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Ulysses

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James had always been able to read people like books. It was a skill you picked up when there were no parents to watch your back, and James had honed it during his military service, and weaponized it at MI6. It wasn’t often that he got to use that skill for his own pleasure, but James wanted Q in a way he hadn’t wanted anyone for years. He was going to learn Q, cover to cover. Every inch of him, every line. He was going to memorize Q's every gasp and moan, the exact arch of his spine, the precise angle of his breathless, panting smiles. James turned his full attention on Q, and took him apart. That first night, and then every night he could get his hands on Q. And every night that Q could get his hands on James. And, in point of fact, a few nights over the phone, when they could only get their hands on themselves. James liked sex, and he liked Q. Putting the two together was extremely enjoyable. 

This was all pretty normal for Bond. Sex was fun, of course, but just another form of exercise. One that he was particularly good at, admittedly…

But there were other things. Things that weren’t at all normal for Bond, but were becoming normal for them . Things that left him feeling uneasy and out of his depth. He hadn’t been truly out of his depth in years. It wasn’t easy to quantify, wasn’t easy to catalogue what was throwing him off. It was a collection of small moments, and not-so-small moments, and every moment was underlaid with tension, like an unexpected minor chord in an otherwise familiar tune.

This became normal: Bond would go on mission. R ran his missions now, which was fine. R gave better toys than Q anyway. He actually did get an exploding pen, eventually.

The bulk of Q and James's work interaction became 20% Bond playing lab rat for the latest invention, and 80% being dressed down for dropping millions of pounds’ worth of equipment into the ocean or wherever.

Sometimes they went to dinner after. Sometimes they spent the night in Q’s nest, and other times they went to Bond’s safehouse. It depended upon exactly how much shit had hit which fan. Bond’s flat was closer to MI6, and armed to the teeth, but Q’s flat had softer edges, more comfort, and tighter security.

They had toothbrushes at each other’s places. Bond stashed a couple of guns at Q’s, and Q made some modifications to secure lines at Bond’s.

All of that was fine. Logical. Made sense. That was how people acted, and while it wasn’t what Bond was used to, it shouldn’t have made him feel unsure.

But he did feel unsure. And he wasn't sure why. He wasn't getting tired of Q, not at all. He'd been half worried that he would, but days turned into weeks turned into months, and James wasn't bored. He became comfortable (which was novel), he settled in (which was downright strange), he adjusted to all the little things that were becoming normal for them. But never stopped feeling uncertain. Unsafe, his instinct whispered. This can't be safe.


 Bond taught Q hand to hand combat and helped him improve his aim -- shooting in the firing range to test a weapon was very different from using that weapon in the field. And as much as Q worried about Bond in the field, only one of them had been kidnapped on the way to the office, in the heart of London.

So Bond taught Q to defend himself. He showed him how to break a hold in close combat. He showed him how to keep a gun steady even with adrenaline screaming in your veins. He showed him how to throw a larger opponent. He did all this with grim seriousness, but also... His approach was decidedly hands on. In a way that made Q throw him heated looks, after. Probably not a great idea, he didn't want to create a Pavlovian response between self-defense and lust, but.

It was payback. Q had been teaching Bond how to calculate angles in pool, which had led to Q looming behind Bond’s back, his delicate, pale hands directing Bond’s with soft touches. His voice low and musical in Bond’s ear, almost like the old days, but at the same time tantalizingly different. It was an interesting reversal of what Bond was used to -- he wasn’t often on the receiving end of that sort of seduction. It should, perhaps, have been laughable, seeing skinny, soft-spoken Q taking charge. But it hadn’t been laughable at all. It had made desire coil and warm in Bond’s gut.

So yes, if Bond’s touch lingered while teaching Q how best to slide a knife between an attacker’s ribs, that was only to be expected. Turnabout was fair play, after all. It was just a bit of fun.

But there was, undeniably, a strange feeling in Bond’s gut the whole time, like he was standing on the edge of a cliff. A kind of internal vertigo, almost like terror. It left him breathless in a way he didn’t understand.


 But there was a lot that Bond didn't understand. More than he ever let on. For example: he found himself telling Q things, without even needing to get hammered or concussed first.

After a grueling assassination -- in Kansas, of all the horrible, boring places -- he went to Q’s, put his head in Q’s lap and just. Started talking. The target had been a spy, a hacker funneling MI6’s secrets out via the CIA. Bond had teamed up with Felix and tracked down the leak to a literal white-picket-fence. Poor bastard. There had been a photo of two lovely kids in his wallet. James found himself saying it aloud, the words just coming out of him without his permission: he never wanted to have kids himself, if only to spare his eventual murderer that particular exquisite pain. No one deserved that.

For the first time, and to Q, he talked about the night he became an orphan. It had been the first time his parents left him home alone. He had been looking forward to being the man of the house, for a little while.

Q didn’t say a word, and he didn’t stop moving his fingers through Bond’s hair, not once. And there was the feeling again. Bond was sure this time: it was fear, sick and twisting, and ever-present, underlying every good thing Q brought into his life.

He just couldn’t figure out why.


 They had their first shouting match, as a “couple” (they both preferred to say it with sarcastic emphasis) six months in. It was, predictably, work-related. It was, surprisingly, not James’s fault.

Not that James knew that. It happened after his first post-Q honeypot mission. He wasn’t sure how MI6 had managed to go six whole months without needing him to seduce someone, but lately his missions had been all violence and vent-crawling, no whoring necessary. They hadn’t asked for that -- Q had never made any request, formal or informal, and James certainly hadn’t. M was too busy to make that happen for them without being asked, and Moneypenny would never coddle them that way.

No, as a matter of fact, it had been Tanner. The chief of staff had practically thrown rice over them when they reported that they were, now, “officially” a “couple.” (Q had rolled his eyes, while Bond’s lips twitched disdainfully.) Tanner had begged, borrowed, and threatened as much as he could, in order to provide them a “honeymoon phase” free from constant STI checks. (Q rolled his eyes harder, Bond’s lips twitched in fond bemusement that time.)

But all good things must come to an end, and frankly, Bond was just too good to bench indefinitely.

He spent a week on some woman’s yacht, using Q’s Rat Trap to copy out every detail of the smuggling ring she ran. She was fine, he supposed. Attractive enough, and clever, and just a little cruel. His type, he would have thought. Before. But he never felt even slightly tempted to speak to her unguardedly. And while he did take off the shoulder holster a couple of times, he never wanted to. He certainly didn’t enjoy it.

When it was over, he took satisfaction in a job well done, but it definitely felt like work.

 

He’d been looking forward to coming back, to coming home. He’d been so impatient that he went off the grid and called in a favor in order to get back early. He’d even returned all his equipment and gone to Medical like a good boy.

And yes, he had broken into Q’s flat, fine , but that was only because he couldn’t be arsed to get his key out of the secure lockup. He came in through the window, turned off the alarm, and dropped onto Q’s couch with a sigh. A moment later, Potter hopped up beside him and yowled, reminding Bond that he had Important Duties. Forget Queen and Country. There were cats to feed.

James fed the cats, and got a nice dinner cooking besides, one that could simmer on the stove until Q got back. He helped himself to a book from Q’s shelves and finally learned the origin of Potter and Weasley’s names. He wondered if Q had grown up reading these books. He checked the publishing date. It made him feel more-than-usually old and lecherous. He kept reading. He ignored the ping of his work phone. He was off-duty, dammit. If it was important, they’d call again. This was Q time.

All he needed was for Q to actually bloody turn up.

 

It was after dark before Q finally did arrive. Without looking up, James said: “Of all the characters to name a cat after, why not McGonagall?”

“A black haired cat and a ginger? How could I call them anything other than Potter and Weasley?” Q said testily. That made James look up, in time to see Q drop his bag unceremoniously on the coffee table. Someone was in a bad mood. James couldn't help being a little disappointed. “What the hell are you doing here?” Q grumbled.

Perhaps a lot disappointed. Instinctively, James hid his reaction. Without losing his cool, he raised an eyebrow. “Making dinner? There’s curry on the stove and the naan should still be warm.”

“I ate at the office. You went off the grid.” Q’s expression was dark, and strangely hard to read.

“Yeah, well.” Bond set the book aside, and sat up. “I was impatient." A little annoyance crept into his voice. It had been weeks on that bloody yacht with that bloody woman. This was not the homecoming he'd been hoping for.

“Were you.”

Q’s voice couldn’t have been colder. Bond’s focus narrowed in on him, frowning. Q was angry. Why? Bond had gone off-grid before. Q didn’t usually worry about it, but...

“I should’ve called you,” Bond decided. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to worry you.”

Q’s mouth twitched unhappily. He turned away, went into the kitchen. “I wasn’t worried.” It didn’t sound like a lie.

Bond’s brows came down and together. It couldn’t possibly be about the mission, about the woman, could it? They had talked about it before he left. Q had joked about it, teased him about it. They had both teased Tanner for trying to protect them as long as he had. Q had laughed about it, for Christ’s sake. It couldn't possibly be... could it? “Q... we both knew that this would happen eventually.”

Q had been getting out a mug, about to make tea. Bond saw it happen, almost in slow motion. Shock washed over Q’s face, and pain, like Bond had put a gun in his gut and pulled the trigger. Q’s fingers spasmed. The mug slipped. It bounced off the counter, fell to the floor, and shattered. Q didn’t even react, just stared at the cabinets, his blank shock visible in profile to Bond. He blinked, that fast blink that meant he was thinking something through, processing. Then, his brows snapped down and his eyes narrowed behind his glasses.

Bond stared, not moving. He was a highly trained agent, and he could smell danger in the air.

Q turned slowly on the spot, broken mug crunching under his shoes.

He was furious. Incandescent rage was written in every line of him. Bond had stepped wrong somewhere, and the fear that always lingered in the back of his mind expanded to suffuse his whole being. And at last, he worked out what it was.

He was terrified, terrified, of losing Q. Of course he was, but still...

Hell of a time to have that epiphany.

“You think… You think I’m mad about the mission?” Q said, in the quiet-dangerous voice generally reserved for ordering the executions of human traffickers. “You think I’m mad about her?”

“Just… working my way through the list of things I might have fucked up,” Bond said slowly, not moving an inch. It was always wiser to keep still in the face of a dangerous creature.

“Well, I know this might shake the foundations of your world, 007, but it isn’t always about you,” Q whipped back, vicious.

“I didn’t say it was.” Bond’s gaze darted over Q, cataloguing. Tremor in the right hand. Shadows under his eyes, which were red-rimmed. Clothes rumpled -- he’d been at the office for a while, possibly since the night before, and the tension in his shoulders was--

“Don’t fucking do that,” Q warned. “Don’t read me, if you want to know what happened, you can fucking ask.”

“What happened?” Bond said, alarm crawling higher in his chest, beginning to tug at his hind brain.

“None of your goddamn business,” Q said, voice strange and harsh.

The panic shrilled through him, screeching. He held himself very still and tried not to rise to the bait, tried not to give Q the fight he was clearly looking for. But. Some things were too deeply ingrained.

“Is it not?” Bond said, his own voice gone deep and distant. “Well. My mistake.” He stood up in one swift, graceful movement. His jaw was tight, and he knew full well what he looked like now. Pissed off, cold, and don’t-fuck-with-me dangerous.

He’d trained himself to look that way when he was scared.

This could only go downhill from here, and Bond knew when a tactical retreat was called for. He didn’t look at Q once as he went out the door. If he slammed it, well. It might have been cliched and dramatic, but it was also very satisfying.

 

By the time he was half a block away, the high-pitched squeal of his anxiety had given way to a building storm of anger. He was trying to be helpful , and Q had been deliberately fucking --  

Bond was ninety percent sure that he’d done nothing to deserve that, and he still didn’t know what had happened to --

What he really wanted to do, right now, was hit something. Someone, preferably. He remembered that his phone had pinged earlier, a message from work, from Moneypenny. Maybe there was a mission...

He opened it, and stopped dead in his tracks. A businessman on his phone nearly crashed into him and swore under his breath, but Bond didn’t look up from the text message.

We lost Jack today. Q was on OS.

Jack Mason was the youngest of the double-ohs. Not as young as Bond had been when he started, but close. He was -- he had been doe-eyed, brown-haired, with a devastatingly crooked smile and a soft, Welsh accent when he wasn’t thinking about it. He’d killed two armed terrorists in hand to hand combat for the privilege of being called 003.

He’d helped rescue Q and M from the warehouse by the water. He’d taken a mean bullet graze across his ribs, and laughed about it, after.

And now he was dead, and Q had been on Ops Support when it happened, and everything suddenly made a lot more sense.

They didn't talk about it, in a strange kind of superstition. But Q had never lost an agent, not while he was running the op. He had never been in charge when an agent didn't come home, never had to listen to someone die on the other end of a call he was running.

We both knew that this would happen eventually, Bond had said. Of course Q had looked gut-punched.

“Shit,” James told the empty air, before turning around and practically running back to Q’s.

 

He banged on the front door. If Q wouldn’t let him in, he’d find another way. He’d break in again, climb up the side of the building like a goddamn spider if needs must, but--

But Q yanked open the door. James had half expected to find that Q had imploded during his brief absence, but in fact, Q looked just the same: Prickly, and pissed off, and (now that James was looking for it) desperately upset.

“What?” Q snapped, his body still blocking the way in.

“Moneypenny texted me. About Jack.”

James barely got his hand up and slapped against the wood in time to stop the door slamming in his face. Even angry, Q wasn’t stronger than Bond. He shoved hard, but James shoved back, and the door stayed open.

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Q said, outraged.

“The longest serving double-oh in history,” James said, with cool authority. “It wasn’t your fault, Q.”

“How the hell would you know,” Q said, his voice taut with emotion, on the ragged edge of breaking. “It was my op, you weren’t there, you have no--”

James shoved the door open, forcing Q back a couple of steps. “It wasn’t your fault,” he said, relentless.

Q laughed, mocking, and horrible. “He wasn’t you, you know, he didn’t take stupid risks. He just did exactly as he was told. Exactly what I told him to--”

James slammed the door behind him and grabbed Q’s upper arm. “It wasn’t--”

“Stop saying that! Stop saying that,  it's just s tupid --”

“It wasn’t your fault,” James said, louder.

Q twisted out of his grip like a wild thing -- like Bond had showed him how to do, in fact. And then he shoved hard at James’s chest, pushed him back. “Shut up, just fucking shut up or I swear to Christ--” He grabbed the front of James’s shirt and pushed again, hard, rattling James’s back against the door with bruising force. There was rage in his face, and James knew the look of violence coming on, knew the look of a man about to dive headfirst into a fight he couldn’t win. It was folly for a skinny boffin to punch a double-oh. Self-defense training or not, Bond could break Q over his knee if he wanted.

But James just lifted his hands, palms out. “I’m not going to fight you, Q.”

Q’s face twisted into a grimace. “Why not?” He snarled, and bashed James against the door again, hard enough to make it shake in its frame. James just let him, compliant and loose. Q’s fists were balled up in his shirt, knuckles pressed against James’s chest. His eyes, dark behind his spectacles, were red-rimmed and fixed with a desperate laser fury on Bond’s expression.

“Because I don't... I don't want to hurt you,” James said. He meant to say it as a quip, a clever joke. Teasing. Unfortunately, about halfway through, he discovered that he meant it. He didn’t want to hurt Q. He would never, never hurt Q.

But Q’s face just twisted further into grief, into something raw and hurting and beyond anger. “Why not?” He said, and it sounded…

He was pleading.

Bond’s heart had been broken before, but never quite like this. Not for someone else’s sake. Q was begging him to fight, knowing that he couldn’t win. He wanted to be punished. Wanted someone to hurt him, to get some of the pain inside him out. Bond had been there, he knew that feeling. He knew what it was like to want that, to put some of the pain on your skin instead of in your head. And he had done it to other people, before. To marks. To targets. For information, for leverage, for--

He swallowed thickly. Why this, he wondered vaguely. Why did this of all things turn his stomach? Why did this, of all the fucking things he’d done, send him spiraling back into memories like--

He swallowed again, and shook his head hard. “No. I… No.”

Q’s shoulders dropped. The fight left him, all in a rush. His fists went slack on James's chest. It almost looked like he was about to collapse. James put his hands on Q's shoulders and squeezed, gently.

“Hard limit, I’m afraid,” James said, soft and apologetic. “Won’t hurt you. Can’t do it.” He’d hurt too many people. There was violence in him all the time. He wasn’t going to cross that line with Q. He didn't want to. He didn’t dare.

Q bowed his head. “Christ. That was a such a fucked up thing to -- I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have--”

“Not your fault,” James said, quietly now.

“God, shut up.” Q leaned slightly forward, pressed his forehead into Bond’s collarbone. “Just…”

James put his arms around Q and let him shudder in silence.

 

They were both a little raw, after that. It was weeks before they stopped circling each other like wary cats. It wouldn't be the last time they fought, of course. But James never did cross that line, and Q never pushed him like that again.

It was almost worse, to watch Q punishing himself in the days that followed. James stayed with him, and kept a sharp eye out, just… in case. He never caught Q with a razor blade or anything so overt, but… It was still hard to watch him stay late at the office every night, and turn away from the food James brought him. He even oversteeped his tea so it was bitter, which was ridiculous. James wasn’t even sure that it was conscious, on Q's part. He was treating himself like shit in a thousand small ways. James had done worse to himself, he knew. But it was harder to stand by and watch it happen to someone else.

When Q tried to skip out on his mandatory grief counseling, James put his foot down. That led to another screaming argument. The word “hypocrite” featured prominently. The end result was that Q agreed to go to “the stupid bloody grief thing” only if Bond signed up for regular sessions of his own.

When Bond submitted the request, Tanner was so surprised that he was actually speechless for ten whole seconds. Moneypenny looked out her window, as though to check that the Thames hadn’t fucking frozen over or something. James just rolled his eyes and walked away.

He did not expect anything useful to come of it, but… The counselor Psych assigned to him was an ex-operative herself, who had lost both legs during the Troubles and now walked around on bent carbon fiber springs. She was hard-faced, and had eyes that could pin him to the wall and make him squirm. After just one session, she started bringing a deck of cards. They played poker for confidences rather than money, and he lost more often than not.

It wasn’t completely horrible, actually.

 

A few weeks later, he realized that they had survived their first big fight. It hadn't resulted in Q leaving. No one had died. In fact, it had gone as well as a fight could be expected to go.

For some reason, that only made Bond more nervous.


 Their special interpretation of normal was an ever-expanding thing, a boundary that kept moving, encompassing more and more and more, an ever-growing collection of tiny moments that echoed deep.

Sometimes, at night, Bond would curl around Q and just hold him, pressed warm and firm against his back until the genius could get a good night's rest even though it was too dark and quiet in the room.

And sometimes Q would come up behind Bond and just wrap his arms around Bond's stomach and press his forehead against the back of Bond's neck until the tension he didn’t realize was there eased out of him, and he could take off the shoulder holster.

This all became normal, but Bond’s anxiety didn’t go away. He knew what to call it now: anxiety. A vague, nameless fear.

He was too selfish not to take what Q was offering, and with both hands. But the deeper he got, the more he quietly tried to prepare himself. He was perpetually half-braced for disaster. Q was going to be taken away from him, eventually. Just like everyone else he'd ever let himself care about. Someday, he knew he would end up standing over Q’s grave.

He tried, he truly did, but couldn’t stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.


 While on a mission in Manila, Bond got himself shot in the thigh and had to take medical leave at the same time that Q was due some vacation. They took a couple of weeks off and decided to go on a driving holiday. It was the one year anniversary of their first official date, a fact which both of them knew and neither acknowledged.

They spent the day itself tinkering with the car, making sure it would survive the long, aimless drive they were planning to take.

Q loved tinkering with the car. Bond loved helping Q tinker with the car. They bickered about what could and couldn't be weaponized. The argument grew heated, but not with anger. It ended with the two of them fucking over the hood, still arguing about whether or not to add a flamethrower.

 

They drove from town to town along the coast. Dover, Hastings… they skipped Brighton and went to Portsmouth instead. James was a navy man first, and unrepentantly fond of sailing ships. He got unnecessarily starry eyed over tall ships in the harbor. He gave Q a surprisingly thorough tour of HMS Victory. After that, they went to the Mary Rose Museum, which housed the remains of a 500-year-old ship. It had been painstakingly dredged up from the ocean floor when Bond was still a teenager. He'd gone to the grand opening, and several times after, but he hadn't been back since the museum re-opened in 2013, after they finished conservation on the wreck. The last he'd seen it, they were still constantly soaking it with water and chemicals, to prevent further deterioration. Now it was dry, and the lights were a little brighter.

“It’s a common misconception that she sank on her maiden voyage,” James said quietly. They were standing in the viewing area looking out over the remains of the massive old warship. “She was in service for thirty-four years, fought in three wars.”  And then, centuries on the sea bottom, lying on her side in the silt. It had very neatly bisected her, revealing all the decks, the depth of the hull. It was eerily skeletal, and strangely beautiful. “Poor old thing.”

James caught Q staring at him, eyes wide, as they looked out at the ragged remains of the Tudor-era vessel. “What?” Bond said, all aloofness and arched brow.

“Nothing. Just.” A smile pulled up the corner of Q’s mouth. His gaze was steady, unflickering, and warm.

“Just what?”

“You’re geeking out. About ships.”

Bond sniffed and looked back out at the exhibit. He shifted his weight off his still-healing leg. “ You geek out. I have specialized knowledge.”

Q snorted. “Yeah, alright. Whatever you say.” He bumped his shoulder against Bond’s. “Next time, a sailing holiday?”

Bond didn’t look over, but he knew that Q had seen the half-smirk that was his minimalist way of saying fuck yes.

 

A few days after that they went to Lyme. James sunned himself on a rock studded with spiraling fossilized ammonites. Q walked by the sea, studying the broken bits of prehistoric beasts that were scattered in and among the pebbles. He’d taken off his shoes and socks. His trousers were rolled up to his knees, and he waded into the water as far as his shins. James caught himself watching Q’s shuffling little steps with the same sharp greed that had previously been reserved for curvaceous women in white bikinis. When exactly had skinny boffins become his type?

Q came back to James's sunny spot with a smirk and a really beautiful if oddly shaped rock. It sparkled in the sunlight. He held it out to Bond, looking terribly smug for some reason.

"What's this?" James asked, taking the offered stone. It didn’t look like a fossil, but…

"It’s for your mantle. To go next to the bulldog. It’s a coprolite,” Q said, sounding very pleased with himself.

James narrowed his eyes. “A what?”

“A prehistoric piece of shit. Just like you.”

James tackled him despite the ache in his healing leg.

 

They ended up in Cornwall, near Land's End. Bond wanted to go cliff diving or something equally mad, but his limp prevented him, and he didn't protest too much. He let Q drive this stretch and just enjoyed the shockingly nice weather that made Cornwall so unexpectedly lush and lovely.

They stopped at a little seaside village where the houses were colorful, and the plants were tropical, and the doors all had shiny brass doorknobs right in the middle.

There were basking sharks in the harbor that day, and even though they probably shouldn’t have, with Bond’s leg, they went swimming, along with several adventurous surfers and a couple of enthusiastic conservationists. The basking sharks were terrifyingly massive, and completely harmless. But even Bond got a little thrill of fear to be so close to something so big, jaws agape as if to swallow him whole.

 

Later, they checked into a hotel and drank wine on the balcony. Later -- much later, the other shoe finally dropped, though not in the way that Bond had been waiting for.

 

They were in bed, skin to skin and sleepy in the aftermath. James felt sated and comfortable, and safe. Q’s head was pillowed on his chest, hair tickling under James's chin and the side of his neck. A year ago, he might have wanted a smoke, but it made Q wheeze and cough, so he’d quit. He rubbed Q’s bicep, callouses dragging up and down the smooth, soft skin.

Q sighed, heavily. “I’ll tell you,” he said out of bloody nowhere, as though they’d been having a conversation, as though James had asked a question, which he hadn’t. “But you have to promise to keep calling me Q. I really do prefer it.”

James went very, very still.

“You can laugh if you like, though. It’s admittedly silly.”  Q lifted his head to look down at Bond. He was smiling, a dreamy little smile that Bond had spent the last year completely obsessed with. “It’s Ulysses, believe it or not,” he said. “Ulysses Hope.”

James stared. “Seriously?”

Highly Google-able, you can see why we had to bury it.”

“Ulysses?”

“My dad was an avid sailor and my mum was a classicist.”

“That’s hardly an excuse. They sent you to boarding school with that name?”

“Well I was there at the same time as Benedict Cumberbatch, so it wasn’t as if mine was the worst--”

“You went to Harrow?!  You call me posh, but you went to Harrow?"

“On scholarship! You went to Eton and Fettes,” Q said, defensively.

James felt completely blindsided. It was marvelous. Almost nothing surprised him anymore. And it was so rare that the surprise was actually nice . Q dropped his head back onto James's chest.

“Well I can see why you prefer Q,” James rumbled.

“Yes,” Q said, amused.

“You can't startle me like that, you know. I'm very, very old. Liable to drop dead from shock at any second.”

Q tsked in disapproval. “Don't you dare. I'm not done with you.”

James chuckled. For a moment they lay in silence, his mind ticking over what he had learned. “Bloody hell,” he said suddenly, thinking of their walk through the town, of shiny brass doorknobs. Of gardens with roses and herbs. Of a late-night phone conversation, while he was in Hong Kong. Have you always lived in London? “Is there an empty grave in this town with your name on it?” he asked in a rush.

He felt Q shrug against him. “Yeah.”

“Would it be safe to visit?” James said, feeling strangely dizzy with delight. It meant nothing, but the thought of standing over Q’s grave, as he’d always known he would, but without the loss… It felt like he would be breaking a curse.

“If you like,” Q said, amused. He lifted his head again and kissed James lazily. “Morbid weirdo,” he murmured against James’s mouth.

James knew what he wanted to say in reply to that. He paused for a moment, let the tension in himself sing. It had been a long time coming by now, but even longer since he’d dared to consider saying these particular words aloud. In the moment before it happened, he acknowledged that it would, and he let himself believe, for the first time since he was six, that it really was going to be alright. Only then did he say it, lightly, as if it meant nothing:

“Love you too.”