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Summer to Your Heart

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Chapter 1: The End in the Beginning

 

"Summer to Your Heart"

 

I know I am but summer to your heart,

And not the full four seasons of the year;

And you must welcome from another part

Such noble moods as are not mine, my dear.

No gracious weight of golden fruits to sell

Have I, nor any wise and wintry thing;

And I have loved you all too long and well

To carry still the high sweet breast of Spring.

Wherefore I say: O love, as summer goes,

I must be gone, steal forth with silent drums,

That you may hail anew the bird and rose

When I come back to you, as summer comes.

Else will you seek, at some not distant time,

Even your summer in another clime.

~ Edna St. Vincent Millay


 

University College Hospital; National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London, England:  Mid-December 2013 (Three Weeks after Westminster Bridge)

 

Of all things, it was ultimately a crying baby in the hallway that tugged Q back to consciousness.  As the plaintive wail of the quickly hushed infant faded, other things sought to push through the heavy veil that clung to Q’s awareness: the click and wheeze of automatic doors opening and then shutting several moments later; the rattle of a heavily laden cart with a dodgy wheel being pushed down the hall; a soft, rhythmic beeping that seemed to come from somewhere behind and to the left; the hiss of pressurised air and a tightening followed by a gradual release around Q’s right bicep; the sharp smell of disinfectant that lingered in the coarse bed linens.

The fact that she couldn’t breathe!

Q seized in panic, instinctively fighting against the loss of control of this most basic function.  She clutched at the endotracheal tube at her mouth, but before she could pull it free from the tape that held it secure, strong fingers encircled her wrists and pulled her hands away.

“Easy, Q!  Everything is fine.  You’re safe.  Relax.  Let the machine do its work.  Help is coming.”

The deep voice was familiar, comforting, but she couldn’t place it.  Opening her eyes fully, Q searched blindly for the source, but without her glasses all she could make out was the blurry shape of a massive form at her side.   The man released her wrists only to press her hands together atop her chest, holding them there with one large paw while the other cupped her chin, thumb caressing her cheek.

Ugomonit’sya … settle down, myshka .   Ty v poryadke .  You’re okay, little mouse.”

It was the Russian that finally clicked.  

Double-O Six!

Alec Trevelyan’s face suddenly filled Q’s myopic vision, his green eyes bright with concern.  He continued to murmur reassurances and though he never let go of her hands, Q gradually stopped fighting against the ventilator and relaxed a bit against the pillows behind her.

Though Q couldn’t speak, the air between them was heavy with her questions and fear.

The shuffling of feet and the rattle of a cart through the doorway heralded the arrival of the medical team.  “Let them do their job, Q,” Alec said, squeezing her hands one final time before stepping out of the way of the nurse who had advanced to Q’s beside.  “I’ll explain everything when they’re done.”  

It was then that Q began to take note of her surroundings, what little she could without her glasses.  There were at least four other people in the room, but she recognized neither their voices nor the way in which the ‘blurs’ moved.  She didn’t know these people!  She grabbed for Alec’s hand, her tight grip staying his departure.  Her eyes grew panicked once more as she looked from him to the unfamiliar people and back again, desperate that Alec might understand her meaning without the words themselves.

“Right,” Alec said with a curt nod of understanding.  “No, you’re in hospital, not Medical.  UCH London.  They’ve been vetted and read-in,” the agent assured her.  “You’re safe, myshka .  I promise.”  Alec gave her fingers a reassuring squeeze before letting go to stand next to the door, out of the way yet not out of Q’s line of sight.

The nurses were efficient and kind and incredibly informative for all that they said nothing of importance.  Nothing that let Q know what had happened to her that was so severe that Medical – whose experienced staff and state-of-the-art facilities had pulled more than one critically injured agent back from the brink of death – was unable to care for her.

She was in surprisingly little pain, rather numb, truth be told, but Q attributed that to the morphine she was apparently on.  Immediately after she’d been extubated – and wasn’t that an experience that never needed to be repeated … EVER! – Q had been given instruction on how to use the medication pump to manage her pain levels.  

“Use it,” the head nurse, Liam, insisted.  It took him another 10 minutes to finish up with Q’s vitals, but with a final check of the oxygen that now flowed through the cannula under her nose, he headed for the door of the private critical care room.  Liam stopped long enough to tell Trevelyan that the surgeons had been notified that Q was awake.  They had just finished up a long procedure in the operating theatre and would come to evaluate Q once they’d had the opportunity for a wash.

“She’ll be groggy.  Drift in and out for a while, but if things get … difficult,” Liam said quietly, looking over his shoulder at where Q lay in the bed, “let us know and we can bring in a sedative.”  

“The morphine?” Alec asked.  He had crossed his arms over his broad chest and tried not to look like he’d rather be anywhere else.  Moneypenny said he’d drawn the short straw, but there hadn’t been any straws, and Alec wouldn’t allow any of the rest to deliver this news.

“Yeah.  That’ll work, too.”  Liam’s voice was sad, but he held it low enough so as not to reach Q’s ears.  He had been one of the young woman’s primary nurses since she had been admitted to the ITU and had grown to know the spies that considered her family quite well.  He did not envy Alec the task that lay before him.

“You’re supposed to be in Sri Lanka,” Q said to Alec once they were alone.  She was weary, and her throat felt raw and sounded painful even to her own ears.  She had said little during the half hour the nurses had fussed over her, too overwhelmed by the entire situation to answer any but their most direct questions and muzzy-headed enough to be unable to form any of her own.

“Yes, well, mission parameters changed when you and the rest of the home team decided to blow up half of London,” Alec replied with a smirk.  

For a moment Q had no idea what Alec was talking about, but a series of quick flashes in her mind’s eye – a tableau of fiery images – woke her memory.  Ah.  Yes.

“It was hardly half, and the blame for that can hardly be placed at our doorstep.”

“Tell that to the blokes pulling what’s left of Six out of the Thames.”  Alec pulled a pair of black-rimmed spectacles from the inside pocket of his leather bomber jacket and slid them into place on Q’s face.  

“Thank you,” she said, grateful more than she could say to have her sight again.

Pozhaluysta .”  Alec settled into the chair at Q’s bedside and propped his feet up on the edge of the mattress.

Nonchalance was 006’s hallmark, but there was an edge to it that even Q’s medication-numbed mind was able to pick up on.  It was unsettling.

“And it’ll be another month at the earliest before Westminster Bridge is fully repaired.  The detours have been murder on commuters to say nothing about holiday shopping traffic,” he continued.

Holiday traffic?

“How long have I been out?” Q asked, bewildered.

“Three weeks.  Medically induced.  They’ve been bringing you out of it the last day or so.  It wasn’t surprising to any of us that you’re just as much a pain in the arse half dead as you are fully alive.”

Three weeks?!

“What happened?  What’s wrong with me?”

“What do you remember?”

“Answer the question, Double-O Six,” she demanded in her Quartermaster tone.

“Answer mine first,” insisted Trevelyan, in that voice that brooked no argument.  The stalemate between them lingered for several, long moments before Alec added, “It’s important, myshka . What do you remember about that night?”

Q searched Alec’s face and acquiesced to the concern she saw there.  Alec waited quietly and assessed the MI6 Quartermaster as she considered her response.  While the dim light above her bed wouldn’t do anyone’s complexion any favours, Q’s was so pale and sallow that it was almost difficult to look at her.  Her hair – normally a riot of long, dark curls, nearly impossible to tame no matter what she did with it – was lank and lifeless.  The nurses had fashioned it into two plaits to keep it tidy and out of the way, but the plaits only served to make Q appear still younger than she already did.  Even M had been taken aback at the sight when he had visited earlier in the week.     

Q blinked slowly twice before closing her eyes, and Alec thought that the lingering medication in her system had pulled her under, but tired, hazel eyes opened again a few audible heartbeats later, and Trevelyan watched as her gaze slipped, unfocused, into the middle distance as it often did when Q was focused on solving a problem.  This time it seemed as though injury and medication fogged the solution, keeping it hidden from her normally exactingly precise memory.

Alec dropped his feet to the floor, leaned forward, and after a moment’s hesitation, rested a hand on the top of her knee, moving his thumb back and forth in a soothing motion.   

“Bond came back to London with that doctor from Austria in tow,” Q began, the images finally coalescing in her mind’s eye.  “M, Moneypenny, Tanner, and I met them at one of M’s bolt holes near Trafalgar. Bond had learned Denbigh was working for Blofeld.  All the intelligence streams would funnel directly to SPECTRE if we didn’t take out Nine Eyes before it came online.  They’d control everything.”  Q paused in her narrative.  The normally posh enunciation of her speech slurred a bit with the effects of the morphine.  She inhaled deeply through her nose, letting the oxygen saturate her system to revive her.  “We left for the CNS building.  The doctor …“

“Swann.  Madeleine Swann,” Alec provided, and a single raised eyebrow told him everything Q thought about the other woman.

“Dr. Swann wouldn’t come.  I’m uncertain as to why she walked away then, but Bond and M were going to keep Denbigh occupied while I hacked Nine Eyes.  Our convoy was ambushed – ” Q looked hurriedly down at her right side.  The side that had been closest to the SUV’s door.  The side that –

“I was shot.”

“Yes.”

“But … three weeks , Alec?!  It shouldn’t have – ”  Though exhausted, Q was becoming agitated in her confusion, and the agent used his free hand to cup her face again, trying to focus her attention on him rather than the situation.  It didn’t work.  Q was too perceptive, and she instinctively knew there was more to it than just that.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Q continued, insistent.  “Hurt like the bloody devil, but I kept the bleeding under control for all that woollen scarves make for rubbish tourniquets – that jumper’s likely ruined, too – but M wasn’t even aware … I had a job to do, so I didn’t say anything, but –“  Movement further down the bed drew Q’s notice for the first time, and her protests cut off abruptly when she saw Alec’s strong fingers etching patterns into her leg just above and then below her knee and then back again.

Patterns that she could not feel .

Oh.

Bugger.

It was fully five minutes before Q said anything else, and Alec waited patiently for her to sort through her thoughts, questions, and emotions.  He moved his hand from her leg, resting it on the mattress next to her hip.  No longer touching but close enough that she could grab it if she wanted.

“The bullet, then?  Not the wound itself,” Q said at last, having reasoned out that where she had been shot was not sufficient to render her permanent injury.  “Tell me,” she demanded, voice as toneless as Trevelyan had ever heard it.

Alec did.

Denbigh had not been the only traitor in Her Majesty’s Intelligence Services.  In addition to a small army that Blofeld had amassed, eight agents in MI5 and another four in Six had been rooted out in the days following the attempted coup.  Of those twelve, five had taken part in the ambush on Bond’s convoy to CNS but prior to that had broken into MI6’s Dead Armory where Q-branch housed weaponry and ammunition – most confiscated, but some of it created by R&D itself – that were slated for destruction.  They had made off with countless crates of guns and ammunition they intended to use to secure Blofeld’s hold on London once Nine Eyes went live.  The confusion surrounding the dismantling of the Double-O programme and the reassignment of its key support personnel had made such an infiltration easy, and it likely wouldn’t have come to light for some weeks had Q not been shot.  

Until her collapse on Westminster Bridge, quite literally at M’s feet, none of Q’s colleagues had any inkling that she had been wounded, but the paramedics on scene could not reconcile her symptoms –  a rapid but irregular heartbeat, vomiting, confusion, diaphoresis, and paralysis – with the seemingly shallow bullet wound they discovered, low behind her right shoulder blade.  Blood tests in A&E revealed digitalis poisoning and a CT scan identified its method of delivery: the fragmented remains of a 9mm bullet coated in a highly concentrated dose of digitalis and designed to explode fully upon impact to maximize damage, or so R had informed them upon his arrival at UCH.  Following established procedure, Q’s second-in-command had been unwilling to trust that comms had not been compromised and had reported the break-in to Mallory in person.

“Would have been faster if I had just shot myself,” Q said in a tight voice about the bullet that had taken her legs.  One of 200 that she had crafted herself for testing before ultimately consigning the failed experiment to the Dead Armory for destruction.

Q then lay back against the pillows and trained her eyes on the ceiling.  She said nothing more.

In 2010, Alec Trevelyan had set up a sniper’s nest on a rooftop in Kanchanaburi, Thailand where he’d had nothing but his own company and that of a couple of velvet-fronted nuthatches for the three days it had taken his quarry to finally show up.  At the time Alec had thought it was the most agonisingly quiet mission of his MI6 career.  In retrospect, however, it had nothing over those 20 minutes of silence he spent in hospital at Q’s bedside.

He could have kissed the surgeons when they finally arrived.

The neurosurgeons, one of whom was coincidently enough – or perhaps not so coincidentally – a former SAS doctor who had served with Mallory, ran through a quick evaluation of Q’s physical state before delving into the specifics of her particular injury.  

The fragmenting of the bullet that had taken its own sweet time detonating inside Q’s body had done rather notable damage to her right lung, kidney, and liver and had even gone so far as to do enough damage to her spleen that it had been removed, but it was the destruction done to her uppermost lumbar vertebrae and the nerves thereabout that was the most devastating injury.

Her paralysis was what the surgeons termed “incomplete,” meaning that she would likely have some sensation and possibly even limited use of her legs; now that Q was awake, they could more accurately evaluate the extent of the damage and determine what she could do and feel.

“What about therapy?” This from Alec who had been asking all of the questions.  Q’s contribution had been limited to nodding or shaking her head in response to the direct “yes” or “no” questions the doctors asked, choosing to remain mute as she processed the information.

Q could expect to see a series of therapists – physical, occupational, and psychological – as well as a social worker over the next days to help her recover her strength and adjust to her new situation with the eventual plan being to move her to a specialised rehabilitation clinic in the City until such time as she was ready to return home and, eventually, work.

“Mr Trevelyan, if you could come with me for a few moments,” the senior surgeon said at the end of the consultation.  “There’s some paperwork that I’d like to share with you that outlines the course of treatment.”

“Certainly,” Alec said, rising from his chair.  He squeezed Q’s hand and laughed silently at the flash of irritation Q shot his way at the doctor’s banal attempt at subterfuge.  “Time to talk about you in private,” he whispered in her ear before giving Q a quick peck on her forehead which earned him yet another glare.

“Though she’s only just woken from sedation, I’m nevertheless concerned about the patient’s mental state,” the doctor told Alec when they were alone in the hallway. “While people can react in any number of ways to the news of such a life-altering injury, the fact that she seems unwilling or unable to participate in her own treatment leads me to believe that the patient –“

Q ,” Alec interrupted, his voice low, tight, dangerous.  It was his assassin’s tone, and it brooked no argument from the surgeon.  “Not ‘patient.’ Not ‘she.’  Not ‘her.’   Q .”  Alec took a step closer to the doctor, just enough to push the other man’s back to the wall next to the door to Q’s room.  Not to threaten but rather to … reinforce his point.  

“You attained the rank of Major in the SAS when you served alongside Mallory, and one doesn’t achieve the additional degrees and certifications you have attached to your name without a great deal of hard work.  Work and focus that we all owe you a debt of gratitude for in terms of saving Q’s life.  However, the reason you are able to continue to do the work you do in the way  that you have always done it is because three weeks ago the woman in that bed used her brilliant mind and sacrificed her body to halt a terrorist attack that would have changed the face of Britain forever.  ‘Q’ is the title that she has earned and the name she has chosen, and you’d do well to remember that.”

The doctor opened his mouth to reply, more likely to renew his concerns about his “patient,” but Alec forestalled his comments with a gesture.  “I have heard and appreciate your concerns about Q’s psychological state.  There has been little of Q’s life that could be termed ‘easy,’ but she is the strongest woman I have ever met and she will face this injury with the same determination and fortitude that she always has.”  He took a step back, signalling that the didactic portion of their chat had come to an end.  “Now if there is, indeed, paperwork to be had, please give it to me, and you can be on your way.  I’m sure that you’re quite exhausted from your time in the operating theatre.”

When Alec entered the room five minutes later, it was to a mostly darkened room.  The nurses had pulled the blinds on the exterior windows earlier in the day, and Q had switched off the light above her bed while he was gone.  The only illumination came from the light in the small loo in the corner of the room.

Alec set the treatment plan and a fresh cup of ice chips on the tray table that was positioned next to Q’s bed and resumed his seat at her side.  She lay quietly, eyes closed, though he was pretty certain she wasn’t asleep.  

In spite of what he said to the surgeon, the truth of the matter was that Alec was deeply concerned about Q’s reaction – or, rather, lack thereof – to the news of her paralysis.  Even more worrisome was that she hadn’t once asked for a tablet or laptop, or even a cuppa, for that matter.  Items that were her life’s blood no matter the circumstance.  But Alec would be twice damned if he ever shared that information with the doctor.  

Best to tackle this head on, then.

“I know you’re not asleep.  And I know you heard everything we said out there.  You and that bat-like hearing of yours.  Little wonder you’re always able to keep your minions in line.  They never know if what they’re saying will come back to haunt them.”

Q opened her eyes and turned her head to face Alec, but she said nothing.

“You can talk to me, you know that.  You have before, myshka . Ty doveryayesh' mne , da ?  You trust me, yes?”  

Q smiled softly and nodded her head.  Alec tried not to notice that the smile didn’t reach her eyes.

“It’s the wrong question, I know, but … are you going to be okay, solnyshko?”

Q bit her lower lip and he could see that she was fighting back tears.  “How are the others?” she asked after several deep, composing breaths.  “I should have asked before now.”

“How are the others?!”

“Mallory must have been concussed after they rammed his car,” she rushed on before Alec could redirect the conversation back to her.  “Did anything happen to Moneypenny?  Tanner?”

Alec sighed and tried not to let his exasperation be too obvious.  Q:  Master of computers, code, weaponry, minion management, and deflection.  He rubbed his eyes before answering her question.  “They’re fine. They’re all fine.  M was concussed, but it was minor.  Nothing wrong with Eve or Tanner that a little R&R and a lot of wine didn’t cure.”

“And Bond?” she asked softly, anxiously, after a moment. “He was already injured, from Marrakesh, but then, when is he not   injured?”

Bozhe-moi!  Alec’s stomach dropped with the question and the mention of his friend’s name.  Of all the things for Q not to remember, it had to be this. They’d been told that Q would likely experience some memory loss of the minutes just prior to her collapse, but … bloody, buggering, fuck!  There truly was no God to take pity on him.  Moneypenny had been right.  He had   drawn the short straw.  She should be here for this, not him.  Not that Q and Eve were overly close, but … der’mo !  Shit!

“Alec?”  Worry had seeped into Q’s tone.  Fear touched her expression.

“No,” Alec rushed to reassure her.  “James … he walked away.  He’s fine, but … well, he’s … he’s gone, Q.”

Q released a breath she hadn’t known she had been holding, and Alec’s heart lurched in his chest at the smile that crossed her face.  The first positive, carefree moment he had seen from her since she woke.  

“Well that explains it,” Q said in a rush, her relief clear in her voice.  “I’d have thought that he’d – well, never mind any of that, I suppose.  So where’s he off to, then?  Before all this craziness with SPECTRE, M mentioned possibly sending Double-O Seven off to Bulgaria.  We’d received updated intelligence on those weapons traffickers in Sofia --”

“No.  No, Q, you misunderstand me.”  Alec clasped both of her hands – so small, they were – in one of his.   “He’s not on a mission.  When I say James walked away, I mean he walked away from all of it.  From what Mallory told me when I got back, James refused to kill Blofeld.  Instead he left the Bridge and walked away with Madeleine, hand-in-hand.  No one’s seen him since the next morning when he popped into Q-branch and managed to wheedle the DB5 out of the minion on duty.  He left his Walther, Six, all of us, even bloody England behind.  He’s gone, Q.”

He’s left you.  Her interpretation of Alec’s words lay unspoken between them.  

The smile on Q’s face fell so quickly it was as though she had shuttered it behind iron and replaced it with a mask that was a facade of emotion.  

“Did he …” Q struggled to find her voice, to keep it level in spite of the anguish roiling inside of her.  “Did he know about this?” she asked, pointing with her chin at her legs.

“No.  No, myshka .  He couldn’t possibly have known.  The minion in the garage hadn’t even heard about it yet.”  For the third time that day, Alec cupped her face in his palm.  “And for all that he’s a right bastard sometimes, James would never be cruel like that.  Not to you .”  James and Q were friends, extremely close friends by even Alec’s assessment, and Bond would never do Q such a disservice, no matter how badly he wanted to escape.  Though why James had wanted to leave ...  Alec had had plenty of time to think about James and Q and their relationship, and all the evidence had once pointed to James wanting to strengthen his relationship with his Quartermaster, not sever all ties.  Alec couldn’t begin to imagine what in the hell had happened while he was in Sri Lanka to make things go so wrong.

But even as he tried to reassure her, a series subtle expressions flashed so quickly across Q’s face that had Alec not been looking directly at her, he would have missed the grief, pain, and humiliation they conveyed.  Alec could think of nothing that could humiliate his friend.  She was one of the post competent, skilled, professional people he had ever known.  Interpersonal relationships were more than a bit of a challenge for her at times, but she had long since started to grow in that regard, too.  In fact, since James had become something of a fixture in her life, Q had even started to --

A sudden sense of dread filled the agent.  Q and James had been dancing around each other for months, but Alec knew that the physical desire and the emotional connection had been there.  Very much so, but the last he had known, Q and James hadn’t actually done anything with it.   Or, perhaps they had.

“Q, what did you do?  What did he do?  God!  You two finally did it.  You slep –“

Q pulled a hand from his grip and pressed her fingers to Alec’s mouth.  “Don’t.  Don’t say it.  Not now.  Not ever!  Bond is never to know about any of this, do you understand me, Alec Trevelyan?  The world we work in is very small.  Even if James never comes back to England, you’ll run into him sometime … somewhere.  He made his choice,” and it wasn’t me was left unsaid, but Q’s implication was clear to Alec.  “And we both know that if he knew he’d come back to a life he didn’t want any more simply because of misplaced guilt.”

As her speech wound down, Q gasped suddenly in pain, and Alec felt guilt of his own fill his conscience.  He should have paid more attention.  Her body had barely begun to heal, and now to be faced with all of this …

Q fumbled through the bed clothes for a moment until she found the button for the medication pump she had been instructed to use.  She pressed the button twice, letting the full dose of morphine slip through her veins, taking the pain away.  Alec would never be completely certain which type of pain – physical or emotional – she sought to suppress at that moment, but he strongly suspected the latter.

“You’ll stay?” Q asked, eyes heavy and her voice slurring as the drug took full effect.

“Of course I will.”  Alec tugged gently on one of her plaits before settling it back against her shoulder, letting it cover the ragged, near decade-old scar that peeked out from beneath the hospital gown. “You still love him, don't you?  In spite of it all.”

Q’s “hmmm” in confirmation didn’t surprise him, but her mumbled, “Rather pathetic, don’t you think?” did.

“No, myshka ,” Alec affirmed, lifting her glasses from her face and setting them down on the table next to him.  “Not in the least.”

“Thank you … for being here, Alec,” Q said as the medication finally pulled her under.

“Always, mladshaya sestra.  Always.”

 


 

 

University of Oxford, February 2000

The first time she met James Bond, Q – who was well over a decade from actually becoming Q –  was sat at a table in a large conference room in one of the Engineering buildings at Oxford.  For nearly a month, she had been anticipating her meeting with Major Boothroyd to discuss MI6 applications of the ideas she had researched and recently published in two separate monographs.  However, only five minutes after Boothroyd’s arrival, news of an explosion in nearby Shipton-on-Cherwell had Bond, the Major’s bodyguard, anxious about his charge’s safety.

In retrospect, to say that she ‘met’ James Bond that day was initially a bit of an exaggeration.  It would be more accurate to say that she was in the same room as James Bond.  As stated, she was sat at the table, self-designed laptop open, fingers dancing over the keyboard hoping that the gentle click of keys would disguise the fact that she was hanging on every word of the argument between the junior agent – the recently recruited Commander Bond had only completed his MI6 training six weeks prior and was still years from earning his Double-O status – and Boothroyd.

“I’ve not come all the way up from London to simply turn around on a whim,” the Major insisted.  Though both men stood in the open doorway at the far end of the room, the acoustics of the space were such that she had no problem hearing the frustration in either man’s voice.  

“It’s hardly a whim, Major,” Bond said.  He tugged idly at the collar of his tailored – no, not yet bespoke— suit as if he was still getting used to the finely-milled cotton at his neck.  Young though she was, even she could tell that he was ill at ease with both the clothing and the circumstances.  “There’s word that the explosion may have been triggered by an incendiary device –“

“It’s bloody Shipton-on-Cherwell, Bond, not Westminster!  No terror agency worth its salt is going to waste resources to bomb that hamlet.  It’s hardly a strategic asset –“

“No, but the London-Oxford airport nearby is.”  Bond’s head bobbed once as if the gesture finalised his point.  “So, if you’ll follow me back to the car, we can return to London where it’s far simpler to keep you safe.”  

Her fingers faltered on the keyboard at the agent’s declaration.  For all that the man’s voice was like listening to the whisper of sin itself – really must stop reading that romantic dribble Eustace keeps leaving all over the flat; his questionable tastes in fiction were perhaps not the best influence under the current circumstances  – Bond’s words caused the bitter tang of disappointment to fill her mouth. The Major and she had been exchanging phone calls and, eventually, email, for years, and yet this was the first time they had met in person.  There was so much to discuss now that they were in the same room, he couldn’t leave yet, it just wasn’t …

“I’m not leaving until I’ve had the conversation I’ve come all this way to have.”  Boothroyd’s voice took on a steely edge that she had never heard in any of their phone conversations.  “Now you can either accept that fact, Junior Agent Bond, or you are welcome to phone HQ and explain to M why you are disobeying a direct order from your Quartermaster.  Given that there is no substantive evidence that the explosion was either a bomb or the work of terrorists thereby warranting my immediate removal to London, I think that we both know what M’s reaction to such high handedness would be.”  

A giggle of surprise burst past her lips at the look of pained horror that spread across the young agent’s face, and she quickly began coughing in earnest to cover her gaffe.  Clearly Bond knew all too well what M’s reaction would be. So, for that matter, did she.  She risked a peek over the top of the laptop and caught the glower the agent sent her way.   For some unexpected reason, and for all that she was 15 now, she stuck her tongue out at him in response.

“Sir, what could that slip of a girl possibly have to share that’s worth risking your life?”  Though Bond managed to stem the true force of the glare that he really wanted to shoot the whelp’s way, he was wholly unable to keep the incredulity from his voice.

Instantly, her spine stiffened with indignation for she knew what he really meant by calling her a ‘slip of a girl.’ She’d heard enough of that from her so-called Uni ‘peers.’  Sodding bastard!  She didn’t need his censure, too.

“That ‘slip of a girl,’ as you call her, is fifteen years old and has been an official recruit for nearly half her life.  Far longer than you have been, Commander Bond,” Boothroyd said with more than a touch of pride in his voice, and Q felt some of her resentment ease with her mentor’s approval.

“She’s a child!”  Bond pointed a finger at her, his incredulity palpable.  “What could she possibly have to contribute to MI6?!”

“Only some of the most inventive thinking in the fields of cyber security and nano-technology, or are you suggesting that you could shed some light on ‘Correlation-Based Data Dissemination in Cyber Security Monitoring Sensory Networks’ and ‘Lyotropic Liquid Crystal with Large Monodomains with Conjugated Polymer and Carbon Nanotube Dispersion’?  I was unaware that you had completed your doctoral studies in the same two areas that she is currently pursuing.”

Bond looked at Boothroyd as if the Quartermaster was speaking in tongues.  She hid her smirk behind her hand, though she now openly watched the evisceration taking place.  If she took perverse pleasure in Bond’s sputtering, well then, could anyone really blame her?  Shame they hadn’t chosen to meet in one of the rooms at John Radcliffe.  Bond might need their A&E to stitch him together again by the time the Major was done.  

Ignoring the young agent’s scepticism, Boothroyd turned a fond gaze toward her that she returned; she tried to remain as dispassionate as she could while the Quartermaster shared what little information about her Bond had security clearance to know.  “That girl has one of the brightest and most innovative minds we have seen in over a generation; she has the potential to become the greatest asset any branch of the Intelligence Services has had since the War.  To say that MI6 is fortunate to have her is a gross understatement, and with luck and hard work, one day it will be she that you guard as Quartermaster.”

“What’s her name?” Bond demanded, glaring at her, though his tone had started to shift from confused frustration to grudging neutrality.

“That, my boy, is far above your current security clearance,” Boothroyd chuckled.  “But for today, if you need to call her anything, you may call her ‘Zed’.”  The Major pointed Bond to a chair at the far end of the table closest to the door.  “While she and I have our chat, I want you to sit down, shut the hell up, and pay attention.  You’re rather intelligent in your own right, Bond; you might actually learn something.”

Boothroyd rounded the table to embrace Z, and after a few moments of polite conversation about her experiences at Uni – Fine, thank you, Major.  No, nothing I haven’t handled before.  People always feel threatened like that.  It’s all fine – they quickly sat and began dissecting the conclusions Z had come to in her monographs and began outlining plans for the current denizens of Q-branch to begin implementing them.

Two hours in, they broke for tea, but even then, the conversation merely shifted from Research and Development at MI6 to a discussion of literature, history, and philosophy before eventually returning to cyber security and nano-tech once all but their cups and a fresh pot of Earl Grey had been cleared away.

Though he kept one ear on the hallway, alert for any threats, Bond, nonetheless, did as the Quartermaster had ordered; he shut up and paid attention.  Bond had found the tea-time discussion enlightening.  He didn’t participate but found it thoughtful and illuminating, and clearly the girl’s intelligence went beyond those subjects she was studying at Oxford. Admittedly, however, the science and technology were far beyond that which Bond would likely ever use and would certainly ever understand, so he chose to apply those skills that he would use as an agent of the SIS: observation and assessment. Even as a child Bond had read people accurately, and doing so had served him well in both his stint in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy and his tenure with MI6.  

As the afternoon progressed, Bond found himself surprisingly impressed with Z’s confidence and knowledge in her chosen fields.  Almost half his age, she was unlike any teenager Bond had ever met.  Highly articulate and self-effacing, Z accepted the Quartermaster’s praise graciously and his criticisms with thoughtful introspection before scribbling out alternative theories for his inspection and consideration.  Bond held to his earlier assessment, however.  She was a little slip of a thing.  

Z was also a study in contradictions. Though she was confident in her science, Bond could tell that she lacked the self-confidence to go with it in other areas.  Petite and willowy, with a cloud of curly dark hair that needed a pair of shears – or perhaps hedge clippers – taken to it, Bond was reminded of the bedtime stories his mother used to tell him of the Scottish Fair Folk, for in another lifetime, Z would have surely been seen as fae-born.  

Her voice was a soft contralto, and though it would probably still change as she got older, the accent was posh in a way that her clothes were not. While clean and largely well-mended, the blue jumper she wore was several sizes too big, and the wool (definitely not cashmere) was worn thin at the cuffs and the stretched-out neckline.  Thickly lashed, expressive hazel eyes were hidden behind a pair of frankly awful spectacles that did nothing for her appearance.  James didn’t envy her the spots, but the underlying complexion was smooth though surprisingly pale.

No.  Z would never be a true beauty, Bond determined, but with time, she might become rather pretty – in her own way – and that added to her striking intelligence was potentially a dangerous combination if she got past the self-consciousness.  Bond silently pitied the future blokes unlucky enough to fall under her spell.

She wasn’t all sunshine and roses, however.  As Bond listened to the Major and Z talk, he discovered that she had a biting sense of humour that could easily turn cutting if she didn’t curb her tongue.  She was self-critical to a point that screamed ‘perfectionist’ and while kids her age were always awkward – Bond cringed whenever he remembered what he had been like at 15 – Z’s awkwardness was not driven simply by the unpredictability of teenage hormones.  

Bond knew all too well the pain of loss, and he recognized in others the insecurity that developed when faced with growing up alone, without parents.  Like Bond, Z was likely an orphan, but whereas James had spent many of his formative years with his aunt and, eventually, Hannes Oberhauser, if Z had been a recruit since the age of seven, she hadn’t had the benefit of even an extended family.  Z had been raised by the SIS itself – God, what that must be like! – and Bond began to view her with the beginnings of respect and, to a lesser degree, sympathy.

It was late afternoon by the time the Quartermaster and his apprentice wound up their talk.  They were by no means finished, but Boothroyd expressed his desire to return to London before full dark.  They would continue outlining their plans via the telephone or secure email over the coming weeks.  Bond radioed the driver to bring the car round while the Major and Z said their goodbyes.

Bond was escorting the Quartermaster out into the hallway when he felt Z touch the sleeve of his jacket.  Bond turned and was struck again by how tiny she was.  The top of her head barely came to his chin, and if she wasn’t quite as small as M, well it was a near thing.  

“Thank you, Agent Bond,” she said, pushing her uncontrollable hair behind her ears so she could see him better.  “I appreciate that babysitting a teenaged Uni student can’t possibly be the way an SIS agent would choose to spend his day.”  

“I go where I am bid, Miss,” Bond replied seriously because it was true.  Z’s forehead wrinkled at what she though was yet another dismissal. His hulking presence at the other end of the room had been a distraction for her all afternoon, but she’d tried to be polite.  Insufferable man.  Only the echo of Eustace’s oft repeated phrase, “Z, be nice,” kept her from unleashing a stinging quip in response.  It likely wouldn’t have made an impact on the oaf anyway.  Instead, she accepted his words with a nod and turned to gather her own things.

“That being said,” Bond continued, “while I didn’t think it initially possible, I enjoyed the day.” Z turned to face him, surprise clear in eyes that had grown wide behind her glasses.  And it was then he noted another beguiling oddity:  a large ‘freckle’ of pure gold amidst the hazel, positioned just to the left of the pupil of her right eye.  

“You have a singular mind, Z, and I owe you an apology for thinking you anything but what you are.”  Bond took one of her hands – finely boned and long-fingered; elegant in a way that belied the rest of her awkwardness – in his and lightly pressed his lips to the top, grinning at the blush that spread across her cheeks. “I look forward to escorting the Quartermaster to speak with you again.”

“Tone down the charm, Bond,” Boothroyd commented drily from the hallway.  “She’s only fifteen.”

“Yes, sir,” Bond said with a final wink for Z.  Turning smartly on his heel, Bond spoke into his radio.  “We’re moving Callahan; two minutes to your location.”

“Goodbye, my dear.  We’ll talk soon,” the Major said with a nod before striding off down the hallway to the lift, Bond at his heels.

As she watched the metal doors slide closed behind the agent and her mentor, Z managed to suppress an overly girlish sigh of infatuation, but nonetheless wondered just how long she could get away without washing her hand.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: The Path to Paradise Begins in Hell

 

“Just because you didn’t put a name to something did not mean it wasn’t there.”  Jodi Picoult, Handle with Care

 


 

MI6 Headquarters, London, England:  Mid-September – Mid-November  2012

 

It would be over a decade after that Oxford meeting before she saw Bond again, at least with any degree of regularity. Though Major Boothroyd and she had continued to meet monthly during her remaining time at Uni, Bond’s own career had quickly taken off and as a field agent, he was assigned to several overseas postings: first to Tehran, then to the Balkans and Turkey before an extended stay at Baghram.  All highly classified, of course.

She finished her doctorates as well as two additional Masters’ degrees in Engineering and Physics before heading off for a Gap Year that while reasonably timed for her chronological age was severely late in coming for her intellect.  She hadn’t used a single day of leave since Six started giving them to her when she became a contracted employee at the age of 16; she had more than earned an extended holiday.  M, Boothroyd, and even her former SIS appointed guardian, Eustace, had each put their foot down when she informed them of her intent to leave the country for a year on her own.

Far too dangerous for such a valuable asset.  No, they wouldn’t have it!  So she saw little choice but to deactivate the tracker she’d developed for Six – for which she had immediately become the agency’s guinea pig – and sneak out of England under one of the several aliases she had crafted that M knew nothing about.  She was 22.  Long since an adult.  She could go where she wished.

M initially tried to force her back by shutting down her bank accounts.  Painfully predictable.  Long before she reached her majority, Six had paid her a generous salary that she put into a proper, Intelligence Services accountant-supervised, investment account, but she also had her own income, separate from MI6.  The advances she had made into medical applications for nanotechnology in cell repair led to several inventions for which MI6 had no use, and so long as she worked under strict conflict of interest guidelines and all projects were carefully scrutinized by Six, she was welcome to sell her work on the open market.

She had made her first million pounds before she turned twenty.

As the years passed, and more and more banking was transacted online, she had subtly transferred more and more of that money into a series of well-hidden off-shore and Swiss bank accounts.  She worked for a bloody spy agency.  Did they really expect that she wouldn’t follow in their footsteps when it came to subterfuge?  With a lack of funds failing to develop into the issue she had hoped it would become, M had to get a bit more creative in finding ways to lure her charge back to England’s shores.

However, after the third time the boffin sent field agents packing back to England without their quarry in tow, M decided to leave well enough alone and allowed the wayward genius the opportunity to experience life on her own terms, with the occasional status report, of course.  And if M privately conveyed to her aging Quartermaster that the whole affair was more than a bit humiliating from an agency training perspective, and that they’d bloody well better figure out a way to fix the problem, the walls of her office certainly wouldn’t tell any tales.

The first 10 months of her travels were filled with varied locales and fascinating people. She developed a long-term passion for exploring and savoured a handful of short-term love affairs. Her first stop was Iceland where she hiked the trails of Gullfoss and Seljalandfoss and tried her eye with photography at Jokulsarlon Lagoon, Fjadrangljufur Canyon, and Thingvellir National Park.  She had originally planned for her year away to be filled with learning and service, but it was in the lagoon and steam baths at Mayvatn, when she felt herself begin to relax for the first time years, that she vowed to indulge in hedonistic pursuits as well.

Eight weeks in Belgium introduced her to the joys of getting her hands dirty beneath the bonnets of performance sports cars courtesy of Sigur and Reynard, 30-something brothers who worked as the chief mechanics for a GT3 racing group.  Finding her to be an adept learner, the men taught her how to tweak the specs of engines, suspensions, and chassis to seduce every bit of power and performance from the Porsche 911, the Jaguar XKR, and the Aston Martin DBRS9.  At night, Sig and Rey taught her how to tweak various other things of high performance value, and she proved to them on many occasions just how clever she could be.

From there she bounced from country to country and continent to continent.  She expanded her understanding of art in Vienna, Vatican City, and the Netherlands.  She took up with a French improvisation troupe travelling through Spain and Morocco.  In Phuket, she lazed on the beaches, learned to scuba dive, and discovered the benefits of meditation to help quiet her overactive mind.  It didn’t always work, but it was something.

She played cat and mouse with MI6 field agents in Andorra and Istanbul, though it was the disappearing act she pulled in Cyprus of which she was the proudest.

She learned to surf and attained an even more exquisitely enjoyable ‘degree’ in oral sex whilst in Byron Bay and travelled still further south to see where Hobbits lived. She taught English in Tibet and volunteered for a relief organisation in South Africa.  She didn’t need to work, but it was the best way to meet new people and experience their lives with them.  And the children.  Oh, the children, she loved best of all!

The circumstances of her own birth and her status as a ward of Her Majesty’s government as supervised by the SIS, plus the complication of her advanced intellect, meant that she had had few playmates her own age as a child.  Her free time hadn’t included play dates or even much in the way of organised sport; she had been somewhat intrigued by rugby but had been deemed too small to participate.  She spent the majority of her childhood with her computers, her nanotech, her books, her code, and her caretaker.  Eustace, an actual retired Double-O of eccentric morals who served as her guardian, companion, and protection, was engaging enough for the most part, but she had always wondered if maybe there shouldn’t just be … more.

What that “more” was became clear when she spent time with the children in Lhasa and Munsieville.  Weeks of playing, tending scraped knees, mediating disputes, cleaning dirty bottoms and noses, teaching and learning never palled.  She was there when Rabten and Tashi read their first lines of a Shakespeare sonnet in English, and was sat in the middle of a dusty road with Liandri’s tiny hand in hers as the three-year old died in her mother’s arms having been hit by a speeding lorry whilst playing in front of her family’s shack.  Too poor to even bury their only child, Dawie and Funani were understandably shocked to find out that everything had been paid for by a benefactor who wished to remain anonymous.  If the young Englishwoman who had spent so much time teaching Liandri and her friends implied to the grieving parents that the donation likely came from the owner of the lorry company whose careless driver had killed the girl, who were they to argue?

She left Munsieville for Tierra del Fuego three weeks after they buried Liandri.  Twelve days hiking through that gorgeously rugged country followed by an additional twenty days travelling by ship through the Drake Passage and the Weddell Sea, discovering the marvels of Elephant and the South Shetland Islands, did much to assuage her grief at the little girl’s death, but it was while watching Emperor Penguin fathers tending to their chicks that she recognised that for all the heartache and grief Liandri’s parents felt – would always feel – over the death of their daughter, the three short years they had her in their lives was the true blessing.

The Quark Expedition through Antarctica was the only organised tour she joined during the whole of her travels, but when the expedition ship finally docked in Ushuaia, Argentina, she parted ways with the rest of the passengers who would end their journey in Buenos Aires, taking instead a smaller, chartered flight to Santiago, where she hoped to catch another excursion to the Galapagos before finishing up her Year with a quick tour of the United States.

Her Byron Bay ‘tutor,’ Michael – 34, blond, muscled, and shockingly skilled in so many arenas – lived in Aspen, Colorado during the ski season and had invited her to spend some time with him before she headed home; she reckoned that she couldn’t go wrong with another advanced degree to take back to England.  He really was a phenomenal instructor, after all.

She never made it.

What happened in the fortnight that followed her departure from Ushuaia would leave her with permanent scars, a near crippling fear of flying, and a lifelong friendship with Alec Trevelyan.

Four months of recuperation and rehabilitation from her injuries found Q returned to England and well enough to join the current training class of MI6 recruits.  She was known to the others by the alias Emily Wilson, though only M, the Major, and Alec knew it to be an alias.  She was not destined to be an active field agent, but M nevertheless insisted that ‘Emily’ undergo the rigorous training as though she would be.

“The world is changing, young woman, and so is intelligence gathering.  That’s why we’ve invested so much effort and money in you over the years. It’s not like it was during your ill-advised jaunt around the world.  Just because you’ll be a part of TSS, there’s no guarantee that you won’t be called upon to go out into the field, so it’s vital that you know how to complete the mission and defend yourself.”

The training class was small and included four other raw recruits plus two current field agents in for standard refresher training.  As per usual, she was by far the youngest in the group. For all that she was reasonably fit, the instruction was rigorous and far more physically demanding than anything she had done before, and though she excelled with small and ranged firearms, her petite stature meant that she was absolute rubbish at hand-to-hand combat, and more than once found herself held face down on the mat, or in the mud or – on one particularly unpleasant afternoon – in the water.

A few hours after that particular event, she was approached by two of the other trainees: Danny Cabral and Ian Ronson, both of whom she had apparently impressed with the cool manner in which she handled the entire affair.  As the men spoke, she tugged at the collar of the MI6-issued woollen jumper she wore; it was subconscious tick she had developed in attempt to ensure that the hideous scar of poorly healed flesh that encased her left shoulder was always covered, but she wasn’t about to tell them that nearly drowning at the hands of a colleague in a mere five centimetres of water was nothing when compared to facing death in a devastating plane crash in the wilds of Argentina.

Nevertheless, it was clear to each of them that traditional modes of hand-to-hand combat simply wouldn’t work for her.  She was too small and would never be able to overpower an enemy.  With the men’s help, they began devising alternative ways for her to escape, evade, and defend herself from a physical attack.  By the end of the three-month basic training, she managed to hand their arses back to each of the other trainees as well as to Ronson’s fellow field agent, Eve Moneypenny.

In that same year, Bond had been recalled to England from Afghanistan to investigate a series of attacks on small but essential British intelligence resources around the world.  A six-month mission eventually led him to Prague and MI6 Station Chief Dryden whom Bond had discovered turned traitor.  Bond eliminated both Dryden and his terrorist accomplice, thereby achieving the two sanctioned kills necessary to become 007. By the time ‘Emily Wilson’ had finished her training, Bond had been to Montenegro, Venice, Bolivia, and Russia.  Le Chiffre, Vesper Lynd, Rene Mathis, and Mr. Greene were dead; Yusef Kabira was in custody; and James Bond’s icy yet charming and seductive demeanour was indeed well on its way to becoming notorious within the intelligence community.

After basic training, she had spent the bulk of her initial years at HQ in Technical Support Services, doing what she had been educated and hired to do: drag MI6 into the 21 st Century, kicking and screaming, if necessary.

As with M, the Quartermaster had long since known that MI6 must adapt to the changes of an increasingly technology-based world, or through its own obsolescence become a threat to the very country it was trying to defend.  However, Boothroyd was keenly aware that he had neither the skills nor the inclination to lead that charge and had seen in his apprentice the future of MI6’s potential success.  The Quartermaster still ruled the roost in R&D but had given her what amounted to carte blanche as far as TSS was concerned.  It had been slow work, glacial at times, and more than once she despaired of ever making a difference.  She had rarely ventured out of the TSS labs and offices and so was still relatively unknown among the denizens of Six – a ghost rather than an actual person –  but after nearly seven long years, she could say that it had been worth it.

Recruiting some of the newer researchers and developers to her cause, reliable, researched, tested technology rather than gadgetry had become the order of the day.  Equipment sent out into the field was streamlined, more reliable, and targeted for the specific needs of the assignment rather than to the personal whims of the agent.  Much to Alec Trevelyan’s and James Bond’s disappointment, flamethrower-equipped wristwatches and Geiger counter cufflinks were simply no longer part of the kit unless deemed explicitly relevant to the mission parameters, which if she had her way about it would come to never .  Pens didn't explode and cigarettes didn’t expel knock out gas.  She supposed a case could still be made for garrotes hidden in belt buckles and plastic explosives disguised as toothpaste, though.

One piece of technology that did go out regularly, however, was an earwig.    

When in early 2012 Boothroyd’s number two decided to retire in order to spend more time with his grandchildren, the TSS boffin that nobody really knew became ‘R,’ and with her came a new pet programme that paired up Double-Os with skilled TSS agents to assist in the field by hacking into satellites, CCTV cameras, and other communication systems around the world, allowing them to finally update an agent on a situation in real time.

She was very careful not to use the term ‘handler’ in front of any agent with a license to kill, but it was really a matter of semantics.  Eight of the current twelve Double-Os were now ‘online.’  Maximus Vo, her own second-in-command, ran missions with Two, Three, and Eleven; Alexandra Charles, a skilled techie she hired right out of Imperial College in 2010 was in the ears of Five and Nine with Eight coming on the next month.  No one had been assigned yet to Four, Ten, or Twelve, but as all three of the agents were either on family or medical leave until after the first of the year, there was time.  She herself handled the missions of One, Six, and, now for their second mission together, Double-O Seven.

According to years’-worth of data, these changes – subtle at first before becoming increasingly bolder, as with the Comm Programme – had yielded impressive results, no matter how much the corps of Double-Os wanted to whinge about it all.

Though not at first, technology had started to return regularly, often requiring only minimal repairs before being sent back into the field with its agent. This permitted the bulk of the budget to be allocated for improving and redesigning that technology, thereby keeping MI6 and its agents at the forefront of the industry.  The intelligence gathered was more reliable and vetted more quickly which translated into more plots against the Crown being foiled and a substantial decrease in the number of agents seriously injured or killed in the line of duty.

Part of each handler’s – shhhh! –  job was to go over the mission parameters with a fine-toothed comb and appropriately kit out agents for their assignments.  She was in the process of explaining to Sebastian Ronson – himself not yet a Double-O but paired up with Bond for this mission –  recent modifications made to the radio transmitter he would carry to Istanbul when 007 pushed open the doors to TSS already mid-argument with Boothroyd.  She looked up at the commotion and quickly schooled her reaction to the sight of a visibly frustrated James Bond.  Apparently she hadn’t been quick enough.  Ronson’s knowing chuckle pulled her attention back to the field agent whose radio transmitter she clutched in her closed fist.   

“It’s like watching a lion in the wild, isn’t it, James Bond in a strop?  All raw power, command, and grumpy majesty.”

“Oh, piss off, Ian,” she muttered through her grin.   Releasing her death-grip on the delicate piece of tech, she tucked the transmitter into the case next to Ronson’s preferred weapon, a 9mm Sig-Sauer P226 SRT.

“How do the Americans like to put it?  Ah, yes.  ‘When are you going to tap that’?”  Ronson asked, nodding his head in Bond’s direction where the issue with the Quartermaster seemed to have something to do with the limited tech 007 was taking into the field for this mission as well as the limited tech he had been taking into the field for the last several months.

“Always delightfully vulgar, the Americans,” She snapped the case closed and pushed it into Ronson’s hand, deliberately ignoring the man’s perceptive smile. “I shudder to think of the percentage of the staff that has, as you put it, ‘tapped’ that.”

“Oh, please do pull the other one.  You know you’ve done the maths.”

“Perhaps,” she hedged, “but I’ll say only this.  I have no intention of going where so many have gone before.  I have more self-respect than that.”

Ronson laughed.  “No you don’t.”

She felt herself blush.  “Okay.  You’re right. I don’t.  So it’s just as well that Bond doesn’t even really know I exist.  Might make things dreadfully awkward in future.”

The truth was that she had done the maths.  She was induced to do so during a fit of boredom some months previously while waiting for 001 to check in after an 18-hour comm-silent stakeout, and had been quite surprised to find that the percentage of MI6 employees, female and male, that Bond had slept with – based solely on gossip and innuendo; it’s hard to find raw data on such things, after all – was shockingly small.  While his conquests in the field were renowned, they were almost exclusively in pursuit of the mission’s objective and apparently in direct contrast to what he sought in his personal life, not that she had any idea what that actually was .  Nonetheless, Bond was far from the lothario that people perceived him to be. Not that she would share that information with anyone .  Bond had a legend to uphold, after all.

“Right you are, then, love,” Ronson said, interrupting her thoughts.  "Wouldn’t want the future Quartermaster shagging Six’s best Double-O.  Imagine the pillow talk.  Horrid!”  Ian sobered for a moment and took one of her hands in his. “But why he doesn’t see you is something I don’t begin to understand.”

Though her wardrobe choices left much to be desired – the ‘geek chic’ trousers and oversized cardigans she typically wore only served to disguise what Ronson was sure was still a comely figure – and her long, dark curls always managed to escape whatever methods she used to try to contain them, he’d always thought there was something undeniably lovely about the petite woman.  Something that enhanced the unmatched intelligence and wit of the boffin whom he had come to appreciate and rely upon since basic training.  “You’re exquisite.”

“And you’re gay.”  She pulled her hand from his with a quick squeeze of appreciation for his words and controlled her instinct to squirm at Ronson’s open appraisal of her appearance, channelling her embarrassment into adjusting her glasses as was her wont when people seemed to delve too deeply.  “Maybe you should take your own advice.  You’re pretty enough to capture his attent –“

“I do so hate to interrupt you two love birds,” said a deep baritone from behind her, “but we have a flight to catch, Ronson.”  Bond had apparently wrapped up his tirade with Boothroyd and had come in search of his mission partner.

She closed her eyes and gave an imperceptible shake of her head.  Lovely.  Just lovely.

“Right,” she said, biting into the ‘t’ at the end of the word.  Pulling another small case from the tray on the workbench, she turned to include 007 in the conversation though she had given him his kit an hour ago.  “Your boarding passes have been uploaded to your mobile phones as have the mission details for you to further examine during the flight.  There’s already an agent on the ground in Turkey.  The location and time of that meet are included.  We hope to have further information on the whereabouts of the hard drive by the time you land at Istanbul Atatürk, but reliable intel has been surprisingly hard to come by.” She opened the small case and showed the contents to both agents before snapping it shut and handing it deliberately to Ronson.  “Two earwigs –“

“I already have mine.  You kitted me out yourself or have you forgotten?” Bond interrupted with a huff.  Arrogant arse!  Why she continued to be attracted to him after all of these years …

“One for you, Ronson,” she said pointedly at Bond as though he hadn’t spoken, “and an extra for Double-O Seven, here, as his tend to go missing with little warning or explanation.”  

“Is there anything else?” Bond demanded, attempting to cow her impertinence with an icy glare.   Good luck with that , she thought.

“No, that’s –“ Bond interrupted her this time by stalking off for the double doors that led to the corridor.

“Let’s go, Ronson,” he said over his shoulder.

“Impatient git,” she muttered.  “I’ll be in both your ears for this one, Ian.  Do bring back all Her Majesty’s equipment in one piece, please.  The whisky is lovely, but you still owe me that dinner for my birthday, after all.”

“RONSON!”  Bond’s bellow echoed through TSS.

“Summoned by the lion’s roar.  Gotta go, love,” Ronson said, jogging after the older agent.  “Look forward to hearing you on comms.”

If only things had gone that way.

Within eight hours of their landing in Turkey, Ronson was dead, the hard drive was in the wind, and Bond had been shot off the top of a passenger train by Eve Moneypenny.  He hadn’t been seen since.

In London, it rained.

M closed and locked the interior door of her flat, grateful, yet again, that her driver was an old-fashioned gentleman of manners who always insisted on holding the umbrella for her so she wouldn’t have to carry one of her own.  It saved both time and water damage to the floors of her foyer.  Flipping on the overhead light, M skimmed her fingers across the post that her housekeeper, Clara, always set on the table in the entryway.  A few cards among the rest of the correspondence and bills.  Belated condolences from those just hearing of Tom’s death, more than likely.  She couldn’t deal with that just now.  Not.  No.  Not just now.

She needed a drink.

Clara had left the table lamp atop the liquor cart burning, but the rest of the sitting room was cast in deep shadow.  M pulled the stopper from the crystal decanter of whisky and poured.

“I’d invite you to share my bottle, but I don’t think you’ve really earned it.” The cut crystal glass in her hand crashed to the ground but did not shatter as M spun at the sound of the tired, slightly slurred posh voice behind her.

It took two pounding heartbeats for her to recognise the silhouette sitting in the window seat.  “You’ve got bloody cheek, breaking into my flat –“

“It’s hardly breaking in if you’re given a key.”

“Which was clearly a mistake, if this is how you intend to use it.  I almost expect that behaviour from Double-O Seven, but not from my – ”

“Not anymore,” came the snapped retort.

“What are you nattering on about?”  M turned back to pour herself a fresh glass of whisky.  A double this time.

“You said you ‘almost expect that behaviour from Double-O Seven’.  Not. Anymore.”  M watched as the girl downed the rest of her drink and climbed out of the shadows.  “You’ve been in emergency meetings since this afternoon’s cockup, so you mightn’t have heard.  The local authorities in Istanbul have called off the search for Bond.  As far as they’re concerned, he’s washed out to the Marmara. Wait.  What am I talking about?  Of course you’ve heard because the agents at Station T have also been told to suspend the search, which they wouldn’t have done except on your order.”   

M appraised the young woman standing before her.  They were of a height, so for once M didn’t need to strain her neck to accomplish the task.  The girl’s red-rimmed eyes seemed even larger behind the magnification of her spectacles, and, if possible, that hair was even more out of control than usual. She’d likely been running her hands through it, wreaking even more havoc with the curls. Quite simply, the girl looked a fright.  Shattered, really.  The physical embodiment of what M herself felt but could not show.  Not since her infancy had M seen her look so completely at sixes and sevens.  She had always been a serious child, surprisingly in control of her emotions.

The clink of glass on glass drew M’s attention to the bottle of whisky the boffin had brought with her.  Talisker 25, the 2008 bottling by the label.  A fine choice.  A whisky to savour.  Though that didn't seem to be the girl’s foremost concern based on the long swallow she took of the amber liquid.  

“Ronson gave this to me,” she said, gesturing with the bottle, “in case you’re wondering.  For my birthday. You remember Sebastian – Ian – don’t you?  He died today, too.  He wasn’t a Double-O like Bond, so you mightn’t have remembered him.  Would’ve made a good one.”

“Of course I bloody well know Ronson.  If you’re here to wreak incriminations upon me, you might as well leave now.  There are things in play of which you have no understanding, so –“

“Why did you pull me off comms?”

“What?”  M pulled her head back, completely at a loss at the change in direction the conversation seemed to be taking.

“Tanner’s a good man and an excellent Chief of Staff, but he has limited experience with the technology necessary to run an operation like that.  My team has far more.  As do I .  I created the programme for pity’s sake.  On your orders.  Built it from the ground up to help save the lives of our assets and our agents in the field, increase their chances for success, but at its most critical moment, you pull me off.  Have me escorted from the entire floor so I can’t even offer support .  I want to know why.”

“The security clearance required –“

“Is the clearance you allotted me which is second only to your own, Tanner’s, and Boothroyd’s!  Don’t lie to me!” She took several steps toward M.

M noted how the glass in the young woman’s hand shook and thought for a moment that she might throw it across the room, but rather than explode into violence, the girl took two, deep, steadying breaths and asked again in a voice that was barely audible, “ Why?   Why did you pull me off comms?”

“Because of Bond, and Ronson, if you must know.  Ronson’s been your friend since you were in training together, and your continued infatuation with Bond was a significant contributory factor.  Both of them on the same operation?  Once things started going pear-shaped, I couldn’t take the chance that you’d become emotionally compromised and lose control of the situation.”

“Sentiment?!” She was incredulous.  “You pulled me off the mission because I might become emotionally compromised ?!”

“There is little room for such reactions in high-pressure scenarios.”

“Well, thank God you're above all that.” She studied M’s face for several long moments, and though M’s countenance remained impassive, she nevertheless saw something there that – “Another lie.”

She set the glass down next to the other bottles and stepped away from M until she felt the edge of the wide doorway press into the space between her shoulder blades.  She shook her head in disbelief.  She had thought things bad enough, but this .  “ You don’t trust me.  How is that even –   Twenty-eight years , M.  I’ve literally dedicated my entire life to Six, and you don’t trust me?!”

“Don’t be ridiculous! Of course, I trust you.”

“How in the bloody hell – “ She closed her eyes and reined in the riot of emotions that swirled within her.  “I will admit that the last few hours haven’t been my best,” she said evenly, “but when have I ever given you cause to think I would let my feelings, or anything else, compromise a mission? Take precedence over doing my duty !?"

“You haven’t, but the possibility –”

“Led you to make a rash decision based on no data whatsoever, and now Bond and Ronson are dead, and the hard drive is beyond our reach because Eve Moneypenny couldn’t hit the broadside of a stationary bus with a laser-guided missile launcher let alone a moving target with a scoped sniper rifle she hasn’t trained on in five years.  I’ve always known that you’d never let me get too close.  Never let me know you too well.  Not even when I desperately needed some sort of connection, but I thought I had some idea – ”  She spun toward the hallway and then back again, searching for something, some truth that she could cling to.  Completely at sea over these realisations.

“God!  Who are you?!  Alec Trevelyan’s name is on that NATO list.  So is Double-O Two's.  How many more of our colleagues – our friends – have to die needlessly because you’re unwilling to trust me to do the job you’ve groomed me to do practically from the moment of my unfortunate birth ?”

“I don’t answer to you, girl.”

“Of course you don’t.  I never said you did.  Who am I that you would ever answer to me?  I’m nobody.   Literally nobody.  You made sure of that.  But someday, someone out there is going to demand that you answer to them .  I’m afraid for you, M.  Truly.  Afraid that you’ll be expected to answer to the dead.  To James and Ian and God knows how many others.”

She reached into one of the pockets of her trousers and pulled out the cap to the Talisker, threading it back onto the bottle as she looked around for her coat before remembering she’d left her anorak at HQ.  She’d waited so long in the dark of M’s flat that her hair and her clothes had long since dried of the rain that had soaked them through.  From the other pocket she removed the key to the flat and set it very deliberately on the low table next to her.  Her eyes flitted across the furnishings of the well-appointed room that she knew almost as well as her own, but it was as though she was seeing it all for the first time.

“I apologise for intruding on your privacy.  It was poorly done of me.”  She said, looking everywhere but at M before turning for the door.  “I’m heading back to Six.  I’ll have gone through the audio and visual recordings before you get in.  See if I can’t find something to tell us where the hard drive’s scarpered off to before I send the lot of it over to the analysts.  Do let me know if you need any help with the obituaries.”

“Cam …”

The sound of that name – one that both was and wasn’t hers – stayed her departure.  “No.  You don’t get to do that.” She turned back to look at M.  “I’d rather you didn’t use that name anymore.”

“It’s the one you were given.”

“No.  No, it’s the one I was assigned by a set of nurses who couldn’t be arsed to think of anything beyond their immediate geography.  Just one more alias.  Cam, Emily, Hannah, Nia, Z, R … my personalised set of lifelong codenames.”

“What will you be called then?”

She laughed outright, but ultimately she just sounded sad.  “You make it sound as if it actually matters.”  And with that, she left.

 

~~OOQ~~

 

M and Tanner were shown into yet another small treatment area inside the A&E at Royal London, checking on and visiting with those who had been injured in the bombing of MI6 Headquarters.  It was time they could ill afford, given that things were a right mess, but MI5 had stepped up to the plate, and was assisting in the emergency relocation of their sister organisation, so some of M’s time and focus could be spared.  It rallied the troops, if nothing else, and though she knew she had a reputation as a hard-arse – one she had worked damned hard to achieve, by the by – she did care about her people quite a lot.

Most of the injured had been working on the Executive Levels where the explosion had originated.  However, most of the fatalities had been in TSS and Research and Development as the initial blast had set off a cascade of secondary explosions that ignited the many types of highly volatile components used in R&D projects.  A strategic attack, hitting at the very heart of MI6. Scores had been injured, some critically, but they were all expected to survive.  Eight others, however, would never return home to their families; their lives had been given in service to and protection of their country, though few would ever know the true nature of that service.

The room into which M and Tanner were escorted held the last of the wounded they were to see; the last to leave the scene; the last to be seen for treatment, insisting that others more seriously, and some not so, wounded go before, so the doctor was only just finishing up his initial care of the painful second degree burns his patient had suffered in the blast.

“We’ll move you to the ward in about an hour,” the doctor told his patient who sat with her legs dangling over the edge of the treatment bed as he secured the final bandages over the damaged flesh of her back and the nurse applied antibiotic ointment to the more superficial burns on her right ear and temple.   

Her hair – a dark rat’s nest of dust and debris – was piled high on her head to keep it out of the way, and it appeared as though some had been burned off.  A nurse gently tugged the gown back into place around her back then eased their patient into a comfortable position on her side on the bed.

“Your concussion is thankfully minor, and the pain medication won’t interfere with that.”  The doctor gestured at the various IV lines to which she was hooked up, “But we’ll want to keep an eye on that as well as the burns.  There will be some scarring, I’m afraid, but the majority of them will heal without issue.”

She nodded her understanding and pressed the button that would release the morphine into her system.

“When can she return to work?” M demanded, making her presence known and gesturing at the thick bandages that swathed a portion of the girl’s upper back and neck. Tanner shot an uncomfortable look at his boss at her blunt and direct question.  Granted, M was always blunt and direct, but all of her previous encounters with the wounded these last hours had shown the care and positive regard with which she held their colleagues.

The boffin didn’t even spare a look over her shoulder for M, but she nodded at the doctor.  “Tell her whatever she wants to know.”  Her voice was weary and detached.  She just wanted to sleep and escape the pain of the day, even if only for a little while.

The doctor knew who M was and understood the severity of the situation, but after he had explained the nature of his patient’s injuries, he concluded with the news that he couldn’t, in good conscience, even consider discharging her for at least three days.

M sighed.  Clearly frustrated.  “Thank you, Doctor.  You may leave if you’re finished.  Tanner, see that we get any and all files transferred back to our medical personnel.  They may not have anywhere to call home at the moment, but it’s best we keep everything together.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Tanner said and indicated that the doctor and nurse should come with him.  Guards stood outside the curtained cubicle, ensuring that no one would disturb the conversation that was to follow.

It had been nearly eight weeks since the two women had last spoken; there simply hadn’t been cause or opportunity for them to do so.  The audio and visual data from Istanbul had been turned over to the agency’s analysts for evaluation, Boothroyd sat in on all the executive meetings as he had always done, and there were still missions to run, agents to kit out.

While the issue the girl had raised over the significance of a name had pricked at the back of M’s mind like a thorn in a panther’s paw, it had been of little immediate concern.  There were far greater issues to attend to.

That situation had since changed, irrevocably.

“I am of course quite relieved that you are comparatively uninjured.  Given the devastation I’ve seen this afternoon, it’s a miracle anyone survived the blasts.  I am glad that you did.” M said softly as she made her away around the bed.  The girl opened her eyes as M approached and blinked twice, sluggishly.  The medication making it difficult for her to focus, and without her glasses ...

“They’re dead,” she muttered after a moment, voice thick with smoke and pain.  “The Major … Alexandra,” she clarified.  “I s-saw them.  T-tried to help …”

“I know.”  M rested her hand on the mattress near the girl’s hip but didn’t seek to reach any further than that.

“Who?”

“We don’t yet know, but we will, rest assured.”

A nod and the hazel eyes closed again.

“The truth is that things are all a bit of a jumble at the moment.  We’re setting up new digs in Churchill’s old bunkers, but we’re doing so with a skeleton staff.  There are only so many places I’m willing to let those people from MI5 wander, after all, and I need TSS up and running.  Until it is, we’re vulnerable.”

Eyes opened again, perhaps a touch clearer than before.

“I need you, Quartermaster.”

Q checked herself out of hospital 10 hours later.

 


 

 

New MI6 Headquarters, Churchill’s Bunkers, London, England:  Mid-November 2012

 

“Shanghai.”

“I beg pardon?”  Q continued to tap away at her laptop, working to debug several hundred lines of code that were currently keeping the automated cooling systems she had set up in Q-branch from working properly.  Though she felt it was colder than a witch’s tit down in the rabbit warren of tunnels they’d been forced to inhabit, the servers clearly did not share the same opinion and had been going down all day.  Just another item in a never-ending flood of problems that seemed to pop up on an hourly basis in their new home.  And to her consternation, most of Q’s solutions were makeshift, improvised affairs but ones that, for the most part, seemed to be keeping things from flying apart.   For now.

“Your analysis of the shrapnel Bond dug out of his shoulder led us to a hitman named Patrice.  He’s the one with the hard drive.  Been sighted in Shanghai.  Herself’s sending him there,” Tanner said, dropping the file on Q’s desk.

Q picked up the folder, leafing through its contents as she leaned back in her chair and immediately regretted that decision.  Tanner winced in sympathy at the pained gasp that escaped the Quartermaster’s lips.  It had been five days since the bombing, three since Bond’s return, and Tanner wasn’t wholly sure that Q had left the tunnels since she arrived in them less than twelve hours after she had been rushed with the others to hospital.  

He did know that she had spent a good portion of that time doing as the rest of her staff had done, crawling through duct work and some of the smaller tunnels, even under the exposed foundations of abandoned Tube platforms in order to run cables and wiring to get MI6 back up and running before “any of the bad guys can take advantage of the fact that we’re not at our best,” she had said.

It can’t have been easy.  Tanner had seen some of the burns on her back when she was in hospital, and the pain must have been substantial.  Nevertheless, Q tended her own wounds and had stayed the course, and if the scuttlebutt Tanner had heard was accurate, she had earned the undying admiration of nearly all those that served under her. Quite an accomplishment given that they were all still mourning the loss of Boothroyd.

In the days immediately following the bombing, it had quickly become apparent that TSS and Research and Development could no longer exist as separate entities.  There simply wasn’t the space in the tunnels or, unfortunately, the personnel available to shoulder the double load.  So one of Q’s first tasks as Quartermaster was to merge the two departments into what the minions – those geeks, nerds, and tech-gods who seemed to all but worship the ground Q walked on –  almost immediately dubbed as ‘Q-Branch.’

Q stood from her chair, gingerly twisting the muscles in her back, and walked to the wall of windows that separated her small office from the rest of the branch.  She preferred to be down on what they called ‘The Platform,’ but the coding combined with her current pain level necessitated a bit of quiet.  She dug around in the pocket of her trousers, unearthing a pair of paracetamol tablets.  Blowing off a couple of pieces of lint, she dry-swallowed the medication knowing that they would barely take the edge off.

She perused the file of information again and after a few minutes of quiet, raised her eyes to look at Tanner.

“There’s no way Bond passed any of these tests.”

“No.”

“So M’s hoping that a second go will keep him in the ground for good since Moneypenny managed to cock it up the first time?”

“It’s not like that, Q.”

“No.  It’s worse .  Come on, Tanner.  You’ve seen him!  In Istanbul, Bond was healthy.  Fit.  At his peak both mentally and physically, but now – ”

“We need him.”

“What good is he going to do us if he gets himself killed because M let an agent with one foot still in the grave go after an international hitman?” Q gestured with the folder in the general direction of M’s office, some quarter-mile distant though the winding tunnels.

“He’s the best we have.”  Tanner’s voice was quiet.  Direct.  Unequivocal.

Q sighed and rubbed her eyes beneath her glasses.  Of course Tanner was right.  Even now.  Even beaten, bloodied, and half dead, Agent 007 was the best they had.  He was always the best they had.

She shook her head, but now her frustration was born as much by her own situation as by Bond’s.  “We won’t be able to offer him any real time support in the field. Not for at least another four days.”

“Four days?  What’s the hold up?”

“What’s the –“  Q fought with her temper, which in her exhausted state meant she was snappish at best and forced herself to remember that most people didn’t understand the complexity of establishing satellite uplinks, let alone ones that had to be reconstructed from scratch.  “Re-establishing our network isn’t just a matter of laying cable and flipping a switch, and tasking a satellite is a processing-intensive procedure that can take 8-12 hours depending on factors like power, momentum, atmospheric corrections, weather conditions, as well as when it’s in line of sight of an uplink site here on Earth.”

“Eight to twelve hours doesn’t explain four days.”

“I have two techs who can do the work.  Three, if I pull myself off everything else I’m doing.”

“But –“

“We have 23 satellites.”

“Oh.”

Q tipped her head to acknowledge Tanner’s epiphany.  “Quite.”

“This is a fluid situation, Q.  Any updates will need to be given to Bond in person on site, then.  M’ll insist upon it.”

Q’s stomach dropped and she instantly felt faint.  Apparently she looked like she would collapse for Tanner rushed to her side, and, gently slipping an arm around the small of her back, guided Q to sit on the futon some smart minion had installed in her office.

Tanner encouraged Q to drop her head between her knees and take several deep, steadying breaths.  “In … out … in … out …”  He repeated the soothing mantra for nearly two minutes before Q was finally able to ease back against the futon, careful of the burns that were still bandaged beneath her shirt and jumper.

“I’m sorry, Q.  I didn’t mean to imply that M would send you to Shanghai.  She won’t force you to fly anywhere.  She’ll assign the task to a field agent,” he said once she was breathing normally and most of the colour had returned to her face.  “Here, drink this.”  He pressed the mug of tea she had been drinking as she coded into her hands.  She grimaced with distaste at the now cold Earl Grey but drank it anyway.

“I-I don't normally react so viscerally anymore.  My apologies.”  Q closed her eyes.  “I’m just tired.”

“M wants Bond on the next direct flight which is in about … eight hours,” Tanner said, looking at his watch.  “How about once you’re done kitting him out, I drive you home so you can get some real rest.  You’ve trained your minions well enough that they can vet any new intel that comes our way that Bond may need to know about.”

Q opened her eyes and looked at Tanner through her peripheral vision.  “My minions ?”  She hadn’t cocked an eyebrow at the moniker, but it was a near thing.

Their term, not mine, but I’d say it fits,” Tanner chuckled.  “C’mon.  How much time do you need?”

She ran through a mental list of her easily accessible inventory and what she would need to make the final modifications to the Walther PPK she had started designing for Bond before his death.

“I need at least an hour to finish the coding on the cooling system.  We won’t be any good to anyone let alone Double-O Seven if we lose the servers to overheating.  Another three hours to assemble and modify his kit.  I’ll have R make the flight and hotel arrangements and prep all the relevant mission details to upload to Bond’s mobile.”

She looked over her shoulder at the relative disorder that was Q-branch.  “Tell Double-O Seven I’ll meet him at the National Gallery at half five.  Things are too chaotic here, and I don’t want anything lost in transla – ”

She was cut off by a loud crash outside her office that was immediately followed with a shouted “I’m okay!”

Q sighed.

 

~~OOQ~~

 

Double-O Seven, I’m your new Quartermaster.

You must be joking.

Why?  Because I’ve got breasts?  

Because you still have spots.  

My complexion is hardly relevant.  

No, but your competence is.

Age is no guarantee of efficiency.  

Youth is no guarantee of innovation.

Every now and then a trigger needs to be pulled.  

Or not pulled.  Hard to tell which in your pyjamas.

Q.

Double-O Seven.

Can you get past them?

I invented them.

Granborough Road.  It’s an old Tube station on the Metropolitan Line.

Been closed for years.

Use that as a key.

Oh shit!  Oh shit, shit, shit!  He hacked us.

He’s gone.

I hear you.

I’m looking for you.

I’m in the Tube.

Put your back into it.

Why don't you come down here and put your back into it?

Oh good.  There’s a train coming.

Hmm.  That's vexing.

I’m through.

Told you.

Bond.  Get on the train.

He’s going for M.

Tell Tanner.

Get her out of there!

Q, I need help.

I’m tracking the car.

Where are you going?

I’ve got M.

We’re about to disappear.

I need you to lay a trail of breadcrumbs.

So much for my promising career in espionage.

She’s dead, Q.

M is dead.

Silva?  

Dead.

Are you injured, Double-O Seven?

Double-O Seven?

Bond?

Respond.

Yes.

Injured.

...

Roger that.  I have your GPS coordinates.

Search and Rescue mobilising from RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland.

ETA: 54 minutes.

SIS Emergency Response Team mobilising from RAF Northolt, London

ETA:  4 hours, 08 minutes.

Are you coming?

Bond.

I-I can’t.

Say you’re coming.

Q?

Q?

SIS Emergency Response Team mobilising from RAF Northolt, London …

Q?

Please.

...

Revised ETA:  4 hours, 57 minutes.

I’m coming.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Three: The Ones Worth Suffering For

 

“When you reach the end of what you should know, you will be at the beginning of what you should sense.”

Kahlil Gibran , Sand and Foam

 


 

London, England:  Late November, 2012

 

It was late afternoon by the time they were dropped off on the kerb in front of her home, and Q politely but firmly dismissed the MI6 driver and his offers to help her get Bond through the door. It was, perhaps, not her smartest move, but she could feel the tension between her shoulders threatening to spiral out of control, and she needed to be away from extraneous people before she lost the tenuous grip she had on her emotions. At this point, the driver would do more harm than good.  In fact, had the man she was struggling to support been anyone but Bond, or Alec, she’d have long since left him to his own fate.

Q pressed Bond against the wall next to the door to the warehouse with one hand, no easy feat given that the man was nearly boneless with exhaustion and pain, and fought with the complex security features of her front door with the other. When her keys hit the ground for the third time, Q huffed a sigh of frustration.  “Come on, Double-O Seven!  Work with me a bit.  Keep yourself vertical for two more minutes, and I promise you can collapse once I get you to bed.”

It was a testament to the reality of Bond’s condition that the man offered no salacious commentary on his Quartermaster’s promise. In fact, the only evidence that Bond had even heard Q was a brief, rough exhalation, but he managed to brace his legs beneath him and lean deliberately against the brick behind him just long enough for Q to work both the dermal and retinal scans and turn the key in the lock before wrestling the two of them through the heavy oak door.

Q kicked the door shut behind them, trusting that the security protocols would re-engage on their own, and slid a shoulder beneath the Double-O's arm to help him across the ground floor to the refurbished lift.  She had given thanks for this lift more than once over the years, but particularly now as she couldn’t imagine trying to haul the nearly dead weight of the spent agent up 17 stairs.

“Just 28 more steps, Double-O Seven,” Q said, once the doors slid open upon reaching the first storey.  She could have installed Bond in the guest room on the ground floor and made things initially easier on herself, but the bulk of what she would need was up here, and she didn’t much care for the idea of running up and down the stairs any more than she had to.  She was exhausted.

She verbally counted off the steps to her own bedroom – for her benefit or his? – where she was finally able to ease Bond onto his back on the mattress of the large bed.  Q discarded her anorak, scarf, and gloves in short order and flipped on the table lamp before turning her attention back to the Double-O on her bed.

Q knelt to unlace the heavy work boots on Bond’s feet, tossing them carelessly into the corner near the tall wardrobe.  His woollen socks, still sodden with brackish water, quickly followed the damp leather.  Q cursed under her breath. Bond wore the joggers, jumper, thermal vest, and jacket that his gamekeeper, Kincade, had bundled the agent into in an attempt to keep him warm after his plunge into the icy loch, but apparently the old man hadn’t considered Bond’s feet which were still ice cold and clammy hours later. If he contracted pneumonia …

Q divested Bond of jacket, jumper, and vest – a difficult affair more akin to wrestling with a jellyfish than disrobing a grown man –  before turning a critical eye to his jogging trousers and deciding to leave them where they were.

Bond groaned with pain when Q lifted his legs onto the mattress but didn’t open his eyes.  He really should be in hospital but had emphatically refused further treatment, leaving Q with little other choice than to bring him here.  She reached across the bed to grab the far edge of the duvet and pulled it over Bond’s body, tucking the edges around him like the dough of a meat pasty.  Q quickly made her way across the open floorplan of the living space to the kitchen where she flipped on the kettle and dug up a tin of soup that she poured into a large mug and set to warm in the microwave.

Q busied herself with meaningless tasks while things heated: rinsing dishes that were already clean and lining them up again in the drying rack, checking that the milk hadn’t gone off, inventorying her tea selection – she’d need more pu erh hazelberry soon – any mindless task to keep her from thinking too much.

She needed to sleep, maybe try to meditate, soon, and hope she could centre herself. Even if she discounted the effect of the helicopter flights, which she really couldn't, the events of the last two weeks – Hell, the last two months – had pushed Q to her limit. She had barely managed to force back the panic attacks that had threatened on the flights to and from Skyfall.  Q felt just as fragile now but managed to choke back a surge of emotion.  There wasn’t time for it.  Instead, she pulled a hot water bottle from a drawer next to the hob, filling it from the kettle that was close to but not quite boiling.  

Back in the bedroom, Q set the mug of hot soup and a bottle of cool water from the fridge next to the lamp before she pulled back the duvet to slip the warm bladder between Bond’s chilled feet.

The en suite for her medical kit was next, but she was stayed when Bond’s hand shot out from beneath the duvet and grabbed her wrist.  “Where are we?” he asked.  His voice was tense and his heavy-lidded eyes were clouded with pain.  The medication he’d been given prior to the helicopter flight down from Scotland was clearly wearing off.

“Someplace safe,” Q assured him.  “Do you want to sit up?”

Bond nodded but collapsed back against the mattress with a groan when he tried.  “Maybe not.”

“In any other circumstance, I’d likely bring up this being a symptom of your increasing age, but in truth, I don't think I’d hold up half as well.”

“A compliment, Q?” he almost sounded genuinely surprised.  Almost.

“Oh, piss off, Double-O Seven.”  Q nevertheless bent to assist him, biting off her own yelp of pain when he wrapped his arms around her back for support as she tugged him up the bed. Her burns were never going to heal at this rate, but she did feel that her anxiety had started to settle a bit with the banter.  Strange that their word-play – a new development since Bond’s return from Asia –  was already starting to feel familiar.  Comfortable.

“God, you’re heavy,” she groaned, finally propping him against the headboard, and did her best not to think about how nice Bond’s bare skin felt beneath her hands.

“If you don’t like potato leek, there’s not much I can do.  It’s all I’ve got in, apparently,” she said, pressing the mug into Bond’s hands once he looked settled.  “You’ll need it if I’m to give you anything more for the pain.”

“It’s fine,” he whispered and sipped at the soup.

Q used that distraction to pop into the en suite .  When she returned, she carried her medical kit with several clean flannels stacked on top and a plastic bowl filled with warm water.  Bond appeared to be dozing, and the mug tilted dangerously in his grasp.   Q dropped the kit and the flannels on the bed next to Bond and rescued the mug before the soup spilt on the duvet.  Placing it next to the bowl on the table, she pulled her reading chair close to the bed and started tending Bond’s most obvious wounds.

“Your flat?”  Bond asked after several minutes.  Not asleep then , Q thought, though the man’s eyes remained closed.  

Q hummed an affirmation and continued to wipe at the shallow cuts above Bond’s left temple that had started to bleed sluggishly again on the drive into the city from RAF Northolt.

“Why?”

“A singular lack of options, and even I cannot sew a silk purse from a sow’s ear.”  Q used a cotton swab to daub ointment on the scrapes. “You’ve no flat of your own, and no hotel above one star in all the boroughs would take you looking as you do.  You refused to go to Medical or be treated at an A&E,” she tossed the swab into the bin next to the bed, “and though very tempting given the way you harangued the RAF medics who did try to treat you, I didn’t much fancy leaving you to rough it under Westminster Bridge, so … my place.”

“I’m ... grateful.”

“You should be. I’m not in the habit of bringing work home if it doesn’t have a hard drive.”

Q unwrapped a pair of butterfly plasters and affixed them to Bond’s scalp before she set about removing the blood-stained bandages along his right ribcage.  James opened his eyes and watched her work, seemingly impassive.

“And speaking of … why didn’t you at least let the paramedics stitch these up?” she asked with a pointed glare and a gesture at the twin bullet grazes that scored his torso.

“It’s fine.  I’ve had worse.” Bond’s voice sounded even more ragged than usual, likely from loch water.

“We’re clearly going to have discuss your definition of ‘fine,’ Double-O Seven,” Q muttered and started digging around in the kit.  In short order, she unearthed a pair of nitrile gloves, a suture kit, and a bottle containing the pain medication she had been given by the doctors at Royal London.  She handed him two of the pills and the bottle of water.  “Oxycodone.  I know you’re not allergic to these.”

“Any chance of a whisky?”

“I rarely share my whisky on the best of days.”

“It can’t have escaped your notice that this has not been the best of days.”  No amount of loch water could explain away the feeling held in his voice.

“As evidenced by the painkillers you are going to take, instead.”  Q knew that Bond wouldn’t appreciate her drawing attention to his emotional response any more than she would have had he done the same, so she gestured at the water bottle.  “Drink it all,” she told him, then slid from her chair onto the mattress next to Bond’s hip.  Q unsealed the suture kit, careful not to touch the sterile contents within until she had slathered her hands with antibacterial gel – not her best option, but this needed done – let them dry, and slid on the nitrile gloves.

She was prepping the lidocaine when Bond spoke again.  “I said it’s fine , Q.  Just bandage them.  I don’t need stitches.”

The ‘idiot’ in her expression was implied, but she pointedly let her gaze slip down his torso to the blood that oozed freely from the two deep bullet grazes.  Clearly, their awkward journey down the hallway had reopened the wounds, and the blood had now started to soak through the flannel she had set on the mattress.

“When you’re bleeding on your own 600-thread count sheets, you can make your own health care choices.  My sheets.  My choice.  And a couple of butterfly plasters won’t keep these closed.”  She wiggled the syringe in her glove-clad fingers. “Roll this way so I can get a better angle, please.”

“Have you even done this before?” he demanded, refusing to budge.

Q stretched out her right arm until the cuff of the green and purple jumper pulled up enough to reveal the bottom edge of a jagged but neatly mended scar that ran across the top of her forearm.  “I’ve another on my left calf and two more to the right of my navel.  Star pupil, MI6 Advanced Field First Aid.  Does that suffice?”

It sufficed. The AFFA clinic was rigorous and those who passed the course knew what they were doing, so Bond’s answer was to gingerly scoot down the bed – far easier than going the opposite way had been – and shift to face her.  He closed his eyes at the first prick of the needle, but otherwise didn’t react as she injected the lidocaine into his wounds.

“So, not a fan of Medical?” Bond asked several minutes later when he felt her set the syringe on the sterile drape that she had spread across his hip and along the mattress.

“Nope.  Something we have in common, t’would seem.”  He felt the cool dampness of the antiseptic solution she used to clean around the wounds.  Not numb yet.

“Need to stitch yourself up often, then, do you?”

“No more than you.  Research and development isn’t always an accident-free occupation.  Plenty of ways to get cut, burnt, or lose a limb.” Her voice was detached; her attention focussed on the task.  “Boothroyd very nearly managed to shoot me once. We stopped letting him test firearms after that.”

Bond managed a chuckle at that spectacularly unsurprising bit of news.

James felt the pain medication start to take hold as he heard more rustling, then a bit of pressure followed by the flow of liquid down his side as she irrigated the two bullet grazes.  Saline soaked the edges of the drape and pooled in his navel.  Q wiped the water away, the rough weave of the gauze dipping into the hollow of his belly button.

That did surprise him.  He opened his eyes in time to watch as Q passed another square over his stomach to dry it.  It was such a simple attention that he found himself breathless.  James was so used to stitching himself up using dental floss or whatever was immediately at hand that he had almost forgotten there was more to it than just a needle and thread.  That it didn’t always have to hurt.  He began to relax in a way that had nothing to do with the medication.

Q began the first stitch.  She bit her lower lip in concentration, and James noted that while the slump of Q’s shoulders and the way she cracked her neck indicated she was likely as tired as he felt, her focus never wavered.  

As she worked, he couldn’t determine which was her dominant hand.  The actions of each were practiced, exact, precise.  Used to fine, detailed work, her economy of motion was as elegant as it was meticulous. James imagined that this was how Q designed and assembled the gadgets – he would always think of them as gadgets – that she sent out with agents into the field.

Q’s fingers, surprising long for her small stature, as well as the tops of her hands were peppered with nicks and cuts and burns in various stages of healing.  Still older scars dwelt beneath the new, and James noted that two fingers on her right hand were a bit crooked, indicating bones that had been broken but not properly set before starting to heal.  He had more than a few of those himself.

Q’s hands were far too damaged to ever be considered ‘pretty,’ but every scar, burn, and scab spoke volumes about who Q was, what she did, and how.  James imagined that he would find slight callouses on the tips of her fingers from the endless keystrokes of the countless programs she had coded, the systems she had hacked, and he began to wonder what those callouses might feel like when pressed to skin instead of a computer.

James pushed back sudden stirrings of … not quite arousal, but definite interest.  And for his new Quartermaster, nonetheless.  But now was not the time, nor was it the place.

“The AFFA clinic is for field agents,” James said after the second suture was secure.

“Is it?” Q started in on the third.

“You know it is.”

Q hummed.

“So you were a field agent.”  Q seemed far too young.

“No.  Never.”  The snip of scissors cut through the surgical silk.  “I thought we’d established that.”  She turned her attention to the second bullet graze.

It was then that James realised he was interrogating her. Granted, he was using the mildest techniques available to him, but even battered physically and emotionally as he was, there was something about her that –  

“Who are you, Q?”

Q dropped the needle driver.  Stared at it and then at him as though she had been bitten by one or the other.  She stretched her fingers as though a cramp and not his question had caused her reaction.

Interesting.   

“I though the medics managed to rule out a concussion before you ran them off.”

His stare didn’t waver.

And she didn’t flinch.  “I’m your Quartermaster, Double-O Seven,” she sighed.  Good girl.  Evasive but steely, this one.

Q picked up the tool again, capturing the threaded compound curved needle in its jaws.  She pushed up her glasses with the base of her wrist, and her brow furrowed with … something before she returned her attention to sewing him back together again.

“What’s your name ?” James clarified.

“Q.”

“Before you were Q.”

“R.”

Bond huffed with frustration.  “ Before that.  And don’t say ‘S’.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Double-O Seven.  You know there’s no ‘S’.”

“Q!”  James had been shooting for a growl of frustration, but he was fading fast, and he’d never admit that it ended up sounding more like a yip. Q looked at him steadily with a sideways glance before returning to her task.

“Q?” he prodded.  She still hadn’t answered his question.

“Emily …. Emily Wilson,” Q said after several moments.

James thought about it.  It was fine, but it didn’t fit her somehow.  “Interesting.  It’s –”

“An alias , Double-O Seven. And not one I particularly care for.”

Q knotted the final suture and cut the silk.  She had his wounds coated with ointment and bandaged with sterile gauze within minutes, then stripped the gloves from her hands, gathered up the rubbish in the drape, and rolled it all into the bin.

“Q is who I am , Double-O Seven,” she said, tightly, “and I’d ask you not to worry about any other name but that.”  In spite of her frustration, Q’s hands were surprisingly gentle as she eased him onto his back and pulled the duvet back up to his waist, but he noted that they shook as they did so.  Nerves?  Fear?  Stress?

She pressed the back of her hand – not her fingertips – to his forehead and his cheek, searching, he supposed, for some sign of fever given his dip in the loch.  James thought that he should be annoyed at the coddling.  Indeed, would have been annoyed if it had felt like coddling.  It didn’t.  In fact, it felt … nice.

James watched silently as Q pottered about the space for several moments: disposing of the antiseptic wash and the saline in the sink in the en suite , refilling the bottle of water he had finished drinking, pulling the blackout curtains shut even though the late autumn afternoon sun was already starting to set.  Yet with each action, the calm that had settled over the room while she tended him dissipated measurably as though she was brought closer to some something she didn’t –

“I’ll leave you to rest.”  Q said, interrupting his thoughts.  She switched off the lamp and pushed her reading chair back against the wall nearest the door.

“What about you?” James asked, fighting against the effects of the medication.   Something wasn’t right.  He needed to know more than he needed to rest.

“I need to contact HQ.  Give them and get a status update.” She pulled the bedroom door closed behind her as she exited.  “I’m good for a bit yet.”  The lie fell easily from her lips, and she hoped Bond was out of it enough not to notice.

“Q.”  Again James damned the medication.  What had she given him again?  It sounded like he was pleading with her.

“No.  You get to use that tone of voice with me only once per crisis.”

Q’s mind fell once more to the helicopters and the risk she had taken because of that tone. The risks she feared she would always take because of that tone.  Her anxiety which had largely settled ratcheted higher still. It was winning this time, and Q had no reserves left to use against it. She had to get out of here before she completely fell apart in front of him.

Even in the half-light that spilled into the room from the hallway, James could see the panicked look on Q’s face and how her fingers twisted and tugged at the loose end of the long plait that held her hair back.  She practically vibrated with anxiety.

“S-sleep, Double-O Seven.  You’re safe here."

The door clicked shut behind her.  

James struggled with the duvet, tried to get out of bed to follow her, but his limbs refused his commands as the medication finally worked in concert with his exhaustion, his pain, and the grief he had been holding at bay to keep him where he was.

Q was strong.  James didn’t know her well, but he knew strength when he saw it; young though she was, Q had a core to her that rivalled M’s, yet that core seemed to be cracking.

No.  Not again. Not like this. Not after M.

James’ last conscious thought was that Silva had got off far too easily, his death far too painless for all the devastation he had left behind.  But James was confident he would see Silva again.  Maybe not soon, or perhaps sooner than he thought.  Nonetheless, James would find plenty of opportunity to ensure that the bastard truly atoned for what he had done.

Eternity could be an awfully long time in Hell.

 

~~OOQ~~

 

Somehow Q had managed to get back down the stairs and out onto her patio before the walls of her home closed around her.  Her anxiety attack was – thankfully –  a largely private affair, witnessed only by a pair of rather chubby house sparrows that alighted on the fence of her garden.

Air.  Cold, crisp, heavy with the scent of coming rain.  She dragged it into her lungs with ragged breaths.  For several long moments, the panic had such a hold on her that she was doing little more than hyperventilating.  Her vision began to close off, but just as she felt herself tipping over the edge, a lorry backfired in the street, pulling her back from that precipice.  The sounds of the neighbourhood – the barking dogs from the small block of flats on the corner, the foot-traffic out front, a rubbish bin being knocked over in the alley – gave her focus, and with that she was able to find herself again.

Gradually, Q turned her concentration inward, tuning out those same daily, domestic sounds of the community to listen to that of her heartbeat, gradually slowing; her breathing, deeper and steadier; and her mind, no longer a frenetic spiral of things she could not control.

The sun had all but set and the mist that had held the promise of rain was rapidly thickening into fog by the time Q felt herself again.  It was then that the disgust set in. It had been years since she’d last had a panic attack, and now she had experienced two in less than a week.  If the lorry hadn’t backfired, she could easily have found herself completely incapacitated in a way that she hadn’t been since the attacks first started in hospital after the crash.

Q eased herself back into the garden chair, grateful at least that she had managed to collapse into it rather than into a trembling heap on the ground.  She reached into the pocket of her trousers, and pulled out the small chunk of uncut ametrine she always kept there and rolled the violet stone around in the palm of her hand, letting her fingertips dance over the familiar sharp edges, grounding her further.

It had been four days since last she was home, the dust hadn’t even had a chance to build up like it had after the bombing, yet once again, nothing was the same.

As promised, after her meeting with Bond at the National Gallery, Tanner had driven her home to rest.  Q vaguely remembered him helping her up the stairs and unlacing her trainers for her before she rolled over and passed out, face down on her bed. She had woken late the next morning tucked beneath the patterned, soft green duvet, drool-damp pillow beneath her cheek, still in the clothes she had been wearing for the last several days.

Q had showered and tended her injuries quickly, knowing full well that she could be called back at any time.  As she dressed, Q had given serious consideration to burning her heavily soiled clothes – it would be simpler – but decided that any decision involving the application of flame should not be made before she’d had a cuppa, or three.

Tanner, bless the man, had set out a mug and tea, and the note he’d attached to the front of the kettle indicated that a small supply of groceries had been laid in.  She honestly couldn’t remember the last time she had been to the shops.  After a quick lunch of runny eggs, toast, and milky tea, Q had just started thinking about tackling the laundry when her mobile rang:  R informed her that Moneypenny had arrived in Macau to update and assist Bond with a lead he had unearthed in Shanghai.  Q was needed and a car had been sent to bring her back to Six.

Q had been needed, but what good had she done?  

None.

Seeing the code unravel on the monitors in Q-branch had sent a thrill through her.  She was quickly caught up in that ‘oddly flattered’ rush that coders experience when faced with a stimulating permutation of their own work as well as with the subtle challenge she had been issued, daring her to hack it.  The fact that doing so would give her a chance to show Bond what she could really do had only fuelled that high, and Silva had counted on – indeed expected – her to do exactly what she had done: give his virus unfettered access to their system by failing to follow her own protocols.

She dropped her head into her hands.  She wasn’t so naïve as to think she was to blame for M’s death – that was Silva’s doing – but Q’s actions were certainly a contributing factor.

M had been Silva’s final fatality, but Bond – injured and unconscious in the other room – Mallory, Tanner, the rest of Six, even Q herself, they were the continuing casualties.

Not such a clever girl.  Indeed.

“Are you quite all right, Emily, dear?”

Mrs. Akinjide, her septuagenarian neighbour, had been asking Q that question in one form or another for the last five years, ever since the young woman Mrs. A knew as “Emily Wilson” purchased the larger unit of a converted warehouse near Paddington Station and moved in with little more than a bed, a 1969 Triumph Bonneville, half a dozen computer servers, and an extensive library that Alec Trevelyan had once described as ‘obscene; nobody needs this many books!’

“I’m fine, Mrs. A,” Q said, pulling off her glasses in order to rub at her eyes.  When she was again properly bespectacled, Q smiled at her neighbour and approached the decorative hedgerow that separated their patio gardens, tucking the ametrine back into her pocket.

Mrs. Akinjide, a statuesque Nigerian woman who had moved to England with her husband -- a diplomat with the Foreign Office -- when she was just 19, was the only female friend Q felt she could claim.

It wasn’t that Q didn’t like other women, but she struggled to understand them.  She and Moneypenny had a … complicated relationship.  Their experiences together in Cyprus and again in training plus the fact that they were both intelligent women with strong personalities made things challenging.  Friend ly was the full extent of how Q would classify that particular relationship.  Her interactions with the other four female techs in Q-branch went easily enough, but when it came to actual friendship, Q had always got on better with men.  Men were … well, they were just easier.

Tanner, Agent Danny Cabral, and Ronson, before he died, were her mates. Q didn’t go out often, but when she did, she could always count on the boys to help her unwind, at least for a little while.  They drank at the local, pooled their collective intelligence for Quiz Nights, watched matches together, and didn’t complain that Q preferred rugby over football.  

The conversations, such as there were -- they were men, after all -- were direct and honest, and the way in which they interacted with Q even more so.  With women, there always seemed to be some hidden subtext to conversation that Q was never quite able to pick up on, would never be fluent in using or understanding, largely because not all Double-Os were as naturally suave and charming as Bond; her guardian, Eustace, had understood feminine subtleties about as well as a penguin would have understood heatstroke.  Consequently, neither did Q.

The men didn’t treat her as ‘one of the guys;’ they treated her as who she was: Q.  It was something she deeply appreciated, but for all that, it was Alec Trevelyan who was her confidante.  Alec who knew her the best.  Who took the time to get to know her the best.

It wasn’t an easy thing.  Q knew that she was largely taciturn when it came to ‘sharing’ and used self-deprecation and sarcasm as a shield when things became too emotionally complicated.  That she had failed to run him off because of all that said a great deal about Alec’s commitment to their friendship. Also, Double-Os were naturally solitary creatures, it being too dangerous to make too many personal connections that could be used against them.  Alec risked far more than she with their friendship, and she treasured him greatly.  

Q liked to remind him, much to his eternal embarrassment, that he had even plaited her hair once.  Granted, it was to test out the camouflage and audio capabilities of a new listening wire she had developed – at only .15 micrometres in diameter, the goal was to smuggle the filament into sensitive locales via an agent’s chosen hairstyle or cut; it had worked brilliantly! – but there had been a fair amount of whisky consumed as well as conversations that may or may not have involved frustration over various emotional entanglements.  It had been a turning point in their friendship, each letting their guard down, but later Alec swore that if she ever shared the events of that night with anyone – particularly Bond – he would personally drop her off in the middle of the Gobi desert without a single piece of tech and wish her luck on finding her way home again.    

Though she was a woman, Mrs. A, now widowed, was more like Tanner and Alec than Moneypenny.  Whether that was because she grew up the only daughter in a family with seven sons or because she was a daughterless mother of six boys of her own, Q always knew where she stood with the woman.  She spoke plainly and to the point, had quickly picked up on the fact that her ‘Emily’ was a bit socially awkward at times, and never tried to make Q feel like an idiot because of that fact.

“Fine is not an adjective I would use to describe you right now, Emily,” Mrs. A said in her beautifully accented English, looking Q up and down with a critical eye.  “You look like shite.”

Yep.  Plain and to the point.

“I always look like shite compared to you.”  It wasn’t an empty compliment.  Even at 77, Mrs. A was one of the most beautiful women Q had ever known.  She still stood straight and tall and few laugh lines dared to mar her otherwise smooth, coffee-coloured skin. Her eyes were bright and keen, and the only spectacles she needed were to read. “Is that a new gele ?” she asked, gesturing at the artfully folded head wrap the grandmother wore. “I don’t recognize the fabric?”

“It is,” Mrs. A admitted, running the tips of her fingers along the edges of the rich gold-embroidered red fabric, “but don’t change the subject.  You’ve hardly been home the last two weeks but not because you’ve been travelling.”  Mrs. A knew that Q didn’t fly, but the Quartermaster had frequently alluded to ‘work taking her to the Continent’ to explain those times when missions kept her at Six for days on end.

Q sighed.  She knew Mrs. A would insist upon an answer, so Q did as she always had by keeping her lies as close to the truth as possible.  “It’s been a rough few weeks.  My boss died, rather unexpectedly,” she said, thinking of Boothroyd and the bombing at HQ; her feelings about M’s death were still new and too raw to examine closely, “things have been at sixes and sevens ever since.”

“Well, you certainly look it.  I’d suggest sleeping through the weekend, but given that man I saw you bring home this afternoon, I don’t know that I’d use my bed for sleep no matter how exhausted I was.”

“Mrs. A!”  Q sounded scandalized, though they both knew she was anything but.

“Rather virile, that one.  Yes, very fit,” Mrs. A said with a knowing wink, and Q actually felt her face heat with a blush, not wanting to examine those feelings too closely, either.  “Dangerous, too, going by the looks of him.  Bruises and blood tend to do that, though.”  The woman’s teasing tone had become more serious.  “ Is he dangerous, Em?”

More than you can imagine , Q thought.  “No.  Certainly not to me.”  Or so she hoped.

“So … the blood?  He could barely walk,” It wasn’t often that Mrs. A was compelled to mother her young neighbour, but Q always appreciated the concern.

“An even rougher week.”  No lie needed to hide that particular truth.  “He’s a colleague.  Had a bit of a nasty encounter while on a business trip last night.  I’m giving him a place to kip until he’s feeling better.”

“And your charming Mr. Trevelyan?  Will he be concerned with you offering your colleague a place to kip?”

Q’s Mr. Trevelyan had ‘charmed’ the gele off of Mrs. Akinjide within an hour of moving in Q next door.   “You know Alec and I are just friends.”

“And not even ones with ‘benefits,’ much to my long-standing confusion and disappointment.  More’s the pity. You’re not a Catholic, so why you insist upon living like a nun is beyond me.  No, he’s not a jealous man, your ‘friend’ Alec, but he may see – ”

“He sees James like a brother,” Q interrupted, needing to cut this off before Mrs. A worked up too great a head of steam on a topic they had discussed to death on more than one occasion.  “Alec won’t have a problem with James staying with me.”  

Or at least not much of one.

For the second time that night, Q found herself under the close scrutiny of Mrs. A’s assessing eyes. After several moments’ appraisal, the older woman raised an elegant eyebrow and nodded her head once, answering whatever internal question she had posed herself about Q’s conclusion.  As she did so, the security light on Q’s patio switched on to chase away the deepening shadows.

“Then you’d best get back to James , Emily.”  Mrs. A wrapped herself more tightly in the red woollen wrap she wore.  “This fog is only going to get thicker tonight, mark my words.  If your side has even half the draught as mine, I’d recommend a fire to lift your spirits and those of your colleague.”

It sounded like a good idea.  Q needed to contact HQ and poke her head in on Bond, but after that and a shower, a fire might be just what she needed. “Good night, Mrs. A,” she said.

“Good night, my dear.  I hope your friend heals quickly.”

Q knew that the physical wounds certainly would.  As for the rest …

 

~~OOQ~~

 

Q slept on the long arm of the dark blue corner sofa in front of the fire, curled up into an impossibly tiny ball of boffin that reminded James more of his aunt’s ancient cat than of the Quartermaster of MI6.  A hand-knitted lap rug in shades of blue, green, and cream was tangled about her legs as though she had given up an attempt to kick it free.  In the lambent light of the fire, James could see that the tension in her face that had been so evident earlier had eased; however, a slight furrow remained etched in the skin between her brows, even in sleep.  She had forgotten to take off her spectacles, but they somehow sat perfectly straight across the bridge of Q’s nose.  James couldn’t help the smile that tugged at his mouth at the sight of her.

He stepped further into the open-style sitting room, but still she did not stir.  James knew that he should leave, let Q rest as she had done for him, but when had James Bond ever done as he should?

He approached Q quietly, his intent neither to surveil nor surprise. It was dark, the small hours still in their infancy, and the fog in the street had managed to conquer even the brightest street lamp outside so that only the light from the fire illuminated the room.

Resurging pain from his miscellaneous wounds had pulled him from sleep, but for all that, James had woken with a peculiar calm about him that he had never experienced under similar circumstances.  Finding himself in strange beds in unexpected locales – some benign, most not – was part and parcel of being a Double-O, yet Bond had never quite adjusted to that initial spike of apprehension that came with waking in a space that was not his own.  However, the safety and security Q had wrapped around him lingered, even now.

He suppressed a grunt of pain and lowered himself onto the sturdy oak coffee table, positioning himself in front of Q with the flames to his back.

James would say that he’d never seen Q like this except that he didn’t think he had ever actually seen her to begin with.  He knew she had been with MI6 for a couple of years; James had vague recollections of seeing her tucked away in the various cubicles and labs that had been nestled into the heart of Legoland, but those images were fleeting, ephemeral at best.  He’d rarely paid much attention to the assorted boffins that scurried about whenever he had met with Boothroyd to pick up his kit.  Nonetheless, there was something about Q that tugged more insistently at his memory. Some connection , a sense of familiarity, that hovered just beyond his grasp.

That the woman knew how to make a lasting impression was undeniable, but he sensed that the mark Q had left on him was not the result of the dire threat Silva had posed to England and to M, rather that it had been set long ago.  How and when and where, James could not begin to guess, but his gut insisted upon the fact.  Q had evaded the question before; it would be pointless to broach the subject again.  No.  He didn’t know his Quartermaster well, but he read people well enough to know that he’d have to suss out this answer on his own.

Q’s breathing remained deep and measured, so James watched silently as light and shadow from the flames played across her features.  Q wasn’t classically beautiful.  In fact, if taken separately, her features were actually an awkward hodgepodge of elements: high, elegant cheekbones sat in direct contrast with a thin nose that had clearly been broken at least twice; her right eyebrow was slightly higher than the left, but whether that was due to nature or was the result of frequent ‘cocking’ in derision was still up in the air; Q’s rich, dark brown curls were still contained in a loose plait that fell across her shoulder and rested atop the gentle swell of cotton-clad breasts.  James was certain that those curls would feel as soft in his hands as they looked in the firelight, and he wanted to pull the plait apart so that he could run his fingers through them.

Suddenly, all the seemingly uncooperative bits of her countenance knit together into a semblance of harmony that made Q undeniably lovely.

Her full, red lips tempered the broken line of her nose; the natural blush of her cheek stole the starkness from her pale complexion which only enhanced the thick, dark fan of her lashes.  And her eyes – concealed as ever from the world by the very glasses that revealed the world to her – he knew to be just as expressive and keen as her tongue and her intellect.

It was distressingly common that the women and men James most often had to seduce while on missions were neither clever nor wise.  Beautiful and handsome, yes.  Keen, most certainly.  However, the ease with which he was usually able to extract information from them in their post-coital haze did not speak well for their insight or acumen.  And James had always been attracted to intelligence, wit, and competence.  Qualities that Q – for all she appeared painfully young – seemingly had in abundance.

As James studied her, the flicker of interest that he had felt earlier while she tended his wounds grew stronger, sparking into genuine attraction and, yes – he felt his cock stir in his pants – even arousal.

This – this could be a problem.

Contrary to popular belief, one he had carefully cultivated over the years through misinformation and innuendo, James Bond did not often ‘poach the local wildlife’ when it came to romantic entanglements.  He wasn’t opposed to workplace affairs, but they were generally just too damn complicated, and his job was challenging enough without bringing that particular ‘complicated’ into his personal life as well.

The Security Services was, on the whole, an extremely effective mechanism in deterring threats to the UK and the Crown, and while he might not openly acknowledge it and frequently challenged it, James certainly did not want to break it.  Not even now.  Not after having been shot off of the top of a train by one of his own.  Not after Silva.  Not even after M.  Unlike 003 and 008, James wasn’t so arrogant to think that shagging his way through Six would bring intelligence gathering to a screeching halt courtesy of broken hearts and broken promises, but why make things any more difficult than they already were.

There had been a few exceptions, mostly in his early years before he became a Double-O.  Then there had been Vesper. Though not strictly an MI6 employee, it shouldn’t have mattered that Vesper had turned the tables and played him as he had played so many others before her.  Vesper had been on the ‘preserve,’ and he should never have looked twice at her.  But he had looked.  He had touched .  He had loved.  And he had been burned.   He’d more than learnt his lesson with Vesper.   And Ms. Fields?  Well, she had been a mistake, too, but in a different way.  James, still off-kilter from Vesper’s betrayal and death, had foolishly thought that by being so far from home, it wouldn’t have mattered if Fields was Six or not.

It had mattered.

Q would be different.  Q wasn’t a clerk or a P.A. or a junior field agent fresh out of training.  She was essential not just to his success in the field but to the whole of MI6.  She was technically his superior, second only to M in the executive hierarchy.  If he had an ounce of self-preservation, James should thank her for her hospitality, grab what few things he still had, and leave before things got complic –

“I dare say you’ve likely been told once or twice that staring at people whilst they sleep is more than a bit unsettling, Double-O Seven.”

Bond didn’t jump, but she had caught him unawares.  Dangerous business, that. He had slipped so deeply into his own musings that he hadn’t noticed Q had woken.  She stared up at him from the sofa, her gaze unguarded and open.  Still somewhat asleep, she hadn’t yet slipped into the protective armour they all wore when awake.  

“Are you in pain?” Q asked.  Her voice was softer than even her gaze, and James couldn’t help but reach out and brush the back of his fingers against the curve of her cheek.

“Yes, but it’s manageable … for now.”  He had already taken two pills from a blister pack of paracetamol she had left on the bedside table.

“H-hungry then?”  Q’s voice didn’t sound as steady as it had just moments before.  Dare he hope that she was affected by his touch?

“After a fashion.”  The tips of his fingers slid up into the curls at the nape of Q’s neck; they were even softer than he’d anticipated.  His thumb hooked beneath the frame of her spectacles and tugged them from her face.  James snagged them with his free hand and set them carefully on the coffee table while granting his thumb permission to trace the arch of that impossible eyebrow.

Q swallowed – not with nerves, never with nerves, this one – and thankfully didn’t ask the question that so many would have followed up with.  The look in her eyes said she understood and, more importantly, hungered herself.  James slid from the table onto the sofa next to her hip.  He felt Q’s body unfold to make room for him, and he made use of it, stretching out on top of her, pressing her carefully into the soft cushions.  The stitched together skin along his ribs protested, but James ignored the pain, his attention fully on the woman beneath him.

He brushed the tip of his nose along hers and pressed his lips to her brow, her temple, the sharp angle of her cheekbone.  Each a surprisingly tender caress for a woman he hardly knew, yet somehow it felt more right than any intimate act he’d performed before.  She smelled of lemongrass and ylang ylang, scents he recognized as having lingered in the still-damp shower of the en suite when he had used the loo after waking.  Q smelled fresh and new as though a spring rain had washed her clean.  James breathed in deeply of her and felt his cock harden further in response.

James pressed his groin into the cradle of her hips and smiled at her pleasured moan in his ear before sliding down her body to nibble lightly at her collarbone; he nosed aside the open collar of the blue button-down she wore and licked into the hollow at the base of her throat.  Needing to feel her skin beneath his, James pulled his hand from her hair and slid it beneath the hem of the fine cotton shirt, skimming across the sensitive skin of her ribcage to curl around her back and dip down beneath the band of her sleep trousers.  He recognized bespoke tailoring when he saw it, when he felt it.  The shirt wasn’t hers.  Q practically swam in the excess cotton, and James felt a sudden surge of jealousy at the shirt.  At its owner.   At the intimacy that Q must once have shared to wear this bloody shirt to sleep in now.

He shouldn’t do this.  

He wanted her.  But he was broken.  Damaged.  

He really, really Should. Not. Do. This.

But then Q wrapped a leg around his hip, pressed up against his body, and his jealousy and doubt evaporated.

God, he feels so good , Q thought. So long. She had waited for so long to feel this and never really dared hope that she ever would.  Q had enough wit about her to avoid clutching Bond too desperately and aggravate his injuries, but scarred though he was, his hot flesh felt like silk beneath her hands.  Her own injuries burned from being pressed into the sofa, but Q rode the endorphins of pleasure like a wave, letting Bond’s lips and hands wash over the pain.   

Bond slipped several more buttons free from their holes and parted her shirt, baring first one small breast and then the other to his gaze.  He pressed kisses to the top, each side, and finally the bottom of the left before slowly – God help her, the patience of this insidious man! – licking up the lower swell to her nipple.  He flicked the tip of his tongue against the pebbled nub, rolling it around in his mouth for several moments before repeating the process on the other.  Q bucked up against Bond in response, her moan of pleasure loud in the otherwise silent room, and her hands fell from his body to the sofa beneath her.

He nipped and suckled and caressed her skin with his lips and teeth wherever he could reach – her neck beneath her jawline, the jut of her chin, the feathering of her eyelashes, the shell of her ear – everywhere save the one place she was desperate to feel his lips, pressed against hers .

She should not do this.  

It was a bad idea.  

A Really.  Bad.  Idea.

But if she could have one kiss.  Just one , then –

Q slid her hands up into his hair and tugged gently but insistently, urging Bond from the love bite he had made at the base of her throat and was now laving with his tongue.  With any other man Q would be irritated by such an obvious, coarse brand of possessiveness, but this mark burned straight to her heart.

At Q’s urging, James reluctantly pulled back from the warm flesh of her throat, but before fully obeying the commands her hands insisted he follow, he suckled again at a nipple and cupped her sex through her trousers, rejoicing at the damp fabric he discovered there.

His wicked smile was lost to the darkness, but her name was a murmur of desire on his lips.  “Q …”

“Bond,” she sighed.  Her fingers slid from his hair and down his torso to the small of his back where she traced sensual yet idle circles against his bare skin.

She shouldn’t do this.  Too much had happened in too short a time.  Too much raw emotion.  She was broken.  He was grieving.  It was a bad idea.

James raised his head to meet her lust-drugged gaze with his own.

And stopped.

Q was biting her lower lip as she had done earlier when stitching him up, as he had seen her do two days ago when fighting with Silva’s code.  It meant she was thinking.  Puzzling out a problem.  There was still passion in her eyes, need and desire, but there was something else there, too.  An uncertainty that James recognized as an echo of his own worry.

“Q?”

“Bond, I- I’m not saying never … ” Q began.  Her brow had furrowed and a note of hesitation rang clear in her voice.

James realised with a shock that she was worried about his feelings.  This was new.  He couldn’t think of the last time someone had been concerned about his sensibilities.  He pressed a kiss to the line of apprehension that marred Q’s forehead and pulled back to study her face again.  He was more than a little concerned at the sudden tug in his chest that he knew had nothing to do with the desire for her that still surged within him.

“Not never ... but not just now ,” James replied slowly, finishing her thought.  Something he wouldn’t have been able to do if it hadn’t been inside his own head, too. He shifted his hips, drawing away until he was sitting alongside her again. As he did so, James drew his hand from beneath Q’s shirt, but left it resting on the jut of her hip, unwilling as of yet to let go of her completely.

Q steadied herself in the strength of that hand for several moments before she rolled to a sitting position and leaned against the back of the sofa.  She pulled the two halves of her shirt around her, more due to the slight chill in the room than discomfort at their aborted seduction.  Q kept herself pressed tightly to Bond’s side as they each stared into the dying flames of the fire.  It was several minutes before either spoke again, and it was to the surprise of both of them that it was Bond who did first.

“I think …”  again James paused, genuinely surprised at the realisation that had popped into his head.

“Not sure that’s wise.”  Q hoped her sardonic reply would goad him into finishing what he had started to say or at least lighten the suddenly serious mood.

“That’s enough out of you,” James snapped, though it held no malice.  Q chuckled in response, nudging his shoulder for him to continue.

“I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this, but … I think I may need a friend more than I need – ”

“More than you need a fuck?” Q finished for him, a bit shocked by her own lewdness.  Atypical, to be sure.  She really was burnt to a crisp.

“A bit more alliterative than I would have gone for, but essentially correct.”  Eyes still on the fire, James took up Q’s left hand and pressed a kiss to the centre of her palm before twining their fingers together.

She studied his profile, blurry at best with her spectacles sitting on the table, but she could still see the exhaustion and the sorrow that weighed heavily there.  Bond looked far older than his years, and Q felt the need to reassure.

“I don’t have friends,” she began carefully and tightened her grip on his hand, rushing to continue when she felt Bond stiffen and start to draw away, thinking she was rejecting him entirely.  “At least not many of them.  I have acquaintances, colleagues, and a few people I am friend ly with.  But I’m overly abrasive and blunt and more than a bit tone deaf when it comes to social niceties; not exactly highly sought after qualities in a friend.”

Q thought about the events of the last several weeks and let out a bit of the grief she had kept locked up out of necessity.  “Boothroyd was my friend.  So was Ronson.”  Bond dropped his eyes to his lap at the mention of the murdered agents’ names. “Four others. Only one I trust unreservedly, but I think … I-I think I’d like for there to be a second.  For you to be that second.”  She already trusted Bond implicitly.  Had since she was a girl -- foolish though it may be -- but they weren’t friends.

Not yet.

Again, it was some time before Bond reacted in any way to her confession, and had she looked away for even a moment, Q would have missed the barely perceptible nod and ghost of a smile that was his reply.

“I should probably get my things and go, though.”

“God, why?!”

“Q, I may have a reputation as a cold-hearted bastard, but there are some temptations even I would struggle to resist.”  He gestured with his chin at her shirt that had started to fall open again.  “Too dangerous.”

Q snorted with amusement.  “You eat danger at tea, Bond.”

“Not like this.  Not like … you.”

“You’ve ridden a motorbike over the top of the Grand Bazaar, the top , Bond!  Fought with a hired hitman on the roof of a moving train, played chicken with a Tube carriage on the Metropolitan Line, blown up your ancestral home with improvised explosives, and played Whisky Pong with a bloody scorpion as the ball.”

“How did you know about the scorpion?”

“You muttered something about it on the flight back from Scotland.  Quite proud you sounded at having got the better of a poisonous arachnid in a uni student’s drinking game.”  Her shrug was dismissive.  “The point is, this is not dangerous.”

She gestured between the two of them, but paused and reconsidered when he scoffed at her assessment. “Okay. You're right. It is dangerous. An SIS agent with trust issues and a license to kill living with -- even in the short term, which is what I'm proposing -- his jaded and frequently stroppy Quartermaster who provides said agent with the tools to use that license could well be seen as one of the first signs of the Apocalypse.  We're just as likely to kill one another outright as plot world domination, but not five minutes ago you recognized yourself that you need something different from me.  You're not going to risk that. And Bond ... I'm not going to risk it either.”

“Living with you?!  That's the most ridiculous idea --”

“Have you always been such a numpty or is this a recent affectation?”  Irritation crept into her tone.  Everything was clear cut enough to her, after all.

“Numpty!” Bond looked genuinely offended.  “I think the last person to call me that was my mother.”

“So?”

“I was nine, Q.”

“Not much has changed then,” she groused.  Q slipped from his side and settled on the table to face him, pausing long enough to slide her spectacles back on her face.  Oh.  Much better!  

“Fine.  Let’s look at this from a practical perspective, then.  Your circumstances have not altered in the last 12 hours, Bond.  You still don’t have your own flat, what little you do own – including your posh wardrobe – is in storage, and you’re still at least three days away from Medical releasing me as your carer.  You were pretty out of it when we arrived, so you mightn’t have noticed that I have plenty of room here.  I have three guest rooms, and I damn well expect you to use one until Medical clears you and you’re able to find a place of your own.”

Three guest rooms?  Bond craned his head around to try to get a better look at the dark room.  Now that his eyes were adjusted to the odd lighting created by the fire, he was able to see that it was significantly larger than he originally thought.  In fact, he wasn’t in just a sitting room.  The entire floor – at least the space not taken up with her bedroom – was a giant reception room that blended into a dining area with the kitchen beyond.  He had a vague recollection of riding a lift up from an equally spacious ground floor; the staircase in the corner suggested that said lift rose up yet another level.

“Q … just how big is this place?”

“391.52 square metres.  My two-thirds, anyway.  Converted warehouse.”

“Your two-thirds …”  James had more than a cursory grasp of real estate prices in the Greater London area, and though he had been, as Q said, ‘pretty out of it’ on the ride back from RAF Northolt, he knew they were still in the city.  “And just where is this converted warehouse located?”  he asked, though he was pretty sure he had a general idea.

“We’re three blocks from Paddington Station.  Just east of Norfolk Square Gardens.  Oh, relax, Bond,” she said when he glared at her blasé assessment of his surroundings.  “I saw the price tag on your flat when Six sold it, so don’t get your knickers in a twist.  Yes, I’ve sold some patents for a few pet projects over the years that provided me the means to buy this place …”

“Define ‘a few.”

“Fine.  Fourteen of them, but the fact of the matter is that I have space and you need some.  Use it.”

“You’re not much for polite requests are you, Q?”

“As I said, ‘socially tone deaf’.  It’s also two in the bloody morning, and I’m running on about six hours of sleep over the last five days to say nothing of the fact that I’m still aroused in spite of the fact that we mutually agreed to, in essence, ‘cockblock’ ourselves.  Please do forgive me if I’m not overly gracious at the moment.”

“Fine.  Fine.  I’ll stay, but don’t ever use the word ‘cockblock’ again.  It’s – it’s just wrong coming out of your mouth.”

Q chuckled and rose.  She held out her hand and waited for him to take it.  James looked up at her and at the open, welcoming expression on her face, and he felt something in him – perhaps the frayed tatters of his soul – start to knit back together again.

James’ fingers found the hem of her shirt rather than her hand, and with well-practiced skill, he buttoned the two halves of her shirt back together again, right up to the base of her throat.

“Better safe than sorry,” he murmured before finally taking her offered hand.  He grunted with pain as Q helped him to his feet.  Clearly the paracetamol just wasn’t going to do it.

“Look at you!  Such progress already,” she smirked.

Q turned to the fire and used the shovel to spread ashes over the coals, banking it for the night.  She replaced the fire screen and turned back to Bond, gesturing to the short hallway that led back to her bedroom.  “Come on.  Let’s get you back in bed, and then maybe I can get some more sleep, too.”

“It’ll be better if I take one of those guest rooms.”

“Not tonight.  Nothing’s made up, and I’m too tired to dig through the airing cupboard.  The sofa is horrible for my back, so it won’t do you any better with the way you are,” Q gestured vaguely with one hand to sum up his injuries.  “You’ll sleep where you were. We’re both beyond exhausted.  It’s a huge bed, Bond, and I’m just a little thing.  You won’t even know I’m there.”

“Not bloody likely.  I’m not a saint, Q.”

“No.  You’re definitely the ‘sinner’ type.”

“What about you, then?”

“Keep me from sleep much longer, Bond, and you'll discover that I'm the very Devil herself.” Q growled as she disappeared down the dark corridor to her room.  

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Four:

 

“At times, we are the bridge that allows another to re-enter the world after a loss.”

Danielle Pierre


 

St. Michael’s Street, City of Westminster, London, England:  Late November 2012 - Late March 2013

 

James activated the digital controls for the shower and stripped off the blood-stained grey trousers and white button-down he wore, tossing them in the bin just inside the door of the en suite.  He had lost the jacket to the Tom Ford suit somewhere in the urban wilds of Copenhagen two days ago, and he really didn’t feel it was worth the effort to salvage the remainder given that the suit didn’t even fit him as it had before.  

Months of injury, subsequent illness, and eventual rehabilitation had changed the very shape and structure of his body, and for the longest time James couldn’t have been be arsed to care about going to see his tailor.   Time for that to change, he thought, climbing under the hot spray of the shower to scrub off his first mission since truly requalifying for active duty.

James leaned his forearms against the warm tile and let the beat of the water hammer on the muscles of his upper back.  Tight, tense, and sore, he slowly unwound under the forceful tattoo, grateful yet again for the time and money Q had spent upgrading her home which was as much a technological marvel as a welcoming sanctuary.  

His months ‘enjoying death’ had left their mark in more ways than one.  Q had eventually disclosed to him what James had suspected from the beginning.  He had failed the requalification tests necessary to go after Silva.  Hadn’t come within a mile of passing them, in fact.  M had needed 007 in the field and had manipulated whatever she deemed necessary to get him there. James couldn’t blame her, and passed tests or no, he’d have gone anyway.

Unfortunately, the cumulative damage done to James’ body had eventually caught up with him.  In spite of his best efforts -- thanks to Moneypenny’s bullet and the subsequent plunge into the river combined with self-neglect during his alcohol-fueled ‘recovery’ and the battles with Silva and his henchmen -- James landed in Medical anyway two days after he’d returned from Skyfall when he was wrenched from an uneasy sleep, struggling to breathe.

Q had called Six for emergency medical transport, and within 30 minutes James had found himself tucked away in a treatment room with an oxygen mask strapped to his face and an IV cannulae in his hand.  The next six hours had consisted of him being poked and prodded while the doctors and their henchmen ran a distressingly long list of tests to diagnose him with the pneumonia Q had initially feared as well as an endless host of other ailments brought on by his most recent missions that led the chief physician to label Bond ‘a train wreck of infirmity.”

“Is that the official diagnosis?” Q had asked the doctor, voice tinged with a degree of sarcasm at the less than accurate phrasing.  

The Quartermaster had popped off to her branch once James had been settled in Medical, leaving him in the hands of the bloodsuckers.  She had made some obscure reference to knowing all too well how Double-Os -- You in particular, Seven! -- behaved whilst at the mercy of the medical team, and she had enough drama to contend with without adding an obstreperous secret agent to the mix.  When the test results had finally come back, so had she.  Though, had Q stayed, she would have been surprised to find James strangely docile.  Well, docile for him , anyway.   For all that James hated every moment he lay within the uncomfortably sterile confines of Medical, he had been so exhausted and in so much pain from coughing that he had largely kept his complaints to himself.

“In this idiot’s case, yes,” Dr. Turner had snapped.  “How you’re even alive,” she'd muttered after looking at the various results before rattling off the seemingly endless list of lacerations, contusions, bruised internal organs, ligament and tendon damage, exhaustion, and extreme stress symptoms.  

When Turner had finally finished lecturing him and outlining his course of treatment, she immediately turned to Q, grabbed the Quartermaster by the upper arm, and directed her into the curtained cubicle next to James’.  Q’s squawks of protest had been met with an equal amount of derision by the physician who indicated that she was fully aware of Q’s physically suspect antics in setting up her Branch to say nothing of what trouble she might have got into pulling Bond out of Scotland.  

“You never should have been released from hospital,” James heard through the curtain.  “Were already flirting with infection for those burns, but you had to go haring off after M and then a Double-O, didn’t you?”   

For the next 30 minutes, what should have been the relative silence of the treatment room was punctuated with more than a few grunts and yelps of discomfort from Q, all of which were met with unsympathetic responses from a doctor who had clearly missed the course of study that focused on establishing a supportive bedside manner.    

James and Q were eventually released back to the St. Michael’s Street warehouse.  She with another  kit of supplies to tend her burns.  He with a bottle of painkillers that he probably wouldn’t take, a bottle of antibiotics that he would, blisters in his ears from the bollocking the doctor had given him, and mandatory leave for a minimum of six weeks.  No exceptions!  “It will get worse before it gets better, Double-O Seven,” Dr. Turner warned as James left.

“Any wonder why I hate Medical,” James groused once Q had him settled in the back of a black cab and they were on their way back toward Paddington.  

“No.  I think that point’s rather been driven home,” Q agreed.  She twisted uncomfortably against the seat of the cab, searching for a position that wouldn’t aggravate her newly treated wounds.  Injuries that James had every intention of asking her about later.

Sadly, Dr. Turner’s warning came to pass, and for the next week, James had struggled to remember a time when he had been laid so low with illness rather than injury.  The fever, chills, and confusion had been bad enough but the coughing …  

Since becoming a Double-O, Bond had experienced so many cracked and broken ribs that his X-rays looked like a bloody mosaic, but he’d managed to avoid any of the same throughout the entire Silva affair, until the coughing had started.  

Q had also been placed on mandatory leave until it had been decided that there would not be an in-depth inquiry into the events of Operation: Skyfall and Olivia Mansfield’s death.  Even James Bond - ‘He Who Eschewed Help Readily Offered’ -- couldn’t deny that the timing had been fortuitous as Q’s suspension coincided with the worst of his illness.  In retrospect, there would have been no way James could have gone through those days alone -- ill, feeling exposed and defenseless -- without landing himself back in Medical.   

He had barely moved out of Q’s bedroom before she moved him back in to make it easier for her to care for him. Where she had slept -- if she had slept -- James wasn’t sure, but more than once he had woken from his delirium to find her curled up on a chair at the side of the bed reading a book or coding on her laptop.

“How?” James had finally asked on the second night.  

The clock on the table told him that it was just before half two in the morning.  He’d been awake for several minutes, watching Q from beneath the comforting weight of the duvet that at some point had been pulled up to just below his chin.  As had become her habit, she was sat in her overstuffed chair, reading from a thick hardbound book she had propped up against her knees with a book lamp clipped to the front cover so as not to disturb his rest with too much light.  Q wore an oversized blue jumper with her sleep trousers, and James couldn’t help but wonder if the garment belonged to the same person -- same man -- as the bespoke shirt that had looked so tempting hanging unbuttoned on her slight form several nights earlier.  The large neckline exposed her collarbone and a fair portion of her right shoulder, and even in the half-light, James could see the white strips of medical paper tape that clung to the gentle curve of her neck.   Q had just taken a sip of tea from a black, spherical mug that looked suspiciously like the Death Star when he’d asked his question.

“How what , Bond?” she asked once she had swallowed.  She had turned from the book to look at him, but her eyes had been hidden by the glare from the light reflected on her glasses.

“Your burns.”

Q inhaled sharply and after a moment took another sip from her mug before setting it on the table next to the clock and the stack of books she had been steadily making her way through.  

“The bombing?”  The question was largely redundant.  James had been able to infer the answer from the suddenly stiff set to her shoulders and the air of sadness that had settled upon her.  

She nodded.  “There weren’t many of us in TSS or E-Branch who walked away without injuries.”   

“Yours?”

“More extensive than some, not as severe as a few.”  I lived, the tilt to her head told him.  Boothroyd didn’t.  

“I’m sorry.”

“So am I.”  She had reached out and checked his fever by hand rather than by tech.  It had felt good,  Her cool flesh pressed to his flushed cheek, and James had wanted to grasp her hand in his but couldn’t find the strength.

“Q …”

“Get some sleep, Bond.”  She had said, easing back into her chair.  She readjusted the angle of the book lamp, and had picked up where she had left off in her reading.  James had noted that this time it was the glare of tears -- not the light -- that obscured Q’s eyes from his.

He wanted to say something … comforting, but he could barely handle his own grief let alone another’s so he let the pull of the fever tug him back under.  He slept.

While James had been largely unconscious during those days, he’d been lucid enough when he was awake to see the stress and frustration that being away from Six caused the Quartermaster.  The days at home had been punctuated by muttered curses about debugging and writing new code to protect the system and her worry about the NATO agents left out in the cold.  Her phone conversations with R were epic in length and largely one-sided as she worked with the man to ensure that the British agents on the NATO List -- 10 others in addition to 002 and Alec Trevelyan -- had been contacted and were safe.

Stretching a final time under the now stingingly hot water of the shower, James reached for his soap and, quickly working up a lather, set to scrubbing off the bits of dried blood and bomb-maker that had been his first mission back.  As he considered the last several weeks, he was left with the impression that Q was a bizarre combination of honey badger, mother bear, and technological wizard.  She did not suffer fools, but would go to great lengths to see her agents safely home.

“I don’t care what the protocol guide says, Max,” she’d said to R during one particularly heated phone call about a mission that had gone awry, “She’s my agent -- No.  Every last one of them is my agent. It doesn’t matter to me who the handler is -- and I want her home .  Stick with my plan and Double-O Three comes home on a plane; go with the protocol, and she comes home in a box .” Q never raised her voice, but it did take on a disturbingly icy tone that had left even Bond squirming a bit.  Two days later 003 disembarked from her British Airways flight at Heathrow with a broken arm and only a few, minor facial lacerations to suggest she’d been anywhere at all.  

Likewise, Q had been efficient but not cloying in her care of him.  To a great degree, she had left James alone to sleep and to cough, but she always made sure he woke to eat and take his medication.  

“Take-away, eggs and soldiers, and tea; that’s the sum total of my culinary skills, so if you don’t want it, get better so you can cook for yourself,” Q explained, handing him a mokuto bowl of miso soup she’d picked up from the sushi shop down the street.  

The words were brusque, and her manner officious, but Q’s actions consistently belied the put-upon manner she tried to project; the thermos of hot honeyed tea that always sat on the table beside the bed, ready to ease his cough, only served to reinforce a compassionate nature she was woefully inept at disguising.  

After five long weeks, two rounds of antibiotics, and a general lack of patience on both their parts, his lungs cleared just as Q’s burns healed, and James was finally cleared for requalification training.  He celebrated by commandeering Q’s largely unused kitchen to make placek zbonjnicki .  He’d learnt to make it from Hannes; the potato and onion pancakes topped with pork goulash were hearty and perfect for the late December chill as well as for feeding up overly slender Quartermasters … and their recuperating agents.  

Q had just come off a 48-hour shift in which she had been guiding 004 through a complex infiltration in Belgrade.  Once Caleb was safely aboard a flight back to Heathrow, James sat her down, rather insistently, at the table where Q ate more in that one meal than James had seen her eat nearly all week.  

They finished off their evening quietly in front of the fire: Q on the corner sofa with a book on Churchill’s determination not to negotiate with Hitler, and James in a worn leather chair to her right with his tablet, planning out his exercise and rehabilitation scheme for the upcoming weeks. If either of them found it frighteningly domestic, they said nothing but enjoyed their whiskies and the quiet.  Wishing her goodnight, James climbed the stairs to his room around midnight; Q was already gone to Six by the time he woke five hours later.

Pulling his thoughts once again to the present, Bond rinsed quickly under the spray and tapped the pad at the back of the spacious shower stall to stop the flow of water.  Wrapping a towel around his waist, he briefly used a second on his hair before swiping it over the fogged surface of the large mirror above the sink.  A half-smile turned up the corners of Bond’s mouth at what he saw.  Even through the steam and condensation, James finally recognized the man who stared back at him, again.  He still felt every moment of his 42 years, but he no longer looked like the broken shell he had been in those long weeks after Moneypenny took that bloody shot.  There was more grey amongst the gold, yes. The lines and wrinkles at his eyes and mouth were deeper, and he’d only added to his collection of scars, but he no longer looked drawn and empty.

Or purposeless.

The MI6 fitness facility, along with the rest of HQ, lay in dust and rubble across the Thames, but James had nevertheless tackled his rehabilitation with Olympian-like focus.  He had swum in the local pool Six had secured for its use.  He had run through the streets and parks of London.  He had lifted weights and worked through a regimen of calisthenics, ramping up each activity as his body grew stronger until his workouts lasted longer than the work day itself.  Once both Medical and Psych had been appeased (such as was possible), James had turned his attention to requalifying with the tools of his trade:  hand-to-hand and blunt weapons with Cha Xing-Chi; small firearms with R; and, finally his ranged firearms qualification with Q.

They had met at Bisley Range in Surrey, the closest ranged firing facility to London, where MI6 had long-since held its LR rifle qualifications.  Q had already arrived and was leaning against the boot of the car, arms crossed and fingers tapping at the sleeve of her coat by the time Bond drove up in his hired Jaguar F-type -- no Astons to be had from Six’s fleet, much to his disappointment.  They were dressed similarly, each in khaki trousers and ankle boots, warm woollen jumpers and black shooting jackets.  He knew her hair to be plaited and secured to the back of her head today, but it was largely hidden beneath the dark blue and purple knitted watch cap she wore.   

“You’re 30 minutes late, Bond,” Q had said the moment the Jag’s alarm engaged.  She never bothered to hide when she was irritated, with him or anyone else for that matter.  “Should have insisted that we drive together.  We left at the same time!”

“I stopped for some coffee.”  James had smiled as he approached and set his duffel on the ground next to her car.  

Q had raised that damned eyebrow and took a step closer, eyes narrowing as she looked more closely at him.  “I thought you took your coffee black?”

“I do.”

“Then what’s with the sugar?” she had asked.  Without breaking with his gaze, Q pulled a handkerchief from one of her many pockets and brought it to his lips where she wiped at the corner of his mouth.  When Q pulled back the linen, James could see it was smeared with rich pink lipstick.

Oh.  James had shrugged.  “I tip well.  My barista was just rather enthusiastic in her appreciation.”

Q had stifled the chuckle that shone in her eyes.  “Thank God not all of your tips are appreciated quite as enthusiastically; you’d never get anything done otherwise.”

“Come now, Q.  That’s not true,” Bond had drawled, his deep, gravelly voice dipped a few notes lower and he leaned in closely to whisper in her ear, lips just brushing the shell.  “You’ve commented more than once these last weeks of my ability to … multi-task.”

James had lingered there at her ear long enough to see her pulse quicken, hear her sudden inhalation of arousal and had grinned.  Given that first night on her sofa in front of the fire, it would have been foolish for either of them to deny the physical attraction between them, so they didn’t deny it. Neither did they pursue it.  They kept on as they had discussed, as friends.  That certainly didn’t mean that James was going to abandon innuendo altogether.  And he quite fancied the idea that Q would have been disappointed in him if he had.  

They hadn't said never , after all.

His Quartermaster had swallowed audibly yet glared at him from the corner of her eyes.  The edges of her lenses fogging lightly with the combined heat of their proximity.  “You’re a complete tit, Double-O Seven.  But then you know that.”

“I do,” James had chuckled as he pulled away, barely restraining himself from nuzzling her temple before reaching down to pick up the duffel again.  

Q took two steadying breaths then nodded at the two weapons cases that sat on the ground next to her car.  “We’ll be using the L115a3 for your qualification.  I know you’re more than passing familiar with it.”

“I’ve used it a time or two.”

“You weren’t asked to requalify for long range prior to Silva due to the obvious time constraints and M’s belief that it wouldn’t be a mission critical concern.  Things are different now.”

“Naturally.”

“You’ll be evaluated both as the shooter and as the spotter.  As the shooter you will be scored at 275 metres, 460 metres, and 920 metres.  As the spotter, your score will be based on how effectively you acquire the target, calculate distance, wind speed and other atmospheric conditions as well as impact detection, and providing security for your shooter.”

“Who will I be spotting for?” he had asked, his tone turning more, but not entirely, business-like.

And there was the eyebrow again.  “Twice in five minutes, Q?” Bond reached out and ran his index finger along the curve of that brow.  “You’ll run out of ammunition at this rate.”

“Most men your age tend to avoid conversations that involve the topic of shooting blanks, Bond.  How very open-minded of you,” Q had said, and Bond couldn’t help but laugh.  Damn, she was quick, his Quartermaster.  “However, since you are still fully … caffeinated, you will shoot first while I act as your spotter.  Then I’ll show you how it’s really done.”  

James had chuckled at her boast, but he couldn’t help but feel a surge of his own enthusiasm to see just what the young Quartermaster could do.

James had exaggerated the situation with the barista.  Not that Q needed to know that, of course.    The young Uni student had bussed his mouth, but only because his quick reflexes had saved her from spilling an entire tray of Cafe Americanos she was delivering to a table of dull, entitled banking executives.  “Thanks, luv! They’re in here every morning,” she’d whispered to Bond after the kiss.  “Think they bloody own the place.  Probably do.  Would’ve given me a bollocking if I’d dropped that tray.”  

James could have pulled her, the barista, but the truth of it was that just as he hadn’t found the time or desire in the months of his recuperation to hunt for a new flat of his own, neither had he had found much interest in hunting around for someone to take to a flat once he did have one of his own.   

He’d blame it on age, as Q had teased, except that morning wood was in no way a problem.  Neither was afternoon, evening, or midnight wood for that matter.  He would toss off in the shower or in bed as was his wont.  James would take his time, drawing out his pleasure, savouring each electric sensation or go for a hard and fast wank, whichever satisfied his needs at the time.  

James didn’t worry about what Q might or mightn’t hear as the rooms (plural) she’d given him were on the second storey, and Q was highly respectful of other people’s space.  Once she’d indicated that the bedroom and small office were his to do with as he pleased, she’d never even ventured past the threshold of the staircase without calling up for permission.  

He had felt this way -- this vague disinterest -- after Vesper, too, when both his body and her betrayal had necessitated a break of sorts, so James wasn’t overly concerned about it at the moment.  Besides, his developing friendship with Q was engaging enough that he didn’t feel he was missing anything by not looking for a bird or a bloke to pull.

There had been, of course, that slightly awkward conversation with Mallory regarding their unique living arrangements.  

“File the appropriate paperwork with HR,” M had said before pinning Bond with a sharp look.  “And know that if you bugger this up, Double-O Seven, I’ll send you to the farthest, most uncomfortable posting I can devise.  I’m not training up another Quartermaster.”

“With all respect, sir, Bond is sharing my home , not my bed.”

“Yes, and this isn’t MI6, it’s the Marylebone neighbourhood watch group, and I’m the single father of two obtuse teenagers who’s running it.”

Q’s shoulders had tensed, and James had heard that sharp intake of breath that he was becoming all too familiar with.

James had recently found himself at the other end of one of Q’s ‘instructive lectures’ when, in her presence, he had waxed nostalgic over exploding pens and other gadgets of old.  She had never raised her voice -- in fact, in the time he had come to know her, James couldn’t think of an occasion that the Quartermaster had shouted or yelled at anyone, even when she had cause -- but shouting would have been preferable.  The hard, level, icy tone her voice took on had a disturbingly effective way of making its target feel like a sixth former being put into place by his teacher.  

In spite of this, Bond had found Q’s heated, overly rational, impressively elocuted lecture rather amusing, and her wild, frustration-driven gesticulations and emotive expressions irrepressibly adorable, but he doubted Mallory would think the same.

"It won’t be a problem, sir,” James had interjected in an attempt to forestall the tongue-lashing Q was about to unleash on the spymaster.  He'd pressed his hand to the small of her back and steered Q out of M’s office.

“See that it isn’t, Double-O Seven!” Mallory had dismissed them with a flutter of his hand and turned his attention back to the files on his desk.  

James had ushered her through the outer office, his Quartermaster grumbling the entire way about ‘integrity’ and ‘the insult of their word not being taken at face value,’ and ‘to say nothing about the fact that Double-O agents were not expendable’ no matter what Mallory seemed to think on the subject.  

Moneypenny had paused in the middle of unpacking one of several boxes stacked against the walls near her new desk -- Mallory and Tanner, as well as a handful of smaller departments, had only just moved into slightly less temporary digs above ground in Whitehall -- and raised an elegant eyebrow at the pair as they passed, but James merely shrugged his shoulders and raised his own brows in a ‘Quartermasters-what-are-you-going-to-do?’ expression that left Eve giggling into her shoulder.

James and Q had been halfway to HR when he suddenly realised she was no longer walking next to him.  James had turned and found Q standing stock still in the middle of the corridor behind him. Agents and other governmental employees, intent on their own destinations, dodged around the seemingly immovable Quartermaster who stared off into the middle distance in front of her.    

“Q?”  Striding back to her, James had grasped her elbow lightly, concerned at the look of utter confusion he saw in her eyes.  James decided that he really didn’t like the thought of the preternaturally perceptive Quartermaster being confused by anything.

“Bond?  What happened back there in Mallory’s office …” Q had gestured over her shoulder even as she sought for her words, “In what universe does it make sense that you are suddenly the more rational one between us?”

James’ bark of laughter had echoed through the hallway, startling a passing drone from one Ministry or another.  “It’s a brave new world, my dear Quartermaster.”  He smiled down at her, the anxiety that had tightened in his gut easing in light of the self-deprecating grin that tugged at the corners of her mouth.  “A brave new world, indeed.”

“Quoting Shakespeare to me , Double-O Seven?” Q had groused, marching off again in the direction of HR, her mumbled recitation of “I prithee, Bond, remember I have done thee worthy service; told thee no lies, made thee no mistakings, served without or grudge or grumblings: thou didst promise to bade me a full year,” had done little to diffuse the sylph-like air of her countenance.  

The spritely Ariel in the flesh.

She always does worthy service , James had realised as he watched her pick up one of the rifle cases next to her car.  No lies.  No mistakes.  No grudges, though there were frequent grumblings.  He had smiled at the thought and at the sight of his Quartermaster bouncing on the balls of her feet, clearly eager to begin his requalification.  “Shall we?”   

“Please lead the way.” James had bowed gallantly, grabbed the second case, and followed Q toward the first shooting hut where they would inspect and assemble their weapons before heading out for him to demonstrate his skill with the rifle.

She trounced him.

In spite of it all, the day after Q had forced James to leave a bit of his ego at Bisley Range -- over four month s after Skyfall -- 007 was officially back on active duty, his scores more than adequate to requalify.  The day after that, Moneypenny had placed M’s gift of that bloody bulldog in his hands.  Five hours after he had set the bulldog on the mantle of the fireplace in his bedroom, James had met with Mallory, been given a new assignment, and was being kitted out by Q in her branch.

She gave him a new Walther PPK 9mm short with the latest biometric grip and, again, two earwigs.

“Really, Q?  Two? Surely, I’ve demonstrated that --”

“No, Bond.  You really haven’t.  When you can come back from five missions in a row without having lost, damaged, or destroyed both earwigs, then maybe I’ll consider sending you out into the field with only one.”

“So, sometime around your 40th birthday, then?” R had commented as he walked past Q’s station toward her office, his arms filled with the minions’ proposals for the upcoming Q-Branch Tech Challenge.  The current quarter’s theme: ammunition.   

“An optimistic estimate, to be sure,” Q had called after her second before turning back to her agent and handing him the two earwigs, one which James immediately slid into his ear while the other went into the pocket of his trousers.  “R’s clearly a fan, Bond.  I was thinking more around my 60th, actually.”

“Nice, Q,” Bond had grumbled but focused on the rest of the tech on the tray that Q detailed for him.

The Omega watch he had strapped around his wrist also functioned as a remote web interface that when activated within two metres of a computer or tablet would upload its data (and hopefully identify the target’s clients) to a secure ‘cloud’ that Q had set up.  The handcrafted pen in his breast pocket -- while not of the exploding variety -- contained the poison James was expected to use on his target.  The death needed to appear natural if at all possible.

“And one final item, Double-O Seven,” Q had said.  She had slipped her fingers beneath his dark gray silk tie and deftly unfastened the tie tack.  The etched titanium pin -- a gift from 003 -- was set on the equipment tray on the table next to them before Q took a new tack from a jeweller’s box she pulled from the pocket of her cardigan. “Rather delicate work this.  A prototype.  More of a personal project, but it might be useful for the field. Took hours to put together.”  The pin was a tulip bloom inlaid with amethyst and accented with platinum leaves.  He was going to the Netherlands, after all.  

“Is this what you’ve been tinkering on at home, then?” James had asked.  

With the exception of a mid-sized bedroom, small bath, and an office nook, the entire ground floor of Q’s warehouse was taken up with a substantial workshop where Q tinkered on small and large projects of all kinds.  In addition to six separate computer servers, it housed workbenches and shelving containing all manner of supplies, machinery for her to manufacture parts of her own creation, and even a well-equipped garage where she housed her beloved ‘69 Triumph Bonneville and most recently, the burnt, bullet-riddled, hollowed out corpse of an Aston Martin DB5 that she had paid to have shipped down from Scotland to effect repairs upon when she had the time.

“Flabbergasted is a new look for you.” Q had teased him about the astonished look on his face as he watched the lorry driver and his mate unload the Aston into Q’s garage. James was still stunned by her gesture.

Q had merely hummed an affirmative in response to his query about the tie tack, choosing instead to focus his attention on the accessory itself.  “Press the tabs on the pin back twice for video and audio surveillance; it transmits directly to my station.  Pulling the chain from it altogether will activate an emergency GPS tracker should you have need of it.”

James had watched silently as Q’s fingers returned to his tie and secured the new pin in place.  She had slipped the button of the shirt that lay directly beneath the pin from its hole and threaded the bar and chain within.  But before she buttoned him up again, Q slid the tip of her finger between the open folds of his shirt and surreptitiously caressed the warm flesh she found there. The act was wholly unexpected, and for that intensely erotic.  James knew Q would never have risked it if she felt for even a moment it would be observed by the others in the Branch, and so James only just held back a gasp at the jolt of pleasure that illicit touch sent through him.  

Q’s face had remained impassive as she slipped the button back into place and readjusted his tie, but when her eyes met his again, he saw pure wickedness reflected from behind her spectacles.

James had tipped his head to her.   Touche .

“I'll be in your ear when you land in Amsterdam,” Q had said, all business, moving to place the work table between them again.  “Latest intel places Holdst in a compound on the outskirts of Groningen, but he may be on the move in the next 36 hours.  It’s a short flight, but we’ll send any updates to your tablet and mobile.  A car for your use will be waiting at Schiphol.”  Q had handed him his travel documents.  “Do return all Her Majesty’s equipment in one piece, Double-O Seven.  Some things are irreplaceable.”

James had let his eyes linger on her for a moment longer. “I do believe you are correct, Quartermaster,” he had replied, and then he left.

Bond’s pursuit of Eran Holdst had taken him through four countries in fifteen days, and ended in a rather physical struggle at an abandoned airstrip outside Copenhagen.  Holdst had secured his bomb with its payload of biological toxins into a small, twin-engine turboprop that he’d rigged to take off remotely before its intended detonation in the skies above Frankfurt.  

The kill hadn’t been clean -- one of the propellers had seen to that -- but the airstrip had been isolated, so Six’s Germany-based After Action Response Team would have plenty of uninterrupted time to process and disarm the bomb and tidy the scene.  During the op, it had been a point of some frustration to Q that Holdst apparently never used laptops or tablets, choosing instead to run his entire bomb-making empire from his mobile phone.  

In Holdst’s final minutes, Bond had been more than within the distance necessary for his watch to activate its programming and grab the data from the mobile, but it hadn’t completed its upload to Q’s cloud before the mobile -- like Holdst -- had been sliced and diced beyond retrieval or repair. Consequently, MI6 was as much in the dark as to the identity of the man’s clients as ever.

“His Raiders of the Lost Ark demise notwithstanding, some data is better than none, Double-O Seven,” Q had said in his ear while he drove back into Copenhagen to catch his flight to London.  “My people will process the information and get it sent over to the analysts.”

“Breadcrumbs, then,” James had said as he pulled onto the Hillerødmotorvejen , shifting gears and speeding past the much slower traffic in his way.

“Indeed. Bond, I’m even better at finding such a trail than I am at laying one.  I promise.”

Q’s assurances that they’d find a scrap of useful intel should have made Bond feel better about it all than he did.  It had been an appropriately challenging assignment for his first mission back after Skyfall.  The bomb had been secured and the bomb-maker was dead, but though Mallory classified the mission as a success, James didn’t.  The more he had investigated and pursued Holdst, the more James hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that there was something far bigger going on, and that the details on that mobile held the key to what that ‘bigger’ was.  In James’ mind, getting that data had been mission critical, and, instead, it had been destroyed.  He would have to hope that Q, her minions, and the MI6 analysts could find that breadcrumb Q felt certain existed.  

But he was back in London again.  Back at St. Michael’s Street, and already James felt his frustration and irritation over the unsatisfying conclusion to the mission start to fade.

Foregoing a shave in favour of food, James grabbed a comfortable pair of sleep trousers and an old, tatty Royal Navy sweatshirt from the cupboard in his room, wondering if there was anything in other than the endless containers of leftover take-away Q was certain to have ordered and forgotten to eat whilst he was away.

He needn’t worry about feeding Q; with his mission complete, she had needed to turn her attention to 0012 whose assignment in Chisinau had gone horrifically pear-shaped an hour before Bond arrived back at Headquarters.  Q had been on The Platform, back to the rest of the Branch, furiously typing and clicking between three different laptops at her station.  James hadn’t been able to hear the conversation between Q and Twelve, but the slope and tension in Q’s shoulders combined with the speed with which she worked spoke to the gravity of the situation.  

Other than those few minutes when Q and he had worked together to decrypt the key to Silva’s programming, James had never experienced a mission from the HQ side of things before.  At least not in the way Q and her team ran a mission. James had watched from the back of the Branch for several minutes as Q worked the problem, directing her minions through their tasks just as a conductor directs an orchestra through the music.  However, in this case, the detailed precision that unfolded before him did not result in a beautiful composition meant to exhort tears from the listener.  Rather, the success or failure of this oeuvre would determine the fate of the mission and that of Arabella’s life.     

“I’ll be happy to check in your kit, Commander Bond,” a soft voice at his side had said.  He had turned to face Brisa -- he’d made a bit more of an effort to learn the techies’ names since coming back -- Q’s lead boffin on the third shift.   

“Twelve’s in it deep this time,” the spindly tech with bright blue hair had continued.  “Q’ll be at this for hours yet.”  James nodded and followed the minion to her station where she inventoried what he had returned.  On the whole, he felt he had done rather well this time:  Walther, undamaged;  Omega, working perfectly though slightly scuffed; and two … well, one and a quarter earwigs.  The pen had been in his suit jacket, abandoned in an alley somewhere in Copenhagen.  He’d almost gone back to retrieve the poisonous pen, until Q assured him that there was no way anyone who didn’t know the exact manner to manipulate the pen could accidently inject themselves with the poison which would break down to inert compounds after another two days anyway.

“And the tie tack?” Brisa had asked, stylus poised over the appropriate inventory box on her tablet.

“Lost, I’m afraid.”

Brisa had frowned, and James had noted that she only just kept herself from looking over her shoulder at the Quartermaster.  “Q will not be pleased to hear that.  It was a prototype.”

“Then let me be the one to tell her as I’m the one who lost it.”

The techie had chuckled in response.  “If you’re willing to take that on, who am I to dissuade you, Commander.”  Brisa then noted the condition of the dark woollen overcoat he wore.  “We can arrange to have that cleaned for you, if you want to leave it here.”

James looked down at the smears of blood and human tissue that dotted his coat.  He’d thought he managed to get most of it cleaned off in the loo at Kastrup before he’d boarded his flight. Apparently not.  The unsettled looks the flight attendants had shot his way suddenly made sense.

“I’ll bring it in tomorrow.  It’s rather chilly outside tonight.”  It had been well past midnight when he’d arrived at HQ from Heathrow, and that had been several hours ago.

“Of course, sir.  We’ll expect it.  Welcome home, Commander.”  Brisa had collected the tray of tech and her tablet and left.

James had followed suit not long after, confident that Q would see ‘Bella safely through her mission.  As he had made his way out to his car, he slipped his right hand into the pocket of his coat and rolled the platinum and amethyst tie tack around between his fingertips, humming as he walked.

He’d placed the tack in the bottom of the drawer of the table next to his bed.  With a trip to his tailor now in his immediate future, James would bring his accessories -- tacks, cufflinks, watches, and the like -- out of storage and place the tulip with the rest of them.  Once again clean, dressed, and comfortable, James was about to head downstairs, his thoughts filled with images of omelettes and bacon buttys, when he heard it.

The Sig Sauer he kept secured behind the headboard was in his hand before James had even fully processed anything beyond, ‘That’s not Q!

The footfalls that sounded across the hardwood floor below were too heavy and long in stride to belong to the tiny Quartermaster.   Nearly six foot, approximately 15 stone , James thought as he cross-stepped barefoot down the darkened half-flight of stairs to the landing, carefully avoiding the third step from the top that creaked and thankful for the carpet that muffled his own footfalls from the intruder.  

James rounded the landing, Sig at the ready.  Only the light over the hob shone in the darkness of the main level.  The intruder rustled through drawers and cupboards in the kitchen for his treasure, but just as Bond was ready to press the muzzle of his weapon to the back of the man’s knit cap-clad head, the intruder spun around, kitchen knife in hand and slashed at 007’s chest.

Bond spun and curved his torso inward to evade the knife, quickly sweeping out with his foot to knock the legs from underneath his foe.  James brought his gun to bear again, but the weapon was suddenly kicked out of his hands and his own legs pulled out from under him.   The next thing James knew, he and the man were grappling on the floor of the kitchen, banging into fridge, and hob, and dishwasher.  The man got his hands around James’ neck, pulling him up to his feet again in a choke hold.  James stomped on the man’s foot and dug into the firm stomach behind him with a quick jab of his elbow, loosening the hold long enough for James to get his legs underneath him again and throw the intruder over his shoulder and the kitchen island onto the dining table beyond, scattering to the floor the plethora of computer components Q always seemed to have about.

A bellow of rage erupted from the intruder as he rolled from the cracked table top back to his feet.  There was no time for James to hunt for the Sig.  The weapon had landed somewhere to the left of the kitchen, but the solid bear of a man -- be he thief or assassin -- was advancing upon Bond again.  James couldn’t see his enemy’s face for the darkness, but every inch of his body spoke of the damage he would do to James if given the chance.  

Best not to give him that opportunity, then.

Circling the side of the island and heedless of the components underfoot, James launched himself at his enemy, slamming him back into Q’s sofa and over the top to the floor in front of the fireplace where they continued to grapple, and punch, and choke, and gouge until finally James managed to reach the small metal bowl that had fallen to the ground from the side table during the scuffle:  Q’s Tibetan singing bowl.  James’ fingers grasped the curved lip of the surprisingly heavy bowl and he swung, cracking it against the side of the other man’s head once … twice … thrice until the man collapsed beneath him with a grunt that was muffled by the echoing tone of the still vibrating bowl.  

Tossing the vessel into the corner, breathing hard, Bond slumped back onto the other man’s knees and searched for something with which to restrain him.  James spied his red winter scarf still clinging to the back of the sofa and leaned back to snag it with one hand.  Turning back to the intruder who was starting to come around again, James quickly began tying the man’s hands.  It was a shite job, but it was better than nothing.

“James?”

What?!  Startled by the slightly slurred sound of his name, Bond looked down into the face of the man below him, squinting in the darkness to focus on the features, and found himself looking into a face he knew all too well.

Bloody hell!

“Alec?!”

“James?!”

“What in the bloody, buggering fuck are you doing here?!” They shouted at each other.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Five:  “No stars gleam as brightly as those which glisten in the polar sky”

 

“A best friend is the only one that walks into your life when the world has walked out.”

Shannon L. Alder

 


 

University College Hospital; National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London, England:  Late November 2013 (Three days after Westminster Bridge)

 

The moment Bill Tanner stepped off the lift onto the fourth floor that housed the Intensive Treatment Unit, he knew that Alec Trevelyan had returned to London.  

The shouting in Russian-punctuated English clued him in.  

It had been three days since the 15 hour surgery where the surgeons had slaved to repair what damage they could from the bullet Q had been shot with while sitting in the back of Tanner’s SUV; she had been in the ITU ever since.   

Though Q’s room was guarded by trusted MI6 agents, Mallory had requested that someone close to Q be at her side whenever possible.  Thankfully, Q had had the foresight to list several of the senior staff as kin and Tanner as her medical proxy -- a role he shared with the man he heard currently shouting from down the corridor --  so Bill had spent most of the late afternoon and early evening sitting at Q’s beside, but he had taken the opportunity to step down to the canteen for some dinner during shift change when the oncoming nursing staff performed a comprehensive evaluation of the Quartermaster’s condition.  Tanner had already put in a full day at Six, working with Mallory, R and their MI5 counterparts to put out the still-burning embers from Blofeld’s and Denbigh’s attempted attack on London.  Moneypenny had been here earlier and was now at Six taking over for Tanner as he had done for Eve.  

Of course Trevelyan had chosen to arrive when no one from MI6 was there to meet him.

Tanner sighed and took a swig of his coffee, letting it burn down his throat, before tossing it reluctantly in the bin. Best not to have anything hot in hand when confronting an agitated Double-O.  Especially that Double-O.

Bill had hoped to spend the next few hours enjoying his coffee and reading aloud to the comatose Q from Dan Brown’s latest that he had downloaded onto his Kindle.  Q hated Dan Brown.  Thought him horribly predictable whereas Tanner found the best-selling author an engaging way to escape for awhile.  Predictable, yes, but entertainingly so, at least in terms of the heated-yet-friendly debates he and Q ultimately got into over the man’s works.

Well, so much for that plan , Tanner thought, walking down the corridor to the family waiting room outside the double doors to ITU where Trevelyan continued to rage.

Chto takoye yeye sostoyaniye?! I will not ask again.  What is her condition?!”

Tanner pushed open the door and was immediately impressed by the security guards’ restraint.  It was probably the only thing that saved their lives.  Well, that and Agents Tourer and Andres who stood between hospital security, Q’s attending physician, and 006.  

“Mr. Trevelyan, you must calm down,” insisted the physician who, though he gestured in a pleading way, didn’t seem at all intimidated by the bear-like, blond agent.  “Next of kin or not, we will remove you from this facility if you cannot --”

Alec snarled.  Quite literally snarled.  “Try it and it’ll be --”

“Trevelyan, ustupat !  Stand down!”  

Alec’s green eyes shot to Tanner, and Bill could see they were filled with worry rather than anger.  Not that any of the others would know that.  Still, he needed to get control of the situation.

“Tanner, tell these fools to --” the agent gesticulated pointedly at the ‘fools.’

Bill pushed his way through the small crowd of men in the room until he stood toe to toe with his colleague.  “Agent Trevelyan, you will sit down , shut up , and calm yourself now .  If you cannot, I promise you that I will physically aid in your removal from this hospital, and the only way you will get any status reports on the Quartermaster’s condition is from inside a holding cell at HQ.  Nod if you understand what I am telling you.”

Alec started.  He had never heard the mild-mannered Chief of Staff exert such dominance.  Bill hadn’t raised his voice above a conversational level, but the threat was there.  Alec knew he could take Tanner down easily, but he found himself submitting instead.  Willingly!  Not understanding the way in which that tone buzzed across his nerves, Alec plopped down in the padded chair behind him, and after a moment, nodded his understanding, his eyes never once leaving Tanner’s.

“Now apologize to these men.”

Der’mo! Y ou can’t be ser --”

“Keep arguing, and you will find out just how serious I can be, Trevelyan.  Doctor Shah is part of the team keeping Q alive.  Tourer and Andres are guarding that life against further threats.  And I think you know the role of hospital security.  All of these men, including myself, have one goal in mind and that is to keep Q safe until she wakes and to aid in her recovery once she has.  You are out of line, Agent.  Now, I will say this one more time.  Apologize to these men.  Make it good.”

Five seconds passed.  Then ten.  Finally, Alec raised an eyebrow at Bill in query, and Tanner granted tacit permission for the other man to stand.  

Ya proshu proshcheniya .  I am sorry for my … overly zealous reaction to your initial explanation of my friend’s condition.  I have no excuse save my worry,” Alec said.  Two things were instantly clear to everyone in the room:  firstly, that Trevelyan truly meant what he said; secondly, that it nearly killed him to say it.  Alec was a proud man, Tanner knew, but he believed Trevelyan to be a good one, especially where the Quartermaster was concerned.

Bill schooled his own surprise at the embarrassed contrition that flashed across Trevelyan’s face.  He honestly hadn’t expected Alec to respond to his orders.  It felt … good.

That done, Tanner turned back to the others.  “Andres, Tourer, return to your posts.  Thank you for your assistance, but Q should never be left unguarded.” The men each snapped a ‘Yes, sir,’ and left the room hurriedly.  Bill turned to the physician.  “Dr. Shah, I’m familiar enough with the Quartermaster’s condition to brief Mr. Trevelyan.  If we have any additional questions, will you be available?”

“I’ll be on the floor for another hour or so, but the nurses can ring me up if need be.”  Shah turned his attention back to Alec.  “Your friend is in the best care this city can provide.”  Alec nodded curtly, and the doctor and guards left.

The room empty, Tanner pointed to the small grouping of comfortable chairs, and the two men sat down.  “We’ll forgo the lecture on appropriate behavior in public situations as I am sure you will never do that again.”  

Alec gave Bill a long, assessing look.  “You sure you didn’t depose Mallory while I was in Sri Lanka?”

“Not as of yet,” Tanner chuckled, “but if things don’t start to calm down, M may decide to abdicate.”  He slumped into the back of the chair, legs splayed out in front of him, and lifted a hand to scrub at his closely cropped hair before letting it drop into his lap.  

“You look like shite, Bill.”

“It’s been a shite couple of days.  Bugger.  A shite couple of months , truth be told.”  Tanner cocked his head, and his voice took on the wearied tone of someone on their last reserves of energy.  “So why the blow up with the doctor, Alec?  Surely M briefed you on Q’s condition.”

“Haven’t been to HQ,” Alec admitted.  “Heard about what happened to Westminster Bridge once I got back to Colombo after the mission finalized, and took the first flight back.  My sodding luggage didn’t make it, and it’s bloody freezing here.” He gestured at what he was wearing.  The lightweight khakis and loose-fitting shirt were definitely not a defense against the damp, autumn London weather -- and it had been bollocks-shrinking cold for days -- even for an Englishman of Russian extraction.  

“I took the Express to Paddington.  Was going to change at the warehouse before heading in.  Ran into Mrs. Akinjide, and she told me what happened.  Came straight here.”  Alec gestured helplessly out toward the corridor and ITU.  “Shah told me Q’s paralyzed.   Bozhe-moi, Tanner!  What in the hell happened?!  Does James know? She’s comatose. On a bloody ventilator, for Christ’s sake!”

Tanner pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes and he slumped a bit further before snapping his spine straight and setting his jaw, no longer an exhausted government official or a worried friend but the Chief of Staff of MI6 about to give a briefing.  “I’ll give you everything I have on Q:  what happened to her, what led up to it, and what her prognosis is.  As for Bond … well, that’s actually the more complicated issue.”

Alec leaned toward the CoS, not threatening but insistent.

Tell me.”

 


 

 

MI6 Headquarters, London, England:  April 2013 (Seven months before Westminster Bridge)

 

Alec dropped his face into his hands before looking back up at his friend who was chewing thoughtfully on a samosa.   “ Chert voz'mi, I don’t know what else to do, James.  I knew Q’d be upset that I didn’t check in once things wrapped up in Albania.   Eto bylo neobkhodimo .  It was necessary, but I never expected this .”

No.  Alec probably hadn’t, James thought.  But he doubtless should have done.  

Alec Trevelyan, MI6’s Agent 006, had been eight months on assignment, infiltrating a syndicate that had started trafficking in chemical weapons with other organisations hostile to the British Government, when Raoul Silva started releasing operative names off of the NATO List.  MI6’s new Quartermaster and her team had immediately sent out a coded, emergency message blast to all operatives in the field alerting them to the danger and urging them to take necessary precautions.  Thankfully, Trevelyan’s cover had been deep enough to offer him protection until James had managed to retrieve the list from Silva’s abandoned island stronghold in the East China Sea; Alec’s true identity was never brought to light, and he continued his mission.

The nature of the Albanian operation had precluded 006’s contact with HQ except for emergency evacuation, should the op be blown, or for retrieval upon its successful completion; even with the added stressor of Silva’s vile use of the NATO List to lure out M and kill her, neither Mallory nor Q expected to hear from 006 outside of those conditions.  

Seven weeks after Skyfall, just two days after Bond had been medically cleared to begin his re-qualification for the field, word reached Six through a third party that the head of the Meidani Cabal along with her two adult sons and eight lieutenants had been killed in an explosion on the country estate outside Sarandё, and that the group’s remaining infrastructure had been left in shambles, so both Mallory and Q expected to hear from 006 in short order.

After one week of hearing nothing from Trevelyan, Q began a close examination of any activity from his more commonly used aliases, searching for any sign of the agent.

After two weeks of comm silence, she accessed Alec’s three deep cover identities and spent hours combing through communiques from Eastern Europe and South America -- 006’s two most frequent playgrounds -- for word of his location and movements.

After four weeks, Mallory listed the agent Missing in Action; Q had already been in direct contact with her personal sources and informants around the globe.

James had seen -- and experienced -- the lengths to which Q would go for her agents, but the attention she was giving Alec’s disappearance seemed different somehow.  It had quickly become apparent that finding Alec was just as personal for her as it had been for him.  Though he had genuinely appreciated everything she was doing to find the man James loved like a brother, Bond had been somewhat puzzled by her diligence and said as much.

“He’s my best friend,” Q had clipped, not bothering to look up from the screens of the three laptops she had been using in her search for relevant data.  James had barely been able to keep up with the pace at which the Quartermaster had flipped from tab to tab and screen to screen -- saving some bits of information, deleting others --  so quick were her keystrokes and commands.  “Something I think you can understand.”

Of course he could; James just hadn’t been aware that anyone else did.  Certainly not Q, of all people.  James had started to realise that as much as he knew he knew about Alec after nearly two decades of a friendship that transcended most pedestrian definitions of the word, there were apparently things James hadn’t known.  Clearly, a close friendship with the Quartermaster was one of them.  

“How’d that come about, anyway?”

The eyebrow twitched, not a full assault, but she glanced away from her screens long enough to pin him with a sharp, green glare from behind her spectacles, and James had seen that Q was measuring not so much the words of his question as the tone in which he had asked it.  Decision made, she responded.

“He saved my life.”  She had returned her attention to her computers.  Clearly a story for another time.

Well, there was something to be said for consistency.  “Yeah, he does that.”  James sighed, thinking back to his own, similar, introduction to Alec Trevelyan.  

He had then pulled a tablet from a row of its fellows in a charging station across from The Platform and sat down at an empty workstation.  Twenty minutes later, he encrypted the email under the tightest security Q-Branch had to offer its electronic correspondence, and sent if off to his Quartermaster.  He heard it ‘ding’ its arrival in her mailbox.

“I’ve sent you details on how to get in touch with my sources and contacts in Eastern Europe.  Anyone who might be able to pin down a lead on Alec,” James had told Q once he’d returned the tablet to its station.  “I’m off to check in with a few local contacts I’ve had doing the same.”  

“I’ll be discreet,” Q had promised. Agents -- Double-Os in particular -- were understandably reluctant to share their informants as far too often those relationships could make the difference between the success of a mission or the death of an agent in the field.  Nothing could put that at risk.

“There was never any doubt, Q.”  James had pulled up the hood of the sweatshirt he still wore from his workout and dismissed the idea of changing into something more suitable for an MI6 agent.  Where he was going, it would make more sense to ‘blend in.’

“I’ll find him, Bond,” Q had said as he strode out of her Branch.

We’ll find him.”

Three weeks later, Alec Trevelyan was declared Killed in Action.  The fires from the Sarandё explosion had burned so hot that several bodies matching 006’s height and mass had been destroyed beyond any possible hope of identification.  Bond, with Tanner’s assistance, had forcibly removed Q from her office after she had worked 52 hours straight running three ops and scrutinizing any and all information that might have been remotely tied to 006’s true fate.

Nothing short of a positive identification of a body would convince either of them that the agent was dead, but hope was starting to wane.

Bond and Q had skipped Alec’s memorial service.  They spent the day at the warehouse.  He in the ground floor office poring over the schematics for three new pieces of surveillance tech developed by R&D that all Double-Os needed to familiarize themselves with.  She just on the other side of the door in her workshop armed with an orbital sander and three different grits of paper to ensure the recently patched bullet holes in the chassis of Bond’s DB5 would never be noticed once the relic was finally painted.  They said nothing directly of Trevelyan but drank freely from the bottles of vodka 006 had kept stored in the freezer of the small kitchenette next to his room while AC/DC, Metallica, Prince, Rush, and Stravinsky had blasted from the sound system.   

At ten weeks, Q and Six’s coroner, Dr Pendry, met the plane at RAF Northolt and finally received the three bodies ‘destroyed beyond any possible hope of identification.’

At eleven weeks, Bond had finally finished his requalification and was sent to the Netherlands.  The results of Dr Pendry’s autopsies were as inconclusive as the ones conducted by the Albanians.  Q purchased boxes to pack up the clothes and few personal items Alec kept in the cupboards of the spare bedroom on the ground floor of her warehouse.

Instead, she had sat on his bed until three in the morning drinking Russian Standard and reading the copy of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country that she had found open on the bedside table.  She was back on her platform in Q-Branch by seven a.m. running 007’s op as planned.  Q blamed her headache on the vodka because Quartermasters didn’t cry and used the boxes she had purchased to store computer components in a cupboard in R&D.

“How did he save your life? Alec, I mean,” James had asked Q over comms from his hotel room in Groningen late one night as he was surveilling Holdst who had holed up with a rent boy in his suite across the courtyard.  The terrorist was a twisted fuck in more ways than one, and Q’s voice was always a pleasant distraction even when James wasn’t desperate for one as he was now.

“Bond, I don’t think that --”

“Come now, Quartermaster.  Alec loves to tell stories, so I’m sure he’s regaled you with a few of our tales.  Perhaps even some of our shore leave adventures?  A few were quite … salacious.”

Q had chuckled in spite of herself and leaned back in her desk chair.  She had been running comms from her office that night, finishing up some paperwork and reports during the relative lull of Bond’s reconnaissance.  “He has, and if I didn’t know what each of you was capable of on your own, I’d think his stories made up of whole cloth, but I hardly see how any of that demands a quid pro quo betwixt you and me.”  

James had noted that they both still spoke of Alec in the present tense.  He continued to peer through his scope at the room across the way.  “I’m undecided as to whether or not it’s a good thing that Holdst is an exhibitionist.”

“Blackout curtains are open, I take it.”

James hummed an affirmative.

“Makes recon easier.”  Q typed in a few comments to the personnel report on her laptop.

“True, but some things I’ll never unsee.”

Q snorted.  “You’re hardly a prude, Double-O Seven, but you didn’t answer my question.   Quid pro quo ?”

The familiar sound of liquid pouring into a short glass filtered to her ears through the link.  “You know each of us.  If I’m right, you’re probably the only other person who might know Alec as well as I do, but the things you know about him, I probably don’t.  And right now …"

“Right now ... it would be a comfort.”

Silence hung between them.  “Something like that,” James finally said, his voice so quiet that Q had barely been able to hear him over the link.

“And that’s the story you want?  How he saved my life.”

“Seems as good a place as any to start.”

“It’s … it’s not an easy memory for me, Bond.”

He heard the tension in her voice that hadn’t been there before.  “Look, Q, nevermind.  I don’t want to make --”

“No.  No, Bond, it’ll be … fine.  Friendship forged through trauma is the stuff of legend, after all.”  

After some initial false starts, Q had been rather surprised at how well Bond respected her emotional boundaries, pushing only as far as she would let him and backing off when told to do so.  Broken recognized broken, she reckoned, and he so rarely asked anything personal of her that she was willing to share this story of Alec with him, triggering nightmares and all.  

“Just -- please just don’t interrupt until I’m done.”

“I understand.”

Q took off her glasses and pressed the heels of her palms to her eyes for a moment before she spun her chair to face the window that overlooked the Q-Branch bullpen.  The large space was running in night-mode, lights dimmed for the third shift in deference to the late hour.  She’d been on duty for nearly 24 hours.

“Alec pulled me from a plane wreck in Argentina.”  If possible, the other end of the comm link grew even more silent.  

“I’d been travelling and took a small charter from Ushuaia to Santiago.  Planned some time in the Galapagos, then a quick bit of sightseeing in the States before heading home.  There was a storm.  Lightning struck the plane and blew the electrical systems.  Went down in the foothills about 100 kilometres outside of Malargűe.  There were two others on board in addition to me and the pilot.  Matías, the pilot, managed to get the plane relatively level so we could gilde in, but just before impact something pushed us down.  Like a giant hand reaching out to bat the plane around.  Wind shear, most likely.  The plane flipped, instead.”  

Though Q looked with her blurry sight through the window out onto the Branch, it was a desolate, arid mountainside that filled her vision.  No point in closing her eyes.  The vision rarely left as easily as it came, even now, years later.  “Matías died on impact. Broken neck.  His fiance, Julieta … a few hours later.  I think she bled out.  Stephen kept saying how badly his tum hurt.  Probably internal injuries.  An expat from Cornwall of all places.  Nice man.  School teacher.  Not exactly sure when he died.  Only that he did.  Things were a bit hazy for me for the first days.  Concussion.”

Bond blinked and pulled back from the surveillance scope.  “First days ?!”

“The radio fried when the electrical system did,” James heard the shrug in her voice as Q continued in spite of the ‘no interruptions’ interruption, “so there was no opportunity to sound a mayday.  No emergency beacon, either.  This was six years ago, Bond.  Civilian global positioning was still in the Dark Ages.  The first iPhone had only been on the market for about six months:  no apps, no video recording, and certainly no GPS.  Argentinean and Chilean authorities searched for us once we were overdue, but they had no idea where to look.”   

Bond activated the visual recording device on the scope and scooted his chair back from the window ledge to lurk even deeper in the shadows of his darkened room.  He’d evaluate the recording later. He was sickened at the thought of watching Holdst and his paramour while Q shared something that was clearly traumatic.  

“Then how --”

“I wasn’t a civilian. Already on Six’s payroll with my very own experimental GPS tracker, but it wasn’t working properly.  Entirely my fault, of course.  I’d … well, I’d disabled the programming a few months prior.  But the short version of the rest of the story is that I had to cut the tracker out of my arm and activate it manually. No tech geek worth her code ever dresses without putting her multitool in her pocket.  It worked.  TSS picked up the emergency alert, and M sent Alec.  He’d been in deep cover somewhere in Venezuela and guided a small Search and Rescue team to the site.  They had to hike in the last four hours.  Damn place was too remote for a vehicle extraction.”

“How long were you out there?”  James drank deeply from his whisky.

“Five days.”  Q’s tea had long since gone cold, but her throat was so dry that she choked it back anyway then lay her head on her desk atop her crossed arms.  She pushed at a corrupted memory stick with her finger, watching it skid across the smooth surface of her desk before pulling it back long enough to send it skidding again.  

“I shouldn’t have survived,” she admitted.  “I was in the last row of seats, closest to the luggage.  When the plane flipped … I don’t know if luggage protected me or what, but my injuries were minor in the beginning: cuts and bruises, a concussion, and a pair of sprained ankles.  Something in the seating broke and pinned my legs, so I was trapped until someone found me.”  

Q spun the memory stick in a circle.  

Again.  

And again.

“As disastrous as the whole flight became, suddenly I found that there were a few bottles of water I could reach, some granola and a bag of beef jerky in my duffle that landed next to me.  The pilot’s heavy coat to keep me warm at night.  My multitool in my pocket.  Things didn’t get really bad until after I cut out the tracker and the wound got infected.  I don’t remember hearing the rescue team arrive.  Fever had set in by that time.  I just remember waking up to this bear of a man looming over me, swearing in Russian.  I remember, too, he was a bit shocked at what I told him, in Russian.”

James chuckled lightly.  “What did you say?”

“According to Alec?  ‘Either get busy getting me out of here or bugger off!  I’ve got a headache and my arm hurts, you arrogant twat.’”

James’ chuckle turned to a laugh.

“I’ve no clear memory of that moment, more’s the pity,” Q said.

Finally, the memory stick balanced on its edge.  

“After that, he didn’t leave my side.  Even when some rocks gave way during the descent down the mountain and he blew out his knee, Alec was there.  In hospital, even when we got back to London and spent another two weeks in Medical.  I’ve no idea why.  I wasn’t exactly the most pleasant person to be around at that time.  We … we learned a lot about each other.”  

Q pressed her eyes into the side of her arm, embarrassed and overwhelmed and suddenly needing the bit of darkness the weave of her cardigan provided.  The memory stick was tight in her grasp.

“Definitely the stuff of legend,” James murmured, making sure that she would hear in his tone how impressed he truly was.  “Moneypenny said you hated to fly.  Now I understand.  How can you even bear to get on a plane?”

“I don’t. I don’t fly. I was in hospital in Buenos Aires for 10 days recuperating, but when we tried to board a commercial flight home, I had the worst panic attack Alec said he’d ever seen.  I had to be sedated for two days afterwards and then again on the private flight back to London.”

“But you flew to Skyfall.  Q, you got on a bloody helo to come get me in Scotland.”

“And I can barely think of that without panic, so please don’t mention it, and don’t expect me to do something like that again.  I don’t fly. Ever .”  The memory stick snapped in half.

Q’s stress rang clearly through the link, but James knew there was little comfort he could bring her though he wanted to.  And in that moment, it shook him how much he really did want to bring her comfort.  He just wasn’t sure how.  Would it even be welcome?  James let the silence hang between them again.  

“The worst part … it wasn’t the crash,” Q said.   God, why am I telling him all of this?  She couldn’t seem to stop, however.  

James knew that tone.  It was one he personally hated and tried never to use himself.  Confessional.  James could hear in her voice that Q was going to share something with him she had never shared with anyone else, not even Alec.  

Am I deserving?  

James doubted it.

“What was the worst part, Q?”  He owed her that much, at least.    

“Being alone.  I was cold.  The nights were endless.  I hurt so much.  Stephen … well, he and I talked for hours until he couldn’t anymore.  I told him about my gap year, and he was flying to back to Santiago to propose to his girlfriend.”  Q slumped back in her chair and ran her fingers over the trackpad of her laptop.  “She was pregnant, you see.  They were going to finish up the school term, and then fly back to Cornwall for the summer.  He wanted their child to be born in the family’s cottage like he had been. After he died, I was completely alone.  I expected to die alone.  Lonely … lonely I can handle.  That’s transitory; I don’t ever want to feel the way I did on that mountainside again.  I think that would be enough to break me.”

“You’re unbreakable, Q.”

Q’s laugh was filled with bitterness.  “I shatter into a million pieces at least once a week, Double-O Seven.  I just don’t let anyone see it.”  

A small crash from the bullpen pulled Q from her mood.  She straightened and slid her glasses back into place.  “I’m sorry, Bond.  This got more maudlin than even I expected.  You wanted a story to bring you comfort, and I gave you enough angst to fill a teenage RomCom.”

“No, I wanted a story that told me of your friendship with Alec, and you gave me that.  You said you didn’t know why he stayed with you back then?  I do.”

“Do you intend to share with the class?”

“Because even when you're in pain, or scared, or stroppy, you’re still brilliant.”

James closed his eyes and imagined Q’s self-deprecating eyeroll.  “And you’re still an incorrigible flirt.”  A heartbeat later, her voice resumed its arid, professional tone.  “Please tell me that Holdst is going to run out of energy sometime this millennium.”

“He ‘finished up’ about 10 minutes ago, thank God,” James lied.

“Good.  Then I have a date with a futon.  Oh, and Bond.  If you take my admission of having disabled my own tracker as permission -- tacit or explicit -- to do the same to your own, remember that I have access to where you sleep.”

“I make no promises,” he chuckled.

“Of course not, Double-O Seven.”

“Good night, Q.”

“I’ll be back with you in 9 hours.  Per usual, my end will remain active but muted should you need me. Get some sleep, Bond.”  

With what he had learned of his Quartermaster, sleep was slow in coming to James.  

When Q had told him that Alec had saved her life, James had expected a story similar to how Alec had pulled him -- a stupid, 20 year-old midshipman with more bollocks than brains -- out of a knife fight outside a pub in a Devonian alleyway.  Granted James couldn’t envision Q ever getting into a knife fight -- God, she’d be vicious, though -- but he thought that maybe Alec had saved her from a mugger.  She was outrageously tiny, and Alec definitely had a chivalrous streak, or perhaps he had pulled her out of an exploding R&D lab.  Never could James have imagined the story that Q had told him.  

What must Q have gone through to get on that helicopter to Scotland?  He’d barely known her prior to Silva’s rampage, thought her one of Boothroyd’s many spaniels -- occasionally necessary yet easily ignored --  but she had risked her career and, in some ways, her life to get him to Skyfall and back again.  All because he’d asked her to.  He’d lodged with Q for months now, called her a friend, considered what it would be like to call her more than a friend, and yet how little he knew her.

James would have been the first to admit that he was not given to periods of introspection.  It was risky for agents and assassins to think overlong about their choices and actions.  Guilt was a dangerous road that led nowhere good.  

Nevertheless, Q had left him with much to think about.

Bond wasn’t the only one who fought for sleep that night.  Q had tossed and turned on her office futon for two hours before surrendering, thinking as much about Bond and Alec as she had the crash.  There were no nightmares, but too many memories and fears to allow her mind to settle enough for sleep, so she had wandered down to the deserted R&D labs to tinker on her submission for the Q-Branch Tech Challenge.  

Her contributions were always exercises in pure ridiculousness with virtually no intent of ever being used in the field.  She liked to think of it all as a form of creative expression, albeit a rather lethal form of such expression.

Q expected the exact opposite from her technicians, however.  Q had started the quarterly challenges when she had been promoted to ‘R’ as a nonthreatening way to learn the skills and talents of the others in the Branch.  Participation was not required, but, as techies are known for being an insanely competitive species, everyone did.  

Q encouraged creativity, thinking outside of the box, creating an entirely new box that wasn’t even boxlike, but always with an eye toward the product eventually being used in the field, whether in whole, in part, or in a modified form from its original design and intent.   

Three of the R&D minions had become patent holders as a result of their inventions (Q had worked out a special deal with the previous M to ensure that they reaped some of the reward for their hard work) and a fourth patent was pending for Q-Branch as a whole.  Last year’s “Fixative Challenge” had resulted in a medical grade adhesive that was about to revolutionize the way in which sutures held together wounds.

Jealous of Bond, whom she figured was probably sleeping as peacefully as was possible for a Double-O on a mission, Q had unboxed a case of 9mm cartridges and set them next to the design schematics she had printed out.  The exploding bullet Q had developed for this quarter’s “Ammunition Challenge” wasn’t anything revolutionary -- a variation on a theme -- but the coating of highly concentrated digitalis had the potential to add an additional bit of ‘zing’ to the competition, which is what the other participants had come to expect from their Quartermaster.

Once the challenge was over, the remaining bullets would get sent to the Dead Armoury until they could be scheduled for destruction.   

During the 15 days of Bond’s mission to the Low Countries, Q tinkered and coded, filed reports and designed tech, ran missions and mentored techies, attended meetings and snarked with Bond over comms.  All the while, facial recognition and a software programme she had coded herself ran on a spare laptop in her office, searching for any sign, physical or digital, of Alec Trevelyan.  At first Q checked it every night as she had done for weeks, but three demanding missions in addition to Bond’s pushed that back to every other night, and then only once more.

At thirteen weeks, one day, and eight hours after 006’s Albanian mission had ended in a fiery explosion, Holdst was dead and Bond had returned to London.

At thirteen weeks, two days, and thirty minutes, so had Alec.

Seven minutes later, Alec and James had destroyed Q’s dining room table and left the bulk of the first storey of her warehouse in shambles as well as a little bit bloody.  James had fresh lacerations on the bottom of each foot -- bugger, computer components were sharp! -- his cheek, and knuckles as well as two bruised ribs.  Alec had a mild concussion and a rather nasty cut above his right eye.

Three hours and twelve minutes after that, Q returned to the warehouse having finally managed to safely extricate 0012 from her assignment in Chisinau and found 006 and 007 in relaxed conversation amidst the debris of her home.

Two minutes later, Alec Trevelyan had been crumpled to his knees, struggling to breathe, eyes watering as he stared blindly at the area rug beneath him, wondering if he’d ever manage to achieve an erection again.  

James wisely said nothing as Q growled at him before disappearing into her own room.  He looked a long time at the closed door between them, furrowed his brow, and then brought Alec two bags of frozen peas.  They ordered Thai take-away from the 24-hour place on the next block, eating it in silence in Alec’s ground floor bedroom as each man contemplated the long-term effects of Q’s anger. James ultimately had been ostracized only for as long as it took for him to clean up the mess, to replace her damaged furniture, and to arrange for twice weekly tea and biscuits to be delivered to the minions of Q-Branch for the next six months.

Q hadn’t spoken directly to Alec since.

Oh, she engaged with him in a professional capacity.  She had been present for Alec’s debriefing, asking appropriate questions about the original mission as well as particularly pointed and detailed ones about the informant who had sent Alec haring off after the promised new intel and going so far off the grid to try to get it that everyone thought he was dead.

When at every turn, the threads that Alec had thought he had gathered on an international terrorist cartel unraveled before he could do anything with them, he decided to return to London.  The organisation was out there -- had been operating in the shadows for decades from what he had been able to determine -- Alec was certain of it; the ghosts of the organisation were everywhere once he’d started to look, but he had found no proof, no footprints, no direct connections, and no one willing or able to confide in him.   

“And throughout all of this, you found it best to stay in deep cover?  There was no point at which you felt it safe or reasonable to contact HQ to keep us informed so that we might possibly lend you assistance?”  Mallory asked toward the end of the meeting.  It was a standard question asked of agents who went dark on their own, but Mallory purposefully kept from looking at Q when he asked it.

“I didn’t think it prudent to check in until I had something a bit more substantial to report.  Unfortunately, I never reached the threshold where I felt the information was viable,” Alec replied.  

“So you could have checked in but chose not to do so.”

“Yes.”

“I think I’ve heard just about everything I need to from Double-O Six.”  Q stood abruptly, tablet in hand, and Mallory only just managed not to wince at the sudden decrease in temperature in the room brought on by her voice alone.  “I’ll have my people look into what little tech evidence he has provided while the agents in Analysis go over the raw data.  He’s right.  It’s not much, but we’ve worked with less.  I’ll let you know when the reports are complete.  I’m already late for a staff meeting with my R&D developers.  Good day, M.”  The sharp nod she gave Mallory was unfailingly polite.  She didn’t spare so much as a glance for 006.

Q didn’t slam the door when she left, it wouldn’t have been professional, but the quiet click of the door latch sliding home echoed forebodingly through Mallory’s office nonetheless.

M reached into the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a bottle and a pair of cut-crystal glasses.  He poured two fingers into each and passed one to Alec.  

“And there’s absolutely no romantic relationship between the two of you?”

“Never, sir.”  Alec sat stiffly in his chair in front of Mallory’s desk.  He held the glass balanced on its arm.

“She’s a friend?  Like a sister, you said.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mallory stared at the amber liquid in the glass, took a meditative sip, and said without looking at Trevelyan, “You realise you’re quite fucked anyway, don’t you?”

“Absolutely, sir,” replied Alec, downing both fingers in one swallow.

Nevertheless, Q was, as ever, the consummate professional.

Even after that meeting Q assisted 006 with the relevant bits of the reports and even set him up with necessary training to acquaint himself with the newest technological advancements that had been developed in the 10 months he had been in deep cover.

But every time Alec tried to engage her in conversation on any topic not directly related to work, Q walked away, shut her office door, or otherwise turned her attention back to her work, dismissing him without so much as a nod.  Q had the unsettling ability to work around a person as if they weren’t even in the room, to stare through them as if they were a ghost, and to engage in conversation with others without seeming to even hear what the ostracised person might have to say.

It was one of the most disheartening things Bond had ever witnessed, and he hoped like Hell that he never did anything to find himself on the receiving end of Q’s dismissive ire.  Two weeks back in London, and Alec was no closer to making amends with Q.  James had offered every suggestion he could think of, to no avail, and both men were starting to get desperate.  

They were sat at a table in a small Indian restaurant in Southwark trying to brainstorm ideas that might urge Q into at least listening to Alec.  James had attempted to intervene directly: once.  He wasn’t willing to risk his credit rating like that again.  

“How about chocolate?  She loves mint,” James said around a mouthful of naan he had dipped in Tikka Masala sauce.  He was starving and wasn’t concerned about table manners.  It was just Alec.  

“Tried that. Tanner appreciated the After Eights.”  Alec scooped more Saag Paneer onto his plate.

The sound of cutlery on china filled the space between them as they ate and theorized.

“Flowers?”

Alec swallowed and shook his head.  “Target practice.  R was impressed by the ‘vivid palette of colour’ Gerbera daisies create when blown up by experimental liquid explosives.”

“What about the tea?  Was Demming able to suggest an appropriate leaf?”  

“He did.  Narcissus Wuyi Oolong Fo Guo Yan.”

“I’ve had it.  Flavourful.  Expensive.”  

“Seven hundred quid for a hundred grams.”  Alec nodded his thanks to the server who brought him another glass of aam panna.

“Yep, expensive.  And?”

“She gave it to Anderson.”

“Anderson?  Wait,” James pointed his momentarily empty fork at his friend, “That pasty-faced fellow in HR? Brings his tea in a paper Sainsbury’s take-away cup each morning?”

“The same.”

“I really don’t know what to say to that.”  So James snagged the last lamb kabob instead.

“Oh, it gets better … or worse, I suppose,” Alec stabbed his knife through two pieces of lamb on James’ plate which Bond tried to defend.  “I was able to get a bottle of Macallan M --”

James’ eyes snapped to Alec’s, lamb forgotten.  “No -- I’m really not going to like this, am I?  What did she do with it?”

“Popped down to Westminster Pier last night and poured it into the Thames.”

It was only decades' worth of training and practice that kept James from gasping aloud, rather he carefully set his knife and fork crossways on his plate, his appetite suddenly gone. The thought of such a rare single malt being disposed of in such a callous manner left him cold. “That’s … that’s just cruel .”  

Alec abandoned his meal, too, and pressed his fingertips against his right temple and rubbed at the back of his neck.  The headache he had been fighting off and on since returning to London was definitely on again.  “I’m out of ideas.  Thing is, I can’t say she’s being unreasonable.”

Neither could James.  “Q’s lost a lot these last few months:  Boothroyd, her other friends killed in the explosion … M.  She thought she lost you, too, Alec.  We both did.  She knows there’s no guarantee that any of us will ever come back, but --”

“But I screwed up.”

“Yep.”

James let Alec chew on that idea for a minute while he finished his ginger tea.  James reached across the table and picked up their cheque.  The men rose, grabbed their overcoats from the backs of their chairs, and walked to the front of the restaurant.  James unfolded several notes from his wallet and passed them to the hostess.  “You heading back to Six?” he asked Alec, tucking his wallet back into the interior breast pocket of his navy bespoke jacket before sliding on his wool overcoat.  

“No, think I’ll head over to Harrods.  See if I can’t find … oh, I don’t know.  Inspiration.”  Alec saw James’ trepidation.  “No.  You’ve done enough.  I’ll go alone.”

The men stepped to the side of the door to make way for two elderly couples entering the restaurant. It was raining outside again, and James could see that it was starting to turn to sleet, hinting at the forecast for the evening.  The fliers on the advertisement board next to Bond fluttered in the breeze from the approaching, atypical April snow storm.  The board was a hodge-podge of commercial adverts and community notices, but one in particular suddenly caught James’ attention.  He pulled it from the panel and smiled.

‘Alone.’  Alec’s last word echoed in James’ mind but it did so in that tense, scared tone James had heard in Q’s voice while on comms last month.   I was completely alone.  That might be enough to break me.

That was the real issue.

“Sod Harrods,” James said, turning to his friend.  He held up the handbill in front of Alec’s face.  “I have a better idea.”  

A smile slowly spread across Alec’s face as he read the advertisement.   “You’re brilliant, you know that?”

“That goes without saying.  Think it’ll work?”

“Well, it certainly won’t hurt .”  

James pulled his mobile from the inside pocket of his overcoat and dialled the number on the hand-written leaflet as they stepped out into the rain and slid into Alec’s silver Audi R8.  “Head for Bankside,” he told Alec.  He pressed the phone to his ear and waited for the call to connect.  “Ah, yes, hello … okay, Kirstie,” James said when it finally did.  From his friend’s tone, it was clear to Alec that Kirstie couldn’t be much more than five or six.  “Is your mum available?  Well, my name is James.  No, no, she doesn’t. I’m ringing about the advert she posted at Mango Indian …”

Trevelyan navigated his way through the congested streets of the South Bank while James and wee Kirstie and, eventually, wee Kirstie’s mum negotiated a deal that might just get Alec out of the proverbial doghouse.

Bozhe-moi, this better work.”

 

~~OOQ~~

 

Seven hours and two-hundred quid later, Alec leaned comfortably against the back of the sofa, legs propped up on the coffee table watching two balls of fluff attack Q’s woollen socks.  The Quartermaster herself was sat on the floor in front of the fire with a slightly bemused smile on her face as the kittens toyed with her covered toes.

James popped out of the guest loo off the kitchen where he’d been setting up the self-cleaning, automatic litter box.  Food and water dishes were at the ready on the tile at the end of the kitchen island, and he’d even assembled a pair of scratching posts.  The kits’ soft bed was positioned in the corner of Q’s bedroom near her reading chair, not that there was any guarantee they’d use it, and he’d ensured that a variety of kitten toys were scattered in just the right places throughout the first storey. None of them were tasks James would eagerly volunteer for as a matter of course, but doing so had given Alec and Q some of the privacy they needed to talk through their issues.  

It hadn’t taken them long.  It was quiet.  It was honest.  James hadn’t deliberately listened in, but as he’d been crossing through the kitchen with a bag of clumping kitty litter slung over his shoulder, really trying not to notice how tiny Q looked in Alec’s embrace or the tug of something -- not jealousy; Alec had made it quite clear that was not the way of things between him and Q -- that James felt in his own heart, he heard her say to Alec, “I wasn’t ready to lose you, you idiot.”

James tossed several empty wrappers into the bin under the kitchen sink.  “That should do them well until they’re big enough for you to move their litter downstairs to the laundry room.”  James said as he rinsed his hands under the faucet.  He then grabbed two beers and a bottle of water from the fridge before joining his friends.  He handed a bottle to Alec as he passed the sofa, but chose to settle next to the adorable little things on the floor, only two of which were kittens.  He gave the water to Q who uncapped it and drank deeply.

Q glanced at him from the corner of her eyes.  “Thank you, Bond,” she said softly, almost shyly, and James knew that she didn’t mean for the water.  He was a bit surprised at the warmth that filled him at her words.   That heat was as unsettling as it was fulfilling, and James wasn’t sure what to do with the sensation, so he settled on neutral ground.

“You’re welcome, Q.”  He pulled at his beer.  

Coward , his conscience muttered.  

A ball of fluff, tuxedo black and white, pounced on Bond’s knee.  “Hello there, little one,” James said congenially, carefully extracting tiny claws from the wool of his trouser leg.  He set his bottle on the coffee table behind him and picked up the kit in one large hand.  Bond held her up in front of his face, and the kitten head-butted the base of his thumb and began to purr loudly.

“Vocal thing.”  James rubbed at the kitten’s ears.  “You’re in the company of spies now, lil’ bit.  You’ll have the cat-like tread down, but no sense giving your position away by being too loud.”

“They’re young yet.  Plenty of time to train them up right,” Alec commented from the sofa before he burst out laughing at the sight of the other kitten scaling the length of Q’s long French plait as though Q was Rapunzel in the flesh.

“Bloody hell,” Q yelped.  The kit’s claws had dug into the back of Q’s neck in his climb.  She twisted around to try to pull the kitten away, but the animal had managed to fully cling to her hair and the back of her navy jumper like a sticky burr.    

James passed the tuxedo to Alec and began to disentangle her sibling from Q.  It was but the matter of a few moments and James was able to hand the white kitten with his caramel tipped ears and tail to his Quartermaster who snuggled it against the side of her neck.  James lifted the tail of her plait to check the tender flesh of the graceful length for anything deeper than a light scratch. She smelled of jasmine and the winter wind and he found himself wanting to nuzzle her nape and tangle his fingers in her hair as the kit had done.  He fought back a pleased smile when Q started to lean into his touch, quite subconsciously, he was sure, but James basked in the sudden surge of warmth flowed through him at the notion that Q felt secure enough in his presence to do so.

A small stuffed mouse bounced off the back of his head, and James dropped the plait to glare over his shoulder at Alec whose pointed look served as a reminder of the ‘chat’ the two men had shared the week before after Alec had caught James staring at Q ‘in that way.’

“What way is that?” James had demanded, hands braced on his thighs as he pulled air into his lungs.  They had been jogging through Green and St. James’ Parks and were catching their breath after their race to the top of the Clive Steps ended in another bloody tie.  

Alec had been just as worn, their ‘jogging’ having been anything but, and only managed to get his words out between pants.  “The look that says you don’t know whether to kiss her or kill her.  The look that says you’re either going to pull her in as close as you can or push her as far away as possible.  The look that tells me that you, James Bond, are half a step away from falling arse over tit for the woman I consider my sister.”

James’ spine had snapped straight at Alec’s words, but he didn’t deny what Alec had said.  There was no point.  “Are you seriously about to give me the shovel talk?” he had asked, stepping closer to get out of the way of trio of bureaucrats rushing down King Charles Street.

Nyet, moy brat .”  Alec had gripped James’ shoulder with one of his big paws.  Brotherly. Supportively.  “But I need to know that you will think this through, da ?  For both your sakes.”  It hadn’t mattered that Q wasn’t even speaking to Alec, he was going to have his say. Truthfully, James hadn’t expected anything else.

For all that he hadn’t wanted to have the conversation at all -- Englishmen will be Englishmen -- let alone on the pavement in the middle of the lunch rush, James had waited patiently for his friend to search out the rest of what he wanted to say.  Alec had just as hard a time expressing his thoughts and feelings as James did, but when the man did share they were always some of the most introspective, emotive, and heartfelt words James ever heard.  It was Alec’s Russian soul exposed, and James had learned to listen.

“Love is … risky for those who have suffered in life as we three have,” Alec finally continued.  “We’ve each chosen to avoid love and compensate for its lack in different ways, but it hasn’t kept any of us from getting hurt further.  We’re getting old, James, you and I, and in some ways she’s older than either of us.”

“What are you saying, Alec?”

“I’m saying that when you’re ready to stop running, Q’s what you should stop for.”

“And if I’m not?  Ready, that is.”

“You know the answer to that.”   Alec’s tone had grown cold but lost none of its honesty, and James nodded his understanding.  Q didn’t need anyone to champion her, but that didn’t mean that Alec wouldn’t.

“C’mon.  Let’s get cleaned up and grab some lunch,” James had said.  They had walked the rest of the way to HQ, side by side, shoulders bumping occasionally, as each silently considered the implications of Alec’s words.   

“You’re going to have to think of names for them, myshka ,” Alec said, interrupting James’ memory.  He inspected the black and white female in his hands.  He lifted up one front paw to inspect the tiny paw pads and laughed when the kit swiped at him in response.

“No.  That’s already been done.”  Q folded the white one against her chest and untucked her legs, rising gracefully from the floor.  “Bond, would you please grab three of those whisky glasses Mallory gave me for Christmas?” she asked over her shoulder, padding toward the lift where she had dropped her messenger bag earlier that night.

The promise of homemade fish and chips -- a James Bond speciality -- had lured Q from her tech cave at the official end of her shift for the first time in months.  Things had been hectic at Six since Skyfall, but she had made it a point to make it home most nights ... eventually.  Since Alec’s return, however, she’d been largely avoiding the warehouse altogether. Angry though she had been, Q wouldn’t kick Alec out of the only home he had, but neither could she just potter about the place with Alec below stairs as though there weren’t such serious issues between them.  The intelligence that both Bond and Alec had returned with from their missions had left the analysts with more questions than answers, so Q had offered her assistance, staying well into the early morning hours as much as to help make sense of the insensible as to give herself the needed distance.    

Q had been fully aware that Bond’s promise of a home-cooked meal was designed solely to get her back home; a culinary bribe to get Alec and her into the same room long enough to force the conversation that Q had thus far refused to have.  She had missed them, though -- her pair of Double-Os -- and had decided earlier that day things had gone on long enough and had left the sanctuary of Q-Branch prepared for a long, potentially draining conversation.

Q didn’t normally take the lift, but she was tired, anxious, and feeling more than a little out of sorts.  When she pulled back the decorative doors, the pair of kittens staring up at her from inside their basket on the floor in front of the lift changed all that.  Q had dropped her bag next to the basket and hadn’t given it a second thought until Alec mentioned naming the kits.

Bond was setting three cut crystal glasses on the coffee table -- one with two ice cubes in it for her -- by the time Q returned.  She handed Bond the white kitten as she set her bag on the floor.  Q knelt next to the table, tucking her legs underneath her, and pulled first one item and then another from the leather satchel, setting them -- quite pointedly -- on the table.

Alec’s eyes grew wide and he shot to his feet when he saw them.  “Bloody, buggering, fuck!” He gestured lamely at the items, at James, and then at her before slumping back against the sofa in defeat.  “You are one serious piece of work, you know that, myshka ?”  Alec glared at Bond who had been laughing since Q had pulled the items from her bag.

“I was angry, Alec, not insane,” Q scoffed, cracking open the bottle of Macallan M that Brisa had ‘let slip’ to 006 that Q had ‘spilled into the Thames.’  “I know what this is worth.”  She poured them each a finger of the single malt and set the elegant, faceted decanter next to a decorative velvet pouch that James would just bet was filled with Narcissus Wuyi Oolong Fo Guo Yan tea leaves.

Q smiled gently and held up her glass, waiting for the men to do the same.  “To those returned safely home and to those gone before their time,” she said quietly.

The three friends sipped the amber liquid in their glasses, letting the meditative silence linger until a loud squawk from the female tuxedo broke the mood.  

“You said they were already named?” James asked.  He pulled the white kitten away from the glass in his other hand.  The tom had thought to dip his paw in the whisky.  

“Yes.” Q gestured first to the kitten in Alec’s hand and then to the one in Bond’s.  “Gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to Wuyi and Macallan.”  The Double-Os each snorted in response and gave one another a look that indicated they couldn’t think of anything more fitting.

“Now,” Q demanded, “am I going to get fish and chips or not?”

Four hours later and all the residents of the warehouse, well-fed and content, had settled in for the night.  Q had not even tried to contain her laughter when Alec and Bond insisted on seeing the kittens to bed before departing for their own rooms.  Alec pressed a kiss to Q’s cheek with a whispered, “I missed you, too, myshka ,” before he went below stairs.  It was an early night for three people used to keeping impossibly late hours, but each agent had separate meetings with Mallory in the morning that could well lead to them being sent on assignment, and Q was all in.

In spite of her exhaustion, Q was fidgety.  Eventually, she wrapped her favourite winter dressing gown -- a worn, purple thing more threadbare than it should be -- over her cotton chemise and slipped past the sleeping kittens in their bed.  Once in the kitchen, she flipped on the kettle, settling on a blood orange tea with valerian root that she hoped would help her settle her mind enough to sleep.

Q had lost track of how long she stood before the windows drinking her tea, watching the snow as it fell in the puddle of light from the street lamp.  It wouldn’t stick.  It rarely did in London.  The heat of the city itself wouldn’t allow it.  She took another sip from her mug and grimaced.  Cold.  She set the mug on the high ledge of the window sill and wrapped her arms around her torso against the chill in the room.

“Q?”

Bond’s voice was quiet, low, but the baritone vibrated through her blood and made it sing.  He had descended the stairs silently, anticipating an intruder, she thought. A hypothesis confirmed when she heard the hollow thunk of his weapon as he set it on the dining room table as he passed. She’d turned off the light over the hob once her tea had steeped, throwing the large room into darkness.  The only light came from that lonely street lamp outside in the snow, but she caught Bond’s shadow approaching from the corner of her eye.

“I’m fine,” she said, answering the question implicit in his tone.  “Just restless.  Too much going on in here.”  Q touched her temple with her fingertips, not turning away from the window to face him.  Bond settled in behind her, so close that she was sure that if she listened carefully she could hear his heart beating, and it was all she could do not to lean back into the heat of his body.

“Q,” Bond’s voice was ragged in her ear, and just like that, she stopped trying.

Bond’s arms wrapped around her, and he dropped his face into the crook of her neck as he pulled her back against his chest.  Q reached behind her and threaded her fingers through Bond’s closely-cropped hair, urging him on as he licked and nipped at the tender flesh beneath her ear.  His fingers deftly untied the sash of her dressing down, and Q moaned needfully as one large hand slipped beneath the neckline of her chemise to cup her breast, teasing the nipple to hardness while the other skimmed her waist then lower to caress her hip and outer thigh, fingers catching at the hem of her shift and drawing it upward to press his warm palm against the flat of her belly.  

Dear God but Q tasted as good as James remembered.  It had been months since that night on her sofa when they were both raw with grief and a quick tumble had seemed like the best of all possible solutions until they both had realised that it wasn’t.  Friends first: an agreement that had been fulfilled; they had still flirted and teased but almost always at a distance, as if they had an unspoken accord to not get too close.

James hadn’t intended this when he saw it was his Quartermaster and not an intruder who had woken him, but he had quickly learned that he had a weakness for said Quartermaster when viewed in darkness.

Not just in darkness , he thought.   

James was reluctant to pull his hands from Q’s skin, but it just wasn’t enough.  He let go long enough to spin her around to face him and push the dressing gown from her shoulders.  Q’s eyes granted him tacit permission from behind her glasses, and James slipped his fingers under the thin straps of her cotton nightgown and slid them off her shoulders until they caught in the crooks of her elbows.  James lifted her then, pressed her up against the wide panel of wall between the two windows and groaned against her collarbone when she wrapped her legs around his waist.  His cock had been firming steadily since he first took Q in his arms but surged to full hardness at the sensation of her damp heat pressing into the top of his groin.  James smiled wickedly, then dropped his head to feast on her flesh.

Q nearly came the moment Bond’s mouth latched onto her nipple, his tongue and teeth pulling sensations from her that she hadn’t experienced in far too long.  She clutched his head, pressing his mouth to her while with her other hand she fumbled at the waistband of his sleep trousers, desperate to feel him in her bare hand.  He caressed her arse, fingertips dipping under the edge of her knickers in kind to tease before he began rubbing steadily at her sex, caressing that sensitive skin yet never dipping fully into her.  She ground down against him, but each time she did, Bond’s fingers evaded, only to tease again.

Q thought she might kill him.

James couldn’t think of a sound as sweetly maddening as the huffs of need that escaped Q’s lips.  She was glorious.  As he switched attentions to her other breast, James thought just a few more minutes here.  He wanted Q on her bed.  In her sheets.  Beneath him.  On top of him.  It didn’t matter.  As arousing and primal as the thought of it was, James wouldn’t take her here against the wall, though.  She deserved better.  James wanted to give her so much more.  James would --

James didn’t quite scream in pain, but the strangled yelp that caught in his throat was quite distinctive.  Quick reflexes kept him from dropping Q altogether, but James barely kept her fall controlled when the pin prick of kitten claws that scaled up the thin fabric of his sleep trousers dug deeply into the bare flesh of his back and neck. James caught a quick flash of white fur from the corner of his eye before Macallan leapt from his shoulder down to the window ledge to look out at the snow falling much as his mum had been doing just minutes before.

“Oh my God, Bond!  Are you okay?”

He wasn't. He really wasn't.

Once clothing had been set to rights, the next fifteen minutes were spent with James sat at the cracked remains of the dining room table while Q cleaned several deep scratches on his back before coating them in antiseptic cream and applying a few necessary plasters.  Macallan watched the entire affair from his spot in James’ lap -- blissfully unaware that at that moment it was only 007’s affection for his Quartermaster that kept the kit alive -- occasionally reaching out to bat at loose plaster wrappers on the table top.  James sipped at the whisky Q had poured for him before setting to work on his back.

Once she had packed up her first aid kit, Q pressed her lips to one of the plasters high up on Bond’s shoulder blade.  “We won’t tell Alec you were cockblocked by a kitten,” she said in his ear and reached down to pluck Macallan from his lap.  James turned in the chair to look up at her, and she cupped his face in the palm of her free hand.

“I thought you promised not to use that word again?”  He reached up and ran his thumb across her lower lip.  

“Which word?”

“Cockblock.”

Q chuckled at the memory of their previous discussion of that word.  “Accurate, though.”  She sobered and kissed the pad of his thumb.  “Still not our time, it seems.”  Her tone was equal parts frustration and relief.  Oh, but she wanted him.  Desperately.  Had for as long as she could remember.  But there was such a difference between wanting and having and keeping.  

James had turned to glare at the kitten, but he felt no real malice toward him.  Alec’s words came back to James as they had done earlier that night.   Think this through.  For both your sakes.  James couldn’t honestly say that he was there yet.  He wanted her, yes.  But love?  James wasn’t sure he was ready to stop running.  And though it had never been explicitly stated, he knew Q wouldn’t do casual.

“Apparently not.”  He stood and caught his fingers in the hair at the base of her neck.  It was still in its plait, and James couldn’t think of a time when he had seen it loose.  He imagined Q naked in his bed, pale and rosy tipped against the dark sheets with only her unbound hair hiding her from his eyes.  It was a sight worth waiting for.

“Good night, Bond,” Q said.  She turned toward her room, Macallan pressed against her chest but James caught her trailing hand in his, stilling her departure.

“Do you think there’ll ever be a time when you call me James?” he asked softly.

Q bit her bottom lip and he was surprised at the conflicted look that crossed her face at his question.  “Names are … a difficult area for me, Bond.  I promise to explain it to you some day, but not tonight.  It’s not just you, though.  It was two years before I called Alec by his first name.”

“So it’s possible.”  James massaged the palm of her small hand with the pad of his thumb.

“More than.”  Q pressed a kiss to his cheek and disappeared around the corner of the kitchen to her bedroom.

It was only then that James realised that, once again, he’d never got around to kissing her.

“Bugger me,” he muttered then downed the rest of his whisky in one swallow.  

James did not sleep well that night.

Macallan, however, slept like the dead.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter Six:  “Swallowing the Syllables of Your Name”

 

“'Love is simple. You fall and that's it. You'll work the other stuff out. You just gotta let yourself fall and have faith that someone will be there to catch you.'

I didn't want to do any falling. Falling usually led to meeting a hard surface in an unpleasant way."

Chelsea M. Cameron , My Favorite Mistake

 


 

University College Hospital; National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London, England:  Early January, 2014 (Six weeks after Westminster Bridge)

 

“I appreciate you being here, sir, but surely there are other things you’d rather be doing today,” Q said around the lip of the steaming cup of Earl Grey Mallory had brought her.  He had smuggled in a thermos of the brew, Alec having told him how one of Q’s chief complaints of her ‘incarceration’ in the High Dependency Unit was the deplorable quality of the tea.  

As they took tea together, Mallory had been briefing Q on the pertinent details of their post-SPECTRE reality:  co-conspirators who had been rounded up, the death of the plans for the Joint Intelligence Service, Q-Branch’s steady dismantling of the core components of Nine Eyes and the strengthening of the UK’s cyber security in light of their cyber security expert’s incapacitation had all been chief topics of conversation.

“Q, spending time with you is hardly a chore, and truthfully I should have been ‘round long before now,” he said.  Gareth returned the file folder he had been reading from to his soft-sided briefcase, leaned back in his chair, and simply took a moment to assess his Quartermaster.  He had last been by when Q was still comatose, and while she looked about as well as one could under the circumstances, it was still a far cry from the healthy, vibrant, prickly-natured woman she had been only a month ago; Mallory mourned the change.

Q had been moved from the Intensive Treatment Unit three days earlier, just shy of a fortnight after she woke from her medically induced coma to discover that her life would never be the same.  She had since met with therapists of all kinds and been subjected to countless medical tests to determine the range, function, and sensation remaining in her legs.  Her level of injury had been reclassified to T-11/T-12, but she still had the full use of her upper body and full sensation to about the level of her pubic bone.  Solid trunk and abdominal muscle control meant that Q’s sitting balance was excellent for her condition and was why she sat with Mallory in a small atrium at the end of the corridor of the HDU.  

Though still weak, she was strengthening daily, and Gareth knew that her doctors wanted Q out of bed and in a wheelchair as often as she could do so with some degree of comfort, but Tanner had told Mallory that ‘comfort’ was very much a relative term.  The incomplete nature of her paralysis meant that there was a great deal of pain Q was working through, only some of which would be resolved as her body continued to heal.  

Alec, Tanner, and even Eve had continued to spend time with Q as she recovered, but muscle spasms and lightning flashes of pain through her legs meant that she spent fair portions of each day medicated.  Q was apparently as stubborn as ever, eschewing the medication until she simply couldn’t deal with the pain anymore.  It frustrated her doctors and drove her nurses spare, but thus far no one had been able to dissuade her from her course.  Q was desperately afraid of developing a dependency; however, the bigger issue was the way in which the drugs apparently clouded her mind.

“Because I can’t bloody think ,” was Q’s answer when Alec had asked her why she wouldn’t make use of what was available to ease her pain.  Bored with inactivity and all but slept out from the day before, Q had spent several hours designing tech and coding on the laptop a minion had been coerced into bringing her, but as the day progressed so had her pain level until she finally relented and activated the PCA pump that pushed the morphine through her system.  When Alec carefully suggested that her focus might be better spent on her recovery than on anything she might design for Six, Q’s response had left the Double-O shaken.

“My body is already broken, Alec.  What value will I have to anyone if my mind doesn’t work either?” she said as the morphine did its job, dulling the pain and her senses so quickly that she fell asleep before Alec could say anything to contradict her so very incorrect assessment of her worth.

When Mallory arrived late the next afternoon, Q told him that her pain was manageable today, so at the urging of her nurses, the two had moved down the corridor to the solarium to enjoy the sun of an atypically bright December day.  Her bodyguards and his stood nearby, ensuring that their conversation would not be overheard by ears not cleared for such classified information.  Each sat in their own chair.  M’s was stiff-backed and lightly padded.  Q’s had wheels.  

Q had readily shared with Mallory that the results of her tests demonstrated that she had the ability to move each leg to some degree, though her right was significantly more impaired than her left.  She also had some sensation in each leg.  In her ‘good’ left leg, Q retained approximately 65 percent of normal pressure, pain, and temperature sensation with the exception of her outside three toes which she couldn’t feel at all.  Her right leg was something of a hodge podge, however.  Q could sense changes in pressure along the inside of her thigh to her knee and then along the outside of her calf all the way to her foot to various degrees, but on the whole, only about 35 percent of normal feeling remained.  There was a spot on the outside of her right knee that felt like it was on fire half of the time, and temperature sensation was sometimes there, sometimes not.

She had only a minimal ability to stand on her own, but Q was young and strong and was recuperating well from the other injuries caused by the bullet, so with the right therapies, her doctors felt that things could improve, but it was unlikely that she would ever walk unsupported again.  She would be transferred to a long-term rehabilitation clinic as soon as she passed certain benchmark goals established by her medical team -- which knowing Q would be in significantly less time than average -- and then the true work of reclaiming her life would begin.

Q noted the evaluative way in which Mallory looked at her now, and before she could stop herself, she brought up a subject -- one of countless -- that had been weighing on her mind for days.

“Sir, I’ll understand if you expect me to retire from the SIS.  There will be only so much that I can --”

“Who in the bloody hell said anything about me expecting you to retire?” demanded Mallory in a loud voice that attracted the attention of each of their guards.

“I -- I just assumed that --”

Mallory interrupted her again.  “Well if you can stop doing that , Quartermaster, we’ll all get through the coming months and years far more smoothly.”  

As she had told him of her physical condition, Gareth had been left with the feeling that she wasn’t sharing the news with him because she felt he was someone who genuinely wanted to know.  The way in which she gestured animatedly to emphasise the positive aspects of her health and vocally downplayed the negatives had reminded Mallory of the estate agent he had nearly used to find his current flat.  

Here! Mr. Mallory, look at the gorgeous crown mouldings throughout the interior, but don’t look at the pervasive mold that the building superintendent hasn’t been able to eradicate in the last decade.  The flat is centrally located and only a block away from the nearest Tube station as well as near three drugs dens that the Met raids every fortnight or so.  

Gareth had left halfway through the showing and, as he should have done from the beginning, had used an agency that did frequent business with members of the intelligence community.  The circumstances were different -- a flat to purchase versus a paralyzed Quartermaster -- but each salesperson had the same goal.  

The estate agent had tried to sell Gareth Mallory something he didn’t want.

Q felt that she had to do the same.

“Retire ,” he muttered, looking up through the skylight as if seeking help from above.  “The very idea!”

When he dropped his eyes again three deep breaths later, it was to Q’s completely baffled expression.  Well, at least he assumed it was baffled as he had never seen that particular look on the genius’ face before.  He sighed once and modulated his tone before continuing.   

“You saved nine bloody nations with that bit of hacking.  Likely more than that when the potential long-term effects are taken into account, ” Mallory muttered in that soft, offhand way he used when he was trying to be nonchalant about his own emotions. “Fine lot we would be if we sacked you because we couldn’t find the moles in our own house before they went on a rampage and caught you in the crossfire.  Her Majesty and the PM have made it abundantly clear that my head would be served up like John the Baptist’s if even the idea of dismissing you crossed my mind, not that it ever has or ever will.  We’re already hard-pressed doing without you as it is, and I know nothing good would come from your permanent absence.  I’m afraid you’re stuck with us, Quartermaster.”  Gareth paused when a suddenly horrifying idea popped into his head.  “That is unless you want to leave us ?!”

Q looked at him blankly for five full seconds before her face crumbled and she burst into tears.  No, not tears, deep, heaving sobs that Mallory was certain were being pulled from the deepest part of her soul.  From the first hiccuping explosion of breath, Q had clapped her hand over her mouth, clearly mortified at her lack of control over her emotion, but control it she could not.  Mallory sat frozen for only a moment -- this response, while probably the healthiest one Q had experienced all week, was nonetheless unexpected -- then gestured for the guards to stay where they were.  He had this.

Mallory slid from his chair across from Q and into the one next to her wheelchair.  He pulled the mug of tea from her hands and set it safely out of the way and then did the same with her glasses.  Q stiffened when Gareth slipped his arm around her shoulder, but he did not pull away.  Rather, he tugged gently once, and Q all but collapsed into his side, gripping the lapel of his jacket as she sobbed into his chest.  He caught only snippets of what she was trying to say through her tears, repeated words about her legs and her mobility, but the phrase that came through the clearest was that she wouldn’t leave Six the way that Bond had.  She didn’t understand how he could leave them, leave her , without apparently a backwards glance.  

Mallory didn’t even try to answer her pleading questions.  He simply brushed her hair back, tucked her head beneath his chin, and held her as closely as he could, murmuring comforting words -- sounds, really -- that he knew from experience wouldn’t solve anything but would at least soothe her.

It should have been awkward, but it wasn’t.  At least not yet.

It wasn’t long before Q came back to herself. Such bursts of grief never lasted long, but they were overwhelmingly powerful as Gareth knew all too well.  

Mallory’s physical and emotional recovery from his three months as a hostage in the hands of the IRA had come along in due course, though at the time psychological therapy was minimal at best.  Gareth had done the best he could with the resources he had, but it hadn’t been enough, ultimately costing him his marriage.  Eventually, the effects of the host of cognitive, emotional, and social issues he had wrestled with became more ‘acceptable’ to discuss openly without ridicule or censure, and as such, were better treated.  Nevertheless, it had taken Gareth years to find a therapist who could explain to him why he could go along for months at a time without feeling any ill effects but suddenly, and without apparent trigger, he would be overwhelmed with the memories, not of the physical effects of his torture and captivity, but of the helplessness and anger and guilt and loneliness he had felt.

The emotional bursts would hit hard and fast and without remorse, leaving Mallory stunned in their wake and wondering what in the hell had happened.  It was during a surge of these bursts, just six months before Skyfall, that he finally found Dr. Goddard, a private psychiatrist specializing in trauma and grief who did more for him in a handful of sessions than he managed to get in years of therapy courtesy of the British Army.  He had feared that he was losing his mind, but Dr. Goddard not only gave name to what he was experiencing -- grief bursts -- but helped Mallory understand that they were completely normal.

It’s just another type of grieving, Gareth, she had told him.   And make no mistake, you are grieving from your experience and may do so for years to come.

He explained all this to Q as she composed herself.  Mallory left nothing out -- though he glossed over some aspects of his captivity and torture -- sharing with her things few others knew because he wanted her, no, needed her, to understand that she was not alone in this.  ‘Stiff upper lip’ may be a Brit’s default setting from birth, but in Q it seemed to be even more so, and Mallory knew it would do her little good in her emotional recovery if she kept it all bottled up to herself.

When she finally pulled away from him -- glasses back on her face, the handkerchief he had given her a creased mess in her hands -- and settled herself more securely in her chair, he added something he rightly guessed she needed to hear.  “I hope you know me well enough to understand that I don’t see any point in saying things I don’t believe, so here it is: you are one of the strongest most irritatingly tenacious people I have ever met, and no one who knows you is likely to think any differently.  But you are grieving , Q.  You shouldn’t ever feel that you need anyone’s permission to do that.”

Gareth could see the fatigue and pain in her face and resolved to get her back to her room as quickly as possible, but he continued a moment more to explain.  “You’re grieving the loss of your legs.  Your mobility.”  He paused.  “Bond.”  

She turned her face away at the last comment but not before Gareth saw a flash of humiliation flicker in her eyes.  Wholly undeserved in his opinion, but that was not his place to help her understand.  He was angered on her behalf, nonetheless.

Q had always been something of a puzzle to Mallory for all that their relationship had been a bit more informal than was typical of his interactions with those he supervised.  It probably had something to do with the fact that the first time he’d met the Quartermaster, she’d been neck deep in at least three illegal and potentially treasonous acts to keep Olivia Mansfield safe.  Rather than pull the plug on her activities as he should have done, he’d trusted her, instinctively and without reservation, and had let Q run with her plan.  And though the outcome had not been the one they’d hoped for, Gareth had never regretted going with what his gut told him was right in trusting Q.

The young woman was always brilliant, frequently abrasive, and Mallory would have called her arrogant if she hadn’t always been able to back up her promises with practical and ingenious solutions, but Q was also one of the most loyal and humane people he had ever met -- a hard thing to find in the espionage business -- and it left her vulnerable.  Was it little wonder, then, that most people at Six both feared yet wanted to protect her?  

There was no protecting her from this, though.  All any of them could do was support her.  

A gesture from Alan, his primary guard, caught Mallory’s attention, and he could see Q’s nurse in the hallway beyond.  It was time to head back.  Though she had managed to wheel herself -- awkwardly --  to the solarium, Q was emotionally and physically drained and did not complain when Mallory pushed her back to her room.  He waited outside until the nurses had settled her back in bed but returned to Q’s side at her request.  She again tried to apologize for her emotional outburst, but Mallory would have none of it.

“Still, it’s a bit awkward doing that in front of your boss,” Q said, looking up at him from her partially reclined bed.  She was again hooked up to her PCA and -- based on the increasing glassy appearance of her eyes behind her spectacles -- had already hit the button to administer the pain medication she had probably needed for quite some time, stubborn bit of goods that she was.  He was glad of it.

“Not just your boss, I hope,” he said frankly.

“Sir?”  Q’s puzzlement was clear on her face.

“Q, that night at the CNS building and everything leading up to it, that was us on the front lines of the battlefield.  I may not be in the army anymore and you may have never served in the military, but that was combat , and a shared experience like that -- knowing what was on the line if we failed -- does something to people. It changes relationships.  While I may still be your boss, it’s much the same as when I was in command of my SAS mobility troop.  There’s a chain of command, yes, but we are now brother and sister in arms, and that is not a bond I take lightly.”

Q thought about it for a moment before responding, and though what she said was quite serious, a whisper of a smile had touched her lips.   “Olivia Mansfield was the only M I ever knew, 28 years of her.  Even before she was M, she was M.  She was really the only mothe -- maternal figure I had, yet I never knew if she even liked me.  Did she see me as a person or merely as a tool?”

A small spasm wracked her body, and Q let out a sharp huff of pain, pressing the button on the PCA again. After a moment, once the morphine began to settle the pain, she continued, almost rushing to get the words out before the medication sent her under completely.  “You’ve been M for all of … 13 months.  When we met, I was hacking into global positioning systems, committing more cyber crimes … than you know about, and toeing the line of committing treason that you ...   did know about, all to leave a false trail for … Silva to follow, but for all that ... I’ve always known where I stand with you.  You have no ... no idea how important that is.  What it means .”

If pressed by others, they would each attribute Q’s earnest comments to the morphine, but for now they understood one another and no more words were needed.

With a short nod, Mallory headed for the door, briefcase in hand, but turned back again before leaving.  “While Dr. Goddard isn’t taking new patients, I’m fairly sure she would be willing to speak with you if you’re amenable.  I would be happy to contact her on your behalf.”

Q hesitated, still uncomfortable at the thought of sharing the complete mess that was going on inside her head, but the earnest look on Mallory’s face reminded her of what he had said before.  She didn’t have to do this alone.

“I think that … would be a good idea.  Thank you, M.”

They said their goodbyes, Q already halfway to sleep by the time he left the room.  Once his driver had them back on the road to his Mayfair flat, Mallory thumbed open his mobile and called the second number in his favorites list.

“Hello, love,” he said when the call connected.

“All done at hospital then?”

“I am.”  

Gareth had been skimming through a handful of files he needed to prep for a morning meeting but based on the speed at which rush hour traffic was not moving, he’d have plenty of time to do so before he got home.  He took a moment to look out the window at the pedestrians on the pavement all busily going through their daily lives, completely oblivious to the fact that they owed their continued freedoms largely to a 29 year-old wisp of a woman who had sacrificed nearly all to ensure that the Commonwealth would not be torn apart from within.  Bond may have stopped Blofeld, and that was no small thing, to be sure, but had Nine Eyes gone live … the thought of those consequences still had Mallory up most nights.  

“I was right though,” he continued. “She’ll need you, Kate.  Probably even more than I did.”

“I thought that might be the case, so I cleared my schedule for tomorrow.”  Mallory could hear the sound of her pottering about in their kitchen.  Kate had said something that morning about making roasted pork with mushroom and onion gravy if she managed to get home early enough.  

“I love you,” Mallory said, smiling.

“I know you do,” Kate said.  He could hear the smile in her own voice, and as always, it soothed him, made him feel far lighter than the weight of his responsibilities would otherwise permit him to feel.  She was his godsend and his salvation.  Thankfully his Dr. Goddard had had enough professional contacts that it had been an easy enough task to find someone to replace her once it became clear to both doctor and patient that their mutual attraction would not allow for her to continue to treat him.   

Within six weeks of Mallory’s first appointment, they had already ceased their professional relationship, started their personal one, and two weeks after that, Kate had moved into his flat.  She had already known who he was and what he did for a living -- she typically treated patients in the highest levels of the government, including people in the MoD and Foreign Office, and had signed Official Secrets Act paperwork long before she had ever met him -- so it had been an easy enough transition for them both once he was made head of the SIS.  Two days after Westminster Bridge, when he had finally been able to return home for the first time, Gareth had directed his driver to first stop at the HSBC branch on Regent’s Street.

Gareth had been greeted at the door with a kiss of desperate gratitude and a hug that would have gone on for eons had he not pulled himself from Kate’s grasp, slowly dropped to one knee -- arthritis was a sodding bitch -- slipped his Gran’s ring onto her finger, and asked Kate to marry him.

The wedding would be in the Autumn.

Kate’s soft, warm voice, tinny through the mobile, pulled him from his musings and what she said reminded him again of why he loved her so desperately.

“I’ll call her attending tonight and plan to pop ‘round to see her once visiting hours start in the morning,” she said.  “Q will be okay, Gareth.  We’ll make sure of it.”

 


 

 

MI6 Headquarters, London, England: May 2013 (Six months before Westminster Bridge)

 

“Ida Darmali, aged 52.  British national of Javanese descent.  Research scientist.  Read chemistry at Cambridge where she earned her PhD in Biological Chemistry,” Q said of the woman whose image currently appeared on the main screen of Q-branch courtesy of the video camera embedded into Bond’s sunglasses.  Their current topic of conversation was in the process of stepping from the sea, warm water cascading down her mostly bare body in rivulets that only served to enhance her toned flesh.

“You’re sure she’s 52?”  Tall and elegant, the woman’s black hair was pulled back into a tight chignon at the base of her skull. Her face was relatively unlined, and only a gossamer dusting of silver hair at her widow’s peak indicated that she was anything over the age of 40.  The bikini she wore certainly didn’t suggest it.  “She’s extremely fit.”  Bond’s baritone -- confident and deceptively lazy -- rumbled through the earwig Q wore in deference to the early hour in London.

MI6 never closed, but typically only a skeleton staff manned the third shift in Q-Branch, and as it was just past three in the morning, the lights were dim and Q’s techs largely spoke in whispers when they spoke at all.  Comparatively, the HD feed from Bali showed sunlight spilling from behind a smattering of white clouds in an otherwise blue sky as a gentle breeze rustled the palms and the raffia fringe that edged the roof of one of the resort’s bars in which Bond sat, surveilling his target from behind his sunglasses and a mimosa.

“As ever, you excel at focussing on the truly critical aspects of the mission, Double-O Seven.”  Q pulled up another screen of data that she then fed directly into Bond’s tablet  “According to the journals of her advisors and colleagues, Dr. Darmali showed great promise from the outset with her research in developing vaccines and other treatments for a variety of pathogens.”

“Which would make her invaluable to an organisation like Médecins sans Frontières ,” Bond said, perusing the doctor’s CV that appeared in front of him.

“Indeed.  Except that the not-so-good doctor seems to have been branching out in the last decade.”  Q fed Bond still more data, charts, and a precis that had been compiled by the analysts upstairs.  “She’s been using the activities of MSF to camouflage additional research that has nothing to do with eradicating anything.”

Bond skimmed efficiently through the materials on his tablet for several minutes, intelligence that indicated Ida had been a very bad girl, indeed, dabbling in the weaponization of viral and bacterial infections.  He looked up, and Ida Darmali’s statuesque figure again filled Q’s screen. “She was Holdst’s client.  Our bioterrorist,” he said.

“Our bioterrorist.  Or at least one of them,” Q confirmed tightly.

“Are you alright, Q?”

“I’m fine, Double-O Seven” Q snapped.

“Well, that response was certainly comforting.”

Q took a deep breath and rubbed her eyes behind her glasses; she was exhausted from running four agents on missions in two different hemispheres, but that wasn’t the source of her irritation.  “My apologies, Double-O Seven.  I didn’t mean to bite your head off.”

Q watched through Bond’s eyes as his fingertips danced across the surface of his tablet, opening a new app that caused a small window with a live feed of Q’s face to appear in the bottom left-hand corner of his screen.  He had activated the new remote video conferencing programme -- basically a souped-up, highly secure version of Skype -- that Q had installed on his tablet for field testing on this mission.  It allowed Bond to see and be seen by the person he was talking to, and he could switch between multiple feeds and choose which windows to maximize or minimize depending on the importance of the conversation.  The application and video feed could also be transferred to a pair of smart glasses equipped with a miniature webcam allowing an agent to, in some circumstances, literally see what was going on behind him or her.  

Q was grateful to see that Bond kept the primary window focussed on the mission parameters and that the window that held her feed from Q-Branch dropped in and out of view as the agent split his attention between his Quartermaster who was 7500 miles away and his mark who slithered past only 10 metres in front of him.  

A few quick keystrokes activated the application on her end, and a similar window containing Bond’s face appeared larger than life on the main screen -- a recently installed holographic model developed by R&D -- in the heart of Q-Branch.  Of the three earwigs she had included with his kit -- he really was never going to return even one to her in working order -- Bond currently wore the one that resembled a bluetooth clip so that it appeared as if he was talking to someone on his mobile, negating the need to be more physically covert about the conversation that he was really having.

“You’ve been tense about this mission from the start,” Bond observed.  “Why?”  

“And here I thought I was hiding it all reasonably well,” Q groused.  She took a sip of her tea.  Still hot, thank the minions.  

Bond nodded his thanks to the server who set down his breakfast on the table in front of him, and said, still elegantly, around a bite of expertly baked croissant, “To everyone else, I’m sure you are.  I know you better than that.”

He did.  Damn the man.

“Kincade would be appalled, Bond,” she said, taking a moment to chastise him for talking with his mouth full even as she considered how it had come to pass that Bond did, in fact, know her better than … well, just about anyone except Alec, and she wasn’t entirely convinced of that anymore, really.

She drummed her nails on the worktop absently.  Q wished that she could chalk up such familiarity to the fact that Bond was the most perceptive Double-O in the SIS -- sorry, Alec, dear -- or that it had been born from their having shared rooms for the last several months, but Q knew better than that.  James Bond simply understood her in a way that no one else did.  He was becoming skilled at interpreting her moods from the briefest look or through the slightest variation in the tone of her voice, and Q really wasn’t certain how she felt about that.  

On one hand it was refreshing not to always have to prevaricate in the ways that social niceties -- those unwritten rules at which she didn’t always excel -- so often demanded, but on the other, the reality was that Bond’s perception frequently scared the living Hell out of her.  

She felt more intimately connected to Bond than anyone else of her acquaintance -- had from their first meeting all those years ago -- and while she knew that such an affinity was part and parcel with the kind of profound friendship -- relationship? -- they were forming, it forced her to realise that her thoughts and her emotions were not always her own.  That they could and often would impact him as well.  This connection she had with Bond was so different than the one she shared with Alec, and she often felt wrong-footed and self-conscious even as she revelled in the charged energy that flowed through her due to his notice of her disposition.

“Q,” Bond prodded.

“She disgusts me,” Q blurted out, in complete contrast to her typical unflappable demeanour.  “This whole situation does.  I know I’m supposed to remain aloof … impartial … professional ,” she admitted a heartbeat later,  “but I’ve seen what Médecins sans Frontières can do, the great good they’re capable of …”

“Liandri,” Bond acknowledged.  It wasn’t a question.  

Once Q had shared with Bond the story of the plane crash it was of little consequence to share with him the rest of the events of her year abroad.  She had laughed at his barely concealed surprise when she told him a few of the salacious details of her affair with the Belgian brothers, Sigur and Reynard, and their performance sports cars.  

“Why everyone automatically assumes I’m some sort of blushing virgin, I’ll never begin to understand.” Q had said, brushing a few crumbs from her bright pink jumper as she had leaned against the iron fence that ran along The Thames in front of Jubilee Gardens.  Initially, Bond had been too busy choking on one of the lamb and mint Cornish pasties he had picked up for them from Waterloo Station to respond.  She had known there was no point in pounding on his back, so Q had let him cough up the savoury crumbs on his own much to his consternation and that of the others trying to enjoy their al fresco lunch on that surprisingly temperate London winter day.  

“In fact, I’d wager they probably taught me a thing or two that even you -- O Great Seducer of the European Union -- have never thought to try,” she had added once Bond’s coughing subsided.  Admittedly, she had taken a great deal of perverse pleasure in the second coughing fit that had ensued and had wondered if she’d ever have the chance to prove her assertion.    

Far more seriously, however, Q had shared with him the story of Liandri’s tragic death and the impact it continued to have on her well over a decade later.  The relief organisation she had volunteered with in South Africa had worked hand-in-hand with Médecins sans Frontières, and the tasks -- no, the miracles -- those doctors, nurses, and support staff performed on a daily basis nearly had Q rethinking her career at the time.

“It sickens me to think that this bitc --” Q cut herself off, fighting for her professionalism in spite of her contempt, “ -- excuse me, Bond, this bioterrorist is using MSF as a cover to destroy the very lives Médecins sans Frontières are trying to save . ”  

The information she had sent to Bond’s tablet included the evidence that MI6 had in hand that indicated Darmali was using the sick and injured to which MSF tended as test subjects for her bioweapons.  Had been doing so for years, in fact. It would be easy enough to arrest Darmali based solely on what they already had, but what little data Bond’s Omega Seamaster had managed to upload from Holdst’s mobile before the terrorist -- and the phone -- had been chopped into just so many bits also hinted at further bioweapons being constructed by other ‘doctors’ as well as a connection to the nameless organisation funding the Mengelesque experiments.  Darmali was in Bali on holiday before she took up her next MSF posting in Mozambique to help ‘treat’ cholera, but intel suggested a meet with her handlers before she moved on to Africa.  Bond had been dispatched to the The Legian Bali in Denpasar to obtain further information and, if possible, capture said handlers.  

James assessed the alluring doctor from behind his dark sunglasses, but he didn’t try to be covert about it.  Based on the way Darmali had draped herself artfully on an umbrella-shaded chaise lounge, she expected open appraisal from those around her.  More than once she had looked pointedly over her shoulder to ensure that she had Bond’s attention.  

Empirically, Ida Darmali was a beautiful woman.  She had a trim body with a narrow waist that spoke of a fitness regimen that went beyond that of the average scientist.  Her cinnamon brown skin appeared smooth and was probably supple to the touch.  Her breasts were full, barely contained by the damp fabric of her navy blue bikini top, but much like the absence of lines on her face, their pertness was solely due to the intervention of a surgeon -- a good one.  One that would cost far more than the average research scientist associated with a volunteer organisation could reasonably afford.

He watched as the older woman flirted shamelessly with the 20-something cabana boy who had brought her a fresh drink, cajoling him into reapplying her sunscreen irrespective of the umbrella under which she sat, and James, surprisingly, found himself rather disappointed that his mission parameters included a likely honey trap, his first since being cleared for duty after Skyfall.  

Yes, the woman was lovely, but she was like the autumn crocuses that dotted the moors of Skyfall;   Colchicum autumnale were delicate, purple flowers that Kincaid had made very clear were highly toxic, fatally so, in spite of their beauty.  James had seduced more than one deadly, ‘naked lady’ in his years as a Double-O and had usually enjoyed the physical task.  He liked sex, after all, and though his own libido was finally resurging after so many months lying relatively dormant as he recuperated -- particularly so when it came to his Quartermaster -- this was one bee James didn’t particularly care to lure to the honey.

That he would do his job was never in question, but the Double-O in him credited his distaste of the physical with the nature of Darmali’s crimes.  James Bond the man, however, had only to look down at the screen of his iPad, at the tired, wan, but infinitely more lovely face of his resolute Quartermaster to know the real reason why he was repelled by the doctor.

“We’ll get them, Q,” James said firmly.

His Quartermaster snorted.  “Oh, please, Bond.  Like there was any doubt of that.”  Then she rolled her eyes in what James had come to recognize as self-exasperation.  “Apologies … again.  Petulance has the better of me tonight, it seems.”

James was pretty sure she didn’t realise that her outburst had actually complimented him, affirming her belief that James could always get the job done.  “I think there’s more to it than that, Q.”  

The image of her on his screen fell still, even the rapid clicking of Q at her keyboard was frozen in time, and for several long moments James thought that he had, in fact, lost the feed.  But then Q pulled her glasses from her face and pressed the heels of her palms to her eyes, leaning over her elbows that she’d propped against the surface of her workstation.  Despite the distance that separated them, the HD quality of the video feed worked perfectly -- far better than Skype could ever hope to achieve -- and James could see that the exhaustion in Q’s face was not just based in the physical.  He was suddenly quite appreciative of the new app that allowed him the opportunity to see her distress rather than just infer it from her tone over comms.

“Talk to me, Q,” he said softly as though he were gentling a young foal ready to bolt rather than be tamed.

“So many threads …”  She looked into the webcam from between her fingers for a moment before he saw her plop down on the tall stool that was always at the ready at her station but that she hardly ever actually used.  

“Threads of what?”

“Information.  Data.  Intelligence.  The analysts can’t make sense of it beyond a surface level, the data that you’ve all been bring back the last few months.”  She ran her hands through her already tousled hair and viciously yanked the elastic from her ponytail causing the mass of espresso brown curls to fall about her shoulders. James tensed at the sight.  He had never seen Q’s hair loose before, and doing so now felt more erotic than when he’d had her naked flesh beneath his hands and mouth.   The low-level arousal that was always present whenever he was in Q’s company ratched up a few notches.  He was thousands of miles away, but still his fingers itched to dance along the edges of those waves and whorls, to bury themselves in the dark tresses … perhaps the HD video conferencing app wasn’t such a great idea after all.

James coughed, very subtly adjusted himself, and deliberately turned his attention to the view of his mark and the beach and the sea beyond.  He needed to get himself under control if he was to interact with Darmali.  “What do you mean?”

Suddenly all the frustration that had been building up in Q for weeks broke free.  

“Something’s going on, Bond.  Something big.  I can sense it, and if we can’t figure it out, I fear -- whatever this global terrorist organisation is that’s lurking in the shadows, this bloody wraith …  Holdst, of course.  Darmali, too, she’s a part of it.  But directly?  Tangentially?  Someone has to have hired her.  And then there’s all that information that had Alec scuttling around Eastern Europe for those months we thought he was dead. Hell, I’m certain that the human trafficking ring One is chasing down in Japan is involved.  All the pieces are there.  I can see them.  But nothing ties together, links...  It’s so bloody like coding that Analysis tossed it back to TSS, but I can’t get ahead of it …”

Out of the corner of his eye, James saw Q sweep her hair back on top of her head and secure it with a pair of lacquered chopsticks 008 had brought her back from Thailand last month, and he immediately breathed a little easier, finally able to look back at her image.  Q continued to gesticulate wildly, however, and he was certain that if it hadn’t been the night shift, she’d be stalking around her platform workstation and shouting through the comms in spite of the fact that her innate sense of propriety wouldn’t normally permit such severe lack of control in front of her staff.

“ … the key is there,” she continued without pause, pointing at some random spot beyond the view of the webcam, “but it’s like someone’s hiding it.  Dangling it like a carrot on a string only to yank it out of my grasp right before I’m about to latch on so we can’t see or understand the whole thing, and whatever it is, it’s massive, Bond, and old … decades at least. Someone’s playing games with us, and we don’t have the Rosetta Stone, and … damn it, yes, I know I’m mixing my metaphors, so don’t even go there!  It’s like the ghost stories Eustace used to tell me when I was a child:  spectres that created mischief and even terror for those they ‘fancied’ but always hiding in darkness at the periphery of one’s sight.  Spectres that -- come morning -- vanish into the ether like mist touched by the dawn, abiding only long enough to see the effect of the damage they have wrought.”

Undeniable.  Lingering.    

Q knew she was doing a horrible job explaining what was spinning around in her head, but she couldn’t just hold onto it anymore.  Someone else had to know that something big, something deadly, was lurking just over the next hill and MI6 was currently powerless to stop it.

James’ eyes widened with surprise behind his dark glasses when Q suddenly slammed her palms flat on the surface of her desk -- startling a pair of minions at their stations behind her -- blinked twice, and took three deep, calming breaths.  Q seemed to have spun herself out which was as well because James knew there was no way he would have been able to reel her back in, not all the way from Denpasar.

“At risk of repeating myself a third time … my apologies, Bond.”  She sighed and rubbed absently at her eyebrow.  It was actually the fourth time she had apologised during their conversation, but he wasn’t going to be the one to point that out.  James hadn’t survived this long as a Double-O by being that stupid.  Besides, he could see she was embarrassed by her rambling outburst as it stood.  “As you can see, this all has me a bit on edge.”

“When’s the last time you slept, Q?” James asked, his voice just as gentle as it had been at the outset of her rant.

“What day is it?” She seemed genuinely puzzled by his question and even more so by hers.

“Monday, love.”  James stiffened at the endearment that slipped from his mouth, but his Quartermaster was either so tired or so focussed on trying to suss out her answer that she seemed to have missed it as she continued on without without pause.

“Let’s see, I kitted you out on Saturday morning, had already sent Nine out a few hours before … oh, bugger.”  He could see her blush from Bali.  “Thursday night.”

James noted another glance in his direction from Darmali -- the doctor would make her move in under five minutes -- so he needed to wrap up his conversation with his Quartermaster quickly which was the only reason James managed to contain his sigh of frustration.  It was not unusual, but neither was it healthy, this habit Q had of working herself into a zone of concentration so focussed that she lost track of time and then failed to eat or sleep as she should.  Part of it was the nature of Q’s job, the rest of it was just Q’s nature.  

She glanced at the digital clock over the centre screen and quickly calculated the time she had before she had to log on for 009 in Tucson and then again for Bond when the honey trap portion of his mission was likely to move forward.  

“I should probably do that, then.  Sleep,” Q said, shoulders slumping with finally acknowledged weariness.  They had covered all the information that they needed to for now.  The rest was up to Bond.  “I’ll be with you tonight unless you feel that you’ll need me at your back before then.”

James studied the face on his screen for a moment before answering.  “I’m starting to think I’ll always need you at my back, Q, but I’ve got this for now.”

“Very well, then.  Fiore will have passive monitoring of your comm link until day shift arrives in three hours, then you’ll be in Benji’s care. Oh, and before I forget, she’s drinking a Bali Nenas , not a Singapore Sling.  It wouldn’t do to mistake the two.”  She continued on despite Bond’s chuckle.  “Be safe, Double-O Seven.  I’ll be back with you in eleven hours.  Q out.”

“Good night ... love,” James said, deliberately testing out the endearment on his tongue this time.  He was at once both soothed and deeply unsettled at how right it felt, but he had said it so quietly that even if her link had still been active, Q would not have heard it.  James closed out the mission specific applications he had been running on the tablet and locked them behind the secured mirror image that Q had loaded with apps typical for a single man in his 40s:  Facebook, MyFitness Pal, BBC News, The Guardian, Sudoku, Words with Friends, Angry Birds, NYTimes Crossword, and -- wait! Match.com?!  eHarmony?!  

He’d never had a problem pulling a bird in his --

Oh, Q, are we ever going to have a chat when I get back.

“A man such as yourself should never have cause to wear a frown like that.”

James looked up from his tablet.  Four minutes and seventeen seconds.  Ida Darmali stood in front of him, drink in hand, a flowered sarong tied low along the curve of her hips, wearing a smile that oozed want and need as well as the intent to have those desires met.

James rose smoothly to his feet and stepped around the side of the table to stand closely at her side.  “With a woman such as yourself to draw my attention to that fact, I’m left to think that such a frown will never mar my face again.”  He let his most disarming smile light his face and noted how her pupils dilated with hunger.  “May I get you another drink?  A Bali Nenas , isn’t it?”  He gestured at her mostly empty glass.

She nodded, and James caught the attention of a passing server, setting the glass on the table.  “Very perceptive of you, Mister …”

“Bond,” he said.  “But I would much prefer it if you called me James.”

“James.”  Darmali smiled approvingly as he took her hand in his, kissed the top of it, and eased her into the empty chair at the table.  “I’m Ida,” she continued, looking up at him over her shoulder.    

“Is there anything else I can do for you, lovely Ida?” James took his seat again, pulling the chair closer to hers.

Ida ran one perfectly manicured fingernail along the side of his hand that rested between them on the tabletop and looked into his eyes.  “I think there may be many things you can do for me, James.  And perhaps even a few that I can do for you.”

“Of that I have no doubt, my dear,” James said with a knowing smile, trying not to let his stomach twist as he pushed his gaze to drift from her eyes to her mouth to her breasts and back again. “None at all.”

 

~~OOQ~~

 

It was but the work of a few minutes for Q to brief Diego Fiore on Bond’s status and, in turn, Fiore assured his Quartermaster that he would ensure -- barring any major international incidents -- she would be left undisturbed in her office until one hour before she was scheduled to be on comms with 009.  

With the hope of five hours of uninterrupted sleep, Q made her way to her office where she activated a series of commands on the biometric pad just inside the door.  The large window that overlooked the Q-Branch bullpen grew opaque, the door locked, and the lights dimmed to 15 percent.  

One of the minions had kindly opened the futon and pulled out the pillow and quilt Q kept in the cupboard next to the door of the small en suite at the back of the room.  She toed off her shoes, stripped off her bra from beneath her jumper -- bloody torture device, the thing was -- slipped out of her skirt and tights and into a pair of sleep trousers that had been on top of the quilt, and plugged her mobile in to charge.  Ensuring that her spectacles were secure on the bookshelf next to her makeshift bed, she pulled the sticks from her hair and quickly plaited it to keep from tangling and finally slid beneath the quilt, wriggling down into the mattress.  Not more than ten heart beats later, she heard a soft rustle from behind her desk, followed by twin mewls and the gentle susurrus of her bedclothes as the two kittens joined her; Wuyi settled in at the bottom corner of the futon -- near Q's feet but well out of the range of restless, tossing and turning humans --  while Macallan curled up in his customary place between Q’s right shoulder and her neck.   Q nuzzled Mac’s warm body, sighed with pleasure, and closed her eyes.

As usual, sleep did not come quickly.  For all that Q’s brain functioned like a hard drive, it didn’t turn off as easily as one.  It had to shut down in stages, a kind of system’s maintenance during which she mentally reviewed her day from a variety of angles.

Q had been correct in her assessment weeks ago that an uptick in nefarious activity around the globe would see more of her agents in the field, and the morning after a fur ball had kept his new mum from getting off with James Bond, MI6 had started to send out its people in surprising numbers.  In addition to three Double-Os and a handful of seniors already active in the field, Bond, Alec, and Double-Os Three and Nine, as well as an additional four senior agents had been dispatched to the four corners tasked with protecting the Commonwealth against all manner of enemies.

Q-Branch’s normal level of chaos had quickly reached levels they hadn’t seen since the destruction of the River House, and Q and her three active handlers had rushed to ready the tech and provide the support their agents would need in the field.   

The fact of the matter, however, was that Q-Branch had long been woefully understaffed when it came to trained handlers, and while Q had approached Mallory to approve a budget increase to improve the situation, she had known from the start that it would be a tough sell.

It was held that, in light of the Silva affair, there was a strong push to bring MI5 and MI6 into the same fold, a Joint Intelligence Service, shepherded by Max Denbigh, a mid-level bureaucrat who had gained significant notice after a dossier he wrote on the obsolescence of the Double-O program caught the attention of the PM.   It was utter rubbish, and Q knew for a fact that Denbigh hadn’t spent so much as 15 minutes speaking with anyone at MI6 about the face of modern counterintelligence.  He had, instead, relied on data older than Q herself and when that information was insufficient, Denbigh crafted his claims out of whole cloth by twisting the truth of what the Double-Os contributed to Britain's safety and security.

Denbigh and his dossier had popped up just over six months ago, right after the Olympic Games.  However, Q suspected that the man had stuck his dirty fingers into the espionage pie long before that, when the budget of the SIS started taking significant hits that had nothing to do with austerity measures.  

There had been the anticipated uptick in threats against the UK in the months leading up to the London Games, but the surge had continued unabated afterwards, necessitating more senior agents and Double-Os in the field, straining and damn near exceeding the resources of the Q-Branch handlers.  Q had wanted to secure funding for training additional handlers from the existing TSS pool of personnel, especially if, as Mallory seemed to think, there would continue to be such an increase in active threats against the United Kingdom, but she had been denied each time.  

With the threat of a JIS looming over them, the MI6 Chief was having to fight for every last penny to keep things running as it stood, and there simply weren’t the resources necessary for formal handler training.  Q knew that Mallory was doing the best that he could under the circumstances, and while she couldn’t fault him for his inability to help, it didn’t change what could easily become a dangerous situation.  With so many operatives in the field at the same time, the Q-Branch personnel had been stretched thin, and Q worried about the mistakes that could be made simply due to exhaustion and overwork. She felt, at times, that she was on the front lines of a war of attrition, and that it was only a matter of time before the casualty reports started trickling in again.

But that wasn’t the only source of Q’s increasing fears and frustrations.

In addition to his maligning MI6 and the Double-Os and hamstringing Q-Branch’s abilities to assist them in the field, Denbigh had organised a cadre of computer engineers, coders, and hackers to create an intelligence gathering programme that he claimed would bring the Intelligence Services into the 21st century and beyond.  He had so far attempted to recruit Q to his cause no fewer than three times.

The first time Q had politely declined his invitation to tea.  

The second time, Denbigh had sent his missive directly to Mallory, so Q had had little choice but to accept.  Q had left Denbigh’s office in Whitehall three hours after she had arrived, and had gone immediately home where she took the hottest shower she could stand to cleanse herself of the man’s oily megalomania.  So unsettled had Q been by Denbigh’s vision of intelligence acted upon by machines rather than human beings that it continued to shape her nightmares weeks later.  For all that she embraced technology, mastered it, found solace in it, Q knew that ultimately technology needed to be checked, balanced, and tempered by human logic, intuition, and most especially compassion.  

Denbigh’s vision accounted for none of that.  

A fortnight later, the man had waylaid Q in a corridor of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as she had been on her way to a meeting.  

“I really do hate having to ask for something twice, and yet here I am asking for a third time,” Denbigh had oozed, startling her.  Q had been digging through her messenger bag on a bench outside the second storey women’s toilet when he had approached her from behind.  Q hadn’t been trapped, precisely, but it had been quite late in the evening and only a few politicos had been burning the midnight oil.

“This would all be so much more pleasant and efficient if you just joined me, my dear Quartermaster.”   

Q had stiffened at his proprietary used of her title, her name -- I’m not your Quartermaster, you pompous, power-mad arse! -- but had managed to maintain a equable tone when she replied,  “You have plenty of coders already, Max.  You don’t need me.”

“You’re right.  I don’t need you.”  Q had wondered at the time why a grown man would ever affect such a sing-song cadence in his voice.  “Want you?   Desperately .”

“And why would you possibly want me?”  As soon as she had asked the question Q wanted to kick herself for asking.   Don’t feed the man’s ego!

“Because you’re the best there is.  Anywhere. The best .”  

Denbigh had taken a step closer to her, his eyes ranging up and down her form lasciviously as if she stood naked before him.  Q had casually pulled the taser-equipped pen she’d developed last year from its pocket on the strap of her messenger bag.  One more step and the device would receive additional field testing.   

“And I deserve the best, my dear.   Britain deserves the best.”

“I currently serve the UK in that capacity.”

“Please,” he had scoffed.  “Soon that will be naught but a memory.  You know it as well as I do.  The Double-Os are facing extinction, and so is your little Q-Branch.  Is that what they call it?  How quaint.  Don’t you want a chance to make a real difference?”

“I already do.” Q had zipped up her bag and looped the strap over her head to settle it across her torso.  The hand holding the pen had rested at her side, but she had hooked the fingers of the other through the strap, affecting a degree of nonchalance that she had not felt, but she’d be damned if she let him believe otherwise.  “Tell me, does this ‘Doctor Evil’ approach really work on people?  If so, I weep for the future of the Intelligence Services.”  The truth was, however, that she had to get out of there.  The man was dangerous and keeping up with his shifting moods was likely to give her whiplash, to say nothing of the impact on her blood pressure.

“I could always have you transferred to my team without your consent.”  Denbigh had snapped, eyes flashing with anger for a moment before he returned to the wide-eyed flirt, suddenly rolling back and forth on the balls of his feel like a 10 year-old child who had finally figured out a way to wheedle a pony out of his parents for his birthday.  “The PM is very keen on having the best minds on this project, and he’s willing to give me whatever … whom ever I want to make it happen.”

The tension that had been steadily building inside Q had eased instantly, and her bark of laughter echoed through the old building.  She had pressed her fingertips to her mouth, suddenly embarrassed for him.  “Oh, Max, you’ve quite shown your hand there now, I’m afraid,” She had smiled at the puzzled look that passed through his reptilian eyes.  “You’re right.  You could insist upon my transfer, but I would immediately resign.  You see, I don’t have to work for MI6 or anyone else for that matter.  I choose to work for the SIS because there is no better organisation when it comes to keeping the UK safe and secure, and they’ve decided that I’m the best there is to help them do just that.  The moment I feel I’ve become a liability to that end, I will walk out the door, and I’m pretty sure that my working for you would make me a liability to more than just MI6.”

Q had taken a deliberate step around his body and beamed a smile up at him.  As she wouldn’t be needing it, she had tucked the taser pen back in its pocket.  She had privately admitted to taking a great deal of pleasure at the barely concealed anger on his face.  “If you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting for which I am almost tardy.”  

“We’ll discuss this again,” Denbigh had called after her, his tone minatory.

“No, we won’t,” Q had called over her shoulder in her own mocking, sing-song tone.

Mallory had been furious at her when Q had informed him of the encounter the next day.  Not because she had made Denbigh look like a fool but because in doing so, M feared his Quartermaster had made herself a target.

“I meant what I said, M,” Q had told her boss when he called her to his office.  “If Denbigh tries to force me into anything to do with that programme, I will resign immediately and leave the country to get as far from it as possible.  I won’t be a party to that kind of Skynet oversight.”

Thankfully, Mallory was culturally literate enough to catch the allusion, and he had promised to intercept any further requests from Denbigh.  “He’s right, though, Q.  You are the best there is, and I’ll watch your back for as long as I can.”  

With both Alec and Bond out of the country, she found herself greatly comforted by Mallory’s support and assurances.  She was, of course, completely capable and able to take care of herself, but there was just something about the man …

That had been a week ago, and thus far she had heard nothing further from the realm of Max Denbigh.  Unfortunately, she was reasonably sure that it was just a matter of time before she did, but in the meantime she had more important things to worry about.  Providing her agents with appropriate and competent support in the field, for example.

Granted, agents had successfully gone into the field for decades before the advent of real-time support from Headquarters and Q-Branch, but modern terrorism had fundamentally changed counterintelligence, and up-to-date intel and live support were as key to the success or failure of a mission and to the very life of an agent as were that agent’s weapons and instinct.  

Q had been meticulous in setting and reviewing the work schedules to ensure that none of the handlers went too long without an appropriate amount of downtime.  With Sean Cupp working only part-time until he returned from paternity leave at the end of the month, she had assigned Diego Fiore from R&D to assist Brisa on comms.  He was still largely inexperienced in running missions, but he was the only other person in TSS who had started training before the funding had run out.  Benjamini Kopala, also snagged from R&D, had been tapped as a potential trainee back when Q was still known as R and the Comm Programme was still in its infancy.  Benji had shown intuitive skill when it came to the fundamentals of agent wrangling and worked well with R, Brisa, and Sean.  Q might not be able to provide Fiore and Benji with formal training anymore, but there was something to be said for learning on the job.

In spite of it all, there had been little sleep to be had in Q-Branch these last few weeks. While she had been able to see to the needs of her handlers, Q’s additional commitments as a department head meant that she had found herself at home so infrequently that she finally started bringing Wuyi and Macallan with her to work when she knew that it might be days before she could return to the warehouse.  Eventually, Q decided just to move into her office for the duration.  She and the kits had made the best of a difficult situation, however, and the presence of two balls of fluff in the Branch had gone a long way in reviving exhausted spirits.

Upon their arrival, the denizens of the Bunkers had immediately christened the two kittens the official mascots of Q-Branch, and they were additionally thankful when the young cats proved themselves to be quite excellent mousers.  

Wuyi was about as independent a cat as Q had ever seen, content to explore the twisting maze-like bunkers on her own, returning to Q-Branch when she was hungry for food other than mice and human attention.  Macallan, on the other hand, was almost dog-like in his devotion to Q and seldom left her side unless there was a mouse to chase.  He curled up next to her on the futon at night and sat atop the empty corner of her workstation on The Platform whenever she ran comms.

“Mac with you today?” Alec had asked early one morning from Brӑlia where he was on assignment with Danny Cabral.  

“He is,” Q had confirmed.  “And if you transmit the information you promised me, I might even send you a picture of the beggar.”  

It was a rare thing to send an agent back out into the field so soon after emerging from deep cover, but Cabral had been tasked with locating a man with ties to two bombings against British interests in Romania.  Danny, whom Q had known since their days together in MI6 basic training, spoke the language but didn’t have the ‘right’ contacts, so Mallory had paired him up with 006, who had both.  It also wasn’t common for Double-Os to go out in tandem with a regular field agent, but neither was it unheard of.  The last time had been when Bond and Ian Ronson were sent to Istanbul to find and retrieve the hard drive containing the NATO List.   

The intelligence Alec had sent from Brӑlia had been encouraging, and Q had quickly forwarded the hard data to the analysts, promising to have updated mission parameters to Alec within 12 hours.  She had urged them to lay low in the meantime.  “Rest up, Double-O Six.  Who knows if you’ll have the time later,” she had said before signing off.  The pair had been out three weeks already, but if the intel stayed local, Trevelyan and Cabral might be back in London sometime in the next five days.  If the leads took them out of Romania, it was anyone’s best guess as to when they’d return.

In addition to 009 in the American Southwest, Q had been running 001 in Tokyo.  Malcolm Jenkins had been following the threads of a suspected human trafficking ring with suggested ties throughout most of Europe.  He had been on assignment since shortly after 006’s return to London, but his leads had taken him nowhere.  Similar to the data Alec had come back with from his ‘extended assignment’ and the intel Bond had extracted during the Holdst mission, the footprints of the ring seemed to have been everywhere, but it was if they had been washed over by an incoming tide, leaving only a faint impression behind to suggest they had ever been there at all.  Jenkins had exhausted all of his leads and had returned home two days ago largely empty-handed and definitely frustrated by his lack of progress.

Then there had been Bond.  He had been out and back three times in the weeks since that passionate encounter in Q’s sitting room, but the three scattered days he had been on British soil in that time had been filled with briefings, debriefings, and kitting out before going right back out again, and all of it within the confines of HQ, so there had been no time or opportunity for a discussion of that night let alone the potential for a redo.

British diplomats were apparently ‘in season,’ but Bond’s missions to Malawi and Burkina Faso had both ended with the attachés safe and their would-be kidnappers very much dead.  He had then been dispatched to Bali to gather additional intel from Ida Darmali before taking her into custody for her intended bioterror attack on Frankfurt.

“The woman has contacts, suppliers, a laboratory to develop these weapons somewhere. Get the information by any means, Double-O Seven,” Mallory had told the agent during the short briefing Bond had attended with Q.  Bond had been given a very brief turnaround between Burkina Faso and his dispatch to Bali, fewer than six hours total in London -- including a brief stint in Medical to have a bullet wound to his thigh properly stitched up -- so Q had needed to provide him with the details of the mission once he arrived at The Legian Bali resort, but it had been apparent to the both of them before he left that a honey trap would likely be necessary.

Though Q had run comm support on several honey traps with other agents in the past, this would be the first with 007, and while she had no doubts that she could separate her personal feelings for Bond from her professional responsibilities, it nevertheless left her feeling a bit scattered.  She felt no jealousy about Bond’s impending liaison with Ida Darmali.  If anything, she felt more than a little bit repulsed for Bond’s sake.  Would she always feel an absence of jealousy?  More than likely.  Honey traps were part of a field agent’s arsenal of weapons to get the job done, after all.

Q pressed her cheek against Mac’s warm body as the kitten started purring in her ear.  Bond and she had made no promises to one another.  She didn’t expect any.  Hell, they hadn’t even kissed, yet Q really didn’t know what to do about the feelings she was developing for the man.   Her youthful infatuation with James Bond had left lingering effects.  It had become clear to her rather quickly after their first meeting that she had a type: blonde, muscular, tall but solidly built, a quick wit and an even quicker tongue.  David from her uni cohort, the Belgians Sig and Rey, Michael in Byron Bay, Crispian from the MoD, each of her previous lovers -- save one --  fit that type.  Though none had come even close to having a pair of those fabulous, impossibly erotic ears.  Ears that she wanted kiss and lick and nibble until Bond groaned with pleasure.  Ears that she wanted to cling to while he pleasured her.  Heady images that had fueled her dreams for years and now might become more than mere fantasy.  Macallan mewed loudly in her ear, as if to remind Q of his part in why she hadn’t got a leg over with James Bond that night, before he wandered down to the bottom corner of the futon to curl up with his sister.  

As if she could forget.

Q cracked open one eye to see the blurry numbers of the digital clock above the series of its time-zone-specific peers that hung on the far wall.  It was as she thought.  She’d wasted nearly 30 minutes of her precious 5 hour window to gather wool, and yet she felt no closer to sleep than she had before.  Her mind was still too active in spite of her exhaustion.

She considered her options.  Though occasionally necessary, Q, nevertheless, hated taking sleeping pills, and she absolutely refused to use them whenever she was scheduled to be on comms during an active mission.  

So … option two, it was.

She would erase the surveillance footage of her office in the morning.

Q turned her thoughts back to Bond as he had appeared on the video feed: white linen shirt open at the neck, showcasing the ever-burnished length of his throat and the strong line of his jaw; dark sunglasses hiding his wicked blue eyes but emphasizing the sensual curve of his lips; the slightly spiked strands of his short golden hair, just tousled enough to suggest that he’d rolled out of bed only moments before when he’d actually done nothing of the sort.  

With that mental picture in mind, her memories took her further back.  Need and desire pooled low in Q’s belly at the recollection of that night when Bond had lifted her effortlessly and pressed her against the wall and proceeded to take her apart.  

Beneath the thick quilt, Q let one hand slip past the waistband of her sleep trousers and into her knickers.  Spreading her legs slightly, she dusted her fingertips across the curls there, then slid them between the folds, already slick with want and the memory of Bond’s fingers on her, in her as he had suckled first at one nipple and then the other.  

An eidetic memory combined with a creative mind and extremely perceptive senses had always served Q well in her mastabatory fantasies in the past, but now, actually knowing what it felt like to have Bond’s hands and mouth on her body, she felt the tension build in her far more quickly than it ever had before.   Slicking the fingers of her free hand with her tongue, Q slipped it back beneath the quilt and under the hem of her loose jumper to roll a nipple tightly between her thumb and forefinger, digging in with her fingernails slightly to bite at the sensitive flesh as Bond had done with his teeth.   Q bent her knees, bearing down against the pressure of her hand, the muscles in her calves and thighs tensing as her fingers flew across her clit.  

Her fingers became his, flicking, stroking, and teasing her nub, pushing her toward completion.

Bond slid first one finger and then a second into her core, thrusting into her.  His sultry baritone whispered nonsense in her ear as he urged her closer, higher, until he sensed she was there, knew that she was ready to tip over the edge. “Come, Q.  Come now!” he ordered, and Q obeyed.  The tension in her body shattered at his command and she spun off into ecstasy with a soft whimper.  “So good for me,” Bond murmured as he pulled his fingers from her body, pressing tender kisses to her temple and her jaw, but not to her lips.  “So lovely.”

Q had just enough energy to pull her hand from her knickers and snuggle more deeply beneath the quilt before the heavy lassitude she had been seeking seeped into her limbs and the needed torpor enveloped her mind.

“James,” she mumbled once before she slept.  

 

Chapter Text

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Chapter Seven - “In Whose Eyes You See Your Soul”

 

“There is that awful moment when you realize that you’re falling in love. That should be the most joyful moment, and actually it’s not. It’s always a moment that’s full of fear because you know, as night follows day, the joy is going to rapidly be followed by some pain or other. All the angst of a relationship.”

Helen Mirren

 


 

 

St. Michael’s Street, City of Westminster, London, England:  Late January 2014 (Ten weeks after Westminster Bridge)

 

It was late, going on ten o’clock, but the familiarity of the welcome footfalls on the staircase was such that Alec didn’t even bother to reach for the Sig he kept secured under the dining table in Q’s warehouse.  Nor did he look up from the schematics on the screen of the laptop in front of him; he did, however, reach out with a hand to push aside some of the paper blueprints that were scattered over the table’s surface in order to make room for the meal that his unscheduled, though not unexpected, visitor was certain to have brought along.  

“I won’t ask if you like Greek,” Tanner said as he passed by the table to the open kitchen, setting down a large, two-handled brown paper bag on the island worktop before he began rummaging through cupboards and drawers.  “You’ve been raving about the moussaka from The Four Lanterns for as long as I’ve known you.”

“‘Bout bloody time, then,” Alec groused.  The portion of his brain that was ever vigilant registered the momentary cessation of movement from the kitchen and conjured a fleeting image of Tanner's eyebrow drily quirked at the rejoinder, but the rest of the agent's attention was still focussed on the details of the renovation plans he had been presented with the day before.

A few months ago, the schematics on the table would have been for whatever fantastical bit of tech or munitions or firearms Q was designing for her agents, but now they were for sodding accommodations, for the reconstruction of the warehouse in preparation for Q’s eventual return home.  He grunted in frustration and resisted the urge to tear the sheets to shreds or to throw the laptop against the wall.  There was something about these drafts that caused his gut to twist and knot in a way that even seeing Q in her wheelchair didn’t do.  They made it all real, brought it all home, and he hated them.  Hated what they represented for his friend, and Alec really didn’t know what to do with them.  Though he had learned with painful clarity what Q wanted to do with them, but he still wasn’t convinced that --

The edge of an empty wine bottle clinked against the marble worktop behind him, disrupting his thoughts.

“Argentinian malbec,” Bill hummed appreciatively. He poured two glasses from the decanter next to the bottle and then rounded the worktop to bring one to the table for Alec.  “I won’t ask how you guessed red tonight.”

Alec snorted.  Tanner had brought chicken last night and sea bass the night before, of course it’d be something heartier tonight.  Hence, red.  

“They’d hardly have allowed me to become a field agent let alone a Double-O if I wasn’t able to anticipate something as basic as what wine to drink with dinner.”  So intent was Alec on the plans in front of him that this time he failed to notice the way Tanner’s posture stiffened at his petulant, scornful response.

Alec stifled the desire to shove his hands into his hair with the frustration he felt sizzling along his nerves at what was on the computer screen before him and instead shut the lid of the laptop and pushed it to the end of the table with controlled care.  Despite his irritation there were still changes to be made, however, so he snagged one of the blueprints he had pushed aside and affixed a self-stick note to one of the corners then referred to a pad of paper that held the notations he had made from his rather disastrous meeting with Q earlier that afternoon.  

Alec was hunting around under the other prints for a biro to jot down Q’s requests and changes on the square of brightly coloured paper as Tanner set a glass of the malbec at Alec’s elbow.  He barely registered Tanner’s presence at his side, at least not until the man reached over the Alec’s shoulder to pluck the blueprint from his grasp, rolled it up along with four others on the table before sliding the whole lot into the thick cardboard tube from whence they had come.  Tanner took it with him back into the kitchen and set the tube on top of the fridge.

“What the everlasting fuck, Tanner?!” Alec growled.  He stood so quickly that his chair skidded back across the wooden floor as he rounded on the Chief of Staff, managing only by deeply ingrained body awareness to avoid knocking over the filled wineglass.  “I was working on that.”

“And it’s turning you into a right bastard in the process, so clearly you need a break.  Sit down, relax, drink your wine, and I’ll have dinner ready in a mo'.”  Bill’s voice was calm and level as he pulled several insulated containers from the brown paper bag.  

“Sod that!” Alec growled, his frustration from the afternoon boiling over.  “I’m not done with those!”

“Alec Trevelyan, you will get out of this kitchen, sit back down, and Drink. Your. Wine.”  Bill wasn’t in the least bit intimidated by the angry Double-O who was stalking toward the refrigerator and the tube of blueprints with the momentum of a runaway lorry.

It was the same tone of voice that Tanner had used on Alec nearly two months ago when the agent was terrorizing Q’s doctors upon his initial arrival at UCH, and it had the same immediate, bizarre, and downright visceral effect.  The forceful tone -- one that, again, didn’t rise above a conversational level -- might have had Alec actually skidding to a stop on the hardwood floor if he were wearing socks instead of being barefoot.  His brow furrowed in confusion at his own response, and he was about to let loose with an angry retort and resume his course when Tanner looked up at him from the meal he was plating.  

Gone was the amused kindness that so often shone from Tanner’s blue eyes.  His face was blandly neutral, but those eyes!  

They were steely and insistent, a flat and implacable coolness filling them that all at once, and quite inexplicably, reminded Alec of the eerie hyperfocus James used to exhibit when a mission cut rather too close to home. Those times when Alec had worried he'd be bringing his friend home in a box. Just as inexplicably, Tanner’s eyes suddenly resembled the stark, turbid surface of the sea whilst caught in the eye of a hurricane. Alec looked away, feeling strangely unsettled for all that he still itched with a righteous fury and frustration that roiled beneath his skin.

Now , Trevelyan.”

There was a heartbeat’s pause .... followed by another.  Three angry strides later, however, Alec was banging his chair back to the table, positioning it at an angle to the kitchen where Tanner was working, and dropped down into it, his arms crossed in front of his chest like a sulking six-year-old. Bill would have laughed at the absurdity of the stroppy agent, if not for the very real point he was trying to drive home.  

He waited fifteen seconds more for Alec to complete the order he had been given.  He didn’t.

“You realise all this goes with me if I leave.”  Bill gestured at the containers -- dolmades, king prawns with garlic sauce, and the much-touted moussaka served with potatoes crispy on the outside but tender and as light as air inside -- with the serving spoon in his hand.  When Alec’s only response was to continue to glare at him like a child, Bill sighed and began packing the food back into their boxes.

Alec huffed out a breath and grudgingly put out a hand to bring the glass of wine to his lips and take a swallow, maintaining his glare throughout.  

Tanner resumed his plating as Alec broke eye contact, swiveling in his seat to face the table. He did, however, continue to sip from the glass and seemed to release some of the sharp tension from his shoulders, slumping down into the chair just a little.

Bill froze in the midst of fishing the last prawn from its container as the phrase 'Good boy!' floated into his awareness. His eyes widened and his breath caught in surprise. Where on God's green earth had that thought from from?!

Thankfully, Alec appeared oblivious to Tanner's no doubt shocked expression, and the same iron control that had served the Chief of Staff so well as a senior field agent now allowed him to muster some semblance of command over his reaction, though not, apparently, over the fond smile that curved his lips as he finally completed serving the food he'd brought to share with his friend.

Twenty minutes later, both men were largely finished with their meals and only the remains were scattered on their plates.  They had eaten in a silence oddly companionable in spite of Alec’s moodiness.  

“So do you want to tell me what’s got you in such a strop, then?” Bill asked when Alec finally pushed his plate away.  Bill took up the decanter from the centre of the table and topped off each of their glasses with the last of the malbec.

“I’m fine.”

Tanner scoffed outright.  “Alec, that display of misdirected anger just now is the very definition of ‘not fine’.  Try again.”

When Alec pushed back from the table this time, it was with an air of resignation rather than anger.  He carried his wine glass by the top of the bowl rather than the stem and walked to the long row of windows that faced St. Michael’s Street below.  He took a swallow of his wine followed by another and looked out at the dark street below.  He did not reply.

Bill didn’t press the issue. Yet.  He could tell that Alec was trying to determine how best to answer the question he had been asked, so he’d give the man some time.  Bill was accustomed to dealing with touchy Double-Os.  Oh, maybe not with the frequency of Mallory or the Quartermaster, but Bill was far from a novice, and he felt he was starting to learn the tells of this particular Double-O quite well.

He took up his own glass and settled on the long arm of Q’s blue corner sofa.  Macallan had been sleeping on the far end, opened an eye as Bill sat down, and now that there was a human close at hand, decided a warm lap was a far better place to nap.  He circled twice before nestling in and was soon a purring white and caramel ball of contentment.  Bill had long given up on the state of his suit trousers whenever he found himself in Macallan’s domain.  The little beggar was infamously needy, but particularly so since neither he nor Wuyi understood what had happened to Q, so Bill was only too happy to oblige.  He gently rubbed behind the cat’s ears with one hand and propped the elbow of his other arm casually on the back of the sofa as he observed his … yes -- Bill confirmed his earlier but fleeting assessment --  his friend .  

Prior to the Quartermaster’s injury, Bill’s interactions with Alec Trevelyan had been exclusively in the professional realm, and even those, given the amount of time 006 spent on deep cover missions, were few and far between.  That had changed substantially since Westminster Bridge, and especially so once Q roused from her coma and gave Alec the verbal boot out of the chair at her bedside three days later to go ‘do something to help clean up this bloody mess’ that Blofeld -- and Bond -- had left behind.

Even though it put Six down two Double-Os in the field, Mallory had conditionally approved Trevelyan’s request for indefinite leave, at least as far as field work was concerned.  Alec refused to leave London so long as Q was in hospital -- had threatened to resign from the service altogether if he was denied -- so in return, he had made himself available, and ultimately invaluable , to both the Executive and Q-Branches as an advisor and liaison between the two branches and the Double-Os and senior agents tasked with bringing down the Nine Eyes infrastructure and the rest of Spectre.  

Only Bond had a longevity similar to Alec’s, who had been in the field twice as long as any of the other Double-Os; Mallory had quickly realised that having Trevelyan’s experience and knowledge in a centralised location, able to be disseminated to agents around the world, was an unprecedented asset, and became, in large part, the reason why, within a month of Alec taking on that role, the remnants of Nine Eyes had been completely destroyed and Spectre seemed not far behind.

As Mallory’s Chief of Staff, it had been Tanner’s job to liaise with the liaison, and the two had spent the bulk of their days with one another, piecing together what amounted to a counterintelligence quilt of overlapping and complementary missions all designed to eliminate the Blofeld threat once and for all.  It was not uncommon for their work to spill over into or well past the dinner hour, and while Alec was more than used to going long stretches between meals, Tanner no longer was.

“See what happens when you’re out of the field too long, Tanner?” Alec had mocked goodnaturedly the first time the CoS had brought Thai take-away to the warehouse.  Between their long hours working against Blofeld, their shared dinners -- which had quickly increased from once a week to practically nightly -- and their continued focus on the Quartermaster’s recovery and rehabilitation, Bill Tanner and Alec Trevelyan spent more time in each other’s company than not.  

It was to be expected, then, that the lines between the professional and the personal had started to blur, and their mealtime conversations had drifted beyond MI6 business.  Bill’s own stories were not very entertaining and largely from his childhood or those years when he was still an agent, before permanent damage to his heart from an assassin’s toxin left him unable to continue in the field, but Alec had seemed interested in them.  He listened attentively, asked questions, laughed in the funny moments, and sobered in the serious ones.  He even brought Bill two cases of Jelly Babies the morning after Tanner had admitted to a long-standing addiction to the sweet, but sadly never seemed to find the time to pop to the corner shop and buy a bag.   

Alec’s personality, however, made him a gifted storyteller, and while Bill learned little truly personal about Trevelyan -- who, understandably, clung to the private details of his life as if they were a phial of water to a man dying of thirst in the desert -- he had still gained a better sense of the man behind the agent and liked what he had discovered.  

Jelly Babies notwithstanding, by reading between the lines, Bill uncovered that Alec Trevelyan the Man was a thoughtful, kind, and trustworthy person who was fiercely loyal to the things and people he held dear, among them: the United Kingdom, James Bond, the Quartermaster, and Leicester Tigers rugby. The first three Bill could understand.  The last … well, there’s always something.

Bill tried not to spend too much time thinking about the why of it -- very little … good could come of that degree of introspection -- but he enjoyed spending time with Alec and had seen that the man was growing increasingly tense and short-tempered.  It had started shortly after the Quartermaster had been transferred out of London to the Shea Spinal Cord Injury Centre in Windsor a fortnight ago to begin her rehabilitation.  

Alec continued to stare out the window, apparently content to gather more wool than a shepherd at shearing time, but the tension in his frame had not eased.  Tanner could even see it in Trevelyan’s bare feet, the toes of which tensed and flexed repeatedly against the hardwood floor.

Bill decided it was time to push.

“Things didn’t go well with Q today, did they?”

“Understatement,” Alec snorted and finished his wine in two deep swallows.  He set the glass down on the sill lest he accidentally crush it in his grip.  “She called me an idiot.”

“Not unheard of for her … or for you.”  Bill wasn’t being flippant.  He was stating facts as far as their Quartermaster was concerned.

“She threw me out and told me not to come back until I ‘stop acting like a sodding, insensitive prick.’”

Bill’s eyebrows rose in surprise.  While it was rather common for Q to toss people out of her office or Q-Branch entirely when they annoyed her overly much, Tanner was surprised to hear of her doing it in this instance, and it was … unsettling.  Not even during that horrible time after Trevelyan’s return from deep cover when she had refused to even speak with Alec outside of a professional context had Q thrown him out of the rooms he kept downstairs.  There was more to the story than Bill was currently getting, and he did not need his experience in counterintelligence to tell him so.

“And were you?  A ‘sodding insensitive prick?’”  Alec stiffened and shot Tanner a sharp look over his shoulder.  “Think about it.   Objectively , Alec.  Sure, Q’s moods can be … mercurial. She’s caustic.  Snappish.  But rarely without cause and never maliciously.”  

Careful not to disturb the wine glass, Alec turned and propped his arse against the window sill.  As he began to speak, he gestured to illustrate his points or to indicate the parts of the warehouse about which he was speaking. Tanner's eyes were drawn to the graceful movements and elegant lines of the agent's hands before he shook off the momentary distraction to pay closer attention to Alec’s words. He must be more tired than he'd realised.

“We’d been going over the renovation plans for the warehouse with Lina, her occupational therapist.  A good meeting, all-in-all.  Least I thought so.  She’d offered some suggestions for the kitchen and the second storey.  A way to make the garden accessible that I certainly hadn’t considered.  Q and I went off to the canteen after, have a bite, talk about it all.  I’d been asking her about some of the ideas Lina had when Q blew up and threw me out.”

Generic terms.  Not helpful.  “What did you say, specifically , Alec, right before she ‘blew up’ at you?”

“What is this, Tanner?  A sodding debrief?”

If that’s what Alec needed it to be.  Familiar territory.  Fewer emotions to get tangled up, he hoped.  “Yes, so answer the question, agent,” Bill ordered.

It seemed to work as Alec quickly found clarity in the details.  “She had dismissed some of Lina’s suggestions, seemingly out of hand.  I told her that I didn’t think she should just ignore them entirely.  I told her that I didn’t think she was anticipating some of the challenges she might be facing.  I told her that I didn’t think she’d be able to easily access some of the things she’d need to if --”

“Wait, Alec.  You told her these things or you suggested that she consider the situation before she made any final plans?”

The confusion was obvious in Alec's face.

“Told her.  Why?”

Tanner resisted the urge to groan aloud, but only just.  “What did Q say to you, exactly , before she threw you out?”

Alec scowled at Tanner like he didn’t see what this had to do with anything, but Bill just stared back until Alec finally replied.  Like most agents, Trevelyan’s memory tended to be exactingly precise, and Tanner had no doubt that Alec was quoting Q’s words directly when he said, “She told me, ‘Don’t speak to me as if I haven’t considered the ramifications of my choices or that I don’t know my own mind!  It’s my legs that don’t work any more, you idiot, not my brain !  I’m not a project for you to take on or a bloody mission for you to complete.  I need your support, not to be treated like a bloody child who can’t make her own decisions.  Until you remember that, just get the fuck out and don’t bother showing your face again until you’re ready to treat me the way you always have, you sodding, insensitive prick!’  She stormed off before I could say anything.  I’d have gone after her but --”

It wouldn’t have changed anything.

Yep.  Bill was pretty sure that those words were verbatim, and if Q, who rarely swore, was cursing like that , things were bad, indeed.  This time he did not check his sigh.   

“What?” Alec demanded.

“Look. I’m not saying that Q handled the situation gracefully, but I do understand it.”

Alec shook his head, no less confused.  “Explain.”

It was then that Bill realised it hadn’t only been Trevelyan who had been circumspect with the personal details these last few months.  Bill finished his wine and set the empty glass on the narrow table behind the sofa, resisting the urge to pick at a seam in the seat’s fabric.  He’d never shared this with anyone before, and already he could feel his stomach twist at the notion of doing so now, particularly with this man, but if it helped ...

“When Medical told me that the damage to my heart was going to pull me out of the field permanently, I thought those were the worst words I could ever hear.  They weren’t.  Turned out that the real poison wasn’t what had been injected into me.  It was what people said afterwards.  Friends who I know cared, were worried about me.  Wanted to be helpful, supportive, and accommodating.  ‘You shouldn’t run five miles a day anymore, Bill.  Your heart,’ or ‘Really?  A fry up? Aren’t you supposed to be more careful now?’ and then there was my personal favourite, ‘I really want you to fuck me, Billy, but what if you collapse in the middle of it and die of a heart attack?’”

“You’re kidding!”  The look on Alec’s face was incredulous.

“That was the last time I ever tried to get a leg over with someone from Six.  With anyone who knows about my ‘poor heart.’”  Suddenly thirsty, Bill reached for the wine glass before remembering it was empty.  He clenched his fist and set it in his lap next to Mac’s head, instead.

Alec huffed and rolled his eyes at the stupidity of others.  “Field agents have higher fitness standards, for Pete’s sake!  M would have retired you completely if you weren’t healthy enough by typical standards.  You’re hardly an invalid.”   

“No.  I’m not.  And the point is, neither is Q.”

Alec stilled, muscles taut and tense, his very breath seeming to freeze in his lungs.

Bill continued, his eyes never leaving Alec’s.  “Being in the field, going on missions, defined me.  I knew who I was, what I was supposed to, and how I needed to live my life.  But suddenly the very parameters by which I lived my life were gone.  A snap of the fingers and everything I'd relied on was in shambles.  It took a bit, but I was able find my way again.  You’re right.  M could have sacked me on the spot, but she made me Deputy Chief of Staff instead, and when Robinson retired, she pointed at me and said, ‘You’ll do.  Just don’t bollocks it up.’  She made a place for me in E-Branch, and that gave me a purpose again.  Q will still have her purpose.  She’s still Quartermaster.  But the poison will still be there, waiting to seep in, to taint everything.  The unsolicited comments and pieces of advice that are meant kindly.  Helpfully. They undermine and eat away at one’s sense of self. Worse yet, one can't even get properly angry with those people, since most of them don't even realise how what they're saying is affecting the person they are only trying to help.  Alec, you know that she’s already terrified of what the medications do to her mind.  To her ability to think and process and analyse.  She’ll be on some of those medications for years, possibly the rest of her life.”

“She’s always believed her sole value is in what her genius has to offer.   I’ve never been able to convince her otherwise.  For a while I thought that James would be --” Alec sighed, his shoulders sagging under the weight of the dawning realisation of what his words had likely done to Q.    

“So don’t make it worse by questioning the choices she makes.   Listen to her.  Listen to what she says she needs, not what you think she needs.  She’s still Q .  The only difference now is that she’ll use a wheelchair instead of her legs to chase you down to beat your arse when you’re being an idiot.”

Alec rubbed his face with his hand, and when it came away, his eyes were downcast.  Bill couldn’t remember a time when the agent looked so disheartened.  “She was right.  I’m a sodding, insensitive prick.  I didn’t mean to --”  

“Of course you didn’t mean it, Alec.  I know that, and when she calms down, Q will know it, too.  You love her, and you’re scared for her.  We all are.  Just don’t lose sight of who she is in the process.  Listen to her fears, tell her yours.  Celebrate her triumphs.  Share how impressed Mallory is with your liaison work.  She’ll be thrilled for you.   Be her friend .  Just as always.  Whether she realises it yet or not, she’s going to need all of us.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but her rehabilitation isn’t just about what her body can and can’t do anymore.  It’s the whole package:  physical and psychological.  The fact that there are … other mitigating stressors tangentially associated with Q’s injury can’t be ignored, either.”

James.  Alec appreciated Tanner’s tactful way of addressing the other elephant that took up so much space in their lives right now.     

“What it all boils down to is this:  be what you’ve always been to her, her friend.  It’s no more complicated than that.”

And Alec finally realised that that was what Q had been trying to tell him all along.  

“What do I do to make this right?”  Alec had raised his eyes to Tanner’s. For a man who always seemed to know what decision to make, what direction to head in, he looked so lost, and Bill had the sudden impression that all Alec’s hopes for the future of his friendship with the Quartermaster hung on his next words.  Where was the wine when he needed it?    

“Give it a few days,” he finally said.  “Let her calm down, have a chance to talk and work with her therapists a bit more.  She’s only been at Shea a fortnight and things are bound to still be stressful from that alone.  Then send her a few texts, call her, plan on going up again at the week’s end with your tail firmly between your legs. After Eights and some of that expensive tea you turned her on to would be a good idea, too.  I hear the tea’s shite up there.”

Macallan woke at the sound of Wuyi’s plaintive meow that sounded from Q’s vacant bedroom, gave Bill’s hand a quick head butt and then was gone to answer his sister’s summons.  

“Take the lil beggars up to Shea with you, too,” he continued, gesturing at Mac’s white tail as it disappeared around the corner.  “They haven’t seen her since before the accident and can’t understand what happened.  All they know is that she’s been gone an awfully long time.  They miss her, and I’m sure she does them. And now that she's at Shea, we won't have to worry about claws catching on lines, or worse. Just for God's sake clear it with the duty nurse first. The last thing we need is one or both of the little terrors getting lost and then hurt in a strange environment, and a bit of warning should make certain that's one disaster we can nip in the bud.”

Bill could tell from Alec’s expression and slight smile that he thought it was a good plan, but after a moment the agent’s eyes grew distant again.

“What?” Bill asked.  Alec was clearly hurting, and after everything he’d just shared about himself, Bill felt more than a little untethered himself.  He wanted to help.  Wanted Alec to know that he mattered, but dared not reveal how much he mattered, not when he'd barely had a chance to acknowledge it to himself.

Alec didn’t know how to explain what he was feeling to himself let alone to someone else.  He was shite at emotions but overly proficient at mental self-flagellation.  There were so many questions for which there were no answers.  The guilt he felt -- mission in Sri Lanka or not -- at not having been here when everything went to shite at Westminster Bridge.  Wondering whether or not Q would still have been shot.  Would his presence have kept Blofeld or Denbigh from putting them all in such an untenable position?  Then there was his anger at James for walking away with Madeleine Swann.  The uncertainty of whether or not Alec’s presence would have kept his friend -- his brother -- from abandoning Q, the woman James had finally admitted to loving.  Alec had believed him.  Believed that James believed it.  It wasn’t just lip service.  James loved Q.  Full stop.  So how had it all gone to shite?  

“I won’t tell you to stop feeling guilty, Alec,” Tanner said, interrupting his thoughts, and Alec started at the man’s perception.  “Oh don’t give me that look, you Double-Os aren’t the only ones in Six who can read people.  I’d be a shite Chief of Staff if I couldn’t see past people’s poker faces, but I understand the guilt.  You have no idea the number of times I’ve found myself wondering that if I’d just been a little bit faster, if I’d thrown the four-by-four into reverse just a hair sooner, whether or not Q would still have been shot.  Whether or not she’d still be able to walk.  There are enough guilty feelings to go around, but the blame belongs only to Blofeld.  Try not to lose sight of that.”

All Alec could do was nod.  Tanner was right, of course.  It didn’t make it any easier to accept, though.  But then, that was his point.

That comfortable silence hung in the room between them again as they each considered what they had shared and discussed.

“Right!  Well, I’m for home,”  Bill eventually said.  He stood and grabbed his suit jacket from the back of the arm chair where he had dropped both it and his coat when he’d arrived.  “M’s got me off to Paris in the morning, as you know,” he said, slipping into the jacket.  “Two bloody days of meetings with the DGSE for long-term strategic planning and cooperation to help ensure that something like Nine Eyes doesn’t happen again.”  He looked around for his blue scarf, and finding it underneath the chair, bent over to grab it.  “Necessary, of course, but …”

Alec who had been watching silently as Tanner gathered his belongings found himself appreciative of the fact that that Bill hadn’t yet put on his overcoat.  The man’s arse was magnificent bent over like that in those trous -- wait!  Where in the hell had that come from?!  

Bill rose, but the scarf snagged on the underside of the chair and fell from his grasp.  “Oh, for Christ’s --”  He bent over again, this time for much longer as he worked to unhook the cashmere from whatever it had caught on.  Alec scooted off the sill where he had been sitting, ready to upend the chair if need be.  

“Ugh!  Bugger me,” Tanner huffed as he wrestled with the length of wool, and Alec came to a sudden halt as his mind filled with images of just that.  His cock twitched in his jeans at the mental picture of it sliding slowly in and out of Tanner’s -- Good God! Stop it!  

It wasn’t because Tanner was a man that made Alec’s primal response so surprising -- his own sexuality was fluid; common and frequently necessary among field agents and Double-Os -- as it was the fact that it was Bill Tanner.   The Security Service’s bloody Chief of Staff.  

His colleague.  His friend.   

A man he’d come to trust.  

A man who kept calm and carried on no matter how many different directions he was pulled in.  Whose voice and presence Alec found surprisingly soothing in the most stressful of moments.  

Whose smile was infectious when he let it be seen.  

Whose eyes were like the shadows in the cracked blue ice of Lake Baikal and --   

Oh.

Bugger.

“As I was saying,” Tanner had finally successfully retrieved his scarf, “I’d rather have Medical lance a boil on my arse than spend even an afternoon with de Mangoux and his CoS, but we can’t always have what we -- Alec?  Are you okay?”  He stepped closer to Alec and grasped his elbow, steadying the man who suddenly looked a bit weak in the knees.  “You look a bit pale.”

“Yes … I’m fine,” Alec said, though his voice sounded distant even to his own ears.  In that moment, he thanked multiple deities for his training and his ability to keep his physical response to Bill’s touch from showing on his face, but for the first time in his life, Alec understood the cliche phrase ‘a burning touch of arousal.’  Never before had the crook of his elbow, where Tanner’s thumb now rested, been an erogenous zone, but it now apparently had a direct line of communication to his cock.  What had been merely a twitch before was rapidly becoming a raging hard-on.  Alec took the scarf from Tanner’s hand and gestured toward the entryway.  He cleared his throat roughly. “Don’t forget your briefcase,” he said.

“Oh.  Yes.  Right you are.”  Tanner turned and snagged his overcoat from the chair, shrugging it on as he passed and picked up his case where it sat propped against a low, partitioned bookcase that housed Q’s collection of science fiction and fantasy classics.  Alec allowed himself a silent exhalation of relief once Tanner’s back was turned, took the opportunity to adjust himself, and followed him to the stairs.

“I think you owe me dinner out after all this tonight,” Bill said with a soft chuckle.  “I’m not much of a psychotherapist, but if I helped at all --”

“You did.  More than,” Alec admitted.  “When you get back from Paris, then.”

“It’s a date.”

Alec’s heart thumped hard in his chest.  “A date,” he echoed.

Tanner didn’t move.  “Alec?”

“Yes?”

“My scarf?”

“Oh?!” Alec looked down at the scarf in his hands; he wasn’t entirely certain why he had taken it in the first place.  “My apologies.”  But rather than hand it back to Tanner as any sane man would have done, Alec found himself reaching out to link the length of wool around Bill’s neck.  As he pulled the tail though the loop, the back of his fingers slid along the curve Tanner’s jaw, unintentionally caressing the tender and sensitive flesh.

Both men inhaled sharply at the contact.

Alec watched, amazed, as Bill’s eyes grew dark, felt the pulse in his carotid begin to thunder under his fingers.  Wha -- could -- did he?

The Chief of Staff closed his eyes and tried to take a steadying breath as desire and need sparked and surged within him.  He’d been working, so hard, not to let this happen.  Not to feel what he had been increasingly feeling for the Double-O.   Clearly he had been woefully unsuccessful.

Bill pressed his free hand flat against the other man’s chest, felt the rapid beat of Alec’s heart beneath his palm even as Alec wrapped an arm around his waist beneath his coat to pull him closer. They were of a height, and Bill felt the nudge of Alec’s nose against his followed by a gentle brush of his lips along the shell of Bill’s ear.  

Not a kiss.  A hello.

“Alec,” Bill sighed, fingers curling into the ribbed collar of the snug navy blue t-shirt the agent was wearing.  

“You have to go,” Alec said roughly in his ear, though his words even more of a whisper than the skim of his lips against Bill’s flesh.  “But when you get back --”

Bill nodded and pressed his temple to Alec’s. “Dinner and a really long talk,” he said, unable to keep the rueful chuckle from his tone, resigned to the fact that his two days in France had just gone from long to interminable.  Bill’s lips brushed a goodbye against Alec’s cheek, opened his eyes, pulled away.  “Thursday night.  Dinner.”

“Yes.”  Alec wondered if his own eyes held the same bewildered daze that he saw in Bill’s.  

Probably.

A ghost of a smile flirted with the corners of Bill’s mouth before he turned and descended the stairs.  He did not look back.

When he finally heard the front door close and the security system engage, Alec slumped against the wall next to the bookcase, his head dropping until his chin hit his chest.  “ Idiota kusok !  What are you thinking ?!” he chastised himself, fisting his hands in his hair.  This was either going to be brilliant or a complete disaster.  

But, yebat-kopat , he wanted him.  Every last part of him.  It had taken nearly all Alec’s self control just now not to push Tanner to the wall to --

Or shag him bent over the --

But -- n-no?

No.  

It wouldn’t have been right.  There was something about Bill that was --

“Meerp.”

Alec opened his eyes to the sight of Macallan and Wuyi sitting primly on the hardwood at his feet, tails curled around their paws.  Feline bookends that looked up at him with identical expressions that all but shouted, “Are you out of your mind?!”

“Don’t look at me in that tone of voice,” he grumbled, using one of Q’s favourite expressions.  He pushed off the bookcase and stalked across the living area to collect the wine glasses so he could do the washing up and go to bed.  “I know what I’m doing.”  

Wuyi’s meow was a clear, “Yeah, sure you do!” that was immediately followed up with Macallan’s, “Bollocks!”

Sodding cats.

 

 


 

Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia and MI6, Q-Branch, London, England:  May 2013  (Six months before Westminster Bridge)

 

Bond finished tying the half-Windsor knot by rote, slid into the jacket of the suit with practiced ease, and shot his cuffs.  Only then did James look at his reflection in the mirror of his hotel room.  The pink jacquard silk tie with its mini circular pattern was the perfect accessory for his new navy Italian linen suit and the plain white Sea Island cotton shirt with point collar.  Part of James wondered if perhaps his sartorial choices might not be a bit of overkill given that Dr. Darmali seemed far more interested in getting James out of his clothes -- if their rather pointed snogging session in the beachside cabana before lunch was any indication -- but the Tom Ford suit was the most basic in his current wardrobe, and the one most fitting his current alias as a historian of independent means -- Darmali’s profile indicates she prefers brains and brawn, Bond -- on a brief holiday before beginning his research on the Japanese occupation of East Timor during World War II.  He sure as hell wasn’t going to go faffing about wearing tweed, that’s for bloody certain.  Erudite didn’t have to equate to poor fashion sense, no matter what Q had to say on the matter.

James reached into the interior pocket of the jacket for the slim case within.  He popped it open, pulled out the spectacles, and settled the wire-rims onto his face again.  He turned his head first one way and then the other, assessing their appearance.   Not half bad , James thought.   Q might have more fashion sense than I gave her credit for.   

As good as the spectacles looked, James was still grateful that the lenses held no prescription.  His distance vision was as good as ever, though during his most recent medical recuperation, he had grudgingly accepted the fact that he needed readers, and then only because Q had made it a point to harass him every time he picked up a book, a journal, or his tablet and found that he had to practically bury his face in the words to see them clearly.

It was when he opened a gaily-wrapped gift box Q had left him on the kitchen worktop one evening and found nestled in tissue paper beneath the lid a magnifying glass so large that that consulting detective in Baker Street everyone was on about would have been embarrassed to carry it around that James finally took the not-so-subtle hint.  He bought three pairs of reading spectacles the next day.

These glasses, however, were not a cheap pair of Foster-Grants bought at the corner Boots; they were a marvel of modern Q-Branch technology.  In addition to allowing him access to the video conferencing application Q designed, a simple tap to a well-disguised button in the temple bar activated a software programme embedded within the lenses that would scan data from any piece of paper, view screen, or monitor and transmit it digitally to the same cloud-based server Q had set up for him months ago for the Holdst mission, via the heavily encrypted link provided by the agent's mobile.

“No USB or external hard drives to worry about.  So simple, even a Double-O can handle it,” Q had said with a mischievous grin as she had quickly kitted him out for this mission.  The rest of his kit was fairly standard:  his palm-print encoded Walther, an Omega Seamaster, his recently upgraded mobile and tablet, and, yes, two earwigs.  Though tempting, James knew better than to complain about that last line item within Q’s hearing.

“Cheeky.”  His grumble had been loud enough for the minions closest to Q’s workstation to grin approvingly, but James had then leaned in closely to his Quartermaster so that his next words were for her ears only.  “Keep that up, and when I get back from Bali, I’ll show you exactly what it is of yours that I can handle.”

It had been with careful yet deliberate movements that Q slipped the glasses case into the interior pocket of James’ suit.  “So you keep telling me, Bond,” she had whispered in kind.  “Perhaps one of these days you’ll actually get around to being more action than talk.”  She had then clasped her hands behind her back and said with a professional smile, “Good luck out there in the field, Double-O Seven.  Please do return all the equipment in one piece.”

Had he only her words to go by, James would have thought Q unaffected by his flirting. Had he not stood so closely, James would have missed the slight hitch in Q’s breathing before she offered up her standard farewell and the dilation of her pupils behind her own glasses.  But he had caught those tells.  And she knew he had.  Their eyes lingered on the other’s for several more heartbeats.

I told you!  Eye-fucking! one nearby minion had mouthed behind his hand to the others before Q reached out her hand to thwack him on the top of his head without so much as breaking eye contact with Bond.  

James eventually took one step back from Q and then another.  “I’ll catch you on comms, Quartermaster,” he had said with a wink, turned, and left the Branch.  Though he longed to do so, he did not look back.

James knew that things were coming to a head in his relationship with Q.  He wanted her.  No.  He craved her, but not just physically.  

Q was easily the most extraordinary person he had ever met, and James wanted to know every last thing about her.  

What made her happy?  What did she fear?  Long for?

Why did she hate green peppers but had no problem with orange or yellow or red ones?

How could she solve complex maths problems in her head in a heartbeat yet couldn’t play Scrabble to save her life?

If her migraines were -- as she said -- the result of not being able to quiet her brain for an extended period of time, would her mind finally go silent if he kissed her long enough?

Did she really only have a string of aliases rather than a name of her own?  

Was she struck by the same sense of deja vu he sometimes was when they spent time together?

What would Q sound like when she came with him buried deep inside her.  Would it sound differently than when he only used his tongue?

It was alluring, seductive, the thought of learning so many intimacies about Q.  It would surely take a lifetime to discover all that there was to know about her.  A lifetime well spent, he was certain, but James … well, yes, he was afraid.   

There.  

He’d admitted it ...  

… in his head.  

James would also admit -- in his head -- that he already loved Q.  

It was hard not to.  She was, in a word -- one that he would never use in her presence if he expected to live long -- adorable.

And magnificent.  

And frustrating.  

And opinionated.  And brilliant.  And … yeah, he was fucked.

James loved Q even when he didn’t understand 99 percent of the things that she said when she discussed nanotechnology with her minions.  

James loved Q even when she was at her stroppiest because she had to fix someone else’s ‘idiocy’.  

James loved Q even when he would rather strap a piece of gaffer tape over her mouth than listen to another lecture about bringing all his equipment back in one piece.  

James Bond loved Q when she stumbled out of her bedroom to the kitchen wearing a tatty dressing gown over her Doctor Who pyjamas and took three, fumbling tries to activate the kettle because she was still half asleep until halfway through her second cuppa.

James loved Q when she dragged Eve Moneypenny out into the cold and wet of Bisley Range because the not-quite-former-agent needed to ‘practise until she bloody well gets it right.  I can’t afford to lose Double-Os to her shoddy aim.’  

James loved Q when she replaced M’s Chateau de Laubade 1974 Vintage Armagnac with a 20-year old Talisker because ‘he’s the head of MI6, not the DGSE.  It’s just not patriotic!’

James loved Q.  

Loving Q was, oddly enough, rather comforting and simple.

Being in love with Q, however … that was bloody terrifying.  

People assumed that Double-Os were fearless, but that wasn’t entirely true.  Daring?  Yes.  Bold?  Most certainly.  Double-Os were the ones just audacious enough to jump into the fray when others would be running away from it, but they weren’t fearless.  Fear was as necessary a part of the kit as one of Q’s earwigs or a hand gun.  There had to be a bit of fear in order to see the danger, respect it, and find away around it or to destroy it.  A fearless agent didn’t see the danger until it was too late.  

Fearless agents quickly became dead agents.

And even though he had made a career out of striding right up to danger, grabbing it by the bollocks, and ripping them off at the root, James Bond, the Double-O, felt just enough fear to recognize and respect the danger, and so always came back from his missions, in body, alive.  

James Bond, the man, however, could not always say that the same held true about his heart.

And as devastating as Vesper had been, Q …

He sighed.  Alec was right. James couldn’t continue to live in limbo when it came to his feelings for Q.  It wasn’t fair to either of them.  He could either take that final step and allow himself to risk everything to be with her exclusively (she deserved nothing less), or he would follow the path that led solely to friendship.  James knew which way he wanted to go -- accidentally calling her ‘love’ earlier was a pretty strong indicator even he couldn’t ignore -- but he honestly didn’t know if he had it in him to go that way.

He shook his head and met his own eyes in the mirror.  For a man not given to long periods of introspection, James had certainly done a great deal of such thinking when it came to his Quartermaster.

James knew he wouldn’t decide anything tonight, certainly not when he was about to go out to seduce another woman to gain access to critical information about a possible international terrorist cabal.  

Yeah, James didn’t need Alec to tell him that making decisions about the possible love of your life whilst sleeping with a mark was probably the height of just a bit ‘not good.’

James looked briefly at the Omega on his wrist and pulled an earwig from the front pocket of his darted-front trousers, tucking it in his ear.  He had a little over two hours before he connected with Q on comms in advance of his dinner with Ida Darmail and the start of the honey trap.  

Double-O Seven had surveillance to complete.

 

~~OOQ~~

 

“Double-O Nine, there are three hostiles incoming from the right hand corridor, 15 metres ahead of you.” Q said, tracking the heat signatures provided to her by satellite imagery.  “Converging on your position in three ... two ... one.”

Four pops from Rand’s Sig Sauer sounded in her ear as did the muffled thud of three bodies hitting the ground.  “Four bullets for three targets?  Really, Double-O Nine!”

Nine chuckled at the mock disgust in her tone.  “One of ‘em was a bloody big bastard. Centre mass wasn’t where it should’ve been.”  

“Well, then, I won’t worry overly much about scheduling you in for additional range time.  Just don’t make a habit of it, please.  Budget cuts, you know.  Two more coming in at your 10 o’clock.”  She heard two more bodies hit the ground. “Much more efficient.  Thank you.”

“A pleasure, Q.  Fair to say they’ve received word from San Diego,” said Rand, he was a bit breathless but his voice wasn’t tense.

“It would seem.”

Rand Aguilar was in the middle of infiltrating an Arizona shipping facility used by the Yakuza.  The Japanese crime syndicate had been making inroads into the US during the last half decade, and the warehouse, in a largely abandoned commercial district on the outskirts of Tucson, was primarily used as a staging point for trafficking drugs and smuggling weapons in and out of the United States.  Normally, Six left domestic American issues to the FBI, but in two days the Yakuza and their local henchmen were to slated to transport an estimated 500 million in counterfeit South American and European currencies, including approximately 200 million in British notes, from the warehouse and into Mexico for distribution around the globe.  Needless to say, the Crown was heavily invested in seeing that such a shipment never took place.

Over the last month, nearly half of the currency had been transported to Tucson from San Diego where it had been printed, but the rest never would make it.  The printing facility had been destroyed not 15 minutes earlier by 002 and 003, Elias Inthapatha and Constance Evans, as handled by R.  By that time, Q had already guided 009 into the shipping facility, 400 miles away, undetected --  privately, Q thought that, in future, the Yakuza might want to rethink the idea of using local motorcycle gangs to facilitate such operations, but that was their issue -- and Rand had quickly fulfilled the first two goals of his mission: he had planted semtex explosives at key points in and around the warehouse and had downloaded data from the computer servers detailing shipping manifests, global distributors, and the like.  

But those who had survived the destruction in California had clearly made contact with their Arizona colleagues, and 009 was now being hunted.  There was, however, one more objective that needed to be completed before Nine could slip away.

“Double-O Nine, in 20 metres you’ll come across an electrical panel embedded in the south wall just past the large support beam,” she said.  Nine had made his way into the facilities control room, a large, cavernous space that provided little cover.  “Too many hostiles for you to open each of the gas mains manually.  You’ll have to blow the electrical panel, instead.  That’ll trigger a momentary surge that should unlock the gas lines automatically.  If not ...”  Q shrugged her shoulders though 009 couldn’t see it and shook her head at the absurdity of the system. “Whoever designed that facility was an idiot.  Little wonder the area’s abandoned.  It’s a bloody death-trap.”

“Found it.  And once I blow the panel?”

“Get the hell out as quickly as you can.  I’ll detonate the semtex remotely the minute you’re clear.”  A visual alarm -- only a level three -- popped up in the centre of her screen; she noted only that it wasn’t associated with her current mission, so she swiped it to the side with a gesture, thankful for the efficiency of the new holographic interface.  It was working perfectly.  “Be quick about it, Double-O Nine, you’re about to have a lot of company otherwise.”

“Charge set.  Three … two … one …”

A series of loud, violent snaps indicated that panel had been blown.

“And there go the lights.  Switching to night vision,” Rand said.

A nod from Benji, observing the warehouse’s environmental controls from his station, confirmed for Q that the explosion had done its job; she focussed on finding Aguilar the quickest and safest way out.  

“Confirmed, Double-O Nine.  The gas lines are venting.  It’s a large space, but it will fill up promptly, so put your respirator on.  Take the corridor leading out from the west side of the room.  There will be traffic, however.  And do remember that bullets and natural gas don’t interact well together.”

There was a notable pause on the other end of the comm line followed by a huff of resignation.  “Understood, Quartermaster.  KA-BAR it is, then.”  In Q’s mind’s eye she saw 009 hostler his Sig and pull his twin KA-BAR, straight-edge knives from their sheaths.  

The alert message popped up from the corner of the screen into Q’s view a second time, its lights flashing more quickly than before to indicate increased urgency.  She noted that it was from Bond, but things were critical with 009.  “R, tend to Bond please?” she asked, swiping the alert over to R’s console.  If her second noticed that a thread of tension had leaked into her normally composed tone, he knew better than to comment on it.  Q didn’t want to consider what might have happened to cause 007 to send out an alert, but she couldn’t focus on that now.

For the next six minutes, as natural gas filled the depot, Q guided her agent through the most direct route to safety.  Unfortunately, ‘direct’ was a bit of a misnomer for even as gas flowed out of the lines, Yakuza henchmen rushed into the warehouse -- apparently missing the tell-tale sulfuric scent of the gas -- and there were a finite number of corridors that led outside, so Nine was going to run into some of ‘the baddies,’ as he liked to call them.  

Of all the Double-Os, Rand was the most skilled with dual wielding combat knives, but the trick of it this time was to take out his opponents before they could get a shot off or else risk the explosive charge in the primer of the bullet igniting the gas.  

Tense didn’t begin to describe the situation.

When 009 confirmed that he was clear of the building, Q began rapidly keying in a series of commands in her console.  She looked up at the visual feeds on the holographic screens and waited for him to reach a distance of 100 metres from the warehouse.  She entered the final command.

The building blew.

The satellite feed was obscured by the heat of the blast, subtle greens and blues exploded into a cloud of orange and red, but before the image could settle again, the satellite moved out of range.  Q accessed the few CCTV and security cameras that still worked in the vicinity; each showed a different angle of burning wreckage, but the warehouse had been utterly destroyed.  Not a single wall nor any of the 16 remaining enemy combatants was left standing.

“Report, Double-O Nine.”

The comlink crackled for a moment before Rand’s voice filtered through.  “It’s snowing in the desert, Quartermaster,” he replied, his tone caught somewhere between the humor of seeing confettied banknotes flutter down from the sky -- Q caught them, too, on the video feed -- and the seriousness of what they had just accomplished.  

“And your status?”  She knew that the agent hadn’t escaped his encounters with the Yakuza unscathed.

“Mostly minor bruises and lacerations, but I’m pretty sure I’ve cracked my collarbone.”

Again ?”  Q sighed.  This would be the third time in five years.  Hopefully the break wasn’t in the same place as last time.   “Very well.  I’ll notify Medical to prepare for that for your after-action physical.”  She ignored Nine’s groan of frustration.  “Your extraction team is five minutes out, but Tucson police will be there in under three.  Make your way to the extraction point 1.4 klicks to the northwest; exact coordinates will be in your mobile.  Stick to the side streets.  The E.T. will have a medic attached and will get you patched up before your flight from Tucson International in the morning.  Benji will be in your ear until extraction.”

“On my way.”  Q watched 009’s shadow disappear between two nearby buildings, heading in the proper direction.  “Thank you, Q.”

R caught her eye.  His expression was grim.   “No, it is you who have our thanks, Double-O Nine,” said Q to Aguilar as Benji came online.  “I’ll see you when you return your kit in 36 hours.  Safe journey home, Agent.  Q, out.”

R handed her the printed transcript of his conversation with Bond the moment she switched off.  Sometimes it was easier to read than to explain.  Though not remotely askew, Q adjusted her glasses on her face and began to read.

As she did so, Q’s eyes widened in consternation and a borrowed phrase from Alec Trevelyan slipped unbidden from her lips.   “Bloody buggering fuck.”  She looked pointedly at R over the top of her spectacles.  “Do what you need to make it happen, but get Bond on the first flight home.”  She turned back to her station and keyed in a quick command to bring her comlink back online, this time to a new feed.

“Status, Double-O Seven.  Are you safe?”

“As houses, Q,” he replied, but Q could hear the frustration in his voice.

“Injuries?”

“I’m fine.”

“Fine is tells me nothing .  Too many variables and interpretations.  I’ve stitched you up myself after you’ve declared yourself ‘fine.’   Are you injured ?”  Q carefully enunciated each word, not even attempting to hide her irritation.  

“I am uninjured, Q.”

She closed her eyes for a moment and breathed a small sigh of relief, willing to trust in this small miracle for the moment.  She again scanned the transcript that lay next to her keyboard.  “Accidental?”

“Not remotely.”

“Photos?”

“Plenty.  Should I upload them to you or R?”  They both knew that now was not the time for the cloud server.

Q thought for a moment.  “R, if you would please,” she decided.  He’d be able to start the analysis while she was up in Whitehall.  “He’s working on your travel arrangements now.  I’ll be switching you over to him in a moment.”

“Understood.”

“How easily are you able to get out of there?”

“I’m already back in my suite, secure.  I’ve contacted the front desk to make arrangements to check out.  My mother, lovely old woman for all that she always keeps tabs on me, died back home.  Heart attack.”

“Well, you certainly know how to give me one on a regular basis, but if you call me old again, Double-O Seven ...”

He chuckled.  Q smiled, strangely comforted by the sound. “I have to go tend to all of this,” she said with a shrug she knew he could not see.

“Not the outcome we were hoping for on this mission,” James said grimly, “but R will take excellent care of me in your absence.”

“Bond …” Q paused.  There was much she wanted to say, but there was too much floating around in her head with this news, and she didn’t know where to begin, so she settled for the familiar, certain that Bond would understand.  “I’ll see you when you return your kit, then. Safe journey home, Double-O Seven.”

The earlier frustration she had heard in him was gone, and his voice was soft when he replied.  Not quiet, but … gentle. “For you, always.”

Q nodded, warmed through by his tone.  Fine.  Good.  Yes.  “Q, out,” she said finally and transferred the link back to R.  She bit her lower lip, thinking, studying the painted stone walls before her that were unobscured now that the holographic monitor lay dormant.  She heard R pick up the feed with Bond; Benji was still on with 009.  Q flicked her attention to her nearest minion.  “Sallah, ring up Moneypenny.”  

“Yes, ma’am.”  The young computer tech reached for the nearest land line telephone.

Q grabbed the transcript from her worktop, folded it in half, then in half again, and shoved it in the hip pocket of her trousers.  Not the most secure way to carry sensitive information, but it would have to do.  This needed to be dealt with in person. Walking briskly, she was halfway out of Q-Branch when she finished, “Tell her I need to speak with M, immediately.”

Q wouldn’t need to handle the comms for Bond’s honey trap, after all.  

Ida Darmali was dead.

 

~~OOQ~~

 

The mobile on the table next to her chaise rang twice before she picked it up.  It read ‘Blocked’ on the screen, but that was as it should be.  There certainly wasn’t any doubt as to who was at the other end of the line.  She slid her thumb across the bar to answer and pushed her long hair behind her ear before raising the phone.

Salut, mon amour, ” she said.  It had been weeks since she had last seen him, last been held in his arms, and she had missed him terribly.

“Dear girl,” said the man on the other end of the line, his voice was bright, and he seemed to be in a good mood.  “I understand your mission was a resounding success and that our incompetent doctor has paid for her ineptitude.”

“Oh, János told you, already?” she pouted, switching to English.  She was truly disappointed in this news.  “I had so looked forward to sharing it with you myself.”

“Now, now, Sweet.  There’s nothing to be upset about,” he cooed in his oddly accented English that even after their years together she still had difficulty pinning to one particular country.  Though if ever there was a man who transcended such inconsequential constraints as international boundaries, it was he.  “János did nothing but sing your praises.  He was quite impressed with your deft touch.  He said that you have turned into quite the artist.  I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

She raised an eyebrow in contemplation.  Her love was always direct and to the point and would not have lied to save her feelings.   Non .  Never would he do that.  She took a sip from her drink.  Some fruity concoction that was rather tasty but that she had already forgotten the name of.  She hummed in pleasure at his approval.  It was hard to come by and even harder to hold onto.  “I’m glad,” she said honestly.

“Photos of your handiwork are already making an impact where they will have the greatest … effect.”

“Même avec Bond?”

“Particularly with him, I should think.  But now that you mention him, it does bring up another issue.”

Ce qui est... ?”

“MI6, and Bond specifically.  I’m not quite ready for them to see the scope of what they have been blind to for years.  Another couple of months should suffice … by autumn, I should think.  It won’t matter by then.”

“Et maintenant?

“And now they are a threat.  Bond should never have been in Denpasar.  My source tells me that that young Quartermaster of theirs is quite skilled at puzzles and pulled together enough pieces of ours to point Bond toward Bali.”

“Is she to be killed?”

“Oh, goodness, no.  That would be counter-intuitive.  Bond has always had a rather … dogged personality.  He’d turn positively rabid if any permanent ill befell the girl.  Besides, I will admit to being a bit … intrigued by her, as well.  This Quartermaster may bear further study.”

She stiffened at his final comment.  Well she knew how he chose to study some of these intriguing subjects of his.  She wanted to rage at him for that idea but knew that it would only go poorly for her if she did, so she carefully modulated her response and focused on a different area.  “So, if she’s not to be killed, perhaps a … distraction, then?”  

His chuckle, the fulfillment of the barely contained amusement that had tinged their entire exchange, suddenly turned into a full-bellied laugh that, as much as she loved him, caused ice-cold dread to settle in her belly.  More than once over the years she had prayed to never hear that laugh directed at her, and thus far she had been largely successful.  “Yes!  Yes … a distraction .  Oh you are a clever girl, aren’t you?”

Had she been in the same room with him, she would have seen his internal machinations at play on his fascinatingly expressive face.  Clinically, she knew what he was.  Knew that she should be repulsed or horrified by his nature, but then most people would be horrified by her, too, if she wasn’t so skilled at masking her own predilections.

Qu'est-ce que tu veux que je fasse ?"

“Oh, I don’t want you to do anything, my dearest.  Nothing at all.  Return home for now --”

“But I’d hoped to join you in --”

“Enough!  I do not idly issue orders, ” he snapped, clearly angry though he did not actually raise his voice.  Again that dread settled into her bones.  She had, indeed, overstepped, and thought about letting silence be her contrition, but decided submission would be safer.

“I am sorry to have contradicted you, sir,” she said, infusing her voice with honest regret and fear, knowing that if the former was not sufficient, the latter would likely be enough to placate him.  “I will in all things be ruled by you, bien sûr .”

“Of that I have no doubt.”  The smile seemed to have returned to his voice, and she breathed a sigh of relief. “Is the psychotropic compound you’ve been working on complete?” he asked.

So abrupt was the change in the direction of their conversation that she found herself unprepared for the switch and took a moment to answer.  “Oui. Oui, il l'est.  We had success in lab testing right before I left for Indonesia.”

“Excellent news.  Let us give it a try in the real world, then, shall we?

‘I don’t think it’s quite ready for that ’ was on the tip of her tongue, but she pulled it back at the last moment, mindful of his previous anger with her.  While the effects of the drug were what she had planned for, the side effects had been markedly … unpleasant and required additional testing to remedy.  But she supposed that was really not her concern just now.  

“Of course, my love.  Qu'est-ce que tu voudrais faire? ” she said instead.

“Upon further reflection, rather than have János return with you, I want him to go to London.  I will send József with the compound, and the brothers will meet with our representative to create your suggested distraction .  Nothing too overt and nothing that would lead Bond or the rest of that pathetic band of spies to believe that we had anything to do with it.”

“I will arrange for the drug to be ready at my lab when József comes to fetch it.”

“Excellent, my dear.  We continue to hide in the shadows, but not for much longer.  Soon everyone will know who we are, but by then it will be too late.”

Oui, comme il faudrait.”

“As it should have been for quite some time now, yes.  And when we are together again, my dearest, make sure that your hair is blonde once again.  It along with the facial prosthetics made for an acceptable and necessary disguise, I know, but I expect to see you as you should be when you are again in my arms.”

J'aimerais te faire plaisir. Je t'aime.

“I know you do. Au revoir, chérie .”

She drained her drink when she set her mobile down and signaled for another.  As she did so, János’ massive form appeared in front of her, blocking the sun from view.  She was grateful that he had arrived when he did as she wasn’t certain her legs had the strength to seek him out on her own.  Such was always her reaction whenever she spoke with her love.  His power always managed to leave her feeling drained yet vibrantly alive at the same time.   And when she made love with him, well, there was no way to truly explain how utterly wrecked the experience left her.  It was ravissant .

She let her memories linger a few more moments, knowing that the stoically taciturn János would wait patiently until she was ready to share with him what her amour had ordered.  Her drink arrived and she took a long draught of the cool liquid then turned her attention to her oldest friend.

“Here is what he expects us to do, mon frère chéri .”

 


 

Q by Springbok7

Q by Springbok7