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How to Test Quartermasters

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This was not at all how Q had foreseen his overnight at James and Alec’s dorm going.

Help!’  Q struggled, his telepathic wailing hopefully loud enough to garner attention from the sleeping, half-skilled Telepath in the next room, ‘Help!  James, I’ve made a terrible error in judgment!’  

In reality, the situation wasn’t life-threatening, but ‘ego-threatening’ would definitely be an accurate description as Q - very much in feline form - fought to get loose of the shirtsleeve he’d foolishly crawled into.  

James and Alec came and left at all hours, and often clothing was discarded in the manner of university boys: everywhere.  This hadn’t meant much to the boffin at first, when he’d declined Alec’s offer to go out on the town and had instead shifted shape and enjoyed the gentle sensation of Bond stroking a finger between his shoulder-blades until the blond-haired young man had fallen asleep.  Q, unfortunately, hadn’t fallen asleep.  In a rare moment of insomniatic energeticness that perhaps resembled the actions of real cats more than he wanted to contemplate, Q had left the sleeping Telepath in the other room and had decided to use his night vision for a bit - long-story-short, he’d seen the pullover on the bathroom floor and had tried to wriggle through the sleeve, using his whiskers for his only source of navigation, but had massively miscalculated.  Now with nothing but his head sticking out and the rest of his fluffy little body cocooned in the sleeve, Q was stuck.  Very stuck.

Of course, the only thing worse than fearing that he’d be stuck this way forever was James actually hearing him.  Bond roused with a snort of surprise and rolled loudly off the bed.  For a spy-in-training, James could be quite loud sometimes, but perhaps that was what a telepathic cry for help did to guy like James when he was so deeply asleep.  Either way, Q heard a sleep-rough voice muttering, “Q…?  Where the hell are…?”  

Suddenly Q wasn’t sure he wanted to be found at all, considering his compromising position, and he stopped his mewling in favor of staring at the door with huge eyes and flared whiskers.  It was too late by then, of course - even fresh out of sleep, James was pretty good at echolocating, and he and Alec both were quite well trained to follow Q’s high-pitched meowing under all circumstances.  The bathroom door opened and light flooded in.  James was rubbing a hand over his face, but froze with it over his mouth, blue eyes abruptly blinking and coming more awake as they focused down on Q.  “What the…?” he stopped another sentence midway through.

Telepath and shapeshifter stared at one another.  James with his hair sticking up on one side from sleeping on it should have looked ridiculous, but with his own head protruding from a grey pullover-sleeve like a half-emerged flower from a seed-casing, Q had the monopoly on ridiculous.  Inevitably, James started laughing, and before long he was leaning against the doorframe just to stay upright.  Q tried to lash his tail to express his anger, but it was impossible - too much cloth was wrapped around him - so he switched to mental expressions of temper.  ‘James, you bastard, stop laughing and free me!’ Q demanded, which only made Bond laugh louder, clearly hearing him.  

“I’m-I’m sorry, Q, you just…”  James had to pause for more chortling, very nearly in tears from laughter and barely managing to get hold of himself, “You look like an angry sausage with whiskers.  I’m just…”  Suddenly James turned his head, a split-second before the door opened as his telepathy gave him an early warning of a new arrival.  For his part, Q’s eyes got dinner-plate huge and his ears flattened back.  

Oh no.

Alec was home now, too.  

James finally lost his war with balance and gravity and slid to his knees, laughter renewed nearly to the point of howling.  A bit alarmed, Alec’s footsteps immediately came their way, while Q growled and thrashed, not succeeding in freeing himself but managing to tip over onto his back instead.  “James, what the hell is going on?  Are you choking on someth-  Oh god.”  Alec made a coughing noise as he, too, tried to swallow back sudden laughter.  “That was not what I expected to happen when I left my pullover on the floor.”  Alec, now standing over James, grinned so broadly that Q thought his face would split.  He hoped it would split.  From his inverted position, Q bared his little teeth and did his best viper-hiss, the deep throaty kind that actually just about reached crocodile-levels this time.  

That finally spurred James into action, and he calmed his good humor a bit.  Smirking still and with his chest still jerking in silent amusement, he didn’t get up so much as scoot forward on his knees, reaching out for his feline-shaped friend.  

“Careful there, James, he looks mad,” Alec snickered, then added teasingly, “Of course, it’s not like he can claw you like that.”  Trevelyan flicked a finger towards where all four of Q’s feet were thoroughly encased along with the rest of him, a simple straightjacket keeping him contained.

“If you think he looks mad, you should hear what he’s thinking,” James retorted wryly.   His hands sussed out the situation now with gentle touches, feeling Q’s wriggling body through the cloth and also being kind enough to tip Q into an upright position again.  Just to prove that he really was cautious of Q’s temper right now, though, his hand moved very warily when he ran it along Q’s head and to his neck, within range of the boffin’s teeth.  Q made an uncertain grumbling noise, but James was just feeling how much room there was between Q’s body and the cuff of the sleeve.  Q didn’t even try and bite him because that would be just rude (despite his predicament and shape, Q was still his polite, human self beneath it all), and because James with an injured hand would be slower to get him loose.  

“Exactly,” James opined, proving that his telepathy was working and replying to Q’s latest thought.  Then his brows furrowed, and he managed to ask a sensible question at long last, “How the hell did you get yourself into this position?”

Q looked away moodily, wishing that he weren’t in such an undignified position; his ears folded back against his skull, brushing against where James’s hand was still resting behind his head.  ‘I was testing how accurate the depth-perception of my whiskers are,’ he thought his reply, trying to leave out the part where he’d also been just plain reckless.  He’d read that cats could negotiate tight spots by touch alone, their whiskers telling them if they could fit through a space or not.  Seeing as Q still couldn’t work his tail fifty-percent of the time, he perhaps shouldn’t have been experimenting with his whiskers.  

“Here, I’ll hold the sleeve - you pull on our trapped feline friend,” Alec offered at long last, and soon he was kneeling in the bathroom, too.  James agreed and Q meowed sharply as he felt James’s hand tighten against his neck, momentarily making Q feel claustrophobic as both Q and a large hand vied for space inside a tube of snug cloth.  Soon, though, Bond’s skilled, calloused fingers were able to get a modest grip on Q’s scruff, and moments later Q felt like he was being extruded out a straw.  Becoming incredibly light and helpless in Bond’s grip, Q was dragged easily forward, limbs popping out in sets of two until he’d regained his freedom again.  Q’s paws skidded against the smooth floor, enjoying the ability to splay a little even as his nerve endings tingled with the lack of anything pressing in around him.  

“So how did he say he got in there?” Alec asked James, holding up the now-empty sleeve speculatively, eyes curious.  

Bond’s mouth twitched in a slightly fiendish smile as he let go of Q’s nape, allowing Q to stand on his own and stretch a bit more.  “He said it was for science,” James summarized, then glanced up at Alec, “I think that he was testing whether curiosity really would kill the cat.”

That, predictably, set off another barrage of laughter, and Q considered getting stroppy about the whole thing but ultimately gave up on the idea.  He was, after all, free thanks to those two jokesters.  Instead of hissing Q simply sat down, rolling his eyes expressively.  His decision to be benevolent might have had a lot to do with the fact that James started to brush Q’s ruffled fur flat again with his fingertips, making him look less ridiculous, and Alec was folding up his pullover to prevent any further scientific incidents.  

I’m not really a cat, you know,’ Q griped when everyone tried to go back to bed again, Q still small and four-legged and Alec and Bond both settled down now that the laughter had ended.  ‘Even if I do catlike things.’

“I know, Q,” Bond murmured, flicking off the bedside lamp even though that wouldn’t hide his smirk from Q’s night-sharp eyes.  Alec squawked because he wasn’t done undressing yet - a remarkably corvine noise despite the fact that he was totally human right now and halfway out of his shirt.  James ignored him just as Alec was ignoring the half-verbal conversation that was going on between the Telepath and their resident cat-shifter-boffin.  “But you realize, that just makes it even funnier when you act like a cat,” James added with impish glee even as he patiently waited for Q to jump onto the bed first.  James’s eyes had to be as useless now as Alec’s, but his hearing was good, and Q always made a rather ungraceful thump as he jumped up onto places.  He was, after all, just young man in a cat’s body - and a rather small cat’s body at that.  

Q made a gruff little noise at James in response, but didn’t bother to formulate an actual argument.  In truth, he was just warmed and a bit relieved by how easily James had accepted the important part of Q’s argument: that he wasn’t anything less intelligent or less human when he was goofing off on four legs.  Those four legs tensed and released, and Q sprang up onto the bed with the minimal amount of clumsiness, claws digging into the sheet.

With that reassuring thought in mind, and now tired out from his adventures, Q stayed out of the way while James settled under the covers himself, then bedded down on an empty stretch of pillow.  With each inhale, Q’s flank brushed the tufts of wheat-blond hair still sticking up in unruly spikes from Bond’s head.

~^~

A week later, Q was just coming home from a bit of freelance computer-fixing (because despite popular opinion, he was employed in that capacity by more people than just James) when he got a text from exactly the technology-destroying Telepath in question.  Puzzled but pleased, because whatever he had with Bond, it made Q happy, the boffin stopped on his way to the tube and turned on his phone to read with quick flicks of his eyes.  It was a pretty brief text, and made Q’s brows furrow immediately in the first stirrings of worry: ~I need to c u.  Come 2 the dorms~  

It wasn’t entirely abnormal for Bond to ignore spelling in favor of speed, but usually he took the time to explain himself a little more.  Still, a glance around at the signs informed Q that he wasn’t far off from the building where Alec and James lived, so he turned his trainers in that direction and began walking.  It was a cool evening, but not uncomfortably so with his jacket snuggled up tight, and at least it wasn’t drizzling anymore.  Shadows were descending for the night and Q could just see the corner of Bond and Alec’s building when, suddenly, something snaked out of the shadows from so close to his right that he barely had time to blink.  His cry of surprise was perfectly muffled by a gloved hand over his mouth, and another hand fisted in his backpack, pulling him sideways and abruptly into the alleyway he’d just been passing but had barely deigned to notice.  Q struggled, heartbeat rabbiting in his chest as he realized that this new location would be entirely invisible to anyone on the street or even the sidewalk.  His own hands weren’t sufficiently strong enough to pry the hand away from his mouth, even before his attacker’s other arm swiftly transferred to wrap around him, further constricting his movements.  Q made a muffled, startled noise even as an iron grip pinioned his arms with the bespectacled young man’s backpack trapped between his back and the stronger body holding him.  

“Q!  Stop moving, it’s me!” a voice hissed in his ear, hushed and sharp in a way that made Q freeze even as he struggled to recognize it.  Completely still now save for panting breaths that rushed out his nose and a heart that was dead-set on breaking out of his ribcage, Q tried to get a look at who’d grabbed him, because whoever it was knew the nickname he liked to be called.  When Q couldn’t put a face to the steely, quiet voice in the next second, however - adrenalin admittedly making logical thought hard - Q started thrashing all over again, with renewed vigor.  This time, the body behind him pivoted in response, switching their position with disorienting speed while also pulling Q further into the shadows.  Just as Q squeaked in alarm, hand still over his mouth and a wall now fetching up hard behind him, the attacker rearranged them so that he was standing in front of Q, and finally they were face to face.  Recognition dawned in a snap: James.  James had him.  

Still just about scared out of his skin and wishing that Bond’s telepathy worked better when there were no animal forms involved (with the exception of very rare occasions, James was still pants at reading human minds) because Q was screaming questions in his head, the boffin nonetheless subsided.  He only blinked and froze as James leaned in very close, putting them disconcertingly chest-to-chest while the blond-haired boy spoke in a whisper right against Q’s ear, “There’s someone with very sharp ears listening, so I need you to be silent, okay?”

Only now did Q manage to wrap his head around Bond’s eerily calm, hard tone, also recollecting him using that same tone when Q’s roommate had tangled with a miffed drug-dealer - and then both of them had nearly tangled with an unexpectedly dangerous James Bond.  Sometimes it was hard to remember that James and Alec were both spies in training, but right now it was surprisingly easy.  It made Q shiver.  

James continued, his mouth almost brushing the shell of Q’s ear and speaking so softly that the words were still barely audible, “I’m going to let go now, and I want you to follow me.  I’ll answer everything after we get further away, I swear.  Nod if you understand.”

One long-fingered hand curled around James’s wrist and the other pressed flat against the brick behind them, Q paused a moment and considered the pros and cons of hyperventilating.  Then, against his better judgment, the dark-haired boffin nodded.  The gloved fingers immediately fell away from his mouth, and James himself stepped back enough for Q to see familiar, intense blue eyes again, and a familiar, muscled frame wrapped in dark-wash jeans and a black leather jacket.  The blond-haired young man looked alert in a way that Q had never seen him before, like a fox either listening for prey or perhaps listening for a hunter’s hounds.  In the gloom of the alley, his eyes looked almost like colored glass, efficient and inhuman.  When Q glared and scowled at him, however, those eyes suddenly turned normal again, the face around them also easing into a rueful, apologetic expression.  

True to Bond’s word, however, no more words were forthcoming, but thankfully there was no more jumping out of shadows or unexpected grabbing.  Instead, James just beckoned Q to follow him and began moving deeper into the alleyway.  There was a flicker of rebelliousness that had Q clenching his fists for a moment, but he then felt an equally strong buzz of what might have been interest - the same curiosity that had gotten him stuck in discarded clothing rose up again now, helping him forget the scare he’d just had.  Q conveniently pushed aside the memory of being trapped in Alec’s pullover and hiked his bag further up on his back.  Mimicking Bond’s quiet steps as best he could, Q followed his older friend deeper into the shadows, and the unknown of whatever he’d just been dragged into.  

They managed to move in near-silence, and James seemed to know where he was going.  The one time Q looked back the way they’d come, slowing, Bond reached back and snagged his sleeve to tug him along.  Meaningful glances were all they were able to exchange, and Q still had nothing but questions by the time James zeroed in on doorway that Q would have missed in the dark.  The in-training spy began twisting the door handle with carefully applied force, and Q resisted the urge to ask whether James was breaking and entering.  On top of all the other weirdness already occurring, it hardly seemed like a pressing matter.  With a hushed grunt, 007 forced the door open, peaking in before labeling the coast clear and gesturing Q after him.  The place smelled dusty and old, and Q itched to change shape if only because it offered him night-vision, although his Gift had done nothing to make him at ease around mice, which he imagined he could hear scurrying around somewhere in the dark.  James had a small torch on him, thankfully, although he hid most of its light against his fingers when he turned it on to help them navigate.  It looked like the whole floor was under renovation, or had been at one point, but then left to stagnate.  

Bond lifted a finger to his lips, visually requesting silence for just a little bit longer.  ‘James, if you can hear me, you’re a bastard, and you’re lucky that I trust you,’ Q thought even as he pursed his lips together and bit back all of his verbal questions.  The other young man blinked and refocused his eyes on Q a little, but before he gave away any other indications that he’d heard Q telepathically, James turned back and was moving again.  By the time they finally exited the abandoned building, Q not only had no idea where they were anymore, but was just about to explode from pent-up confusion and frustration.

Therefore, when they reentered society by stepping out another door and into a busy sidewalk, James barely managed to open his mouth before Q was breaking his silence.

“Okay, Q, now-” James started, eyes restlessly watching the evening crowd of people.

It was a miracle that Q kept his voice down to a furious, fervent hiss instead of an attention-grabbing scream, rounding on his mysterious companion, “What. The. Hell. Is going on?!”  By the time Q finished his sentence, the lanky boffin was virtually standing on Bond’s left shoe, crowding up to him while people largely ignored them in the late-evening gloom.  

James winced, once again having the good grace to look a bit sorry as he stopped scanning his surroundings to glance at his companion.  He seemed to take a second to notice Q’s closeness, in which Q realized what he was doing as well: Q’s chest was literally brushing Bond’s arm, a very intimidating bit of posturing for someone who didn’t have a fraction of James’s musculature and brawling experience.  “Training,” James answered after a beat.

That startled Q for only a moment; he backed off a few inches, blinked, then asked for clarification in a warrier tone, “Is this the kind of training that I think you’re talking about? Because I’m pretty sure that I shouldn’t be involved in that.”

“It’s exactly what you’re thinking about,” James answered smoothly, surprising Q with his forthrightness.  “Come on, I’ll explain while we walk, because standing out right now is not a good idea, and we’ll blend in better if we’re moving.”  With that, James began to amble, and Q scrambled to stay by his side.  Before Q could voice his mounting exasperation at all of this, however, the blond-haired young man added, “I know that I’m stretching your patience, Q, but this really is important.”

“Fine,” Q huffed, clutching the strap of his bag but keeping pace as James subtly led them to an empty stretch of sidewalk.  They were still in public, but no one nearby was likely to overhear them - except, perhaps, this person with super-hearing that Bond had mentioned.  Q wondered if that had been a metaphor or a reference to a hyperauditory Gift.  And whether Bond had cottoned on to Q’s thinning patience thanks to telepathy or good, old-fashioned observational skills.  “So why’d you send me a text saying to meet you at your dorm and then jump me before I got there?  You did send that text, didn’t you?” Q asked, a bit horrified as his imagination got away from him at the end, the implications making his thoughts whirl.  What if someone else had sent that text, luring him in?  What kind of trouble has Bond just saved him from?  James and Alec rubbed shoulders with MI6 agents, after all-

“Easy, Q.  I sent the text,” James reassured, responding to Q’s slightly panicked tone.  “But I’ve got people following me, and they realized where I was going – and that I was trying to meet up with someone.  I had to intercept you before they did, and make us both scarce.”

This was getting weirder and weirder, but the calm way that James was talking was reassuring: theoretically, so long as Bond wasn’t anxious, there wasn’t any pressing reason for Q to be.  Yet.  “You’ve got people following you?  James, spit it out already - what the bloody hell is going on?  And where’s Alec?”

Giving Q a little tug to indicate that they were going to cross the street, Bond kept talking while his eyes kept calmly moving.  He was so alert that it was almost unreal to watch; James and Alec were both a lot craftier and more watchful than most of their university teachers gave them credit for, but this was the kind of alertness seen on hawks and prowling cats, super-aware and ready to act.  James hid it behind half-lowered lids and a smooth voice.  Now, he also cracked a crooked, roguish smile, actually startling Q a bit with the slice of humor, “Alec and I were tasked with basically playing Six’s version of ‘capture the flag.’  The game got off to a bad start, however, and now I’m down a partner.  I still don’t plan to lose, however.”

The last sentence harbored all sorts of trouble, but Q focused on more important things for a moment.  “So Alec got taken out of the game? Is he all right?”  It felt ludicrous to call this all a game, considering that it was an MI6 training exercise, but James seemed to be treating it all quite lightly.  Q wondered if James’s handlers had any idea about his general disregard for serious situations or dangerous circumstances – after all, James had faced down a drug-dealer while the man was openly wielding a shard of broken mirror for a weapon.  Granted, James had been armed with a switchblade, but he’d acted like his greatest weapon was his determination to be ten times scarier and cockier than anyone else in the room.

James’s expression turned into an irked frown but he nodded in response to Q’s question.  Grudgingly, he elaborated further after an amorous couple passed them and fell out of hearing range again, “The training exercise started in a pub down-town, where we were all told to meet after being told where our own ‘flags’ were hidden.  Alec and I would have liked to hide it ourselves, but apparently at this stage in training, Six still want to be able to control some of the variables.  Either way, the pub was a starting point to force both teams into close-quarters and get the game rolling.  All we knew about our opponents were pictures of what they looked like, and they’d been given the same on us, presumably.”  Still not telling Q Alec’s exact condition, James shrugged but at least acquiesced to continue his story, “It was decided that I’d use my skills to gather information, and Alec would be in charge of retrieval after I found out where the other team’s ‘flag’ was hidden.”  Q didn’t need to ask how Bond would find that out, and James didn’t elaborate.  While Bond appeared ridiculously willing to tell Q everything, he seemed to be watching his tongue in certain respects – namely, regarding mentions of his Gift.  “Alec immediately found the girl, and I focused on her.  Too late, though, we realized that her Gift included ears sharper than a fox’s, and his was an ability to change what his bloody face looked like.”

Q digested that for a moment, fascinated despite himself, and grudgingly forced to admit that a ‘game’ like this would do a good job of testing various espionage-related skills.  James just let him think for a minute, patient but watchful.  “That latter ability sounds like one of those the government likes to keep tabs on,” the dark-haired young man finally noted.

“It is,” James nodded, not needing to add, ‘Like mine.’  “The bloke can’t change anything but his face, but the trick still worked well enough that Alec didn’t see him coming.  By the time I recognized that the pretty-faced thing next to Alec was actually a face-changing trainee out to get us, the damage was done.  Alec is now back at a place we both know, and drugged all to hell.”

“Are you saying-?”

“They slipped something into his drink.  So now I’m down a partner.  He wasn’t given anything permanent or lethal, but it’ll be a bit before he stops seeing double,” James laid out in what was basically a growl.  Looking obviously miffed, he went on, “At this point, I think that I’m supposed to forfeit, but Alec told me - before the slurring set in - that he’d ring my neck if I dropped us out of the game.  I’m already on psychological probation anyway, so I’m inclined to play outside the rules to win.”

“You’re on psychological-?  Wait, what?”  Q suddenly had a deep sense of foreboding about what all of this was about and where it was going.  “Did I really hear you say that you’re going to keep playing?  James, pardon me for saying, but this sounds an awful lot like you want me to get involved.”

James turned his head and blinked at him innocently.  “Yes.  And?”

Q stopped walking and threw his hands up in the air, just barely remembering to keep his voice down, “And that’s insane!”

“No, it’s not,” James argued, looking befuddled by this reaction, sincerely so.  It was like watching a dog standing over a pair of chewed shoes with no concept of guilt.  The phrase ‘psychological probation’ was making more and more sense by the second.

“James, listen to me: you and Alec have training,” Q tried to break the problem down into simple, understandable terms, because right now his friend was being unreasonably dense, “Clearly not quite enough training, but still - it’s a minor miracle that I was able to keep up with you so far, and all we’ve been doing is sneaking around and dodging someone with a hyperauditory Gift.  I assume that’s what you’ve been watching for?”  Q emphasized the word, hoping that Bond understood the reference to his telepathy - Q could understand not wanting to say it out loud.  The fact that James was an illegal Telepath was probably the only trump-card they had left.  Fortunately, James was swift to nod, no trace of misunderstanding on his face.  “James, there’s no way I can help you.  I can’t stand in for Alec.”

“If you don’t, both Alec and I fail this test.”

“Stop going for the guilt-trip.  It’s not a handsome look on you.”

“Then should I try flattery?” James went on without missing a beat, so utterly shameless that Q could only stare.  Blithe and seemingly as sincere as a saint, the blond went on, “I can’t do this without you, Q - or without a partner who can do what you and Alec can.”  Again, a word went unsaid: shape-shift.  Both Alec and Q possessed forms other than their human ones.  “I know where the other team’s flag is, and from now on, I’ll recognize the facial-morph no matter what face he fancies wearing.  But no matter how good I get at information gathering, I can’t make myself quiet enough to get past that girl.”

“Shit,” Q swore involuntarily as he realized exactly what James was getting at.  His eyes widened and he would have walked into a bench had not Bond subtly maneuvered them both to the left as they moved.  “Alec was going to be the one to actually go in and get it while you provided back-up with your own Gift, and now you want me to do it.”

“You really are qualified,” James pointed out, no doubt referring to Q’s feline form.  

“I’m really not.”

“But you’re curious, aren’t you?”

That last question, left hanging almost teasingly on the air, finally caused Q’s mind to halt… and restart.  The memory of where curiosity had gotten him last time flashed into his head again, but beneath the initial flash of embarrassment, he recalled the little rush of fun and adrenalin he’d felt before he’d realized that he was stuck.  He also remembered the two young men who’d helped him out of it, and that one of those young men was presently looking at him with guardedly hopeful eyes, and the other one was presently holed up somewhere, drugged.  A surprisingly sharp flash of camaraderie and protectiveness reared its head inside Q.  His spine straightened and his fists clenched without him noticing it.  

“You just need me to fetch a flag, yes?” he clarified, tone going steady and flat in the same way that James’s had a habit of going cold and detached.  

Those blue eyes were watching him keenly, and perhaps the start of an impressed smile ghosted across Bond’s controlled expression.  “In a nutshell, yes.  I’ll even provide a distraction if you want one.”

“All I care about is that you don’t let me get caught,” Q informed Bond succinctly, daring to poke him in one powerfully curved bicep, “because the last thing I want is to get netted by your employers for helping you.”

James’s smile spread as if he couldn’t help it, and he finally stopped walking to fold his arms over his chest.  He faced Q, his expression dangerously Cheshire, “But you will help?”  

Sighing, Q unslung his backpack from his shoulders, crouching down to dig into it.  “Against my better judgment… yes.  And I think I have something that might help, too.  If I’m going to be involved in this, we’re going to do it as sanely and logically as possible.”

“Whatever you say, Q.”

~^~

 

Chapter Text

Q fidgeted, crouched in another alley, this one being an alley that he’d walked down voluntarily, James at his side.  Down the street, he could just see the building that housed their prize.  For all that James was reputably a rather weak Telepath, he said that he could sense the mental presence of their opponents guarding said building, while also assuring Q that his telepathic range was just slightly greater than the girl’s hyperauditory range, so long as neither he nor Q started talking above a whisper.

“Okay, you have to promise me, James – really promise me – that you won’t let me run off somewhere right after I change shape.”  Q couldn’t bring himself to be embarrassed over the pleading, anxious tone in his voice, because very real fear was crawling up his spine right now, gripping him ungently by the throat.  Suddenly the training mission itself seemed easy, if he could just get through the next few minutes.

The warm hand that landed on his shoulder helped his nerves, as did the calm, determined blue eyes that settled on him when he looked up.  “I’ll be right here, Q.  You won’t get past me, no matter how fast you are on four paws.  I’ve caught you a few times, remember?”

“Good,” Q grumbled, dropping his eyes and trying to halt the shivering that had started in his limbs, “Because I still can’t seem to do anything about the blackouts I get post-shift, and if I end up in the middle of the road again…”  He couldn’t finish.  Even before the incident with his Gift-tutor and being chased by a dog, Q had had a fear of changing shape while out-of-doors, because he’d likely never stop remembering ‘waking up’ to having cars zipping past and over him.  It was also one of the reasons that Q never really drank anymore either – now that he knew how terrifying it was to have blackouts, his already meagre interest in alcohol had disappeared entirely, a sort of paranoia that had confused Alec for a bit.  James had since explained Q’s dangerous first transformation in a bit more detail, and neither young man tried to coax Q to go out drinking anymore.

Losing a few moments in time while inside was okay.  Q knew with the same certainty that he knew the sun rose that no matter what happened, he’d be fine when his brain clicked back on again, because either Alec or James or both of them would be around to make sure everything was okay in the meanwhile.  They hadn’t failed yet.

James’s expression said that he wouldn’t fail now.

“Come on,” Bond tipped his head, standing now that he’d shown Q their goal, “Risks with myself, I’ll take, but not with friends.  There’s a building just a block back with a foray I think I can get us into.”

Q didn’t even question the possibility of breaking and entering, merely shaking his head and standing to follow James again.  As it turned out, James’s destination was a three-story building with a permanently open main entrance that lead to a small landing – the door beyond required someone to be buzzed in or use a key, but James and Q didn’t need to go any further.  As soon as James shut the door to the outside world, he leaned against it, making it clear that even the most determined feline wouldn’t be getting anywhere beyond the five-meter by four-meter space.  Q felt relief begin to unknot the binding tension in his shoulders, and slid his bag off said shoulders to hand it over.  “You know what to do with what’s inside,” he reminded, then, on a whim, tried to conjure up a little smile.  It did a lot to combat the butterflies ricocheting around in his stomach, especially when James immediately returned the grin full-force.  Backing up again, feeling unaccountably nervous now that the threats of running off into danger had been removed and the only person watching was James, Q stared at his feet and closed his eyes, focusing on that ineffable part of him that controlled what his body’s shape was.  “Remember – I get your bloody flag, you keep me out of trouble.  That’s the deal.”

“Q, you could make any deal you wanted,” James assured, eyes alight with what could only be excitement, “and I’d fulfill my end.  Alec and I owe you one.”

“You most definitely do,” Q managed to sniff poshly, then finally lifted his head, centered himself, and willed on the transformation.

The next thing Q knew, he was hearing James’s breathing, quiet and slow but audible to Q’s hearing because he appeared to be very close.  Blinking his eyes open, drawing in a tiny puff of a gasp as his brain blinked on and connected to a new body with extra, inhuman pieces, Q was for a moment bewildered as to exactly where he was.  As James tilted his head slightly, however, Q’s new perspective slid into place had he realized that he’d somehow ended up perched on the other young man’s shoulder, with Bond sitting on the floor.

Q was cuddled right up against James’s neck, one paw hooked in under his jacket-collar, as if he’d been seeking protection in odd places.  Embarrassment and flustered surprise made Q’s fur lift up a little, but before he could move to get down, James was lifting a hand.  It came close enough to give Q’s tail-tip and experimental tug.  “Since I can hear that brilliant mind of yours, I assume that you’re back,” he said, cautiously jovial, one eye on Q.

Taking another deep breath and shaking off his disorientation, Q nodded and stood experimentally.  Sometimes his brain and body connected better than others, making Q wonder if there was something wrong with him, because Alec never expressed even a fraction of the shape-shifter problems Q had.  Q’s feline legs remained steady, however, the claws even springing out easily to prick dark leather.  His effort to get his tail free from where it was pinched between Bond’s thumb and index finger was an entirely lost cause, however.  ‘James, if you can hear me, let go of my bloody tail and focus on the task at hand,’ Q commanded him with a mentally long-suffering tone.

James grinned.  Fortunately, he also let go, and Q managed to half-jump, half-fall of James’s shoulder and onto his lap, recovering his balance as swiftly and possible and being grateful that blushes were invisible under fur.  Moving to the floor to pace a little, easing into his present shape as best he could, Q thought, ‘So you can hear me?’

“Yes,” James replied obediently.

And you can hear the other two trainees, too?’

When James made a face, Q worried for a moment that he was struggling with his telepathy, but his answer was swift in coming and proved to be edged in irritation, “Just barely, at this distance, and it’s giving me a bloody headache to try.”

Q nodded as he catalogued that information.  It felt good to be submersing himself in fact, even as he toddled over to where his bag rested nearby on the floor.  Nosing at the zipper, he continued his brief interrogation, ‘How close will you have to be to read their minds?’

Bond snorted, “I was lucky to hear the location of their flag at all.  You’re not the only one who’s got an uncooperative gift.  For the most part, I just get a sense of them, which is handy enough.”  James shrugged, for all appearance quite accepting of the fact that ninety-percent of the time he could only use his telepathy at half-power.  It made Q feel a little bit sad for him, which James either didn’t read in his thoughts or chose to ignore as he draped his arms over his knees – a picture of untroubled, unhurried idleness.  “If I do pick up actual words, it’ll be within a few paces of them.  You, fortunately, I can hear from much further away.”

Before Q could start to mull over that last sentence and its implications too much – including the fact that James could hear a human Q from much further than a few paces away – James rolled forward onto his knees, obligingly opening Q’s bag for him and digging out various gadgets Q had packed in there for his ‘service call’ earlier today.  As Q had ordered moments ago, they got down to business.  “Fuck, Q, you’ve got a lot in here,” James said as he opened the bag and peered inside, seeking but clearly not finding what he was looking for.

Q tried to scoff at him, but the noise sounded more like a tiny kitten-cough.  Still, he managed to keep his posture as businesslike as he conceivably could while standing under a foot tall, and with James holding his bag open, stuck his head into it.  ‘I’ve got a lot in here because I never know what technology-destroying monsters like you need when I’m called in to fix something.  Ah, here it is.’  Night-sharp eyes picking apart the inky darkness of his bag, Q for a moment glanced at his paws in consternation before sighing and admitting that he’d have to grab things with his mouth.  ‘Stop laughing, James,’ he sighed mentally even as the Telepath no doubt picked up the lamenting thought – Bond’s chuckles were well-hidden, but Q could hear them anyway.  A moment later and Q was backing out awkwardly, having ultimately grabbed something in his mouth while scooting and pushing another object with his paws, feeling terribly awkward but accomplished.

His prizes?  A blue-tooth earpiece and a roll of tape.

Another noise suspiciously like a chortle vibrated in Bond’s chest, but when Q sat down and looked up at him shrewdly, the Telepath had a straight face on.  James couldn’t help but point out, however, in a voice strained with the effort of keeping cool, “Are you still sure you want me to tape an earpiece to you?  I somehow can’t imagine it coming off your fur very well.”

Q felt his ears flatten without his consent, giving his grumpiness away even as his traitorous, largely uncontrolled tail gave a twitch.  ‘That’s the point, James,’ he thought back patiently, ‘It needs to stick.  And I’m worried that if I tie something around my neck, I’ll choke myself when I turn back.’

“Most things that you and Alec wear transform with you,” Bond reminded, but reached for the tape anyway, willing to humor Q’s worries.  In truth, transforming wasn’t exactly an exact science, and the thought of having something tied around his tiny kitten neck suddenly suffocating him as he became human again made Q shiver right down to his little black-and-white paws.  He saw very still as James ripped off a pierce of tape, carefully positioning the earpiece on Q’s shoulder where it would hopefully stay attached while also being audible to Q’s sharp ears.  Experimentally, Q swiveled the nearest ear (the left), and tried not to get nervous as the strip of tap was pressed down against him.  “I vote that neither of us try to take that off before you try transforming first,” was James’s opinion, sad a bit grimly as he sat back on his heels to consider his work, “Because I don’t fancy you scratching me, and I doubt you fancy the sensation of ripping fur.”

We’ll figure it out,’ Q pushed the problem aside to later, turning his head until his whiskers just brushed the ear-piece taped so gauchely to his left shoulder.  He was already dreading its removal – he had a feeling that, with his luck, it would be like his human clothing: only visible in that form.  Despite a generous amount of research into the area, Q still didn’t understand the exact roles of transforming while wearing things.  He did know that he had a habit of being unreasonable while feline and in pain, however, so things would indeed go badly for everyone within reach should pulling tape out of his fur become necessary.  Trying to forget that for the moment, Q stood up as tall as his scrawny frame allowed, glad when he saw his recalcitrant tail swish up in his peripheral vision like a determined flag-pole – the picture of readiness.

He didn’t have to ‘say’ anything.  James merely nodded, stood, and then bent back down with outstretched arms.  Proving that he could be a gentleman to women and cats alike, Bond paused a moment, letting it be Q’s decision to step forward until fingertips brushed silk-soft fur.  Q appreciated it, and to show that he did, made an effort not to squirm as capable, familiar hands curled under his body, ultimately lifting him until Q was chest-height and looking at the world from somewhere closer to his usual altitude.  “Coat?” James asked briefly, and Q realized what he was asking in time to nod his whiskered snout.  A second later and he was being tucked into Bond’s jacket like a tiny secret weapon.  The earpiece caught a little, tugging on the tape, but with a little wriggle Q was comfortable again with just his head and one paw peeking out under James’s chin.

I’m ready to go,’ Q thought, glancing upwards, hoping that his thought didn’t translate as much nervousness as was buzzing in his veins.  He honestly had no idea if he was ready.

He must have sounded ready, though, because James started moving as smoothly as if someone had taken off his leash.  Smooth steps moved them swiftly and wordlessly out of the foyer and into the street, which had now fallen into a state of lonely darkness.

~^~

Usually, being stuffed into James or Alec’s coat was a bit embarrassing, because both of those young men were muscular and warm – basically, they were everything that Q could want to be tucked up against, regardless of what body he was wearing.  It was a miracle that James, being a Telepath, hadn’t commented yet on the state of Q’s mind whenever he was snuggled up against either his or Alec’s torso, wrapped in warm cloth and smelling hot skin and cologne.  As soon as Q was out of Bond’s coat again, though, and standing on the street that lead to their target, he wanted nothing more than to clamber back in again, embarrassment and warm-fuzzy-feelings aside.

“You okay, Q?” James asked, tone careful but otherwise unreadable – and unjudging.  He was crouched on his haunches, arms draped over his thighs, and somehow he looked so at home doing this while Q felt so out of his depth.

Q recalled that the two trainees they were up against had drugged Alec, though – Alec, his friend, and the young man who’d saved him from a dog not all that long ago – and suddenly that put some steel in his spine.  The boffin’s fur rose up minutely around the band of tape at his shoulders.  ‘Tell me what to do one more time,’ he demanded, giving James his most stubborn look.

In retrospect, it was something of a miracle that James took Q seriously when he was barely bigger than a football and trying to glower without actual eyebrows.  “The flag should be hidden on the second floor.  It’s an old building, and I’ve gotten close enough already to see a broken basement window – nothing big enough for a human being to fit through, but the other team knows that I can’t get through the chain-link fence surrounding the whole bloody place.  Not without making a bit of noise with a fence-cutter, anyway, which I don’t have.”  James made a noise in his throat that sounded remarkably like a growl, but no matter how this vexed him, he went on, “I can’t tell you much about the inside of the building, except that it’s empty and currently owned by Six.  However, I did get lucky-“  The blond-haired young man paused to tap his temple, looking rather smugly proud of himself for a moment.  “-And I can tell you that the flag is second floor, east side, in a room with a window.  Alec had lots of plans for how to get it, but he was factoring in a different set of tools.”

By which you mean wings,’ Q summed, flicking an ear.

James just nodded, pulling a face.  “Technically, after someone gets the other team’s flag, the game isn’t over until we take it back to our own location, but I’ll take care of that.  You’re already doing more than enough, Q.”

Feeling a stutter in his throat was the definitely the start of a purr at the obvious gratitude, Q nonetheless stayed focused, thinking at his companion, ‘I still have one question – what about your own flag?’  Q shuffled his little body a bit closer, looking attentive and curious.  ‘This whole time we’ve been talking about getting their flag, but aren’t you supposed to be defending yours?’

The grin Bond flashed was a bit wolfish, but like everything else tonight, he answered without the slightest hesitation, “Alec and I like to play an offensive game. Plus, it’s a lot harder for them to find our flag if we’re not guarding it.  You know the phrase: a good defense is a good offense.”

Why am I not surprised that you two favor those kinds of tactics?’  Q sighed and rolled his eyes.  ‘All right, I’ll go and retrieve the flag for you, and then you can play catch-me-if-you-can as long as you bloody well please while I go home and sleep.  But you and Alec will call me in the morning,’ Q made very clear as he stepped off down the street that would lead to his destination.

“Fair enough,” Bond’s voice drifted from behind him, as calm and self-assured as if this had just been a regular, normal game between regular, normal folk, “I’ll be within range to hear you if you get in trouble – and I’ll be in your earpiece if an emergency turns up.”  They’d discussed that: while they had now created a system that would support two-way communication (Bond stretching the limit of his telepathy by monitoring Q from a block away, and Q hearing feedback from James via the earpiece taped not far from his ear), even the smallest whisper from the earpiece would be sure to alert the female team-member of the other team, if she was as close to the building as Bond said she was.  Q’s only weapon right now was the natural quietude of feline pawsteps, and he knew that one peep of noise would have him in deep shit.  Because their foes likely didn’t know what Gifts Bond and Alec had, they’d likely be suspicious of everything, including innocuous-looking animals.

Q’s head was already following about a dozen lines of inquiry and possible ways that this could all go, and almost didn’t hear James’s last sentence: “Good luck, Q.  And hey – remember, this is supposed to be fun.”

You cheeky bast-’ Q started to think at him, swinging his head around, but stopped when he found himself looking back at an empty alleyway.  James, devil-may-care attitude and all, had already disappeared.  Even Q’s sharp ears hadn’t heard him, and Q began to wonder if perhaps James was underestimating his ability to go up against someone with a hyperauditory Gift.  Left to trust that James was still nearby and would reappear if any danger presented itself to Q, the cat-shaped boffin took a bracing breath, looked forward again, and began to trot towards the chainlink fence he could just see like a metallic spider-web at the end of the street.

~^~

The hardest part, it turned out, was remembering that he had something taped to him – after running away from Alec’s corvine antics on a semi-regular basis, Q was actually more agile than he gave himself credit for.  He made it to the fence without incident, his eyes easily picking out everything in the dark, and gave the gaps in the fence a measured, distrustful look before angling his head through one.  If what he’d read about cat anatomy was true, he’d fit, but…

But the earpiece taped to his shoulder.  Q froze, limbs tensed as he realized that he was scant millimeters away from scraping metal against metal.

Not knowing exactly what qualified as a noise loud or suspicious enough to catch the attention of a paranoid hyperauditory Gift, Q quickly backed up, rethinking his strategy rapidly.  Internally, he had a sense that time was not on his side – even if getting noticed and caught were not possibilities, what would happen when their opponent’s got bored guarding their flag and went hunting for James and Alec’s?  Or if they realized that Alec really was out of the running, could they force James to forfeit?

Stop it,’ Q commanded himself, flexing his claws anxiously, their pearly tips just barely touching the ground before retreating like pale slivers.  ‘Focus.’  He glanced around, taking things in, and nearly drooped with relief when he saw a break in the fence – it still wasn’t big enough for even a child to fit through, but for a cat Q’s size, it would do.  Racing over as swiftly as he quietly could, Q minded his taped-on piece of tech and pressed his belly to the ground, fur barely rustling dusty soil as he slipped through.  From here, it was a straight shot to a big, looming cube of a building, but Q hesitated behind a patch of weeds before leaving the vicinity of the fence.  He didn’t see anyone, but still, these were spies in training…

Right on cue, there was a ruckus somewhere in the distance – nothing too loud, but Q’s ears were pretty keen, too, and they twitched as he heard footsteps and what sounded like a grunt of pain.  Startled and uncertain what to do, but aware that his side of the building was temporarily clear, Q got his paws under him and made a mad dash towards the building, not stopping until he’d come to a basement level window.  It was closed and locked, which was disappointing but not surprising, but Q didn’t give up.  Instead, he trotted quickly along the perimeter of the building, finding another window with  some of the glass missing at the corner.

The problem?  It wasn’t on ground-level, but instead about four feet above Q’s head.

Okay, Q, you can do this,’ the boffin encouraged himself, listening hard for more sounds while also backing up a bit, eyes flickering between his prize and the open ground around him.  He recalled the last time he’d tried to jump this high, and the fact that he’d only been saved a painful fall back to earth by Trevelyan’s quick hands.  Learning to be a cat was promising to be a life-time chore, and Q admitted that he enjoyed being spoiled – James and Alec would pick him up whenever he so much as hinted at needing to go somewhere, and it had been ages since Q had learned that ‘kitten crying’ could make James as malleable as putty (Alec was a harder sell, but Q was becoming something of a mooch, and Alec always gave in eventually).  Pushing aside longing thoughts of simply being lifted onto the windowsill, Q tugged his courage together, reminded himself that he was doing this for his friends, and bunched the lean muscles in his haunches.

When he released, he nearly scared himself by how lightly his body sprang into the air.  The edge of the windowsill was rushing up to meet him almost before he knew it, and certainly before he was ready for it, and if young cats were born with any instincts about this kind of thing, Q didn’t have them.  He barely managed to keep from ricocheting off the ledge, paws flailing in an undignified manner, and it was only because he was shocked and desperately trying to grab something that he made no sound when pain sliced up his right foreleg.  His claws finally dug in: back-paws against the peeling paint below the window, left forepaw digging into the molding around the aged glass, and his right forepaw through the gaping hole in the window.  The last hold provided a good place to grip, but Q also know without thinking that he’d done himself some damage on the glass.  Remembering with a jolt that James was supposed to be ‘listening’ in on him, Q squeezed his eyes shut and did his best to ignore the injury, not wanting to end the mission so soon over just one cut.

After a few heartbeats spent clinging to the edge of the window, calming himself slowly, Q gathered himself and then heaved, glad that he was very light so that his slender musculature didn’t have to lift much.  As a human, lifting his entire body-weight was something of a chore, but it felt magically easier as a cat.  He slipped through the hole in the glass as soon as he was able, tiny jaws clamping together as he ignored the dark glistening smear of blood he’d left.  His right paw burned, and when he jumped down to the floor in the room beyond, he nearly squalled at the pain of landing on it.  Disgruntled with himself and admittedly a bit unsettled, Q settled on three legs and turned the offending limp upwards, finding a shallow but stinging laceration across the pad.  A normal cat would have licked at it, but Q saw the blood and felt his stomach turn, feeling very small and very out of his depth for a moment.  The room around him was empty, but suddenly everything felt… very dangerous.

There was a slight crackle of static from just behind Q’s left ear, and with a jolt he remembered: James, listening, the earpiece.  ‘I’m fine, James,’ he thought as hard as he could, willing it to be true until it very nearly was.  He wasn’t bleeding much, and he thought that he could move about still, too – on three legs if must.  He breathed out a little puff of breath, relieved, when no more noise came from the earpiece.  If James had been on the verge of breaking his cover, he’d backed off again.

Proud of himself, Q gave the dark room a swift once-over, finding nothing of interest besides a cracked door.  He headed towards it with a limp but renewed knowledge that he had at least one person looking out for him, even if from a distance.

~^~

 

Chapter Text

Q had decided that he hated doors.  If James truly was eavesdropping on even a fraction of Q’s thoughts, he’d probably be laughing himself silly at the new vendetta the boffin had acquired, after finding all the ways in which little kitten paws did not work well with doorknobs – especially when one of those paws was damaged and only bore his weight if he gritted his teeth and stepped on it funny.  Door-handles that required only downward pressure did eventually concede to Q’s determined efforts, but any rounded knob that required dexterous turning was out of the question.  That limited Q’s course severely, but he managed to find stairs to take him up.  Hopping from step to step, most of his weight on three feet and the tape tugging irksomely at his fur with every abrupt movement of his body, Q reached the top floor and resisted the urge to growl at the door that blocked his way.  It was only a horizontal bar, and he knew that he was heavy enough to depress it and open the door if he hung off it, but that meant more jumping, and he honestly had had his fill of that.  His hindlegs ached.

“Maybe a bit of exercise should figure into your future, Q,” James’s voice crackled unexpected out of the earpiece, cheerful and so startling that Q flailed and managed to trip – on nothing, and while standing stationary.  Righting himself before he actually ended up sprawled on the dusty floor, Q twisted his head back to glare in alarm at the earpiece, as if James could see him as well as hear him.

James, what the hell are you-?’ he started to mentally berated.

The older boy answered before the rant could really get going, “Don’t worry, Q, there’s no one listening in – for the moment, at least.  Being hypersensitive to sound means being vulnerable to auditory overload, did you know that?”  James sounded so innocent, it was insane.  “Anyway, we’ve got a small window while her ears are still ringing.  You’re on the top floor, yes?”

Resigning himself to Bond’s antics and pushing down his nagging worry at being caught thanks to the earpiece, Q formed the thought, ‘Yes,’ even as he crouched low to the floor and shifted his weight until he thought he was ready for a jump.  He absolutely refused to admit that his fluffy little behind was swaying back and forth like any other common house-cat preparing to pounce.  Back legs releasing like springs, he once again was airborne, landing on the horizontal bar and struggling not to slide right off it as his weight depressed it and released the catch.  The timing was a nightmare, but then Q managed to drop – baring his teeth as his paw sent a lance of pain up to his shoulder – and skitter through the open gap before the door swung shut again with a blessedly quiet click.  ‘And now I’m trying to figure out which way is east,’ he thought next.

“I can help you with that.  I’m towards the east now, and I think I’ll be able to tell when you get closer to me,” James said with a reasonably sure tone.  “Pick a direction and walk.  I’ll tell you if you’re getting warmer.  And Q – are you okay?”

Q had been starting to walk down the hallway to the left, limping and keeping at least ninety-percent of his weight off his right forepaw, but now he froze and looked down at said paw.  He knew what James was talking about, but apparently James didn’t.  Carefully choosing what words went from amorphous mental ramblings to crisp, mental texts, Q replied after beat, ‘Just scratched myself.  It stings a little, but it’s nothing to worry about.’

An unconvinced noise filtered down through the earpiece, but James didn’t push the matter, instead murmuring, “You’re getting further away from me – if you switch directions, you should be headed towards your target.  I’ll stay on the line.”

Obediently doing an about-face, Q did as he was told without further mental conversation, although his mind was bubbling with worries that he didn’t know whether James could decipher and hear or not.  It was comforting to know that Bond’s telepathy had grown to the point where he could dependably keep track of one cat-shaped boffin, and with that in mind, Q picked up his pace as much as he could.  His paw hurt, and he really just wanted to sit down and whine about it, but that was a luxury that he’d have to save for later.  He’d just reached a door flanked by windows – a conference room that showed more shuttered windows beyond – and was preparing to tell James that he saw a bright green flag hanging on a coat-rack when suddenly James was snarling through the earpiece, “Dammit.  The other two trainees split up.  The girl’s getting close to me, and she must have her hearing back because she’s doing a bloody good job of it.”

Well, then for heaven’s sake, stop talking!’ Q slammed the thought back at him as hard as he could.  He inspected the door: thankfully, not a turn-knob, but instead a lever that he knew he could turn iff he jumped up and hung off it like a black-and-white Christmas ornament.

“Not until I warn you that her partner is headed your way,” James cut back furiously, and Q felt his fur stand on end.  “I already broke her partner’s mobile in a brief scuffle earlier-”

James, when you say scuffle, do you really mean just a scuffle…?’

The other young man went on as if he hadn’t heard, “-So regardless of what she overhears from me, she can’t pass on to her partner, but something must have tipped them off, or at least made them suspicious.  Regardless – I’m going to handle he girl.  You need to get out of there.”

I’ve almost got the flag.’

“Your safety comes first.  We’re supposed to be playing with kid-gloves, but our kid-gloves can still leave bruises,” Bond warned with a quiet, dangerous sincerity in his voice that made a shiver run down Q’s delicate, arched spine.  There was no room to doubt the blue-eyed youth’s words, not when they were spoken in that tone.

Tone be damned, Q had come this far already.  He crouched down and shifted back and forth on his haunches once again, ears flattened and eyes determinedly focused on the door-handle.  ‘I’m going to get it anyway,’ he thought back as incontrovertibly as he could, and then he jumped.

Q had already checked, and the door didn’t have anything besides simple hinges – there was nothing to cause the door to spring back shut after it opened – so Q made sure that his leap was at an angle, allowing not only his weight to twist the door-handle and throw the catch but his forward momentum to swing the door open a good ways.  His breath caught and his back-paws flailed as he caught his forelegs on the handle, slipping and sliding and clawing at the door’s wood finish as he collided and his perch rotated alarmingly.  The door did what he wanted, fortunately, swinging inwards even as Q clung with the single-mindedness of a baby bird jumping to its first branch and preying to every avian deity in existence not to make a swift acquaintance with the earth.

The floor wasn’t far enough away to hurt Q too badly, but it soon turned out that he had more problems: something snapped as the door opened, and Q didn’t have time to do anything but tense and look up before something was falling from where it had been poised above the door.  Q cried out, a high-pitched, involuntary noise of surprise and then pain as something hit him on the way down, jostling but not quite dislodging him.  His ears, so accustomed to the quiet of the empty building, where assaulted by the tumult of fabric moving and harder objects striking the floor, and there was a sharp, ripping pain across his left shoulder.  After a few seconds, he belatedly lost his grip on the door handle and fell, but by then everything was quiet again, and Q landed with a pained squeak on what felt like a huge sheet.

He expected to hear James shouting at him through the earpiece, but instead there was only silence.  Panting and shaking from shock and adrenalin, Q craned his head back, and realized with dismay that the earpiece had been ripped clean off him, tape and all.  Looking beneath himself, Q saw a large tarp with random objects tied like weights to its corners – weights that had no doubt crushed the earpiece as well as knocking it loose.  With a little shudder of horror, Q realized that any human walking through the door would have been rather effectively netted if not knocked unconscious, but his small size had allowed him to escape the worst of it.  Standing, he stumbled, realizing that he was going to still have a lot of bruises from catching even the edges of the trap.

And he no longer had James in his ear to give him directions – or warnings about the trainee headed Q’s way.

‘Shit.  Shit shit shit shit shit,’ Q ranted out the litany in his head, but quickly scrambled off the improvised net.  His shoulder hurt, at first with a sort of surface-sting that he attributed to having a patch of fur pulled out, but then spread deeper in what had to be a bruise.  Belatedly recalling that James could still hear Q even if the reverse was no longer true, the boffin tried to calm his thoughts.  He focused on more positive things, like the fact that he had the flag in sight, and if he jumped up onto the conference table, he could even reach it.  Hoping that James could hear Q’s thoughts of pending success louder than the undercurrent of fear and worry.  Leaping lightly from chair to table, taking it easy on his bruised and tiring body, Q got up high enough that he was within a normal human’s arm-reach of the dangling flag.  That meant… one more jump, in which Q would have to probably hook the flag and drag it all the way back with him to the floor.

Swearing again at the pure irksomeness of it all, Q nonetheless braced his paws, thoughts, ‘Once more unto the breach,’ and sent his lean frame into midair once more.

Things went about as smoothly as Q expected, meaning he ended up knocking the entire coat-rack over (clearly it wasn’t very stable to begin with).  He dearly hoped that Bond still had the undivided attention of the hyperauditory woman, because Q was now making quite a ruckus.  However, by the time Q staggered to his feet and backed away from the wreckage – panting fast but not feeling much more bruised than before – he had a sheet of green cloth about the size of a file-folder clenched in his teeth.  It tasted like dust and cheap soap, and Q couldn’t help the disgruntled little grumble that rolled up from his chest.  Knowing that time was of the essence, however, he moved as quickly as he could one roughly three-and-a-half legs out the door and into the hall again.  He’d almost made it to the stairwell door when he heard it opening, and skidded to a halt immediately.  Tail pin-wheeling, Q spun around and slid into the nearest open room, squeezing himself under a raised set of shelves.  The clearance between the lowest level and the floor was barely enough for Q to slip under, even with Q’s belly on the floor, but he made it and dragged the flag with him until there was no sign of his presence.  Turning around while avoiding getting tangled in the flag, tail dragging the floor behind him like a trail of ink, Q eyed the strip of the room he could see from his hiding place.

His heart was doing its best impression of a jackhammer in his narrow chest, and his sides flared and narrowed with each panting breath, brushing faux-wood above him every other second.  Now that he wasn’t dragging the flag but instead standing on it, Q could open his mouth to pant, hoping that he wasn’t a loud about it as he thought he was.  Q was just in the process of trying to quiet his breathing when he heard footsteps and nearly stopped breathing altogether, head dropping onto his forepaws and licking involuntarily at his wounded paw for comfort.

Then something shocking happened.

He heard James’s voice.

The spark of elation Q felt was smothered instantly with a sick sort of horror as he heard what was being said – the words incongruous and wrong even if the voice was pitch-perfect.  “Alec, are you still up here?  Come on, mate, I’ve been looking all over for you.”

The word-choice was subtly off and the syncopation didn’t quite match – Q was instantly finding a million things wrong with what James was saying, even before he took into account that Bond was calling quietly for Alec and not Q.  Bemused, Q tried to figure out if this was code or something even as the footsteps drew nearer.  He most definitely did not give away his hiding position as James neared the doorway, although Q was still able to see James’s familiar blue eyes and handsome face peer into the room warily.  If James were really looking for Q (or Alec, for that matter), he should have realized that this friend was capable of fitting into small places, but instead, the gap beneath the shelving was dismissed and the room apparently deemed empty, because James moved on.

It was then that everything clicked.  The face looked like James’s, but as the young man walked past the open doorway, the rest of him looked wrong – he was subtly softer, rounder, and a shade shorter, too.  Q felt like an idiot right then for forgetting that one of their opponent’s Gifts was the ability to change his looks from the neck up.  Apparently that included vocal mimicry, too, because if the words hadn’t been wrong, Q would have come running as fast as his battered frame could carry him.  Apparently the other team thought that Alec was miraculously still in the game, however, and that discrepancy had betrayed them.  Q waited where he was until the other young man was far down the hall – headed towards the flag’s previous resting place – and then shot out from under the shelving so fast he felt like he scraped another strip of fur off his spine.  Flag snatched up in his mouth again and fluttering over his back like an errant, square scarf, Q ran for the stairwell.

Even with a limp (which he was managing to ignore relatively well, thanks to adrenalin), Q was quick and quiet on his feet, and as his tail even decided to get with the program and help with turning.  Entirely sure that he looked like a hot mess, Q nearly skidded right into the door, only to realize with a jolt that there was a problem with his plans: namely, the fact that he’d yet to learn how to pull a door open inwards.

Q actually hissed around the cloth in his mouth, furious with himself for not thinking of this and just plain furious with doors for existing.  So frustrated at this development that he couldn’t think for a moment, Q didn’t do anything but silently turn his head when he heard another door open – this one further down the hallway, opposite of where the fake James had gone.  Q felt frozen in place, unhidden and vulnerable in the middle of the hall with an impenetrable door in front of him, but thankfully, when the door swung slowly open, no one walked through it.

No human being, anyway.  But there was a raven sitting on the door-handle.

Alec?!’ Q asked in his head, then remembered that without James, the two of them had no hope of communicating.  At the same time, he heard a loud burst of swearing from the other direction as his thievery of the flag was noticed.  Lacking options or time for contemplations, Q darted in Alec’s direction, even as the door started to slowly swing shut again.  Q just barely made it in without getting his tail slammed in the door.  Just as Q was spinning around to meow questioningly at Alec, the raven flapped wildly and… sort of fell off the doorknob.

He was drugged,’ Q’s brain caught up with things, even as he blinked stupidly at the sight of a physically incapacitated bird landing in a puffy file of beak and feathers.  ‘Shit.  James, if you’re listening, I want you to know that Alec decided not to stay wherever you left him.’  Q wasn’t about to complain, though – now he had a partner who could at least control his shape-shifting abilities, while Q was stuck until further notice without thumbs.  Alec proved his usefulness a second later by changing back, sitting up, swearing fluently, and then locking the door.  He swayed as if on a boat, but then turned to throw a crooked smile Q’s way.

“I couldn’t let you and Jamesy have all the glory now, could I?” he joked.  His voice was awkward and thick, and Q was frankly surprised that Alec wasn’t slurring, but a second later he tried to stand up and only made it as far as his knees.  “Fuuuuck.  Back to a more manageable shape then,” the older boy muttered to himself, eyes squeezed shut and face pale like he was going to puke.  Instead, he underwent another shape-shift, and instead of a tall human with a totally unsupportable center of gravity, he was a squat bird who could put his wings on the floor for balance if need be.  At the moment he was sitting on his feathery arse with both wings and beak against the floor for balance, but he recovered a bit and tottered to his clawed feet.  Marble-black eyes blinked slowly at Q, but then he clacked his beak once and began an awkward, corvine shuffle down the corridor he’d just let Q into.  Hopping became gliding, and Q trotted along behind him.  They’d made it past another door by the time they heard someone shouting and pounding on the one they’d locked behind them.

Between the two of them, doors were no problem, although human-Alec couldn’t stand and raven-Alec hit things when he flew.  Q was pretty sure that no one was aware that the flag had been stolen by a cat and a raven, however, so with James still apparently keeping the auditorily Gifted girl busy and the face-changing young man listening for footsteps louder than the light clicking of bird claws and silent padding of feline feet, Alec and Q were outside and home-free in what felt like no time at all.

Still as awkward as all hell but actually getting a bit better, Alec used his beak to gently prod Q along.  When the beleaguered pair reached the fence, Alec took the flag in his beak and, before Q could meow in protest, beat his wings in a flurry of black.  By some miracle, he made it over the fence, although his landing included more skidding than usual.  Q couldn’t see where he’d gotten through the chainlink fence last time, but without the earpiece, he merely picked a hole at random and wriggled his way through.  For a panicked moment, he thought he’d gotten himself stuck midway, but then Alec – looking supremely helpful and as drunk as a bird could get – stumble-skipped forward and proffered the flag.  Q made a disgruntled noise before giving in, hooking his claws into the flag, and holding on as Alec pulled as much as he could.  Q popped free of the fence and Alec fell over.  It would have been hilarious if Q didn’t ache everywhere and if they weren’t still in danger of getting caught.  Q limped hurriedly to Alec’s side, nosing at the raven’s sleek feathers, until Alec gave himself a shake and splayed his feet beneath him again.  In a reverse of their previous positions, Q came around to grab the other end of the flag, and tugged his groggy companion into motion, and kept hold of the flag just in case.

So it was that the two of them left the field of play, as pleasantly as tiny children holding hands through a park but as weary as battle-worn veterans and about as surefooted as drunks.  They’d only just made it to the shadow of a nearby building, relying almost entirely on Q’s night-vision by this point, when suddenly that night-vision disappeared and Q found himself sitting – in human form – and spitting a corner of neon-green cloth out of his mouth.  “Shit,” he grumbled, but scooted himself back into the shadowed lee of a doorway, reaching down to pick up Alec as he went.  It felt so strange to be holding Alec instead of the other way around, but the raven went willingly (even gratefully) into the cradle of Q’s arms.  The boffin winced as feathers slid like lace across his right palm, but it was too dark to tell how bad the cut was.  It didn’t appear to be bleeding anymore, though, and Q could move his fingers perfectly well.  Alec’s sleek head bobbed dazedly even once he was securely settled in the cradle of Q’s right arm, and even in the dark it was clear that his eyes were blinking torpidly.  He kept the flag grasped tightly in his beak, however, and made a smug churring noise like he’d won already.

“This flag still has to get back to your home base, remember that,” Q warned, but couldn’t hide an almost giddy note from entering his own voice.  It was starting to sink in what he’d just done – stealing something out from under the noses of two future spies.

Q and Alec were both torn from their respective thoughts of triumph by a sudden ruckus around the corner.  It sounded like two dogs fighting, if dogs could curse and swear like a whole ship full of sailors.  As crashing noises sounded and Q picked up the unsettling sound of punches falling, both the boffin and the raven in his arms cringed and held their collective breaths.  Q could feel Alec’s heartbeat thumping hard against his injured palm where he clutched the other shape-shifter closer, and they both stared unblinkingly towards the source of the noises until there was a particularly harsh snap that sounded almost bone-on-bone, and then a form was falling into view to sprawl across the alleyway.  It was a woman, dark-skinned and dressed in grey and black much like James had been, and after a small groan she went limp.

As alertly and swiftly as a hound on a scent, none other than James Bond followed, his panting breaths harsh in the quiet and blood dripping from his nose.  This time it was definitely him, too, every detail about him familiar.  He immediately went and rolled the girl into a recovery position, also checking her pulse at her throat before calling out, “Alec, Q, you two there?  I was following you both, but she was following me.”

Relief flooded through Q and washed out seemingly all of the tension in his body.  He only kept from turning into a puddle because he knew he’d drop Alec if his arms went limp.  “We’re over here, James,” he replied gratefully, and was standing on shaky legs even as the Telepath straightened and strode their way.

Blue eyes went immediately to the bundle of black in the sling of Q’s arm, narrowing in a taut glower but looking very worried, too, if Q was not mistaken.  “Alec, you bloody bastard, you were supposed to stay put.  You’re higher than a kite.”

In answer, Alec’s throat merely puffed up to make a croaking noise, and he shook his head pointedly – thus shaking the flag.

“He did help me out,” Q defended helpfully, “I was in a bit of a bind and probably wouldn’t have gotten out so easily if he hadn’t turned up.”

Bond sighed, and stopped pretending to be mad.  Instead, he reached out – hands hesitating for a moment – and rested one palm on the side of Q’s neck and the other on Alec’s feathery back.  Q leaned unconsciously into the warmth and pressure of callused skin on his neck, a gleeful smirk unfurling across his face until his cheeks physically ached with how broad it was, pride blooming in full-force within his chest.  James’s other hand caressed Alec’s jetty mantle with absentminded but sincere care, and the raven seemed to relax further into Q’s hold, almost dropping the flag as his head drooped.

Still pressing into Bond’s hand a bit, head even tilting of its own account until Q could feel the edge of Bond’s thumb under the edge of his jaw, Q felt the need to point out, “Um… James, your nose…?”

The mood of silent celebration was broken.  “Fuck,” James sword, dropping both hands and nearly crossing his eyes in an attempt to assess the damage.  He brought one hand up gingerly, showing scraped knuckles before smearing them with more blood.  Looking thoroughly disgruntled, James muttered, “I don’t think she broke it, but I’m definitely going to have to avoid well-lit places until this is over.  Are you all right, Q?”

“Fine,” Q said.  He chose not to mention his hand or the ache in his shoulder from losing the earpiece and falling; his small injuries felt insignificant compared to what he’d accomplished.  Endorphins might have also played a large role in his answer, as they put a static charge in his blood and muffled aches and pains.  “You might want to take the flag from Alec before he drops it, though.”

And so it was that the three of them got moving again.  James lead the way, moving with an economy of motion as well as a leonine stride that Q hadn’t quite noticed before, but rather appreciated now, as he followed behind and watched.  Alec fussed a little about being carried, but only until he was allowed to perch on Q’s shoulder.  With Bond now carrying the flag stuffed deep into his coat-pocket, Alec was free to use his beak for grabbing things – namely, Q’s shirt, working together with his slim claws to keep him from falling off.  Q wasn’t used to the weight of him, but with so many new and exciting things happening to tonight, he was pleased as punch to be Alec’s source of transportation.

Alec was drugged, Q was a bit rough around the edges, and James looked like the winning team after a schoolyard brawl, but the three of them made it back to a more populated part of town.  It appeared that the other team had finally admitted that they weren’t going to get the best of their opponents, because no one gave them any trouble along the way.

When they eventually reached streets where the night hadn’t snuffed out the pulse of the city, James took Alec from Q.  He also hesitated again, shifted awkwardly, and then dragged the leggy boffin in for a quick hug.  Alec squawked at being caught in the middle; Q was too surprised to do anything at all but stumble forward, thinking distractedly that he was going to end up bloodstained thanks to James’s nose if he wasn’t careful.

James was careful, however, and only moved in close for a moment – and only close enough to whisper, “Thanks, Q,” into the dark-haired man’s ear with sincerity an ocean deep.  When he pulled back, Q stood stunned, and he had a feeling he’d never forget the crooked slant or gentle heat of James Bond’s smile.  Or the infinite gentleness with which James tucked their corvine companion into his coat, proving that Q wasn’t the only one who could get zipped up in there for safe passage.

“Go home, Q,” James suggested more that demanded, “Alec and I can finish up here.  Besides.”  The rogue gave a wink.  “We can’t have anyone realizing who our secret weapon is, can we?”

~^~

Q would hail himself a cab after that, aware that James and Alec were wasting precious minutes just to keep an eye on him – from the shadows, of course, because James’s nose would still be making an incarnadined mess of the lower half of his face.  Jumped-up on adrenalin, Q would look back one last time at his friends, flash a smile as crazy as any of the ones James or Alec ever wore, and slip into his cab.  He’d be smiling the whole way home, and only when he was back in his dorm-room with the first-aid kit would he realized the insanity he had just partaken in.  Hand cleaned and bandaged with decent skill, Q would fall exhaustedly into bed – but not after making sure that his phone was charged and nearby, in case he got another text.

He wouldn’t have the faintest idea that the following morning would include an unmarked car in front of his building and two men in suits awaiting to take him for a little, involuntary trip to MI6.

After making sure that Q was safely on his way home, James would pick up the pace, starting to tire but still possessing more than enough energy to weave his way from street to street.  Alec would be almost asleep in his jacket, but would rouse enough a few minutes later to demand to be let out.  After that, Alec would become James’s sentinel: perched on his shoulder as he’d been on Q’s, watching all of James’s blind-spots as well as he could in the dark.  Even drugged, Alec would prove to be a valuable asset.  Working together, James and Alec would make sure that their opponents never got anywhere near them.

At two in the morning, Alec and James would complete their mission, successful.  At two-thirty in the morning, they’d check in with their handlers.

By three in the morning, they’d be detained at MI6.  No one would explain why, but at three in the godforsaken morning, Alec and James would be too beat to argue or care.  Holding cells weren’t that uncomfortable; MI6’s Medical made quick work checking both of them over and prescribing bed-rest as the only thing they needed.  Too tired and rung out to think clearly, James would stretch out on the holding cell’s first bed and Alec would decide to share it with him – as a raven, tucked between Bond’s back and the wall, making him virtually invisible to both the security cameras and anyone looking in the door.  At least one night-guard would panic before realizing that one of their charges was not missing, but a shape-shifter.  At some point during the night, Alec would transform back to his human self.  Usually Q was the one who transformed unconsciously, but this time, it’d be Trevelyan.  The amusing part would be that neither would even wake up for the occasion, instead merely shifting in their sleep until the bed comfortably held them both, back to back like Gemini twins.

Silent and watchful, alert despite the fact that it would now be nearly six in the morning, a woman with hair silvered by age and eyes sharpened by experience would look into the holding cell of her two top trainees.  She’d think, with certainty, that they held potential.  Potential for what, she wouldn’t know.

Potential to be top spies?  Sources of mayhem in her life? Prodigies in all the skills the world never needed to know about?

Or potential to be major leaks in top-secret information?

M would leave her two new boys to sleep just a bit longer, and head back to her office to prepare for what would be a very, very interesting – and apparently long-overdue – meeting.