In another life, all that stood between Wensleydale and chartered accountancy would have been time.
In this one, Queen and country get in the way.
“You’ve got to do something about the mould problem in MI6,” says Eve.
Q squints at her. “What mould problem? And what have I to do with it?”
“We’ve been in a wartime bunker for ages now.” Eve props herself on the corner of Q’s desk. She’s wearing a cardigan so yellow he can’t believe it’s not butter. Q-branch, for all they pretend otherwise, is dazzled by her. “Stands to reason there’s a mould problem. I can’t even stock post-its without them getting spots.”
“You should get in mould specialists,” says Q. “Isn’t that your job, outsourcing?”
Eve makes a face. “Can you imagine the level of clearance I’d need to get them? Bloody nightmare. Can’t you invent something, you boy genius?”
“Can’t do,” says Q. “Terribly busy. Exploding pen R&D, and all that.”
“Again, that’s not an actual project that anyone has approved.” Eve folds her arms. “And I would know. Divert some of your brainpower to it, won’t you, before Archives turns into a mushroom farm.”
“It’s the 21st century,” Q grouses, “I don’t see why we have to have paper archives.”
“Oh yes, because it was our paper archives that got hacked twice.”
Q scowls at her. He makes a mental note to deploy some minion that has shown the faintest of interests in mycology.
Eve beams at him. “I’ll pop by the shops before heading home tonight. Want anything?”
Q sighs. “Only if there’s almond milk.”
He no longer thinks of himself as Wensleydale, except in select situations. He is Q. A mystery wrapped up in a single letter.
The woman who was Pepper calls him Q. He calls her Eve, except in select situations. He asks no questions about why she chose that name. Adam had been gone for half a year by that point. They didn’t join MI6 to find him, but Q would be lying if he said he didn’t check the far corners of the world, once in a while.
In any case, they turned out to be terrifyingly good at the jobs they wound up with.
Once he asked her why she joined. She laughed, threw back her drink and said: “Because I still believe in peace, bitch. You?”
He remembers facing down the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. What they had wrought in the control room of that airbase, mayhem and death spreading through the invisible networks of the world, unseen and unstoppable at the touch of a finger.
He remembers wondering what it would be like, to be capable of something like that.
Bond broke his arm during his stint in Bulgaria, and so he’s benched for a month. This makes him insufferable. Half the techs are terrified of him and have given up on their rooftop smoke breaks, lest they run into him staring into the middle distance, brooding over England. He lurks on the firing range so long that 002 and 005 complain. He wanders Q-branch, spooking the minions and ogling the prototype cars.
“What do you want, 007?” demands Q. “Don’t say you want Q-branch to sign your cast. I’d sooner use an exploding pen on it.”
“Are those back on the line?”
“No,” says Q through gritted teeth. “Perish the thought.”
This fails to get rid of Bond, who continues to loom insouciantly in the doorway of Q’s office. Q is elbows-deep in a security patch, which should really be the purview of I-branch, only Q’s existence seems to have made I-branch redundant and they should just merge their departments already. Q is plotting how he might convince M to let him rename the combined branch QI.
“Have you got anything that needs testing?” suggests Bond. “A firearm? A grenade?”
“No,” repeats Q. “Why don’t you go play with the other double-0s?”
“They all want to kill me,” says Bond matter-of-factly.
“I could kill you,” says Q, “one-handed, before this patch even finishes.”
“But you won’t,” says Bond, and has the gall to smirk. “Therein lies the difference.”
Low-grade flirtation is practically a tic for Bond, in the way that other people pick at their fingernails or use “like” unnecessarily in their sentences. Q refuses to read too much into it, or dignify with attention the way the lighting in Q-branch sets off Bond's cheekbones, like you could use his jawline to shave cheese.
Eve had warned Q about Bond. Eve, in fact, had practically had a nervous breakdown about Bond, having laboured for months under the impression that she had junked her career by killing MI6’s most legendary agent, only to have him waltz back in conspicuously alive and sporting an enviable tan. Q, having just been promoted and in his own state of shock about being the youngest Quartermaster in the history of MI6, had not been very helpful on this front. He had had her words in mind when he went to the National Gallery to meet Bond, who proved exactly as vexing as she had warned, and then some.
The curious thing, Eve later said, was that Bond now seemed to think she and he were friends, as if nearly killing another person and then narrowly avoiding sleeping with them was a bonding experience par excellence. Q wonders if Bond thinks they are also friends. Bond otherwise seems not to have very many. Possibly they’ve all gone and died.
In any case, Bond proves useful to have around in the end, when Q launches the security patch and a dozen irate people from other departments come down to complain about it, even though he sent out notifications about it last week. It’s hard to launch into a tirade under Bond’s unsettling, ice-blue gaze. Heaven knows Q’s tried.
When the last of them has gone, Q expects Bond to produce some quip like “You’re welcome”, but all he says is “Don’t forget your dinner, Q,” and then he wanders off.
There are too many secret agents at St. James’ Park. Q doesn’t care enough about this meeting to reschedule it, though, so he parks himself by the pond and people-watches while he waits for Sylvie of Tracfin to show up. There’s the Russian attache on the bench under the trees. Dave from Interpol is texting by the ice-cream cart, red and green pens ostentatiously clipped to his pocket in the code du jour. On the green are two familiar figures on a picnic mat, one lounging in black, the other in his cream coat, sipping tea. Q resists the urge to wave at them.
Sylvie strolls up in her tawny coat and they exchange air-kisses. “I am to lunch with HMRC at half-past,” she says briskly, “so I can’t stay long. What have you got for me?”
She and Q trade their updates. Money laundering is hardly Q’s shout, but he has an abiding interest in the intersections of terrorism and cryptocurrency, and Sylvie for her part appreciates the occasional tip of the hat when it comes to monitoring international persons of interest. As they talk, she crumbles bread in a bag and tosses it to the ducks.
“It’s bad for them, you know,” Q informs her.
“Oh, I know,” says Sylvie, and gives him a gleaming smile.
She saunters off later, throwing him a bisous, petit Q - she pronounces it ‘ker’, her lips making a moue around the sound of it. Q waits by the pond for another ten minutes or so. Then he heads up the green to the couple on the picnic mat.
Crowley glances up at him through his sunglasses as he approaches. “How’s work?”
“I’ll live,” says Q. He sits cross-legged on the mat and accepts a cup of tea - in an honest-to-goodness china cup - from Aziraphale.
“Frightfully busy today,” says Aziraphale, buttering a scone and casting an eye around at the various clandestine meet-ups happening all about them. “Nowadays one’s got to come early to snag a spot.”
“That’s the trouble with word getting round,” says Crowley. “Next thing you know, you’re rubbing shoulders with all and sundry.”
“Yes, yes, we know you were coming to St James’ before it was cool,” says Q testily. Aziraphale hands him the scone.
“Eat up, dear boy,” he says. “You’re all angles. Don’t they give you time off for meals in that basement of yours?”
“One has to fight for time off, like everything else in this world,” says Q. “Sometimes it’s less effort all round to just put in the work.” But he eats the scone.
“How’s Pepper?” asks Crowley.
“On her way to conquering the world,” says Q drily. “Now that she’s out of the field, she might survive long enough to actually achieve it. I am, of course, thrilled. She sends her regards.”
“Which reminds me,” says Crowley. He juts his chin at Aziraphale, who fishes in his pocket and pulls out a battered postcard. It is a picture of a beach in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. On the back are no words, except an untidy scrawl that could be anything.
“We got one too,” says Q. “Ours has more boats in it. Pepper said she’d shred it, but as far as I know it’s still behind the microwave with the others.”
“At least he sends word,” says Aziraphale.
“That’s not a word,” says Q. “That’s barely even a name.”
They contemplate the postcard.
“I don’t suppose you could find him, with your miraculous powers,” says Q eventually. “Certainly it’s beyond my earthly ones.”
Crowley snorts. “Believe you me, if we had been any good at finding the Antichrist, Armageddon would have gone a lot differently.”
“Oh, well,” says Q, and sips his tea. Then he looks down the path, sees James Bond strolling arm-in-arm with a statuesque stunner of a woman, and chokes on his tea.
“Pardon?” says Aziraphale.
“Nothing,” says Q, swallowing painfully. “Someone I know from work.”
The woman is of vaguely Mediterranean extraction. She wears chartreuse with the air of someone who knows she can pull chartreuse off. She leans her head close to Bond’s to catch what he is saying and lets out a peal of laughter that can be heard across the pond. Bond glances around, to see who else has caught it, and locks eyes with Q.
“I should go,” says Q.
“Nonsense,” says Aziraphale, “you just got here.”
Q brushes crumbs from his cardigan and makes to rise, but it is now too late; Bond has left his companion and is now headed in their direction. He is immaculate as ever in a three-piece suit, which would be out of place in most parks, but as all the secret agents in St James’s are wearing suits, he simply looks disarmingly appropriate.
“Good afternoon,” he says pleasantly to their party.
Q sighs. There is nothing for it. “This is Mr Bond, from work,” he says to Aziraphale, who is looking indulgent, and Crowley, who is critically appraising Bond’s suit. “Bond, this is Mr Fell and Mr Crowley, who are…” he casts about “...family friends.”
“Charmed,” says Bond, quirking an eyebrow. “Are you regulars here?”
“Oh, we’ve been coming here since the beginning,” says Crowley, and grins toothily. “Yourself?”
“I stop by when I’m in town,” says Bond. “Lovely place.”
“Won’t you join us for a spot of tea?” says Aziraphale brightly.
“I am afraid it would not be good form for Mr Bond to abandon his date,” says Q primly.
“Oh, Elisavet?” says Bond airily. “I imagine she’s making the rounds.” They turn to look. Elisavet has indeed migrated to another man further down the path, whom Q vaguely recognises as being from the Intelligence Corps. “She’s rarely in this part of the world - she has a great deal of catching up to do.”
“Don’t let us keep you,” says Q.
Bond nods to them. “Good day, gentlemen.”
“St James’ is really too crowded these days,” says Q, watching Bond make his way down the path to the itinerant Elisavet. “Honestly, I don’t know why we keep coming here.”
“What a nice young man,” says Aziraphale, beaming. “So very mannerly.”
“Everything about that statement,” says Q, “with the exception of ‘man’, is wrong.”
“All right, honest opinions, lay it on me,” says Brian, leaning eagerly over the counter. “You first, Wensley.”
Q licks thoughtfully at the last drop of ice-cream on his spoon. “Weirdly addictive. No idea why - it tastes like nothing. Is it just tofu?”
“Nothing but.” Brian scribbles in his notepad, then points his pen at Eve. “Your turn.”
“Incredibly confusing, bordering on painful,” says Eve, staring at the scoop of ice-cream before her. It looks perilously orange, with an oily streak of red running down the side. “My tongue is on fire and I’m having brainfreeze at the same time. It’s a lot.”
“Okay, so clearly the mala flavour needs more work,” Brian says in an aside to his girlfriend Apple.
“I told you it was crazy,” says Apple. “Nobody comes to an ice-cream parlour for a near-death experience.”
“If we’re going to make it to 39 flavours, we will need a bit of crazy.” Brian gestures grandly at the shop sign, which proclaims 39 CONES in neon to all of Covent Garden.
“Again, for the record, that was a joke I made when we were eleven,” says Q, “and I can’t believe that we’re nearly thirty and you’re actually turning it into a serious business enterprise.”
“Can’t have the Americans outdoing us,” says Brian. “All right, now we’ve got that out of the way - Apple and I have an announcement to make.”
Apple bites her lip and presents her right hand. Something gleams on her ring finger.
“Oh,” says Q. “Oh.”
“Brian,” says Eve, “you mad bastard, you’ve gone and done it. Apple, the gods preserve you, do you know what you’ve signed up for?”
“Of course,” says Brian. “She’s marrying me for the visa.”
Apple elbows him. “He’s marrying me because he knows if I go back to Hong Kong, the shop's kaput.”
“I can’t even begin - ” tries Q. “Just - congratulations. Congratulations, you two.”
“You’re the first of us!” exclaims Eve. Her words have begun to slur. “Oo ood ave ort - ” She flaps her hand at her mouth. “Ah hink ahve horst heeling i ah hongue.”
“Oh, that’s not good,” says Brian. “Better make a note of that.”
“I’ll get her a glass of milk." Apple slips back to the kitchen.
“When are you going to do it?” Q wants to know. “Where? Oh god, let us know now, booking leave is a nightmare where we work.”
“How hard can it be?” Brian actually does think Q works as a chartered accountant. He believes Eve is a secretary, which is at least technically correct. “Oh, all right, we reckon it’ll be June. Apple’s got to get her family over, but we thought we’d like to do it back in Tadfield.”
A thought strikes Q. “Is Adam invited?”
Brian fiddles with his pen. “Dunno where I’d send the invitation, do I?” He sighs. “It’s funny, I always imagined him being there. The four of us, you know. I’d have asked him to do the best man’s speech - no offence to you both, but he always had a knack for public speaking. Never figured he’d bugger off like that. Apple’s never even met him.”
“Met who?” asks Apple, coming in and handing Eve a glass of cold milk that she frantically gulps down.
“Never you mind, babe,” says Brian. “Wensley and I are just getting a head start on the guestlist.”
“It’s a good thing we’re not doing it in Hong Kong,” says Apple, rinsing out the spoons. “I’m not inviting all the damn offspring of my grandmother’s thirteen siblings.”
“Don’t know that we’ll be better off in Tadfield, to be honest,” muses Brian. “I bet R.P. Tyler and his lot still think Hong Kong’s a British colony.”
“If anyone starts chanting about us bearing sons early,” says Apple darkly, “I’ll sling mala at them.”
Q watches them bicker, a strange feeling washing over him. It’s not envy, not quite. He wants to put his arms around Brian and say Thank god one of us turned out normal, thank god one of us gets the marital yoke and the two-and-a-half children and the summer cottage. This is what they’re doing it for, isn’t it? People like Brian, who can never know all the things they do in their name.
“Wensley, mate,” says Brian, breaking into his reverie. “You all right?”
“I am,” says Q. “I’m really happy for you.”
Q finishes the washing-up just in time to see Lovelace perched on top of the coffee table, rocking back and forward and making horrible, hacking noises.
“Really?” Q tells her. “Really, you’re going to do this now?”
Lovelace casts him a disparaging look and vomits over a good swathe of carpet. She contemplates her deed, licks a paw and wanders off, tail flicking.
“Why don’t you ever do this when Eve’s around?” Q demands plaintively.
By the time he’s done drying his hands, Feynman has emerged and is trying to eat the vomit. Lovelace watches him archly from atop the fridge.
“I named you after geniuses,” Q tells them both, wrestling a protesting Feynman into the kitchen, “and it does not seem to have taken.”
He’s on his knees scrubbing vomit out of the carpet when he hears the unmistakable scratching of a pick in a lock.
Q fishes for his phone with his clean hand and pulls up flat surveillance. Then he marches across the living room, drags back the curtain and opens the sliding door to the balcony.
“Evening,” says Bond politely, as if they have just run into one another on the street. “What are you doing here, Q?”
“I live here,” says Q. “What are you doing here?”
“Ah,” says Bond noncommittally. He’s dressed down for this break-in, which means he’s in a black turtleneck and charcoal trousers that are still too sumptuous for Q’s grimy balcony. How he got up eight floors with a still-recovering arm, Q does not want to know.
“You don’t know I live here,” says Q, realisation dawning. “You wanted to break into Eve’s flat.”
“Well,” says Bond, “consider me enlightened.”
“Eve’s working late,” says Q. “But you knew that, didn’t you? Thus this burglary attempt. What do you want, 007?”
Bond says, with no attempt at subterfuge: “I was looking for Mallory’s address. Getting it out of the system at work seemed rather beyond me, so I thought I’d try his secretary’s.”
Q goggles at him. “Why would Eve have Mallory’s address at our place?”
Bond shrugs. “Worth a look.”
“I am questioning your reputation as a world-class spy,” Q informs him, “but without doubt, you are an appalling co-worker to have.”
Bond gives him a look that might suggest contrition, but mostly comes off as debonair.
“Oh, fine,” says Q, rolling his eyes and stepping aside. “You might as well as use the stairs on the way out.”
Bond wrinkles his nose as he enters. “One of the cats was sick,” says Q by way of explanation, even though Bond does not deserve explanations of any sort. “Mind your step.”
“This one?” Feynman has come up to investigate the newcomer and is nuzzling Bond’s sock.
“No, Herself on the fridge.” Lovelace coolly ignores them both. Q ought to take a leaf out of her book. He settles for returning to her mess. “What do you want Mallory’s address for anyway?”
“Same reason I got hold of the previous M’s address.” Bond leans against the balcony door, watching Q. “In case he ever has me shot, I can drop in ahead of my resurrection and have a word with him. I thought I’d look into it, since I have some downtime.”
“Dear God,” says Q, “is this what constitutes downtime for a double-0? I’m this close to hacking Medical and changing your designation to ‘field-ready’.”
“Please,” says Bond. “Do.”
He has shown no signs of wanting to leave. Q looks up to see him prowling the flat, studying the knick-knacks, the wall art, the half-finished knitting with the intarsia pattern Q designed himself. “How long have you and Moneypenny lived together?”
“We’re old friends,” says Q. He heads into the kitchen to wash his hands. “Since you seem determined to impose, can I get you anything? We have thirteen different kinds of tea and one Innocent smoothie.”
“And a bottle of tequila,” says Bond, pointing.
“That’s Eve’s, and you’re not to touch it.” Bond is now peering into the fridge. “Get out of there,” says Q. “You’re like a cat, but with opposable thumbs.”
“Which of you is lactose intolerant?” inquires Bond, inspecting the almond milk.
“Me, obviously.” Q decides he will give Bond chamomile and Bond will take it and like it. “I think any allergy automatically disqualifies you from fieldwork. Imagine if you could incapacitate Her Majesty’s Finest by slipping a bit of cream into their coffee.”
“Hm,” says Bond, who has clearly gone all his life thinking of allergies as things that happen to other people.
Q doesn’t know why Bond, having clearly failed his objective, does not leave. He doesn’t know why he doesn’t want him to. He does the only thing he can think of, which is to start binge-watching Only Connect, in the hope that Bond will be driven out of the flat by this barefaced display of geekery.
Bond, unfortunately, is shockingly interested in Only Connect. He proves very adept at the classical music and sports questions, which have always been Q’s weakest topics. “You are actually a geek,” says Q, horrified.
Bond does not smile, but the corner of his mouth does something funny. “I do work in intelligence, Q.”
“We have the makings of an Only Connect team,” says Q. “We could bring Eve on for pop culture, she watches a frightful amount of television.”
“Pity about the national security concern,” says Bond.
“Pity,” says Q. “We could actually win.”
He does not know when he dozes off. He wakes to a blue screen and the sound of Eve letting herself in. He is alone on the couch.
“You left the balcony window open, love,” says Eve, kicking off her boots reprovingly. “You know it’s murder on the heating.”
“Forgive me,” says Q. “I don’t know why I do half the things I do these days.”
Crowley is flipping through music in the Bentley (is today more of a Sheer Heart Attack day or a News Of The World day? Choices, choices) when a madman bursts in through the passenger side and says politely - or as politely as one can say with a gun in hand - “Excuse me, but would you mind if I commandeered this vehicle in the name of queen and country?”
Well, I’m not having with that, thinks Crowley, and turns to make the intruder disappear, but is arrested by recognition. “Hang on,” he says. “Aren’t you - ” He snaps his fingers several times, trying to jog his memory. “We met in that place. With the, with the ducks.”
“St James’ Park,” says the man. He is just as well-dressed as he was last, gun notwithstanding. “You’re Mr Crowley.”
Crowley points at him. “Sorry. You’ve got that name, quite short, sounds like a street - ”
“Bond,” says the man. “James Bond.”
“That’s it,” says Crowley. “And no, you may not commandeer this vehicle, however nicely you ask or how many weapons you wave in my face.”
“It is something,” says Bond, “of a national emergency.”
“Is it now?” says Crowley, and then is distracted by the black SUV that swings round the corner, screeches to a halt and ejects some heavily armed people, who begin firing down the street at them. Bond gives him a look as if to say, you see?
“Oh, if it’s going to be like that,” huffs Crowley, and floors it.
The Bentley leaps from the curb and tears through Islington. “And you’re rushing headlong towards a new goal,” Freddie Mercury pitches in helpfully, “And you’re rushing headlong out of control - ”
“I have to warn you,” says Bond, grabbing for a handhold as they peel around the corner and side-swipe a bus, “this is going to be rather dangerous.”
“Nobody drives this car except me,” says Crowley through gritted teeth. “So. Where were you headed?”
Bond looks faintly impressed at the way the Bentley is manically filtering lanes. “Away from them, mostly. I don’t usually plan that far ahead.”
The SUV is trailing them down Upper Street. There is the rattle of distant gunfire.
“Are they shooting at us?” Crowley demands. “How do they expect to hit anything at that distance?”
“I’m sure they have quotas to meet.” Bond is winding down the window. “Keep it steady, will you?” he says, and leans out to take aim. Crowley tries not to leave him wrapped around a lamppost.
Bond slides back in to reload. “I don’t mean to alarm you, but there are some motorcyclists on our tail.”
One of the motorcyclists has got level with Crowley’s window and is trying to smash it in. Crowley snaps his fingers. The window isn’t there for a split second. Crowley reaches out and pushes the startled motorcyclist over. Bond, busy taking potshots, doesn’t seem to notice. Another motorcyclist fires a volley at the rear window to no avail, before losing his balance and crashing into a skip.
“Is this car bullet proof?” wonders Bond.
“I don’t know,” says Crowley elliptically. “Is it?”
“Hoop diddy diddy, hoop diddy doo,” put in Queen cheerfully.
“Incredible car, I must say,” remarks Bond as they manage to lose the SUV briefly. “Handles marvellously for its age. What is this, a 1930s Bentley coupe?”
“1926,” says Crowley, pleased despite himself. The Bentley is too; it purrs, deep in its engine. “Don’t go in for modern cars, me. They all look like electric shavers.”
“Hm,” says Bond. He strokes the dashboard contemplatively.
Crowley’s phone has started to buzz in its cupholder. There is a crackle, and Aziraphale’s voice comes on the radio. “Crowley, you there?”
“Angel,” says Crowley. “A tad busy here.”
“Oh, are you driving? Sorry. Only, that plant food you ordered has been delivered to the shop. Did you put in the wrong address?”
“Bless it,” says Crowley. “I must have.” Bond is staring at him incredulously. “Could you have them send it over to the flat?”
“I’m afraid they left in a huff when I suggested it,” says Aziraphale. “You’ll have to pick it up yourself. Speaking of which, I ordered wax paper for the shop ages ago and it hasn’t shown up - don’t suppose it could have ended up at yours?”
Crowley sighs. “I’ll check.”
“That’s a dear,” says Aziraphale fondly. “Is that gunfire I hear?”
“Oh, yes,” says Crowley, “we’re doing a car chase. You remember Mr Bond, from St James’ Park?”
“Hello,” says Bond.
“Oh of course, Mr Bond, how lovely to hear from you. Who’s chasing you, then?”
“Lithuanian arms dealers.” Bond checks their rear-view. “Incoming, Mr Crowley.”
“Oof,” says Crowley. “Is that a rocket launcher in their sunroof, or are they happy to see us?”
“Dear me,” says Aziraphale. “I say, Crowley, you could use those - ahem - gun ports you have in the back, couldn’t you?”
“Gun what?” says Bond.
“Gun wh - oh, right, those old things,” says Crowley. He concentrates hard and feels the Bentley shift to accommodate its new additions. He squints and is pleased to hear the retort of said gun ports, comfortably installed under the taillights.
Bond looks suitably awed.
“I’ll leave you to it,” says Aziraphale. “Do try not to get discorporated, Crowley, we have tea at St Paul’s at four. Mind how you go, Mr Bond.”
“Bye, angel,” sings Crowley. He hangs a sharp left and wonders if he should add something else fun to the Bentley. An oil slick sprayer would be nice. A caltrop spitter?
“I have been meaning to ask,” Bond goes on, “how do you know - ” He pauses. Crowley realises he is unsure what name they know Wensleydale by, and feels he has to jump in.
“It’s complicated. We’re...godfathers, so to speak, of a friend of his. I suppose we became godfathers of the whole lot, as time wore on.”
“Ah,” says Bond. “Eve, too?”
That is what Pepper is calling herself these days, isn’t it? “Her, too.”
“I see,” says Bond thoughtfully. Their pursuers have quite fallen behind, discouraged by the gun ports. “I don’t suppose you could drop me off at Whitehall? Or any Tube station will do, really, if it’s out of the way.”
“Hardly,” says Crowley. “Happy to do a favour for a friend of a friend.”
Q is stuck in the quarterly interdepartmental meeting, the new M’s invention and a fresh level of hell. All the branch heads have to give updates in alphabetical order, and since they’re still at F for Finance, it will be eons before they get to him. At least four people have used "workflow audits" unironically in their speech. He’s trying as subtly as he can to look like he is taking notes, and not working on new schematics for the cheese wire wristwatches. He’s also ingested enough caffeine to drop a horse, and it feels like if he isn’t careful, any sudden movements might cause his eyeballs to pop out of his head and roll down the boardroom table to where M is sitting, fingers steepled and nodding earnestly along to Morgan from Finance as they explain why there are funding cuts for junkets and the double-0s may actually have to fly cattle class for a change. Q has a sudden vision of Bond in coach, negotiating armrest space with vacationing pensioners. He snorts unbecomingly.
“Something the matter, Quartermaster?” inquires M. “I shouldn’t think Q-branch has any input on travel expenditure, given the outcry you put up every time someone tries to wrestle you onto a plane.”
“Nothing, sir.” Q subsides, chastened. Morgan throws him an unimpressed look before carrying on with their presentation. He’s the youngest of all the branch heads, and the rest of them make sure he knows it. Half the time he ignores it, knows he could incapacitate everyone in the room given enough caffeine and a steady VPN; the other half, he’s in total agreement. Who let him in here to rule over the minions and play with eye-watering budgets (that still, somehow, never seem to add up to quite enough) and sign off on hiring decisions and all that jazz? Not such a clever boy. He should perhaps not have had that fifth espresso.
A message from Eve pops up on the chat function. Don’t think I can’t see you trying to do work.
Q slants a look at her, tucked away behind M in the back of the boardroom, looking industrious and secretarial. P is obviously playing Candy Crush, he isn’t even trying to hide it under the table.
It’s HR now, Eve shoots back. Look lively if you want that wedding leave approved.
Q tries to look compelled by Reginald from HR, a balding gent in his 50s who looks like he spends every day questioning his reason for existence, which one might well do if one ran human resources in an agency staffed with highly unstable operatives prone to unexpected death, going on unapproved no-pay leave on a whim and racking up conflicts of interest like points in a pinball game.
He is distracted from Reginald’s mournful plea - that all departments force their staff to clear leave days before the end of the financial year - by a ripple in Q-chat, which he set up for the minions in his attempt at “lateral organisation structure”. It’s a video pulled from traffic cams in Islington.
One of ours? Jeevan is asking in the chat.
Not our plates, Eoin responds. Actually I ran them - this car’s not registered at all.
That’s defo 007 in the passenger seat though? puts in Farah. Not driving?
We did not issue 007 a car, clarifies Eoin. Driver looks like civilian.
K but it’s going 90mph in Zone 1 tho
U SURE IT’S NOT 007 DRIVING?
Q surreptitiously expands the video and watches it on mute. It’s only a few seconds long, but a quick grab-and-zoom is enough to identify who is behind the wheel, and who is leaning out of the window next to him, waving his customised palm-printed Walther PPK. Q feels the onset of a migraine.
Wipe it from traffic records, he instructs the group chat. ASAP. Then, ignoring the flurry of yes sir, he forwards the video to Eve.
Eve is gazing inscrutably at her screen. She looks up, locks eyes with Q, and looks briskly back down. Q sees she has typed what. the. fuck.
This is the worst timeline, types Q.
“But how do they know each other?” Eve demands later, when she and Q have extricated themselves from meeting hell and are convalescing in Q-branch over Jaffa cakes.
“My bad,” says Q, nibbling his Jaffa cake - he prefers to eat neatly around the edges and save the jelly centre for last. Eve scarfs hers whole, like a barbarian. “We were in St James’ Park and he showed up, I couldn’t not introduce them. Is it just me, or is he taking an inordinate interest in our backgrounds? He doesn’t still fancy you, does he?”
“Me? Nah. Dead in the water.” Eve pops another Jaffa cake into her mouth and mumbles around it, “He did break into our flat though.”
“He was after Mallory’s address, he said. Anyway, I hear they all do it, you’re not considered a proper full-timer until a double-0’s broken into your place.”
Eve looks at him speculatively. “What?” says Q. “And don’t get crumbs on the prototypes.”
Eve rolls her eyes and gets off the bench, picking up a slender tube for inspection. “Is that one of those poisonous chapsticks for honeytrap missions?”
“No, it’s a normal chapstick. Ever since you had me set Josefina on the mould problem, she’s been testing these networked dehumidifiers. Only they suck all the moisture out of the air, it’s giving us all cracked lips.” Q pauses. “Though, that is an idea, poisonous chapsticks.”
“Test it on Bond,” suggests Eve. “He’s always asking to test things.”
Q imagines, unbidden, kissing Bond. He bites his already-peeling lip. “I believe HR would frown on toxic experimentation, even if the subjects have the constitutions of the double-0s.”
“Bet he’d let you,” says Eve slyly, “if you asked nicely.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” hisses Q. Eve retreats, laughing. The minions watch her go nervously.
Bond arrives at Q-branch shortly after with a spring in his step and a light in his eyes. Q takes one look at him and says: “Absolutely, unequivocally no, you’re not getting a Bentley. Of all the vintage cars in the world, did you have to break into that one?”
“I wouldn’t have had to, if I’d been issued a vehicle,” Bond points out.
“Your car rights are still revoked,” says Q severely. “And this display has not earned you any points.”
“You know my feelings about public transport.”
“Oh,” says Q snippily, “but you seemed rather good at catching the train, last I recall.”
“At least ask him where he got it,” says Bond, cajoling.
“He made a pact with the devil,” says Q. “Which you cannot do, as I believe you are already spoken for.”
Bond stares at him. “Your lip’s bleeding.”
“The air,” says Q, “is very dry down here.”
Bond flicks an honest-to-goodness handkerchief out of his breast pocket, as if it’s the 18th century, and hands it to Q. It’s actually monogrammed J.B.
Q mechanically lifts it to his mouth. It comes away spotted with blood. Q stares at it, not quite sure what to do with it.
“Oh, give it here,” says Bond. He folds it, puts it back in his pocket and leaves.
“Hang on,” says Q to nobody in particular, “did he just walk off with my DNA?”
The minions are gaping at him. Josefina raises her hand tentatively. “Sir, is that a rhetorical question?”
Though Bond has been approved for field duty, he continues to appear suddenly around Q-branch. “Wanted to pick your brain on something, Q,” he is saying as he walks in and stops dead, staring.
“What is that,” says Bond flatly.
Q colours. “It’s an avocado machine.”
“You invented,” articulates Bond slowly, “a machine that de-seeds avocados for you.”
“I can’t be having with avocado hand in my line of work,” says Q hotly. “And I had all this spare cheese wire from the wristwatch R&D, so there.”
The machine whirrs and presents him with a perfectly halved avocado, seed neatly removed.
“This is the single most millennial thing I have ever seen,” says Bond.
Q sighs. “Did you want something, 007, or are you just here to harangue me about my lunch?”
“I wouldn’t dream of haranguing,” says Bond. “I’m very partial to avocados myself.” He drops a folder on Q’s desk.
Q raises an eyebrow. “Codebreaking. Not really your shout, is it?”
“It needs a certain literary touch.” Bond places his knuckles on Q’s desk and leans in, as if conspiratorially. Q affects a heroic indifference to how close he is. “I hear you know an expert in old books.”
“And how,” Q narrows his eyes, “did you hear that?”
Bond shrugs. “Mutual friends.”
“Bloody hell,” says Q, flipping through the files, “is this Anglo-Saxon?”
Bond only smirks at him.
“Fine,” says Q. “But we’re only going tomorrow afternoon, because I have a ton of work to get through today, and we have to bring them wine and that’s on you.”
Aziraphale has just put the kettle on when Wensleydale and his colleague come into the shop. “Perfect timing,” he says brightly. “Do you take Earl Grey, Mr Bond?”
“Hello,” says Wensleydale peremptorily. “Bond’s brought you wine, no idea what sort, I don’t know the first thing about alcohol. Where’s Crowley?”
“He’ll be along in a bit, I imagine.” Aziraphale eyes the bottle Bond places on the counter - a Château Cheval Blanc. He is impressed, but masks it. “Thank you, that's very kind. Now, let’s have a look at this code of yours.”
“It’s in Anglo-Saxon,” says Wensleydale, passing him a file. He and Pepper go by other names these days, don’t they? Aziraphale is always terrible at keeping up with name changes. It took centuries for even Crowley to catch on. Still, it won’t do to call him Wensleydale in front of people from his work.
“Thank you, dear boy.” Aziraphale peers at the text. Phrases jump out at him. “Fleah mid fuglum, on flode swom, ” he murmurs. “Deaf under yþe, dead mid fiscum. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”
“Hardly,” says Wensleydale, “but pray enlighten us.”
Aziraphale locates the shelf where he keeps his Anglo-Saxon materials. He withdraws his copy of the Exeter Book of Riddles reverently.
“As I thought,” he says, running his finger down the index. “I flew with the birds and swam in the sea, dove under the wave, and was dead among fishes.” He flips to the page in question. “There we go: riddle number 74.”
“All the riddles are numbered,” muses Wensleydale. “How many are there?”
“Ninety-odd, I should say.” Aziraphale runs through the rest of the text. “Wif wundēn locc wæt bið þæt eage - ah, that would be number 25, the onion one, very naughty - and then moððe word fræt, which is of course the book-moth riddle, number 47. 74, 25, 47. Does that mean anything to you?”
“I feel like we’re in The Da Vinci Code,” complains Wensleydale.
“What’s this?” Bond points at a tiny image on the page. Each block of text ends with one.
“Looks like a sort of bird,” says Wensleydale. “That one over there, that looks like a dragon.”
“A wyvern,” says Aziraphale.
Bond looks up sharply. “Heraldic emblems. The wyvern is for Wessex.”
“The bird could be a martlet,” realises Aziraphale. “For Sussex. And that’s the notched sword, for Essex. West, South, East - these are coordinates.”
“You’ve cracked it!” Wensleydale dimples in pleasure. Aziraphale notices Bond noticing the dimples. He makes a private note of it.
Bond says: “How much for the book?”
“The Exeter?” Aziraphale inhales sharply and withdraws the book, snapping it shut. “It is not for sale.”
“We can pay.”
“Leave it,” says Wensleydale. “He never sells.”
Bond looks around him, eyebrows raised. “Is this not a bookshop?”
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Bond, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Wensleydale leans over the counter and applies his dimples. “May we borrow the book, Aziraphale? Just for the weekend. I promise we’ll take such good care.”
Aziraphale purses his lips. “No bending of the spine. I won’t have it going in the photocopier.”
“We’re light-years beyond photocopiers, honestly.” Wensleydale huffs. “You should see what I’ve got in the way of scanners.”
“And only you’re to handle it,” Aziraphale goes on. “Mr Bond may watch, I suppose.”
“With pleasure,” says Bond silkily.
Wensleydale has turned an odd shade. “Right, very good, thanks,” he says, sounding slightly strangled. “Much obliged.”
“While you’re here,” Aziraphale continues, “could you do me a favour and take a look at the old computer in the back? Only it’s been acting up. Keeps throwing up these blue screens.”
Wensleydale groans. “That thing’s ancient, it’s a marvel it even turns on.” But he potters off into the back room anyway. “You don’t have to stay,” he calls over his shoulder to Bond. “I’ll meet you back at the office.”
“That’s all right,” says Bond. “I’ll have another cup of tea.”
Aziraphale waits until Wensleydale is ensconced in the back room, tinkering with his troglodyte of a computer, before he turns and says, pleasantly, “And what is it you want with him, Mr Bond?”
“With your quartermaster,” says Aziraphale, still pleasant, but with an edge of steel. “This isn’t just about the codes. You’ve taken a particular interest - don’t think we haven’t noticed.”
Bond paces around Biographies and Memoirs for a good ten seconds before replying. “This bookshop is more than two centuries old,” he says. “I checked. And yet it never seems to have changed hands.”
Aziraphale slants a look at him. “And what do you plan to do with that information?”
“Nothing,” says Bond. “I just like to indulge my curiosity. More things in heaven and earth, and so on?
“You could say that,” says Aziraphale.
“What side is he on?”
“Hm. What side are you on?”
“Our own,” says Crowley, sauntering in as the shop bell dings. “And we’ve been in this game a long time, Mr Bond. We’ve forgotten more about sides than you could ever hope to learn.” He stops to press a light kiss against Aziraphale’s temple, murmurs, “Hello, angel”, then peels off to drape himself on the sofa.
Bond casts a glance, a rather covetous one, outside where the Bentley is parked.
“Not a scratch on it,” he observes. “Quite the miracle.”
“I’ve a good workshop,” drawls Crowley. “So, where were we?”
“I think Mr Fell here was about to give me the shovel talk,” says Bond smoothly.
“Hardly,” says Aziraphale. “I’m the nice one, I’ll have you know.”
“But I have heard tell,” Aziraphale carries on, “that you are a very dangerous man, Mr Bond.”
Bond gives a bark of laughter. He jerks his thumb in the direction of the back room. “Me, dangerous? Have you seen him?”
“Be as that may,” says Aziraphale, “he is under my protection.”
The memory comes, unbidden, of that night: Adam, rain-sodden, standing where Bond is now. “I’m leaving, Aziraphale.”
“But where will you go? ”
“Dunno. Somewhere away from all this.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. He was beginning to blur, the edges of him fizzing out of focus. “I need to get a hold of myself. I need to do the work.”
“Your friends will be upset, Adam.”
“It’s hard to make them understand.” His mouth folded unhappily. “Pepper, she - never mind.” He turned to go, but at the door he said: “Promise you will look after them, Aziraphale. I know that’s what you do - guide and protect. So protect them for me.”
And he has. He has watched them grow: waspish, brilliant Wensleydale; shrewd, fearless Pepper; Brian, who cheerfully lets him name flavours in his shop, like Matcha Do About Nutella or Tis Pity She’s A S’more, even though he has no idea what Aziraphale is on about. Apple, too, by proxy; she is part of the fold now. He and Crowley couldn’t keep the Antichrist, but they will keep these ones.
Bond meets his gaze without flinching. “Good,” is all he says.
Wensleydale comes out of the back room then, wiping his hands with a rag. “Crowley!” he says. “I was wondering when you’d be along.” His striped cardigan is littered with dustbunnies; Aziraphale watches Bond’s eyes flick to them, as if he’d like to do something about them, then flick pointedly away. “Aziraphale,” Wensleydale continues, “I’ve dragged that superannuated machine of yours back to the living, but you should really just get a new one. I could suggest you some models.”
“Thank you, dear boy,” says Aziraphale, “but I’m quite fond of that old thing.”
“Age is no guarantee of efficiency,” muses Bond. Wensleydale throws him a sharp look.
After they leave, Aziraphale says reflectively, “Do you know, I rather think he’s all right.”
“Of course you would,” says Crowley dismissively. “You always wanted to be a spy.”
“That was back then,” says Aziraphale. “I don’t think I’d fancy it now. Pepper makes it sound so...athletic.”
“He’s a flash bastard,” says Crowley darkly, without an ounce of self-awareness. “Gets what he wants. Good taste in wine though, I’ll give him that.”
Aziraphale goes to fetch the glasses. “I hope it all goes well. I should hate to have to vanish one of MI6’s finest, it would be endless trouble. Do you think Wensleydale’s really that oblivious, or is it all for show?”
“You tell me,” says Crowley. “You’re one to talk.”
It’s one of those weeks, in which various events try to outdo one another in the fields of inconvenience and idiocy. On Monday, 003 narrowly avoids being shot into space. On Tuesday, Lovelace develops toothache and has to be taken to the pet dentist before she shreds all the furniture in anguish. On Wednesday, half the field agents are felled by norovirus, and by Thursday they still haven’t figured out whether this is an insidious scheme to incapacitate the Service, or simply bad catering. Also on Thursday, the IRA send M a letter bomb as some kind of warped anniversary present, and Q has to spend his lunch break talking Eve through defusing it. M isn’t even in town - off golfing in St Andrew’s, Eve informs Q through a mouthful of pliers. “Leading by example, like HR asked him - so you better make sure your minions have all cleared their leave by June. Now, do I cut the green or the white wire?”
Q spends most of Friday engaged in an increasingly harrowing game of hacking chicken with the Great Firewall of China. He surfaces around 9pm, his vision so blurry from blue light that he might as well be underwater, to realise that the rest of Q-branch have gone home. He’s on his way out, stumbling slightly, when one of R’s minions runs in breathlessly to say he’s needed in the control room, because “007’s stolen a submarine and doesn’t know how to drive it”.
“Shit,” says Q crisply, and legs it to control.
“I don’t know why you think I know how to drive a submarine,” he snaps as R hands him a headpiece. “Why not ask Geraldine from Legal? She’s got that morbid fascination with free diving.”
“I think you’ll find it’s rather a different bag,” says R dryly. “Anyway, he asked for you.”
Q ignores the odd contraction in his chest that statement produces and says curtly into the headpiece: “007, this is not how I envisioned spending my Friday night.”
“Why,” Bond says in his ear, and it’s practically a purr, “did you have plans?”
“You know me,” says Q. “I’ve a sparkling grasp of work-life balance. Now, tell me what we’re looking at.”
Between the two of them, they manage to crash the sub into an oceanic ridge.
“That went well,” remarks Bond over the blare of breach alarms.
“Shut up, you’ve hardly covered yourself in glory this mission,” says Q, flipping through spec plans of Russian submarines. “You’re going to have to look for an escape pod. I do hope this model has one, or you’ll have to perish alone at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean with naught but regret at your poor life decisions.”
“And your voice in my ear,” says Bond. “What a way to go.”
“Head back into the corridor and take a left,” says Q, to distract them both from Bond’s propensity to flirt at death’s door. “Through the door at the end of that passage is either an escape pod or a broom closet, not sure which, my Cyrillic isn’t very good.”
There is a roaring sound. Bond says some very colourful things, and then: “This sub is leaking.”
“I do hope it’s not a broom closet,” says Q.
Thankfully it isn’t. Q barely has time to give Bond a tutorial on how to operate the pod before he’s disengaging, and behind him the sub sinks into the deep of an oceanic trench. R sighs and goes off to arrange Bond’s evac.
“It’s a marvel this radio works so far underwater,” observes Bond.
“Of course it does. I made it.”
“I know,” says Bond. “That’s why I jumped in with it.”
Q yawns, unbidden.
“You can go off, if you like,” says Bond. “I imagine R has it covered from here.”
“‘S fine,” murmurs Q. He curls up in the op chair, tucking his feet under him like he does when it’s late and he no longer gives a fig what his co-workers think of him. “I’m invested now. I’ll see it through.”
Bond is silent. Q imagines him in a little metal capsule, the deep pressing in around him as he hurtles alone through the dark.
“Tell me something,” says Bond after a while.
“Anything. Your fact of the day.”
“Let’s see,” says Q. “One of the hardiest living creatures in the world is the tardigrade. It can withstand extreme cold and heat. You could shoot it into outer space and it would survive. I was thinking about this the other day - on account of 003 nearly getting shot into space, you see. She’s not a tardigrade, so it’s really quite a good thing I managed to hack the launch protocols.”
“How big are they, these tardigrades?”
“Tiny,” says Q. “Rarely larger than a millimetre.”
“That’s a relief. If they were any bigger, I imagine we’d be in trouble.”
“They’ll be around long after we’re gone, I expect,” says Q. “You may think you’re hard to kill, 007, but the tardigrade puts you to shame.”
“I don’t think I’m hard to kill,” says Bond, matter-of-factly. “In fact I rarely think on it at all. I suppose that’s how I get by.”
“Clearly,” says Q, stifling a laugh. “Oh, R says your evac is twenty minutes out. Think you can avoid freezing to death in that time?”
“I will do my level best,” says Bond. There’s a pneumatic hiss - that must be him cracking open the hatch of the escape pod to let air in. “Flare now, or later?”
“Give it another ten. What do you see?”
“Nothing,” says Bond. His voice has taken on a rolling quality, like an audiobook. “The ocean is dark. In the day the water looks like black glass - the colour is extraordinary, you should see it - but now there’s no light. It would be like floating in a void, except for the sting of the wind. There are stars, quite faint. Have you seen the Arctic Ocean, Q?”
“I haven’t seen many oceans,” says Q. Something about all this feels like a very lucid dream, like he left his sleeping body down in Q-branch and is now wandering the rest of headquarters, drifting in and out of other people’s conversations as if flicking through radio channels. “I went to Brighton Beach once, as a child, but I can’t say I know many bodies of water personally. I expect you know them all, being a Navy man.”
“That was a long time ago,” says Bond. Q sees, in his mind’s eye, the Turner painting, the ship being towed away. “Water changes, Q. You might as well never have known it to begin with.”
Someone taps Q on the shoulder; it’s R, whispering details urgently. “Flare, 007, now,” says Q, and listens to the sound of it. He imagines it burning upwards, a single light in the pitch of the sea. If he strains hard, he can hear the whirr of the helicopter, the call in the dark; Bond shouts in answer, and then there are ladders and blankets and medic questions. Q sits in Bond’s ear through the sound and fury of it, curled up like a forgotten secret.
He wakes up hours later, crick in his neck, when R shakes him. “Forgot me, didn’t you?” he says reproachfully and is treated to her raised eyebrow and silent reproof that Q, for all his genius, has yet to parse the grand mystery that is self-care. Q gets a cab home, puts down the black-out blinds and sleeps for seventeen hours. By the time he returns to work, Bond has flown back in, been debriefed and packed off to Guatemala. There’s a waterlogged radio sitting on Q’s desk. It is, somehow, still working. Q lifts it, indulgently, to his ear.
Josefina, like all the Q-branch minions, likely joined the Service with dreams of building invisible cars and umbrella flamethrowers, but she is of a complaisant disposition and has thus built him a very serviceable system of dehumidifiers instead.
“...and so we haven’t seen any new mould growth in a week,” she informs Q, “but at the same time, it’s not so dry as to activate Eoin’s eczema.”
“Excellent work,” says Q. “Give Miss Moneypenny the specs so we can look at having them installed in all the tunnels.”
“Very good, sir. And may I then resume work on the levitating boots?”
Q pinches the bridge of his nose. “I suppose you had better, since the agents are so prone to succumbing to gravity when we’re not paying attention. Yes, Farah, what is it?”
“Hostage negotiation upstairs, sir,” says Farah, hovering at his elbow. “It’s Venezuelan terrorists, they’ve kidnapped some poor sod with a British passport. P’s taken point, but they thought you might like to try a trace on the video.”
“Probably some idiot on a gap year,” says Q irritably. He takes his tea with him.
He wanders in as P is trying to head off the terrorists, who are spouting colourful threats about fingers. It’s a grainy video, a man seated in a ring of light with a hood on his head. Bog standard negotiation, really. “What is that they want?” Q inquires of Tanner, who is being unobtrusive in a corner as usual.
Tanner shrugs. “Not sure, to be honest. Feels like they just grabbed him and are trying their luck.”
Q rolls his eyes and takes a swig of tea.
P is demanding to see the hostage’s face. There is much wild gesticulating and shouting in Spanish. They pull the hood off the man’s head, and it’s -
Q spits Earl Grey over the nearest computer terminal.
Adam Young blinks owlishly at the camera. His hair has got long; Eve will hate it. Otherwise he looks extraordinarily well, considering the circumstances. He looks beautiful. Golden even in the harsh white light his captors have trained on him. He glows with it.
The terrorists are saying something about deadlines and dead Englishmen. Q plonks his mug down and patches himself into the comms. “Adam? What the hell are you playing at?”
Adam brightens. “Wensley? That’s never you.”
Q resists banging his head against the mainframe. “This is not a secure channel, stop throwing my name around.”
“Oh, right.” Adam has the grace to look sheepish. “Sorry. Consider it sorted.”
“It better be,” says Q. “Weren’t you in Zihuatanejo?”
“That was a while ago,” says Adam. “But you know how Royal Mail is.”
P is trying to regain control of the negotiation. Q mutes him. “What are you doing getting yourself pinched by terrorists, is what I’d like to know.”
“Well, this group happens to provide muscle to certain parties who’ve been engaging in rainforest slash-and-burn,” Adam says blithely. “I needed to gain access. I thought getting captured seemed easiest. Sorry your lot had to get involved. I’ll share what I get later, if you like.”
His captors are gaping at him. “You’ve caused a diplomatic incident,” says Q severely. “Will you be long?”
“Nah,” says Adam. “Think I’m nearly done here.”
“Right then,” says Q. “We’ll let you get on with it. And, Adam?” He lets his voice harden. “Come home. We mean it.”
Adam looks up at the camera, straight at him, and says nothing.
“If you miss Brian’s wedding, I’ll hunt you down in the bloody rainforests and kill you myself.”
“Brian’s - ” begins Adam, and stops.
“Yes,” says Q, “see you, I hope,” and he cuts the call.
“Q!” bellows P. “Did you just sabotage my hostage negotiation?”
“I get around,” says Q. He retrieves his mug, leaves the control room in an uproar and heads upstairs to find Eve.
“Right,” says Eve, “Adam Young, in Venezuela, in a hostage situation, very good,” and then she puts her fist through the drywall.
Q silently hands her a paper towel.
M looks at both of them severely, arms folded. “Why would neither of you mention that your childhood friend was a potential asset?”
“In our defence, sir,” says Q, “we had quite lost track of him.”
“You didn’t think,” M goes on, “that a...let’s say, an environmental vigilante with the wherewithal to walk blithely into a nest of terrorists might be something the Service ought to take note of?”
“He’s nobody’s asset, sir,” says Eve. She’s mulish, a quality which Q thought had died with Pepper. “He’s nobody’s. God forbid anyone try to make him theirs.”
“This sort of ridiculous coincidence is the province of the double-0s,” says M. “I would have expected better of you two.”
“It’s hardly on the same level as 004’s evil twin,” Q rallies. “Or the time 009 accidentally married that deep-cover Mossad operative.”
“Indeed,” says M. “It’s a marvel 007 hasn’t turned up some ghastly hidden sibling hell bent on world domination. We’ll be retrieving Adam Young from Venezuela, and neither of you will be involved. Now go update your conflict of interest forms with HR.”
It’s a rare night that both of them are home. Q begs the last boxes of panzanella and beetroot salad from the cafe round the corner that plays the Fleet Foxes on loop. Eve scrounges up halfway-decent wine from Waitrose. They are a salad serving and half a glass deep into Doctor Who reruns (a safe compromise between Q’s geekery and Eve’s need for things to explode onscreen) when the doorbell rings.
“Q,” says Bond evenly. He has a new scar on the back of his hand and a set of unpleasant, though fading ligature marks around his throat, but otherwise he seems to be in good health.
“Hello,” says Q, surprised. “Weren’t you in Guatemala?”
“Is that 007?” Eve calls from the couch. “Tell him to either come in or bugger off, the angels have the phone box and I don’t want him holding you up at the door.”
“I was on my way back,” says Bond, “but I made a detour to pick someone up,” and then he steps back, and there’s someone slouched against the wall behind him, a small dog nosing at his feet.
“Hey, Wensley,” says Adam.
Q opens and shuts his mouth, then finally settles on: “Didn’t they make you go by HQ first?”
“We’ve been,” says Bond. “Rather curiously, nobody there seems to remember who Adam is, or why they wanted him there.”
“Subtle,” says Q to Adam, who shrugs. Q makes a note to go through the digital trail in the morning.
“Which makes me wonder,” says Bond, “what will happen if I take my eyes off you for a moment? Will I, too, succumb to the collective amnesia of my employers?”
Adam looks searchingly at him for a cool two seconds. Then he says: “Nah, you’re good.”
“Much obliged,” says Bond. “Evening, all; I’ll leave you to it.” And then, before Q can say anything, he turns and vanishes down the stairs.
“Oh,” says Adam as he enters their flat, “you have cats. Sorry. Dog won’t bother them - will you, boy?”
“I’d like to see him try,” says Q. Feynman has already padded over curiously to sniff at Dog, who is watching him tensely. Lovelace is a bristling mass on the couch arm.
“Hey, Pepper,” says Adam cautiously.
Eve, sitting stonily on the couch, seems not to hear him. “It’s Eve, now,” Q puts in carefully.
“Eve,” says Adam. He sounds amused, and Q knows instinctively it is a mistake. “Really.”
In one fluid motion, Eve stands up and socks him in the jaw. It is not the vengeful slap of a wronged woman but a field agent’s cold, calculated blow. Adam stumbles back into Q.
“I guess I deserve that,” he says thickly.
“You don’t get to come in here and make a jibe about that,” spits Eve. “Not after all these years. Fucking postcards, Adam! How dare you?”
Adam spreads his hands, placatingly. “I know I shouldn’t have left the way I did. But l felt I had to. It wasn’t good for me to be around you all, to be around people. It wasn’t safe.”
“It’s all very well to be the Antichrist and have a quarter-life crisis,” Eve snaps back. “The rest of us can’t afford to run off. We have to be here, we have to be present. We’re our own people now.”
“I know,” says Adam quietly. “I see that. It’s good. You should be your own person, Pepper.”
“Pepper’s gone,” says Eve, and there’s something so raw in her voice that Q wants to look away. “The girl who said those things to you, she’s gone. She’s never coming back. Do you understand?”
“No,” says Adam. “I don’t. But I’m here now. I’d like to try.”
“I think I should go for a walk,” says Q.
Eve flings out a hand. “No, you don’t have to - ”
“It’s fine,” says Q. He goes over to her, puts his arms around her tense shoulders, kisses her on the forehead. “It’s going to be fine.”
In the stairwell, he fishes out his phone and dials a number from memory.
Bond picks up on the third ring. “Who is this?”
“It’s me,” says Q. “Are you still around?”
“I can be. Where are you?”
Q is waiting on the pavement when he sees Bond come up the street towards him. For a moment he just lets himself watch: the cut of his suit, the blue of his gaze, the way the crowd unconsciously parts for him when he prowls through their midst. Bond is not a good idea, Q knows. But he’s all out of good ideas.
“What do you want to do?” asks Bond, when he reaches him.
“Let’s just walk,” says Q. “Can we do that?”
Bond looks at him, crinkles a little around the eyes in the way that he has. “We can.”
It’s a nice night, for London. The sky is that rare deep blue, the moon in it a pale fingernail sliver. The restaurants have extended their awnings and packed their share of the pavement with diners. The queue outside the kebab shop goes round the corner. It rained in the afternoon and the streetlamps are heavy with collected water; students, tipsy, are running down the street shaking them, laughing as the water tumbles out like silver.
“Sometimes I think I’ve seen it all,” says Bond contemplatively, as he strolls along, hands in his pockets. “Then I see your Adam Young rip the roof off a silo like it’s a plaster and wipe the memories of half the SIS with a snap of his fingers.”
“He does that,” says Q.
“They told me it was a rescue mission. They didn’t say I’d find a sea of unconscious bodies and the asset walking his dog.”
“He didn’t put up a fight, did he?”
“I don’t think I’d be here if he did,” says Bond. “And I don’t say that about many people. He just said, ‘Hello, 007. This is Dog. Shall we?’”
“Who is he?”
“Adam is the Antichrist,” says Q. “You’re one of maybe ten people in the world to know this, by the way, and since he’s allowed this to remain the case, I can only presume you made a good impression. I wouldn’t worry too much about it; he could have destroyed the world when we were 11 and he didn’t, and he’s not likely to in the future. He’s been my friend since we were six.”
“That explains a lot,” says Bond thoughtfully. It’s incredible how calmly he’s taking all this. But then he’s met Aziraphale and Crowley; he must have been aware, for some time now, of the other world pressing in at the edges of their narrow one. “What’s he doing in the Amazon, trying to single-handedly reverse deforestation?”
“Adam wants to save the world,” says Q. “I suppose we all do - we did it once when we were young, got a taste for it. It became hard for him to be around people as he grew older, though. He left us. He left Eve.”
“Is she happy he’s back?”
“I think she will be, eventually,” says Q. “Right now she’s rather upset. She took his disappearance quite personally, you see. She used to go on about how romantic relationships were an illusion engendered by the patriarchy, so the whole business of being in love with her best friend quite undid her, I reckon.”
Bond considers this. “Are you happy he’s back?”
“I asked him, didn’t I?” Q sighs. “I don’t know. Yes, I’m glad he’s back, but - growing up, we always followed him, you know? He was our glorious leader. We were all in love with him, in our own ways. He’s one of those people who sucks all the air out of the room when he walks in - you’d know about that - ”
“Excuse me,” begins Bond, offended.
“ - I’m just saying, it’s just a fact, that’s how some people are,” Q barrels on. “Now that he’s back, I’m...reminded of my place in things. The third kid, there to make up numbers. Technical support. You know.”
“Q,” says Bond, stopping and taking hold of both his wrists. Q stares at their hands in consternation. “Your technical support is the reason why many of us are alive. It’s the reason why I’m alive.”
“Oh,” says Q. There’s a callus on the ring finger of Bond’s gun hand; it’s one thing to know about this, when designing schematics for biometric weaponry, and another to feel it in the hollow of his wrist. “I didn’t think you noticed.”
“Believe me,” says Bond, and how are his eyes still so blue in the half-light? “I notice.”
Q feels a little hysterical. “Anyway. Thank you for going to get him; you didn’t have to.”
“You’re welcome,” says Bond, and leans in to kiss him.
Q has imagined this many times - has, in fact, watched it happen to other people on multiple occasions over comms. None of this has prepared him for the reality of Bond, of the heat of his mouth, the slide and drag of his tongue against Q’s. One of his hands has gone to Q’s too-bony hip beneath the curling rib of his jumper, but does not press the advantage; he is a gentleman, thinks Q deliriously, which is likely a good thing because they are standing in the middle of the pavement outside Tavistock Gardens and there is healthy foot traffic, at least two tutting passers-by and a wolf-whistling cyclist passing on a Boris Bike.
Q says, breathlessly, when they come up for air: “I think you should take me to dinner. Not tomorrow, though, I have performance evaluations; Friday?”
“Friday,” says Bond, and he is actually smiling now, how terrifying. “If the country can spare us.”
“I’m sure it can go one evening without burning down,” says Q, “although perhaps I speak too soon. Never mind. You’d better put me back before any public indecency occurs.”
Bond looks very much like he would like to chance it, but he acquiesces. Though he kisses Q again at the threshold. Q feels ridiculous, like he isn’t going on 30 and supposed to be in full command of all his faculties. “Well, go on then,” he says.
“No, you go on,” says Bond. “I should think that after all the trouble I’ve been to, I ought to be the one to watch you walk away.”
“If you insist,” says Q, giddy, and obliges by ascending the stairs.
Back in the flat, Dog seems to have befriended Feynman and reached an uneasy detente with Lovelace. Adam and Eve are both sitting on the couch. They’re not speaking to one another, but their knees are touching, so there’s that.
“Good walk?” says Eve. She looks tired, and angry, but there’s a sliver of knowing humour in her gaze and he loves her, so much.
“It’s a nice night,” says Q. To Adam, he says: “You’ll stay?”
Eve picks at her nails.
“Yeah,” says Adam. “Think I'll hang around for a bit.”
“I don’t understand,” says Eve. “We’ve overseen actual international covert ops, how is this such a disaster?”
“You wouldn’t let me use agency tech,” complains Q. “Which is why we don’t have comms and are doing this over a phone call, like normals.”
“We are normals!” hisses Eve. “At least for today. My god, why does Brian have so many jackets and why do they have so many pockets?”
The door opens and Adam sticks his head in. “Found it yet?”
Q shakes his head violently.
“No pressure,” says Adam, “but we’re ten minutes away from the march-in, Bond is running out of Cantonese phrases with which to distract Apple’s relatives, and it’s really only a matter of time before Aziraphale starts doing magic.”
“Did you get all of that?” says Q to Eve.
“Bloody shut up, the lot of you,” says Eve, “I’m trying to focus. You’re actually a terrible handler, Q.”
“I’m going back to check that Brian hasn’t climbed out of the window from nerves,” says Adam, beating a strategic retreat.
“You volunteered for this mission, remember?” says Q mercilessly.
“Because I needed to get out of there before I threw a flower arrangement at the next person who said ‘So, are you and Adam back together then?’” says Eve through gritted teeth. “Eight years I spend climbing the career ladder and all anyone back home wants to know is if I’m dating Adam fucking Young.”
“Well, are you?”
“I don’t know!” explodes Eve. “We’ve got to get Brian married off first, let’s not all pile on - oh! Here it is!” Eve whoops. “In a bloody shoebox, too. What goes on in Brian’s head, I’ll never know.”
“Welcome back to the field, Agent Moneypenny,” says Q. “Now let’s see you leg it over to the venue in under two minutes without ripping your gown.”
“Like hell I will,” says Eve. “This is Amanda Wakeley.”
“I know,” says Q. “You nicked it from Wardrobe. I saw it on 008 in Davos last quarter.”
“If anyone looks down my cleavage, they’ll see the bloodstains she left.” He can hear Eve running, her breathing rhythmic. “Tell Adam to open the window and get ready to catch.”
Q passes on the message and goes down to check on the wedding party. “Have you seen Bond?” he asks Crowley, who is lurking by the coat check.
“He’s at the bar,” says Crowley. “I’ve just barely rescued him from Apple’s aunts, who are all but flinging her single cousins bodily at him. You should have told him to pick a less dashing fake occupation.”
“I told him to pretend to be in compliance,” says Q. “Nobody knows what that is and they’re afraid to look stupid by asking.”
“Precisely,” says Crowley. “Now he’s dark and mysterious, which I rather thought was my niche.”
“Ugh,” says Q. “Please go corral Aziraphale away from the hors d’oeuvres, the buffet is not officially open and we need to start getting people into the garden for the ceremony.”
“Oh, yes,” says Crowley acidly, “getting people into a garden, that’s what I’m good at.”
“It was almost in a chapel,” Q informs him. “Brian put his foot down - be glad.”
Crowley goes, muttering. Q heads to the bar to retrieve Bond, who is trying and failing to explain his drink order to the bartender. “...and half a measure of Kina Lillet...”
The bartender stares at him blankly. Q takes Bond by the elbow. “This is Lower Tadfield, Bond, they’ve never heard of Kina Lillet.”
“Never mind, then,” says Bond heavily. “Got any Scotch?”
Q settles in at his side. “Sorry I abandoned you.”
“You should be,” says Bond. “I think I’d rather jump out of a plane than muster up any more small talk. Did you find the ring?”
“Yes, Eve’s got it.” Q allows himself to lean into Bond for a couple of seconds. “Thank you for coming,” he says, eyes closed.
“I don’t get invited to many weddings,” says Bond. “I can’t think why. Did you really tell your parents we met at work?”
“It’s the truth,” says Q. “I try to construct my lies around it, so as not to go too far astray. Oh dear, did they pry? What did you say?”
“I told them we met when I assisted your department in implementing some risk prevention controls,” says Bond. “Also not inaccurate. Your mother offered to knit me a jumper.” He sounds perplexed at this development.
“It’ll be hideous and you’re never going to wear it,” says Q. “You’ll just have to add her to the long list of women whose hearts you’ve broken.”
He spots the flash of Eve’s grapefruit-coloured dress as she slips in through a side door. She executes a series of confusing hand gestures in their direction, which must be an agent thing because Bond at least seems to understand. “Time to go,” he says, levering Q off the counter. “You’re on standby.”
“Technical support,” says Q dryly, pulling out his phone. He’s the Quartermaster of MI6; he can, at the very least, DJ this wedding with his thumbs behind his back. “Go take your seat.”
Bond makes to go, but stops to give Q a once-over. “You should wear suits more often,” he says appreciatively. “Think you could do that for me, Q?”
Q laughs. “Go.”
Bond catches his hand and presses a kiss to his knuckles. Then he disappears into the garden.
Q hopes he is not blushing. He checks that the bridal party is ready and then heads outside into an afternoon thick with the scent of wisteria. It’s perfect weather for a wedding, of course. The weather has been nothing but perfect since Adam returned.
He slips in line next to Eve. Adam is patting Brian on the shoulder, whispering in his ear. Brian is actually shaking. “I keep thinking I’m going to fuck up somehow,” he is saying in a rush. “Like she’s going to come to her senses any minute now and she’s not going to walk through that door. I’m not anything without her. You know?”
“I can verify that as of two seconds ago, your wife-to-be is behind that door and planning on heading in this direction,” says Q. “Let’s get started before she changes her mind, shall we?”
Brian nods mutely. Q hits play.
The music plays. The flowers are strewn. Apple comes down the aisle, flanked by her sisters and on her father’s arm, her face alight under her veil. There are tears running down Brian’s face. The folds of Eve’s gown disguise, at least from those assembled, that Adam’s hand is brushing hers. Q steals a look at the fifth row to see his parents beaming and Aziraphale openly sobbing and murmuring: “Isn’t it lovely!” to Crowley, who is patting his hand and striving to look unmoved behind his shades. Next to them is Bond, immaculate and dear. He catches Q’s eye and winks.
There is something so large brimming in Q’s chest that it’s making his breath catch. To have all the people he loves in one place - the privilege of it. Some day, when he’s asking himself why he does what he does, he’ll dredge up the memory of this: a beautiful day in the garden.
“You may kiss the bride,” he hears the registrar say. The air fills with applause, whooping. Eve turns to him and mouths, Mission accomplished. Q looks back at her, at all of them, and can't stop smiling.