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Before and After

Chapter Text

Q is...quieter after James is gone.

Eve doesn’t think many people notice it. Q carries on the same way he always has, professional and competent, corralling his Branch into efficiency and nudging his agents towards whatever safety he can offer them. He dresses in the same horrible cardigans, goes home at the same atrocious times, and continues to subsist on tea.

Most people aren’t Eve, though, and she sees it. It’s in the small things, as most things are, because Q may not be a field agent, but he’s a leader in espionage and a genius, and there are just some mannerisms you pick up after spending enough time in the shadows like hiding vulnerabilities and pretending everything is okay when it isn’t.

There’s less fire in Q now. Less of that formidable conviction behind his words, although his steel spine remains as unbent as before. Q has the respect of all the agents, including the Double-Ohs, for a reason, but his presence seems a bit muffled now, the line of his shoulders less straight.

He doesn’t speak up as often in meetings, preferring to sit and listen. And he walks into meetings in the same rumpled clothes he wore to work that morning, and to Eve’s trained eyes, it’s painfully obvious how the professional touches from before are missing: the straightened and sometimes better-matched ties, the smoothed-down hair, the clean lines of his trousers.

Q works later into the nights these days. He comes in later, stays later. His work is as impeccable as always, all boasting of the serrated, razor-sharp edges that Q’s own mind uses to shred and rip problems apart, but somehow, Q seems to be getting work done twice as fast as before.

Eve doesn’t even have to walk down to Q-Branch with an armful of papers for him to sign under the threat of more board meetings anymore. It’s scaring her.

He banters less with the agents over comms. Well. That’s not strictly accurate. 98% of Q’s unprofessional conversations over comms was with one Double-Oh in particular. The other 2% was Q threatening agents with death threats and idle talk during slower missions.

Certainly, Eve has heard less of M’s sighs when mission transcripts land on his desk. She’s not certain that’s a good thing. Dealing with the merger remains a headache and a half for them, although with C gone, there’s less tension involved directly.

Finally, after two months of this moping has passed, Eve has had enough. On a nice Friday night, she wraps up her work for the day, bids farewell to M, and grabs her things before striding to down Q-Branch. The few employees still lingering in the halls part for her like the Red Sea before Moses, and she feels a lingering satisfaction that she’s lost none of her touch, no matter how stressful the last six months have been.

Q-Branch is a skeleton of its usual self. There are only three boffins remaining, and one is packing up for home. The other is talking to Q, the third, but from the frown on Q’s lips and the firm shake of his head, she isn’t having much luck.

Eve sympathises. But that doesn’t mean she’ll give up on her mission.

Waiting patiently by the doorway for the two minions to leave, she walks right up to Q’s desk the instant they’re gone. “We’re going out for a drink,” she informs him.

Q blinks up at her, a bit startled but still dulled over with the bleakness that she’s grown so tired of seeing. “Miss Moneypenny - ”

“No excuses. Come on. It’s Friday, there hasn’t been an international incident all week, and you can stand to leave your laptop for a few hours. Grab your coat, and shut everything down. A drink will do you good.”

Through a combination of weedling, ordering, and outright steamrolling, Eve manages to get Q out of his office and into a bar, ignoring his protests all the while. And when he orders a martini, she doesn’t say a word.

An hour later, his head is leaning against her shoulder, and she’s stroking his hair. He’s so thin, she thinks, eyeing his cheekbones, which have always been sharp but now look as if they’re cutting into his skin. Thinner than he was, well, before. She doesn’t know if it’s because his appetite is poor or if it’s because someone used to leave tea and meals on his desk before.

Before. She’s starting to hate that word. Soon, she’s going to start thinking of Q in two stages: Before James and After James. It’s almost enough for her to start wishing that James will come back just so she can sock him a good one.

“I know who you’re thinking of,” Q says suddenly, breaking their companionable silence with the elephant in MI6 they’ve so far been able to avoid talking of.

Eve smiles weakly. “Yeah?”

Q stares ahead of him at the wall blankly. “You’re thinking of Bond,” he says, and there’s nearly an accusation in his voice.

Eve doesn’t try and deny it. “So are you,” she replies instead.

Q’s laugh is bitter and cracked. “When am I not?” he asks, and she doesn’t know how to answer that without bringing up truths they swore to never so much as acknowledge on one drunk night months ago similar to this one.

So, Eve just continues to stroke his hair and orders him another martini. Later, she manoeuvres him into a cab she called for them and goes with him to his flat, where his cats, well-fed and brushed to perfection, pad up to them with concerned meows.

She manhandles Q into his bed and places a bucket beside him for the morning. Q’s utterly smashed by this point, and even Eve’s agent-tolerance is a little stretched. Despite her tipsiness, though, she knows she’ll remember tomorrow the way Q mumbles into his pillow, “I thought he loved me.”

Eve closes the bedroom door behind her silently and slumps against it with a sigh.

“I thought he did, too,” she murmurs to herself.

Chapter Text

Q knows he should get up. He’s watched the numbers on the clock on his bedside table steadily change from 04:53 to 07:23; from behind the crack of his curtains, the sky's piercing and blue and lovely like a familiar pair of eyes, and the day’s starting. He can’t stay in bed all day. He has work to do.

He closes his eyes and nuzzles deeper into his thick blanket. He’s warm in that almost too hot way where his muscles are limp as noodles and his bones don’t seem to exist, and he doesn’t want to move, doesn’t want to confront the cold that faces him outside his bed.

Q has always hated winter. The cold brings with it an added lethargy that makes getting out of bed every morning even more of a struggle than it is normally. Wearing more layers doesn’t make the problem go away; he just feels more and more weighed down, now externally in addition to the internal heaviness.

He drifts away for a while, not knowing how much time is passing but not really caring. If there’s an incident in Q-Branch, the alarm on his phone is more than loud enough to wake him, and his overtime has been such that a bit of a lie-in will go unvoiced.

A whisper of a dream curls around him like a loving embrace. But it’s not a dream, not really, more of a memory, and he -

He's wearing an ill-fitted suit and holding a glass of wine awkwardly; he hates societal functions. Moneypenny loops her arm around his and guides him around the room, and he says something about her being a Godsend. She laughs, bright.

Q. Q is sneaking a hor d'oeuvre. His glass is empty, and he looks up abruptly, disorientated. Bond and Moneypenny are dancing. They make a gorgeous couple, handsome and beautiful, black tuxedo and red gown. He has only a moment to feel nauseous and guilty for it before Tanner calls for his attention.

Q smokes a cigarette on the balcony but is interrupted by a teasing voice. Before he can protest, he’s been coaxed back into the room and into a dance - “Just one,” Bond promises - and he closes his eyes to better hear the sweet drone of the music and Bond's murmured words, so gentle, so unexpectedly sincere.

He dances and dances, and he doesn’t know when one dance became three, but he’s never had a smoother dance partner than Bond, never floated on nothing more than someone's attention and the humid heat of summer. Q isn’t drunk, but he feels like it as his feet move and the lights above begin to blur.

Bond says in his ear, voice surprisingly rough, “Dance the night away with me, Quartermas - ”

A meow breaks the dream into sharp, glittering glass shards for him to cut himself on. Morgana, his beloved Turkish Angora, leaps onto the bed and pads closer, unrepentantly stepping on his legs to nudge at his cheek with her cold nose.

Q blinks at the ceiling. He feels more tired than ever before. It seems unfair that a nap makes him more dispirited instead of less. Rayleigh, his other cat, is probably around the flat somewhere. Morgana can’t possibly be hungry - he has automated feeding machines for a reason - so she must be questing for attention.

Sighing quietly because between staying cocooned in his blanket and petting his cat, the latter wins out despite everything, Q extracts his left hand and scratches Morgana’s head before stroking down her back. She purrs soothingly and settles next to his pillow for a quick catnap.

Q gazes at her enviously. He wishes he could be a cat. He supposes he should count his blessings and be glad that the dream ended there.

Granted, even as the thought passes his mind, Q is already pursuing his crystal-clear memories of the rest of the night, because he’s clearly a masochist and can’t leave well enough alone. Bond did dance with Q for the rest of the party. He was startled by that when he could bring himself to think beyond the haze of alcohol and the scent of Bond’s cologne.

Q’s still surprised. 007’s not known for keeping his word. At least, not when playing with a mark, and looking back, Q was most certainly his mark that night. Perhaps it was a good thing then that Q was drowsy enough by the last dance, courtesy of a long day and the emotional drain of socialising with people he could honestly not care less about, that whatever twisted honour code Bond abides by kicked in, and instead of taking Q to his bed, Bond drove him home and said goodnight with a soft smile.

Q mentally traces that smile within his memory. At the time - or, well, the morning after - he thought that there was a trace of fondness hidden behind the politeness of it, maybe just a hint of consideration beyond what's customarily shared between two coworkers.

Bond was probably right when he pegged Q as too young and too naive to work in espionage.

Q twists his blanket around him even tighter. Like this, and if he just closes his eyes a bit, he can almost recreate the feeling of being held tight in Bond’s arms: warm, cherished, and safe. All lies, of course, but Q will take his comforts where he can find them.

A while later, Q frowns at his clock. It’s suddenly jumped to 9:12. Unacceptable. He needs to get up.

He lies there for some time more, agreeing with himself on this very sensible and professional plan of action. When, at last, Q untangles himself to get dressed, he already feels drained and hollow, and he knows that the day hasn’t even really begun yet.

He goes through his morning routine in a daze, only to find himself standing in front of his empty refrigerator, dumbfounded. He didn’t really. Didn’t really eat dinner last night, having come in at 2 in the morning and ready to collapse.

Q can’t remember the last time he bought food. He frowns blankly at the empty refrigerator for another minute or two before going to set up the electric kettle. Tea’s never failed him before. He can't say he feels particularly hungry anyway.

Briefly, he thinks of the antidepressants hiding in the second drawer of his bedside table. He knows he should take them, knows that they might even bring a little colour into his monochromatic world. But they slow Q down like being dumped in a vat of molasses, and he’s tired.

He’s always so tired.

Q dismisses his meds just as the water boils.

Chapter Text

Bond hates to admit his mistakes.

Of course, it doesn’t help that most of the time, there’s no one to admit his mistakes to but the cold corpses, and the forgotten dead keep their secrets as they’re buried and rot in the earth.

Bond, though, Bond never forgets, even if those words of apology never leave his lips.

Today, he leans his forehead against a front door and thinks that he’s made a big fucking mistake.

In hindsight, it’s all too clear. He fell into the trap he normally lures his marks into like the greenest of green agents: Bond chose the illusion of freedom on a high of adrenaline over the steadiness of the warmth he took for granted, was dazzled by the new over the familiar, let himself be swept along on the excitement of the mission only to forget what was waiting for him at home.

For the hundredth time, Bond reminisces about that bridge helplessly. At the time, his options had seemed so obvious. There was Madeleine on one side and the promise of forgiveness for all of his sins, a new life devoid of secrecy and the hanging shadow of death. And then there was Mallory, a continuation of a road that would doubtlessly leave him bleeding out in a godforsaken alley somewhere or thrown aside when his expiration date inevitably came.

She was his second chance. A painless retirement. And Bond had wanted that enough to overlook everything else. His rose-tinted glasses were put on by himself, although you’d think he’d know better by now.

Bond breathes. The door has warmed to his body temperature now, no longer icy cold. In. Hold for a count of seven. Out. Wait for a count of seven. In.

It didn’t take long for the delusions to fade. It never does. Bond’s familiar with the process from the other end; he knows when to look for the moments his marks start looking at him with new eyes, a piercing guardedness that says they’ve suddenly realised that this isn’t the life they want. It’s the long inhale when the passion and the adventure pass to reveal the dead bodies Bond leaves behind him, and the quiet yearning for the world they left behind where they didn’t have to be vigilant day and night, ever ready to run.

Being the one who abruptly awakens from the dream was unexpected. For the longest time, Bond didn’t know how to handle it. He did his best to hide any signs that he was unhappy from Madeleine and succeeded perhaps too well.

How was he to convey that even though France was beautiful, he missed London’s dreary storms and the Tower Bridge? Was he to say that she was gorgeous and perceptive and fantastic in bed, but he felt bored and morose, the world dull and lacklustre around him? He distracted Madeleine fine enough from the gun in his bedside table and his defensive driving, but could he distract her from the way he searched for messy dark hair in a crowd and went quiet sometimes, listening for a voice in his ear that didn't exist?

At first, it was general things. Bond thought of Q’s dry humour and quick wit when Madeleine answered to a quip with a cool tone and vague annoyance. He freely admitted he missed the exploding watches and flash bomb cufflinks, and in the middle of the night, he might even have reminisced about the late night conversations they used to have when Bond was too revved up from adrenaline and the mission high to sleep and Q was being stubborn about going home.

He tried to justify it to himself. It was simply a brief bout of homesickness, and so what if Q was what he associated most closely with home? Bond was hardly cheating; they weren’t anything more than friends, after all. Hell, they had never even kissed, so they couldn’t have been anything more than friends. And besides, Q had said he understood, hadn’t he?

God, he was a fool.

It’s ten in the morning. Bond doesn’t know what he’s doing hovering in front of Q’s door like a monster is waiting for him inside. Q may be his monster of a mistake, but he arrives each day at Q-Branch at nine, or half past nine if the Tube is truly awful, and he most certainly won’t be in right now.

Bond still can’t bring himself to go in.

After Madeleine got a flat and then a job and new elite friends and started leaving Bond alone more often, his aches became more specific. Wandering aimlessly around Warsaw left plenty of time for Bond to dream of the smile Q used to flash him when he bought a perfectly brewed cup of tea during the latest crisis and his hum of pleasure at the first bite into a croissant from his favourite bakery.

Even Q’s disastrous attempts at colour-coordinating seemed bittersweet by then, and that was when Bond knew he was in trouble.

It didn’t take long after that for the honeymoon glow to fade for the both of them. Bond wasn’t the only one who was blinded by the mission flare, and undoubtedly Madeleine became aware that she could do better than a man who had his gaze turned on the horizon more often than it was on her. She didn’t need him, he didn’t need her, and their want was too shallow to keep them together.

When he left, she was hurt, but there was relief underscoring the hurt, however much neither of them might have wanted to deny it.

So, here he is, breathing against Q’s door and not sure whether he’s already ruined everything. He’s used to doing so, but most of the time, he also has at least some idea of how to fix it. Bond doesn’t have the slightest clue this time.

What is he meant to say? Will Q turn him away? Should Bond go out and buy flowers - no, tea, Q would like tea far more than he would like flowers -

Click.

Bond frowns and steps away from the door, confused. That was. That was the sound of the lock turning.

A second later, the door opens, and Q blinks at him owlishly.

If he were a man with lesser control, Bond might have muttered, “Shit.”