Dove grey walls and black floor, matted to absorb light. Focused spotlights cast globes of intense brightness, and serve to emphasize the shadows. In the centre of the room stands a single chair, and a silver-and-glass case behind it to hold a daemon.
The cameras show this:
The target is a young woman of average height and average build, with nondescript brown hair and brown eyes. Her expression is neutral despite the discomfort of her position, feet restrained and her hands cuffed behind her back, around the chair. Her daemon, a chameleon, is barely visible, pebbly skin fading to mottled grey-black to match the case’s silver fastenings and the dark floor, only the quick flick of his eyes betraying his position in the centre of the cage. Human and daemon mirror each other in their neutral stillness.
The interrogator is a MI6 field agent. His badger daemon hunkers in front of their target, liquid black eyes watching both the woman and her daemon.
The confrontation happens like this:
To the casual eye, there is no tell betraying the target’s intentions, no signal between rest and action. She is sitting one moment, head bent slightly and utterly still in face of the questioning, and the next she’s up, feet still restrained, arm lashing out against the interrogator’s throat.
The MI6 agent drops.
His daemon rears to her feet, teeth bared, caught between rushing to her unconscious human and charging against his attacker in the precious few minutes before she too is knocked out, tied as daemons are to their human’s consciousness.
Metal appears between the target’s fingers, and the throwing daggers spin across the room. One slices the daemon’s muzzle as she charges, claws flashing, anger and fear overriding instinct.
The second dagger strikes her right eye, driving deep into the badger’s skull, and the daemon bursts into golden sparks. Across the room, the agent’s breathing – and presumably, his heart – stops instantly.
There’s a commotion at the cell’s door, barking and rattling of the locked doorknob, and then the explosive retort of a gunshot. The glass of the tiny window shatters, and the target takes the bullet through the throat. She crashes to the floor, her restrained feet holding her close to the chair and the glass case that contains her daemon.
The target stretches a hand towards her daemon, fingertips straining against the glass in a gentle caress. The chameleon flicks out his forked tongue against the other side of the case, calm, too calm in face of his human’s imminent death even as his outline fades, going silvery and transparent before finally bursting into a myriad of faerie lights.
Her falling fingers paint streaks of red across the glass.
It is taboo to touch another’s daemon, but it is a universal law, an immutable precept built into the human conscience that no person will ever harm a daemon. Even in war, daemons alone attack other daemons.
But then again, humans, the most destructive living creatures on earth, have always been the grossest breakers of edicts.
The incident takes place at one of MI6’s established foreign outposts as the chill of winter warms to spring. How the target escaped her restraints falls outside of Q Branch’s purview; Q is only involved because he’d been the one to reconstruct the video feed that the target’s accomplice tried so hard to destroy—
(Tanner and Miranda head the investigation of the entire mess, rooting out the mole who slipped the target the keys to her handcuffs and trying their best to piece together the sequence of events with only the human bodies and no daemons to help them, and it wasn’t until they watched the camera footage that they realize just why the second MI6 agent, the one who made the kill shot through the small peep window of the cell’s door, was so incredibly rattled by the time they came on the scene, barely able to let go of her daemon to give her side of the story).
—but when he sees how the agent’s daemon had died, two different emotions grip Q.
One is instinctive panic and revulsion that anyone could attack, much less kill a daemon, and Q glances reflexively at Estelle, to verify with his eyes she is safe.
The other is the whisper of inspiration, the quick tick of his mind kicking into action. He fell into cyber-security partly because the language of code came as naturally as running to him, buthe chose that path because Q is an innovator at heart, and the ethereal links of cyberspace opens up the entire world’s crises, great and small, for his mind to puzzle out solutions for.
Estelle catches his gaze across the room, and they both turn back to the camera footage.
No words need to be said between a human and his daemon, after all.
The seasons don’t affect MI6 as a whole when they operate on a global scale, but as summer slips into autumn Q notes a distinct spike in the number of restless agents wandering about headquarters. He isn’t terribly surprised when his daemon snaps her wings once and says, “Double-O team in the corridor.”
Estelle's voice is as quiet as her flight can be, and Q clicks his tongue in voiceless acknowledgment of her report. It's a comfortable rhythm they've fallen into in the open spaces of Q Branch's main observation lab, the creation of a private space where there should be none. They both glance up at the security screen at the top right corner, and Estelle swivels her head to cover the glass doors, one flex of her talons the only indication that her attention has shifted.
Q is scheduled to work with a Double-O today, but not the one currently on a trajectory to Q Branch.
He watches the shadowy blur that is 007 on screen. The agent has a sixth sense for cameras and only appears in the peripherals of footages, if at all. His daemon rarely shows up, although with long hours of observation Q has learned to pick out the hints of her presence.
The lab doors glide open with a soft displacement of air and Bond strides right in, not pausing for anything. A ripple of movement goes through the room, the daemons of Q's team shifting restlessly. There's always something about the Double-Os that sets off the fight-or-flight instincts of all pairs present, when they make no effort to conceal their natures. For the 007 pair, Bond’s appearance heralds the coming of many headaches, while his daemon slinks underfoot, stealthy and lethal. The discrepancy between Bond and his daemon’s actions throw many off; looking to Bond’s daemon does nothing to help them read Bond’s poker face, not when she’s just as mercurial as he is.
Estelle takes none of that, however.
Even as Bond comes up to Q's workstation, Q's daemon spreads her wings to their full expanse – a hundred and forty-one centimetres from wingtip to wingtip – and pushes off her stand in one strong downward sweep. She sweeps a tight circuit around the lab, silent and deadly, then dives sharply, wings folding and talons raked forward, aiming right for Bond.
The fox bursts from concealment, springing to impressive height, jaws snapping wide. Estelle banks, pulling upward at the last moment, and red fox and snowy owl pass each other with millimetres to spare.
Estelle executes a half-circuit and returns to land on Q's shoulder, soft wings brushing against Q's unruly hair and talons digging into his heavily padded jacket. His daemon is large, her dark mottled white coat fluffy with health, but Q doesn't really feel the weight that she possesses.
"You're not a kit, Bailey," Estelle says, ruffling her wings once to settle her feathers, and turns golden, unblinking eyes on Bond and his daemon. "I don't have time to play games with you."
"Yes, yes, all work and no play, Esta." Bond's daemon yawns, showing off an impressive set of canines, and leaps atop Q's workstation, curling her red tail neatly around her paws. The daemon's voice is alto low and husky, almost masculine. "When will you finally give us something useful? Put Q Branch to good use, you know."
"We'll give you equipment when you can handle them. You should be so lucky that the gun and communicator are standard issue, or we'll ban those too. The rate yours get lost or eaten."
"Why don't you try fighting off crazed informants and their rabid feline daemons and see if you lose your tech?" Bailey grumbles. The fox's nose twitches, and she pokes her snout at Q's tea mug.
And that’s the second reason the 007 pair confuses most of Q’s team. Estelle is notoriously professional, even aloof, in her interactions with the other Q Branch daemons, but put Bond and Bailey in the same space and suddenly Estelle’s voice fills up the room, sharp and assertive and as wittily vocal as Q can be, when traditionally daemons don’t broadcast the conversations they have with each other.
Q doesn’t want to know what that says about his and Bond’s relationship, that their daemons converse so freely with each other, utterly unconscious of the way the other daemons in the room dart glances or slant ears in their direction.
“Bond,” Q says, ignoring the eternal presence of his staff with the ease of long practice. “Why are you here? You’re still on medical leave.”
“Bruised ribs are hardly enough to slow a good agent down,” Bond replies smoothly.
“Bruised ribs, a concussion and I saw the toxicology report. Medical even managed to get its hands on you after your debriefing – that says plenty.”
He reaches to the side for his tea mug, fingertips just brushing against ceramic, when Estelle snaps her wings once. Q stops immediately, turning. Bailey doesn’t back away like most daemons would when another human comes too close; she lifts her head, ears pricked forward, then noses the mug completely into Q’s grasp.
Bond’s eyes, when Q finally tears his gaze away, are as amused as Bailey’s appear to be.
“Medical has its uses, but even off-duty I’m of better use elsewhere.”
Q takes a long sip of his tea, then draws his laptop close to flick on the privacy filter against Bailey’s ever curious eyes, darkening the screen from all angles save his own direct viewpoint. “No,” he says almost on rote; it’s not the first time a bored Double-O team’s been down to Q Branch, and it’s certainly not the first time the 007 pair has made an unexpected appearance either. “Go entertain yourself elsewhere.”
“Official orders. Rumour has it you have some nifty tools that might be prioritized to Double-O agents, if they pass muster. Well, here you are. A Double-O pair, at your service.”
And there it is, the low coaxing tone, the air of confident charm that Bond affects when he’s on a mission, and Q raises his head completely, abandoning any pretence that he’s concentrating on his laptop.
Bond watches Q watch him, and Q tries to look past the diversion of his profile, the slight smile on sensual lips designed to obscure and distract. Bond hides a wealth of secrets under that face of his, tucked along his sleeves and lining the folds of his perfectly tailored suit jacket. There’s a high chance that M’s sent Bond down to Q Branch as some kind of dealt hand to provoke a response from Q, except Q knows Bond, not only through facts but with an empathic intuition, and Bond never, ever remains a placid card in the hands of others, if he ever was one to begin with.
“How generous of M.” There’s a slight bite to Q’s words, and Bond flashes him a grin, a silent acknowledgment of the layers and layers to the conversation they’re not having. “Congratulations on checking yourself out of Medical, but I’m running an operation with 004 today.”
“Of course. The Rotenburg mission. She’s a good fit for that one.”
Q bites back a curse, feels Estelle’s wings flare out once in surprise, although it’s a wonder they’re surprised at all, that Bond’s gotten into parts of Q-net again.
“I’m going to block your access entirely one day, 007.”
Bond smiles at him, and it’s a sharper, truer version of his usual flirty smiles. “No, you won’t. Well, I know better than to stand between the Quartermaster and an operation he’s running. Scarlet would skin me alive if she found out. ” Running a hand along his daemon’s spine, Bond turns sharply on his heels, Bailey leaping from Q’s workstation to ghost his steps. “See you tomorrow, Q.”
It would be childish to snap a retort at Bond’s back just to get the last word in, so Q works on smoothing out his expression instead. It’s harder than with anyone else, even the other Double-Os.
“You really wouldn’t,” Estelle says quietly as they watch the pair leave, as brutally honest with Q as she is with anyone else. “You find it amusing, the loopholes he finds in the system; it’s a treat to go after him, to shut down firewalls and build fake registries when you catch him at it.”
And monitoring Bond gives us plenty of insight into some of the inner-workings of the man’s mind, Q finishes in his head, and he shares a look with Estelle even as they lapse into contemplative silence.
“He has an agenda,” Estelle finally says, and Q smoothes two fingers over her back before holding his hand up to shoulder-height, letting Estelle step off onto his padded wrist and transferring her to her usual stand so he can continue working properly.
Like a bad penny that always appears when least wanted, Bond turns up bright and early at Q Branch the next morning, ambushing Q before he even gets a foot into the main observation lab.
Q throws a punch at him before registering just who it is, although the fact that he’d aimed for Bond’s ribs instead of his face suggests that he’d subconsciously known who it was.
“For heaven’s sake, Bond,” Q mutters, trying to pull his arm back from the steady grip Bond has on his fist, after the Double-O had caught it in his open palm. “It’s only Tuesday and it’s far too early for your antics.”
“It’s already Tuesday, and it’s early enough in the day that you can spare some time to show me your creations.” Bond steps back and lets Q’s hand fall from his grip, a smooth movement that puts him between Q and the lab’s entrance. He’s dressed flawlessly in suit and tie, eyes calm and alert like it’s six in the evening and not in the morning, and it strikes Q suddenly that he’s rarely ever seen Bond otherwise.
“Do you ever sleep?” Q half-wishes he wasn’t so dependent on tea or adrenaline to awaken the last twenty or so percent of his brain, and he eyes Bond, trying to calculate which would give him the better odds—circumnavigating Bond because the lab doors are wide enough, or pitching him out of the way with an unexpected leg hook around the ankle.
“I’m not an automaton, Q,” Bond says patiently, and then his eyes flick up and over Q’s head.
“Oh, be quiet, Bailey,” Q hears Estelle murmur under her breath as she glides over their heads. She dives abruptly at Bond’s head, forcing the Double-O to duck away, then recovers, slowing her flight enough that the lab’s doors slide open for her to pass safely through.
Q glances discreetly at Bailey, whose pricked ears, swishing tail and tilted head all suggest an air of amusement, then follows Estelle into the lab when he feels the tug deep in his chest, his daemon ever willing to test the limits of their bond.
Estelle lands on her stand at Q’s workstation, stretching her wings several times to settle her feathers. “They’re not going to leave,” she says, and Q scratches at the soft down around her throat in silent acknowledgment before turning his attention to setting up his laptop, switching his status to on-duty on the roster.
This time, when the Double-O pair come through the entrance it’s with Bailey leading, her nose up like she’s scenting the air, and Bond following after, his strides long and languid.
Q lifts his flask of tea to his lips to obscure his expression, neither ignoring nor engaging Bond when the man leans against his workstation, Bailey disappearing under the table. Only the flick of his eyes betrays Bond’s shift of attention; he’s watching Estelle from the corner of his eye.
"You know, we can tell a lot about a person from observing their daemons."
Staring coolly back, Q takes a sip of his tea before setting the flask down. "Oh?"
It's a question and a challenge all in one and he’s not surprised when Bond snaps Q’s laptop shut, leaving one broad hand atop the glossy lid. He studies Q intently, his eyes flicking from point to point, cataloguing details, and then simply pauses, letting the silence drag on until Q shifts restlessly.
"Like your daemon’s settled form, you work best at night but operate equally well during the day; you're efficient in all environments but thrive in harsh conditions - look how far you've come with the Secret Service.”
Q inclines his head, both an acknowledgment and a signal to continue on.
“A snowy owl has keen eyesight and one of the widest vision spans in the animal kingdom, and you do the same as Quartermaster; you observe the big picture, the overarching plan, guiding from a distance.” Bond watches him with a disconcerting stillness, gaze unwavering. “You're a thinker, but you prefer to keep your thoughts to yourself because they make far more lethal weapons when revealed at the right time and place. Snowy owls aren’t like the other owl species and you’re rather the same; you may work for Q Branch, but you handle more than your position calls for. You’ll defend what’s yours to the last breath.”
It’s incredibly rare to hear Bond speak continuously for any length of time – the agent prefers to keep his thoughts and motives to himself, although on the rare occasion Q assists him on a line during an operation Bond takes to bantering with him like it’s second nature. But this isn’t a mission and Bond has cues beyond Q’s voice to know he’s paying attention, so Q holds back his reflexive retort and stares back.
Bond smiles. “Many think snowy owls are pretty, ornamental birds, but we both know she's a silent, efficient hunter—a killer capable of taking down prey equal to her size, territorial enough that she’ll fight off raptors, even wolves, if she has to. And more likely than not, she’ll win.”
The last words roll off Bond’s tongue like warm molasses, as if he’s truly savouring the ruthless efficiency of a seemingly innocuous predator. He flicks a quick, polite glance at Estelle and then meets Q’s eyes, the appreciation lingering in his gaze. “How deadly are you, Q?"
"Very," Q says lightly, although he's not joking. "Also, how wonderfully you’ve generalized everyone with a snowy owl daemon."
Bond's eyes verily light up, and from the pleased tilt to his smirk, Q suspects he’s walked neatly into Bond’s—not trap, no, because Bond isn’t malicious, but—
A fox’s cunning scheme. Of course.
"She's large for a female, but sleek, powerful, in the peak of health. Her talons are worn but sharp so she hunts on a regular basis; she's physical, and both of you strive for perfection in everything you do. She doesn't often show it but she can be playful, but it’s natural for her to be aloof, and I suspect it’s the same for you—you prefer to keep a professional distance with most of your staff mainly due to preference, rather than because of your position. From the way Esta interacts with Basche and Miranda, however, you're fairly close to both Eve and Tanner." Bond's expression goes thoughtful. "I wonder what it means, that she's always barking orders at Bailey."
He throws a pointed look at Estelle and Q’s daemon stares back, unruffled and regal. Q wishes he could borrow her calm; it’s all he can do not drum his fingers restlessly, his hands itching for a keyboard or his phone, a bad nervous habit of his. He has endured countless stares from Bond as though the man can glean the innermost workings of Q’s head if he studied it long enough, but it’s an entirely different matter for Estelle to be the focus of that intense scrutiny.
It isn't polite to stare at another's daemon is the number one lesson taught and enforced at playschool, when young children and their shape-changing daemons are limited only by their imaginations and what order their caretakers can assert over them. It’s a lesson that sinks into the psyche until it becomes part of life, another common courtesy that makes up the niceties of the world. But there were always a few precocious ones, Q remembers, who watched in open curiosity, in subconscious defiance of the etiquette.
Abruptly weary of the verbal bantering, Q cuts it off the best way he knows how. He forces his hand flat against his thigh and asks, “What do you want, Bond?”
Maybe it’s something in Q’s voice. Maybe it’s his posture or the way Estelle always turns to him in those moments or just some sixth sense the Double-Os all seem to have, but Bond always knows when Q is serious and wants the same gravity in turn, and he straightens, his eyes losing their lazy casualness, going sharp and predatory.
“A little intrigue to occupy my time.”
“And you think you’ll find it here, in Q Branch, at six in the morning?”
Bond shrugs, and even that laid-back movement is turned deliberate, a graceful shift of muscles. “I don’t particularly care what form that intrigue comes in. Q Branch is a treasure throve of technology and equipment. Double-Os have tested prototypes for your department; it’s hardly a new concept.”
“But you’re not looking for that today.”
“Perhaps,” Bond says. “I rarely get a chance to see you interacting with Esta. We interact most frequently during missions, don’t we? A disembodied voice over an earpiece and ghostly fingers manipulating the world to our advantage.” He leans over slightly so he’s eye level with Estelle, and although his words are addressed to Q, he’s quite clearly speaking to her. “My apologies if I’ve startled your daemon.”
Estelle remains silent, but her wing feathers quiver restlessly, and a corresponding shiver goes across Q’s shoulders.
And although he can’t see her, Q gets the impression of amber vulpine eyes watching him from the shadows with a gaze as intense as the one Bond holds on Q’s daemon.
The name comes out soft and intimate – Q has little chance to use her real name during the day and although her code name sounds similar it isn’t the same at all – and Estelle turns her head in Q’s direction.
“You’re still thinking about the 007 pair,” she says and Q shrugs, because he isn’t deluded enough to think he can fool his own daemon, and stares down at the twist of circuitry and metal alloys, spreadsheets and calculations running on his laptop and the counter of the multimeter he’d purloined from Q Branch’s displaying a steady electrical current. He draws a finger close and watches electricity spark off the board despite the lack of conductivity, his industrial grade rubber gloves protecting his skin, then reaches out behind him to brush the same hand idly against Estelle’s stand – like most things in his flat, it’s grounded against static charge.
“They’re rather unforgettable.”
He’d shoved a tablet computer into Bond’s hands as a distraction, with strict instructions for the man to finish off his checkout paperwork, and promptly shut out Bond’s presence altogether when one of his staff from the communications section called in with an emergency. He remembers Bond sliding the tablet back onto his workstation at one point, leaving it by Estelle’s stand of all places, and when Q had looked up the pair was already gone.
But of course, Q is now staring down at his side project instead of sleeping or perhaps buying groceries during his off-hours, and he’s fixating on it partly because Bond has unintentionally reminded him of it.
"Hmm." Estelle hums to herself for a moment. "Bailey is incorrigible, but Bond is interesting."
Q looks at her sharply. Like him, Estelle is usually very precise with her words, especially when it comes to assessing the people Q encounter on a regular basis, and to leave a description at a vague “interesting” is rather uncharacteristic of her.
“That’s quite an understatement.”
“He’s not going to stop coming to Q Branch until we give in or M sends him out,” she points out. “It wouldn’t hurt to show him. All that field experience; he’d give excellent feedback, at the very least.”
“No,” Q says immediately.
Estelle snaps her beak in his direction, and if she’d been close enough she’d likely nip his ear. “The armour. Just the armour. Let’s test them. Let’s see what they really want.” She pauses for a long moment, wide golden eyes watchful. “You’re going to burn the fuse if you keep up that current level.”
“Oh bl—” He flips the converter on the board, then cuts off the electrical flow, unhooking probes and pulling the plugs out entirely. Building things, actually assembling devices in the physical world doesn’t come nearly as naturally to him as coding programs or constructing elaborate abstract safeguards do, even though the blueprints and the calculations are all sound, the theories carefully thought out and researched.
Even so, Q knows better than to do this when he’s distracted.
Sliding his safety visor up so they perch on his head and peeling off the gloves, Q pinches at the bridge of his nose.
“You’ll do it,” Estelle says, not at all above getting the last word in when it’s just the two of them, and Q blows out a sigh.
He sends a single text message to Bond later that evening, and receives a one-word reply a minute later.
One demo. Tomorrow, rooftop, stairway entrance 9, 4:15 p.m.
Space is a premium in any self-contained building, and MI6’s headquarters is no different. There are small internal reshufflings every few years, and while Q had claimed the underground facilities for Q Branch in the evacuation a few months back he’d also set his eyes on the open spaces of the rooftops. Two months of heated negotiations and favours exchanged three times around later, and Q Branch officially has a small recess area carved out at the top most terrace floor.
They’re in the shade here, the alcove protected by a small army of internal surveillance cameras. Air currents flow differently up here, channelled by rising walls, and Estelle opens her wings, curves them behind Q’s head, the strong grip of talons digging into Q’s jacket before she simply lets go, diving slightly before her beating wings catch the updraft. She soars overhead, happy to spread her wings while Q reroutes each camera and overwrites the other security features with shorthand code, tapped out on his phone.
All the concrete and glass and steel heats up in the afternoon sunlight, even in autumn, and Estelle rides the warm air currents upwards, round and round in spirals until Q feels the strain under his heart.
“Esta,” he says warningly into his earpiece, doing his best to ignore the pull under his skin as Estelle climbs two feet for every step he takes in her direction. His head tilts skyward instinctively and his eyes fix on his daemon as she banks once, wings and tail feathers flaring, a flash of pure white in the blue, blue sky—
The loud snap of fingers next to his ear startles Q nearly out of his skin.
“Bad form to be caught so off-guard, Q.”
Before he can quite react, Estelle dives, a flash of mottled-white before her wings flare out, powerful downstrokes gusting cooler air into Q and Bond’s faces as she pulls up and over their heads again. She glides wide arcs with them as her epicentre until Q finally holds out his gloved left arm, the sheath over it extending to the elbow, and braces himself for the impact of talons against supple leather, steel mesh and Kevlar, Estelle catching her speed with her wings to soften the landing.
Her weight is a comforting one, heavy but present. It assuages the faint uneasiness in his chest, but it doesn’t stop Q from glaring at her, however.
He knows when his daemon is trying to distract him. He doesn’t always realize when – or why - his daemon tests him, however.
Estelle watches him – no apology forthcoming – then turns her gaze away.
“Classily done,” Bailey says from the ground, where she’s sprawled out on the concrete, and this time Bond’s the one to shoot his daemon a slight frown.
“Indeed,” Q says dryly, ignoring the way the angle of Bailey’s upturned head makes her look like she’s grinning. “I’m at a disadvantage to you, 007; my stealth and cunning are limited to the world of technology. And to sessions like these. Innovation hardly requires stealth.”
He turns on his heels, gesturing for Bond to follow, and Estelle digs her talons in, wings half-opening for balance, using the wind rustling around them to cover her voice.
“While your reaction was amusing, you didn’t notice Bond’s expression before he alerted you to his presence.”
Q glances scant inches down at her, doesn’t shake his head or respond.
“I’m not sure what I’d describe it as, but he didn’t look at all happy to see me flying so far above you.”
“Most find even the idea of straining the bond link distasteful,” Q says.
“He’s a Double-O. When do they ever betray their emotions? It isn’t as simple as that,” she says, then snaps her wings shut and digs her talons in deeper. Q feels the unmistakable presence of a looming agent approaching, and aims a pointed stare over his shoulder. Bond stops in his tracks, reaching coolly to fix his cufflinks like he himself had intended to pause there, Bailey winding lazily around Bond’s legs, coy and catlike.
Q drops Estelle off on the ball perch Q Branch had installed up here for the bird daemons when they test ranged communication technology, tuned to accommodate a daemon’s distortion on frequency waves, then ducks under the awning in the corner of the alcove, reaching for a heavy attaché case.
“My predecessor pioneered this particular project. From the records he left behind, I believe it was a pet project of his.” Q sets the case on a low ledge, entering the passcode and snapping the clasps free. The case opens up like a lady’s elaborate jewellery box, pockets and containers lifting away and settling in tiers, neatly segregated. Q dips his fingers in, lifts a velvet pouch and tips its contents into his gloved hand.
“Titanium and alloy steel,” Q says, spreading his fingers so he doesn’t cut them, the protective leather ending just below his second knuckles. “Lightweight, extremely strong and very, very sharp. The former Q thought it worthwhile to arm daemons, either with weaponry or armament, depending on their type.”
There’s a gleam in Bond’s eyes when he grasps Q’s sheathed wrist and pulls it closer, studying the metallic talons, tiny little plates joining each other smoothly like dragon scales before branching out into individual toes, each tipped with a deadly claw. Bond brushes a finger across the edge of one, and they both stare at the thin line on the pad of Bond’s finger, seconds going by before beads of blood, shockingly red, well up.
Then he drops his hand to his side, and Bailey lifts her head to lick the blood away.
Q can’t help it; he turns his head to seek out Estelle’s gaze, and sees his own surprise reflected there. He doesn’t know why that particular gesture jolted them – it’s no one’s business what goes on between a man and his daemon, after all – and it’s a very mammalian thing to do, isn’t it? Daemons of the mammalian class are almost sixty percent more likely to initiate personal contact with their human counterparts, nuzzling or licking and just generally staying close to offer warmth and comfort.
Perhaps it’s the way Bailey so unmistakably resembles Bond in that moment, with a casual irreverence to proper form, showing her teeth and her claws when normally she hides her true self behind an aura of perpetual gaiety, constantly and quietly laughing at the world.
Then, with a voice Q rarely hears and only ever over the line during a mission, Bond says, “Show us,” and because Q has learned to trust his Double-O’s instincts the way they trust his judgment and the integrity of the support he provides them, he pulls his wrist free from Bond’s grasp and turns to Estelle.
Slipping the titanium-steel claws over her talons, Q snaps them snugly in place around her feathered feet, just below the transmitter that’s tuned to Q’s earpiece, and then stands there for a moment, stroking lightly at her wings. “All right,” he says at last, under his breath. “There’s something about the 007 pair, and we both want to know what it is. The sky’s your limit.”
“We can do better than that,” Estelle tells him. “But I’ll stay in range.” She unfurls her wings, not with a snap but slowly, spreading them like the rising sun stealing across the horizon.
Bailey springs from ground to table to ledge, her movements lithe and graceful, tail sweeping back and forth for balance, then settles for a spot at eye level, tucking herself neatly into a ball and watching Estelle with electrifying intensity, as if she’s stalking particularly coveted prey.
Estelle lifts a foot, scratches her talons lightly against the perch, shaving off curls of wood with each pass, and stares right back.
“You might want to get out from under that awning,” Q says, not bothering to turn, but Bond joins him out in the open in moments, standing slightly to the side and behind Q, a deferential and protective position that isn’t at all reassuring.
But Q is used to handling volatile field agents and cagey Double-Os as well as their equally unhinged daemons, and reaches for his mid-mission focus.
“Esta is, primarily, a defensive/opportunistic-offensive type, especially against the larger daemons. Since she can take defend herself quite well, the idea is to boost her offensive skills. Like so."
Estelle takes flight, swift and silent, riding the winds up to the highest point their bond will let her, keeping within range this time. It's easy to see how she could circle there for hours, safe from earth-bound daemons; someone could feasibly snipe her down but her dark-on-white colouring camouflages her against the sky.
Then Q lets out a low whistle and Estelle dives like a great avenging angel, alloy-metal tipped talons racked forward. They slice through the heavy cables holding the awning up as if they were mere ribbons, not enough resistance to throw off Estelle's flight, and the snowy owl weaves in and out of sight, cutting through cables before banking neatly and soaring to safety as the entire structure collapses, the cables unravelling at frightening speeds.
Imagine those same talons slicing through fur and muscle, scoring against bone or blinding an eye, each angle, each trajectory calculated intuitively, all visual spaces accounted for. Q works with code, understands the abstract and breaks them down to calculable units, but cause and effect, the physics that makes up the physical world – that’s Estelle’s domain.
"Heavy fur and scales offer some protection against her talons, but the metallic claws more than even that score. Daemons don’t normally fight, not like this, not to the death, but if anyone is foolish enough to attack Q Branch," Q says as Estelle turns sharp circles around them, her flight silent in the wind, golden eyes gleaming in the sunlight, "we will be more than willing to defend it.”
The side of Bond’s mouth curls up in a slight smirk. “I said as much yesterday. I’m not surprised.”
Bailey leaps off her perch in a sudden great bound, her legs and the curve of her body forming a perfect arch before she lands lightly on her feet. Estelle wings away – as if Bailey could ever catch her, up in the air as she is – and Bailey sprints after her, Bond following his daemon at a more languidly pace, Q falling in line behind them, watching the entire scene unfolding contemplatively.
Estelle breaks out of the space above the alcove, soaring in the open skies beyond the MI6 headquarters, and there’s a moment when both Bond and his daemon stare directly at Q before Bailey looks away, lifting her head to track Estelle instead.
Q raises an eyebrow at Bond. “Is there an issue?”
“You and Esta have quite a range.”
“Those with birds of prey daemons tend to have wider ranges than mammalian daemons, yes. Her wingspan likely plays into that.” Q shades his eyes to catch a glimpse of Estelle against the afternoon sunlight. “But that’s about our limit, now.”
He touches his earpiece, and Estelle pulls back immediately. The earpiece is for convenience, but Estelle is long-sighted with perfect daytime vision, and if she really wants to she can read the words off Q’s lips, much less respond to an implicit signal.
“A formidable range,” Bond says. “And an impressive display. Not many would feel comfortable experimenting on daemons.”
Q flexes his gloved hand, listens for the quiet creak of leather. “I’d hardly call the claws an experiment.”
“Not when Esta’s yours. But if you designed something for Bailey, then that would be an experiment.”
It’s on the tip of Q’s tongue to ask do you want me to? although it’s not his field at all, placid armament without any codes to embed or elaborate conundrums involved. But Bond turns away to join Bailey, a three-quarter profile that allows him to keep an eye on Q while looking out at the panorama before them – the familiar skyline, Union Jacks fluttering in the wind and the Thames beyond, the lifeblood running through London’s veins.
Standing on the edge with the sun backlighting him, Bond's eyes are slashes of stark blue against the monochrome of his suit and the dark steel that surrounds him. Despite the wind that whips around him, he stands unmoving on that high up ledge, the line of his suit jacket, cuffs and collar impeccable, cutting a sharp vertical line against the stormy grey of London sky. Bailey is a fiery flash of colour at his feet, four paws set against the worn ledge and bottle tail a gorgeous streak of crimson like the painted strokes of sunset.
"I never did thank you for what you did for me." Bond pitches his voice to carry.
Q makes a quiet inquiring noise. "You have to be more specific than that. As far as missions are concerned, I do a lot for you."
"That’s true, but I was talking about the trail of breadcrumbs you laid for me during our first operation together."
This is not a conversation Q thought they would ever have. They don’t talk about missions. There are debriefing sessions, certainly, and the reports all personnel have to file to varying degrees of accuracy, but rarely do any agents openly discuss the consequences of missions unless pressed to by necessity or by a superior, and no one discusses missions that have gone wrong. There are rumours aplenty on just what happened the night of the former M’s death, with lesser still voices whispering about the truth of Raoul Silva’s former position, but no one is stupid enough to actually bother the one Double-O pair who was there for it all.
But if Q wanted to be specific, he'd say that that final run out to Skyfall Lodge was not an operation at all but simple inevitability—a matter that could only be settled by the three players involved. And he had merely provided the necessary backup to one of his agents and to the leader of his agency.
"I was simply doing my job.” Q slants a sideways look at Bond.
Bond chuckles, soft and low. "Of course, you still have your promising career in espionage, so—"
Q’s phone goes off, a message rather than a phone call, but a summons nonetheless when the message came directly from M’s office.
“And duty calls,” Bond says, and Q studies Bond under his eyelashes even as he taps out a quick response to Moneypenny. He isn’t sure which he prefers – that Bond makes no illusion of his interest, eyes tracking Q’s movements and lingering on the phone in Q’s hands, or that Bond uses the same methods that he utilizes on everyone else, gleaming information with charm and distractions such that his targets never know what secrets they spill.
Estelle always liked open confrontations, but Q prefers to play the game.
“And duty calls,” Q agrees. Above them, Estelle makes a circuit – she’d received the same alert on her transmitter that Q does on his phone – then lands back on the heavy wood stand, sweeping her wings heavily to check her speed. Her sheathed talons still score deep grooves into the wood.
They share a long look together as Q unhooks the claws, then Estelle turns her head, staring over Q’s shoulder. “The case—”
"What are these?"
Q should have known that, given an opportunity, Bond would get into the attaché case, and if he got in, he’d undoubtedly notice those particular items. The Double-O has unearthed the case from the messy remains of the awning, propping it up against a ledge. Curling his gloved fingers over the claws, Q reaches over and snaps the attaché case shut, forcing Bond to either remove his hands or catch the lid. Bond pulls back, and Q smiles at him—at least he retains some manner of authority when it comes to his equipment.
He stores the claws in their velvet pouches and slots them into their places in the case, then brushes his fingers against the obsidian horse boots – temporary, slip-and-buckle-on horseshoes – a pair of them designed for the forelegs of charging horse.
Or in this particular case, a stag.
"My predecessor designed these, and I believe these were for, well, the former M's daemon."
Bond is quiet, then—"Olivia."
"Olivia," he says again. "The code name system is quite unwieldy for the dead, so rather than get bogged down by all the 'former's and 'predecessor's, we'll simply refer to them by name. Her name was Olivia Mansfield."
Stripping off the sheath and the glove beneath that, Q flexes his fingers and tries very hard not to let his mind get ahead of him; he already has a series of searches plotted out at the back of his head, databases and profiles to correlate now that he has this important keystone. "Bond, those files are classified. Even if her name was released after her death, you're not supposed to link her personal files to her position as M."
“I found out her name shortly after I became a Double-O.” Bond shrugs, a casual, elegant movement. “She threatened to have me shot. Did you know?”
“No.” Snapping the case shut, Q feels wind and feathers brushing against his hair a moment before Estelle lands on his shoulder. “There are some secrets M would want to keep within his office, the way Q Branch keeps our own.”
“Not all secrets stay safe, especially not amongst us,” Bond says, and there’s a note in his voice that Q has never heard before. It takes a moment to identify, because the Double-Os rarely feel defiant relish for their actions—they would never have been given the status otherwise. He sweeps past Q into the stairwell. "Avery was formidable enough even without steel shoes. As if the antlers weren't enough."
Q smiles, because he had wondered the same. Delving into his predecessor’s mind through his projects had been insightful, however, and Estelle liked the titanium-alloy talons they’d convinced Q Branch’s resident smithy to construct.
“Does this mean I’ll have some respite from your continued presence?” he calls to Bond.
Bond’s voice drifts back. “If M will assign me a mission, then yes. Eve will know, I’m sure.”
As the door to the alcove snaps shut behind them, Q catches sight of Bailey, a flash of her white muzzle and bib in the dark. She prowls along behind them instead of moving forward to join her human—as though they’re already on assignment and the 007 pair has to deliver them safely to M’s office, Bond taking the lead and Bailey bringing up the tail, covering them on all fronts.
Q and Estelle exchange a quick glance. Then, with Estelle murmuring “might as well enjoy the moment” in his ear, Q types in commands on his phone to reactivate the cameras and lock the rooftop recess’s entrance, and follows after Bond.
Moneypenny is at her desk when they arrive at M’s office, perfectly poised, and she looks up with a smile for Q that goes a little sharper when she sees Bond.
“Causing trouble again then, James,” she says, setting her paperwork aside.
“Good evening, Eve. And hello, Basche,” Bond says, and Q’s head whips around automatically at the breach of daemon etiquette.
Both Moneypenny and her daemon give Bond identical looks of exasperation, and Bond grins, going up to Moneypenny, kissing her knuckles lightly as soon as he takes her hand and just before she flicks it away.
Ignoring Bond’s look of bemusement, Moneypenny stands and shoots a warning look at Bond to warn him off. She holds out a small case to Q, keeping it caged in her fingers until he reaches out in turn and she can drop it safely in his hand.
“Sorry you had to come all the way here to pick this up. 004 dropped this off but M immediately sent her back out, and we thought it best to get it to you directly.”
Q opens the case, checks the memory cards and slots one immediately into his phone, casting a fleeting look at the doors to M’s personal office. Moneypenny catches the look and smiles reassuringly in his direction.
“He’s not in at the moment.”
And Q simply nods at her, keeping his reaction and all his movements neutral, because she has a field agent’s eyes and he wonders what she’s seen.
With Basche around, Bailey and Estelle don’t have one of their vocal, rather conspicuous conversations sniping at each other. Instead, Basche and Bailey sit side by side with their heads close together, speaking privately and painting a rather odd tableau, while Estelle watches on from her perch, picking a spot up high.
Later, when Q ducks into his office to tuck the attaché case with the armour pieces securely away, Estelle lands on his shoulder and works her beak through his fringe like she wants to preen his head.
“What do you think about today?”
“A lot happened today,” she says. “Did you learn a lot from Bond?”
“Yes, we had some rather poignant conversations. How was Bailey?”
“Didn’t get much of a chance to speak to her, not even at M’s office. But Basche says thanks for the new program, and that it really helps Moneypenny prioritize the reports coming in.”
“They’re both welcome, of course.”
“Mm. You know the ongoing joke about Basche and Bailey.”
A brief smile flashes across Q’s face. Moneypenny’s famous for being one of the few agents Bond is willing to work with repeatedly, back when she was out in the field, but it’s their daemons that make eyebrows rise and speculative whispers spread, in an entirely different way that Bailey and Estelle’s interactions do.
Basche’s settled form is that of an English foxhound, after all, and although daemons don’t necessarily act like their animal forms, the associations are impossible to avoid, especially because Bailey will listen to Basche sometimes, and sometimes is a better rate than not at all.
But Estelle doesn’t mirror Q’s amusement.
She’s quiet, her voice almost disappearing into a whisper. “Before we left, Basche told me to take care with Bailey. He said he’d been the one to convince Moneypenny that they were both down, after she took the shot. What do you think he meant?”
She has a theory. His daemon never asks idle questions – there’s a thought at the back of her head, and she wants to know if Q has the same thought because when they come up with the same hypothesis it’s often the correct one.
He follows the thought to its natural conclusion, when it splitters off into speculation, but there’s one that continues to resurface, time and again. They’re both thinking it, Q knows intuitively. He strokes a hand over her crest feathers; feels Estelle brush her head against his hand.
“We’re going to do something about it, aren’t we?”
“Yes, we are,” Q says.
This time, Q’s the one to seek Bond out.
He brings a tablet with him, because a change of environment sometimes breathes new insights into his current projects, although the training rooms themselves are a far call from Q Branch’s cool, occasionally sterile confines. The rooms are spacious and well ventilated, but the scent of sweat, musky warm leather and the tang of heated metal permeate the air, overlaid with the ozone-sharp bite of a tense battlefield. Q suspects the last one is a side-effect of the daemons.
The viewing galleries open into the room, giving curious audiences an unimpeded view of the freeform fight rings below, and Q pulls up the hood of his parka as he slides into the corner of the balcony looking directly over the ring the Double-Os currently occupy.
“Don’t be obvious,” Estelle advises him before she takes off, going as far as their range will let her and landing on the ledge next to a black polecat daemon, the two of them sizing each other up before the polecat daemon licks nonchalantly at his thick fur coat and tilts his head toward Estelle, falling into quiet conversation. Q sweeps the gallery, finally catching the gaze of a raven-haired woman, who simply nods once at him. Q knows those eyes, thinks he recognizes the polecat, but allows the fight below to pull his attention away.
Field agents, support staff, even the medics – they all have their own reasons for taking to the privacy of the viewing galleries, to watch their most impressive agents in action.
It’s 007 and 0011 in the ring today. No mats, no overseeing trainer for the Double-Os; they’re even in suits instead of the sweatpants and tank tops and vests all the other agents wear. The public training room is strictly hand-to-hand combat only, but even in this the Double-Os are clearly a mark above the average, with no predictability in their movements. Even Q can tell the difference between a wrestler’s move and kick-boxing, each man drawing from a half dozen different martial arts and operating on a fighter’s instinct to guide their moves.
Their daemons circle them, watching each other, using the distractions of their Double-Os to hide and deflect and attack, and with teeth and claws that battle promises to be a vicious one.
Many have the misconception that field agents have the most exotic daemons. They forget that having a unique, easily identifiable daemon marks them out, and that it’s the agents with the most innocuous-seeming daemons—
Fading into the background the way polite everyday smiles hide a mouthful of fangs
—that get the job done.
At first glance, 0011’s daemon appears like any other domesticated cat until she breaks out of her languid, fluid slink to strike, unsheathed claws flashing lightning fast, twisting acrobatically out of reach when Bailey leaps at her, teeth bared. Her thick fur and bulkier form serve her well—Bailey slams her across the ring into 0011’s feet at one point, and she’s up and hissing in seconds, slashing claws across Bailey’s nose. No simple housecat would fight with such ferocity, and although the wildcat is just half Bailey’s size she’s more than capable of holding her own.
And Q captures it all, on his tablet and with the programs that break down each movement into angles, physics and numbers, the ways the daemons move independently of their partners but also in tandem, always subconsciously knowing where the other is—never once does Bailey or 0011’s wildcat trip up their humans. It’s not what Q is here for, but given the chance neither he nor Estelle would pass on such valuable data.
There’s no clear moment when the battle ends. 0011 whistles, sharp and piercing, and they break away easily, the daemons now checking the other over rather than trying to skin each other alive.
Q saves the information on his tablet, then sends Bond a text message.
Come find me.
Bond picks out his phone from his breast pocket, straightening his tie with his free hand, glancing casually down at the message before pocketing it again. He falls back into conversation with 0011, but Bailey’s head goes up, scanning the galleries.
It shouldn’t take her long to spot Estelle, and sure enough it’s only a short while later that Estelle joins him, claiming her usual perch on his shoulder. Tucking his tablet back into its case, Q lets his hood fall back as he walks out.
“How curious.” Bond stops by Q’s side and stares down the corridor, looking as though he’d just conveniently bumped into Q and Estelle on the way out rather than deliberately meeting them outside the training rooms.
They both look only a little worse for wear despite the practice spar against the 0011 pair; Bond hides his injuries, if he suffered any, under the cover of his suit and the charm of his voice, although Bailey licks almost restlessly at one paw, her fur ruffled and tangled where 0011’s daemon had clawed at her.
“What’s curious?” Q asks, when Bond doesn’t elaborate further.
“You more or less bribed me to leave you be, and yet here you are, not two days later. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you missed me.”
“My job requires that I interact with you every so often.” Q nods pleasantly at the people skirting around him and Bond. “It’s a terrible responsibility to bear.”
They’re garnering stares; not everyone knows who Q is or what he looks like – he keeps close to his division – but everyone recognizes the Double-Os, or at least they do after that spectacle in the ring. Bond notices, of course, and he makes a short gesture for Q to precede him, Bailey bounding forward to lead the way.
They end up in a part of headquarters that Q doesn’t recognize, which piques his interest immediately – there are few rooms Q can’t get into, with either his credentials or through the camera network, and he makes a wide survey of the room as Bond snaps the door close behind them, the faint click and beep signifying that both an electronic and physical lock had been activated.
The room is set up half as a very posh lounge and half as a very cosy café, with sleek leather couches strewn with brightly coloured cushions and afghan throws, a corner of the room split off by a bar counter that houses an overly complex-looking coffee machine and an entire rack of teas, bagged and loose leaf. There’s a desk with unattached ports and cables of every kind with a rather conspicuous empty space – so they’re set up for access but don’t use a designated laptop or PC or tablet to prevent being traced – and at the far end of the room, where windows would normally be, are framed artwork instead, each brightly lit by spotlights. Bailey jumps up a bar stool and onto a high table, curling up familiarly on the surface.
“Double-O spaces,” Q says.
Bond flashes him a slight smile and pops open one of the overhead cupboards, and Q catches a glimpse of medical supplies – bandages and neatly labelled pill boxes and bottles of alcohol and iodine – as Bond snags a small bag, carrying it over to Bailey.
“Cherish the sight; you won’t find any surveillance here. We prefer to keep our secrets between four walls.”
Estelle takes flight in a flurry of white feathers, taking the stand – the usual perch for 004’s daemon, Q thinks – next to Bailey, watching as Bond runs light fingers through Bailey’s fur, checking for injuries, then takes up a stiff bristled brush from the bag to brush down her coat.
“What brings you out here?” Bond asks as Bailey stretches out and lays her head down on her paws with a sigh. “It’s never just social calls with us after all.”
For one moment, Q has absolutely no idea what to say.
He suspects, with the deeply ingrained instincts of someone who spends the majority of his time observing and picking out the motives of people around him, that Bond is doing this on purpose. This is not Q Branch or any neutral space outside of headquarters; this is an inside look at one of the spaces the 007 pair claims as their own, and Bond brushing down Bailey until her coat lays smooth and glossy reveals an uncharacteristic tenderness that throws Q entirely off-guard.
It’s no less of a performance than the charm and the flirtation; it’s not the first time Q has seen Bond use those on others, and it’s not even the first time he’s used them on Q.
It still feels different somehow.
Q sets down his tablet and walks closer, his footsteps muffled by the carpeted floor. He keeps his eyes on Bond; Estelle, from the stand, watches Bailey. "In Istanbul, Moneypenny thought she killed you. Why?"
"Getting shot in the shoulder and falling from a great height into a turbulent river is a pretty deadly combination.” Bond arches a look at Q.
"Your daemon obviously didn't disappear in a burst of light."
Bond’s brushing doesn’t falter. "No, she didn't. But Eve also didn't see a daemon follow me down."
The bottom of Q's stomach drops out.
It’s one thing to suspect, to piece together the sequence of events that occurred; it’s another thing all together to have those suspicions irrevocably confirmed. There hadn’t been a medical report nor any files indicating what happened – Q had checked, double and triple. They interact like any other pair, Bond dropping a hand idly against Bailey’s ears or Bailey brushing Bond’s feet with her tail as she goes by, a quick moment of contact every couple of hours. Bond and Bailey are never more than fifteen feet apart at all times even if they don’t stay in close proximity like many others do—
"You and Bailey aren't separated," Q says, but there’s a rising tone at the end of the statement that turns it into a hidden question.
The smile that breaks over Bond’s lips has very little humour in it. "What does separation mean? We can stretch our bond a little further now. I don't recommend it, however."
"Right," Q says on autopilot and does not, does not look at Estelle, no matter how much he wants the reassurance. “You don’t want this on your file.”
Bond shoots him an unreadable look, his expression wiped clean for once—no smirk, no glint of cynical amusement in his eyes. “No.”
“Good, because maintaining the accuracy of personnel files doesn’t fall under my jurisdiction,” Q says, and sits down on one of the leather couches, fingering the edge of an afghan. “So this is why you made that comment about experimenting on daemons.”
“You’d notice,” Bond says, setting down the brush with a click, then turns to face Q in one abrupt movement. "So when are you going to show us what you're really experimenting with, Q?"
The words are so seemingly innocuous and spoken in such a nonchalant voice that it takes a moment for them to sink in. Q glances at Estelle and that’s when it hits them; his daemon goes very still on her stand and Q’s fingers clench, just once, before he forces himself to continue fiddling with the throw.
Bond stares at Q’s hands, his gaze intent; he’d caught the telling hitch in Q’s movements.
Q is abruptly aware of the way his heart jumps in his chest, picking up speed but holding steady the way a long distance runner’s heartbeat would. His breathing speeds up, fight-or-flight mechanisms kicking into place, and his thoughts crystallize, clear and sharp and racing at the speed of light.
It’s almost calming.
Raising a hand, Q snaps his fingers in front of his nose to bring Bond’s eyes up to his face. “I said one demo. You already saw Estelle’s talons.”
“But that’s not all you have up your sleeve. The armour—that’s your predecessor’s pet project. It has practical applications, but it’s not your style. You’d never be satisfied working off the blueprints of someone else’s design.”
Q lets his eyes fall shut for just a moment too long, and when he opens them Bond looms close, not far enough into Q’s personal space to be threatening, but close enough that it forces Q’s attention on him. Q stares at the buttons of Bond’s suit jacket, currently eye level, then lifts his head to meet Bond’s eyes.
“Q Branch is known for its research and development in weaponry, communications and all things technological. But your job hinges on discovering vulnerabilities and taking steps to cover and protect those weak points, and we all—” Bond’s eyes flash “—have one great point of vulnerability at our sides at all times. Q Branch would be mad if it refused to research daemon properties because of a few social taboos.”
Q goes from his seat straight to his feet, drawing him close enough to see the flecks of steel grey in the blue of Bond’s irises when the man doesn’t move back. From the corners of the eyes, he catches a flash of crimson—Bailey moving along the top of the table, watching them from her vantage point.
His words come out flatly neutral. “M sent you here.”
“M told me that you were working on a device that targets the human-daemon bond,” Bond corrects. “What I do with that information is entirely of my own initiative. What did you design?”
“I specialize in cyber-technology; that has nothing to do—”
“And if all you could do was code programs and hack systems, you’d be a senior staff member at the communications section of Q Branch, not at the head of it,” Bond says with a growl of impatience in his voice. He doesn’t try to intimidate Q, doesn’t use his slight height advantage and the intensity of his physical presence to push Q back, although the way he pins Q with his eyes is weighty enough.
But there are worse things in the world than a Double-O agent on the hunt, and Estelle has it right; there’s a reason Q’s side project remains a strictly side project, with no Q Branch involvement whatsoever, and anyone who wants to cross the threshold will have to pass all of Q’s stringent qualifications to his satisfaction.
Q lifts his head, a metaphorical bearing of the neck as if taunting his attacker to bite. “You’re right,” he says, silken razors in his voice. “So tell me this. When we speak of protecting our daemons, there's one ultimate fate we fear. It’s woven into the fabric of our society, scattered across every layer of our lives—people tell horror stories of cold, lifeless humans or little ghost myths of sad, silvery daemons starved of the bond.”
“Intercision,” Bond says unflinchingly. “Any brutal severance of the bond.”
Settling himself back down on the leather couch, Q lets his hands curl lightly atop the cushions. “Do you know how intercision is carried out?”
“Physical separation, literally tearing a person and his daemon apart—” And Bond doesn’t flinch at all, even though from the sounds of it that’s exactly what happened to him and Bailey “—or through an ‘operation’ of sorts. Most believe cutting between man and daemon with a blade of some special alloy will do the job. Or an discharge of intense energy—lightning or electricity—at a high enough level to permanently disrupt the link between man and daemon.”
That level of detail means Bond had personal confrontations with such operations while out in the field, then. Or that he’d done his homework after what happened.
Q nods and slips his hand into his jacket pocket, curls it around his phone. “Discharge of energy—that’s what I focused on.”
“You’ve researched intercision.”
It’s disconcerting the way Bond simply stands there like the words mean nothing in his mouth, and Q mirrors his stillness, even though the general idea of intercision is still a repulsive one.
“Did you try to develop something to defend against such a procedure?”
"No. We dare not try. And we won't test any mechanism that works on the bond without testing it on ourselves, first."
Q meets his daemon's golden gaze over Bond’s shoulder. This is one area where they clash quite badly. We'd never have entered the electronic age if Edison-Carla and Tesla-Miri had been afraid of a little electric shock! Estelle had screeched once, one of the rare times she lost her composure completely. You can't protect us from intercision if you don't test the limits of the human-daemon bond!
Testing something that that would protect the link from intercision would necessitate creating an intercision machine. And there are some lines Q refuses to cross.
"Good call," a low, feminine voice says, and Q whips around, Estelle swivelling her head in tandem, to stare at Bailey.
The fox draws back on her haunches, ears pricked forward, and flashes a vulpine smile, damning most of daemon etiquette to hell. "You can lose anything else, and you'll still have your daemon or your human. Lose your bond, and you lose everything."
There’s an indecipherable look on Bond’s face, like he’s experiencing several conflicting sentiments and can’t quite decide which one to settle on and can’t quite hide any of them under a mask, either. On her stand, Estelle’s eyes are cold, her wings rising up in predatory display and as though Bailey barging into the conversation had shattered some veneer of silence the daemons are suddenly fighting with each other.
“You are separated and you didn’t tell me?”
“I didn’t tell anyone, although Basche suspects, and it has nothing to do with you.”
“Your scores were abysmally off the chart! M sent you out to the field after Silva and Basche told me some komodo dragon daemon almost ate you—do you know much bacteria there is in a komodo’s bite? You’d be dead in days. You should have been in Medical, both of you—”
“You’re not the one out there facing down gunfire and boringly stupid daemons trying to kill you so don’t patronize me—”
“I wouldn’t have to talk to you like a kit if you thought and acted with the maturity of your age—”
“At least we know how Silva and Chenche got the best of us, what’s your excuse—”
Estelle doesn’t lash out with talons; she snaps out a wing instead, smacking it against Bailey’s already injured nose – scratched by 0011’s wildcat earlier – and the fox rears back, ears going flat against her skull, choking back an instinctive reaction to tear into the wing.
“Sorry we let the snake into our systems, then, that was entirely our fault,” Estelle says icily. “It’s still no excuse for you to barrel in and try to intimidate us into giving up one of our designs.”
“You’re just sullen that you didn’t figure it out earlier,” Bailey snaps, letting her voice inflict what she won’t allow her teeth and claws to deal out; from the way Estelle’s feathers bristle Bailey’s words are definitely hitting sore spots. “Clever Esta, the daemon who shares her human’s intellect, who prides herself at seeing connections where others can’t. You watch us all the time, don’t you? On missions, out and about headquarters, even out there in the training rooms, and yet you didn’t realize that James and I are—”
Her words are choked off when Bond hooks his arms under Bailey’s forelegs and hauls her away, chin pressing against the top of her skull. Bailey kicks her back legs against the air, her bushy tail whipping angrily. “James.”
“Bailey,” Bond says.
Bailey tips her head back to glare at him, baring her throat and muzzle, and then she goes calm and still, twisting around so she’s pressed up against Bond’s shoulder like she planned to be there instead of dangling from his arms. She turns her head and meets Q’s gaze, her eyes no less predatory, but now watchful and calculative.
“Are you going to continue quarrelling?” Bond asks evenly.
Bailey matches him tone for tone. “I don’t make the same mistake twice. Put me down.”
Bond sets her on the table but leaves a hand on her spine as if to hold her back.
Estelle looks on with an air of vindicated coolness until Q lifts a hand to his ear, miming touching an earpiece. She turns away. Q watches her, and he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t also taking the moment to savour the liquid pool of warmth under his heart, the certainty that is his link to Estelle, that she’s whole and healthy and annoyed and still somewhat shocked by Bond and Bailey’s revelation.
“Bond. I don’t mean to be curt, but how are you still functional?” Q holds up one finger in a bid for silence as Bailey’s eyes narrow and Bond casts a dispassionate glance in his direction. “Physical parting can lead to a safe separation, when done slowly and in increments. But you fell from the viaduct. That’s more than three hundred feet in a matter of seconds, not even counting the distance the train travelled in that interval and how quickly the currents swept you away, and yet you and Bailey seem—fine.”
“Well,” Bond says, and the devilish smile, the most beguiling of his masks, is back. “I’m very lucky, and resurrection applies not only to rising from the dead but rising from the dead with the link to my daemon more or less intact.” He runs his hands down Bailey’s back, a slow caress. “We have a rather vested interest in anything that involves the human-daemon bond. What did you design?”
With anyone else, Q would put something between them as a buffer, a distraction – walking around a desk for physical distance, or standing to make some tea, an intellectual and emotional detachment by focusing on another task. Q knows how to play the game, and so he also knows that at times forfeiting lets him win, and that sometimes winning isn’t the point at all.
He imagines the components laid out before him, the basis of his design and goes through the rationalization the way he talked himself into it that first night, when he’d written out the first calculations.
“Think of a stun gun. High-voltage, low-amperage electrical charge—that gives you the weight of impact. You’ll feel like you’ve been punched in the chest, but using its impact on the body as the criteria, it’s fairly low intensity. A shock from a stun gun will disrupt the body’s nervous system without permanent damage… hopefully.’
“Apply the same concept, but modify the numbers. We know from some rather unexpected side effects that electrical and magnetic fields can disorientate daemons—the link between human and daemon exists, even if we can’t quantify it. So concentrate the electrical discharge towards the bond instead of the physical body. Develop a new mechanism to account for this difference. Adjust for pressure and intensity.’
“Imagine the scenario: you are knocked out and your daemon is left to fend off a pair; someone who dares to attack a daemon is likely one to go for the kill. Your daemon engages the mechanism and stuns your attackers. The discharge disrupts the bond, enough that even if the attacking pair aren’t knocked unconscious it will badly disorientate them. And it will feel enough like what people imagine intercision feels like to act as a strong deterrent.”
The Double-Os are rarely ruffled by what humans are capable of, so the first thing Bond says is, “So the outpost debacle was your catalyst for this invention,” followed by “It sounds reasonable. But how feasible is it?”
“Of course it’d have an identifying code name,” Q murmurs to himself. Anything that’s capable of causing major ripples through MI6’s ranks gains one: the Silva incident, covering everything from 007’s supposed death up to the bomb explosions that forced MI6’s relocation; ascension, Mallory’s taking of the top position, and now this, the killing of a daemon by a person as significant as the events that shake MI6 from the top down. “The numbers should work. Theoretically.”
“Theoretically,” Bond says. “I know you, Q. You’d never just stop with just a theory. You have a prototype.”
“There’s a design, but it’s not a prototype. We can hardly test it on ourselves and still gather accurate data.” Q pulls every ounce of authority and every iota of confidence he’s garnered over the years into his posture, his gaze. “It isn’t intercision, but we won’t risk anyone else on this when it could irreversibly damage the link.”
“You could,” Bond says. “If they volunteered.”
Q jerks involuntarily, nearly pulling the throw off the couch. “Are—are you mad?” he demands, reaching up and pushing his fringe away from his eyes. “No one in their right mind volunteers for something like this.”
“Esta.” Bailey eels out from under Bond’s hand now, padding lightly down the table towards Estelle. “We want to help. Anything that might protect daemons, protect the bond—you know the type of people we confront every day on the job. If this will help, we want in on it.”
Estelle watches her for a long moment, then spreads her wings and takes flight, dropping down on Q’s shoulder with an abruptness that makes him wince at the impact. Her talons dig deep into his parka, and she stares at Bailey and Bond over the top of Q’s head. “Not my call to make.”
Bond strides across the room and takes a seat next to Q, a bare feet of space between them, leaning forward slightly with his hands on his knees, facing forward but throwing sideways glances at Q that – Q realizes with a jolt – mirrors the first time they met, staring at a painting of a terribly melancholic ship and trading barbs in the first round of many, many exchanges.
“You said it yourself. You can’t test your design yourself, yet you feel strongly enough about what occurred to build a solution for it. ‘Every now and then, a trigger needs to be pulled’—I’m an excellent shot, and right now, you need someone to pull the trigger. So to speak.”
“Stop,” Q orders, needing a moment to think, but Bond continues right on.
“We know what we’re doing, Q. We of all people know exactly what we’re offering.”
There’s a reason why Q feels the most comfortable behind his monitors, hiding his expressions behind a tea mug or his laptop. He does his best work without being seen, using the assurance of his voice to direct operations and the brilliance of his skills to lead Q Branch, and while no one can deny his authority, it does mean he has fewer opportunities to build a certain amount of resistance against a direct gaze.
And Bond has a devastating gaze; he catches and holds Q’s eyes, unmoving, barely even blinking, and Q holds that gaze by sheer willpower.
“Come by Q Branch tomorrow and take a look at the setup first,” Q finds himself saying, then thuds his head back against the leather couch, Estelle scrambling for balance on his shoulder, wings beating, until she settles with the new angle. The words linger in the silence between them and Q wants to take them back – this isn’t a joke, and he won’t let mere words bind him – but he doesn’t, not when it comes to this particular Double-O.
Q continues giving 007 a frightful amount of leeway because despite his reputation, Bond has yet to betray that trust.
He stares up at the pewter grey ceiling to avoid Bond’s piercing stare. “You play dirty, 007.”
“All part of the job,” Bond says in a way that should be flippant, although there’s a seriousness in the words that’s only underscored when Bailey joins them on the couch, curling up with one paw possessively on Bond’s thigh. He leans back against the couch, his entire body relaxing in one movement, and the silence is, after the past heated half hour, oddly peaceful.
“You and Bailey are all right,” Q says, and if Bond shows any signs of prevarication, Q will utterly ruin him for all missions in the future.
“Yes. We’re fine,” Bond says.
Q believes him.
Classified Document - 007
Security clearance - Black
Status - Active
007 agent, James Bond
[information redacted; authorization - M]
007 daemon, code name Bailey.
Sex – female
Species - Vulpes vulpes (common classification: red fox, European)
Height - 58.4 cm
Length - 0.74 m (body length); 0.42 m (tail length)
Weight - 9.3 kg
Physical markers – Amber eyes; russet red coat; black socks, black-grey-tipped tail; white muzzle and chest. Distorted starburst black pattern across the coat of right shoulder. Smooth coated; slender.
[information redacted; authorization - M]
[authorization code entered]
Bond status: Bonded
Although in some spheres field agents are encouraged to voluntarily separate, the practice is not encouraged in MI6. Due to the 007 daemon’s settled form type, no exceptions will be granted; however, taking into consideration 007’s status as a Double-O, a request for voluntary separation will be reviewed on a case by case basis, at M’s discretion.
Of note, the 007 pair has specifically declined the option, putting forth that they are infinitely more destructive together than apart.
Engage rate: 82%
The 007 daemon has a calculated propensity to act independently of her human counterpart. However, psychological profiles suggest that the pair operate at a level so instinctive that, although the actions of each may appear highly conflicting, actually work to further their agenda in complementing ways. Highly intelligent, although difficult to observe, the 007 daemon does not demonstrate the typical daemon ‘shyness’ when in the presence of other humans.
In particular, the 007 daemon is noted to exhibit similar characteristics as urban foxes, such as extreme adaptability and mastery over an array of urban survival skills that complement, and some respects, due to her physiology, exceed that of her human counterpart.
They’ve always preferred the odd shifts – coming in before dawn or staying late into the night – because even though Q Branch never sleeps, there is a dreamlike, eye-of-the-storm tranquillity that descends when headquarters empties out, leaving only the most devoted and the most essential. When Q leaves Q Branch, taking what looks like a typical field agent’s attaché case with him, no one thinks twice of the knife’s edge in Q’s voice and smile as he bids the shift team good night.
Now they’ve set up in one of the rarely-used, private training rooms on the upper floors, and Q restlessly sets and resets the lock on the attaché case.
“They’re not going to agree,” Estelle says. She’s riding his shoulder today, both the voice of his conscience and the lure of his pride.
“They’ll agree if they want in on it.”
“Can you imagine any non-rogue Double-O inflicting purposeful damage on their quartermaster? Because that’s only a fraction likelier than them injuring M and his immediate staff, in terms of probability.”
“Well, it’s the same for us—”
“—please. We’d do it. We’ll always do it, because we’re often the only ones we’d trust to do it correctly.”
Q changes tack, not that it makes a difference when he’s simply arguing with himself. “Accordingly, he wouldn’t change the parameters of the device or be tempted to experiment around if we’re the subjects, so we won’t get injured more than we’ve signed up for. He knows when to pull the trigger, and I trust his judgment.” He pauses. “You don’t object, do you?”
“‘Or not pull the trigger,’” Estelle reminds him. “And no, I don’t object. Obviously.”
“Well,” Q says, “we don’t know if they’re still amendable to playing a role in this—project.”
Estelle’s stare burns into the side of his head, and Q distracts himself by drafting codes on his phone instead – the attaché case’s lock is clearly not up to the task.
The 007 pair won’t say no to something like this, not after what they’ve done to unearth it.
The door clicks open and a black nose followed by a white snout and red ears poke through the gap. Bailey sights Q and Estelle and then her head disappears. The door swings wide, Bailey leaping forward with her front paws against the heavy wood to shove it open, then darts into the room and tucks her tail quickly to the side before the door slams back shut again.
"Tedious," Bailey grumbles, and Q almost smiles. Q Branch had switched to automatic sliding doors to accommodate the staff's diverse array of daemons, sparking a headquarter-wide debate on the security of solid swinging doors which impaired most daemons versus the convenience of the sliding doors. It's clear where the 007 pair throw their vote.
"Isn't it?" Estelle says, deadpan, and both she and Q watch the door, waiting for it to swing forward again.
The door stays shut. Bailey stalks forward, her ears pricked high and her steps light and unhurried. She passes the halfway mark, and Q feels his skin prickle despite himself with each step she continues to take, utterly nonchalant. Estelle is quiet and watchful on his shoulder, but there’s the faint pinprick of pain where her talons dig deep into Q’s jacket.
The tension in their body language stops Bailey in her tracks, her entire stance going predatory, ears flattening, eyes intent as she scans the corners of the room. Finding nothing, she looks from Estelle to Q and back again, her head cocked, before her ears come back up.
"Oh, keep your feathers on. James is changing. We’ve been at the training circuit." She flicks her head in an almost disgusted manner. "You already know our range is much greater after that train incident in Istanbul.”
Q doesn't look at Estelle; he doesn't need to. His daemon turns her head fully to face the fox and her wings flare out, just once, before settling smoothly back against her side.
“You couldn’t have waited with him?”
"Boring. It's more interesting here."
“And how many people did you shock on your way here, wandering about alone like this?”
“I’m stealthier than that, Esta,” Bailey says, curling up on the floor.
"We can't start until you're both here." Estelle’s voice is even.
“Yes, you can – you just don’t want to repeat yourself. It’s fine. I can take a nap.”
Q can almost hear the retort going through Estelle’s head, his daemon ever game to fight back when it comes to Bailey, but she bites it back, turning her head into Q’s hair. “Check the kit,” she murmurs in Q’s ear, then takes off.
He follows her instructions implicitly, although it’s an ingrained habit to watch them over the top of the case. Estelle takes the back of the hardwood chair, Bailey moving her head to trail her flight route lazily. Then the fox goes gracefully to her feet, leaping to take a seat on the same chair, and Estelle shoots Q a look that says, quite distinctly, go away.
Q drops his gaze and concentrates on the contents of the case.
The device itself, now that he’s sheathed the circuitry within a protective casing, takes up very little space – it’s all the supporting documentation and accessories that fill up the attaché case. Additional wiring and circuit boards, a power charger, batteries, safety gloves and goggles and insulation. The pages of blueprints and handwritten calculations, because Q’s always worked best with physicality to complement the abstract his mind comprehends with such ease, and the hard drive with terabytes of raw data – research, videos, programs, calculations, and everything else in between.
He hadn’t liked moving that hard drive from his flat. It’s entirely irrational, because Q can think of very few places that are more secure than Q Branch.
But most of Q’s attention is on the other half of the case, and it’s that equipment he checks through with meticulous care, ticking down a mental checklist until he reaches the very end. Intending to pick up the standard tablet attached to every training room to run a search, Q turns on his heels—
And Bailey steps into his path, crossing perpendicular to his trajectory.
Q goes painfully still, cornered by the work desk and Bailey's sleek, unending pacing in front of him. His eyes fly upward, unerringly seeking out Estelle, but the snowy owl stays silent, not a feather out of place, her eyes unreadable even to Q.
Q swallows, and says, “Excuse me” in a clear, surprisingly steady voice. He'd meant to look at Bailey's pricked ears, the gorgeous russet red of them, because he couldn't imagine not at least facing someone he's addressing directly, daemon etiquette be damned, but Bailey lifts her head and he's staring into her amber eyes, as deadly and arresting as Bond's wintery blue eyes can be.
Time freezes - Q, caught; Bailey, considering - and then the daemon nods her head up and down, twice, a human-like movement, and settles back on her haunches and then down on her belly, tucking her tail along the length of her body.
“Q,” she says, and there goes any chance Q has of pretending Bond’s daemon isn’t confronting him. “You’re going to insist that the effects of your invention be dealt on you and Esta. That’s not going to happen.”
Q’s eyes narrow and he bites at the end of his tongue to keep from uttering the first words that come to mind. There is absolutely no way one can prepare for a conversation with a daemon determined to break all the rules of daemon etiquette—and without her human counterpart in the room, no less. But as the silence stretches out and it becomes clear Estelle refuses to speak for them, he takes a steadying breath and bites the bullet.
“You’re a Double-O pair and you’re doubtlessly used to twisting most things your way, but that won’t happen when you’re in my domain.”
When Bailey flashes her teeth at him, it’s almost a grin. “Of course. But you’re practical, and it really is more practical if you test it on us. That’s what we volunteered for.”
“You haven’t seen the device yet, and I haven’t agreed to your participation.”
“It’s a given,” she says, “that we want to be involved no matter what your device is like.”
Q stares down at her, hiding his slight frown under one hand. He only has a passing familiarity with the body language of daemons – that’s what his own daemon is for – but under Bailey’s nonchalance and her almost-grins there’s a line of tension through her entire body, curled up as she is.
“You’re very sure.”
“We are. And since we’ve established that—you should test your device on us.”
“Bailey.” Q’s voice is all plush and formal inflections now, a tone of voice any senior Q Branch staff would recognize as Q at his most dangerous. He holds those intelligent eyes with his own and refuses to look away. “Why are you telling me this?”
The coal-tipped end of Bailey’s tail flicks once, and she rises back on her haunches to better return Q’s stare. “Because Esta’s almost like James; she’ll want to dive into danger if there’s the slightest chance it’ll help. You’re a perfectionist, but you’re more cautious.’
“He doesn’t like to think of it that way, but what happened at Istanbul – it was separation. I hate it,” Bailey snarls suddenly, “and it was worse for him, but he’ll still run headlong into experiments like yours if it’ll help protect us from that again. We’ve seen the footage, you know,” and like Bond’s mercurial moods her voice is suddenly conversational, all placid calmness, “how that girl killed a pair by killing the pair’s daemon. James has clubbed daemons with a chair or his gun; it knocks their human out cold, and we always leave them alive after that. But I don’t doubt that he would kill another’s daemon, if it was for me.’
“And so you think you’ll protect him better if we tested the device on the two of you instead?”
“I want it to work. You designed it; you’ll know what to look for, you’ll be able to interpret the results and make the appropriate modifications. There’s a line between incapacitating without crossing into the realm of possible intercision. We’ve been there. We’ll know it.”
Silence is a subtle weapon that few know how to properly employ. Q swallows the first response that comes to mind and lets Bailey’s words sink in. She’s Bond’s daemon, after all, and Bond has always been adept at obscuration.
“Bond thinks the same way you do,” he says slowly, “and yet you’re here alone. What don’t you want him to know?”
Bailey pauses for the barest moment, then plunges right ahead.
“I’m his daemon. I know what it’ll do to him to kill another’s daemon. It won’t even be my reaction to it; he’ll relive it every time he looks at me.”
And that’s the line that defines daemons; no matter how anthropomorphous they may appear, in personality and action and thought, a daemon’s entire world still revolves around her human counterpart.
“Let us daemons deal with other daemons—we always have, we always will. But if a human dares to attack me, I want a better chance of protecting myself. We can’t attack humans properly; you know this. I’ve bitten some of James’ assailants before, and it’s—” she scrubs hard at her ear with one paw—“but mostly, it sickened James. In a drawn out fight, it’s counterintuitive. So Esta’s armour, the claws, that interests us, but it’s not my priority.”
Rising to her feet, Bailey lifts her head; it bares her muzzle and the white fur of her chest. “You know him. If anyone attacks me, he’ll retaliate by going after the daemon. I want to be able to protect him from that possibility. Let us help you the best way we can so you can work the best way you can.”
Even the most egomaniac fool will look to his daemon for cues when it comes to such sensitive matters, and Q has often waited for the soft flutter of Estelle’s wings or the weight of her stare to inform his decision. This time, however, he doesn’t; she’s already given in, the moment she let Bailey confront him directly, and she doesn’t move from her position across the room, doesn’t draw his attention back to her.
This decision is entirely Q’s.
Taking a step forward, Q goes down on one knee so he’s couched at eye level with Bailey. It’s an unfamiliar move, not when it’s proper form to avoid interacting with another’s daemon, but Q feels better for it. He studies her eyes and the flick of her ears, the most expressive parts of her, and Bailey, as he expects, does not back away.
“You two are the most reckless and self-sacrificing pair I’ve met,” he tells her seriously.
“He’s mine,” she simply says. “Who else will look after him if I don’t?”
“I thought you’d say that.” Q nods then, a sharp, decisive movement. “All right.”
Tilting her head to one side, Bailey leans in a fraction closer as if to scent him, then falls back. “All right.”
It’s an odd moment, all the players caught between actions. Q gives Bailey a small smile and rises back on his feet, tugging his parka back into place. Bailey shoots Estelle a quick look, then her gaze arrows in on the door, her ears going up in attention.
“James is about a minute away,” she says, and swishes her tail near Q’s feet as if to shoo him back to the work desk.
“Is he,” Q murmurs to himself, and goes for the tablet before Bond comes in and the 007 team successfully distracts him from it again.
There is no knock on the door, barely a whisper of sound as it opens, but Bond lets his footsteps be heard when he enters, a quiet scuffle of shoes against a smooth floor. It’s laughable how much more at ease Q feels around Bond; he feels his equilibrium snap back into place, and it is simplicity itself to raise his voice and quip out “Ah, there you are” as though he didn’t have a care in the world.
“Here I am,” Bond agrees, and Q turns, tablet in hand.
Bond is loose-limbed and languid, with a spark of slow-simmering awareness in his eyes that threatens to ignite into genuine interest if given the opportunity, and looks nothing like a man who’d just spent the entire day completing a battery of physical tests and running the full training circuits right after. Back in formal dress, he’s left the tie and jacket off, and he holds a hand out for Bailey to sniff at, tapping her on the nose in reprimand when she draws close enough.
“My apologies, Q, for the trouble Bailey has given you,” Bond says, although his eyes are on his daemon; he digs his fingers into her ruff roughly, but despite – or perhaps because of – Bailey’s low growls it’s a treatment the fox obviously enjoys; she sighs after a moment and ducks away almost reluctantly, tracing her steps back to Estelle’s chair, Bond following in her wake.
“What makes you say that?”
“Those in the know would never expect less from my daemon.” Bond meets Q’s gaze over the workstation, and there’s the trigger now, interest and intent sharpening behind his eyes and turning his smile conspiratory. He nods at the case before Q without breaking eye contact. “There’s the infamous device, then.”
Q’s hand clenches automatically around the tablet, but Bond makes it quite obvious he isn’t peering over the top of the case at its contents, going as far as to fold his hands behind his back contemplatively. Q narrows his eyes at him, but he won’t waste any blessings he’s given.
“Yes,” he says, and doesn’t turn the case around. “This is highly unconventional, you do realize that. I can’t involve Q Branch, and it’ll be a precarious experiment with just me and Esta both overseeing and running the trials. I don’t claim to be perfect, but we’ll do our utmost to account for all possibilities—Bond, why are you looking at me like that?”
Bond shrugs, smoothing out both his expression and his body language, but Q had already caught the surprised and considering look Bond threw him. “I thought you’d insist on being the one experimented on.”
Q glances at the daemons. “I’ve been overruled.”
If Bond notices that he’s looking to Bailey instead of Estelle, he doesn’t reveal it. “Good. That’s one less argument, then. When do we start?”
Leave it to Bond to sweep all of Q’s careful statements and questions aside with an implied agreement.
“You have a mission.” Flipping the tablet around, Q displays the directive he receives from M’s office ahead of all Double-O missions, a simple template with the agent’s double-O number and a short encrypted message. Drawing the tablet back, he deletes all traces of his access on it and slides the small briefcase – the one Q had stashed in the other half of the attaché case – across in its stead. “I’m clear to give you your equipment ahead of time. You’ll brief with M tomorrow morning, although you can leave tonight if you really want to; there’s a message on the phone with M’s current location.”
Bond takes the case, lifts the lid and gives the contents a cursory check. The slightest hint of a smile touches his lips – he’s eager as all Double-Os are to return to the field – but when he snaps the case close and looks up it’s clear he’s still focused on Q.
“If you think I’ll lose interest now that I’m cleared for missions, I won’t.” He watches Q steadily. “You also brought your entire kit with you for this session, so you didn’t really expect us to take that option.”
“This was always meant to be a passive showing, not a demonstration.” Q corrects. “Even if I can’t use Q Branch’s facilities, my personal office is the safest and most conducive place to run this—experiment. I’m moving my set up there.”
“You tell yourself that, and yet you hoped we’d choose otherwise.” Bond’s voice drops, going low and teasing, although his eyes remain serious. “It’s sweet of you to give us an out, Q.”
It had been a long shot, even before Bailey came in and made it quite obvious that it was never an option the 007 pair would consider, but Q had to offer it. He flips the attaché case’s lid entirely open, giving Bond a glimpse of its contents, and the man’s eyes gleam as they sweep across the neatly packed case – the electronics, the documents, lingering on the device’s sleek casing. There’s a soft click of claws and then Bailey’s on the workstation, peering into the case as well.
“After I return, then,” Bond says. “You’ll have time to organize your set up to your satisfaction and we’ll complete our mission. And you’ll know that we’ve had ample time to consider our decision.”
The flutter of near silent wings makes Q tilt his head to the side automatically, and Estelle lands feather soft on his shoulder. Although she’s still silent her weight is comforting, a reminder that none of them are ever quite alone, not with their daemons by their sides.
“All right,” Q says—
—and Bond smiles, half-feral and pleased before his expression smoothes out, and Q has to glance away.
He also has to fight the urge to laugh because that’s the same answer he’d given Bailey, and it’s painfully clear that despite the protective barriers and careful considerations Q builds up the 007 pair will only find quicker and more lethal ways to tear through his defences.
“Invent better firewalls,” Estelle whispers, combing her beak through his curls, and Q reaches a hand up to pat her wing in acknowledgment.
Both of them pretend not to hear Bailey’s murmur, an afterthought to her human’s words, “Even then, our answer will still be yes.”
Q doesn’t have a name for the device he holds in his hands, not even something as simple and vague as “a modified stun gun”. Naming it gives it importance, makes it real and opens it up to the rest of the world; he and Estelle never needed any words to know what either of them referred to when they designed and modified it, and for the longest time he’d hung onto the illusion that if it only exists between him and his daemon, then it would never quite see the light of day.
And now here he is, ensconced in the workroom attached directly to his private office with the 007 pair looking on with hungry curiosity, tension a palpable electrical charge of its own.
Q holds the device – the stunner, that sounds harmless enough, he thinks wryly - in the circle of his palm, cables linking it to the switchbox he uses to modify specifications: voltage and current levels, duration of the initial spark, electrical pulse frequency and so on. He had made Bond shed anything metallic, including his weapons; Q needs to establish a safe baseline first, and things would be bad enough without having to explain to Medical why an off-duty Double-O sports electrical burns from his cufflinks or something ridiculous like that.
“Stun guns administer an electrical shock by direct contact; easy enough with flesh and bone, but significantly more difficult with an intangible bond link. We know that electrical and magnetic fields can affect the bond, and vice versa. Q Branch has done some work on this.” Q gestures at Estelle’s transmitter. “Some disruption occurs when a daemon carries or comes in very close contact with our communication devices; we’ve learned to offset certain settings to account for that. There’s a range, of course, but we at least have an average from the Q Branch daemons—”
Q had an interesting time programming a software intelligent enough to detect the variance and to recalibrate the earpiece or transmitter settings so an agent could easily hand off or attach the comms device to their daemons, in fact. The lack of data is frustrating, and it’s why Estelle’s transmitter broadcasts clearer signals compared to some of his staff’s; Q based the program primarily on her data.
“—if we tune our electrical signal to those unique properties, the discharge should target the bond directly.”
Q steps around the lab table to put it between him and Estelle, then sets the stunner to its lowest power setting. He touches his bare fingertip to the electrode and lifts it an inch away, a small light arc following his finger. It tingles more than anything else, in that spot below his heart where he feels his link to Estelle.
Bond’s hand joins his above the stunner, arching an eyebrow when nothing happens. Bailey cocks her head, then pads away from Bond, the stunner snapping an arc of light against Bond’s fingertip when Bailey’s circuit puts it between them.
Both of them stare speculatively at the stunner at that, and Q can almost hear them planning angles of attack, ways to protect the bond link between them by controlling their proximity and position in relation to each other.
“So you have run tests on the bond link.”
“On ourselves, to a certain extent, yes.” Q snaps off the power to the stunner. “It’s fairly harmless at that power level. Like the discharge of a plasma globe.”
“And you’ll be able to target the bond directly.”
“With enough data. Although I suppose it’ll work just as well, if your daemon ends up shocking the human attacker instead,” Q says. “The daemon would likely be able to retaliate, however.”
Stepping back, Bond nods once, staring at Q expectedly. A suspiciously docile Double-O is a dangerous one, so it’s apt that the next thing Q goes for is the medical set up at the end of the room, a careful and safe distance away from the lab table. He flicks on the monitors and picks up the tablet to pull up both the medical software and his recording programs.
"Where did you get all this?" Bond’s voice comes from behind him.
Q blows out a distracted breath. "I called in some favours. Medical owed me for a side project I helped them with." He glances over at Bond. “I rather not accidentally kill you, and we’ll be able to gauge the effects of the stunner with some of these factors.”
He’d checked out a Double-O’s more extensive medical field kit too, and it’s disconcerting to see the ease with which Bond goes through it and stranger still when Bond lingers on the heart defibrillator, checking its wiring, Bailey watching on with a strange intensity.
“Always check the cables of the heart defibrillator,” Bond says, as if he’d noticed Q’s stare even without looking in his direction.
“All right. Why?”
“Lessons from a previous mission. It doesn’t matter.”
Picking her way delicately through the medical equipment, Bailey leaps down into the open space between Q and Bond, utterly indifferent to how close that puts her to Q. She doesn’t speak to Q again, although Q feels her eyes on him much more frequently now, twin stares boring into him from two directions, amber and steel blue, so it’s a surprise when Bond says, “You keep staring at Bailey.”
He has never been reticent around Bond, so instead of apologizing Q simply speaks his mind.
“What is separation like?”
Bond smiles, sharp and real, the type of expression he reserves for his targets or the other Double-Os. “It’s not very different. I can still feel Bailey. I know instinctively where she is. We sense each other’s emotions. Our link is still intact.”
“The difference is when we stretch the bond. There’s no pain, but it’s discomfiting. Like you’re pressing down on an overstrained muscle. Like someone’s muted your sense of smell, or blurred your vision, or tampered with your hearing – nothing that truly impairs you, but the disruption is still there. You watched us,” Bond says. “Or rather, you watched me, and didn’t see Bailey.”
“You called Q Branch,” Q says. “You should be careful if you don’t want anyone else finding out.”
“You were on duty, and you’ll never pass the reins over to anyone else when a Double-O calls in. Besides, Bailey hides from cameras easily.”
“That’s a plausible excuse if anyone saw you alone,” Q agrees, and doesn’t tell Bond he saw more than that. That on Bond’s last mission, he’d hacked into the CCTV system much faster than Bond obviously expected, and not only was Bailey missing from all the footage, but Bond had carried a little protective container he claimed to contain his daemon, a wasp. It was a terribly efficient way of hiding his identity and ten minutes later he’d disabled everyone, Bailey sprinting into the room soon after with a stolen phone between her teeth. Then they’d called Q again, and Q broke into the phone by proxy, looking through the cameras with Bond typing in the codes, and then they’d continued on with the mission.
Instead, he says, “I believe some agencies offer the option of voluntary separation.”
“It’s an advantage, but it doesn’t mean we enjoy it,” Bond says. “And the initial separation—I came back to London with shrapnel still lodged in my shoulder; I forgot that I’d been shot and it had partially healed over by the time I saw to it.”
Q stares at him for a long moment. Bond speaks of it like he’s commenting on the weather, Bailey still lurking somewhere underfoot and apart from her human, and Q can’t imagine experiencing a level of pain that made a person forget they’d been shot – twice - or how Bond can resist clutching Bailey to his side after it all.
Then he grasps Bond’s wrist – careful to telegraph his movements – and snaps the medical clip onto Bond’s thumb, and they both watch the monitors pick up Bond’s vital signs, transmitted wirelessly through the tag.
“Fortunately for MI6, you survived,” Q says, watching the rise and fall of Bond’s heartbeat, and strides across the room to the lab table, Bond following in his wake moments later. He stops by Estelle’s stand, wanting her on his shoulder, but settles for scratching his fingertips against the downy feathers at the back of her skull. She nips his fingers lightly in return, and snaps her wings once in an obvious get on with it motion.
Q smiles for her, then pulls on his safety gloves and picks up the stunner, tuning the power level back to the first of his predetermined settings.
Bond leans one hip against the lab table, Bailey leaping up to sit by his shoulder. As one, they turn towards Q.
“Ground rules.” Q meets everyone’s eyes firmly in turn - even Estelle’s - before focusing the weight of his attention on Bond. “Beyond experimental procedures. There are only two.’
“First, I have final say on any and all matters related to this experiment. You are free to back out at any time, reject any factors that we choose to explore – all of that. But I will put a limit on all parameters that we’re exploring, and if I say this entire venture stops, it stops.”
“You are the Quartermaster,” Bond says.
And you are breathtakingly reckless.
“Second, if I think you’re less than honest with me on how you feel after a trial, or whether you’re in shape to continue after returning from a mission, this ends permanently. I’ll not risk you or Bailey on your ego or stoicism or whatever other excuse you’re undoubtedly thinking of. Full disclosure, Bond. With this if with nothing else.”
Bond shoots him a look that Q can’t quite identify, reaching out to rub Bailey’s ears. Her eyelids droop under the attention, but beneath the obvious contentment her eyes are gleaming with predatory intent.
“Agreed,” Bond says, and they break apart, Bond straightening his stance and Bailey slinking to the end of the lab table and then they both turn expectant gazes on Q.
Q doesn’t let himself think, lets his hands move the way they do upon a keyboard—efficient, confident and ever in control.
Bond barely twitches, blinking slowly for several seconds before his gaze sharpens again, glancing at Bailey. The fox paws hard at her ears, and when Bond reaches a hand out to brush her fur there’s a small snap of static electricity.
Q watches them, because Estelle watches the monitors; they’ll compare notes later. “All right?”
“Hmm. Rather like electrotherapy. Hardly a bite to it.”
Q cracks a smile. “We’re just getting started.”
It’s called computer science because like any other science field, computation and its applications in the technological sphere can be and is often approached scientifically and practically.
And just as mathematical calculations come as easily as breathing to some mathematicians, so too does the entire abstract side of computer science and it’s association fields – the ease of coding, the instinctive approach to cryptography, the ability to look at an intangible program and simply know the best theory to put to it – come intuitively to Q. Underneath that, however, Q possesses a solid base of mathematics and engineering, logic and linguistics, and a mind sharp enough to pick up myriad points of data in his day-to-day life and integrate it all into something coherent.
And so Q takes meticulous notes, records all his observations and collects as much data as possible. He tries his hardest to quantify each and every factor of this experiment—
—except the 007 pair are ever the exception to that rule, aren’t they?
Bond, of course, is the first to notice the smallest of changes early on in the trials.
“They’re getting along better now,” Bond says.
Q looks up from calibrating the stunner, then follows the man’s gaze to their daemons. Estelle roosts on the arm of a work chair instead of her habitual perch, leaning forward slightly to speak to Bailey, who is sprawled out comfortably on the floor below the chair.
“They’re quiet,” Q notes a moment later, surprised. “That’s not like them.”
“That’s like the rest of the daemon population, though.”
Q reaches up to touch his ear, and Estelle’s eyes flick to meet his before she gives a quiet huff. Bailey turns lazily, her tongue lolling out in a vulpine grin, and then the daemons turn away, ignoring Q and Bond entirely.
Dropping his hand, Q throws a questioning look in Bond’s direction. He’s used to tuning out the perpetual chatter of Q Branch, although it’s harder to ignore his own daemon when she’s busily and loudly arguing with another. But now that he has peace and quiet from that sector, the lack of Bailey and Estelle’s heated voices sniping at each other feels oddly jarring.
Bond favours the daemons with a studying look of his own. “Interesting,” is all he says on the matter, and Q glances again at Estelle before turning his attention back to the stunner.
Q has run dozens of operations, with Q Branch and on his own. Most go off well, some are problematic, and a rare few, usually the Double-O missions, are heart-stoppingly tense, where there are fire fights and explosions or the sudden cut off silence of a disabled communication device, and all Q can do is trace the line and do his best to provide whatever backup is within his power to give.
The worst sound he’d heard over the line thus far is the steady drip of blood under the increasingly slurred voice of 0010 reporting in pertinent information for his replacement, his daemon picking up the thread as his voice faded out, each missed syllable and stuttered breath too loud in Q’s earpiece because the agent refused to list his injuries or listen and Q had turned the sensitivity on the comms to the maximum to listen for dangers on 0010’s behalf as he furiously hacked systems to give the local medical team a chance of getting to them.
So it’s a strange feeling to see and hear the effects of the stunner without the barrier of technology in the way, to watch Bond’s flinches and grimaces escalate to more pronounced missteps and staggers, the way he shrugs off the physical burns when the voltage-current-resistance ratio to distance and angle is off and the electric charge sparks against his skin instead of the bond, or the way he swallows all his reactions when Q successfully stuns both him and Bailey through the link.
It’s strange to witness it all in person, and it’s another thing altogether to be the one causing it.
“I’d have thought you’d enjoy inflicting pain on me. Payback for all the times I destroyed your equipment and all.” Bond combs his fingers through Bailey’s fur as she lies curled up tight to his side, direct contact the best medicine for any disruption to the bond link. The fox shrugs off physical injuries easily – in line with how daemons stay conscious and operating for a period of time even when their humans are incapacitated – but is worse off when Q stuns them for real.
Q hands the Bond a mug of tea, frowning but saying nothing when Bond upends a flask of whiskey into the drink.
“I’m not a sadist,” Q says after Bond’s drained half the doctored tea, and turns to go back to his laptop when Bond grasps his wrist. Q startles, but Bond’s grip is firm and careful and Q simply twists his wrist in a bid to pull free instead of elbowing Bond’s head like he would with anyone else.
“Although I might change my mind if you keep doing that,” Q adds when Bond pulls him a fraction closer, staring up at him with the entire force of his attention behind his gaze. It only lasts for a few moments, and then Bond lets him go.
“Between the two of you, Esta definitely has the better poker face,” Bond says. “I haven’t seen that expression on you for a while.”
Q resist the urge to step back or turn away, and it’s definitely too late to try to school his expression, so he doesn’t bother. “Is that so.”
“I prefer the one you wore the first time we met. So very affronted by the attack on your age but doubly determined not to betray your annoyance of it.”
Q feels his temper flare despite himself, and his smile is definitely on the toothy side, which might just prove Bond’s point.
“Yes, that one. That expression suits you better.”
Resting his head against the back of the couch and closing his eyes as if speaking to himself, Bond murmurs, “It took you a few weeks to get over Silva’s attack on Q Branch as well—” and Q freezes, turning to stare at Bond “—so I suppose you’ll get used to the idea of harming us soon enough.”
Swallowing actually hurts, but Q’s voice, when he speaks, is clear and steady. “Whatever scruples I have aside, once I’ve determined that something needs to be done, we will do it. You needn’t worry that we’ll lose heart halfway.”
Even seated, there is no doubting the confidence and self-control in Bond’s body language as he tips his head forward to meet Q’s eyes. “Why,” he says, a statement in the voice of a question, “do you think we agreed to all of this?”
Q schedules a medical check-up and hands the appointment slip to Bond when he returns his equipment after a mission. Bond doesn’t say a word; it’s well within Q’s authority as the quartermaster to do so and it’s a common enough occurrence for Double-Os, although they ignore it most of the time.
He’s surprised when Bond goes, and doubly so when Bond forwards him the medical report afterwards.
Clean – no deep tissue damage, no heart strain, no other injuries beyond the ones he’d picked up from the last mission. Medical has yet to develop any tests on the bond link – or else someone would have discovered that Bond and Bailey are separated by now – but the scans and the examination by the medic’s daemon shows Bailey is well enough.
Q lets his eyes fall shut for a moment before closing down the report and pulling up the data from the last trial, Estelle an ever-comforting weight on his shoulder.
The first time it all becomes significantly more than just an experiment is also the first time visible lightning-like tendrils snap to the space between Bond and Bailey, and the screaming alarms of the monitors do nothing to mask Bailey’s choked-off whimper.
Eerier still is Bond’s non-reaction – he goes utterly still, his limbs locking automatically in place, and for half a second Q’s gaze flicks bewilderedly between the monitors and Bond until he notices the odd start-and-stop way Bond’s limb twitches, eyelids fluttering madly, utterly beyond his control.
Involuntary contraction of muscles due to electrical interference; this can cause bone fractures and possible dislocations, Q’s mind dutifully supplies him, and then he’s throwing the circuit breaks on every electrically based device on the table – just in case – and pulling the medical tag off to silence the monitors, and then reaches to thumb Bond’s flickering eyelids—
“Not yet,” Estelle snaps and Q jerks back automatically, tuned to his daemon’s orders. Beside him, Bailey’s scrambling to her feet, losing her footing once; instinct kicks in and Q ducks out of her way, goes for the medical kit – always check the cables of the heart defibrillator, a memory prompts him – and in the numbed privacy of his mind Q wonders if he’d managed to stop Bond’s heart.
Bailey launches herself at Bond, not quite able to check her speed and slamming into Bond’s chest and shoulder; Bond’s eyes snap open, pupils narrowing as they focus on his daemon – conscious, then, and a good sign – and one hand comes up automatically to hook around Bailey’s ruff, digging in.
Setting the medical kit close by, Q waits, his weight balanced on the balls of his feet.
“Clear,” Estelle says and Q immediately snaps off his safety gloves, setting two fingertips to Bond’s carotid artery even as he does his best to check for electrical burns with Bailey nosing up and down Bond’s torso, clearly looking for the same. The pulse under his hand stutters but remains strong, and as Q counts off the seconds in his head it steadies into a regular beat, returning to Bond’s usual range.
Q feels it the moment Bond draws a deeper breath, his fingers moving against Bond’s neck as the man swallows.
“Status,” Q commands. “The link, injuries in priority, and—”
“Less of a kick,” Bond cuts in, his usually smooth voice hoarse. “Not that it doesn’t incapacitate the target admirably, but it might also just kill them.”
It takes a moment for Q to realize that Bond is talking about the stunner.
“For pity’s sake, Bond,” he says through gritted teeth, “you’re a Double-O. Killing someone with this is the least of the issues you should be considering right now.”
Bond shifts further upright and smiles, looking more deliberately dishevelled than half-dead – good god, how does he manage to smile like that even now? – and Q can’t help throwing a look at Estelle as he snaps the medical clip back onto Bond’s thumb, watching as the monitors flicker and pick up Bond’s vital signs. The monitors stay blessedly silent, so Q doesn’t have to hit the emergency alarm linked to Medical on his phone; still on her stand, Estelle lifts her talons away from her transmitter, which would send out the same alert if she’d crushed it in her grip.
Spreading her wings and snapping them close restlessly, Estelle hops to the end of her stand. “Bailey? We have the readouts, but a verbal—”
“Bond link intact,” Bailey says, her voice muffled against Bond’s arm. “No burns. There was a physical kick, nothing we can’t handle. It was mostly a reaction to that shock to the bond, so you can put away the medical kit.” She turns around in Bond’s lap, her bushy tail curving possessively, protectively over the length of Bond’s arm. “It was bad, but it’s definitely better than Istanbul.”
There’s a soft crunch of splintering wood from under Estelle’s talons. “You were separated in Istanbul!”
“What Bailey means,” Bond cuts in, “is that we’re fine.”
Glaring at Bond will only make his blood pressure rise, so Q goes to Estelle instead, running a hand down her back. “Ground rules, Bond.”
The Double-O simply looks at him, then smiles, a more self-deprecating, lopsided grin this time.
“We will be fine,” he says, not breaking eye contact, and he holds it until Q nods, eyes sliding towards the monitor readings once again. The steady jump of Bond’s heart beat is reassuring, but it’s Bond’s words that go a long way to unravelling the heavy knot in Q’s chest.
“We need to teach you better self-preservation skills,” Q finally says.
“Too late for that now,” Bond says, reaching out for the sealed and insulated bottled water Q keeps on the side table. “You’re on the right track, though. Just remember – less of a kick.”
Q unhooks the stunner from the circuit breakers a little more brusquely than he should, although he takes care when he seals the power point and tucks the entire device safely away. “Q Branch has created deadlier weapons than this.”
“Not like this.” Bond’s eyes are almost luminous, as if the electric shock from before is enough to give them a light of their own. “Your stunner targets the bond, not the body; it’s strictly non-lethal. You designed it that way.”
That is the way Q designed it, because targeting the bond link is taboo enough. It’s a fine, almost meaningless distinction, but it mattered to Q, and he hadn’t known that Bond realized that.
It also hits Q right then that it didn’t matter at all.
“I rather the stunner did its job of keeping both you and Bailey safe – whether it kills the target or simply disables them – than you ending up dead.”
Two pairs of eyes blink slowly at him; he’s surprised them. Q glances at Estelle, and his daemon spreads one wing to brush feathers against his hand.
“It’s a weapon of the last resort.” Q removes his glasses, pinches at the bridge of his nose to ease the strain there, then replaces his glasses. “But you’re right, I never meant for it to be lethal. We’ll keep working on this.”
Bond begins stroking his fingers through Bailey’s fur once again. “And we’ll be here for the next trial.”
Q pauses, then nods once, and picks up the medical kit to force some painkillers into the man after all.
“Am I overthinking things?” Q says one night. The 007 pair is on a lengthy mission and so Q has transported the entire hard drive of data back to the privacy of their flat for analysis.
“I don’t know, are you overthinking things?”
It’s a rather maddening habit of Estelle’s to turn Q’s questions back on himself, and he taps the tip of his stylus pen against her beak.
“It’s just – the whole situation with Bond. Well, you observe us interacting. What do you see?”
“I spend most of my time watching the monitors while you watch him,” she points out. “Relationships change. We know more about him and Bailey now – more than the files detail. It’s not a bad thing…”
She trails off, and Q picks up her line of thought, finishes it with a decisive, “No, it’s not.”
“Then don’t worry more than you have to.”
Estelle has her head half turned towards him, reading the laptop screen and watching him in the same field of vision, and it’s terribly familiar because she does the same during the trials, watching the jump off the monitors and the nuances of Bailey’s body language at the same time.
Estelle, Q is beginning to suspect, is not as impartial as she believes she is.
They receive the alert in the middle of their morning shift. Q silences the alarm on his phone, stares at it for a long moment, and then goes back to supervising the system overhaul for Security.
It’s past the conventional lunch hour when Q finally catches a break, and he tries not to feel too self-conscious when Riley’s Jasmine glide-drops onto Estelle’s stand, the flying squirrel catching her balance easily and running across the length of wood to chuckle quietly at Estelle on Q’s shoulder.
“Since it’s so rare for you to take breaks elsewhere, you won’t mind if Jas steals Esta’s perch for the shift, I hope,” his second says calmly, ignoring his daemon’s chortles.
“That’s fine.” Q turns away, Estelle muttering under her breath, still riding Q’s shoulder.
The door to his office slides open when he scans his keycard – no tampering there – and Q stands on the threshold for a long minute. His desk looks untouched, the overhead lights and his desk lamp off but the low floor lights on, casting a soft dim glow. There’s a figure lying across the leather couch.
Q takes a single step into the room.
Bond’s eyes snap open, his pupils narrowing as they focus on Q and Estelle. He blinks once in recognition, then sets the gun back on the floor beside the couch, eyes falling shut once more.
Seconds later, Bailey lifts her head from where she’s wedged between Bond’s body and the back of the couch. She clambers over Bond’s stomach – Bond doesn’t twitch – and yawns once before dropping lightly to the floor, tucking herself up beside the gun.
“I’m coming in.”
Q isn’t sure who he’s addressing that statement to, but it’s Bond who responds.
“It’s your office.”
Q steps further into the room, the door sliding shut behind him.
“Do I need to order you to Medical?”
“You can try. I can ignore it.”
“And just how many hours have you been awake for?”
“Fifty-six hours as of this morning, barring short bursts of sleep enroute from Amsterdam to Paris, and Paris to London.”
Q blows out a quiet breath, and goes to snag the attaché case Bond’s left by the wall, Bailey’s eyes following him as he approaches. There’s a separate briefcase too, and Q moves it beside Bailey, seating himself on the side table wedged in the corner between the couch and his work desk. Estelle hops from his shoulder onto the back of the couch, staring down at Bond.
“You’re entitled to go home after a mission, you know.”
“M won’t return until evening. I haven’t been debriefed; I’m still on-duty.”
“So you broke into my office.”
A flick of silver flashes between Bond’s fingers. “You gave me this keycard yourself.”
“That’s for the workroom, not my office.”
“And yet they give entry to both. You’ll have to be more specific in the future.” Bond’s eyes open just a fraction, slits of blue peering up at Q. “I tried accessing your networks from your desk. I couldn’t get through your firewalls.”
Q casts a beseeching look at his ceiling, and makes a mental note to check his systems later. “Where else would I have the most stringent safeguards?”
“Most people take fewer precautions in their private spaces.”
“I’m not most people.”
“No, I suppose you are not.”
The silence that falls is a peaceful one. Q goes through the attaché case systematically, checking over Bond’s equipment and making notations for Q Branch’s inventory on his phone. Bailey sits upright and leans her head against Bond’s hip to watch, ears drooped to half-perch, twitching her bottle tail idly. Bond’s eyes are closed but his breathing is steady – he hasn’t fallen asleep again, not with someone else in the room. Q can’t help stealing looks at him. Double-Os are capable of startling moments of stillness; this is one of them, a conservation of energy like the embers of a flame, banked and self-contained and ever ready to flare to blazing life once again.
The gun is the last item in Bond’s kit. Q picks it up, careful not to brush against Bailey’s tail, checks it over, then places it back on the floor. He rests his hands on the attaché case’s matte cover. “Bond. What are you doing here?”
From an angle, the curve of Bond’s smile appears particularly devious. “As I’ve been out in the field for nearly a month, I thought we’d run an experiment.”
Q blinks, long and slow, then takes a quick look at Bailey, who stares openly back at him, her body language neutral.
“Your questionable priorities aside, I’m not using the stunner on you when you’re dead on your feet. And I’m on-duty as well.”
“Yes, your second told me. Upgrading Security’s systems. You’re almost done with these tests, however.”
“Am I?” Q asks.
“You’re down to fine-tuning now.”
“Then we’re in no hurry for another trial,” Q tells him, rising to his feet. He extends his wrist to Estelle to transfer her back to his shoulder, and grasps the attaché case in one hand. “Get some proper rest.”
“Are you offering me the use of your couch, then?”
“You’ve already taken it,” Q points out. “Debrief with M, go home, and don’t come back to Q Branch for at least two days.”
“Because that ultimatum worked so well the last time you tried it.” There’s a definite smirk in Bond’s voice, his words drawling just the slightest from fatigue.
“Good afternoon, Bond,” Q says. He steps out into the corridor, and it’s only when the door slides close on a flash of red that he realizes Bailey has left with them, keycard in her mouth. Q backs away automatically – she’s almost crowded against his legs – and Bailey lays the keycard down, tapping a paw on it.
“I killed a scorpion daemon three days ago,” she says, and Q jerks to an abrupt halt, Estelle’s talons clenching deep into the shoulder of his jacket to hold her balance.
For the first time since they started this entire endeavour, Estelle’s voice sounds uncertain. “Bailey?”
Sharp claws click against the smooth floor, deliberate; Bailey is capable of near silent movement, light and swift atop snow and even lighter-footed on concrete.
“They caught me out on my own. It didn’t faze them to see a daemon alone, and James was causing quite a ruckus in their safe house – they correctly surmised that stopping me would stop him. So I shredded the scorpion to pieces. I was lucky. Very lucky, that she’d been small, and close enough that I could attack her.”
She twists in position, curling her tail neatly around her paws. “James doesn’t know. Or maybe he does. We’d happened upon an extremist group experimenting on the separation process. They aren’t nearly as good at research as MI6 is – most of their subjects were dead. James shot the lot of… ‘researchers.’”
Estelle shifts on Q’s shoulder, but remains silent.
“This is what we are capable of.” Bailey breathes out a sigh, then cocks her head at them. “I’m glad you’re almost done with the stunner’s design. I’m also glad you now have a weapon that is specially calculated to perfectly disable both James and I.”
Q starts, and flinches anew when Estelle’s talons pierce right through his jacket, biting into his shoulder. “That’s not what it’s for,” Q says, stunned enough that he forgets his usual reservations on speaking to other daemons.
“We wouldn’t,” Estelle echoes the sentiment almost simultaneously.
“You should,” Bailey says, “if you have to. We’ll commit all manner of acts, James and I, to protect what’s ours. We even feigned death once, to escape MI6.”
She takes the keycard delicately between her teeth and rears back onto her hind legs, forepaws braced against the wall to tap the keycard against the touchpad. The door slides open and she bounds inside swiftly, dropping the card just inside, but pauses right on the threshold, pressing her shoulder against the edge so the pressure sensors keep the door open.
Bailey’s ears flick up and down, lightning quick, and then she says, softly, “I think we’d do much as well, if it was for you.”
She leaps back, lifting her weight away, and the door slides shut, leaving Q and Estelle out in the corridor with her words ringing in their ears.
The stunner is a too familiar shape in his hands; it fits against the curve of Q’s fingers easily, although its ultimate form would have to be infinitely smaller for a daemon to easily carry. He alternates between fiddling with it and making calculations on a tablet until Estelle abruptly spears her talons over the stunner, caging it in place.
“You weren’t overthinking things,” she says, pulling her leg back and rustling her wings restlessly. “We just—didn’t quite see it.”
Q runs one hand through his hair, just to give himself something to do. “The stunner was never intended to work on him. It’s supposed to work on the general, murderous population.”
“And yet,” Estelle says slowly, “under normal circumstances, we cannot draw conclusions based on one participant. We don’t have the minimum sample size for our results to be statistically sound; our baseline comes from a pair whose pain thresholds and tolerance for injury is off the charts.” She raises her head and draws her wings in tight. “What we’ve done is make an in-depth study of one subject.”
“Estelle, this isn’t supposed to be about them!”
She claws restlessly at Q’s desk, then looks up to meet his gaze. “I know,” his daemon says. “But it is now.”
There’s a delicate framework of a program at the back of Q’s mind, a code that varies the power and intensity of the stunner’s discharge, an encryption that hides the nature of the device and a security protocol that allows the device to be activated only by a daemon, and one individual daemon, if he can work that part out.
And he’s thinking that far ahead because Q has set the stunner to the most optimized settings based on Bond’s results, and Q isn’t entirely sure why he’s preparing for another trial instead of simply telling Bond they are done.
He feels Bond’s gaze on his back like a palpable touch. Somewhere afoot, Bailey is likely watching him or Estelle with the same scrutiny.
“You’re a terrible workaholic, Q.”
“Sometimes I go for afternoon tea and pastries on my days off. Other times, I work on side projects,” Q says over one shoulder. “What do you do on your days off?”
“Apparently, I work on side projects as well.”
Q can’t help the smile; it spreads across his lips completely unbidden, and when he notices it’s an incongruent moment, to be smiling down at a device he no longer fully understands whom or what purpose he designed it for.
“You volunteered. Quite vocally, in fact.”
“I did,” Bond agrees. The silences between words feel weightier without the insight Bond’s body language gives him, and this is the way they operate, idle banter over a line with Bond executing impossibly deadly acts and Q pulling strings in the background. It’s familiar and easy and so Q doesn’t turn around, letting the silences speak for themselves.
It’s only a matter of time before Q hears the quiet sounds of a tablet detaching from its frame, the 007 pair ever comfortable in their independence. Without his weapons and occasional long waits as Q fine-tunes the stunner designs, Bond doesn’t bother with discretion, flicking through reports on the MI6 server and occasionally breaking into classified ones; every so often Q goes back in and rebuilds those firewalls, and takes a vindictive pleasure that Bond hasn’t found, created or flirted his way into the most restricted sectors of Q-net.
“You’re rather adept at finding and closing the loopholes I use to find files,” Bond says, sounding mildly aggrieved.
“It is my speciality.”
“You’ve been tinkering with the stunner for a while now. Time for the next project, then?”
“I will when I figure out what to move onto,” Q murmurs under his breath.
“The second part of this experiment.”
Q is so used to exchanging idle comments and rhetorical questions that he doesn’t expect Bond to answer him. But Bond does, and it’s the last calculation of an algorithm slipping into place.
Q looks up and meets Estelle’s eyes.
Why it is Bond’s innocuous words and not all the times they’ve turned this over between them that finally break though, Q doesn’t quite know, but it’s there now. It’s their experiment, their brilliant—and Q can’t decide, even in his own head, if he’s sarcastic or not—design. They have plenty of data from Bond and Bailey; the 007 pair’s results are consistent.
Replication of results on another test subject under the same experimental conditions.
They designed and produced this latest version of the stunner because of Bailey and Bond, but it isn’t why he and Estelle created the idea of it at the very beginning. And if they’ve done their calculations and analyses correctly, there is no reason why the stunner would not work as efficiently on him and Estelle or any other pair, the way it is meant to function.
Estelle stares back at him, and Q doesn’t need the flare of her wings to know her answer: yes.
Of course Estelle would agree—she’d always been the one to dive headlong into the abyss, pulling Q along in her wake until he’d discovered mysteries of his own, a coded language that opened up the world at his fingertips.
She’s also the one who carries their courage on her wings.
Q lifts his hand, a silent signal, and Estelle sweeps into flight, making a graceful circle around the room to brush the very tips of her wings across Q’s cheek, then lands neatly back on her stand—her flight is nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that will pique the 007 pair’s attention, and it casually places the lab table and the stunner between them.
He watches Estelle watch Bond and Bailey over his shoulder. With his back towards them, Estelle’s movements are his only indications of how long Q has before the 007 pair realizes he and Estelle have been too unnaturally quiet for too long. He awakens the monitors remotely through his phone, silences them save for the alarms, and glances over his shoulder as he clips the medical tag to his thumb.
“Bond,” he says, and Bond looks up from his tablet. Q doesn’t know what Bond sees in the quarter profile of his face but the Double-O’s eyes go impossibly dark. He darts across the room, Bailey an even faster flash of russet red, but Q is the fastest of them all.
He only needs to disengage a single button, after all.
The pain is like nothing they’ve ever felt before.
Q wakes up to a serene quietness that only highlights the way his mind is screaming at him.
Every part of him hurts, especially the spot just below his heart where it isn’t physical pain at all. It’s accompanied by a vaguely sickening roll of nausea that comes when someone’s touched his daemon and he clutches Estelle closer to his chest, his fingers going automatically gentle where they sink into her soft downy feathers.
“He’s awake,” he hears Bailey say, and then he feels a presence looming to the side and slightly above him.
“Q.” Bond’s voice is authoritative, although there’s a slight hesitation that’s rather uncharacteristic of the Double-O before he snaps out, “Status.”
Q wants to laugh, but it’ll hurt too much and it wouldn’t do to jostle Estelle now. She’s still out cold and it’s so rare that she’s asleep when Q isn’t. It makes anxiety bloom in Q’s stomach, joining the nausea and the pain.
“Everything hurts,” he says, pulling deep, steady breathes and concentrating on conveying whole concepts instead of pained monosyllables, “but nothing feels—critical.”
Oh, and even in pain and half-unconscious, Q can read all the undercurrents in that simple question. He forces his eyes to focus by fixing his blurry gaze on one point – Bond’s removed Q’s glasses, but his sight isn’t normally that bad – and when things sharpen Q realizes he’d fixated on the one glint of bright colour in the muted spectrum of his vision.
“She’s fine. We’re both fine, we’re both still… together.” Q turns his head to search out Bailey, saying it as much to her as to Bond. “I promise.”
“That,” Bond says, his eyes blazing like propane flame, and that’s the fury beneath an ocean of enforced calm, “was stupid.”
Q snorts, not caring at all how undignified it is, and bares his teeth in a parody of a smile. “So says the man who blows up embassies, ignores direct orders and oh, I don’t know, volunteers for experiments that could destroy the human-daemon bond after being separated from his own daemon. Who’s the stupid one again?”
The retort leaves Q breathless and his vision spins; his mind begins spiralling out in several directions at once—calculations of voltages and current values and observations like why aren’t I in Medical and do painkillers work on this kind of injury? and the stabbing-aching-throbbing pain that he wants to shy away from but can’t escape—
Bond slides long fingers into Q’s hair, and scratches his fingers against Q’s scalp, lightly.
It doesn’t hurt, not with all the other phantom aches vying for Q’s attention, but it is distracting, and Bond turns the scratches into swift, very soft caresses through his hair, just sometimes.
Something settles by his side, not quite touching but radiating warmth, and Q lets his head tip to the side. Bailey goes down on her belly, watching Q closely, two inches of space between them. Her muscles are vibrating with barely suppressed energy, her paws flexing lightly against leather and her eyes predatory, but she curls her tail firmly against her side and sets her head down on her front paws, going preternaturally still.
Her fur would be very soft, Q thinks, in a way that’s different from Estelle’s downy feathers.
“Go back to sleep, Q,” Bond murmurs, his voice low and husky like a fox’s growl.
Q closes his eyes, soothing fingers against Estelle’s crest, and drops immediately back into darkness.
When Q comes to the second time, he speaks without opening his eyes. “You called her Estelle.”
He’s surrounded by warmth on all sides, a blanket tucked around him, and Estelle has migrated to a soft warm bundle at his side. She’s awake too, he can tell, but stays very quiet and very still. It’s a terribly uncomfortable position for her – owls roost upright, with their heads tucked under a wing – and Q tries to convince his arm to move from where it’s holding his daemon close to his side—
Estelle nips him in the arm, hard enough to almost draw blood, and Q opens his eyes before his body language gives away more than his daemon wants to reveal.
“You talk in your sleep,” he hears, and Q turns his head along the couch’s arm, marvelling at the blessed lack of pain. It feels quietly numb in his head, his thoughts pulled to an unnatural stop and edging cautiously along the corridors of his mind, slow but startlingly clear.
“I do not,” he says, meaning I’m an MI6-trained senior personnel and hold a wealth of classified intelligence in my head, and no one in their right mind would give me the position if I babbled while asleep or intoxicated.
“More accurately, you talk after you’ve had a mild seizure and your daemon is all you can think about despite the pain.”
Q stares up at the ceiling. He’s on the couch in his office with the low lights on again, and the shadowy dimness and the feeling of familiar surroundings are soothing. Bond leans against the edge of Q’s desk, enforced tranquillity pulled over coiled energy.
“I’m surprised not to find myself in Medical, then.”
“That’ll go down well,” Bond says, and the acid in his voice could strip paint. “I’ll just cart your limp body out your office through Q Branch. Then I’d have a time explaining to Medical why you exhibit all the classic signs of bond fracturing when there is no real treatment plan for it.” He stares down at Q, his face hovering in a near-frown before the corners of his eyes tighten and his voice goes very even. “Besides, I can’t carry you and your daemon at the same time.”
Q’s head jerks up, and the lack of pain is an illusion – his neck aches and a flare of pain radiates through his temple, but at least the tearing phantom pain of a bond impaired is mostly gone and he can concentrate on the vague sense of wrongness still imprinted across his senses.
“You touched her.”
“I caught her when she tumbled off her stand and brought her to you. My apologies.”
But there are no apologies in Bond’s gaze, no chagrin in his voice. Bailey ghosts into view, settling steady and still at Bond’s side, her tail curled around Bond’s ankle, and Q studies the picture they paint, the air of sure practicality they give off.
“It’s fine,” Q says after a moment. It’s not fine, not really, but he’d gone through mandatory field training like any other ranked MI6 personnel and there had been a module in there about daemons. And he’d almost been mugged once, back when he was in that in-between gangly growth state and Estelle could switch between animal forms the way Q flicks through a catalogue – fast, skipping the unnecessary pages and calculated, even at that age. But this time, they’re missing overwhelming sense of invasion and the crawling revulsion that lingers after, and Q just feels—
—off kilter, like he’s stepped off a platform expecting a landing below and meeting air instead, unexpected and shocking, his heart rising in his throat, but not wrong, per say.
Bond’s regard is a weighty thing, the quiet swish of Bailey’s tail a metronome in the quiet.
“What was all that about?”
Q doesn’t pretend to misunderstand; there’s a steely quality in Bond’s voice, smooth and sharp and unyielding, tempered just enough not to cut like razors.
“You were right,” he says, and it’s a measure of how different his interactions with Bond are from everyone else that he doesn’t struggle upright, pride and the need to maintain the authoritative air of his position pushed completely off the table. “We were done with the tests. You and Bailey’s participation was invaluable, but it was time to move onto the next stage.”
“And that entailed stunning yourself.”
“You test a firearm by firing it at multiple targets. The results have to be replicable.”
“The stunner caused far greater damage to you and Estelle than it did to us,” Bond says in that same even, razor-sharp voice.
“How long was I out for?”
“Nineteen minutes. And then around six hours the second time.”
Q hadn’t realized he’d looked away until his eyes fly back to meet Bond’s gaze. “I see,” he says after a moment, stroking at Estelle’s feathers absentmindedly.
“Do you? Either you’ve picked up my questionable habits or you’ve hidden your own reckless streak far too well.” Bond pushes away from Q’s desk and stalks into the workroom. Bailey flicks her tail safely out of the way, then darts to the couch, balancing on her hind legs with her forepaws up on the seat.
“Is Esta awake?” she whispers, her nose edging along the blanket-wrapped lump that is Estelle, and Q feels a moment of displacement. Bailey’s never been shy about letting her voice be heard – at least not at headquarters. And Q has to wonder if that has anything to do with Bond, whether it’s something she doesn’t want him to overhear.
Q shakes his head minutely, because Estelle nips a fold of skin on the soft inside of Q’s elbow in her beak and he doesn’t want to bleed all over the coverlets.
Bailey appears oddly upset at this answer, ears noticeably drooping and her paws sinking once into the blanket’s heavy wool before she drops off the couch, sitting back on her haunches on the floor. “That’s not a good sign—daemons don’t normally stay asleep for long once you’re awake,” she says.
It clicks in place for Q a moment later, why that’s odd; even in the face of impossible missions or high electrical voltages, even when slipping out on her own to confront Q or speaking about the separation, Bond’s daemon had only ever appeared upset or angry.
Q’s never seen what unspoken fear looks like on Bailey before.
He shuts his eyes so he doesn’t blink rapidly like a fool, then opens them just as quickly; Bailey’s body language is back to mere concern once again and they’re impossibly stoic, all these Double-Os and their daemons, shuttering their weaknesses behind constructed armour.
But Q is the quartermaster with the ethereal world of cyberspace at his fingertips, and he goes where no one else is able to follow – on missions with his Double-Os, as backup when they’re injured or trapped or simply want a voice to banter with.
“I’m usually the one who worries about you agents,” he says wryly. “And I know how frustrating it is to hear someone insisting they are fine when they’re clearly not. We’re both here; I can still feel her. So—we’ll be fine.”
Before Bailey can answer – if she is even inclined to – Bond strides back into the room, setting a tablet, a thumbdrive and Q’s phone on the side table, next to Q’s neatly folded glasses.
“Here. The data for the stunner, the records from the medical system, it’s all there.” He stares down at the tableau of Q, still lying bundled under the blanket on the couch, and Bailey, sitting before it like a lean, fiery watchdog. Agent and daemon stare at each other for a long moment, and then Bailey slinks to her feet, going to the door without a further glance back.
Q is trying to piece together the silent conversation when he notices - only because Bond lets him see – the attaché case Bond holds under one arm. Bond cuts him off before he can ask.
“You can’t stun yourself again. You can’t run a trial on yourself and still gather accurate data, and Bailey and I have a mission.”
It’s instinct to immediately sit up, to reach for his phone, and although dark spots rise in his vision Q powers through it, leaving one hand on Estelle to hold her in place, the other sliding steadily along the edge of the side table until he feels the outline of his phone under his fingers.
“It’s your week off.” Q sinks back against the arm of the couch, closing his eyes in hopes it’ll help with the light-headedness; he doesn’t need to see to unlock or navigate his phone, the shape of it familiar in his hand. “There was nothing on the roster for you.”
“This is what happens when you’re unconscious for six hours. You’re off-duty yourself so Riley checked out our equipment.”
Q opens his eyes to slits to study Bond under his eyelashes, only looking away once, just a single glance to note the new mission directive for 007 and the timestamp for four hours ago. “An emergency?”
“If it were a real emergency, we’d already be gone. Don’t worry about it.”
Bond joins Bailey, the door opening with a quiet hiss, Bailey pressing her shoulder against the frame to hold it open. They look back at Q with near identical movements, backlit by the corridor lights.
“Now that you’ve experienced the effects for yourself,” Bond says, “will you still complete the stunner?”
With their faces thrown in shadow, Q can’t read their expressions, not when they’re already too adept at schooling them. He strokes a hand across the blanketed mound that is Estelle. The searing pain and panic of the initial shock is a brand across his memories, what little he remembers of them like a fevered delirium. The pain wasn’t the worst of it – it was the sudden absence of Estelle’s presence, and it was like going blind and deaf and mute and losing his memories all at once—the loss of who he is for just one excruciating second.
And it isn’t intercision. It isn’t even separation, and it’s already horrifying.
And if the stunner affected each person differently – Bond and Bailey were all right in minutes after the same blast that knocked Q and Estelle out cold – what if what they think is safe ends up destroying the bond link of another pair entirely?
Q’s voice is steady. “I don’t know.”
Bond nods once. “Take your own advice and go to Medical if you need to,” he says. “Good evening, Q.”
They leave the room quick and easy, a void of silence in their wake. Q clutches at his phone; it’ll be easy to follow Bond remotely, London a beautiful network of connectivity, but he doesn’t. There are moments where Q needs to be himself – not the Quartermaster, not beholden to MI6 – and his and Bond’s lives have become so tangled over the weeks that the idea of respite is almost a shock.
Bond and Bailey will not walk into Q Branch for anything other than a mission in the weeks to come, Q knows, until he and Estelle call them back.
The moment he thinks that thought, Estelle threshes to sudden life.
Flapping her wings impatiently, Estelle struggles under the heavy weight of the coverlets. Q grabs two handfuls of fabric and pulls it free, but gently, gently – the ghostly ache under his heart is a good reminder why.
Estelle half flies, half climbs into his lap and Q offers her his hand, the habitual padded wristband still on. She settles on his wrist almost broodingly, talons clutching tight around the leather, and they share a moment of simply being before Estelle speaks, rustling her wingtips restlessly.
“Bailey was here the entire time,” she says, because they don’t need words for the other conversations they should be having, the are you all rights and what do we do nows running in the background.
“She’s worried about you,” he says.
“She was here, had been here since I woke up. And Bond wasn’t, not until the last hour or so.”
It takes Q longer than it should to process that statement. He reaches for his glasses – he needs all the clarity he can get – even as he does the tally: walking in and out of Q Branch, to the main lab and in the side corridors to Q’s office. Meeting with Riley for their equipment. What else – a briefing with M? Collecting documents directly from Moneypenny?
There are close circuit cameras all over headquarters, a dozen and one ways for Bond to be seen without his daemon when the pair had taken such care to hide the evidence of their separation outside of operations.
“But we’re not a mission,” Estelle says, soft.
Q holds her close, folding his other arm around her like a wing she could roost under. “No. No, we’re not,” he says, and stares at the closed door as if he could glean the truth that way.
It’s an interlude, the duration of 007’s mission, and they make the most of it.
Q and Estelle take an additional day off to recuperate. They head back to Q Branch on observation capacity after that – it’s a good time as any to test the candidate he and Riley have been eyeing to take up the senior post in the communications section, and it makes a perfect excuse for why Estelle doesn’t leave Q’s shoulder the entire day, their candidate’s daemon oscillating between pride and sheer terror when Riley’s Jasmine nudges him to take Estelle’s stand.
“Daemons are curious creatures,” Riley says, watching their candidate direct the team with aplomb even though her daemon is busier batting Jasmine away with his paw than watching the monitors, the flying squirrel chortling and the ferret hissing quietly under his breath.
“Attention span and aptitude test?” Q asks idly; Jasmine had done the same to Estelle back in the day. Estelle had ignored her until they’d finished the operation, and then she’d back-winged Jas off the stand, patience thoroughly snapped. The flying squirrel just laughed at her, and Riley’s face had been as calm and serene back then as it is now.
“Something like that,” Riley says, and slides into the next topic without a pause. “007 was here the other day to pick up his kit for an impromptu mission. It took a while for the unease to spread through the daemons. I have to commend Bailey’s hiding skills; no one knew where she was.” A beat goes by, and then he adds, “Jas thought Noel acted well that day, but he doesn’t seem to be doing as well now.”
“Corrine’s doing well even if her daemon’s distracted,” Q says, raising a hand to smooth Estelle’s wing – she’s quiet and watchful, unfazed by the commotion of the lab, but her talons are digging too deeply into Q’s jacket again. And because he can’t leave well alone, Q asks, “What was 007’s mission about?”
“Unknown.” Translation – some situation M is directly involved in, then, the only classified missions Q Branch isn’t privy to. “It couldn’t have been too urgent despite the abruptness of it, though, since Bond rescheduled his flight to later that night instead of leaving that afternoon.”
They watch Corrine in silence. Then Riley stands, setting the memory card on Q’s laptop, then goes to collar Jasmine before she drives poor Noel to absolute distraction.
Q doesn’t need to access the memory card to know what’s on it: security footages, the only copies left, and likely several from the camera closest to Q’s office.
Q Branch’s loyalty to MI6’s most impressive agents is second only to their loyalty to their own, after all.
They end up on that rooftop alcove again that weekend.
The weather is cooler now – Q adds a layer of fleece under his usual parka – and Estelle is in her element, her physique better suited to snowy tundra than hot concrete and steel. It rarely snows in London but there is frost in the air, and she takes to the skies with little of the hesitation that’s dogged the both of them since they stunned themselves.
She circles round and round, keeping close as Q watches the elegant arch of her wings, the effortless grace with which she moves through the air, undeterred by wind or pressure.
He flicks his hand, the protective sheath glinting in the afternoon sunlight, and Estelle curves her wings, soars upward and upward until there’s that familiar straining tug under his heart.
Familiar and welcome, nothing of the wrenching pain or throbbing ache they’d experienced.
Estelle stays there at the furthermost reach of their unchanged range until Q touches his earpiece to signal her down; she resists, flying a little higher against their range before languidly spiralling down at her own pace and that’s what seals it for Q, the relief bubbling up in his chest as heady as champagne – that they’re fine, they’re all right, and that Estelle hasn’t lost any of her headstrong courage, still willing to chase mysteries into the void.
And they almost don’t notice when Bond and Bailey return from their mission, embroiled in the controlled chaos that is Q Branch mid-operation. It’s the flash of red in the corner of Q’s vision that has him turning his head instinctively, eyes catching with Bond’s as his typing slows.
“Bond,” he says, and it’s as easy as that; he glances down at Bailey, then returns his gaze to his laptop, picking up where he’d left off on the code. “Two minutes; in the meantime, you can come up with a better excuse for why my attaché case looks like it was at ground zero of an explosion.”
“It was at ground zero of an explosion,” Bond says, but drops the case on the workstation over, staying out of Q’s way.
When Q finally untangles the mangled little program and sics the rest of the team on tracing and redirecting it, Bond is staring at Estelle in a sideways, nonchalant manner so he doesn’t draw attention to it; Bailey is staring too, although she tips a look up at Q a moment later.
“I said we’d be fine,” Q says under his breath, and Bailey cocks her head, flicking her ears once at him in what Q is beginning to recognize as Bailey’s version of concurrence. A paw flashes out, lightning quick, to bat Bond in the ankle, and Bond breaks away from his staring competition with Estelle to stare at Q instead.
Q endures the scrutiny for a minute. “Done?” he asks dryly, then reaches for the attaché case, meeting Estelle’s eyes as he snaps the lid open.
They’ve suffered, they’ve recovered and now they’ve seen the 007 pair; nothing fundamental has changed and they can get back to work once again.
Estelle lets her wings flare once, then transfers her stare onto Bailey. “Is that teeth marks on the phone?”
“How else would I carry it, balanced on my head?” Bailey retorts.
“A good mission, I take it,” Q says to Bond.
“Well enough.” The devilish smile is very much Bond’s own, but the look he pins Q with is something Q is far more used to seeing from vulpine eyes – sharp, predatory and knowing, like there’s a secret between them that Bond won’t voice because it means more when people figure it out for themselves.
Nothing has changed, Q thinks, except that everything has changed.
Twice does not make a tradition, but it still feels fitting to send the request through a text message.
Briefing in my office. You still have the keycard.
He doesn’t receive an answer, but Q isn’t terribly surprised to find them already in his office when he gets there, Bond leaning one hip against his desk with Bailey at his feet, tail twitching idly. Estelle takes flight from his shoulder, dropping onto her stand with ease, and Q pushes his chair away to set the equipment case on his desk.
“You don’t often call agents here to equip them,” Bond says.
“I don’t invite just anyone into my office,” Q replies, and goes through the kit systematically – phone, the earpiece, miscellaneous weaponry; it’s going to be a difficult mission, and Q won’t send Bond out ill armed. An open-ended plane ticket, keys to a modified car in one of their safe houses on the continent and the number for an encrypted line to call Q on, for when they reach the embassy. Bond tucks most of it back into the small light-weight case, the rest of it disappearing into pockets, behind his suit jacket, and it’s all routine, it’s normal.
The next part should be routine too, except it isn’t.
“There’s one more item.” Q watches the way Bond straightens subtly, Bailey’s ears flicking forward, alert. There’s no reason to hide behind his desk and he steps to the side, indicating with a slight tilt of his head for Bond to do the same, and they end up clustered by Estelle’s stand, Q automatically sweeping two fingers against the line of her spine, instinctive. His daemon doesn’t respond but picks up the thread of conversation instead, her golden gaze steady on Bailey.
“We have a gift for you,” Estelle says, and reaches down with her beak to pick delicately at the small pouch strapped to her leg. It’s the safest place Q can think of, by his daemon’s side where no sane human would deliberately touch and which Estelle can defend with talon and beak; she has the tangle of straps and buckles undone in seconds, and pulls out a collar and a thin band with her beak, holding it out in Q’s direction even though she doesn't look away from Bailey.
It’s a collar, but it could also be a choker. The straps are durable fibre mesh wrapped in dark crimson suede, lightweight in Q’s hand, with a discreet metallic pendant encased right in the strap; the band feels heftier, like hard ceramic, and they could be little trinkets for a daemon, discreet marks of style the way Bond wears his expensive cufflinks and fine ties.
Bond’s eyebrows are arched when Q turns, but his expression is neutral, not a hint of a smirk to be seen. “What do they do?”
Q almost smiles – almost, because he still can’t make light of it, not with the gravity of responsibility and ethics lingering at the back of his mind, and so he glances down to school his expression – catching a flash of Bailey’s eyes – and looks up, steady.
“These are to be borne by a daemon. This,” Q indicates the collar, “goes around the neck; it should blend into fur. And this,” he touches the band lightly, “can be worn on one of the forelegs, above the paw pads. They’re durable, but there’s a specific trigger point on the band; hook claws there and it’ll snap, triggering the pendant.” Q has been directing his words to Bond, but for this final part he tips his head, speaks down to Bailey. “If you choose to wear it, make sure you stand between your assailant and your partner and the stunner won’t backfire on you.”
He looks up at Bond, because it’s Bailey’s choice but Bond has to be the one to put it on. Setting the collar and band on top of the equipment case, Q slides the entire bundle across the desk.
“Well,” Bond says, and Q doesn’t know how to read the look in the Double-O’s eyes, “You’ve been busy these past few weeks.”
“We have,” Q agrees, quiet.
“What made you change your mind?”
A silence falls as Q considers the question. “We expanded the trials,” he says at last. “We looked at all our analyses and we thought – what if Estelle and my reactions to that those settings were the norm? What if your results were sound, but just skewed toward a higher threshold because being separated from your daemon served as an inoculation against future damage to the bond? If there truly is a pattern to the way the stunner affects most pairs, then we can correct for it safely.”
As usual, Bond picks out the most unexpected details instead of the ones most people would fixate on. “Estelle?”
“That’s her name,” Q says evenly, even though he hadn’t caught the slip until Bond pointed it out.
A smile flashes so quickly across Bond’s face that Q isn’t quite sure it was there. Then he says, “you had new volunteers.”
“Who else are mad enough to volunteer for something like this?” Q nods at Bond. “Simple. Double-Os.”
It’s Bailey who twitches at this; the fox had been staring up at the equipment case but now she steps close to Bond, tail lashing before she curls it firmly around her paws.
On her stand, Estelle rustles her wings in a silent laugh, and Q has no idea why.
“They received an abbreviated series of trials. We picked a few settings from your data until we got consistent results. The stunner should safely knock most pairs out—” Estelle snaps her peak in Q’s direction; they’d taken more than their share of bruises from those trials, while most of the Double-Os’ trainings had kicked in and they at least fell safely “—and on the other end of the spectrum, well, it’ll incapacitate pairs like you and Bailey at the very least. Impaired motor skills seem to be a common side effect.”
Bond picks up the collar, runs a thumb across the pendant, the stun mechanism. He nudges his daemon in the side. “Bailey?”
“You’re mad if you think I’ll say no after all we’ve done to help them finish it,” Bailey says, and lifts her paw in the air. “Band first.”
The band goes on with minimal fuss. Bond goes down to his knees to tug the collar on, adjusting the straps easily, smoothing fur over them until the suede blends in, only the glint of the triggering pendant’s silver and metal catching the light on the white of Bailey’s bib when she turns her head. She waits for Bond to finish brushing her down, then leaps atop him – miraculously not shredding his suit – kicking off his shoulder and twisting in the air to land lightly on all four paws. Lifting the banded paw, she licks at the fur around the band before turning back to Bond.
“Works for me,” she says, then rolls over, glancing down at the collar still tucked snug against her throat when she’s upright again.
“Bailey,” Estelle’s voice rings out, pure and clear. “Don’t damage the collar.”
Bailey pauses, head cocked, not quite looking in Estelle’s direction. “Esta,” she says. A long pause, and then—“Duly noted.”
Estelle remains hunter-still, barely moving her head to pin her golden stare on Bailey. “And for goodness sake, keep yourselves safe.”
Bailey’s response is soft. “That is duly noted as well.”
“You’re still uncomfortable with the idea of the stunner.”
Q doesn’t have to turn to know Bond is staring at him instead of at his daemon; it’s hard to ignore the weight of a Double-O’s regard when they choose to reveal it.
“I don’t like it,” Q says. “But I don’t like guns either, and I’ll still give them to each and every one of you.”
“Because you’re the Quartermaster.”
“And you’re a Double-O.”
He could leave it at that, and it wouldn’t be anything other than another transaction between MI6 personnel, completed for the greater good of all. But Q has never been anything but honest with himself; he and Estelle might not risk themselves out in the field like his agents, but they didn’t get to where they are at their age without taking risks. Sometimes the only way to accomplish something is to just pursue it, and Q had been dabbling in not-very-legal spheres long before he was ever involved with the Secret Service – after all, the agencies with the most challenging security protocols are either governmental or highly suspect. Neither took kindly to a civilian poking around in their systems for a lark, but he and Estelle came through all right in the end.
Bond and Bailey have already torn down plenty of Q’s careful barriers – what’s one more crossing of the channel?
“I wouldn’t give that weapon to just any agent,” Q says, lifting his head and meeting Bond’s eyes. “You once implied that you’re able to judge when to and when not to pull the trigger. I’m holding you both to that.”
Q’s office is an oasis of calm away from the chaos and pressure of Q Branch’s labs, but there is tension building in the room now, a faint electric charge not unlike the edged readiness mere seconds before all hell breaks loose, and when Q feels Bailey’s presence by his knee, it only adds to the hushed atmosphere instead of breaking it.
“Thank you,” she says, ghosting about Q’s feet, twining her body and tail sinuously to avoid accidentally brushing against him, and Q is no longer surprised that she’s doing this. He smiles down at her but remains quiet, drawing one final line for himself.
“You can answer her,” Bond says idly, but his eyes are anything but when Q glances up, startled. “You’ve been speaking directly to Bailey when you think I wouldn’t notice for quite a while now.”
Q takes a step away, and goes immediately still when Bailey moves to block him, trapping him with his desk to one side and his chair behind him, and one very quiet Double-O striding toward him, steady and self-assured and inescapable.
Q’s chin goes the barest inch up and he looks up at Bond from under his eyelashes, ignoring Bailey entirely. “Yes, Bond?”
“You’re an enigma,” Bond says.
“I’m not,” Q says. “Your daemon, however, she’s a curiosity.”
“Because she breaks through social conventions and norms with you? Or because she pushes you to break them yourself?”
“You do the same,” Q says, “or else you wouldn’t be here.”
“And what—” Bond’s voice drops into the register he reserves for interrogations and for the other Double-Os – for the people he wants answers from and doesn’t care whether or not they see the dangerous inner core of himself “—liberties would you give us?”
“You’ll never know until you try it, will you?”
Estelle’s eyes are fierce, her wings half-opened, feathers sleek and sharp like jagged ice. Her voice breaks the electric-tinged stillness and something trips in Bond’s eyes, heat and peril and intent.
He ghosts a fingertip along the edge of Estelle's wing, and sparks of electricity shoot down Q's arm even as his breath goes out like he’s been kicked in the chest.
There wasn’t a single hint of revulsion from that touch and Q just stares at Bond, shocked to utter silence.
There's a moment of cross-interference when Estelle turns her head and meets Bond's gaze, and then Bond smiles and smoothes the flat of his hand across the wing and Q loses a second to sheer sensation, the blaze of that touch apparently wiping out his ability to imprint the moment.
He’s collapsed back in his chair when his brain comes back online. Estelle has hooked one foot around Bond’s wrist and nips sharply at Bond's fingers, a quiet mewling rising in her throat, and beneath the startling hyperawareness of contact Q is vindictively gleeful that even in her affection his daemon feels fit to hurt Bond, at least a little.
"Q," Bond says, and his voice is low, husky. Q looks down, and Bailey is sitting beside his chair, paws and tail tucked close her body. She would be the picture of relaxation if her head isn't turned to one side, her neck ruff so close to Q's fingers that he swears he can feel the phantom touch of fur.
Q goes straight for the kill, digs both hands deep into Bailey's glorious russet fur, his fingers tangling with the straps of the collar.
If Bond's touch on Estelle had been electricity, a live current, then Q's touch on Bailey, the completion of the loop, is a supernova in full blaze. Through the dizzying waves of warmth and want Q registers that Bailey is arching her back, ears going flat across her skull, a rumbling growl ripping from her chest. Beyond the display of pleasure, however, the daemon is composed, shifting against Q's touch so Q is always scratching at the best spots.
Q doesn't stop until a touch against his cheek breaks him out of his pigeonhole focus.
Estelle rides on Bond's arm, clinging his shoulder with one leg, the other braced along his bicep, wings half-spread to hold her position without digging her talons in too deeply. Bond's eyes are the cold blue of a frozen tundra sky and they are beautiful, so beautiful with Estelle's snowy feathers brushing against his cheek.
Q surges to his feet, grabbing Bond's tie and tipping his head back even as Estelle releases her talons and tucks in her wings, falling in the most uncontrolled dive an owl can pull off.
Bailey is there to meet her.
It’s both more chaste than Q expects and more intense than anything he’d ever imagine for all that it stays mostly at heavy kissing.
Q lets Bond push him up against the wall behind his desk only because he still has a tight grip on Bond’s tie, tugged free from his suit jacket. He winds the fine fabric around his hand, pulling Bond closer by the leash of it and the flash of heat in Bond's eyes tell Q the man is only going where he already wants to go.
It’s difficult to track what is happening beyond the hypersensitivity of his skin, his lips tingling and his entire body lit up by the phantom echo of Bond’s touch on Estelle. Bond buries his hands in Q’s hair – why does everyone feel the need touch the mess of his curls, he thinks exasperatedly – before Bond chases that thought away by pulling Q’s collar open and biting down on the junction between shoulder and throat, low enough that his jacket will hide the mark later on.
Q hooks a foot behind Bond’s ankle at the same time he tugs on Bond’s tie, forcing Bond’s head back up and their bodies closer together, and when their mouths meet again they melt into longer, more languid kisses.
He knows about Bond's reputation, of course – he'd have to be deaf and blind and all together senseless not to. He has witnessed a number of Bond's conquests secondhand during a mission, the way he manipulates liaisons with the same skill he employs in his work, and there's the half compliment, half-insult of just how foxy Bond would be had he been born female.
This is nothing on what he knows Bond is capable of, but there’s something in the way Bond lingers, tender, despite the force and intent with which he explores Q with his hands and lips, fingers dipping to tease only at slivers of exposed skin – his face and neck, his hands and the inside of Q’s wrist, where Bond must feel the pulse of his heartbeat.
This is slow-simmering and molten and no less passionate than the volatile, frenetic way they’d come together immediately after they’d touched each other’s daemons.
Q pulls back, digs his thumbs into the hollow of Bond’s throat to stop him from following but pauses there on the brink, noses brushing, their gazes caught with each other even with the thin barrier of his glasses between them. When Q speaks, he’s almost speaking the words directly into Bond’s mouth. “You have two hours to catch your flight.”
That statement could go two ways: you have two hours and it’s more than enough – get on with it, or you only have two hours, and I want more than that.
Long fingers drag through his hair, deliberately tangling in the curls of it, but the brush against the back of his ear is ticklishly light. The pitch of Bond’s voice is so low that Q feels it humming between their lips and along where they’re pressed up tight against each other, a rumbling vibration in Bond’s chest.
“If you think I’ll be done with you in just two hours you’re badly mistaken, Quartermaster.”
Q laughs and slides away, letting Bond’s tie unravel slowly from his hand. Any lover he’d taken who knew what he is had asked for his real name, coveted it like it meant anything, but Bond uses his title as that name, full designation the way Matt is Matthew or Josh Joshua, reverent.
Bond already knows Estelle’s name, and that’s much more important.
Mottled-white wings flash across his vision and he ducks his head against the buffet of air from Estelle’s downstrokes. When he looks up she’s landing on the back of the leather couch and Q goes to her immediately, brushing fingertips against the same wing Bond touched earlier.
There’s a light touch against the small of Q’s back.
“Two hours,” Q reminds the room, but Bond leans over his shoulder, hand just staying there against his spine.
“Do you want us to sit down?” Bond says to Estelle.
“That would be the point,” she answers dryly.
The light pressure of Bond’s hand becomes a hard line; Bond twists them and the next thing Q knows he’s on sitting on the couch, pressed shoulder to hip against Bond.
Before Q can decide whether to be annoyed or not, Bailey leaps onto the couch and flops over Bond, her head half in Q’s lap.
Overhead, Estelle bats a heavy wing in the direction of Bond’s head. “You two are incorrigible,” she says, then moves over to comb her beak through Q’s hair, trying to tame the mess Bond made of it.
“Why are we sitting on the couch?” Q asks, trying to ignore Bailey and the way she has one paw – the one with the band – on his knee.
“Bella,” Bond says, and Q pauses to make sure he heard that correctly, prior hesitance forgotten, staring at Bailey’s lean, balanced proportions and her thick glossy fur, the fiery red of it.
It’s accurate to call Bailey beautiful in Italian, and even more apt to call her war in Latin.
Bailey growls at Bond, swinging around bare her teeth at him. “If you’re going to speak for me, at least get it right,” the fox says, and she turns to Q, cocking her head. “It’s Belladonna. No one ever uses it, but I wanted you to know.”
“The deadly nightshade.” Q can’t help his smile – of course Bond’s daemon would be named for poisonous fauna, only to have it shortened to beauty and war in the same breath.
She stares up at him, amber eyes wistful, and Q gives in, reaches over to scratch the fur at the base of her ears. Bond doesn’t say a word but tucks a possessive arm around Q’s waist, hand solid and unmoving against Q’s hip, and it could be a promise of more.
Closing his eyes briefly to ground himself against that touch, Q continues scratching at Bailey’s ears. “Which do you prefer?” he asks Bailey.
“Bailey’s fine,” she says, faint pressure against his hand as she leans into his fingers. “Bella’s also fine. I like them both.”
“What’s the story behind Bailey?”
“I like Irish whiskey,” Bond says lazily, the way lazy leopards drape overhead awaiting prey.
“Of course,” Q murmurs.
Estelle shifts behind them. “Bailey. You have your moment; now you have a mission,” she reminds them all, although there’s a low thrum of contentment in her voice.
Bailey is off the couch in seconds, shaking herself off; Bond follows, untangling from Q without hesitation, fixing his tie and straightening his jacket, pulling professionalism and detachment around him easily like well-worn gloves.
Q stays on the couch as Bond collects his equipment case; standing will only invite touch and they’ve been distracted enough, especially with Q still on-duty and Bond about to leave on his. The bite on the curve of his neck throbs and Q lifts a hand, brushes against the collar that hides it. Having it out of sight is both a blessing and a curse, and Q makes himself check his phone for updates, leaves it in his hand instead of tucking it away in a pocket after he’s done.
He wants more than snatches of time between missions, after all.
Bond catches Q’s eyes across the room. “I could leave a visible one,” he says, and there’s the hunger of before, very well buried and let out in tendrils now that Q has invited it.
Q has to stop himself from raising his hand again, even with phone in hand as distraction.
Estelle steps onto Q’s shoulder, on the side where the love bite decorates his neck. Q pats at her wing; she’ll be the excuse for every aborted attempt his hand makes to brush against the mark Bond left. “Next time.”
A flash of satisfaction goes across Bond’s eyes. It takes a moment for Q to figure out why – that Bond had implied continuing their encounter later when they didn’t have a time limit, and Q had slipped away without answering… and now he had.
Standing after all, Estelle balancing easily on his shoulder, Q goes to his desk to wake up his systems, ignoring the thrum that lingers under his skin. “Go, Bond. Don’t break any British laws to get to the airport on time.”
They move remarkably well together, the 007 agent and his daemon, so when Bailey pauses on the threshold of the office door Bond does the same.
“A weapon of the last resort,” they say, a promise of their own, Bailey adding a quiet, “we’ll guard each other”—
—and then they’re gone.
Q follows them through the surveillance system until they leave headquarters. Then he shuts those windows down, turning his mind firmly back towards work, Estelle an ever comforting weight on his shoulder.
Weapons and Engineering Section
Classification – Confidential
Report Key: 1537425
Submitter Name: Q
Submitter Title: Head of Q Branch, MI6 Research and Development Division
Approval Status: Approved
Access: Restricted; Second tier clearance required
Type: Electroshock weapon – modified; mid-to-close-range; non-lethal (with exception)
Description: A weapon used for incapacitating a person and/or their daemon by administering an electric shock from a distance, aimed at disrupting the natural frequency of the human-daemon bond link.
Most common side effects include unconsciousness, impaired motor skills, muscle spasms, impairment of vision, and in extreme cases, bond fracturing (see Appendix C for full listing; security clearance – black).
Limitation: Category K75 – Daemon-only
Current inventory: 2 (1 prototype, classified; 1 unit, assigned)
Birds of a feather flock together, and there’s some truth to the adage; bird daemons often congregate when their human counterparts are in the same space, clustering up in the rafters or perched in high-up, out-of-the-way spaces, their heads tucked together to exchange quiet words.
As a snowy owl, a statistically rare settled daemon form, Estelle garners curious stares while her soft, downy plumage makes many underestimate her – and Q – as docile, but not amongst birds of prey daemons. Estelle is large enough that the eagles and falcons afford her the respect of space and she’s comfortable approaching them for quiet conversation; she’s as much of a hunter as any raptor.
M’s daemon is another story entirely. Q’s only ever seen the two of them flying side by side when M and Q travel to the same location; they never roost together even when meetings stretch from minutes into the hours.
Much of it has to do with respect. Most of it, Q suspects, has to do with how easily M and Kir see past his and Estelle’s fronts.
“In the old days of falconry, the gyrfalcon is said to roost only at the hands of a king—never a pauper, a prince, nor an emperor,” Estelle once whispered into Q’s ear, back when M was Mallory and despite their credentials the pair had still felt very much like interlopers in MI6. And when M took the position, she’d murmured, almost disgustedly, “should have known they’d be M one day,” although Q noted she kept her voice very low and took Q’s left shoulder to put herself downwind from M and Kir, to lower the chances of her voice carrying in the wind.
Now Q’s seated before M’s wide desk, Estelle perched on the back of his chair. He doesn’t have much cause for meeting M in person beyond the usual high-level meetings between the branches of MI6, but this time he’d brought himself together with Q Branch’s latest plan for prioritized projects, and now that that discussion is over it’s only a matter of time before—
“I received a rather surprising report on my desk.” M says, pulling out a nondescript folder without breaking eye contact. Kir, unlike Estelle, takes a perch high up in an alcove carved into the bookshelves behind M’s desk, watching them coolly, and it’s a subtle move to put other fowl on edge, evoking the itchy-hyperawareness of a hunting bird plunging down from above in an attack that can only be evaded, not defended against.
Estelle keeps her feathers and her talons under control, but it’s bothering her that she can’t properly watch Kir in turn, Q knows.
“It’s not very surprising,” Q says, his expression perfectly deadpan. “You told 007 that I was working on a device that targets the human-daemon bond, after all.”
M regards him steadily, then flips the folder open, scanning the topmost sheet, the summary page of the weapons documentation Q submitted. “I’m surprised you filed it instead of keeping it within Q Branch.”
“Having it entered into our inventory certainly makes it easier to arm the agents.”
The weight of M’s gaze, utterly devoid of the undercurrents and hidden considerations the agents usually have, tells Q that M doesn’t buy the story for a single second. The entire Double-O program and their battery of specialized equipment operate under the radar, with existing systems in place to work around them; the stunner falls within that sphere. Q resists the urge to duck his head, which only makes Estelle flare out her tail feathers in defensive defiance.
Overhead, Kir cocks her head, the gyrfalcon coolly observing it all – of course she does.
Q doesn’t tell them that he’d filed that documentation on purpose, that it’s better to have a facsimile of the stunner documented – even with the details glossed over – to avoid manipulation with the knowledge of it. Put the existence of an item or even a concept out in the world, Q knows from experience, and it becomes that much harder to do stupid things with said item or concept.
“I filed the document,” Q says, half in truth and half to build up the defiance approach, “so you would stop trying to make me research daemon properties by setting Double-Os on me.”
“And look how well that worked.” M sets the folder down and pins Q with a stare that could rival his daemon’s piercing gaze. “Have you resolved your crisis of morality on creating a weapon based on the bond link?”
“Um,” Q says, and now he can feel Estelle glaring at him. Calm and collected as Q is mid-operation, M still has the uncanny ability to make Q stumble over his words in a way no one else can simply by asking direct and pointed questions. At least this time he isn’t currently assisting a Double-O to kidnap the leader of their agency to an obscure location out in Scotland.
He nods towards the folder before M. “I designed the modified electroshock weapon, didn’t I?”
“And will you continue to?”
“I won’t build the device for anyone but a Double-O.” Q’s voice comes out more final than he’s ever used with M. “And even then, I wouldn’t give it to all of them.”
“Agreed,” M says, to Q’s surprise. “I want the best solutions and methods to arm my agents; I don’t want to incite an insurgence while I’m at it.”
In for a penny, in for a pound. “I also won’t make accessible the vast majority of the research data we’ve compiled on daemons and the bond link.”
M’s gaze is now tinged with amusement. “What would I do with all that information? That belongs within Q Branch.” He steeples his fingers under his chin. “I prefer caution over impulsivity. Q Branch mostly operates as an independent entity – you accomplish more that way. In return, I ask that you consider all the factors that invariably affect our agents.”
The soft rustle of feathers against Q’s hair is a cautionary reminder he doesn’t need.
M maintains the stance that the division leaders had full discretion to run their departments as they see fit, but none of them are naïve enough to think M didn’t keep stringent tabs on all of them. After all, the man had honed his talons on the battleground of governmental bureaucracy, with infighting and power struggles and back alley and open-faced betrayals alike; it’s little wonder he would apply some of the same strategies to MI6.
But although MI6 holds a plethora of intrigue and secrecy there is a chain of command here that holds true no matter what catastrophes strike or what confidences they keep. The former M – Olivia Mansfield, Q thinks in a tiny gesture of rebellion – kept her agents on a tight leash, but it was an affiliation built on a core of hard-earned trust that also swung both ways. The Double-Os, at least, never hesitated to push the boundaries she set out for them.
Whether or not M finds that balance of bureaucratic accountability and faith in his agents is entirely up in the air. The Double-Os and Q will follow M unto the breach, but for now Q prefers to maintain a healthy dose of caution around the man.
Estelle stares directly up at Kir, no longer bothering to hide her attention, as Q asks, “And how would you prioritize research on the daemon bond link?”
M flips the folder shut and slides it across his desk to Q. “I leave that to your discretion. We all received what we wanted, after all. I wanted you to research the human-daemon bond, 007 has appeased that fixation he has on the bond link – he’s always one to go for the most taboo subjects, isn’t he? – and we at least have a way of avoiding a repeat of the Barcelona outpost debacle.”
The realization – once Q runs it several times through his mind looking for other implications, irony or subtext – that M doesn’t actually know about Bond and Bailey’s separation is incredibly jarring.
He feels Estelle spread her wings, lets her distract M and Kir as she hops onto Q’s shoulder. It gives Q the second he needs to school his expression as he automatically adjusts his posture to account for his daemon’s weight.
M plays the long game, but he doesn’t use wordplay the way most of MI6 does, preferring half-truths and outright omissions to lies or riddles when he had to use them at all. Which means Riley must have done an absurdly good job pulling camera footages and running interference even as Bond navigated around headquarters without Bailey – nothing would stop the gossip otherwise. That, or Moneypenny had kept the matter strictly away from M’s attention.
Both are likely true.
Q eyes the folder before him. There are no electronic copies of the documentation for Q Branch’s most classified equipment, and only those in the know will recognize the designation assigned to the stunner. Letting M see it is pure formality; Q Branch handles the details of its secrets even if M knows they exist.
“Is there an issue?” M asks.
“No,” Q says automatically. Gathering the folder to archive back in the safety of Q Branch, he straightens his shoulders and meets M’s eyes. “I’ll continue my research as I see fit, then.”
It’s as much of a dismissal as any of them ever get from M. Q rises to his feet, Estelle’s wings spreading to maintain her balance, and if Kir is still watching them too closely, well—
M doesn’t push for a more destructive version of the stunner, Q has free rein on all matters related to research on daemon properties, and Bond gets to keep his secrets a day longer.
Q will take it.
Q Branch on a late evening is peaceful, the handful of remaining staff scattering to their individual niches around the room. Although Q can see several of his personnel from his workstation they are all engrossed in their own assignments, and the hum of electricity and machinery almost covers their low murmurs.
An incoming call flashes on his communicator. Q flicks it on, tracing the call by rote; the location – the embassy, meaning that they’re well on track – appears on screen, and he studies the blueprint of the surrounding structures as he ummutes his microphone. “007, you’re on the line.”
“Good evening, Q,” answers an alto-low voice, and Q has to bite back the startled reflex to say her name. He sweeps the room automatically, even though the earpieces Q uses when running solo operations have reversed noise-scramblers on them to prevent eavesdropping, a guard against hypersensitive daemon ears tuned to all frequencies, even echolocation. Estelle straightens on her stand; the noise-scramblers work on her, but she knows him and his body language too well.
Q meets her gaze and holds it until she settles back, and then asks his caller, “What are you doing?”
“Answering the phone for James,” Bailey says. “He’ll be another minute or two. Wireless communicators are useful.”
Is it really against a daemon’s nature to speak so casually to another human, Q wonders, or is Bailey just the exception to every rule under the sun? Estelle hadn’t hesitated when addressing Bond, but she doesn’t seem inclined to small talk the way Bailey does.
Barring emergencies and with family, Estelle had never freely spoken to another human before Bond.
“You called us,” Q says instead.
“So I did,” Bailey says easily, and there’s a soft whisper of fur and then utter silence. “We plan to wrap up in two days and James intends to take you to bed when we return—“ a small noise of surprise escapes Q’s throat “—and I thought you’d appreciate some forward notice.”
“That—” Q glances up at a sudden rush of wings – Estelle swoops at him, and his arm goes up automatically, catching her talons across the length of his forearm. She eyes him, then hops onto his shoulder, pressing her head against his, close enough that her sensitive ears will pick up the audio even though the noise scramblers.
Combing his fingers through his daemon’s wing is a soothing distraction. “That’s not exactly a revelation,” Q says at last. “Why would you think I need forward notice?”
“So you can create a contingency plan—”
There’s a sudden crackle of static noise that should never occur with one of Q’s earpieces, and Q’s hands are already on his laptop, Estelle tense on his shoulder, when they hear Bond’s voice, distinct but muffled, as if speaking from a distance.
“I said contingency plan, not escape plan.” Bailey’s voice sounds equally muffled, and Q has to take a deep breath or he’d start swearing – or laughing – from the sudden spike of adrenaline.
“Bond. You’re on a mission.”
“Yes,” Bond simply says, and his voice is close now, filling up Q’s ears; he’d clearly taken his communicator back from Bailey. “Another twenty minutes from going in, actually.”
The next fifteen minutes is spent strictly on the mission – it’s intelligence-gathering, one with little danger unless Bond’s identity as an MI6 agent is discovered, after which things will become very deadly very fast – and despite the crackle of the unsaid simmering just under the surface it’s easy to fall back into the routine of it all. Q still works best unseen and only audible over a line with a wealth of resources at his fingertips to support the agents, after all, and the Double-Os are never more in their element than out in the field, utterly embroiled in a mission.
But Bond is Bond, and in the short lull between planning and execution he says, casually, “How’s your neck?”
Q’s hand rises automatically, fingering at his collar before he drops it. Estelle continues to linger, listening in, but she’s taken the opposite shoulder today.
“That’s quite irrelevant to the assignment at hand,” Q says, keeping his eyes on the electronic counter ticking down the time. Just under five minutes to go.
“That’s true, but it’s quite relevant to me.”
“Incorrigible,” Estelle murmurs in his ear, but when Q turns to meet her gaze her golden eyes are amused. She lifts one wing, curves it so it just brushes against the fringe of Q’s hair, tickling his ear, forming a feathery barrier to obscure her voice. “How about giving them a new test?”
And it isn’t as though they haven’t thought about this. Q is, after all, an innovator at heart, and he’s been thinking of titanium-steel guards, lightweight for a stealthy fox, and new security protocols to shore up MI6’s server firewalls against nosy Double-Os. He and Estelle have designed and created a weapon that Bailey now wears around her throat, protection and belief and trust, and they’re not about to stop just there.
“What do you have in mind?” Q mouths at Estelle, knowing she’ll read the words off his lips, and his daemon doesn’t disappoint.
“Us. Let them try to find us.”
Q stares at Estelle for a long moment, quietly registering the low sounds of Bond speaking to Bailey, the words barely distinguishable. Estelle knows what she’s saying, what they’ll be offering, that giving Bond and Bailey this will mean more than letting them drag the truth of the stunner from their lips, more than encroaching into their workroom and their office and taking up space on their couch. It will be like the arc of electricity leaping in the air, the lines of daemon etiquette and proper forms thoroughly shattered and finally admitting that the 007 pair has carved out a niche in their heart.
“We’ve already done all of that, haven’t we?” Estelle says, soft.
“Bond,” Q says, and knows when Bond’s attention snaps back to him, the silence on the line taking on a charged quality. “You still have the keycard to my office.”
If Bond is surprised at all by Q’s words, he doesn’t show it. “Yes.”
“Even though you have your own Double-O spaces.”
“Double-O spaces have other Double-Os in them.”
Contingency plan indeed.
“New task. My flat. Figure it out.”
It’s much harder than it sounds because Q doesn’t exactly have normal personnel records, and his speciality is cyber-security – his flat is unlisted on all registries, tied to a blank name and persona that Q doesn’t use for anything else, and is so technologically protected that it’s likely easier to hack into MI6 because they at least have to leave enough open doors for their agents to check-in through.
It’s probably easiest to just follow Q home, and Q isn’t going to make it that easy.
“Now that,” Bond says, his tone almost frighteningly sincere, “is quite intriguing.” There’s a pause, during which there’s a soft click that indicates Bond has thumbed the safety off his gun, and then— “I accept.”
“I’m glad you approve,” Q tells him, and as the timer ticks down into the seconds he counts down with the last few, “… in three, two, one, go.”
And Bond is already moving, swift and deadly, Bailey undoubtedly breaking out ahead, a Double-O team with their Quartermaster watching over them, and it’s familiar and it’s perfect and it will, if Q has any say about it – and he does, with all the protection and support Q Branch pledges to its agents – only get better from here on.
Estelle laughs quietly into Q’s ear even as they both trace the 007 pair’s journey through the embassy, and Q has to smile back at her.
He’s quite looking forward to Bond and Bailey solving their newest task.