Q's mouth, feeling tremors in his jaw.

 

“You already do,” Bond rebukes. “You have since the beginning, just as you are.”

 

Q sucks in air like it could be his last, like his unmatched, brilliant mind can't process being admired simply for the way he is. The only explanation, Bond thinks, is that everyone else in Q's life before him was just an even bigger fool.

 

“What's your name?” he mouths over Q's lips. He's unsure what prompted the question within him, or if there's any purpose in asking. Q sighs warmly, falling silent as the question lingers in the steamy air.

 

“Does it matter?”

 

“...No.” Bond closes the fraction of distance between them to plant more soft kisses across his cheek and chin. “It doesn't.”

 

---

 

“You know so little about me,” Q later says once they're back in the main room. Bond hands him a quilt and starts rolling out his own kurpacha next to him.

 

“I know enough.”

 

“Really.” The yawn behind his hand waters down Q's skeptical tone. He lays back on the bedding slowly, still grimacing from the aches but able to manage on his own.“Such as?”

 

“I know you constantly have to make tea because you'll get busy and can only get through half of your mug before it gets cold.” Bond lays out a third kurpacha for Zarina and unfolds a quilt over it. “You don't let anyone see your mobile, but I know you must have thousands of cat pictures on it.”

 

“Is that the nonsense my researchers have been feeding you?”

 

“I'm only listing the ones I know are true.”

 

Q's doubt is obvious on his face, but he doesn't refute anything out loud. Bond lays on the bed next to him and soaks in the surrounding sounds, hearing Zarina pad around in the kitchen in one ear and Q's deepening exhales in the other.

 

“I know you believe in your skills,” he continues, not looking over to see if Q's still listening. “I know there's no one smarter than you.”

 

Their young companion soon joins them with a small trunk she nudges against the wall, filled with the only items she'll keep from this life. She unties her headscarf to lay on top, ready to grab first thing in the morning, and wraps up her work with a quick, muted prayer. Bond can't tell what she's whispering in her native language, but he imagines his own translation of the hopeful words and requested blessings she may be saying for all of them.

 

“I know there's no one like you, even if I don't know that much about you. I know that always gets me in trouble, but...”

 

Zarina reclines on her kurpacha and gradually matches her breathing with Q's. Bond shuts his eyes and rests his arms along his worn body. Before he fades away, the faintest brushing of skin ghosts down his forearm, past his wrapped knuckles, and over his hardened fingers as Q's hand seeks the warmth of his palm beneath the blankets. Bond turns his hand so their fingers can loosely entwine, even if only briefly before they submit to sleep. In the moments he has before plunging into the cool depths, he fills his lungs with air and speaks one last time.

 

“I know you believe in me, and I know I'll hear you when I need you most.”

 

---

 

Bond rouses Zarina once the sun begins to peek over the soaring mountains. She's half-asleep on her feet as she washes her face and combs her hair, but soon enough she's rushing around the house to prepare for the day ahead. Bond counts out bills from the slim stack of remaining somoni in his wallet and hands them over once she's finished arranging her scarf over her head.

 

“Just a jug of fuel for the car, and some bread for the ride. Go as fast as you can.”

 

“I'll run,” she promises. Bond pats her once on the shoulder, then they part.

 

A familiar rush of adrenaline begins to boil in the pit of his stomach as he makes his own preparations. It's similar to the tense minutes leading up to the explosive start of a mission, but the heavy stakes crawl under his skin and pinch his buzzing nerves. Bond falls into the trap of second-guessing himself and triple-checking his work, all costly actions that would be fatal in the field. There are canisters of water and their sparse collection of tools in the car's trunk, should the hunk of metal decide to crap out again at the edge of a cliff. Zarina's trunk of her few belongings is in the rear seat and the keys await them in the ignition. He stomps around each room of the house, checking that they've cleared all food out, or that no pieces are missing from his shaving kit, or that his Walther still has as many bullets as he last remembered counting, or that Q continues to snooze away peacefully in the corner of the room. Bond kneels to his side, checks his gun again, then tucks it loosely in his waistband before returning to the shed.

 

The rattle of tiny footsteps soon begins to rise past the front door and through the house. Bond's familiar with the sound of Zarina's steps now, which come in rapid succession as she races through the courtyard. There's a thud on the opposite side of the shed's back door, followed by a noisy swish of liquid in a plastic jug. The door bursts open a second later and Zarina tumbles inside, a container of fuel landing on the floor with another thud. She tears her scarf off her face and runs into Bond with a frightened wail, too hysterical to speak and hiccuping between each breath. Bond's eyes shoot towards the open shed door, where only dust and mountains seem to be closing in.

 

“I saw – two o-of them,” Zarina finally speaks between gasping sobs. “The people who t-took Q. In the market today.”

 

“Did they see you?” Bond shakes her shoulders when she doesn't immediately answer, trying to get her to look at him through her tears. “Zarina! Did they see you?”

 

She heaves a shuddering breath and nods once, ducking her head in shame and letting fat tears drop to the floor. Bond releases her shoulders and rises to his feet, eyes back on the open door behind her. The kid's practically led the smugglers here, if they didn't already know the location of her house, and they'd be right to assume she'd flee to the exact place they want. She should have run elsewhere, she should have hid, she should have gone up into the mountains instead of point a target right at them–

 

Bond uncurls his fists and relaxes his shoulders. She should have also left them to fade to dust from the beginning, and yet she chose to pick them up from the earth and burden herself with their presence.

 

“Wake Q and bring him to the car.” Bond picks the container off the floor and clenches his teeth when the skin over his knuckles splits anew. “We're leaving. All of us. Now go!”

 

The bark is enough to snap her out of her fright. Zarina spins on her heel and rushes out of the shed without another word like a novice soldier. Bond ignores the painful stabs in both arms as he refuels the car, cursing at the slow pour. The jug is a meager five liters – better than nothing and the Camry's already got a massive tank, not accounting for what's been burned so far over Bond's aggressive driving. The jug gets tossed away once it spits its last drop, and he jumps for the shed's barn-style double doors. He pulls away the weak wooden locks, yanks open one door, and instantly gets punched in the jaw.

 

Bond lands on his back with a wheeze, seeing black spots and choking on dust. There's no time to shake the spots away, but through them he can see an unknown man – just one, no doubt from their friendly local smuggling ring, and with more guaranteed to follow if Bond doesn't act.

 

He rolls over when his assailant tries to strike again in the ribs. The absence of metal poking his sides as he rolls away indicates his Walther is not on him, possibly flung who-knows-where when he was first thrown back. Bond makes do with a nearby leftover brick, chucking it at his attacker's face to buy a few seconds while he gets to his feet and scrapes for the small knife in his boot.

 

The man is awfully fast for his beefy size, knocking away the brick with a thick arm before it can make impact. He leaps through the cloud of debris just before Bond can yank out the knife and wraps his burly fingers around the agent's neck. A hard knee in the stomach pins Bond back against the floor as the man hovers over him and sinks in his thumbs. Bond kicks his legs, one hand clawing at the iron grip crushing his throat and the other trying to reach for the knife against his ankle. His fingers finally find it, curl around the handle and tear it free to plunge wherever he can see first through his rapidly-darkening vision.

 

The smuggler roars and the pressure frees. Bond heaves for air, begging his throat to open up faster while he still has time. He vaguely sees the knife's handle poking out from a shoulder when the attacker stumbles back on his feet – enough to stun, but shallow from the weakened state of Bond's injured arms and just inches away from anything vaguely fatal. The man pries it out with barely a cry and whips droplets of blood off its blade and onto the floor.

 

Rather than focus on the impending threat, Bond stares at the dull reflection of his eyes in the knife's blade as it's whipped clean. The attacker stares between the knife and Bond, a predatory smirk stretching his lips, and he raises the weapon to aim directly at the agent's heart.

 

A muted shot rings out across the valley, and the knife plunges into the floor. The assailant stumbles back and clings onto the small hole near his collarbone. A second shot follows and burrows in his shoulder before blood can start seeping out of the first wound.

 

Bond looks over his shoulder to see Q at the rear door, leaning against the frame and holding up the Walther in two shaking hands. Sweat drips down his brow and flicks his eyelashes irritably, but that doesn't stop Q from locking eyes with the man and taking two feeble steps forward. Disregarding the attacker's submissive display of hands held up and gasping for mercy, Q lifts the gun higher to coldly aim the silencer's slim barrel squarely at the man's head.

 

When the trigger pulls, Bond doesn't see Q flinch.

 

---

 

Zarina holds her headscarf over her eyes with one hand and grips Bond's wrist with the other, blindly following him through the shed and into the back seat of the car. Her breath comes out in frightened rasps, but she does as told and swears to keep her eyes covered until Q says it's safe to look. Bond's arms are in no state to drag the heavy man's corpse out of the shed and throw it somewhere hidden, so it'll have to stay and rot where it is until the other smugglers catch up, or when the villagers begin to smell it, whichever comes first.

 

Q takes the passenger seat once Zarina is settled. Bond holds his breath as he twists the key in the ignition, the car mercifully turning on a moment later without needing another rap of the starter. He drops the handbrake and cautiously toes the gas while in reverse. The engine rumbles enthusiastically and powers the car backwards to emerge out of the shed and into the welcoming sunshine across the plateau. Bond squints between the cracked windshield and bright light, searching for a dirt road angling southwest. He turns towards the first one he sees and slowly builds distance between them and the house.

 

“You can look now, Zarina,” Q says once the grisly scene left in the shed is well out of sight.

 

The girl gasps and tugs her scarf down. She spins in her seat and watches the scenery of her home shrink as they drive away, leaving a trail of thin dust in their wake.

 

Хайр,” she whispers, then she hunches in her seat and cries into her hands.

 

---

 

The first hour of the drive is silent save for Zarina's waning sniffles from the rear seat. Bond leaves her be, giving her space to weep out her emotions until exhaustion takes over and she nods off against the back door. Q stays fixated on the scenery while they twist through the dizzying mountain roads, only speaking up in quiet tones once it's certain their young companion is asleep.

 

“It is quite beautiful out here.”

 

Bond's had his fill, but he figures he may as well spare one last look at the view. The unforgiving terrain shows signs of smoothing out ahead, spotted with lush greenery – a promising sign of a nearby body of water, and likely people along it banks.

 

“I suppose it's always an option for holiday if you're feeling inclined.”

 

The Camry jostles them up an incline with a distressed whine from the engine. Q seethes between his teeth at the unexpected squeeze of the seatbelt against his sore abdomen. Bond nudges the gas to give whatever juice the car needs to overcome the towering slope, then cruise down with the declining curve of the snowcapped mountains, where a river splits down a valley and paves the way into a sizable riverside town. Its center bustles with people out and about on the sunny early morning as they cross through, unconcerned of who they are and the trials they'd been through and the bodies left behind as proof. Bond recognizes directions to the M34 once road signs become more abundant and turns south, where Dushanbe calls to them only a few hours away.

 

“It'll still be rough for most of the way,” he notes, recalling the uneven drive when he first arrived.

 

“I've never seen you handle a car so gently.” Q carefully squirms in his seat to find whatever angle has the least amount of pressure on his sides. “If only I'd known to assign you Camrys from the beginning.”

 

Bond leaves that hanging to not encourage the idea any more seriously. Another bumpy patch has the Quartermaster squirming again, and Bond's first instinct is to push the brakes, which only leans them further into the pressure of their seatbelts. He reaches out blindly with his wrapped hand, unsure of what to do other than provide the offer. Their fingers brush when Q tries to wave it off, dismissing the pain that can't be helped, but Bond keeps his hand hovering low in the space between them. Moments later, smooth fingertips dance over his bandaged knuckles and curl into his calloused palm. Bond feels for Q's squeeze of their hands as an indicator whenever he's taking the road's curves too hard, and adjusts accordingly.

 

“I would do it again,” Q states suddenly. Bond shifts his one-handed hold on the jittery steering wheel.

 

“I'm not doing my job right if you have to.”

 

Right would imply you're actually following procedure.” Q returns to gazing at the intimidating mountains. “Do you remember your first few?”

 

“Not anymore.”

 

“Mm.”

 

“Not much comfort I can give there.”

 

“This is enough.”

 

Bond braces himself for the world to flip him off the cliffedge and down into the unknown again. Instead, Q keeps him in place with another clench of their hands, though not from the bumpy ride as they follow the next labyrinth of engulfing peaks and distant blue skies that stand between them and their next destination. For a rare instance in his life, Bond knows he has everything he needs to make it there.

 

---

 

Just as the afternoon sun reaches its highest point, they arrive at the embassy. Bond rolls up to the outside street and slowly twists the key. The Camry shudders and whines at the loss of life, then goes disconcertingly still. Bond tries the key again out of curiosity, and is not even granted with a single click. He pats the dash once in thanks, unfortunately while Q's looking.

 

“I'll have it airlifted right to Q-Branch.”

 

“I'm sure the strict budget you're always reminding me about is better spent on other resources.” He opens his door and throws the keys in his seat without a second glance. “Everyone out.”

 

He keeps one hand steady on Q's shoulder and the other holding Zarina's trunk, with the girl gloomily following their steps and disinterested in the city sights. Bond wasn't so foolish as to leave behind his identification in London, though he's partly expecting Her Majesty herself to burst out from the entrance, smack his 00 card out of his hand, and spit on it in disgust. Instead they're calmly led down the main hall and pointed to an office for further assistance. The declaration of a firearm on their persons is brushed off, and Zarina's small trunk of belongings isn't searched before they're allowed in. Bond leaves Q and Zarina on the plush chairs just outside the office, shoots a suspicious glance around the hall, then enters the office himself with a hand near his Walther.

 

“Excuse me,” he announces, approaching what appears to be the receptionist's desk, with the back of a cushioned office chair facing him. His hand hovers between the gun and his documentation, but once the chair turns around, he knows neither is needed.

 

Miss Moneypenny, the beautiful, amazing, unmatched Eve Moneypenny, leans back in the chair and shows off her most dazzling smile. Bond's barely able to say a word before she races around the desk to collide against him and squeeze her arms around his chest. Bond swallows down a wheeze, but is nonetheless delighted to learn that her iron grip hasn't changed since he last saw her. And she must be as equally delighted, clenching harder when she leans in for a wonderfully friendly kiss square on his lips. Bond revels in the well-known scent of her perfume and soft bounce of her curls dancing against his forehead. Moneypenny's still beaming when she leans away and loosens her grasp, with a telling twinkle in her eye that informs Bond for his own sake, he better not do anything that'll make her want to kiss him again.

 

“You right bastard,” she greets cheerily. “Another day and I might've upturned every house in the country to find you myself.”

 

“I've no doubt of that.” Bond rubs her arms comfortingly, allowing their reunion to stretch out just a moment longer before returning to business. “I have Q.”

 

She nods, expression going neutral and posture pulling taunt like a string. A purse is the only thing she grabs from the desk, which swings heavily over her shoulder. She walks briskly out of the office without waiting for him, a soldier's pace in her steps that makes Bond miss her presence in the field all the more. Moneypenny is just as jovial to see Q once Bond catches up to her, though her hug is far gentler and her kiss greets him modestly on the side of his temple. Q returns her embrace with a relieved sigh and quiet assurances that he's fine, somewhat, and the details can come much, much later.

 

“Who's this?” Moneypenny asks, now turning her attention to the small girl seated next to Q. Her warm smile doesn't waver, but her eyes do catch Bond's, full of curious questions. Both men open their mouths to speak.

 

“Zarina,” their young companion says, speaking up for the first time since their departure. Her hands twist against each other and her tone is grim, but she's able to look directly into Moneypenny's eyes. “I took care of Q and Mister Bond.”

 

Moneypenny doesn't need to look that exultant at the claim of Britain's finest being under the mercy of a child's care, and Bond will remind her later of the fact. He approaches her side and nudges her arm before her eyebrows can reach any higher on her forehead.

 

“I assume we're set to leave now,” he says pressingly.

 

“Of course – just one more thing.” Moneypenny slips a hand into her bag and comes to Q's side. “Q, before we head off, can you check something for me over there?”

 

“Where?” Astonishingly, Q looks away right as Moneypenny's hand surges out of her purse, neck exposed and ready for the syringe curled in her fist. He makes a delayed noise when the plunger sinks, slumping against his seat and into Moneypenny's waiting arms mere seconds later.

 

Bond didn't think Zarina's eyes could bulge that wide. He waves an assuring hand at her, which doesn't put her at any ease. Moneypenny pops the cap back over the used needle, drops it into the void of her purse, and beams another smile at Bond.

 

“Get your stuff. It's time to go.”

 

---

 

Moneypenny's level of preparedness is as expected, and Bond thinks not even England deserves a woman like her. She has an SUV ready for Bond to stuff the unconscious Quartermaster into comfortably, packed with enough supplies to either keep a small city running or take it over, or both, and she has the fastest route to the airport memorized so that they can jump onto her chartered jet without a second's delay. She doesn't question Zarina's presence, at least not yet, and kindly gives the girl a tour of the plane while Bond works on propping Q in a reclined seat and wiping the string of drool away from his mouth.

 

“He's fine,” he tells Zarina a third time as he helps her buckle into her own seat. “Just sit tight and clean his mouth if he starts making a mess.”

 

“Is Miss Moneypenny the real boss?” Zarina whispers, eyes over Bond's shoulder to where she can see Moneypenny sitting in the cockpit.

 

“Something like that. England would fall without her.”

 

He leaves an awed Zarina to ponder that and joins Moneypenny in the cockpit for takeoff. Fifteen minutes later, they let the world shrink beneath them and begin chasing the sun as it burns a path across Europe. Bond attempts to get one more glance of Central Asia, but the glaring sunlight flares out the view. He hunches in his seat, angling away from the sun's blaze so he can instead view his reflection in the glass.

 

“Was doing that to Q necessary?” he asks Moneypenny once they've reached their altitude.

 

“Not really, but I'm sure he's stressed enough – and I'd rather not clean sick off the carpets.”

 

“Noted. How long have you been here?”

 

“One week. We found some mysteriously-empty warehouses outside of Istaravshan but no trail beyond that.” Her hands grip the controls for a moment, then release as she seems to drop the lecture on the tip of her tongue. “You had us all worried, James. Don't do it again.”

 

“Has M said what he'll do?”

 

“I believe your punishment will amount to being drawn, quartered, and thrown in the Tower for the birds to clean up,” She gives him another smile before returning to the parting skies ahead. “I'm sure he'll be glad to see you and Q.”

 

“You know he's been reviewing my status,” Bond mutters.

 

“Give him some credit.” A hand drapes over his own and squeezes briefly. Her fingertips still sport hardened callouses, slyly hidden under the glossy allure of her red-painted nails. “He thinks better of you than you know. Just don't be surprised if you're strongly recommended to take an extensive holiday. I hear Cornwall is particularly nice this time of year.”

 

Bond would rather drop to his knees and take on M's wrath directly than join all the pensioners driving their decades-old caravans out west. He drops those thoughts and begins giving Moneypenny the rundown of their lengthy escapade, with just a few personal details redacted. She wags a finger at her purse and tells him to start typing on the small laptop in there, as there's little excuse not to start the paperwork that will be demanded of them the second they reach England's shores. Bond reluctantly writes out his report in a more timely fashion that he usually does, and doesn't bother proofreading to avoid having to re-read his mistakes.

 

With that chore out of the way, he checks in on Zarina as they soar towards Europe, who has her nose smashed into the window. Bond takes the seat across from her and waits for her to peel her face away, leaving a smudge behind when she does.

 

“Where are we?” Bond leans closer to check where her finger's pointing.

 

“We're above the Caspian Sea. We'll stop in Kiev to refuel. It'll still be several hours until we get to London.”

 

“London,” she repeats in a dreamy daze. “And after?”

 

“They'll probably take me and Q for medical treatment. You–” He holds up a hand, stopping Zarina before she can speak. “You'll stay with Moneypenny. We'll figure out what to do from there.”

 

“I can't stay with you and Q?”

 

Bond leaves that unanswered and gets up to start the pot of coffee he's been craving for nearly two weeks. The minibar whispers to him from the cabinet below, and his fingers itch to grab whatever bottle is closest to add to his drink. A glance behind him shows Zarina with her head drooped, now staring blankly at her shoes instead of taking in the majestic aerial view. Bond skips the minibar for now and grabs the nearby water kettle.

 

“I understand,” Zarina blurts out when he returns with a cup of tea for her, though her tone lacks confidence in her own words. “It is your work, yes?”

 

“Somewhat.” Bond kneels at her side, his worn knee only giving a slight throb, and sets the cup in her chair's holder. “I don't have what it takes to take care of someone else.”

 

“You do.” She snatches his wrist suddenly, threatening to tip over the piping hot mug of coffee in his hand. “You took care of Q. And me.”

 

Bond rubs her knuckles, trying to get her to loosen her desperate grip. She retracts her hand shyly, looking sheepish at her abrupt reaction, then turns to the window when the Caspian Sea glitters with a flash of golden sun. The reflecting light ignites her eyes, and she smiles for the first time all day.

 

“Besides,” Zarina continues, “you cannot argue with a lady.”

 

“Is that right?” Bond gulps down a mouthful of coffee despite the heat and revels in the jolt that shoots up his neck and through his fingers.

 

“That's right.” She nods with her hands on her hips. “Miss Moneypenny says so.”

 

That's far more troubling than whatever ideas Q had been feeding the girl before, and gives all the encouragement Bond needs to finally crack open the minibar and have a splash of coffee with his whisky. In the rumbling thrum of the jet's engines, there's little room to hear anything else, but when he looks over to the still-sleeping Q, his heartbeat roars in his ears. It must be the coffee, he thinks to himself, and he takes another hearty swallow to make that thought more persuasive as he sits across from Q for the rest of the flight.

 

---

 

The second they land in London late that evening, time moves in a blur.

 

Q remains blissfully under the influence of whatever outrageous concoction Moneypenny pumped into his veins, which makes it easy for the medical team to plop him onto a stretcher and whisk him into a generic-looking ambulance. Bond barely gets a word in before Moneypenny pushes him into a different car, pausing for only one second so that Zarina can wave goodbye before slamming the door.

 

For once, Medical is ecstatic to see him, and they're unusually careful in unwrapping his ragged bandages and rustic splint for x-rays. Soon after he's stabbed with a hefty dose of painkillers and barely registers the re-snapping of his arm, though he does catch a little fuzzy chatter about the color of his cast. Medical must be particularly elated if they're feeling brave enough to even consider the thought and consequences of wrapping his arm in bubblegum pink.

 

And then, sleep. The drugs they picked for him are especially potent today, maybe from the same stock that Moneypenny had, making vibrant colors bleed through white behind his eyelids. Dreams bombard him all night and jump frenziedly between tranquil scenes in snow-kissed hills to a sudden drop into a pit with red-tinted glass and phantoms calling to him from the bottom. He's groggily woken the next afternoon to be released with a cream-colored cast in a sling over his shoulder and a paper bag of pills to keep him company.

 

Bond doesn't see anyone for a week.

 

He accepts his isolation as a deserved necessity and spends most of it in his bare flat. The walls remain white without all the pictures he's been meaning to hang these past few years, and they certainly won't get hung now. He may as well organize a couple things and do some minimal cleaning to make the place look slightly more lived-in – a silly thought, he realizes, when there's no one he's expecting to visit and see what he's done to the space. Grabbing take-away and whisky down the street are his only means of human interaction, but beyond that, his backup phone remains silent and nobody comes to his door to check on his status.

 

Bond flips the old phone model in his good hand every night, debating scrolling through the contacts and trying his chances of receiving some hint of what comes next. Moneypenny may only know as much as M tells her, or so she may claim to keep Bond in place, and she's better off focusing on Zarina's case for asylum. Tanner probably wants nothing to do with the international disaster Bond nearly caused and is wisely keeping his head down.

 

As for Q...

 

Bond replaces the device with a heavy glass of whisky and tries submitting to the relentless burn scorching down his throat. It's not enough to drown the yearning for that voice in his ear, so Bond lets himself sink into wishful dreams each night, where a hand takes his own and assures his weary heart. It's selfish to desire someone who fulfills his needs for nothing in return, he knows. He's greedy for coming to Q's call, taking his expensive tools and returning with only broken pieces at best. And yet, Q said his mere presence is enough, that knowing Bond wants him as is gives more than he's ever received before. If that's the case, Bond will give all of himself when the chance comes, if Q will accept this battered, beaten agent, weighed down with sin and fatigued from past loves, who struggles to see what will come tomorrow without someone kindly guiding him there.

 

Finally, his summons come after a week of solitude. He's not requested to be at Six until evening, long after most of the day staff have left, leaving him with little else to pass the time beyond his thoughts in his empty flat. Bond showers slowly and shaves carefully, boring holes into the mirror's reflection throughout every stroke. The image is worn and weathered no matter what angle he looks, but at least it's of himself.

 

He drags his tired body to M's office at the precise time he's requested. Moneypenny says nothing as she buzzes him in, only offering him a silent, half-sympathetic look at his wrapped left arm hanging uselessly in its sling. Her appearance is immaculate, making him feel more outmatched than usual in her presence, and the previous M's portrait hanging opposite of her desk dwarfs him even further. Bond spares a glance into her painted eyes, still seeing judgmental exasperation, but perhaps also a hue of forgiveness if he convinces himself enough that he's ready to accept it from her.

 

M is at his desk, casually looking over a small stack of paper files. Bond can't help himself as he sits in the stiff chair across M and leans forward a bit more than needed, sneaking a glimpse of the files' lettering. On top of the pile is his name and his birth date, highlighted in glaring yellow.

 

“How are you feeling, James?”

 

“Never better,” Bond deflects. James. He may as well turn in his gun and walk into the muddiest depths of the Thames.

 

M puts down the sheet he'd been reading and rests his elbows on the desk, simply staring at the agent for a solid minute. Bond stares back, unafraid to look into those eyes hardened by England's bidding, but apprehensive for what may come when M breaks away.

 

“007,” M says, returning to business, “I hope I don't have to explain to you the severity and recklessness of your actions, considering how many times we've been here before.”

 

“No, sir.”

 

“And I hope you understand the consequences that typically come with such actions.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“It's a miracle all of Parliament isn't crammed into my office right now to–”

 

“You're right, sir.”

 

M goes quiet again and sits back in his chair with a low sigh. Bond can't bring himself to look into those eyes again, so he resorts to staring at the damned files on the desk. His life, his age, and all his secrets are stamped into plain paper so that he may be judged safely from a distance. After a moment, he sees M's hands tidy the pile and move the files aside, out of sight and out of mind for now.

 

“Why did you go, Bond?”

 

“You didn't block my passport or cards.”

 

“Leaving you stranded in Dushanbe's airport would just encourage you to trigger another international crisis. Answer the question, 007.”

 

“Based on the simplistic nature of my recent assignments, I thought you might choose to send someone else.” Bond picks at a stray thread hanging from his cast and snaps it off in one yank. His right hand protests at the movement, reminding him that the slashes on his knuckles have closed but not yet disappeared. “Perhaps I went because I should have ensured the Quartermaster left Calais safely, and failed to do so.”

 

“That's a fault on all of us, not you.”

 

“Then perhaps I went because I'm impulsive. Selfish. Is that what you want to hear?”

 

“That would be a promising start to your usual track record. Has this little unapproved adventure humbled you?”

 

“You want me to retire,” Bond blurts out. He eyes bore into the files, pushed away but still irritably taking space on the desk. M laces his fingers together with another sigh.

 

“You know Double-Os usually don't get to decide their age of retirement. And you've almost reached the ability to choose. Will you be able to accept it with grace when you reach the mandatory age?”

 

“If there's still time, it's almost as though there's no need to have this conversation now.”

 

“What do you want, 007?”

 

“I want to see the Quartermaster, then be on my way. Sir.”

 

Silence clouds the room for a minute. Eventually M reaches for a small folder next to the paperwork that Bond hadn't noticed earlier. It's a light blue color without any title stamped on the front, and holding only a single sheet of paper when Bond takes it and opens it. A brief read over its contents immediately had Bond wanting to take back the bites he aimed M's way, but M is already waving him off in dismissal before he can get a regretful word in.

 

“Regardless of your fate for severe disobedience, you'll still be put on mandatory leave in the meantime for your injuries, plus some time to reflect on your future. Normally I'd suggest Cornwall, as you could use some ocean breeze to clear your head, but the crowds are dreadful this year, I've heard. Perhaps something north would be more relaxing. Say, Inverness?”

 

---

 

Q-Branch is empty by the time Bond escapes M's office with the blue folder. He strolls along to the back, taking quick peeks into the bays along the way to guess what the engineers were working on earlier. The disorganization seems worse than normal, perhaps an aftereffect of no Quartermaster for a couple weeks to hover over their shoulders and insist on making some sense of the mess. Bond nudges open the back office's door with his shoulder, hearing light chatter from the other side – two voices, both well familiar in his ear by now and a most welcome presence.

 

Zarina drops a tablet onto the couch the instant she sees Bond, leaping over to squeeze him around the waist. Bond nearly rocks on his heels from the impact, and he pats her once on the head. She's still wearing a traditional scarf tied behind her neck, but her clothes are new and typical wear for London's trendy youth. Q remains sitting at his desk with a steaming cup of tea in his Scrabble mug, which he brings up for a sip to mask his low smile.

 

“Easy.” Bond pats her back until she lets go. Q returns to his laptop for the moment, likely wrapping up the day's work, so Bond joins Zarina on the scratchy couch. “Have you been here all day?”

 

“Miss Moneypenny brought me.” Zarina picks up the tablet, only to set it aside a few seconds later, politely giving her full attention to Bond. “You are right.”

 

“About?”

 

“My parents.” She briefly glances over to Q, who appears to be deliberately too focused with rapidly moving his fingers over the laptop's keyboard to be eavesdropping on the sensitive conversation. Bond wonders how long she's known, or what else has happened to her during his week-long isolation.

 

“I'm sorry.”

 

“No. I'm fine.” The crack in her voice betrays her defiant claim. “I have to be. Like you.”

 

“I'm not the best example.” He lets her lean into his side and rubs her arm. Bond struggles to remember his own reaction at the loss of his parents from so many decades ago, in the same way he struggles to remember his first drink, his first kiss, or his first cold death from his own hands. Little of that seems to matter now, but he supposes that's what separates a licensed killer like him from the rest. “Did Miss Moneypenny tell you where we're going tomorrow?”

 

“Yes.” Her tiny hand clasps his. “But I wish to stay here.”

 

“Q and I lead dangerous lives.”

 

“I know. But I still wish.”

 

He can't think of anything to say and brighten her mood, so he continues rubbing her arm and presses his chin on the top of her head. Her fate is also now stamped into a file to be judged from a distance, tucked protectively in Bond's arm and waiting for its contents to be executed far too soon, but at least Bond can ensure her future has more opportunities than his. He nods at the tablet on the couch, trying to switch to more pleasant discussions.

 

“Q's not putting you to work, is he?”

 

“I am looking at pictures of his cats,” Zarina says. “There are two thou–”

 

“Excuse us, Zarina,” Q interrupts, before she can specify. “Bond and I need to discuss some things.”

 

The girl nods and squeezes Bond's hand once more before dutifully going back to the tablet. Q moves away from the desk to stand in front of Bond when he approaches, looking remarkably normal with a new pair of his regular glasses and back in his standard mishmash of clothing. Aside from the slightest wobble and slowness in his steps, neither of which affect his typical upright posture, one could easily be unaware of the harm that ravaged his body. They don't speak for several moments; Bond waits for a sharp tongue to lash out and finally sting him with several weeks' worth of berating, but Q only crosses his arms and waits for him to speak first.

 

“How are you feeling?” Bond starts.

 

“Better.” This time, Q doesn't hang on an answer and brushes a hand over his side. Bond craves to know exactly what Medical's done, if anything, to improve the ugly marks he allowed to maul Q's skin, but he pushes down those questions for later. “Still sore, but better. Looks like I'm due for a little mandatory holiday. Recovery time and all.”

 

“Coincidentally, so am I.”

 

“Really,” Q says, sounding not surprised in the least. “Any suggestions on where to go?”

 

Bond wordlessly holds up the blue folder. Q accepts it with an air of caution and takes his time observing the sparse contents. His eyes skim it again, then a third time, then jump over to the young girl on the couch as she flips though the multitude of pictures on the tablet.

 

“I see. Well...” Q takes out his mobile and rapidly types the folder's minimal information into it. Once saved digitally, he feeds the folder into the shredder next to his desk. “I suppose I'll pack a bit tonight and come to your flat in the morning. Say, before seven? It'll be quite a drive.”

 

“It will. I may want to look into a rental, if you have any ideas. Something classic, perhaps.”

 

“Not a chance.”

 

---

 

Bond hasn't seen her in years, but the DB5 is as beautiful as he remembers.

 

He follows her familiar curves with his fingers, trailing from front to back to the driver's door. It pops open with a gentle tug, and the smell of reupholstered leather welcomes him inside for a deeper look, where the interior gleefully shows off its polished dashboard and ancient tech that hasn't aged a day. The new rear seat is different from his memory, modified for comfort with containers to hold champagne flutes, or possibly various weapons depending on the mood. And it's all here, outside his flat and basking in the breaking daylight, calling to him like a lover waiting beneath silk sheets.

 

“Q, I'm touched.”

 

“It's no Camry, so I hope you can manage. Carefully.” Q passes him the keys on that stern reminder. “There is a child on board.”

 

Said child is technically not on board, and rather preoccupied with sampling an entire pack of chocolate digestive biscuits outside of the car so that the coating of crumbs on her face can fall to the road. Zarina soon notices their stares and she hurriedly wipes her cheeks clean, somehow keeping them free of smeared chocolate.

 

“How many of those did Miss Moneypenny give you?” Q asks with a hand on his hip.

 

“Don't know,” Zarina confesses, voice muffled behind the biscuits in her mouth. She reluctantly drops the rest of the pack into Q's outstretched hand so they can continue with their preparations.

 

There's little dedicated space to store luggage that won't trigger the DB5's assorted mechanics, so most gets piled into the rear next to Zarina. She still has her trunk, plus a tote bag that seems to be half clothes and half local treats. Q reminds that there is strictly no eating or drinking from open containers allowed, and seatbelts must always be on, and it's a wonder he allows anyone to breathe in the car at this point. He takes the passenger seat himself, and Bond follows after into the driver's seat with the blessed keys in hand. Bond looks at the steering wheel, then the gear stick, then his left arm, still uselessly locked in its cast and hanging in its sling.

 

“Q. Care to explain how I'll drive?”

 

“You won't, actually,” says Q, quickly pressing some button combinations in the vintage-looking computer console on the dashboard. “Thankfully for you, we're now in the golden era of self-driving technology – or at least, my technology is. But I'll give you full control over the steering wheel, seeing as that's the only part you seem to treat with any respect.”

 

“You're a heart-breaker, Q.”

 

“So are you.” Q presses one last button, and the car's engine awakens and sings its sweet song.

 

The road to Inverness is a long one, and they choose to make longer. There's no opportunity for actual sightseeing, but Bond takes the westerly route so they can drive through Oxford and Birmingham. Zarina has her face planted against the window to soak in the brief glimpses of church spires and historic universities, frequently ignoring Q's reminders to stay seated properly. Bond remains quiet and savors what he's allowed to handle in the DB5; it's not quite the same when the gears shift independently and the brakes automatically compress, but the company makes up for it.

 

There's time for lessons during the easy cross through England's core. Bond watches Zarina from the rearview mirror as she dictates on what apparently is now her own tablet, which may or may not be modified with questionable software or explosive settings. Q, the absolute madman, appears to have picked research papers on rocket science for her to read aloud.

 

“It's not exactly Peter Rabbit, is it?”

 

“She knows enough for something more advanced,” Q quips.

 

Zarina gives Bond a helpless look in the mirror, and he decides they're due for a break soon. They skip the afternoon congestion in Manchester and stop in Lancaster for lunch and stocking up on Zarina's ballooning snack collection.

 

“Have you tried Jaffa cakes?” Q plucks a pack from the store's shelving and adds it to the growing pile in their handbasket. Zarina squints at the letters on the package, silently mouthing out the English text.

 

“What is it?”

 

“It's a cake.”

 

“It's a biscuit,” Bond cuts in.

 

The argument lasts all the way to the border, where Scotland greets them with rare bit of promising sunshine. Bond should curve around Glasgow and start leaning east to Perth, but instead he angles west and follows signs for the A82, where old trees freely rise and lochs split the earth.

 

The atmosphere has long changed by the time they stop at the side of the empty road for a stretch break. Bond swallows the mystic oxygen into his lungs, well familiar with how it coats the back of his tongue. Patches of mist defy the late afternoon sun and stubbornly cling to the low peaks of the encompassing Highlands, presenting them the cerebral view often praised in the verses of old bards. Zarina does loops around him and the car, an awed expression carved on her face while she runs off the youthful energy thrumming in her legs. Q stands next to him with an easy smile on his lips, pulling his cardigan close and observing the rolling hills' tips cutting through the resisting mist.

 

“The last time I took this road, I must have been...seven, maybe.” Q swallows audibly and looks down to his shoes. “With my family.”

 

Bond glances over at the sudden information. As usual Q doesn't seem inclined to continue, returning to taking in the serene view without any followup. Bond goes back to the scenery as well, pondering the same circumstances on his end.

 

“The last time I took this road, I brought someone to die.”

 

“You're harder on yourself than I thought.”

 

“And you should be harder on me.” A stag emerges down the road, taking his chance to pick at the budding spring flowers while the valley is quiet. Bond bites his tongue before his voice can raise any higher and disrupt the life tucked between the lush hills. “You're quite forgiving to the man who nearly got you killed.”

 

“Yes, I'm annoyed at myself for it, too.” Q tugs his cardigan tighter and releases a long exhale. “I was furious, for the record. But I suppose if you can forgive Moneypenny for almost killing you, I can muster some of the same. What did M say to you yesterday?”

 

“That I should accept my mandatory retirement age with grace, as I may soon be one of the few able to do so.”

 

“Will you?”

 

“I didn't see myself having the opportunity to think about it before,” he answers honestly. The thought's taken a cozy spot in the back of his mind since his meeting with M, but he hasn't been able to ponder it during the drive when he'd rather be distracted over the homely chatter between Q and Zarina. “What do you think?”

 

“I think you'd go mad within a week of retirement. But it would mean fewer worries for me.”

 

“Oh? Less worry about whether your equipment will make it back?”

 

“You know what I mean.”

 

Bond doesn't until Q's hand takes his, cool fingers rubbing warm circles over the healing cuts on his knuckles, and he truly is a damn fool. He clenches back, accepting a gesture that he's not entirely convinced he's earned. Perhaps M's words were not a warning, but a suggestion as to what Bond could have if he just let himself.

 

“What do you think, Zarina?” Q calls to their young friend. Zarina finishes her loop and turns on her heels in slow circles in front of them, neck craned to soak in the panoramic view of the Highlands. She spins their way abruptly and points an accusing finger at the mountainrange behind her.

 

“They're so small!

 

Bond snorts at the blunt observation, while Q looks stunned, somehow the more offended party between them. The stag jumps at the sudden echo and races to the enclosed safety between the hills.

 

“Well, with the – geographical – nevermind.” Q releases Bond's hand and waves to the car. “Shall we?”

 

The final stretch follows the commanding angle of Loch Ness, shimmering with the remains of sunshine behind them. Originally full of lively sounds when they started, their ride now rests in uneasy silence. Bond keeps his eyes on the narrow road ahead while Q finishes some minor work on his mobile that he doesn't need to do. Zarina ignores the stunning sights in favor of the schoolbooks Q provided, though she doesn't turn the pages often and soon stops altogether.

 

“How much longer?” she asks almost inaudibly.

 

“Just under an hour,” says Bond. He sees Zarina's muted nod from the rearview mirror's reflection, then she sets aside the books and stares aimlessly at the outside scenery for the remainder of the journey. Q pockets his mobile and rubs a hand over his mouth, seeming to stop himself from speaking when no words will change their destination.

 

Bond knows what he's thinking. The inevitability of time, he whispers to himself.

 

They reach their destination outside of Inverness just as the sun begins to hide. Bond pulls up in front of the house matching the address from the blue folder yesterday. It's set in the middle of a row of similar-looking houses, tucked in a quaint neighborhood just outside the city limits. A couple stands outside the door, apparently waiting for their arrival. Bond gives them a quick visual scan to ensure they match the description from the folder's paperwork: married, in their late thirties, unwillingly childless, the husband stocky with brown hair, the wife with wavy red hair and nervously twisting her hands together, both under the assumption their guests are from a local agency and not Her Majesty's direct servants. The DB5 may make that a hard sell, but the couple doesn't seem to be focused on those details.

 

Satisfied, Bond shuts off the car and leisurely pops open the door. Q slowly opens his own and encourages Zarina to take her time climbing out. There's no rush in their movements as they gather her belongings and set them on the pavement outside of the house's front garden. They sort the treats and books between bags and tightly fold her new jackets into the little space left in her trunk.

 

Then, there's nothing else but to say goodbye. Zarina stands between them and her future home several meters behind her, making no move toward either.

 

“Here.” Q takes Zarina's hand and presses a scrap of paper in her palm. “Memorize this address, then burn the paper. Burn it, don't just throw it away, and don't let anyone else see it. Write us letters, but don't put our names on it. Just the address. Alright?”

 

She shakes her head heavily, a sudden surge of hot tears spilling forth and splattering between them.

 

“I know. I have to be okay.” She sniffles hard and scrubs her cheeks. “I'll go back to school. I'll be a doctor. To help my country. I can go back later. Right?”

 

“Right. You can.”

 

Q drops to a knee right as Zarina leaps forward for a hug, burying her face in his shoulder and letting her tears make a mess of his cardigan. Her eyes eventually come up to Bond's way, wet and glossy but still as marvelously hazel as ever. Bond soon falls to a knee as well, circling his good arm around the girl and meeting Q's hand resting on her back as they wait for her hiccups subside. Hope is often fatal for a man like him, so it's better that Bond knows there's no need to say goodbye, and that he knows they'll meet again.

 

He also knows the girl thinks the same. Before her breath can steady, Zarina inhales sharply and steps away with a taunt posture and nose up in confidence, defying her watery eyes and flushed cheeks. With the trunk in one hand and two bags in the other, she turns and takes shaky steps on the path leading to the front of the house. The couple greets her modestly, like distant relatives seeing each other for the first time in decades. Bond can't hear their conversation from the street, but he can see them offer to take her items. There's a brief round of introductions, then a welcoming orange glow blossoming past the front door when they push it open and invite her inside.

 

Zarina takes one step indoors, stops, and looks over her shoulder one last time. Then she moves ahead into the glowing indoor light with her next family, and the door shuts behind her with barely a sound.

 

---

 

“Now what?”

 

Bond stares out the window of his assigned vehicle and watches the last hue of sunlight fade from the hills. It's a beautiful April night, clear and dotted with emerging stars that would be masked from light pollution if they were still in London. Bright beams of moonlight split through the lingering clouds, illuminating the open road ahead to Bond should he wish to take it. It's wonderfully tempting when it'd be a shame to turn around so soon with such a magnificent car in hand and warm company at his side.

 

The Quartermaster leans toward him to check himself in the rearview mirror, joining Bond's reflection in the narrow strip of glass. Bond watches their images share the same space as Q straightens his glasses and adjusts his hair for some fruitless reason in the dim overhead light. Their eyes meet briefly in the reflection before Q glances away, hair no tidier than it was moments ago.

 

“Well, I'm still supposed to be on holiday for the next week,” Q says. “I'll have to find something to occupy my time.”

 

“I know some places open late in Inverness.” Bond looks away from the mirror to see those eyes again for himself. “We could have dinner. Get to know each other a bit more.”

 

“Bond...”

 

Q catches his gaze for a lingering moment. Bond's good hand grips the steering wheel as he waits for a response, any response, as long as it comes from that voice that always rests softly in his ear. Soon Q ducks his head with humbled smile and tugs his seatbelt on with an affirming click. When the answer comes, it promises to guide Bond to the next day, and through every day after that no matter how lost he feels.

 

“Sure – why not. Lead the way.”