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quietly into the night

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Like most MI6 employees, Q keeps two mobiles close to him. The one for work gets to stay on the bedside table while the one for everything else gets stashed into the drawer because like it or not, Queen and country going to pieces will always takes precedence over anything and everything else, no matter what.

Tonight, Q wakes to the sound of muted buzzing, and next to him James is starting to stir as well, double-oh training meaning that by the time Q realises it's not his work-phone that's causing the ruckus, James is already sitting up wide awake.

It's four in the morning and whatever Q had planned on saying regarding international incidents never happening at decent hours is suddenly lost, because this phone, this phone never rings in the middle of the night. There are only five people in the entire world who have the number and the only one prone to drunk dialing it has his legs draped over Q's, a warm weight that Q draws a small comfort from when he takes the call.

James watches him the entire time, and when Q hangs up James already has the bedside lamp turned on, dark shadows under his eyes. It's been nearly forty hours since James has slept and at 4am, he's only caught up on two hours of that sleep debt. Something that feels an awful lot like guilt is trying to stir in Q's chest, but James already knows, is already moving to let Q rest against him.

"Where?" James asks quietly. A dozen places that Q might need to go, and each is worse than the last. Station. Hospital. Morgue.

Q can physically feel his throat closing on itself a few times before he can bring himself to speak again and when he does, the voice that comes out is sleep-rough, whisper-soft. "Home."

It's better this way, Q tells himself when he dresses and draws professionalism around him like a shield, even though it's nearly the last thing he is expected to have right now. If Q can keep a straight face and steady hands over his keyboard keys when James is evading death suspended above or hurtling towards major world cities, surely…surely now…would not be a problem. Q wills his hands not to shake when he does the buttons of his shirt up and they don't, because Q is Q and he knows self-control like the back of his hand, like the numbered lines of his own computer codes.

"I can drive you," James says and Q knows that James means you're in no position to drive, the Tube isn't open this early and god help me if I let you call a cab now. "As far as you want me to and I'll drop you off." And under that, Q hears I know you trust me not to follow you, so let me do this, trust me and I will come through.

James drives one handed because Q is clinging to the other one, holding it tight enough for it to probably hurt, but James says nothing. Just runs red light after red light, driving to the sound of Q's steady voice feeding him directions as always. If not for the quiet weight that settles over the car, James would say that it's almost like another mission, just driving down empty roads at ungodly hours again.

"Here," Q finally says and James pulls up to the corner of a leafy looking avenue. James knows Q will probably have to walk, mostly run a kilometre before he really arrives wherever he wants to go, but precautions are still precautions, as redundant as they might be when it comes to him and Q. If he really wanted to, James could scout every single house within a two kilometre radius of here and find out for himself, maybe one day knock on someone's door and have it opened by the people who have somehow moulded Q into the person he is today.

Or maybe Q doesn't even stay in this area at all, maybe there's a car stashed away somewhere that will take Q onto some lonely country road, hours and towns away. It doesn't matter, either way. Q has trusted James enough this far and James isn't going to break that trust anytime soon. Secrets are only worth as much as how well they're kept, after all, and James doesn't think he can ever put a price on Q.

"Call me," James tells Q when the latter slowly extracts his hand from James', flexing his fingers as if prepping for a fight. It's almost an order and James knows better than to pretend that he hadn't meant it as such. "I'll pick you up from wherever you are."

Q nods and James brings his hand up to the back of Q's neck, gently squeezing the place where Q's hair brushes his skin. I'm sorry, James wants to say, but Q looks like he might shake out of his skin if James even hints at any sort of acknowledgement that this is really happening. The kiss is a chaste one and just like that, Q is gone, the car door slamming shut. He's still standing on the pavement when James forces himself to drive away and the next time James looks in the rearview mirror, Q is gone.

Q is gone for days. James tells himself not to worry, tells himself that he's being ridiculous because Q is in no danger, really. MI6 has been notified and James doesn't doubt that M is probably watching all the proceedings from wherever she is right now. It's supposed to be a comforting thought, but James only feels something tighten in his chest, something bitter and resentful that refuses to be named out loud.

(Regret, as black as sin and sharp as a knife between the ribs. Regret, because there's a casket being lowered into the ground and all James can see is Q's head bowed, holding himself as still as possible. There will be dirt stains on his hands, on the knees of his trousers from when Q had knelt on the ground. Regret, because James will never know for sure.)

Today is the fourth day since he's left Q on that street corner and James is close to climbing the walls, has split and bloodied the knuckles of both fists from working his frustration out on the punching bags in the basement.

Queen and country are both safe. There's no immediate threat, even if the weather for the next week or so promises to be just on the wrong side of dreadful. Death by cloudy skies, fog down everyone's throats. London still stands when James wakes up in the middle of the afternoon to a quiet house and everything is supposed to be alright.

By the light of an early evening sun, James boils hot water and burns his hand when he pours it. Coffee, black and bitter enough to stay on his tongue long after. Then, take-away that gets shoved into the fridge. Coffee again, one sugar and no milk. Whiskey that shines a strange, multicoloured amber in the glow of the telly.

The fifth day dawns cloudy and at eleven am, during an advertisement marketing the new Land Rover, Q walks in through the front door with his back straight.

One look and James knows, everything else is broken.

They don't talk about it. Liabilities, names, places, identities, all of it swaddled in soft cotton and stashed away. James doesn't try to guess where Q has been and Q makes it easy for him, had probably gotten back the day before, went back to his own apartment so he could erase every last trace of wherever he's been. Even the grief is muted, somehow, and James can only stand and wrap his arms around Q when Q finally makes it obvious that it's okay to hold him.

"I told you to call."

They're sitting at the table with leftover take-away rationed between the both of them. There's chow mein and honey soy chicken that Q drowns in sweet chili sauce.

"Sorry," Q says without too much feeling. "Now you know what it feels like when you don't check in on time."

It's a lame attempt at banter and James doesn't rise to take the bait, only nudges Q's foot under the table with his own. They talk, after that, about how the weather is absolute shit and how Arsenal wiped the floor with Liverpool the last match. James muses out loud that they're running out of coffee and Q shrugs, tells James that he shouldn't be drinking too much of that stuff anyways. No talk about work because that's something that should never cross into this apartment, even if Q knows all twenty seven places that James has guns or explosives or dangerous weapons hidden. Here, 007 is James and guns are just afterthoughts in the walls. Here, Q is dressed in pajama bottoms that come past his ankles and the lines of his face are softer, muted.

"Come to bed," Q says as he drapes himself against James who's trying to wash his hands at the sink after tossing the take-away boxes into the bin. James, who probably knows a hundred different ways to kill a man with his bare hands, drying himself off on his shirt because he can't be arsed to buy hand towels like any decent person should. Q looks at all this from out of the corner of his eye and it still terrifies him a little, how devastatingly normal they look like that. "It's late."

So James turns around and lets Q rest against his chest, Q's hands looking for purchase around James' hips. In that moment, James almost finds himself saying I'm sorry, I wish I could have been there, I should have been there, but Q only tightens his grip a fraction and James has to settle for dropping a kiss into Q's unruly mop of hair.

"Bed it is, then."

Q doesn't go to sleep for a long while and James can only make semi-distressed sighs in the dark, gathering Q into his arms and tangling their legs together. Topple foreign governments in 48 hours while nursing a gunshot wound in the shoulder, Q's voice half a semitone from the pitch of panic? Easy. Getting Q to relax enough so that the both of them can get some sleep? Apparently not that simple.

"I'm being horrible, sorry," Q murmurs as he turns over for the nth time that night, always somehow ending up back to James' chest in the end. "I'll go–"

"No," comes the stern reply and Q falls silent, finally slipping into an exhausted stillness when first light breaks over London.

There are five stages of grief. James knows this from all the psych evaluations he has sat through and he's sure that Q knows this as well, given the way Q takes each in his stride. Hello, anger. Hello, bargaining.

Depression is a shade that passes through the room, leaving nothing more than a broken mug and pale lips in its wake. After it leaves, Q goes back to his apartment (apartment, not home, never home because home is a feeling, a warm body against his and not a £400-a-week rental) for the first time in days and James is on his knees for hours, picking up glass pieces from his carpet.

Acceptance finally arrives two weeks late when Q is seated as his desk and James is wrapping his hands around a new prototype, something with bullets and blades and god knows what else Q has managed to fit into that small compartment this time around.

"She was young," Q says almost to himself and James is glad of the fact that he's too well-trained to startle. A few heartbeats and he puts the prototype down and goes to sit on the edge of Q's table where Q is back to tapping on his computer, the sound of clicking keys a constant drone. "But we already knew for a while." Q rereads a line and backspaces on it. Writing, rewriting, deleting, the pause between each lengthening each time until the cursor has been blinking at the same place for almost a minute.

"I'm sorry," James says. The sentence on-screen completes itself and at the full stop Q spares a moment to look up and nod, features painfully bare during that one small acknowledgement.

"I am too."

With that, the safeguards fall back into place.

This is how it ends:

James pretends not to notice that Q deletes one contact from his non-work phone and Q makes no comment about it when James' hand lingers on his shoulder a little longer than usual, fingers barely curled into the dark wool of his blazer.

There are new missions to plan for, new grounds to hit running and as long as the cycle keeps going, there will always be things no one is allowed to show or say aloud. Grief has no place here, but Q keeps a running tab in his head all the same. Knows without doubt that MI6 is the type of place that will eventually make both him and James cash everything in all at once. So, when James takes it upon himself to make sure they're never too deep in debt, all Q will do and ever can do is swallow his pride, even if it has to go down with an unwanted shot of sick relief.