James closed the heavy manila folder with an irritated snap of his fingers, blocking the sight of pale green eyes - so bright and gorgeous without the thick and smudged lenses of a pair of spectacles hiding them - staring at him from photographic paper and looked up at M in a defiant manner: he held his chin up and let coldness seep into his icy-blue irises, desperately trying to hide the ugly mess of betrayal and confusion that warred in his lungs, making it hard to breathe evenly.
He hadn't expected things to be the same as when he had walked out of MI6, his mind clouded by the illusion of a happily normal life and Madeleine's sweet perfume - 007 wasn't naïve: MI6 moved at a dizzyingly quick pace and those who didn't manage to keep up disappeared, promptly replaced by someone who supposedly was more competent. Despite knowing that, James had been bewildered by the sight of a stranger sitting behind Q's desk, ordering around the strangely subdued minions and carelessly drinking from a Scrabble mug that seemed to have been left behind by its rightful owner - his young, brilliant Quartermaster; James had almost dropped the car keys he had been smugly dangling around, already picturing Q's shocked face as he was informed that, for once, 007 had bothered to bring something back without even a scratch on it.
The woman, probably alerted by the weighty silence that had cloaked Q-branch at his sudden appearance, had raised her head to look at the intruder, chocolaty eyes slightly widening in surprise and a vague hint of hero-worship.James hadn't even bothered with her to gather some facts and, muscles propelled by fury, had turned around on his heels and stalked to Mallory's office to loudly claim some answers.
“This is not funny” James growled, digits still fiddling with the corner of the folder.
M straightened in his upholstered chair, the frown on his forehead considerably deepened and made him look older than his years “You should know I'm not inclined to joking” His stern and deep voice a supporting evidence to his statement. He reached for the folder and gently opened it again, quietly laying the truth in front of his agent: the former Quartermaster of MI6 was smartly dressed in a sharp suit that looked weirdly out of place on his thin frame, and was possessively embraced by the strong arms of a notorious arm-dealer who had the unfortunate habit of dabbing into chemical and nuclear weapons “He is your mark” he stated dryly, tapping lightly on Q's smirking features.
James pursed his lips as if he had tasted lemon juice and turned the page to have a look at the following picture: a Q in a blindingly white lab coat was surrounded by a cluster of stern looking and heavily armed bodyguards while speaking on a mobile, an expression of rapt and utter concentration morphing his face into something ethereal and enchanting; James remembered spending the forced downtime in between missions down in Q-branch, tucked away in a corner to observe his Quartermaster working his incomprehensible magic on lifeless piece of metal or composing deadly symphonies in code on the keyboard of his laptop: Q in his element had been glorious “Tell me everything”
A relieved sigh escaped M's throat and his shoulders slumped a bit “Q disappeared a couple of months after you took your leave from MI6 - you can imagine the chaos that ensued; nobody knows his real name - he erased his whole existence from every database and probably burned any printed documents as soon as he learned how to fabricate false ones - and he's a genius: tracking him, in the beginning, was virtually impossible” M turned more pages, ignoring the neatly typed reports in favor of a grainy screen cap taken from some CCTV camera feed “Then he briefly showed himself at Heathrow as if wanting to make us know he was willingly leaving England - as if intimating us to stop our attempts at finding him”
“Q is afraid of flying” James spat out the useless information.
“We don't know how he left the country” M admitted, showing upwards his palms in a silent and unconscious pray for forgiveness “He simply turned up in Naples as Scognamiglio's arm-candy”
James averted his gaze and focused on a blank wall, wondering why it always was in Italy the place where he ended up watching people he cared about falling from grace and die in dishonor: the horrid vision of Vesper screaming and drowning in front of him and of her crimson-red dress spreading like a cloud of blood in her grave of water still haunted his nightmares; the feeling of the Venetian sun shining upon them as he helplessly tried to breathe air in her waterlogged lungs still burnt his skin; the grief and betrayal that had shredded his stony heart to pieces was tenfold renewed as the proof that Q had betrayed them was splattered on the neat desk under his fingers “How recent are those photographs?”
“They have been taken a week ago” Mallory offered after consulting a hastily written memo stuck on a page in the folder “We didn't know who to choose for the mission”
“And I conveniently waltzed in MI6” James crossed his ankles and let the back of the chair support his weight “I can't do this: Q was my primary handler and he knows how I work” He knows my flaws was the implied concern; the agent could perfectly recall every time that posh and vaguely sarcastic voice had reprimanded his actions and saved him single-handedly without even being in the field.
“You're also above the average standard of MI6: we need our best agent to chase the best Quartermaster we have ever had” Mallory tried to persuade him “He's working for them 007, can you imagine what a mind as great as his can accomplish?” he alluded at the picture in which Q was wearing a lab coat, something that clearly spoke about his involvement in the production of chemical or nuclear weapons - he had never wore protective gear apart from goggles when working on normal weapons.
James thought about how Q had modified his car and his watch and nodded: he had tried firsthand the wonders born from Q's genius.
“Go to your new Quartermaster to be fitted for your mission 007”
“What about clearing from Psych and Medical?” The endless list of evaluations and tests he had to endure after returning from the dead had been grueling and annoying.
M looked at him sternly “There's no time for legalities 007” It was evident that the idea of sending an agent out without a confirmed clear bill unnerved the man, but he was too desperate to follow the rules “Bring him back”
With those final words James understood he was being dismissed and briskly walked out of M's office, the incriminating folder tucked forcefully under his arm. As he inexorably neared Q-branch, he felt himself grow restless and nervous; the atmosphere was so different from his Quartermaster's days when he had been called Overlord and his minions had been a bunch of geeks permanently high on sugar handling weapons and toppling governments with a few lines of code. He passed past R - did she still hold that title? She was sitting at her usual desk - who sadly smiled at him and tiredly waved her fingers in greeting. She had handled him a couple of times when Q had been busy saving someone else's life and they had sat together during the times he haunted Q-branch, drinking coffee and snacking on pastries as they watched Q work and chattered about inconsequential things - silently, he decided to ask for her to be his handler.
“007, I'm glad to see you back on duty” The woman he had identified as the new Quartermaster greeted him "Q" she introduced herself, offering a manicured hand for him to shake - everything was wrong: there were no schoolgirls giggling in the background nor awful paintings to examine.
“James Bond, Ma’am”
She looked at him expectantly but dropped her empty hand as soon as she realized the agent had no intentions of shaking it, silently accepting his refusal of welcoming her into the perfectly oiled machine that was MI6 - despite the former Quartermaster's blatant treachery, nobody had actually accepted her as the new head of department: if she was honest, she missed him too “You can call me Hannah” she conceded and walked to her desk knowing that 007 would follow, her fingers itching to bring up the files regarding his mission - not that she didn't already suspect which one it would be “You're going after Q, aren't you?”
It surprised James, hearing even Hannah still call Q by a title he held no more “I am” he confirmed and slid the folder on the cluttered desk, feeling a bit lighter as he freed himself of its weight.
Hannah waved it away and focused on the screen of her laptop; the notes her predecessor had left behind specifically regarding 007 popped open: they were curious instructions that dictated her to give 007 the contents of his drawer “He knew you would come back”
Hannah glanced at him “Apparently he's left something for you in a locked drawer: he didn't leave a password, though” And that meant James Bond should have been able to guess the sequence of numbers that would open it.
James frowned: why someone who had been so efficient at disappearing would leave a trace behind? “Is it the second drawer under the desk in his office?” he inquired.
Hannah nodded and retrieved the keys that would open the door to the office she hadn't claimed for herself: she couldn't stand the idea of throwing out the personal effects Q had left behind and sitting among them while she tried to work with an uncooperative crew was out of question. The key turned soundlessly in the lock and the door opened smoothly despite the lack of use, welcoming them in the untouched and organized chaos. The first thing James noticed was that the air smelled dusty and stale whereas in the past it had been fragrant with the scent of freshly brewed tea and caramelized apples; it made melancholy and anger claw deeper into his heart as his mind broadcast a fuzzy memory of Q sucking on a spoon while pouring tea into three mismatched mugs. James shook it away and walked behind the desk, fingertips grazing the cover of a book and ruffling the rustling empty wrappers of some kind of candy, while observing the numerical pad keeping the drawer closed: there were no well-used buttons to show which ones had been pushed more frequently to help him deduce the password.
He tried '007' even if it was blatantly wrong, not keen on leaving any possibility untried. He attempted his credit card number and pin. He gave the number of his ID card a shot. He put to the test his date of birth.
Nothing - only mocking beeping.
Hannah sighed “I could try to hack it open” she proposed, her smooth voice filled with doubt: her hacking was nowhere near that of her predecessor.
James ignored her and tried to focus, scanning his surroundings for a hint: there were only dismembered computers and guns, some aborted inventions lying abandoned to gather dust, a forest-green cardigan draped over a counter, the electric teakettle everyone tried to steal him and a collection of truly awful mugs to give to the guests.
Then it hit him: he punched in '1838' as a last resolve.
A click and the drawer opened to reveal a DVD “It’s not exactly Christmas, is it?” slipped bitterly from his mouth before he could stop his tongue.
Hannah laughed at the agent words “Why '1838'?”
“Because of a bloody big ship”
“Ti è arrivato un messaggio, Alessandro”
Alexander laughed and rolled on top of his muscled lover, who playfully looked up at him with bright blue eyes “Smettila di tradurre il mio nome, Vittorio” he reproached and kissed him before checking the incoming the text: Vittorio tasted like the decadent liquor they had had with dessert and light cigarettes; Alexander savored it deeply, entwining their tongues together in a languid and sleek dance while mapping out the contours of the other’s straight and white teeth.
He let go of Vittorio with a parting nuzzle and reached for his mobile. As soon as he read the alert coming from MI6 telling him that the second drawer in his office had been opened, Alex froze and blinked owlishly at the screen: Bond had come back.
“Tutto bene?” Vittorio asked, tightening his arms around the other’s thin waist.
“Si, non ti preoccupare” Quick fingers deleted the text and then proceeded to disassemble the mobile and dunked all of the components in the bathtub still filled with the water of the previous evening, frying them completely.
Vittorio didn’t ask questions and just welcomed him again amidst the silky sheets with burning passion – and if he noticed the way Alexander touched him almost absentmindedly and seemed detached from their lovemaking, he didn’t act on it; he took his pleasure from the beautiful body under his own, playing it at the best of his abilities and enjoying the way Alex seemed to be torn between whatever his mind was focused on and the sensations his hands aroused in him.
Alexander closed his eyes and moaned lowly in his throat as Vittorio sucked on his erection, his blond and short hair tickling the quivering flesh of his soft stomach. When he came, he squeezed his eyes shut and behind his lids a vision of James Bond superimposed the sight of his lover giving him a blowjob – as Vittorio thrust into him, he lazily thought that he had never noticed the similarities between the agent and the criminal in his bed.