Actions

Work Header

but Should we Run from Ghosts

Work Text:

Every time he finishes a line of code, Q tenses up, just for a moment. Not enough to alert Bond—pacing up and down behind him with his gun gripped tight—but enough that he can't lie to himself that he isn't.

Every time he finishes a line of code, Q tenses for half a second and waits for a train to come crashing through the wall. Waits for the laptop he's working on, with its disconnected network drives, to explode beneath his fingers. Waits for the bunker—carefully selected for having no relevance to MI6 whatsoever, to the point where Q had to stand back and watch Bond break in—to collapse down on top of them.

He types another line of code, watches Bond's reflection in the screen twitch, types another. After a while, anything becomes routine. Type, wait, survive, type again.

There are no fancy graphics now, no representing code with threads and rotating patterns. They picked up the laptop second hand from CEX on the way over, rolled a die to work out which of the six in the window they would take. Q took it apart with a penknife screwdriver while Bond waited outside just in case the flimsy wooden door could block the explosion. Every network point, every wifi access device Q removed, put in a pile, and then stabbed with his knife for good measure.

The laptop runs white text on a black screen as Q digs through layers and layers of the code which is still running rampant through MI6 systems. He knows how it works now, after long weeks of research and reading lines of code until his eyes ached. M's funeral, Bond's removal from active service, Moneypenny taking the secretary job; it's all a blur in his memory undercut with endless code scrolling across his vision.

There's a keycode, he'd explained patiently to Bond on the long tube ride over here. This kind of virus has a self-destruct in the form of a keycode. Get it wrong, the infected system is broken wide open. Get it right, the virus wipes itself right out of the system.

Yes, he was sure. Had spent weeks agonisingly checking the tiniest statements for booby traps or misdirects. Mallory had asked three times if Q was absolutely definitely sure and Q couldn't actually shout at him, although he wanted to. He wanted to shout at everyone, really, and remind them that the first time he'd had five minutes to crack a code that must have taken Silva months to write. To remind them that Silva would have known and had in fact planned for that.

But that wouldn't really help anything, so he focused on coming up with a plan that Silva couldn't have anticipated given thirty years to plan. A plan with enough stupid variables that there was more chance of a mugger breaking in and shooting them both than a carefully concocted trail of explosives from Silva.

And yet still, he's pausing after every line. Even now, when he's moments from the end. Silva's code is literally falling apart beneath his fingertips, layer after layer peeling back. Q's fingers are ahead of his brain, typing statements before he's really planned to because this is his zone. This is what Q does, why they pulled him into MI6 against all the odds. This is why he's worth breaking all the rules for.

Return string text = keycode;

He holds his finger over the return key, but can't quite make himself press it. There's nothing but code now, the worst that could happen is error invalid function and having to start all over again. He knows this. Knows it because it is true and everything he's ever seen says it is true and it shouldn't matter that Silva was like nothing else he'd ever seen.

"If anything's going to kill us," he says. "It's going to be this." It's strange to hear his voice, almost too loud after the long hours of silence, and Bond finally stops pacing.

I am too brilliant to die here, Q tells himself. This is not going to be how I die. But he's too proud to leave the bunker and let Bond do it—pull the trigger, press the return key, that's what they keep agents around for—so he waves Bond back and squares his shoulders. He hasn't cracked so far and, life on the line or not, he'll be damned if he breaks now.

He hits return. The bunker doesn't collapse, the laptop doesn't explode and - unless the circle line is particularly delayed today - it doesn't look like a train is going to come through the wall. It almost seems like the plan worked out perfectly—

Q looks at the screen and all of his thoughts trail off. No. No, that's not right, this isn't happening, that's not—It can't be, is the thing. It just can't.

String keycode = RS1771;

The reflection of Bond in the screen looks up at the ceiling for a moment. "Well," he says. "We would appear to have survived." He walks over to peer over Q's shoulder at the screen. Q has to force himself to relax his fingers, to allow his muscles to move slightly for the first time since he saw the code on the screen. "It's random." Bond sounds legitimately disappointed by this. Maybe in the high profile world of espionage, all top secret codes are full of symbolism and mystique.

Bond is holding his gun in a loose grip, beside Q's chair. It's the second hand-print coded gun that Q has given to him, but it has a handy failsafe where Q can fire it too. For a brief, crazy moment Q thinks that Bond's the only other person who knows. Just one other person.

There are any number of ways to kill one person. Even more with a gun this close, and Bond wouldn't expect it—doesn't expect it when Q twists, fingers closing on Bond's wrist and moving until the grip slackens and he can grab the silenced pistol, raise and fire.

Bond's reactions kick in an instant too late and Q goes flying across the room, the gun skidding out of his hand in the opposite direction.

Q doesn't have the years of combat training and on-the-job experience, so where Bond is immediately back up, gun in hand, Q takes the opportunity to lie on the floor and reflect on all the bruises he's going to have in the morning. He's pretty sure the gun is trained on his head as Bond walks slowly back to the centre of the room to examine the laptop. To examine the bullet hole directly through the laptop's screen.

"What was that for?"

Q sits up, feeling his spine crack back into place. He's pretty sure his shoulder is dislocated, and boy he could've happily gone his whole life without that happening again. "Are your ears ringing? My ears are ringing, you should have a silencer on that thing."

"We needed that code."

Q doesn't bother to point out that the hard drive is, regrettably, fine, because agents don't tend to appreciate the finer points of computer hardware. "No, we needed the key. Everything else can go into the Thames for all we care." He grabs his upper arm and pops his shoulder back into place. He can't suppress a small moan, but Bond won't hear it around the earplugs that he is clearly wearing because some people know better than to fire a gun in a small room without ear protection.

"I'm not going to sleep tonight," Q complains loudly, partly to distract himself from how painful it is to get up off the ground. "I'm just going to lie awake all night listening to my ears ring. Do you remember the key?"

Bond gives him a dark if you're going to shoot information, make sure you remember it first look. "Of course."

Damn it. Q makes it upright and stretches out, hiding a wince as his neck cracks. He can already feel the bruises forming across his shoulder and spine. Maybe he should start wearing body armour if he's going to let Mallory talk him into the field. "Let's go then."

"The laptop?"

Q shrugs. "Bring it, leave it, throw it in the Thames. It's done." The door to the bunker is stiff and he doesn't want to force it open with his sore shoulder, so he ends up standing next to it awkwardly while Bond fires the rest of the gun's clip into the remains of the laptop.

"The door won't open," he says, to Bond's questioning look when the computer is reduced to scattered keys and wiring on the floor.

"Course it will," Bond says, smiling like it's a challenge. "Put your back into it."

Q could mention that his back is currently ten shades of black and blue. He could mention that his hands are still shaking and his ears are still ringing. He could have a three month mental breakdown from RS1771 alone.

As it is he stands back when Bond pops the door open and follows him back out into the rain.

*

No one liked Mallory at first. Everyone else didn't like him because they thought he was an interfering busybody who was going to force them to obey the law or use a real filing system or something else heinous and terrible.

Q didn't like him because the first thing he said when he came into Q-branch was, "And this is where you keep the people who force me to have endless meetings with the prime minister in order to keep them out of prison," which meant he knew. Q didn't like people who knew.

He's turned out to be not so bad, though. He has the same attitude of the rules being more like guidelines that M did. It's a midway kind of attitude that makes Tanner send a lot of apologetic emails to the police but doesn't mean letting someone like Q do whatever he wants utterly unsupervised.

"I ordered the building clear," Q says. What he actually did was light a cigarette under the smoke detector because he wasn't sure how else to set off the fire alarm. Normally he would just hack the building, but given that all MI6 computers are currently showing laughing skulls on repeat, that wasn't exactly an option.

"Well if this doesn't work, the Prime Minister will have both our heads anyway," Mallory says. "I thought you might want company."

Well, that explained a few things. "Bond told you the keycode then. Thanks for the bodyguard, by the way."

"Any time."

"Was he protecting me or England?"

"I wasn't aware you needed protecting," Mallory says, stepping up beside him as Q types out code by heart to pull up the keycode entry form. He's done this about a thousand times by now, to make sure that there wasn't rotation in the code or that it wasn't a trick form. He could probably do this in his sleep, if he got a moment's peace between nightmares. "It doesn't make sense," Mallory continues. "Silva couldn't have known that number. No one knows that number."

No one is an exaggeration. More people know it than Q is comfortable with, but Q is only really comfortable with one: himself. "Silva shouldn't have known a lot of things."

He's less worried typing in the code the second time. Even though theoretically more people are at stake and the whole of MI6 operations for the last 50 years could be exposed online. It's clear enough now that MI6 isn't the target anymore.

RS1771, he types, and hits return.

Every screen goes black. The fire alarm shuts off—finally—and the lights go dark. The only thing visible is the glow in the dark label on the fire extinguisher in the corner and the gold shine of streetlamps leaking in around the corners of the blinds over the windows.

"Is that a good sign?" Mallory asks.

Q watches the big screen and waits. He wishes Mallory wasn't here for this but he can't say that. He's walking on thin enough ice as it is.

When it comes, it's without theatrics. None of the explosions or laughing skulls that Silva liked so much. A single line of white text types out letter by letter on the big screen.

So you didn't run...

It stays there for a moment that seems to drag on for hours, then with a flicker of fluorescent strip lighting the words are gone, the lights are back, every computer in the room bears the same message system rebooting and Q is going to spend the next week checking and rechecking everything for any trace of the virus but for the time being it's gone.

He can breathe again.

"Do you want to give me some answers?" Mallory asks.

Q shakes his head, nods, shakes again. He hasn't slept for more than a few hours in weeks. He hasn't slept properly in longer than that, but he can't see that changing. He wants this to be over, wanted it to be over with Silva's corpse in its unmarked grave. Three weeks he's been coding without sleep under the promise that once he cleared the virus from the MI6 system, this whole ordeal would be over. Book closed. Done.

He's never had that kind of luck. "I wish I could, sir."

Mallory sighs. "People are going to want answers, Q. If we can't get them—"

Four weeks ago, Q would have called that a threat. Now he knows Mallory better and they're all in this mess together and he can recognise a warning when he's being thrown one, even if it comes with Mallory's heavy hand patting roughly on his bruised shoulder.

"Figure this out," Mallory says. "Or both our jobs will be on the line."

There's a faint hum of electronics starting and they both look up in time to see the LED on the first camera blink on. Mallory's hand drops back to his side and he turns to go about getting his agents back into the building.

Q braces himself up on the desk and watches as the big screen goes from rebooting to log on.

Figure this out or get fired then. He reaches under the desk for his scrabble mug and logs in.

The real issue here is that he can't actually get fired because where fired for Eve would mean returning to her SCO19 unit and fired for Tanner means taking one of the fifty job offers that appear on his desk every day, fired for Q means being dumped right back where MI6 found him. That much was made clear when he took the job.

Sometimes at work if someone is doing something a little more illegal than usual they will make some joke like 'hey, maybe this is the job that lands us all in prison' and everybody laughs. Q laughs with them and then at the next opportunity he goes and hides in the toilet and breathes into a paper bag until he thinks he can just about face people again.

Everyone in Q-branch seems to assume that Q was hired the same way as everyone else, a recruiter sent to a University or a job advertisement in a specialist science and technology magazine or a call from the Government after they released a particularly genius blog/article/video to the general public. No one really questions why Q doesn't have any name outside of 'Quartermaster' and no one knows about the GPS tracker that was implanted in his hip since tracking anklets are so passé these days.

Everyone knows that Q is the best, but that's just because he is. He doesn't go out of his way to correct them on everything else.

The office filters back in around him, none of them seeming particularly surprised that there isn't a fire, that Q is still inside or that all their screens are back to the default MI6 desktop background. A few of them cheer when they successfully log on to their own computers. One or two touch Q's shoulders lightly when they pass him, and Q lets himself sag a little.

The big screen starts lighting up with Caro's Worm progress, Jacob's CIA database hacks go green one by one in the top corner, Richard logs on to his computer and abandons it a moment later to go to the kitchen and fill the kettle to almost overflowing—just enough to make tea for everyone in the office.

These are his people. His people, his office, and if anyone can check every inch of the system it will be this team. Q can still remember when M came to him that first day and offered him the job, he had accepted on the condition that they find him a team of hackers he could work with, people he could almost call equals.

He hadn't expected them to manage it, but then three weeks in he'd been in the middle of a twelve hour coding spree and suddenly there were other people around him, other code being added around the edges of his, catching blind spots he hadn't noticed or looking for data pockets he hadn't considered.

It was only in the pub later that he started getting their names, linking faces to user IDs.

"Server one confirmed clear," Heidi says, the first big green light appearing on the screen amidst a crowd of amber. "All traces of Virus-X erased, all booby traps disabled and deleted."

"Earl grey," Richard says, sliding a second mug onto the desk next to Q's scrabble cup.

Q looks down at it and wonders if 11am is too early to start asking for rum in your tea. Maybe it's more acceptable if you've been up all night.

He downs the—cold—contents of his scrabble mug in one gulp instead and reaches for the earl grey, taking a deep breath and pulling his keyboard closer. "Alright, chaps," he says. "One server down. Only three hundred and twelve more and we can all go to the pub."

Never mind about the three Aston Martins downstairs that need to be reassembled, the piles of actual day-to-day work that have been building up while everyone in Q-branch has been focused on getting a computer system running again.

"Server five confirmed clear," Angharad calls as another light goes green.

Q pushes all thoughts of gadgets, cars, agents and RS1771 out of his head and starts typing.

*

He's not sure how much later it is. They reached three hundred and thirteen servers confirmed clear, but then Q could access his email inbox and his virus pingbacks and he was distracted for a few more hours. The CIA had found a few of his decoy bugs, so he replaced them in slightly different locations just to mess with their heads. The agents in the field who had been forced to hold off on all MI6 activity as much as possible and just stay undercover had to be messaged again, going through all the security gates to reassure all sides that everyone was still who they were three weeks ago.

The crowd around the office changed a little; every time Q surfaced from a different task he would note that Rodger's coat had gone and then next time Rodger was back but Heidi's laptop was asleep. He dozed briefly between checking every bug that was live in the pentagon and reciting passphrases by heart to 016.

He knows he slept because when he opened his eyes someone had laid a coat over him and his hands were shaking so much he could hardly type. He couldn't remember what he was dreaming about—thankfully—but no one was looking at him strangely so it must have been one of the quiet ones.

He reached for his scrabble mug, took a long gulp, and adjusted his headset before hitting the call button for the fifteenth time.

Everyone had been coming and going, but when Tanner leaned in to remind them that 004 was going on mission in the morning and she needed at least her car to be complete, only Angharad and Q were in the office.

Not that more people would've made much of a difference. Q may have given very strict instructions on how much coding prowess he wanted his team to have, but no one bothered to ask if any of them were good with car repair. He took Angharad downstairs with him anyway, because he'd probably need things thrown at him at some point, but mostly it's boiled down to Angie in her laptop in the corner while Q leans into the bonnet with oil on his face trying to put the engine back in around the newly installed machine guns.

He supposes it's not Q-branch's fault. He wouldn't know anything about gadgets either if he hadn't spent the last three and a half years sitting around with a lot of time on his hands. The books were just another thing to attack him over, of course, but who's laughing now?

He's just attempting to get the oil tank to sit properly around the bullet stores when the door opens and Eve clicks her way in. Ever since she took the office job, she's taken to wearing taller and taller heels. Probably since the higher the heels, the bigger the knife you can hide in them.

Eve was on probation when Q started working at MI6, and apparently she took 'on probation' to mean 'sit and write reports in Q-branch so as to taunt the new quartermaster.' That was back when Q's team were still being transferred from whatever cyber-crime thwarting division they'd worked at before and Bond was dead but M was alive. Q was setting up a whole new network so it ran the way he wanted to and Eve sat beside him and told him to eat at regular intervals.

She doesn't do that so much anymore, which is a shame, but he can't exactly tell her that without reminders he can easily forget for days because she's seen enough people who've come out of prison and she's clever enough to put two and two together.

"Did Mallory send you to come check up on us?" Q asks, giving up on the spanner and sitting on the engine instead.

"Mallory sent me to drag you home and put you in bed, at gun point if necessary." She reaches for the tank and slots it carefully into the place fitted for it. "You should really just tell him that your hands shake like a baby's rattle and you have an irrational fear of moving parts. Then maybe he'd hire a mechanic for you to order around."

"I don't need to go home yet," Q waves a hand to indicate the three pretty much destroyed Aston Martins and Angharad on her laptop. "Angie's still here." He's not even touching the rest of Eve's statement.

"Angharad has been home four times since you got into work." She takes the spanner from his hands. "Tell you what, if you promise me you'll go home and go to bed for at least sixteen hours, I will get the car up and running by the time 004 comes to pick it up tomorrow."

Q glances down at the half-complete engine and the carefully installed machine guns. It's nothing they haven't done before, usually on small complicated electronics where Q's not-so-steady hands can be the difference between a headset communicator and a headless agent.

She's never asked why, which is a shame because he can recite the story about childhood frostbite word for word from the background information file they gave him when he started this job. It would be a lie, but so are most things. His outside-work psychiatrist thinks it's from PTSD and the many experiences of prison. That's usually when he starts muttering about the failures of the justice system and Q makes his excuses and leaves.

His outside-work psychiatrist thinks his name is Quentin and he went to prison for breaking into some old lady's moneybox. Which he supposes is true in a way.

It says something about how long he's been here that he doesn't bother trying to argue with Eve. "Did Mallory say when I could come back in?"

"Monday," Eve says, and then—"It's Saturday night—make that Sunday morning - now. He also told you not to stress too much about the code until you get back. He seemed to think you could do with some time off, I can't imagine why."

"Ha ha," Q says, picking up a pack of gum and his handgun from the toolbox on the side. "I guess I'll just go home then." The gun is an MI6 requirement for anyone they regard to be a 'valuable asset'. It also has a radio controlled shut-off connected to a red button in Mallory's office.

"We'll know if you don't," Eve says, pulling off her fancy cardigan before it can get covered in engine oil. She's smiling, like she thinks she's joking.

Q touches his hand to the scar on his hip and thinks of the map that Mallory can call up on his computer complete with its little flashing red dot showing Q's exact location.

He picks up his coat from his desk, and goes home. There's a half-full bottle of rum on his kitchen table, but he doesn't have the patience to make tea. He just grabs the bottle, kicks off his shoes, and falls into bed.

Half a bottle isn't quite enough to stop RS1771 floating through his head, isn't enough to stop him remembering every few minutes about something he added to the car that Eve might miss, but it's enough that he falls unconscious before he can act on anything.

*

He could've run. In all the chaos of laying false trails and half of London blowing up. There must be a thousand blades scattered around Q-branch in various forms, and the tracker in his hip hasn't been there long enough that he couldn't pull it out.

He could've run.

He's lying on his back, awake from dreams he can't even remember, save flashes of grey walls and red streaks and his hands are shaking too much to press the button on the alarm clock that'll make it light up. He's sweaty, twisted up in the blankets and when he opens his eyes it's just as dark as it was with them closed.

That's a reassurance, oddly enough. In his 6x8 cell there was always the red glow of the engaged lock and the green light of his cellmate's clock shining the time at the ceiling. He used to watch it tick over the hours and plan a thousand daring escapes, plan everything he would do given the slightest opportunity.

But when it came, what did he do? He stood at a desk in MI6 and kept typing.

He knocks the empty rum bottle over but manages to get the light turned on. The clock is a blur of numbers and he leans closer to read 04:27, leaving his glasses on the floor where the bottle knocked them when it fell.

So he had slept for three hours. If anything, he feels more exhausted. In the small circle of light from the bedside lamp, the shadows make the room seem even smaller than it is normally. A small rectangular box, bunk beds and bars where the door should've been.

Q rubs his hands across his eyes to clear the image, kicking his legs free of the twisted covers. The bedsheet is damp from sweat, his hair is sticking to his forehead. He should get up and deal with it. Or, no, he should ignore it until the afternoon and go back to sleep in the meantime—sixteen hours, wasn't that what Eve had said.

He leans further into the light instead, stretching one arm out against the table and runs his finger down it, picking up the rough ridges of scar tissue.

Q has 87 scars, all on his limbs or torso, up high where a prison jumpsuit will cover. He counts them sometimes, to check they're still there. Like he might become a different person if even one fades. They twist across his skin like threads, pulling memories to the surface. Some are light; grazed against a wall. Others are deeper; shivs and shaving razors.

There's only one surgical wound, and that's the thickest one, trailing across his hip. If he pushes his pyjama trousers down, he can trace along it, can feel the slight bump of the GPS tracker where the surgeon implanted it without once looking at his face.

He runs his palm up his chest to press it over his heart. There's no scarring here, but he runs his fingers back and forth across it anyway, as though he's expecting a number to have burned through the cheap polyester clothing and into his skin. RS1771. The closest thing he had to a name for three and a half years.

Now he has 'Q'. It's not much better, but in a way he chose it. At least, he didn't say no—but then he's not stupid.

And who knows it? Well, that one's easy. M knew, knew because she came to the prison, she sat opposite him in a conference room and said, "Do you know why I'm here?"

They'd been letting his hair grow out. He knew.

Mallory knows. Q doesn't know if he read it in a file or if M told him, but if the file exists it's not on any server Q can hack. And Q can hack any server.

There is a selection of government high-ups who know, the kind of suits that no one can remember who hired them or what job they do but who the country couldn't run without. Q has never met any of them, and he's willing to bet neither has Silva.

Any number of guards and inmates at a prison way up north, specifically chosen for having no reason to visit London and therefore never see Q out and about on the streets eleven years before his first scheduled parole hearing.

And Ryan. Ryan who could hack the records in his sleep, who would know exactly when Q was transferred and what names he might be arrested under. Ryan, who would have reduced his sentence in whatever way possible after turning Q in. Ryan who could talk for England and might just have been able to sell a story where he'd done nothing at all.

Q never asked what happened to him. He's regretting that now.

He looks at the clock again. 04:36—Mallory must have left the office by now, Q's flashing light will be being monitored by some government drone with no clue what they're watching but orders to hit the alert button if Q goes outside the M25.

He kicks the covers off, snags a T-shirt and jeans off the floor. There's one hoodie in the flat and he finds it eventually—pushed into a ball and shoved down the back of the sofa. The clothes are all ill-fitting, no white shirts and designer cardigans but everything he's bought for himself has been tailored to a certain image.

He tugs the hood of the zip-up forward until his face is in shadow; palms his oyster card, keys and a few notes off the kitchen counter. There's a bus in fifteen minutes, he uses the time to duck into a corner shop and buy a half litre of whiskey from a girl playing fruit ninja on her iphone who doesn't ask for ID.

Lucky, since Q doesn't have any. He tips the change into his pocket, hiding the bottle under his jacket when he gets on the bus. He takes a seat halfway down, leans his head against the window so the condensation can cool his forehead. He could sleep here, maybe, with the lights of London flashing past his eyelids and the rumble of the bus beneath him.

He sits on the bus until his head is aching too much to even think of sleep and at the next stop he gets off. The night is cold and the sweat from the nightmares is enough to make him shiver when the wind hits. He looks both ways down the street he's ended up at—apartments, corner shops one or two of which are still open, bins with signs on the side instructing passers-by to recycle.

He pulls the bottle out of his jacket and opens it, drinking enough to numb the headache and the chill for a little while, then picks an arbitrary direction and starts walking.

It's lucky Eve can't view his GPS data. She would probably have one or two things to say about the difference between 'sixteen hours sleep' and 'wondering London in the middle of the night.'

Q pats his pocket absently but of course he didn't bring the gun. There's a knife in the sole of his shoe and a tranquiliser dart secreted in one of the arms of his glasses, and they'll have to be enough.

He almost hopes he does get mugged, just to see how they cover it up.

He's been walking for ten minutes before he reaches a phone box. It's a BT one, glass walls covered in posters for gigs and the NHS quit smoking hotline.

Q presses his hand to his hip—more out of habit than any hope that it'll make a difference now—and drinks the last of the whiskey, waiting for the burn of it to go all the way down before stepping into the booth and pulling the door shut behind him.

A few of the number keys are missing, the body of the phone is covered in carved initials. Q ignores all that, lifting the handset and tipping the change from the corner shop into the slot on top.

He knows the number by heart—they never wrote that kind of thing down. The missing keys require him to push his finger right in, but they still work. He's expecting a cool voice telling him that the number he's dialled has been disconnected, it's almost a surprise when the dial tone kicks in.

He fumbles the phone, catching it a moment before it drops from his hand entirely. He has to stand on his toes to see over the posters, checking the street in both directions to make sure it's still deserted. He tugs the hood of his jumper forward a little more, turning to the wall at the back of the booth and ducking his head.

The dial tone keeps ringing in his ear. He finds himself counting the rings, waiting.

It clicks to voicemail. "Hi, you've reached Romeo. I'm travelling to Quebec this week, and cannot come to the phone. Please leave any messages after the beep."

The beep rings out. For a long moment Q just stands there, tries to remind himself that air is good, breathing is great and he should really—

He slams his hand into the back wall and it hurts like hell which means this is actually happening. "So I didn't run," he says, before he can think better of it—before he can think at all. "Are you going to tell me what the game is?"

The machine doesn't offer up any answers. Q stands for a minute longer, listening to static, until a voice rings out to tell him he needs to put in more money if he wants more time.

He slams the phone back on the hook and waits.

It's ridiculous, stupid. No one checks their messages at 5:45 in the morning. Q picks the phone up again, thinking he could call a cab or call Mallory. He should turn the number over, let the Government do whatever it is they do to analyse phone messages and track people down. If they can even do that.

He puts the phone back on the hook, pulls the sleeves of his jumper down over his hands and sinks down onto the floor, leaning his back against the glass and looking up at the phone—waiting.

He waits until his ass is numb and the first joggers thud past in their designer tracksuits before pushing himself back to his feet and pulling the door open. The empty bottle goes in the first dustbin he passes—'Please Recycle' be damned—and he reaches the underground around the next corner.

He's sitting on the circle line when he realises he can't go back to work. Mallory will expect him to be home until Monday, Eve will probably force him to sleep behind her desk again if he shows up half dead again.

He gets off at the next stop and spends far too long staring at the map on the wall before he can work out how to get home.

He could've run, he thinks as he turns to the other platform to go right back the way he just came. He could have.

Wouldn't that have been nice.

*

Q has access to every database ever uploaded to a server. He can find out who the Americans have in Guantanamo. He can access everyone the Russians will arrest on sight. Give him a laptop, he can find a full history for any name you give him.

But he doesn't have a name. He sits at his laptop, staring at the FBI's watch list with no idea what to search for. Ryan could have any name by now, could have gone through fifty names.

His mobile rings and he hits answer without looking, sliding his headset over his head. "Your friendly neighbourhood quartermaster, how can I help you?"

"Are you working?" Eve asks, and he can picture her judgementally raised eyebrow.

"Nope," Q says, typing 'Ryan' into the search bar.

"Your laptop's on."

Q was given a Sony Vaio the same time he was given keys to an apartment in Camden and a prepaid oyster card. He was told, in no uncertain terms, that if he tried to use a laptop of his own, if he tried to use a public computer, if he modified the Vaio to prevent the various spyware programs tracking his work, he would be back in prison.

He had pointed out that that was the equivalent of putting a master mountain cyclist at the bottom of Everest with a tricycle, but shockingly that hadn't changed M's mind. She was a little too wary of the technically-still-a-convict back then. Probably with good reason.

"I'm looking at porn," Q says. "It's... charming."

There are twelve Ryans on the list, most of them are too old. Q squints at the picture of Ryan Richards, 26, for a long minute, trying to imagine what the thug would look like if he lost three stone and bleached his hair blonde.

"That's funny, because I have the FBI on the other line and they think you're hacking the US Government. Is there a lot of porn in America's secured files?"

He's tired and stressed and neither of them are very good excuses for the fact that he's apparently failed to cover his tracks. To be fair, the FBI's security has been improving exponentially since he started hacking it on a regular basis. "Poorly maintained firewalls turn me on," Q says. "I don't suppose you've had a call from the CIA."

"Why, do their terrible password regulations make you feel all tingly inside?"

The CIA password regulations are as ridiculous as they are amusing. Q remembers CIA passwords better than anyone who actually works for the CIA. "The CIA password system is too terrible to make good porn. Maybe a really earnest home video."

"I'll be sure to mention that to the head of the CIA next time he calls."

Q scrolls down the list of Ryans a second time—just to be sure—then scrolls back up to the search box to try 'Romeo'. "Did you call to discuss the various turn-on capabilities of different US federal agencies, or are you going to yell at me to go to sleep again?"

Eve sighs. "Mallory wants you. He gave strict instructions that I wasn't to wake you up, but that he needed to see you as soon as you were awake. Apparently he 'needs to talk to you about the code' which I presume means something to you since it means nothing to me."

"A secret agency being secretive," Q says, to cover the feeling of his blood running cold. "Who'd have thought it. What did you tell him?"

"I told him it's impossible to wake up someone who never sleeps and then I logged onto the network and lo-and-behold, your laptop is showing as switched on and I'm fielding calls from the FBI."

"Is it Brian?" Q says. "Brian likes me. He's tried to hire me about fifty times so far. Last time he set up a whole security system and when I broke through it was just hiding a word document telling me I'm too good for this country."

"Is this how you tech people court each other? I'll tell him you're hot for his firewalls, shall I?"

Q thought he was in love with Eve for a memorable half an hour when they were both far too many vodka shots down and the corner of the club had seemed far more private than it actually was. He's not sure what it says about him that she's now the closest thing he has to a best friend. "Are you determined to dissuade everyone who might actually like me?"

"I feel like people need to be warned. Now either this red light disappears to say your laptop is off, or you're reporting to Mallory's office in twenty minutes."

"Yes, Ma'am," Q says, and he would salute but he's not got that much faith in his hand-eye co-ordination and Eve can't see him anyway.

"Wipe this conversation from the records before you go," Eve adds. "I know your mid-term review will be doomed from the start, but some of us would like to keep our reputations intact." As soon as she hangs up, Q thumbs the off switch on his phone.

There is one Romeo on the FBI watch list. Q cycles through Charlie and Julius, Oscar and Mark. He scrolls past faces until he will absolutely be late to his meeting with Mallory—the meeting that he is not thinking about—and nothing jumps out at him.

There are a thousand more databases to check, but he can only leave his mobile off for so long before he's breaking the terms of his incarceration. He doesn't have to hack the phone records—he's in and out of them so much that he's just written himself a back door—and the call with Eve is gone with a few quick keystrokes.

He folds the Vaio up, slides it into his leather satchel and walks over to the wardrobe with its lines of neatly pressed trousers and cardigans, a whole range of straight black ties hanging on the door.

Q learned how to tie a tie for his trial. Every time he looks in the mirror to tie the knot, he thinks back to walking down that hallway—his court-appointed lawyer glaring daggers into his back. And no wonder, he'd probably been screwed over by them as much as anyone else.

Dress like the man you want other people to think you are, the lawyer had said, when he'd passed over a pressed white shirt and tie.

Funny, that Q still remembers that.

*

There's traffic. Q sits at the back of the bus, twisting his switched off phone between his fingers and watching the drizzle down the window. He stops off at Starbucks to placate Eve, ignoring the chill of water down the back of his neck from rain that isn't quite worth fighting to extract the hood from his coat.

The MI6 building is large and imposing, in spite of the scaffolding where M's office used to be. Mallory's room is the opposite side of the building, old school wooden panels and bookshelves that look like they could've been painted on. Maybe they are; none of the books seem to have titles. Eve waved him straight in as soon as he got upstairs, taking the cup from his hands on her way past him down the hallway.

Mallory is on the phone when Q steps in, but he makes a quick apology to whoever it is and hangs up. "Q." He nods at the door and Q turns to pull it shut, shrugging off his jacket at the same time.

"Are you allowed to call me in on a Sunday?" Q asks, dropping his jacket over a cabinet where it will coincidentally cover the small camera hidden there.

"I sent you home on a Sunday," Mallory says, turning over his coffee cup and placing it over a particularly hideous desk ornament. "In fact, if I'm not mistaken, I sent you home twelve hours ago with instructions to get sixteen hours sleep." He pulls out what looks like a normal pen from his top drawer and places it on the centre of the desk, clicking it once.

The low hum it emits is almost inaudible to human ears. Electronic bugs, on the other hand, find it overloads their microphones entirely. Q made that his first day on the job, in between upgrading the building's security, hiding cameras in any room he could access and familiarising himself with all the files he wasn't allowed to read. He's forbidden from activating it in the range of MI6 surveillance.

"I slept," Q says, pulling out one of the chairs in front of Mallory's desk. They're mahogany and leather and someone must have put real effort in to make them as uncomfortable as they are.

Mallory nods, sitting down on his side of the desk. "You know you're no use to us dead of exhaustion." He picks up a single sheet of paper from a pile and passes it over to Q. "Where did you go this morning?"

It looks like a google-maps print out of the centre of London. There's a pin in Q's house and a purple line running across the bus route and then the street where he made the call. Q tugs it closer to get a better look—he'd travelled further than he thought. "I just needed a walk. To clear my head."

Mallory's expression folds in a little, like that wasn't the answer he was hoping to hear, but he doesn't press the issue. "Do you still get nightmares?"

Q shrugs. "Only always."

"I could arrange for the MI6 psychiatrist to see you."

"What's she going to say? Go back in time and don't get caught."

"Maybe go back further and don't commit a crime." He reaches over to the pile and picks up a second page. "The Investigative wing of the Government have put together a list of everyone who may have come into contact with 'RS1771.' I've been in meetings all morning, but nothing stands out. Maybe you'll have more luck."

Q takes the page, glancing down at it. A few names he recognises, a larger number he doesn't. "Meetings with the Government? How many of them tried to tell you that I must have hacked my own system?"

He almost got a smile out of Mallory for that one. "At least seventeen."

Q doesn't exactly blame them for being cautious—putting MI6's security systems in the hands of someone who is technically still in prison wasn't one of the Government's finest hours—but it would be nice if someone took a moment to realise that Q was number one on the list of people who didn't want him to go back into a cell.

"Are any of those names standing out?" Mallory asks, nodding to the list that Q is still looking at, though he hasn't read past the first few lines.

Q focuses back on the page, his eyes running over the names of government officials—smiling and signing papers that say fifteen years minimum over and over—prison guards—the bruises of truncheons on his knuckles—other prisoners—shivs carved from toothbrushes, hands on his shoulders pushing and—

Q tears his gaze away, throwing the page back down onto the desk and pretends like his hands aren't shaking. "No."

Mallory frowns, picking it up. "This is all the names, whoever it was has to be someone on this list. Q, I can only protect you as long as you co-operate in this investigation and you're not going to be acquitted until we have a sus-"

"I know who it was," Q interrupts, before Mallory can push the names back into his face.

Mallory stares at him for a long moment, then puts the page down and clasps his hands neatly on top of it. "I'm sorry?" he says, in the kind of polite tone that reminds everyone around that Mallory was in the army and could blow a hole in Q's head before Q saw him reach for a gun.

"I—" Q starts, wondering if he should be looking for a hasty exit. "It's not anyone on—on that." He nods in the direction of the list.

"Can you give me a name?"

Q reaches out to spin the surveillance-blocking pen, trying not to meet Mallory's eyes. "No."

"Q." Mallory says warningly.

"I mean," Q says. "I can give you sixty names, but I promise he won't be using any of them. He's not on that list, he's not on any of your databases."

"Does it have to be him?"

Q swallows, releasing the pen and looking up. "There are seven people in the world who can write the code that I had to break through to release Silva's virus. I'm the only one of those seven who could crack it in the time I did, and only one other person knows that." He picks up the pen, careful not to click it, and presses it down on the bottom of the page with the map. "I need to see my arrest file."

Mallory is shaking his head almost before Q's finished talking. "That all happened over three years ago, Q. There's nothing in it that could relate to what's going on now."

Q turns the page around so Mallory can see the rough sketch outline of a face. "He was Ryan then. Together we stole ten billion pounds in what has since been referred to as the most ambitious series of e-crimes ever carried out. He betrayed me and went to you. I got fifteen years in maximum security with no chance at parole. That file will tell me what he got and why he's in a position to conspire with Raoul Silva."

Mallory meet his gaze for a long moment. "You might not like what you find."

"I'm getting used to putting up with things I don't like." Q holds his gaze steady, meeting Mallory's eyes until Mallory looks away.

"I'll get it. It may take some time—there were a lot of procedures put in place so you wouldn't find it when you were breaking into everything else." He makes a note on the page in front of him. "You were never supposed to see it."

"I gathered that much. Trying to protect the guys who locked me up?"

Mallory's gaze snaps up. "There were a lot of good people involved in your arrest," he says. "You weren't one of them."

"I'm well aware of your government's position on the matter." He pushes back his chair. "Get me the file and I'll find you a name."

Mallory nods in dismissal, pushing the list back towards Q. He keeps the map, with the sketch at the bottom, close. "Have another look over those names. See if anything else stands out."

Q picks it up—folding it in half as he does, so he doesn't have to even glance at the text. "M," he says, turning to grab up his coat, slightly dislodging the camera hidden in the vase that it had been covering.

"Q," Mallory says, before Q can open the door. Q turns back, coat in one hand and file in the other.

"M?"

Mallory is looking down at the map, presumably trying to see anything familiar in Q's vague scribbles. "I can only protect you if you trust me."

Q hasn't got time to worry about whether it's a threat or a warning.

It's Sunday afternoon. He's going home.

*

Q texts Mallory on Monday morning to say 'got it?' and Mallory texts back, 'no. Tomorrow.'

He spends the rest of Monday on the sofa watching Film4 and eating microwave popcorn washed down with rum from the shop on the corner.

He naps—missing half of movies he was never really watching—and sketches designs for innovative new gadgets on the fabric of the sofa.

He writes 'Hi, you've reached Romeo. I'm travelling to Quebec this week, and cannot come to the phone. Please leave any messages after the beep' and stares at it through muted ad breaks, looking for any meaning outside of the obvious.

After getting home on Sunday, he bolted his door for the first time since moving in. Halfway through Monday he shoves a doorstop in the crack under the doorway and rams a kitchen chair in under the handle.

He IMs Angharad on the Q-branch super-secure network to ask 'Q10: how do you find someone who doesn't want to be found before they find you?'

A01: r u coming in2 work 2day? Can we just bunk off and hack shit?

Q10: isn't that what we do every day? Tell Mallory I'm taking a mental health day

A01: already did. He sed you probably need it and you have to see the psych when you get back in—b4 he'll giv u anything.

Q pushes his laptop away. "Damn it." Sure enough, when he turns on his phone there's a text with his work-external psychiatrist's name and a time.

His external-psychiatrist has no idea who he is or what he's done and thus can give no useful advice beyond 'try to avoid triggers' which would be easier if Q worked—oh—anywhere else. Occasionally he also suggests that maybe Q would feel better if he drank less, but that's the kind of advice that is easy to ignore because he has to sleep some time and passing out is working great so far.

Still, he's better than the MI6 psychiatrist who just has a lot of rorschach test cards and word association games and doesn't seem to notice that Q-branch as a whole swap bingo cards with random words on and see who can get the most bullshit into MI6 psych sessions.

His phone vibrates again and he looks down. Angharad has sent him a message that just says, 'tell them rabbit and u hav a full house. Drinks r on u!'

His team are kind of his favourite people in the world. He rolls off the sofa and goes to dig out some deodorant and a suitable shirt.

*

This is how it happened. Q had just turned twenty and decided to move to Manchester. He was hacking the records of a large letting agency when he found traces of another person digging through the same code. A minute later, one of the listings—for a spacious but private apartment a short walk from the city centre—changed its name from 'Number 12 Brotherton Drive' to 'Roommates?'

Three weeks later Q was living at number 12, which the agency had mysteriously lost all records of, when a man knocked on the door and moved in.

He had a driver's licence that said Ryan Giggs, so that's what Q had called him.

(As to how Q became the kind of twenty something who stole apartments and switched cities without a second thought? That's a whole other story of child genii, abandonment and orphans make the best recruits. Best to avoid it.)

They had Ikea furniture, enough takeaway boxes to build a castle and a corner shop that sold beer by the crate. Neither of them had real jobs, neither of them had real names. They would sit on Ikea sofas and see who could hack the largest security systems in the fastest time and when Q won, they would fuck on an Ikea bed. It was simple, easy, without anything complicated like emotions or commitment getting in the way.

That's where it started. Q had just located the centralised database of Government spending thanks to a few notes in the files of a low-level employee whose computer he liked to hack. He'd been drinking, but wasn't much more than tipsy as he switched money between projects somewhat at random just to see what would happen.

"The British Government has terrible security," he remarked, mostly so Ryan would stop playing tetris and start paying attention to him.

When you were Q, everywhere had terrible security. Maybe for the average human who tried to guess passwords or couldn't build a computer from junk store parts, these kind of databases were as impenetrable as they were supposed to be. To Q, who spoke algorithms and code sequences better than English, the layers of complex security were like an elderly relative blithering nonsense in one ear. Easy to ignore.

Ryan put his computer to one side to come over and look, his eyes scanning down the code. His elbows rested on the back of the sofa, warm and solid against Q's shoulders. "Can you allocate some of that budget towards my motorbike fund?"

It was the kind of casual question they threw around whenever life got a little dry. Can you hack NASA to watch a pizza being delivered? Can we reroute all sat-navs in the area so everyone ends up driving in circles? Can Ryan go three weeks without shaving and still pick up girls in a club? (The answers were no, yes—and it's hilarious—and no, respectively).

Ryan was always stepping away to go back to Tetris when Q said, "Probably."

And that got his attention, more than moving in or hacking satellites or sex. Maybe that should've been a sign. "How much could we get?" Ryan said, the words coming out slow like he was worried Q might steal this away at any moment. "If we tried."

And—well—Q was a man of science. Some questions needed answers. "Shall we find out?"

*

He doesn't tell his psychiatrist all of it. He doesn't tell him much, really. They both know he's only going because he has to—the psychiatrist thinks it's a condition of his parole and Q wishes he was even almost close enough to free to get paroleand normally he just talks about the many ways prison fucked him up and ignores all the hows and the whys and the details while they both stare at the clock and wait for the hour to be over.

But this time he finds himself talking about Ryan. Ryan was perimeter, he worked security. Ryan was supposed to stop them getting caught. Ryan was blonde hair and a light laugh and he was fun to come home to. He was a poster boy for the lifestyle of young, rich men who never have to answer for their crimes.

Some time near the end of the hour, he says, "I think he might come after me."

The psychiatrist looks over at him and says, "Do you want him to?"

Q leaves. He keeps his head down, pulls a cap over his eyes and his raincoat tight over the navy blue cardigan. When he was leaving the house, his MI6 issue gun had been sitting on the side and he'd grabbed it without letting himself think too much. Now it feels heavy and obvious in his coat pocket. He keeps his hand wrapped around it anyway and waits for a policeman to notice and stop him.

No one does. They didn't on the way there, and they don't on the way back, although he does get asked to disembark his bus when they realise he's drinking vodka from a bottle under his coat through a McDonalds straw.

Normally he does this walk feeling pissed from cheap alcohol and pissed at the world.

He's not sure what he feels now. He expects to see Ryan around every corner holding a gun or running forward with new evidence to put Q back in prison.

He doesn't want Ryan back, he doesn't want Ryan anywhere. His last memories of freedom have Ryan on the sofa, Ryan in bed, Ryan lurking in every corner.

That's all he misses.

He doesn't have nightmares that night, but he wakes up at 4am anyway, reaching out for something that isn't there.

*

Q has his own office in MI6. He's hardly used it once since they moved back to the old building, but it's there, empty. He opens his VAIO on the desk and sets it to reflect the big screen in Q-branch so he can see Richard hacking an agency in Iran for 009 and Milly compiling a list of local allies for 005.

The file is sitting in the centre of the desk. It's one of those old paper ones, the spine stretched to its full extent to fit sheaths of paper, haphazardly clipped or stapled together. The corners are a little dog-eared, the colour faded.

There's a single neatly typed label on the front:

Case #9293456, e-crime and financial theft division. Closed.

He folds the cover back to reveal the stack of papers underneath. A quick thumb through reveals photographs, long lists of numbers and names. All of the information he's been trying to track down since the first time he walked through the doors of MI6 with an ID badge—really, who uses ID badges anymore—that simply read 'Q' pinned to his shirt.

Report summary: The investigation and arrest of two cybercriminals—known as Subjects X and Y. Over a period of twelve months, the defendants stole upwards of £7bn from the British Government. Exact figures are unknown, many crimes attributed to the pair could not be proven.

Subjects charged on counts of: Fraud, theft, cybercrime, cyber terrorism.

It all seems so clinical. Q skims over the rest of the introduction. Ryan's name is listed as Robert Carter which is an ID Q can't even remember Ryan making, so it must be an older fake. Q was arrested under the name of the driver's licence he'd had on him at the time, but the report acknowledges that any of the thirty IDs scattered around his apartment could have been his birth name.

Both defendants were given representation from the state, both were found guilty. He skips over a few pages, looking for the details on the case's closure.


Sentencing

Subject X: Guilty of all charges. Fifteen years in maximum security, without any chance of parole. Subject is to be regarded as armed and extremely dangerous.

Q had been half asleep and hungover when they came to arrest him. He had put three police officers in hospital. Apparently no one had expected the skinny computer geek to keep a knife under his pillow or to be able to fire a gun.

Subject Y: Guilty of cybercrime, theft. Cleared of all other charges. For co-operating with the investigation and providing important evidence, sentenced to three years in minimum security.

Q reads it three times, then reaches under his desk for a bottle of rum. So this was what Mallory didn't want him to see. He'd known Ryan betrayed him—from the moment Ryan stepped out onto the evidence dock and Q felt the bottom fall out of the world. He hadn't realised just how well the Government rewarded traitors.

Three years. Even if he'd served all of them, Ryan would be back on the streets by now.

*

It wasn't that simple. They couldn't just transfer a few million pounds directly into Q's bank account—opened and held in a fake name, mostly used to pay for books and pizza.

Well, they could. But the police would have been on the flat in approximately half an hour. The task wasn't just to see what they could get—everything—but to see what they could get away with.

Ryan came up with the idea of framing people. Allocate extra money to a project, skim it off the top and if someone looked too closely they would think someone had messed up the figures. How hard could it be to make a theft look like something else?

Pretty hard, as it happened, but not impossible. For the first time in a long time, Q was faced with a challenge. They would code side by side, slipping Trojans into websites and advertisements to pull the processing power of computers all over the country—so much cheaper and easier than buying a rack of servers.

The day the money started rolling in, Ryan bought a bottle of champagne and they toasted plastic cups to each other.

When they first got wind of an investigation—Ryan kept a tracker in the police databases, in the Government crime units, kept firewalls up around the entire code framework—Ryan set up a new back-up. The investigation wouldn't just lead to a worker who'd messed up, it would lead to—apparently—a worker who'd stolen the money. It was the perfect system, and they celebrated it by going out and getting very drunk.

Q was in charge of keeping them rich. Ryan was in charge of keeping them safe.

*

Q flicks over the list of implicated names. Most of them are innocent, only a handful ever did jail time. He flicks over the police report, the e-crime division report, the witness reports until he finds Ryan's testimony. In comparison to the other reports, this one is short—only a handful of pages. Q takes a long drink from the bottle of rum before starting to read.

It's a compelling story. In it, Ryan is the young innocent swayed by Q's promises of money and power. If you believed this report, Ryan was barely involved—he went to the police as soon as he found out the true scope of Q's plans. The Ryan of this report was naive, allegedly betrayed and could barely have hacked into his own facebook account. It's almost a wonder he got jail time at all.

The report is dated a week before Q even knew their security was compromised. So Ryan knew the police were on to them, he knew they'd been found out.

Had he been planning this story the whole time?

Q has spent three and a half years feeling hurt and betrayed because Ryan gave evidence. It's funny that now it's clear Ryan was responsible for everything, all he can feel is numb.

There's a knock on the office door and Q looks up as Richard leans in. "Did you need a hand with anything?" He notices the thickness of the report. "What've you got there?"

Q shakes his head. "A long, dull afternoon, I think. Is there tea?"

Richard grins at that. "Earl grey?"

"A bucketful, if it can be arranged." He turns Ryan's report over carefully to hide the words, pushing it back into the file. He should read the e-crime report to see how far the Government had got on their own, when Ryan picked up the intrusion. He should search the databases again for any other names he can think of.

Richard pats him on the shoulder before he leaves. Richard is great, he makes tea just how Q likes it and he writes all the reports that no one else can be bothered with. When Angharad was first introducing Q to her team—now his team—she had introduced Richard as 'and that's our Ianto Jones'.

He's even Welsh.

Q flicks back to the police report, mostly looking out for names and dates. They had started skimming money in March, the first evidence of the police putting together the multiple instances of employees stealing from the government and treating them like connected crimes wasn't until August.

August was when they started on pensions. They created new people, they kept claiming for people after they'd died. They made a small fortune on pensions alone. Judging by this report, the police were less than impressed.

Richard comes back in with Q's scrabble cup, and he's left an inch or so free at the top for Q to add rum which is why he's Q's favourite person in the whole world. He also cleverly ignores Q's previous instruction and starts splitting the file into sections. "Were you planning to read all of this?"

"I don't know," Q says as the page he was reading ends with the police finding out it was all a dead end and resolving to start again somewhere else. "Probably?"

"These aren't written to be read front to back," Richard explains, sorting the files into new orders, pulling pages out seemingly at random. "You sort them in order of length, so start with the summaries of each section and that should tell you which pages you want to reference for further details." He stops, his eyes apparently caught by one page. "Hey, this looks familiar. Was this us?"

"No," Q says, putting down his page to watch Richard create chaos out of order. "It was long before this team was formed." He takes the summary sheet off the top of one of Richard's piles as Richard stands up to lean out the door.

"Angie. Hey Angharad, get in here."

"What've you broken this time?" she shouts, but a moment later she's coming in anyway. Angharad is one of those people who adhered to the dress code until they'd changed the network so much they couldn't be fired and then swapped out suit trousers and cardigans for a flared skirt and hoodie combo that she says increases her typing speed by 20%.

Q knows her. He knows her and Richard and this whole team but he watches the page pass from Richard's hands to Angharad's with a rising sense of dread in his stomach.

Because there was an e-crime team on his case. And they were good—they would've had to be bloody brilliant to find them. They would have to be the best team of hackers England had ever seen.

And Q had asked for the best.

"Check this out," Richard says, as Angharad skims the page. "He's only gone and dug out the lost files." As she takes it, Richard turns back to Q. "Where did you get it? We had to wipe all our records from the network over a year ago. They wanted no trace, none at all."

Q carefully drops his hands in his lap before they start shaking. Just over a year ago, the prison wardens had started letting his hair grow out. Just over a year ago, he'd had his first meeting with M. "Your records."

Angaharad's smile widens as she finishes the page and reaches for another. "This was our case, the one that broke us into the big league. The whole team, this was where we started."

You sent me to prison, Q thinks, the words fighting to be said—to be screamed. This team—his team—were responsible for every one of the worst experiences of his life.

Richard who makes the perfect cup of tea, and Milly who loves lists like priests love God, and Michael who organises the monthly Q-branch bowling trips and they sent Q to prison. Without any of them he'd be on a beach in Ecuador and he wouldn't know everything that can be done to break a man.

"What happened to them?" Q says, just about keeping his voice steady. "The... criminals."

"Oh," Angharad has to think for a moment. "I remember one of them was innocent. He came forward before we could even finish our investigation. He filled in all the details he knew, he could almost have got off without being charged if he'd been able to account for all of the money. The other one—" her face twists a little with contempt. "Last I heard, he was going to prison and he was going to rot there."

"He was a genius though," Richard says. "He could've given you a run for your money. Some of that code—I've never seen its equal." He looks up from the report. "You don't think he could've escaped and helped Silva, do you?"

Q touches the scar on his hip and doesn't throw up—doesn't throw up. "No. I don't think he escaped."

Angharad picks up a few more pages. "Can we share these around? This was kind of a big deal for us back then, can we have some nostalgia time?"

"Do what you want," Q says. "I have to go."

He doesn't run out of there—but it's a close thing.

*

By the time he's made it out of the office, up the stairs and down the corridor to a window that opens, the urge to vomit has died, replaced by a creeping feeling down the back of his neck and sinking into his limbs. It feels like everyone's watching him, like everyone knows. The two women in pencil skirts and blouses—did they process his arrest? The men in suits so smart they must work for a different agency, were they in charge of the cover up?

They'd told him, way back in that small grey room with bullet proof glass talking to M through a 6-foot phone line, that they'd arranged things so no one would see him and recognise him. He'd thought that meant he wouldn't meet anyone from his case—not that they'd make sure no one from his case knew what he looked like.

There were no mug shots in his file. He should've noticed that, he should've thought.

There's not enough air coming through the window. His coat and jacket are both back in the office with—he realises too late—the rest of the rum. He goes outside anyway, tapping his badge against the card reader to open the turnstile and watching as the screen flashes—all identity fields blank and a letter 'Q' where the photo should be.

When Q started at MI6, he would go outside whenever he could—in his lunch break, in the mornings, he spent two weeks saying he smoked just so he could go outside every couple of hours and look at the sky.

It's like everything else though. After a while, you lose interest.

Now he's outside, he doesn't know where to go. Everywhere within the M25 had seemed so huge in the first few months out of prison, but after a while it's just a bigger prison with less visible walls.

He runs his thumb across his hip, feeling the thin line of a scar and the faint bump of the tracker beneath his skin. How far would he get if he just cut it out. Would he even make it across the road before every double-0 in the building came running with orders to put a bullet in his head?

Would any of them hesitate?

Someone bumps into him from behind, reminding him that he's still standing in front of the doors to MI6. He could go anywhere in London. He remembers being a kid running around the science museum and being a teenager hanging out in Camden. There's a Starbucks a few streets away; there's always a Starbucks a few streets away.

There's a low wall running down the side of the steps and he sits on it. It feels like there should be thunderstorms—if this was a movie it would be night with lightning forking across the sky while he turned up the collar of his trench coat to brood under a bridge. As it is, it's mid afternoon and the rain is so fine it feels like slightly damp air right up until the moment you realise you're soaking wet. His shirt sticks a little to his arms and drops of water run from his hair down the back of his neck. The wall is damp too—he can feel it soaking through his trousers. It's Sunday, he should just go home now. He doubts anyone would stop him.

"Unusual for one of your lot to be outside," a voice says, as the rain stops falling on Q's head. Q looks up to see James Bond has a large black golf umbrella which he's holding over both of them.

"Are you even supposed to be here?"

Mallory had had a minor breakdown when he found out that Bond hadn't actually passed a single one of the tests for putting an agent back on active duty. Everyone in MI6 had heard it—Q had even surfaced briefly from his code—mostly because it was delivered at the kind of volume you couldn't ignore. It started with 'didn't she know how close we are to being closed down', middled around 'don't look at me like that, Bond. If you want to go on missions, try responding to psychiatrist questions in a way that is at least slightly non-psychopathic' and ended with Bond being taken off active duty for 'the foreseeable future.'

"M sent me down to check-up on you."

Bond calls Mallory 'M', which Q supposes is technically accurate but still seems strange. To Q, M will always be a woman with a spine made of steel who walked into solitary confinement with no bodyguards and said 'they tell me you're the best.'

But then, Bond has seen more than one M come and go in his time. Q isn't his first quartermaster and judging by Bond's apparently disinterest in ever retiring, Q may well not be the last. "Mallory sent you?"

"I think he was aiming for Moneypenny," Bond says. "But she was on the phone placating the CIA." He raises one eyebrow pointedly in Q's direction. "Something about a hacker triggering a security alert system that they didn't even know was installed?"

It's kind of depressing to realise that he'd been so out of it that morning he'd tripped his own security additions. Mallory would probably give him another lecture about assisting with a competitor's security, but he couldn't help himself when it came to the CIA. They were so inept it was almost endearing.

"Aren't you supposed to be good at that kind of thing?"

He is the best. It's just, sometimes life conspires against him.

Bond is giving him a strange, searching look and Q realises he's been silent for too long. "Are you okay?"

Q opens his mouth to say 'I'm fine' then closes it again. "No," he says. "Not really." Bond could probably have guessed that from the fact that he's sitting in the rain ten feet from the MI6 doors. Q looks up at the black canopy of the umbrella again. "Have you ever been betrayed by someone, and then missed them anyway?"

Some nights—the relative few when he isn't woken by nightmares or his own screaming—Q rolls over in bed and wakes up from that moment of surprise when you expect to touch another warm body and find the space empty. Sometimes he sits staring at his codes and finds the gaps in security, the slightly imperfect areas where Ryan's code would have been securing and holding him up.

He'd thought—for months now—that Q-branch had filled that hole. He'd thought he was so clever, replacing the gap in his chest left by a betrayer with a team of people who were so loyal. Who would never move against him.

"That's how you know it was a betrayal," Bond says. "Not just a bad guy being bad."

It sounds almost simple when he puts it like that, almost like it could make sense. Except for Bond's one fundamental mistake. "And what if you were the bad guy?"

That earns him another searching look, and then Bond sits down next to him, still holding the umbrella over them both. "I'm not great at the heart-to-hearts," Bond says. "But I think we're supposed to be the good guys."

Q could hack back into the government any time. He did, once, a few weeks after he got out. The security had improved, the money wasn't kept in one place anymore, but he could still have taken it.

He didn't. But that moment of morality owed more to the thought that they would know it was him, that the tracker that still stung in his hip could find him wherever he tried to run. He's pretty sure normal people have better reasons for not committing crimes than just knowing they would be caught.

"Have you ever been to prison?"

Bond laughs. At least, he tries. But it comes out the same low 'huh' that Q forces out whenever someone in the office makes a prison joke.

Q pretends he doesn't notice, pretends he's one of the people in Q-branch who must have put hundreds of people behind bars before he met them. Who probably never gave it a second thought.

"Is this about hacking the CIA?" Bond asks. "No one's going to send you to prison for hacking the CIA."

Bond probably coped in prison far better than Q did. He's got muscles and he's slept with a thousand beautiful women. Prisoners would probably be intimidated by him at first glance, and if not he could beat them into a pulp until they were.

No one was ever intimidated by Q. The more teeth he knocked out, the more they saw him as a challenge.

"Yeah," Q says. He signed a thousand pieces of paper before they would let him out. It all added up to 'If you run, you'll be back in prison. If you hack anything without permission, you'll be back in prison. If you tell anyone about being in prison, you'll be back in prison.' It's too much to explain, too hard to find words. "I guess not."

The MI6 building is looming before him. He needs to tell Q-branch to track down Ryan, he needs to search through the file for some hint of somewhere to start, he needs to learn how to look any of them in the eye.

He's not at all sure about his ability to do the last one. He slides his phone out of his pocket, thumbs in a text and fires it off to the whole department. 'Divert all resources to finding Subject Y.'

He gets an instant reply from Angharad. '???? u dnt mean x? Y was the mostly innocent 1.'

'I mean y. FIND HIM. Or I'll send 007 after u.' He raises his phone to take a photo of Bond and sends that with the message. She doesn't protest again.

"I thought Q-branch could find anyone," Bond says. "Don't you have a list of every person in England?"

Q shrugs. "It's hard to find a man without a name." He should go back inside and see Mallory. To keep him updated, or to punch him in the face. One of the two.

People never expect Q to punch. It must be something about the glasses.

Q taps his fingers against the casing of his phone. He could hack the records of every housing company in London, see if anything's missing. He could watch CCTV footage for hours on end and hope to spot something.

He can't get Ryan's answering machine out of his head. I'm travelling to Quebec this week...

The message was clear, and that was actually one of the weirder parts because this was Ryan. Nothing was ever clear with him, not when 'an evil, possibly insane former-spy has broken out of your compound with a virus that crippled your servers and sent the whole of MI6 into a frenzy' was apparently code for 'run.'

"How do you find someone who doesn't want to be found before they find you? When you have absolutely no idea where they are now."

Bond looks sideways at him for a long moment. "If they're looking for you, you know where they're going to be."

Q frowns, pulled out of his own head for a moment. "Where's that?"

"Wherever you are." Bond claps him on the shoulder. "I should get back."

Q nods absently, his mind already running through thoughts—maybe he should get another lock for his flat, or hire a bodyguard with all the money he hasn't got. Maybe there's another message, something he's missing.

He realises a moment later that Bond hasn't gone anywhere, is still sitting and watching him like he's waiting for a 'goodbye'.

"Moneypenny isn't going to flirt with herself, you know," Q says. "It might be a blow to her ego, having to turn herself down over and over again."

Bond raises one eyebrow, but does stand up like he might be about to leave. "Forgive me if I don't take relationship advice from a teenager."

Q isn't supposed to say—but he's tired of the 'teenager' jokes. "She's running an office pool on how long before you die of sexual frustration." He pauses long enough for Bond to start to object then adds, "Her girlfriend has a tenner on you cracking in less than a month."

Bond's objection dies, but his mouth quirks up a little. That may be one for the record books, Bond almost smiling. "Are you coming back inside?"

Q looks over at the doors. Inside there are two cars that require a full strip, rewire and rebuild. There's a stack of guns to program and gadgets to design.

Beyond those doors are thirty people who put him in prison and one man who knows he isn't still in there. "Actually," he says, sliding off the wall and feeling the dampness of his trousers clinging uncomfortably. "I think I might go home." He holds out a hand. Bond sighs, but lets him take the umbrella.

"Should I tell M?"

"Tell him your glowing people skills did not work, and I stormed off in a rage anyway. I'm sure he'll understand." Q shrugs. "He knows where I am if he wants me."

Bond is watching him with something of a newfound respect. "You're pretty messed up," he says, pushing himself up from the wall and ducking his head to stay under the umbrella. "How do you pass those psych tests?"

"Never say the first word that comes into your head," he says. "Or the second. I usually find the fifth is a good place to start."

Bond smiles a little at that, before popping his collar and turning to jog the few steps through the rain up to the MI6 building.

Q wishes he had his coat, or even better his gun, but Bond has already disappeared into the building and he can't bring himself to walk through Q-branch.

His phone vibrates three times as he walks - sticking to the largest crowds, jumping at every loud nose and promising to keep his Oyster Card in his trouser pockets in future—but there are no rules that he has to answer it.

In spite of the umbrella, he's soaking wet after half an hour. He doesn't want to go home—home has three flimsy locks and no distractions but a TV and his endless thoughts.

If he sits down long enough he'll fall asleep, he can already feel the nightmares creeping back up on him—only now instead of faceless suits pushing him behind bars and down to the floor and digging spiked shoes into his skin it's his friends, his co-workers, the people he was supposed to trust.

He goes to the science museum, hacks into the computers that connect to the giant silver wheel so the lines of digital text read Romeo >> Quebec >> should have run >> travelling to >> leave a message. He watches the words spiral and dissolve and spin around the circle until he feel giddy and still has no answers.

When the museum closes, he goes into a bar and drinks the dregs of whatever people have left on the tables until they notice and throw him out.

It's about nine. His umbrella is still in the pub, it's raining, the crowds of people on the streets are thinning. He pushes his hands into the pockets of his trousers, ducks his head, and starts to walk.

*

*

He goes back to work. The security guards are used to him working all hours, though they seem a little confused by the fact that he didn't come from inside. Q suspects they wouldn't be at all surprised if someone told them he lived in the building.

Q-branch is clear of people. The lights flicker on as Q steps inside, hidden sensors in the doorway checking facial recognition and the print of his hand on the door handle. The desks are lined up before him, black screened monitors and bare laptop stands vying for space among heaps of paperwork which will either be organised during the next period of relative calm or thrown into a paper bin haphazardly and not thought of again until it turns out a vital schematic has gone missing.

The draining area beside the sink is full of mugs—Q's scrabble mug fighting for space alongside Angharad's 'Best Boss' mug that they got her after the team was transplanted to MI6 and she went from team leader to Q's second in command.

She still leads the team. Q has no management skills, but MI6 like to put their Quartermaster on display so they want him to be the best. So they put their pet criminal centre stage, and in charge of the people who brought him down.

There are probably a small handful of in-the-know government employees having a right old laugh at everyone's expense.

Q rescues his mug from the collection, digs a bottle of rum out from under the sink in a box labelled 'emergency 3am coding supplies' that also contains red bull, coffee and a large box of Haribo.

He touches his palm to the corner of the back desk as he passes, the hidden scanner reading his palm print and bringing up the big screen. The afternoon's work fills the screen, links to local letting agencies—what properties have vanished from the websites in the last few weeks.

They found Ryan and Q in Manchester. They know all the old tricks. Q waves a hand to scroll sideways and sees a picture of the old house, a small note below explaining how the team found them last time.

Some of the guys in Q-branch were recruited straight from university, they wouldn't have had time to be catching cybercriminals over three years ago. Sections of Q's arrest reports are scattered across various desks for people to examine—looking for patterns.

There are no pictures of Ryan. There are names—a long list running down the side of the big screen—some of which Q recognises, more of which he doesn't. At the top, they've put 'Real Name = Robert Carter?'

Ryan was arrested under that name, so there's no way he'll use it again, but Q leaves it on the screen anyway.

He doesn't know where to look that they're not already scanning. He skims through the code for the letting agency websites, optimises it in a few places, and then stops. He tries to think back to what they did to cover their tracks before, but that was so many years ago that so much of what they did was obsolete already. Unless he starts scanning every pizza delivery company in the world for names from the phonetic alphabet.

But that would assume Ryan was following the old pattern, the pattern that Q knows about. That would assume Ryan wanted to be caught, and Q is done catching people who want to be caught.

He goes downstairs instead, snagging his raincoat with the gun in the pocket on his way, and opens the bonnet of one of the Aston Martins, leaning over to look into the engine like his hands might stay steady long enough to start on the long list of modifications.

"Is someone down here?"

Q jumps out of his skin, hits his head on the car bonnet hard enough that when he spins around to see the doorway he stumbles a little and his head throbs.

"Sorry," says Milly, with a grin. Milly, who is great at predicting the weaknesses in networks and can detect discrepancies in code like a sniffer dog. Milly, who would have been perfect for analysing the faint traces of exterior interference in the government files and finding the small holes that would let the team follow the code back to the source. "Are you okay?"

Q closes his hands on the edge of the Aston so he can't run at her or punch her or scream do you have any idea what you put me through. "Wasn't expecting anyone else to be here. You know it's the middle of the night, right?"

"Q-branch working strange hours? Perish the thought," Milly says, still watching him like she thinks he's in the middle of a breakdown or something.

It takes Q a good thirty seconds to realise that that might be true. Fuck. He sinks back so he's sitting half inside the car, probably getting oil all over his trousers, but ah well. He can always convince the British Government to shell out for another pair.

Really when you add up the orphanages, the stealing and now the being-a-prisoner-of-the-state, Q has spent almost his entire life living off the Government in one way or another.

"How's the search going?" he asks, casting for a distraction.

Milly shrugs. "You mean the search for a person without a name or a photo or any idea who he is or where he might be? About as well as that needle in a haystack hunt." She smiles over at him. "Would've been easier if you hadn't decided to go nocturnal on us."

Q shakes his head. "Yeah, I just—needed the quiet."

"I guess I'll leave you to it then," Milly says, nodding over his shoulder at the car. "I'll be upstairs for a couple of hours if you need a hand with anything."

Q waits until the door shuts behind her before slumping down in front of the car and pressing his head against his knees. A couple of hours will take them to about six in the morning, he can sneak upstairs before anyone else gets in and hide out at Eve's desk.

His sentence is only another eleven and a half years. He can definitely avoid everyone who might have been remotely involved in his arrest until then.

He can avoid everyone and catch Ryan without Ryan seeing him or telling anyone who he is and he can convince the British Government that he's trustworthy so they stop accusing him of everything that goes wrong. He can convince them that he's a changed man and a perfect citizen and when they look the other way he can run away to a Caribbean island somewhere and wake up with screaming nightmares on a beach instead of a shitty flat in a shittier part of London.

Wouldn't that be nice.

*

Five days later Eve has given up on berating him, just rolls her eyes and glares until he slides out of her chair and sits on the floor beside her desk instead. "If you steal one more of my pens," Eve says. "I swear I will tell M exactly where you are."

Eve did not appreciate the desk tidy that shot lasers or the clock on the wall that fired hypodermic darts and she really didn't appreciate the pen that delivered an electric shock based on fingerprint scans (really, how was Q supposed to predict that she would pick it up in her left hand). "I was thinking I could make poison lipstick," Q says. "Like, you kiss someone and it knocks them out."

"Or," Eve says. "I could punch someone and knock them out. Far less invasive and creepy all around. While you're down there, I have pencils that need sharpening."

"In Q-branch we have a sharpener that—"

"Finish that sentence and next time the CIA call to complain about you hacking into the US government I will just transfer the call to your mobile and let you suffer." She passes him down a Starbucks cup and a small metal pencil sharpener.

Q would protest, but then he might have to go downstairs and do his job instead of living in a state of permanent denial.

He hasn't been home in days. He tried to sleep under Eve's desk and scared the cleaner half to death when he woke up with a scream. He hacked into Eve's desktop and then the CCTV system so he could watch Q-branch and wait for everyone to leave. Despite the constant focus, Milly was right. You can't find a guy with no clues to go on.

He went down twice to try and work on the cars, but his hands were shaking too much to hold the tools. He spent hours at the shooting range and all he achieved was the record for the lowest score ever achieved.

"Have you ever fucked up so badly that your whole life changes," Q says, because Eve isn't looking at him and he's too tired for a brain/mouth filter.

Eve sighs, patting his hair in what might be an affectionate gesture. Orphans may make the best recruits, but they give comfort awkwardly and at a distance—like a hug might break them out in hives. "I once shot a double-0 agent," she says, like he should remember.

He does—he knows—but it's not the same. Bond came back and Eve was following M's orders and Eve has a desk job because she wanted it. Q has seen her personnel records—he knows just how much they wanted her to go back into the field. "Why take this job? Bond's alive, you have the highest test scores of any agent out there. Why be a secretary?"

"Because this is where I want to be." She stops the awkward patting to look down at him instead, which is much worse because of the bags under his eyes and the sharpener shaking in his hand—breaking pencil lead after pencil lead. "When was the last time you slept?"

Q waves the question off, keeping his face turned away like maybe she won't realise it's only thanks to the coffee that he's upright at all. "Sometimes I sleep when you have long phone calls." He usually catches himself when his head lolls forward, only drifting off for instants.

One time he fell asleep properly, and woke up with no idea where he was and his gun halfway raised before he recognised the bright red flash of Eve's shoes and hid the gun under his jumper before she could turn around.

"You know," Eve says, slowly like she's picking every word from a thesaurus before using it, and looking away from him to the clock on the wall. "Sometimes things take a while to sink in. After I... took the shot. I got back to the car, drove to the city. I came back to London, reported in, returned all my equipment—"

"Thank you," Q says, because she was pretty much the only field agent that did.

Eve looks back at him, trying and failing at a smile. "I flew home from Istanbul," she says. "And I wrote all my reports and attended my disciplinary hearing and signed all my equipment in and then I went outside and sat in my car and had a panic attack. Or—well—I realised that later. At the time I just couldn't breathe and when I made it home I couldn't sleep and I kept thinking it had been days, I was supposed to have been okay."

"I am okay," Q says, far too soon.

Eve sighs. "We all agreed we'd let you get over what happened with Silva and Skyfall in your own way but you clearly haven't slept, you've been hiding in my office for nearly a week. Have you even been home? This isn't coping, Q."

The pencil Q's holding snaps in half between his fingers.

"Have you seen the psychologists at all? They helped me after Istanbul."

"Bond coming back helped you after Istanbul," Q says, the words coming out too sharp and too ill-thought out. "M isn't coming back. Silva isn't going to be over, and I already have a desk job." He throws the two halves of pencil into the bin. "I've seen the psychiatrists, I've seen them so many times I had to ask for a new bingo card." He snatches up the next pencil and gets it into the pencil sharpener.

Eve sighs. "PTSD is common in this line of work, Q. They might be able to help. You know that what happened to M wasn't your fault, we all made mistakes that day."

It's funny how she hit on the right problem but is focused on exactly the wrong cause.

"Your team are worried about you," Eve says, beckoning someone Q can't see into the office. "You're supposed to be leading them."

His team thinks he's in a top secret maximum security prison somewhere hundreds of miles away. They wouldn't want him to lead them if they knew, they wouldn't want him near them.

The first judge assigned to Q's trial had to be pulled off the case when it came out that they'd stolen two million pounds that should've gone into his granddaughter's school. Q's lawyer had looked at him with barely concealed contempt whenever he didn't think Q was looking.

The money had always seemed so unlimited when they were stealing it, he supposes they just never thought about what it should've been spent on.

"The team are better without me," Q says.

"No, we're not," says Angharad, and Q almost jumps out of his skin, pushing himself up to see over the desk to where Angharad is standing by the coat rack with a half-smile. "I know we remind you of what happened, you were trying to work in the office to avoid seeing us and we barged in and I came to apologise for that. We should have noticed when you started falling apart after we cleared the servers."

There was nothing to notice. Q has been falling apart for four years, he's just never had to face his demons before. He's never had to work with them. "It's fine," he says.

She raises one eyebrow. "Of course, you've been hiding up here for four days because it's just that fine."

Q shrugs, shakes his head, shrugs again. "It's not—you don't want me down there."

"I think I get to be the judge of that, don't I? And if the electric shock pen that shocks its owner hasn't lost you my respect, then I'm not sure there's anything that could." She looks over at him. "Besides, if we didn't need you down there I wouldn't have walked up ten flights of stairs to convince you to come back."

Q frowns a little, because 'need' is a far cry from 'want' and Angharad reads the question right off his face, because she's still the best team leader he's ever worked with.

"We can't find your guy," her mouth twists a little wryly to the side. "I think you were right about there being more to him than the evidence suggested. As soon as he made parole, he disappeared. There were a few houses, a handful of bills in his name but searching the addresses brought up nothing. He hasn't held ID, he hasn't used a name that we can pin down. We ran out of places to look three days ago so we're double and triple checking, but we haven't got a face or a photo. We could do with help."

Q thinks about sitting alongside a row of people who are going through the motions of exactly what happened when he was arrested the first time and shudders very slightly. "The NATO phonetic alphabet," he says. "If there's a clue, that's a signpost towards it."

If Ryan wants to be found. If Ryan wants Q to find him.

Angharad sighs, but nods. "We'll give it a try. You know you can come down whenever you're ready." She reaches into her bag and pulls out a square of card, holding it out to him. "Richard printed you a new psychiatrist bingo card."

Q takes it without looking. "If you come back tomorrow," he says, pushing through his desire to get as far away as possible. "Bring your laptop, and you can show me what you've done. I'll try to help."

Angharad nods. "M's death wasn't your fault, Q."

But if it wasn't for Q there would be no Ryan, and if it wasn't for Ryan, Silva wouldn't have been able to hack MI6's systems and if it wasn't for Q, Q would never have gone to prison.

He looks down at his bingo card as the door swings shut behind her. It's a neatly printed 9x9 grid and every square reads 'stop lying to your psychiatrist.'

He slumps back down against the wall. "Did you have to tell her I was here?"

Eve sighs. "At some point I'm going to run out of pencils. What are you planning to do then?"

"Oh," Q says. "I'll probably start rigging things to explode."

Eve looks justifiably unconvinced by the idea that he might be able to rig her pencils with a cup of coffee, a raincoat and a pencil sharpener but she just turns back to her computer and gets on with whatever her actual job is.

Q picks up the next pencil and starts sharpening.

*

*

He makes it another two days. He sits against Eve's office wall with Angharad almost close enough to brush arms as they type and he doesn't pull a gun on her once. He runs on the treadmill until he can't feel his legs and falls asleep on the back seat of the Aston Martin and doesn't dream.

He makes it another two days before he calls Ryan's number again. It's midnight, the office is almost empty and he doesn't even know who's office he's in beyond that they have a sofa and a decanter of something that burns on the way down.

He's half a decanter down and the phone on the desk is so tempting. He's not stupid, he boots up the man's computer and digs through the drawers for extension leads and splitters—uses a pen knife to cut and twist wires together until he has a basic device cobbled together to stop anyone tracking the call.

He dials the number and listens to it ring, sitting in the desk chair with his legs pulled up to his chest and the phone on speaker so his hands can grip his legs tight enough to cut the circulation.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

Maybe Ryan's turned his voicemail off, maybe it'll ring forever, maybe it'll be the same message as before and Ryan's never changed it. Maybe he actually went to Quebec after getting back from prison and everything else has been a massive coincidence.

The answer machine comes on with a click and a pause that seems to last a lifetime. "Hi you've reached Romeo," says Ryan's voice and Q thinks it hasn't changed and doesn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.

"I had a great time in Quebec," Ryan's voice says, cracking a little as it passes through the bastardised extension cords, filters through the computer program and echoes out of the tinny speakers. "Not ready to leave yet though. I think I'll hang out some more at the golf course, they have the best whiskey. Call the hotel if you need me urgently. Otherwise, you know what to do at the beep."

He sounds happy. How is he happy when Q's curled up in a dark office drunk on some amount of god knows what and jumping at every shadow? How is it Ryan went free when he was the first person to ask how much they could take?

The phone beeps and Q panics, hand flashing out to try and hang up, catching the cords of his contraption and accidentally knocking the whole handset onto the floor. "What do you want from me?" he asks the mess of cables and the cracked phone.

It has no answers.

*

Eve doesn't even blink the next morning at the sight of him with his head in his hands and all the curtains closed. She passes him coffee and painkillers and picks up his laptop, closing it down and sliding it into one of her drawers. "No saving the electronic world until you can recite the phonetic alphabet backwards standing on one leg."

"Zulu, Yankee, X-ray, Whiskey, Victor, Uniform," Q says. "But I refuse to stand up." He takes two paracetamol with coffee and presses his head against the knees of his jeans in the hope that they'll be slightly cooler than the wall. "Maybe I should fit your walls with pillows. Wouldn't that be better?"

"If you want me to shut you in a nice room with padded walls, you only have to ask." Her typing speed is faster than Q's these days, which he knows because of a long afternoon when Mallory was playing golf so Eve just had to tell everyone he was at a very important meeting and wasn't taking calls and experiment with online typing speed calculators.

"Angharad's coming up at ten," Eve says. "Are you planning to shower beforehand? You smell of Ian's very expensive limited edition rum which—by the way—you're going to have to pay for."

Mallory's keeping-the-convict-fed budget probably doesn't stretch as far as expensive rum. Q finishes his coffee and stands up to read Eve's emails over her shoulder as the office door opens and a man who must be military enters.

"I'm sorry," Eve says, with a practiced smile. "M is not currently in the office, do you have a meeting appointment?"

The man turns his head to gesture something through the door and then he's being followed in by another four men, all with the same perfectly straight bearing and bulges under their jackets that are unmistakably handguns. To have got this far, they must have had some kind of ID—Eve's office isn't soundproof, they would have heard anyone shooting their way in.

"I'm sorry," Eve says, more firmly, standing up so Q is pushed slightly behind her. "Please state your name and the purpose of your visit."

"That one," the leader says, pointing directly at Q.

Ryan, Q realises with a jolt. He must have given up on cryptic messages and gone directly to all-out war. The men are moving forward, spreading out to corner Eve and Q between the wall and the desk. A few are going for pistols, the others drawing police batons and rolling their shoulders.

It doesn't take much to get Q and Eve trapped behind the desk and it would be the perfect strategy except that Eve is sliding off her stiletto heels and stepping slight to the side so the chair is no longer in the way.

Her fist catches the first man in the jaw when he's too busy looking at Q. On the rebound she catches his gun wrist, twisting so the gun falls to the floor and then switching her hip so he's thrown bodily across the desk and into one of his colleagues.

There's one other man with his gun raised, but as Eve tears the side of her skirt open with a front kick to a man's chin, his hand keeps shifting as he tries to get a clear shot.

Q raises one arm over his head and clicks, pointing his index finger directly at the man. A dart fires out of the centre of the clock and into the side of his neck. He goes down.

There are two men left, coming at them over the desk. Eve is dealing with the closest—twisting his arm up with an audible crack and catching the side of his cheek with the heel of her foot.

Q scrambles at his jumper and the final man is half a foot from the desk when Q's gun is up and in his face. It's too close range to miss, and the man goes still.

Eve twists the broken arm back on itself so the gun the man is still holding is pointed at the leader in the doorway. Her skirt falls back around her legs, the split running neatly up the side like a slightly frayed design feature. "I'm sorry," she says, holding the pistol perfectly steady. "But I'm going to need to see some identification."

The leader raises both hands. "I'm here under orders from Her Majesty's Government to take the convict back into custody. M has been informed."

"Convict?" Eve says, releasing the gun for a moment to slam the heel of her palm into the forehead of the man that Q had forgotten to keep an eye on for an instant and sending him tumbling off the back of the desk and onto the floor. "What are you talking about?"

"It's classified information, Ma'am."

"I am M's second in command, there is no classified information."

"With all due respect, Ma'am, yes there is."

Eve holds the gun steady for a moment, looking him up and down, then reaches into her pocket and pulls out a smartphone, tossing it sideways. Q nearly fumbles the catch, but manages to grab it between two fingers before it can fall to the floor. "Call M."

"There's no need." The door to the office is pushed open and Mallory steps in, scanning the office quickly to take in the assortment of men either unconscious or smart enough to stay down. "I'm here." He turns to the soldier who doesn't take his eyes off Eve's gun. "You can tell your commanding officer than in future I would like more than ten minutes warning that a strike team is being sent to apprehend my quartermaster."

Q moves a little further away from the soldiers, sliding Eve's phone behind his back.

"They burst in," Eve says. "No identification, no introductions."

Mallory nods. "And I don't think they'll be doing it again in a hurry. Stand down, agent."

Eve seems to consider the order for a long moment, but eventually lowers the barrel of the gun a little. "With all due respect, sir. What the hell is going on?"

"I'm ordered to take RS1771 into custody," says the man, looking away from the lowered gun and at Q. "As per the agreement you made with my employer. One more chance."

Mallory looks over at Q as well, drags a hand through his hair like he wishes he was anywhere else. "You've been called to a hearing to discuss your return to prison." He turns back to the soldier. "I will escort my agent to the hearing. Your services are—as I have just finished informing your employer—not required."

Eve turns her head a little to the side. "Back to prison?" she hisses to Q.

Q inches back further, finding his eyes suddenly drawn to her gun. "It's a long story."

"With all due respect, sir, he has proven more than a match for trained personnel in the past."

Q has to duck to the side as Mallory throws something across the room and Eve catches it with double-0 trained reflexes. The pair of handcuffs catch the light from the window.

For an instant Q thinks that the fall is only a couple of floors and he might even survive it.

"Moneypenny," Mallory says, and then Eve is rolling her eyes and tugging Q's arms behind him to snap the cuffs on his wrists. She doesn't do them tight enough, but the feel of the metal is enough to make him shudder.

Eve took the shot that could have killed Bond. Would she kill Q if she was told to? If she wouldn't, Bond probably would.

"He's handcuffed. Miss Moneypenny will accompany us to the courtroom. I feel like that will be sufficient security, don't you?" He raises one eyebrow, looking pointedly at the assorted bodies on the floor.

The soldier knows when he's beaten, snapping to attention with a sharp salute. "Sir."

"You may return to the court and inform them that we will be along shortly." He walks past, beckoning Eve and Q to follow him into his office. His foot catches on one the man with the hypodermic dart from the clock still sticking out of his neck. "And send someone in to clean up this mess on your way out. Q, Eve, with me."

*

Mallory's office chairs are even less comfortable with both hands cuffed behind your back. Q ends up sitting hunched forwards, his hands balled into fists at the small of his back as M places an iPad on the table and hits play.

There's a crackle of static, and then: "Hi, you've reached Romeo. I'm travelling to Quebec this week, and cannot come to the phone. Please leave any messages after the beep."

*Beep*

"So I didn't run," Q's voice says through the tinny speaker. "Are you going to tell me what the game is?"

Eve is frowning at it, Mallory is leaning back in his desk chair with his arms folded and his eyes fixed on Q. He lets the silence drag on for far longer than it should before he speaks. "I told you that I could only protect you if you trusted me." He picks up the tiny recording device. "Do you know how dangerous the government has you listed as? The general tone of your arrest report was primarily relief that you decided to focus on money and not missiles. You have been walking on hair's breadth wire since you got out of prison and this is what you do with it."

Q swallows, staring down at the recording device in M's hands. "It was a public phone. How did you even—"

"You don't think it's suspicious that you leave your flat in the middle of the night, travel halfway across town to a payphone and stay there for half an hour." He flips the device back over so Q can see a map and a list of times. "You call a number that you told no one about, you left a message and then you disappeared into the underground for nearly twice as long as your journey home should have taken."

Q's stomach sinks down to his toes as he remembers getting halfway to MI6 on the tube before realising he was going the wrong way. "It wasn't like—"

"You aren't even allowed to go underground. The terms were clear, you have to be within GPS range at all times. I had to practically beg for you to get a second chance."

Q leaps on it like a lifeline. "And you did. You must have. That call was over a week ago, and I haven't done anything since."

Mallory places the iPad back on the table, swiping back and pressing play again. This time the voices are much fainter, like a phone speaker being picked up by a small office bug.

"Hi you've reached Romeo," says Ryan's voice, sending Q's stomach further down through the floor. "I had a great time in Quebec. Not ready to leave yet though. I think I'll hang out some more at the golf course, they have the best whiskey. Call the hotel if you need me urgently. Otherwise, you know what to do at the beep."

There's the crash of the phone falling to the floor and then Q's voice. "What do you want from me?"

Mallory reaches forward to stop the recording. Q can't tear his eyes away from the iPad, from his own voice, from how fucking stupid he was.

"You know every office in the building is bugged," Mallory says. "Your own team monitor everything that comes through the system. Interestingly enough, two days ago they added the NATO phonetic alphabet to the list of tracked phrases." He scrolls through a transcript of the conversation. "I had a call from Milly last night. She had to report it. I'm sure by now the rest of Q branch have done the maths. I got two resignations in my inbox this morning."

"Yeah," Q says. "Well, maybe next time you won't have people work with their enemies without telling them about it."

Eve's head lifts for the first time. "RS1771," she says, like it's just sinking in. "I knew I recognised it. The crime report you and Angharad have been going over."

Q doesn't look at her. Doesn't want to see her face. "Yeah."

"So that's what you did, you stole money?"

Since he couldn't deny it in court, there doesn't seem to be a lot of point denying it now. "We stole a lot of money."

"And you set up innocents to take the fall," Mallory says, in the same tone as when he was telling Q that the only non-innocent in his arrest was him. "Do you know how many good people went to prison because of you?"

"Six," Q says.

Mallory's frown deepens. "The report listed nine."

Q shrugs. "The other three might not have embezzled money, but they weren't innocent and they weren't good people." The first three. Back when they had almost been principled, and Ryan hadn't been spending the stolen money at every opportunity.

After a while everything fell by the wayside. Everything except money and more of it.

"So what's Ryan's plan this time?" Eve asks. "Money again?"

Q shakes his head. "I don't know. I know you have the phone calls and it looks bad, but I don't know anything. It's an old phone number, I only wanted to see. I'm not working with him."

Mallory picks up the iPad, flicking through it. "Do you have any evidence for that? Because I can see this being a very short trial. You haven't made a lot of friends in high levels of Government." He sighs, closing the cover on the iPad and running a hand through his hair. "When I got this job, the first thing they told me was I could have you send back to prison in a heartbeat if I wanted to. No one supported M when she pulled you out of there. I put my trust in you."

Q looks down at the desk, trying to think of something—anything. "There's more to this."

"What more?" Mallory says. "Give me anything, Q. Anything I can work with. Because right now I have your word that you and Romeo used these words as a code to communicate with each other, I have two phone messages clearly connected, I have all the evidence I need that the two of you are working together, it doesn't take a genius."

"No," Q says, his eyes fixed on the desk. "No, I guess not."

Mallory sighs, raising his head to nod at Eve. "You'll come quietly to the courthouse, where you'll be put into protective custody until they can get your trial together. You're supposed to be the genius, Q. Give me something I can use."

*

The court building is all British Government, old brick walls with griffins leering from the parapets and chimneys running up through rooms that haven't seen a fire in decades. They can't put Q through the metal detector—even with the cuffs temporarily removed, the tracker in his hip is enough to set the machines off—but he's lead behind a screen and strip searched, dressed again in standard-issue grey prison clothes.

He closes his eyes, like he can shut it all out. Blocks out thoughts of it's all happening again by repeating over and over Golf, whiskey, hotel. GWH. There's something there.

There has to be.

You don't have to be a genius to figure it out.

The room they shut him in is smaller than the police cells he was detained in last time. There's one guard on duty tapping idly through CCTV footage and drinking coffee. M goes over to give instructions while Eve pushes Q towards the cell. "I hope you have a plan," she says.

"I was mostly just hoping you had one," Q says, trying to sound flippant and not quite succeeding. "Maybe we could shoot our way out of here, cut my tracker out and retire to a beach in Miami. The CIA like you, right?"

"They took my gun."

"Drat, mine too." He manages a grin, just about. "I guess I'll have to pull something incredible out of my arse."

Eve grinned back, although if Q's was as visibly forced as hers is they're both screwed. "I thought they searched your—"

"Eve," M says, turning towards them and leaving the guard sitting upright—far more alert than he was two minutes ago. "We have to move."

Eve clasps Q's hand briefly, a soft touch of reassurance only slightly improved by the hairpin she slips into Q's palm. "In case of emergency."

She probably wouldn't shoot him, if asked. It took her at least three days to memorize his Starbucks order, and she's the kind of person who'd hate to waste the effort.

Q slips the pin up his sleeve and sits down on the fold out bench as far away from the bucket/bathroom as he can get.

He wonders if Angaharad knows the truth yet. If Richard is already throwing Q's scrabble mug in the bin. They won't let him back, not even if miracles happen and he gets back to the vague facsimile of freedom that he had before.

He takes back everything he said about the M25 being too small. This cell is too small, the spaces inside his head are too small. The M25 is fucking magnificent.

Golf, Whiskey, Hotel. What connects the three, aside from every country club in England.

Come on, Q. Figure it out.

*

He's been in the cell less than an hour when the door opens and another police man comes in, protective vest done up tight over his chest and a chin in need of about three good shaves. He flashes an ID badge by the gates and they bleep to let him in, the cop on duty raising his head to share an idle nod.

"RS1771?" The new guy says, only intonation betraying that it's a question. Q hunches a little further down on his bench as the guard grunts and nods in the direction of Q's cell. The man's badge works on the cell lock, and he grabs Q's arm roughly to drag him out. He doesn't look Q in the eye, barely glances at his face at all, so the only impression Q has of him is beard and hipster glasses.

Not only hipster glasses but, judging by the thinness of the lenses, hipster glasses that aren't actually doing anything for the man's vision.

He pushes Q in front of him and says, "Walk."

Q slides the hairpin from his sleeve and palms it, hiding the movement with a stumble through the doorway. He wonders when would be a good point to make a break for it, if he can undo the cuffs without the guard noticing he could crouch down to 'do up a shoelace' and knock the guy's head against a wall.

He would be unconscious before he could stop to realise that Q's shoes didn't even have laces. Then Q would just have to perform surgery on his own hip, run... somewhere and try to foil Ryan's evil plan without any kind of technology, information or help and in such a way that it would somehow prove him innocent of a crime that he did, actually, commit.

Okay, so the plan needs more work. The guard knocks his left arm as they approached a junction and Q turns obediently down a side corridor. The area is empty, with a fire escape three quarters of the way down. He can see one camera at the end of the route, with some obvious blindspots, but can't tell if there's a camera behind without alerting the guard that he's up to something.

He slows down a little, forcing the guard to move closer so that it's harder for him to get a clear line of sight of the cuffs, and flicks the hairpin around so it passes with a light toss from the palm of his hand to his fingers. It's a move he's done a thousand times before, picking locks was complicated until it became second nature so they got in the habit of practising. Ryan laughed the first time he had Q cuffed to the headboard and halfway through the locks clicked, the cuffs fell to the floor and Q was rolling on top of him, grinning with two safety pins between his teeth.

He's done this move a thousand times, it's as natural to him as breathing and - he drops the hairpin on the floor.

Q has read a lot of books and seen the phrase 'quiet enough to hear a pin drop' so often that it's lost all meaning but it always seemed like it would just be another pointless metaphor.

The hairpin lands on the tiles with a soft clink.

"Oops?" says the guard, in a darkly amused tone that seems almost familiar.

Q closes his eyes, thinks if he bends down to get it, I kick him in the head and run, and forces a light tone. "Would you believe that it fell out of my hair?"

"I don't think so." The guard laughs, a light sound that definitely sounds more familiar than it—no. No way. Q turns on the spot as the guard bends down to pick up the hairpin, passing it between his fingers and looking up over probably-ironic hipster glasses to grin at Q. "As much as your hair may need it," says Ryan, standing up fully and grabbing Q's arm to turn him around. "Let me help you with that."

There's a press of something against Q's wrist, something that sticks to his skin and he twists his wrist a little to try and get it off, but the cuffs are still there and if he could pull free, he would've done it hours ago. "What's that?"

"Hmm?" Ryan says, sliding the hairpin into the handcuff lock. "Oh, unlike you I did take advantage of MI6 looking the other way. I slipped into your old Q-branch, picked up a few things." His thumb presses lightly against the patch. "Stick-on injection pads. I can't believe no one thought of it before, but I suppose you always were the genius."

They were still in testing, but having promising results. He'd made a few, mostly for agents in the field—painkillers, quick bursts of adrenalin—but then since he'd been there he threw together a few for the bad guys as well.

He can already feel a sluggish tiredness spreading through his arm. "Are you kidnapping me, or rescuing me?"

Ryan laughs, catching Q as he slumps backwards and the handcuffs fall from his wrists onto the floor. "Well," he says lightly. "That really all depends on which side you're on."

*

His mouth is dry and his head aches and he would to go back to sleep for another decade or so if it was possible to get comfortable while tied to a chair.

It's not. The chair is metal, bars digging uncomfortably into his back, and the cable ties are pulled too tight around his wrists. He wonders how much compensation he'll get if he loses the use of his fingers thanks to blood loss. Maybe if he had insurance, or if he was on an actual mission.

They'll probably just throw him back in prison.

"What is it they're calling you now?" Ryan asks, stepping into Q's line of sight. The beard, glasses and guard uniform have all gone. He looks a little older, his eyes a little tighter and his hair a little shorter, but mostly the same. "Quartermaster? It's a little dry, don't you think?"

If Q wasn't cable-tied to a chair, he'd probably stand up and punch Ryan in the face. This is definitely looking more like a kidnap than a rescue. He swallows to get some moisture in his throat. "What was it like spending nine months in prison as Robert Carter. It hasn't got quite your usual flare. Did they not believe you were David Beckham?"

Ryan laughs and picks up a Burger King cup from a table, holding the straw up to Q's mouth. There are countless drugs that have no flavour in water, and probably more that are indiscernible in lemonade but since he's just woken up from the last time he was drugged, he's willing to bet Ryan wants him conscious for a while.

Also he's really thirsty.

"Well," Ryan says. "I'm not the one who spent three years on my knees as—what was it—RS1771."

Q can feel his nerve endings coming back online. He's almost glad his fingers are numb already because everywhere else aches. There are cable ties tight around his wrists and ankles, the clothes he's wearing instead of the prison jumpsuit—jeans and a generic jumper—are too loose, like they were bought to fit the guy who went into prison instead of the one who came out. "That's not what they called me when I was on my knees."

His voice is steady—steadier than it's been in a long time, in fact. Is it possible to go through panic and come out the other side? Or maybe he can only pretend like everything's okay when 60% of his brain is still offline.

Ryan laughs again. Even that's different, there's no carelessness to it. Like every move he makes has been planned three months in advance.

"So," Q says. He wonders how long it's been since he was drugged, how long it'll take the Government to realise he's not locked in their cell anymore. Will Mallory send someone straight away, or give Q time to get himself killed first? Will the Government even let Mallory take charge, or will they just send an agent to shoot them both and save a whole lot of trouble? "You're working with psychopathic criminals now? That's new."

Ryan takes a drink from Q's straw. It's probably not drugged then, although you never know with Burger King. "I don't know, you were never particularly empathetic. I will admit you're better looking."

"Well if you didn't admit that, I would be worrying you'd gone blind." Q rolls his head from one side to the other. The room is dark, lit by a few halogen strip-lights that have seen better days. The walls are grey concrete with noticeable water stains in the corners, no windows, no henchmen. "You're working alone?"

Ryan's smile flickers for an instant. "Currently," he says, following Q's gaze to the torn up shreds of posters on a distant wall. "I find it a little hard to trust people, after that time you betrayed me."

"That's funny. I remember it the other way round. You in the witness stand, me sentenced to the rest of my life in hell. I must have missed the part where I did that to myself to give you nine months of minimum security and a mildly stern telling off." He gives Ryan his best smile, flexing his fingers under the cable ties to try and restore some circulation.

Ryan shakes his head. "You betrayed me first. How much did you keep from me? How many more accounts were there? If you had just been straight with me from the start about how much there was and where, I could have got off with nothing."

"Am I supposed to feel bad about that?"

Ryan's foot lashes out, and the chair skids a few feet across the floor. "I would've got you out," he says. "You should've trusted me."

Q swallows, thinking back to the black screen and the white text scrolling across it. "I didn't run."

Ryan turns to look at him, with a half smile that could almost be genuine. "You could've, though."

A shiver runs through him, and it takes Q a moment to realise that it's because the whole room is shaking, a sound like a wind tunnel bearing down on them, close, then passing like a long breath out. Q tilts his head to look up at the low ceiling, the concrete walls, the lack of windows. "This is part of the underground."

Ryan raises one eyebrow—you only just figured that out? "Who do you think gave Silva the map? You can stop worrying about MI6 following you here," He pats his hip with one hand. "As many tourists have found to their dismay, there's no signal this far down."

Q shifts a little, tugging at his wrists in case the ties have miraculously loosened or there's a sharp edge on the chair that he missed earlier. "So is this where you describe your evil plan to me in great detail, and then kill me in some ludicrously overcomplicated way?" He twists his head to look at the walls. "Is a train about to come crashing into me?"

Ryan laughs at that, picking up the lemonade cup so he can sit on the table and swing his legs. "That was all Silva's plan, he was really into dramatics. I'm a far more pragmatic person." He reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a swiss army knife. "If I was going to kill you, I'd do it the traditional way."

Q tries to inch his chair back, but it's mostly ineffectual since his toes can't reach the floor. "I liked the sound of that 'if'. You should stick with it, it'll take you places."

Ryan grins, but puts the knife away. "You're going to cut your own arms open if you keep pulling on those. Don't MI6 train their agents for kidnap situations, or do they save that kind of information for the ones they don't plan to lock back up as soon as they stop being useful?"

If Ryan could stop voicing every single though that's been going through Q's head since he was brought into the service of the British Government, that would be great.

"Do you ever wonder if maybe this is part of your punishment? A little taste of freedom, a few months, and then right back in for the last ten year stretch constantly wondering what you did wrong that landed you back in there. This trial, the suits deciding to lock you back up. It was always going to happen, it was only a matter of time."

"Lucky that I have you here to rescue me."

Ryan's smile dies a little, one hand reaching out to brush against Q's hair. "You should've run."

There's a faint beeping from a speaker somewhere behind Q's chair and Ryan looks up, hand moving from Q's hair directly to the knife in his pocket. He glances at his watch as he does so, frowning as though something's not quite going according to plan. "That would be my cue." He slides off the table, picks up a laptop bag from the floor and walks around behind Q. "It was good to see you again. Nice to know you haven't changed."

Q tries to twist in his chair to see. The laptop is still beeping, slow and regular, like a countdown. "Ryan, what's going on?"

There's the thud of the laptop being closed and the beeping cuts off. "Look me up when they let you out of prison, if we're not both dead by then."

Q twists so hard the chair falls over and he can see Ryan sliding the bag strap over one shoulder and just past him, a tunnel leading off into the distance. "I thought you said they couldn't find me."

"I said they couldn't track you. I think they'll put more effort into finding you though, now they know for certain that you're colluding with the enemy. Since you left the holding cell with him and all."

"What is this supposed to achieve? Is it revenge, you want me locked up forever? What, you couldn't handle nine months in prison? You're blaming me because you were let off ridiculously lightly for your crimes?"

Ryan pauses on his way to the tunnel, turning back with one hand on the strap of the bag. "You really don't know, do you? Makes sense." He blows a kiss in Q's direction, and tosses the penknife onto the floor just out of reach of one of Q's hands. "I'd say you have about five minutes, if you wanted to run."

He steps into the tunnel and within moments is swallowed up by the darkness.

*

*

Q swears as loudly as he can, and starts shifting inch by agonising inch across the floor until his fingertips can scramble at the knife.

He's barely got the blade open when he hears the thud of someone jogging close—five fucking minutes his arse—and scrambles to twist it, sawing back and forth across the cable-tie. "Come on, come on, come on."

The tie snaps and he pulls his wrist up, flexing his fingers to try and restore circulation even as he turns the knife on his second arm. The footsteps have faded, like someone is trying to sneak up.

"It's only me," Q shouts. "The actual criminal ran off, though I'm sure you'll want to arrest me before I can catch him."

"If I arrested you every time I wanted to, neither of us would get any work done." Bond walks into the light, sliding his gun back into his holster as his eyes scan the empty room to take in the Burger King cup and Q lying on the floor still seventy-five percent tied to a chair. He raises one eyebrow at Q, and lifts a hand to an earpiece. "He's here, right where you said. No sign of your other guy, but unless Q can tie himself to a chair I expect he just scarpered." He listens for a moment, while Q continues sawing at a slightly less frantic rate. "How long did we miss him by?"

Q shrugs. "A couple of minutes, maybe."

"A couple of minutes," Bond says, to whoever's listening in. "Does the map show any way out of here other than the way I came in? He didn't pass me, there must be tunnels that it doesn't show."

Q gets his second arm free and starts on his ankles, half listening to Bond talking about surface CCTV and possibly going to explore the tunnel he'd entered by. "I'm fine," Q says. "In case you were interested. I mean, there's little to no feeling in my toes and I might be psychologically scarred for life but I'm sure that wouldn't matter since they're just going to lock me up again." He says it, and then pauses because Bond is still technically an MI6 agent, despite the whole being-suspended thing.

Aside from one deep meaningful conversation in the National Gallery and another deep meaningful conversation in the rain outside MI6, Q's not sure he's ever given Bond a whole lot of thought. Bond probably doesn't know anyone's Starbucks order, and he used to have the best training record of anyone—until his shoulder fucked everything up. Q tries to remember what Bond's personnel file said about the likelihood of him obeying an order to arrest a guy who wasn't exactly a friend but could be called an acquaintance. "Are you here to lock me up again?"

"What did you steal?"

"About ten billion."

Bond lets out a low whistle, and Q feels irrationally proud that he actually managed to impress James fucking Bond. "How long's your sentence?"

"Fifteen years, give or take." He stands up and picks up the Burger King cup. All that's left seems to be ice and water, but he drinks some of it anyway, keeping the knife held tight in his other hand. "Are you here to take me back to prison?"

"No." He unclips the earpiece and tosses it across the room to Q, who almost has to drop his cup to catch it. "Eve messaged Q-branch with the code for a tracking device, which someone had helpfully saved into her iPhone." Q smiles faintly, remembering standing behind Eve's bench and typing the code he memorized the first time he hacked his own files—just in case. "They needed someone to come find out what kind of trouble you'd got into this time."

"Q-branch hate me," Q says, as he clips the earpiece onto his ear.

"Wow," says Angharad dryly. "Maybe we'll start, if that's the kind of thanks we get."

The cup splashed ice and water all over the cheap canvas shoes that Ryan must have provided. "Angie?"

"It's not like anyone else could break into the shot up remains of a cheap-ass harddrive and dig through the remnants of a virus to find a complete map of underground tunnels, and then pick out the one disused room that still has some cabling installed so an enterprising person could rig themselves in to control—say—a train, crashing through a wall." She always grins when she's figured something out, and Q can hear the same smile in her voice. "It was near enough to where your tracker signal vanished. I put two and two together and sent Bond to find you."

Q nods, even though she can't see. He should say thank you and move on, maybe stab Bond in the ruined shoulder and make a break for it. "You do know that I—I mean you know who I—"

"Do I know that you're the criminal I worked to bring down over three years ago? Yes."

"Is Bond going to turn me over to the Government?"

"That depends. Apparently three years ago we were all tricked by some asshole who then got off without enough of a prison sentence and went to China to assist in an elaborate attack on MI6 that resulted in a lot of people dying. If you can help us catch him, we might just take you back."

"Mallory said two people already resigned. How do you know no one else will?"

"You know what they say. Keep your friends close, and your enemies at the next desk over." She hesitates for a moment. "I have to go. I'll keep the Government hacks off your trail as long as I can, but Q—"

"Angharad?"

"If you don't catch him, and you don't have enough evidence to put him away, there won't be anything any of us can do. So don't fuck up."

Q can't help smiling a little. "Yes, Ma'am," he says, and the connection cuts off on her laughing. He takes the earpiece off and throws it back to Bond. "We have a criminal to catch."

Bond grins, like his world has just got a whole lot simpler. "Yes."

"We have to catch one of the most skilled hackers in England. With no idea where he is or where he's going or what his plan is beyond getting me back in prison. And we have to do this with the entirety of the British Government chasing after us."

"Should be fun." Bond says. "As long as they can't tell exactly where we are at any time." He lifts up the earpiece to look closer at it. "How come this works underground, but the tracker they put on you doesn't? Did this other criminal take your tracker off?"

"Because the earpiece was made by me, and is therefore a work of genius, but the tracking chip was built by the British and is therefore cheap and moderately useless." He wipes the blade of the penknife on his sleeve to get rid of the dust from the cable ties. "As for my tracker, it's not the kind of thing that you can just take off. How steady are your hands? Your shoulder's healed, right?"

Bond takes a step closer as Q pulls up his shirt. "Steady enough." His fingers trace across Q's hip, finding the scar and below it the rectangular shard of metal buried deep under the skin. "Is that legal?"

"It got me out of prison," Q says. "So I didn't ask. I was under anaesthetic when it went in."

"Well," Bond says. "We don't have anaesthetic, and it's coming out."

Q closes his hands on the table as the blade presses against his skin. "I trust you."

"Really?"

"Not even slightly. Get on with it."

*

It feels like it must be far deeper than the original wound, although maybe that's because the original cut had three stitches and painkillers on a drip, not Bond's undershirt tied tightly around Q's hips to soak up blood and the offer of a handful of prescription pills that Bond takes for his shoulder.

"We need to get out of here," Bond says, keeping pressure on the wound while Q turns the small silver device over between his fingers. It looks much bigger when it's not in his body, about an inch long and half an inch wide. "I'm sure the suits have their own maps of these tunnels, they'll figure this place out."

"Right." Q pushes Bond's hand away and presses his own palm in its place. The shirt feels uncomfortably warm, and also damp in a way that makes Q really not want to look down. "We should get above ground. I need food and alcohol."

"Sure," Bond says, in a tone that Q is definitely going to investigate after he's had—oh—three big macs and eight cans of coke. "This way, move out."

Q spares a moment for a last look around the room, but if Ryan has left any incriminating evidence, it's going to be up to the next team to find it. "If we could stop at a hospital, that would be awesome. And drop your gun, they can track it."

Bond hands him another painkiller and—more reluctantly—pulls out his coded handgun and places it carefully on the ground. "As soon as you're cleared, you're coming back to pick that up. What does your friend want?"

"He's not my friend, he's a dick." Somehow Bond's arm is around his waist, which is probably good because Q's legs are not doing particularly well at the walking thing, and definitely not the walking quickly. "I slept with him. A lot. And he slept with other people, and we had this flat—I guess it was unusual. I don't know, you keep flirting with Moneypenny so at least my love life's better than yours."

"Any time you want to fall unconscious," Bond says. "Feel free."

"I thought maybe he missed me," Q says, finding he can just about limp along with bond if he presses so hard on his side that he forgets about the pain in his feet. "But if you miss somebody you don't try to get them back into prison."

"Maybe he didn't know about the tracker, he just ran when he heard me coming. The laptop could have been hooked up to a security device in the tunnel."

"The Government thinks I walked out with him. I guess in a way I did, before he drugged me. So they think he rescued me and we went down to the tunnels and when he heard me coming he tied me to a chair and left. Then I would say that I was kidnapped, the Government would say 'yeah right' and I'd be locked up again."

"He was relying on them not trusting you?"

"They haven't trusted me since M got me out of prison. My laptop's bugged, I'm not allowed to turn off my mobile phone, they planted a GPS tracking device in my hip. If there's the slightest doubt, they'll err on the side of not trusting me. So what does Ryan gain from me being locked up? Does he have a bargain with someone in the prison? Is all this really just a revenge stunt?"

"We have to climb a ladder," Bond says. "Can you do it?"

The ladder in question is more a series of metal rungs attached to the wall, and starting around head height. "Do I have a choice?"

Bond shrugs. "You could go back to prison."

"I'll climb the ladder."

*

Bond heaves the manhole cover open with his shoulder, and Q almost falls off the ladder when the sunlight hits him full in the face. The room with Ryan had seemed positively bright, lit by a single old bulb, and the tunnels had been dim with just enough light to see Bond in front of him and not enough to see the red seeping into the bottom of his shirt. Actual daylight, therefore, was pretty much blinding.

"Ow," Q says pointedly.

"Right," Bond says, climbing out then reaching down to pull Q up through the hole. "A three inch deep hole in your side, limited blood flow to your fingers and probably your toes, but it's the sunlight that hurts."

"Everything hurts," Q says, sitting on a dustbin while Bond returns the metal cover to the hole. "And I need coffee."

"Yeah," Bond says, kicking the cover the last two inches and standing up. "That's another problem we have. I don't have any cash, and I have a feeling that MI6 will be able to track all the credit cards that they issued to me."

"I might just curl up in this alley and die of blood loss," Q says. "That sounds nice. Very peaceful. Ryan can take over the world and someone can buy Angharad a book about car repair, and really, everything will be simpler." He slides off the bin. "We need to find a bank. Give me your jacket."

"Are we going to rob it?" Bond asks, falling into step behind him.

"No," Q says, taking the jacket and pulling it on—doing it up down the front so that the bloodstained shirts are hidden beneath black fabric. "I'm going to re-activate an old account." He pauses thoughtfully. "The money will be stolen though, if that'll make you happy."

Bond steps forward to catch him as he stumbles stepping forward. "Wasn't the point of locking you up that they got the money back?"

Q doesn't shrug because it hurts, but he does grin. "You think I'd let them find everything? I'm good at keeping secrets."

"Yeah," Bond says, shifting his grip on Q's waist. "I'm getting that impression."

*

Bond stitches Q's hip in the disabled toilets at Starbucks with a sewing needle, white cotton thread and a saucer full of antiseptic while Q looks anywhere but the bloody mess of his side. He had to wait on the curb while Bond went in to buy alcohol, and Bond ended up buying Scotch which was disgusting but Q drank it anyway until he felt like being stabbed repeatedly with a needle couldn't hurt that much.

It turned out he was wrong, but Bond was strong enough to hold him still long enough to put in five stitches along the wound and bandage it up with gauze and about a metre of micropore tape.

"I need more alcohol," Q says, when he's stopped twitching enough that Bond lets him sit up. "A lot more. All the bottle kind of more."

"I thought you needed to think," Bond says, tipping the antiseptic down the toilet and putting the bottle, the leftover tape and the needle and thread back in the superdrug bag.

"Yes, hence the alcohol." He grabs the bottle off the sink while Bond is distracted wiping blood off the taps and takes a long gulp. "This is horrible. Why would you buy whisky? Who even drinks whisky?"

"When you turn eighteen you can buy your own drinks." He pushes Q off the toilet seat and flushes all the evidence of the surgery away. "Find a table and get the laptop set up, don't scratch your stitches." Bond steals the bottle back, dropping it into the plastic bag with the medical supplies and passing Q the second CEX laptop.

This one's a Dell. Q shifts it under his arm as Bond leaves the toilet and limps out after him. The woman waiting in line gives them a dirty look, which turns confused when she glimpses the laptop.

Q gives her his best two guys coming out a bathroom with drugstore bag and laptop, nothing to see here smile. He keeps his head turned away from the security cameras, finds a table in a back corner within reach of a socket and opens the computer.

His side itches. The laptop asks him for a name. He's on the run from the police, MI6 and the second most dangerous cyber-criminal in London.

Fortunately, he is the most dangerous. He stretches out his fingers, runs them once across the keyboard, and starts to hack Windows.

He's got the Starbucks surveillance cameras, a map of all local CCTV and the internet running when Bond returns with two mugs and a chocolate caramel slice. "You need to eat," he says, pushing the plate and a mug in Q's direction.

Q picks it up and takes a sip. He just about resists the urge to spit it out again. "What is this?"

"Tea," Bond says. "I thought you liked tea."

"Does anyone like Starbucks tea?" Q looks down at the mug. "You don't know my Starbucks order."

"I'm so sorry," Bond deadpans.

Q waves to shut him up. "You don't know my Starbucks order, your career doesn't ride on me turning out to be good, we've barely had three civil conversations." He looks up to meet Bond's eyes. "What are you doing here?"

Bond looks back at him, sure and confident. Q used to think it was a mask to hide the insecurities that Bond must have, but now he wonders if maybe Bond doesn't care enough to be insecure.

If Bond liked being dead too much to care if he goes permanently next time. "I told you," Bond says, reaching forward and switching his mug for Q's. "I know what it's like to be betrayed."

Oh. It's funny because Q had half forgotten that conversation ever happened. Bond knows what it's like to be betrayed, to go to prison, to go on the run.

"And Moneypenny's girlfriend got tired of me hanging around the office," Bond says, like they can go from serious to joking in the blink of an eye. "So I had some time on my hands."

Bond's drink is coffee, a little too black and lacking in caramel-shots for Q's liking, but it'll do. "I thought they'd call all the double-0s in to deal with the case."

Bond grins at him. "I'm suspended, remember? If I was still an agent, I might've had to report that you just reactivated a bank account with half a million pounds of credit." He raises one eyebrow. "The two billion that they could never track down?"

Q tries not to smile too obviously, keeping his head down and focused on the screen as he brings up a few more windows. "So I didn't tell Ryan about everything. He mostly ran security, keeping us hidden. He wouldn't have known about the extra until he promised to give them everything in his statement and found he couldn't."

"So he's constructed all of this to put you back in prison for—what—revenge?"

It almost makes sense, the whole 'revenge' storyline. Ryan goes to prison for nine months, gets out still bitter at his former partner. He goes to China, works his way up through the ranks until he gets put in touch with a man called Silva who wants vengeance on MI6.

At which point he distracts the whole of MI6, giving Q the perfect opportunity to run. Was Q supposed to run and be caught later?

The government was always going to lock him back up eventually. You only trust the criminal with the keys to the kingdom for so long.

"The messages he left for you, is there some kind of code in them? Maybe the Government's right, he's trying to get you out. Reunite the dream team. You said yourself that the messages were full of code words the two of you used to use. It doesn't take a genius."

It doesn't take a genius to figure it out. It doesn't take a genius to know that those phone messages were meant for Q—they literally had the word quebec in them. If it's a code, it's the least subtle code in history. "But I am a genius."

"What?"

"I am a genius. If the messages were meant for me, you would have to be a genius to figure them out. The messages are for everyone else, they're coded to send everyone on a wild goose chase after—" Q trails off, staring at his screen with the little flashing lights of CCTV cameras, the list of names of agents that MI6 have already mobilised to send after him and the CIA's internal server that he opened out of long habit and hacked into without really thinking about it, bypassing his own security systems because—hell—he can do that in his sleep. "Shit."

"What?" Bond says again.

He can hack the CIA in his sleep, he can hack his own security in his sleep because that's why it's his security. The CIA's back doors have back doors and he's been in and out every day since he got back from prison. The CIA, the FBI, it's all a matter of practice. "Were you in Moneypenny's office last Sunday morning?"

"The Sunday just gone?"

"The one before that." Q opens another window, clicks through to the FBI's secure servers. "She got a phone call from a man called Brian at the FBI, then two days later a call from the CIA."

"I was there for the CIA," Bond says. "They were saying something about a hacker flagging some security programs that shouldn't have been on the network. They'd only just found the alerts."

Q almost wants to laugh. Or maybe cry. "He's pulling a Die Hard Three."

It's nice to know that all of this being kidnapped, chased across London and thrown in jail isn't at all personal. Nice, but also somehow worse than the idea of revenge.

"Is this the painkillers or the whisky talking?" Bond says. "Should I be confiscating the laptop?"

"Die Hard Three," Q says. "A man starts calling this one cop, sending him on all kinds of random quests all over New York or he'll blow shit up. He says he's got a bomb in a school, every cop in the city is searching schools. He says this one cop is important, everyone's falling over themselves so he can complete the quests."

"What does this have to do with you going back to prison?"

Q almost expects the keyboard to start coming apart under his hands, the speed he's typing. "The whole time this was going on, with every cop looking the other way, the villain steals three truck-loads of gold from the federal bank of America." He turns the screen to show Bond the US Government spending records. "Ryan's doing the same thing we did last time, only this time he's targeting the USA."

*

"How much is he going to take?"

Q shrugs. "We skimmed ten billion off a seven hundred billion budget. US spending is somewhere in the trillions, I'll let you do the maths." The computer doesn't have enough power to shore up additional defences on the budget systems. Theoretically he could write a virus to control ten thousand computers and turn them all towards his goal but that would take time, and the baristas are already glaring at them, pointedly clearing every table nearby.

The fact that Bond is passing a snapped wooden stirrer between his fingers like he's planning to stab someone with it probably doesn't help. "It took two of you before. Can he even do it on his own?"

Q focuses on the screen, tabbing through windows to find where he left the FBI's internal network. He needs about eight more screens and eighteen more hands and he needs a mouse that isn't a fucking trackpad. "He'll remember a lot of it, we wrote most of the code together. He might have access to the old files by now. I hid all our computers after he was arrested—we had a planned hiding place—but he would have needed my fingerprints to get the data on my hard drive."

"Hence the kidnapping. How long will it take him to modify the code?"

"Not as long as you're hoping. The systems are remarkably similar, the same virus would have almost exactly the same affect."

Bond raises an eyebrow. "And you know this because?"

Q doesn't look up at him, but he also doesn't try too hard to hide the small smile. "When they let me out I wasn't sure how long I was going to stay, or if I'd still be able to access the two billion. I may have checked out my options."

"Lucky for us you chose to be a good guy."

"I like to be on the winning side," Q says.

Bond doesn't push it, so neither of them get to find out what Q would do if it looked like Ryan was going to win. Q starts creating a gmail account and tries not to ask himself the question.

Ryan betrayed him, Ryan kidnapped him, Ryan wants to go back to the life of crime that hurt a lot of people and tore holes in people's lives.

But prison is prison. "What's the number of the phone?"

Bond reaches into his pocket and pulls out the cheap handset with a pay-as-you-go SIM picked up from a street vendor on the way to CEX, and reads out a number.

"Excuse me," says a woman in a bright green apron with an I-hate-working-in-customer-service forced smile. "But we are closed now. I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

The wooden stick in Bond's hand spins around to a position more suited to stabbing and Bond starts to rise to his feet. Q kicks him in the ankle, and offers the waitress a smile. "Sure thing. Sorry about that." He hits enter on the laptop and closes the lid before she can look at the screen and see the Secure server and confidential information signs plastered across the page.

He tugs out the plug, tucks the laptop under his arm and flashes another bright smile at the boy cleaning the till. "I thought we needed the internet," Bond hisses in his ear as they step outside.

"Well we definitely don't need them to call the police," Q mutters back. "Just keep the phone out. It should ring in a—"

The phone rings. Q shoves the computer into Bond's arm and swipes the mobile from his hand, turning away on the pavement—keeping his back to the CCTV as he raised the phone to his ear. "Hey Brian."

"This would be the infamous MI6 Quartermaster, I presume." Brian has a dry drawl and he sounds at least ten years younger than Q expected. "You do know that Miss Moneypenny has my phone number. You didn't have to send an email with every keyword the FBI tracks to—" there's a pause as he looks. "The Justin Bieber Fan Magazine and sign it 'call me, xoxo, Q'"

Q grins. "It worked, didn't it?"

"Did you really add additional security to the CIA's servers?" He sounds reluctantly impressed, which is definitely something Q can work with. He also sounds vaguely exasperated and annoyed, but Q can live with that.

"Have you seen the CIA's firewalls? They're like—" he tries to remember the simile he gave Eve then remembers amateur porn and stops. "That's not why I'm calling."

"You aren't calling. You are messing up our nation's security and I am calling you to tell you that I have real work to do. If we're speaking because you want a job—"

Q laughs. "I don't think you want me. No, I need a favour but I promise it's one of those mutually beneficial kind. You have contacts in the CIA, right?"

"I'm guessing you don't."

"They don't like me."

"God only knows why you think we do."

Q beams. "You love me. So last Tuesday the CIA found a rogue data packet from where a piece of security code picked up an intrusion into Government files."

"This 'piece of security code' would be the piece that they didn't put there and didn't know existed. The one that caused a major panic for about half an hour until someone found your signature on it." Brian is definitely smiling, Q can hear it through the careful attempts to keep his tone accusing.

"That would be the one. I need you to send me all the information in the data packet. Email it, upload it to wikileaks, whatever. I need it."

"The CIA said they couldn't get any information from it other than that there had been an intrusion."

"Yeah," Q says. "But I'm not the CIA. There's a hacker from England trying to break into your Government's internal network."

"Is it you?" Brian asks coolly. Then, "Fine, I'll ask around, see what I can do."

"Awesome, great, yes."

"You sound a little off, are you drunk?"

"Drunk, caffeinated, suffering from blood loss. It's all good. So the data will be in my email in the next half hour?" Bond is moving closer to him down the street, keeping his head down but his eyes flashing in warning, one hand pointing to a plain black car idling down the road towards them.

"I meant it about that job offer."

"You'd have to talk to Her Majesty about that one, Bri. They don't just go handing Government property over to just anyone." He hangs up, drops the phone into his pocket and lets Bond steer him off the street. "How many did you see?"

"One car," Bond says. "It must have been a sweep, but they'll be calling in more now they've seen us. Where do we need to go?"

"We have half an hour," Q says. "Lose the trail, get me somewhere with wifi. Is there any scotch left?"

"I left it in the restaurant."

"Okay. Lose the trail, buy rum, go somewhere with wifi. Is that enough of a plan?"

Bond rolls his eyes, slings the drawstring bag with the laptop in over one shoulder. "Let's move."

*

Three fire escapes, two broken locks and one scandalised cleaner later they're sat on the floor of a hallway outside an apartment with a wifi network that took all of thirty seconds to break into. They don't have rum, but they do—after three minutes of obsessive refreshing—have an email with an attached data packet.

"What if this turns out to be a virus too?" Bond asks.

Q shrugs. "I'll probably punch Ryan in the face." All the logical sides of his brain aren't worried at all—this is his own data packet from his security code and Ryan probably doesn't even realise he got pinged in the attack. There is always, however, the illogical part of his mind going yeah but remember that time Ryan threw a train at Bond...

The email body just reads 'You owe me one, xoxo, B,' and that calms the irrational side of Q's mind a little. Maybe he should send Bond after Ryan and disappear on the way, forge a passport and slip onto the next flight to America, see if the FBI would give him asylum in return for his assistance.

They couldn't exactly pay him less. He opens the attachment, a notepad doc filling the whole screen with what looks like a random collection of numbers and letters.

"Well," Bond says. "That certainly looks very helpful." The whole obstacle course over, his hand kept twitching to the space under his shoulder where his gun wasn't and his trigger finger is still tapping over and over against his leg now. "Remind me why we went to all this effort for a stream of gibberish?"

As much as he hates everything Sony has and will ever be, Q really wishes he had his Vaio with him right now. He spent a good half a day when the office was slower than usual and 004 was hiding in a broom cupboard writing a really incredible program to decode exactly the kind of data packets that he's looking at right now.

"The security code that I hid in the CIA's servers isn't actually a blocker or a firewall, it doesn't stop intrusions but what it does is it traces the invader back down the trail and gathers all the data it can get from the source. All of that data is thrown into one file and stored in the security code until someone picks it up. That someone—if they're me—then runs the data through an interpreter and it comes out with the hacker's location, computer details, network source. It can crack anonymisers and redirects. The interpreter is really a work of genius. The whole security system is pretty incredible, really."

"So you gave it to the CIA."

Q grins. "This code is pretty incredible. MI6's security is epic." He scrolls through the lines of text. The scroll bar on the side doesn't really look like it's moving.

Bond manages to be patient for thirty whole seconds which might be a new record. "So how's the interpreter?"

"Yeah," Q says, scrolling further down the page. The scroll bar moves about a millimetre. "That's the funny part. Remember how we couldn't bring any Q-branch tech with us because of the tracking devices?"

"You have got to be kidding me." Bond sits down beside him so he can get a better view of the wall of text. "You can't decode it?"

Q scrolls down further, considers selling his soul for a mouse with a wheel. He's just starting to think that maybe he got the code wrong and they're doomed when he catches it in the corner of his eye - **xoxo***Q10** 51.487249,-0.124305 ***. "I can't tell you the zip code or the make of computer or how many times the signal was bounced around the globe." He highlights the string of numbers. "But give me credit for at least attempting a back-up plan."

"Are those co-ordinates?"

Q grins and opens google maps in another window. "Any time you want to worship my genius, go ahead."

"If the urge ever hits me," Bond says. "You'll be the first to know. Where are we going?"

Q barely hears the last bit, too busy staring at the little satellite picture on google maps of a horribly familiar building. "That son of a bitch."

Bond leans in to look. "Is that MI6?"

*

Of course it makes sense. It makes Q want to punch every wall within reach and smash the laptop over his knees but it also makes sense. They've been spoofing ID cards since Manchester, with machines built from scavenged parts and junk yard scrap.

"Could it be another misdirect?" Bond asks, as Q potentially breaks the laptop throwing it back into the bag. "If he anticipated your code and did something to trick it."

Ryan had used one of Q's drug patches and Q hadn't even thought. He was going to have to stop telling people that he was a genius, he was not a genius. He was an idiot. "Q-branch has the processing power and the security for a job like this," Q says. "It's no wonder the CIA called Eve first, the trail leads directly to—" he trails off, the laptop bag halfway to his shoulder.

The wall is cheap old plaster that leaves a satisfying hole when his fist slams into it. "God damn it."

"Was the wall giving you lip?" Bond deadpans. "Or am I missing something."

"Q-branch," Q says, his mouth twisting as he forces the words out. "Has the processing power, the security and the perfect guy poised to take the fall." He swings the bag over his head and starts down the corridor. "Just think about it—the ex-con, greatest-hacker-in-the-world cuts out his tracking chip and goes missing just as billions of dollars vanish from the US Government. The CIA have the security information to prove the attack came from MI6, MI6 already have their best agents on the hunt for the person they can only assume is the perpetrator. By the time anyone can prove that I don't know where the money is—if that time ever arrives—Ryan is living in a mansion on an island somewhere far away from anyone who cares." He kicks the door at the end of the corridor open. "Have you ever been betrayed twice? By the same person, in the same fucking way?"

Bond grabs his arm, his hand gripping tight enough that the pain cuts through the haze of rage hovering between Q and any semblance of a plan. "Stop. Think. What do we need?"

This is basic fieldwork training at its most simplistic and that thought makes Q stop and take a deep breath. He is better than this. "We need to get to MI6 before Ryan can get out. Since he's got cover, he'll probably ignore all the subtleties and just do an all-out smash and grab. The virus will deal with distributing the money to different bank accounts. He just has to run it and get out."

"How long will that take?"

"The processing power that Q-branch has? A couple of hours, max." Q drags a hand back through his hair. "So we need to get halfway across London without being caught on CCTV, get into MI6 without anyone arresting me and get downstairs to Q-branch to block all the exits before Ryan can leave."

Bond nods. "Is that all?"

"Well, once we've cornered him we need him to confess everything. Don't villains usually do that the moment they see your face?"

"Normally when they're sure it'll be the last time they see my face." Bond releases his arm and leans against the wall, apparently thinking. "How's your side holding up?"

Q can't really feel it, but when he lift the jacket Bond sucks in a tight breath. The blood has soaked back through the makeshift bandage, although the stitches seem to have held at least a little. "Were you going to suggest freerunning through the back alleys of London?"

Bond snorts. "You wouldn't make it half a mile." He glances down at his watch, then out the window at the lights of the city. "Do you trust me?"

That sounds like exactly the kind of ominous non-specific question that Q planned to avoid for the rest of his life. "You're a secret agent, Bond. You're entire job relies on your ability to lie and have people believe it. You are literally the last person any logical person would trust."

Bond flashes him a grin. "Yeah. But do you trust me?"

Q glances out at the lights and wonders how long his prison sentence would be with the US Government's treasury tacked on top. They probably wouldn't let him near a computer for at least fifty years. "Okay."

Bond reaches into Q's pocket for the cell phone and dials a number that Q can't see. "Hello, this is 007 reporting for duty—alpha foxtrot romeo delta. I've apprehended the rogue criminal. Please send a car to this location to pick us up."

"I've changed my mind," Q says, as Bond hangs up the phone and takes the laptop from him, pulling the string cord out of the bag. "I don't think I trust you at all."

"Hands behind your back," Bond says.

Q walks over to the window and opens it, leans his head out for one last breath of free air, then clasps his hands behind his back. "Can you promise I'll stay out of prison?"

The rope is tight, but not so tight it cuts off the circulation. Q can move his fingers, but he can't get his hands free. "I promise I'll visit," Bond says, tugging Q around to the stairs. "Come on, if we move quick we can meet the car when it arrives outside."

Q closes his eyes, clasps his hands tighter and reminds himself to breathe. "I'd hate to miss it."

*

The police officers who picked them up didn't have the clearance to know who they were or what they were doing, but the siren and flashing lights took them through the city centre in a matter of minutes rather than hours. They also gave Bond a pair of handcuffs for Q's wrists instead of the cheap drawstring.

"Don't let me go back to prison," Q said in a low voice, as the metal closed around his wrists. "I can't do it again."

Bond hadn't said anything then, and he doesn't say anything now as he pushes Q out the car. This late at night, half the lights at MI6 are switched off. If Q raises his head he can see the light of Mallory's office and Eve's next door.

Bond places a palm between Q's shoulderblades and pushes him forwards. He stumbles a little on the step, glances sideways at the road stretching off into the distance.

Do you trust me? Bond had asked.

Q had nearly trusted someone once before. The hand slams into his shoulders again and he stumbles another step forward. He feels faint, the painkillers are wearing off and his head is aching from the whiskey. He lets Bond push him up the stairs and lets the vague hope of running slip away.

Three agents Q doesn't know by sight are standing by the doors. One of them checks the cuffs, one of them searches his pockets and does a quick check over the rest of his body. The third takes the laptop from Bond, turning it over between his hands before sliding it neatly into an evidence bag.

If Bond had wanted to turn him in, he could've done it underground. He could've done it before cutting Q open—definitely before sewing him back together. He would've done it when he still had a gun.

Q repeats these over and over to himself but it doesn't help. He flinches and lets out a sharp gasp when the agent's hands brush against the bandages on his side. "What's this?" the woman asks Bond.

"He had a tracker implanted," Bond says. "He must have cut it out."

She pokes the wound harder, Q biting down on his lip to stop himself crying out again. The wound is leaking again by the time she's satisfied that he hasn't hidden some kind of secret device in his own side. "He's clean," she says. "They'll want to look at him in the morning for the trial, before he goes back to prison. Put him in one of the holding cells downstairs—I want two guards assigned to him at all times and don't release the cuffs. Raise the alarm if you see anything, I don't care how many false alarms we get, we're not losing him again."

The two men gave sharp salutes, grabbing Q by the arms and dragging him up towards the doors. Behind him, he can hear her speaking in a low voice to Bond. "How did you find him?"

"Followed his trail from the underground, took me long enough to catch up with him. He must have stolen the computer, I think I caught him before he could use it."

"I didn't realise they'd called you in."

"M rang me. Said you needed all hands for this one." The main doors swung shut behind Q before he could hear any more.

He's practically being dragged by the two men holding him. His side aches like Bond has just cut it open again and he's thinking of anything—everything—to distract himself from the chill bite of metal on his wrists.

It's almost a relief to slump in their arms and let them drag him across the lobby.

*

Orders from a hasty call to Mallory put him in holding cell nine, down in the basement with the rats and the criminals no one wants to admit to locking up. The two agents—Q recognises the voice of the elder a little, he could be 009; the younger, Q has no idea—take great pleasure in informing him that 'M' is not currently in the building and will probably not arrive until the morning.

They tell him the last prisoner in this cell was forgotten about for a month, by the time anyone went down to check on him he had gone insane.

Q steps over what appears to be the toilet corner and holds his tongue back before he can point out that the former prisoner probably died first. The cell door locks with a key, someone clearly didn't trust Q near anything remotely electronic.

Q wonders if 009 would recognise his voice, if the agents even know who they've arrested. He wonders if Mallory planned it this way.

'I can only protect you if you trust me.'

Q glances up at the ceiling, at the camera that must be hidden somewhere. The clock in the police car put the time somewhere near midnight—is one of his team watching the surveillance? He sits on the bench at the edge of the cell, twisting sideways so his wrists aren't pressed against the stone wall. He pulls his legs up to his chest, so his feet rest casually on the stone bench, the shoes that Ryan probably brought cheap from Primark, based on the way they're already falling apart at the toes from one short trip over the roof tops of London, resting on the bench before him.

Ryan is here, he taps out in morse code with the toes of one foot. Y is here.

The two agents are standing a little way away from the door, turned into each other but Q can't hear what they're saying. 009 has his phone out, and for a ridiculous moment Q is pissed that he hasn't returned it at the end of his mission, as per Q-branch instructions.

But that doesn't exactly matter anymore. They're probably just using it to call someone and complain about being stuck on guard duty to a guy who is both locked up and handcuffed.

It's getting harder for Q to think clearly, the bandage around his side is feeling distinctly soaked and he's grateful for the darkness so he can't see the colour of it. It seems almost like it's getting darker, and he can hear a whining in the distance, although maybe it's just his mind screaming at him to get medical attention now if not yesterday.

He closes his eyes for a moment.

*

He opens his eyes. There are bars digging into his skull where his head fell against them, it's so dark he can hardly see his knees. His head aches a little, his side is either horribly painful or numb, he can't tell for sure.

The glow of the phone screen in the distance has entirely gone—there's no sign of the agents anywhere. Q digs his nails into his palms, tries to avoid blinking even as he squints into the darkness. "Hello? Hello, I need a doctor back here."

No reply. No sound at all, except for the whining in the distance. Q twists his hands in the cuffs, trying to squeeze his knuckles down enough to slip them, and imagines he can hear his heartbeat echoing through his ears. The metal bites into his skin and he can feel it cutting his knuckles, but with a final sharp tug one hand comes free. He flexes his fingers carefully, then reaches up to take off his glasses, uses his teeth to tug off the plastic casing over the right arm to reveal the bare metal. It works well enough as a shim to slide up against the teeth and open the second cuff.

The handcuffs hit the ground with a clunk that seems almost deafening. The darkness is closing in on him and the agents have made no move to turn on a light or to make a sound so he knows they're still there. They haven't reacted at all to the cuffs on the floor.

"Is there anyone out there?" Q says, his voice coming out barely louder than a murmur. "009?" He rubs his fingers around his wrist, checking the flexibility of his cut up knuckles and sliding his glasses back into his face to bring the complete darkness back into focus.

This is probably one of those 'freak out the prisoner' things. They saw him fall unconscious and decided to creep him a bit. No wonder that other guy went mad.

There's the whirr of a back-up system kicking in—finally—and a handful of strip lights on the roof flicker on to cast a strangely murky light over the red soaking into the top of Q's jeans, the tarnished metal bars of the cell and the bodies of the two agents on the floor.

Q swallows down the panic, swallows down the scream and the desire to go to the darker corner of the floor and throw up everything that might still be settled in his stomach. He swallows down all of it, rests his hands in his lap and turns on the bench to face whatever might be out there, the toes of his shoes skimming the stone floor. "Is this you coming back to gloat then?"

Ryan steps out of the shadows. He's got Q's laptop—his actual laptop, the one that he built from the ground up that works so intuitively it may as well be hooked up to Q's brain directly—balanced casually on the palm of one hand and the light from the screen gives his grin an eighties-horror-movie vibe that Q could really live without. "Well," Ryan says, like they're chatting over afternoon tea. "I have to do something while the virus runs. Another half hour and a significant chunk of US Government's carefully allocated money is spread across fifty top secret bank accounts just waiting for me to recover it. Raise a glass to the high ranking but technologically illiterate leaders of the free world."

"Pinning it all on me again isn't very original," Q says, trying to twist his neck enough to see the screen. "Are you sure you want to repeat yourself?" There's a lot of security on his laptop, does Ryan know about all of it? If he's got Q's fingerprints—he used to lean on the back of the sofa and watch Q log in.

Ryan laughs. "If it makes you feel any better, you can think of the last time as an experiment—a little practice before the main event."

"And you're down here to—what—rub it in? If you just wanted to see my face when I realised you'd betrayed me again, you're a couple of hours late. Your plan wasn't that hard to figure out." Q pauses for a moment. "If you want a goodbye kiss, we can do that. Just get right up close to the bars."

He should come up with a plan. Imagine he's an agent on a normal mission, what would he be saying down the earpiece from the comfort of his office. God, he wishes he was in the comfort of his own office.

Ryan laughs again. "You always were a charmer." He crouches down beside the agents, placing the laptop carefully on the floor beside an outstretched arm. "No, I'm here to kill you."

Time seems to run slower suddenly, as Ryan reaches into 009's jacket and pulls out a gun.

"Don't get me wrong," he continues, conversationally. "I would love to send you back to prison and let you rot there, but I also want to retire to a private island and live the rest of my life filthy rich. I'm afraid it's far easier to pin a crime on a dead victim than an alive one, since your corpse won't do anything inconvenient like deny everything." He looks down at the two agents again, aiming the gun at 009's head. "You're probably going to kill both of these guys in your escape as well. You're so trigger happy, I don't know how you live with yourself."

His finger closes tight on the trigger and Q flinches on instinct, half rising to his feet like he might be able to cross the ten meters—through the iron bars—and get himself between the gun barrel and the agent before the bullet hits.

The gun doesn't fire.

Ryan laughs at Q, spinning the gun around his finger like he's just told the greatest joke in history. "Handprint sensitive," he says, turning it to show Q the double red LEDs. "You don't recognise your own gadgets? In fact—" he examines it closer. "If I'm not mistaken, this gun can only be fired by two people. This unfortunate fellow here," he kicks the body of the agent with one toe, then turns to smile at Q. "And you."

Q moves further back on the bench, like somewhere in the empty cell there might be something to hide behind. All thoughts of earpieces and plans have gone right out of his head replaced with one thought stop him firing the gun. "Don't do this."

"Is that all you've got?" Ryan walks closer to the cell, staying well out of arms reach of the bars. "You're not going to beg? Not going to get on your knees? You never did tell me what they called you in prison."

Q spits at him. It's not that effective given that Q's mouth is dry as a desert and Ryan is a cell and a half away, but the way Ryan's lip curls with displeasure almost makes it satisfying.

"You should've run," Ryan says, turning to walk back to the unconscious agent and crouch down next to him, lifting the man's hand to press his palm to the gun.

"What would have happened if I had?" Q says, hoping his voice doesn't sound too desperate so his tone isn't just screaming desperately stalling for time. "What if I'd run back when Silva was running riot? Silva wins, the network is fucked, you never get my fingerprints for the laptop."

Ryan shrugs. "I guess you could say I was betting on you being a coward." He closes his hand around the agent's so he can aim the gun in Q's general direction. "This may take a few shots, it would be nice if you could stay still but if not I'm sure whoever comes down here next will just assume there was a struggle."

"What, I die in this cage and somehow psychically control that laptop way over there."

Ryan laughs. "You planted the laptop down here, of course. You knew you would be locked up down here, so you planted the laptops. You set the security to shut down this area of the building and black out all the cameras and in the darkness you tricked the agents to come closer and shot them with their own guns. Then you broke the padlock, found the laptop and started your master plan. It's elaborate, I'll grant you, but I can't see anyone having trouble believing it. After all, the laptop has your ridiculously elaborate security all over it and it will show that you masterminded that whole affair with Silva."

"Did I now. Where was Robert Carter while I was off hacking my own security?"

Ryan smiles. "They'll find his body soon enough, poor boy. Him, you, these agents, that old woman Silva was after. By the time I'm done here, everyone with any clue will be six feet under."

Q slides off the bench and walks up to the bars, letting his hand drop so Ryan can see the red spreading out across his side. "Do you remember the flat in Manchester? That damn coffee machine that turned itself on at midnight however many times I hacked it, the view into all the apartments around us. Staying in bed until noon then moving all the way to the sofa and sleeping there all afternoon."

Ryan raises one eyebrow, but he also doesn't pull the trigger which Q is regarding as a big plus at the moment. "I remember dragging your lazy ass out of bed and you breaking my coffee maker every time I replaced it."

Q has a question all lined up—compiled in accordance with all the instructions in the three hour seminar he had to attend about dealing with hostage situations—a nice relaxed question designed to calm and rationalise the man with the gun.

But something about the way Ryan's hair is falling across his eyes pushes Q's thoughts into sleepy mornings and breakfast in bed. His smile is a little forced and Q is thinking of videogames and only ever having enough hot water for one shower so they always had to share and the question just slips out, "Would you have killed me back then?"

Ryan holds the gun up a moment longer, then lowers it back to the floor so he can stand up and walk back towards the cage. "Do you want to know when I decided to betray you?"

"When the waves hit the bow and the captain called women and cowards first?"

Ryan smiles, a cold look that says Q would just have bought himself a death sentence, if he hadn't been dying anyway. "We had just made our first ten grand," he says. "You'd set up your forest of bank accounts, investments, whatever it was you did. There were laptops and harddrives scattered around the flat to the point where we had to use a torch to get to the bathroom or we'd trip on something vital. I'd just finished setting up that noticeboard of yours to detail server locations and security. You were walking past it and you pulled off a list of Government projects we could skim off, do you remember what you said?"

Q takes a step back, closer to the seat, and the heel of his shoes knocks the handcuffs. "I don't remember the day, if I'm honest. And I thought that god-awful board belonged to you."

Ryan's lip curls. "You said, 'you should probably stop bringing people back to the flat.' No emotion, no sign that it bothered you." He spits on the tiles. "I was cheating on you and it was like you didn't care, it barely even registered."

Ryan would bring strangers back to the flat once a week or so, Q would have to sleep on the sofa or stay up coding until they were done and whoever it was left. He couldn't remember ever thinking of it as cheating, but he'd never thought living together and occasionally fucking was dating. "Of all the reasons people have given for hating me, the fact that I wasn't angry enough about them sleeping around has never been one of them."

Ryan almost steps forward—almost moves within arms reach of the bars—but he catches himself before his foot lands, takes three steps back instead and laughs. "Four years on and you still get under my skin. Fortunately that's a problem easily dealt with."

He turns his back to walk back to the agents and the gun. The moment he's not looking, Q flicks his foot and the handcuffs fly up off the floor and into his hand. He holds them tight, feeling his hand shake and praying the metal doesn't rattle.

Q's never been much good at hitting stationary targets in the range, and as Eve proved even the best shooter can miss a target that's moving all over the place.

The trouble with only having one weapon is that you only get one shot.

"I wonder what name they'll put on your gravestone," Ryan says, closing his hand back over the agent's and—more importantly—the gun. "That's one question you never answered. You want to tell me now, last breath and all that."

Q smiles. "Wayne Rooney," he says and as Ryan's face twists in anger, Q swings the handcuffs on one finger and throws them as hard as he can through the bars in the direction of Ryan's smug, snarling face.

They miss, dropping down onto the tiles and skidding to a halt just in front of Ryan's knees. He bends his head a little to look at them, the rage giving way to a mocking laugh. "I see prison hasn't improved your a-"

The tiny tranquiliser dart fired from the left arm of Q's glasses hits him in the side of the neck.

The last three weeks were almost worth it for the look on Ryan's face as his mouth falls open and his hand raises to pull the tiny barb out of his skin.

"Try to remember who you're dealing with," Q says and Ryan goes down.

Rumour had it the last MI6 quartermaster liked to laden his agents down with enough small arms to outfit a SWAT team to the teeth. Q has a more modern approach to gadgetry—small, effective—but he will admit that sometimes the old favourites are the best.

People never think to check the glasses. He slides them off now, breaks both arms off and tugs the plastic coverings off the ends. When the guards shut him up here, they made a show of the massive great padlock that locked shut with a thunk like the lid of a coffin.

Clearly someone had heard about the afternoon Q branch decided to experiment in breaking electronic locks. Without a keypad cracker, a computer of any kind or even a screwdriver Q's average was quarter to half an hour to break open any lock they gave him.

With the two thin metal arms as picks, the great metal padlock takes three minutes to crack. Pressing his hand against his side, Q limps across the floor. He picks up both the agent's guns, watching the LEDs turn green the moment he touches them, and pushes them both into the back of his belt.

He tugs the laptop onto his knees, pulls off the plastic sheeting that Ryan had set up to keep his fingerprints against the keys. The program on screen shows as having three minutes remaining to completion.

Ryan knew about the fingerprint scanners on every button of the keyboard because he watched Q install them, he would've had a keylogger running to learn Q's passcodes—only fair, since Q had one running on his laptop too—and he used to lean over and watch every time Q unlocked his laptop.

That won't be much use at Q's trial though, not if the program is allowed to run to completion. Half the government already seems to hate him, they won't hesitate to point out that he could have been running the laptop from the beginning. His head hurts.

"Hey Baby," he says, running a hand up the side of the screen. "Did you miss me?"

On the floor Ryan moans, his fingers twitching on the concrete.

Q forces himself to stay calm, take deep breaths. The dart in the glasses has barely a few drops of tranquiliser, it's supposed to be enough to knock out an attacker so he can run. It's not designed to keep an attacker down long enough for Q to save anyone.

Two and a half minutes. Q forces his gaze away from Ryan and onto the screen. He brings up his security programs, flicks through the list wondering which of the stupid things he used to do after booting up his laptop Ryan has latched onto as security codes.

From the looks of things, Ryan shelved his pride and did all of them which—yeah—is clever of him because they all were. Doesn't mean Q has to like it. He missed a couple of minor programs, the kind that Q would just let run if anyone was looking, but there's nothing there to cancel and reverse everything that's been done.

Back to the drawing board. He has to keep blinking to keep the screen in focus, the fact that the lens-piece of his glasses is balancing on his nose isn't helping matters at all. "C'mon baby, talk to me."

On the floor, Ryan hacks a laugh. "You always loved that computer more than me."

Block it out, Q says. Block him out. He's not too bulky, broader than Q—sure—but most people are. The drugs should keep him on the floor for a little longer.

Two minutes. Fuck.

He was never great under pressure. They gave him five minutes to crack Silva's code and he broke MI6. Why does anyone ever trust him with anything?

"I was jealous," Ryan croaks. "I was jealous of your computer and the way you kept hacking into the CIA like you were flirting with them and I was jealous of every fucking person you talked to and you couldn't even be angry."

If Q was on a headset to an agent, what would he be saying? Pull the plug, take out the battery, cut the network connection. His laptop is designed to keep functioning for up to half an hour after doing any of those things.

One and a half minutes and he finally clicks onto the virus program. Objectively he knows that this was based on his code, he wrote this from scratch five years ago on a sofa between pizza deliveries and couch make-out sessions.

Ryan has pulled out everything he recognises. Q pulls apart the graphical user interface with a few keystrokes but the code underneath is bloated to the point where it's a wonder it works at all and it'll be impossible to find anything worth looking at. "What do I do?"

Ryan laughs again, rolling onto his back so he can tilt his neck up and look at Q. "You could pass me a gun, I promise to solve all your problems."

Well, that was never going to work. The screen is blurry and there are streaks of red all over the keyboard which will be murder to clean up.

Ha ha. Murder.

One minute. What does he know? Ryan's a madman. Ryan's apparently been nursing a grudge for the last five years. Ryan can't come up with any original ideas, he uses the same code to pull the same scam and frame the same people. Ryan helped Silva, so he's already beaten Q once. Ryan—

Q cuts his own thoughts off, staring at the code in front of him. Same code. Same scam. Ryan reuses code, he works in the same patterns. He was writing this at the same time as working with Silva, stands to reason he'd use the same security, he's lazy like that.

Forty seconds. Q reaches into the back of his jeans and pulls out one of the guns. "What's the keycode?" He doesn't have time to hack it, barely has time to pull up the keycode entry form typing with one hand and trying to keep the gun steady with the other.

"Oh so now you need me." Ryan is already shifting his elbows which is going to become a problem that Q can deal with in thirty two seconds.

"I'll shoot you," Q says. Ryan was going to kill him, he can totally shoot Ryan in the face. He doesn't need a best friend, really. He can be all 00-agent like and not care about anything.

Ryan grins. "I don't think you will."

The code entry box pops up on screen. Q tries to look at Ryan with one eye and the screen with the other but ends up having to take his eyes off Ryan. The screen has shut down to bare minimum, white on black with a countdown running down from twenty.

Nineteen.

The line doesn't say 'keycode' this time. Q stares at it as the countdown drops to twelve.

It asks for a name.

Fuck. Given half an hour and a pad of paper, Q could maybe recall eighty percent of Ryan's various commonly used aliases. Given fifteen minutes he could come up with a good handful, but none of them are Ryan's name. "What's your name?" he demands, waving the gun a little for emphasis.

"Weren't we just doing this, only the other way around?" Ryan smiles. "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours."

Ten. Q runs a hand through his hair, streaking that with red too. Ryan's name isn't Ryan, surely. It's not Michael Owen, it's not Christiano Ronaldo. God, why are so many of his aliases football players?

"You won't be able to find the money," Ryan promises. "As soon as that's done, I'll kill you with my bare hands if I have to. Or maybe I'll leave you to the FBI, see if they believe that you had nothing to do with this."

That was Ryan's downfall, wasn't it? He has patterns, he likes order, he doesn't know how to let things go. Q never looked into his past, but someone else did.

In fact a whole team of people did. A team that at one time Q thought he could trust. He closes his eyes and thinks back to the screen in Q branch, the list of known aliases and at the top the name that the greatest hacking team in Britain thought was genuine.

Robert Carter, he types and hits enter just as the number one flashes up on the screen.

There's no zero. Is there no zero because he did it? Was there never going to be a zero? He has an instant to panic then the screen goes black. There's no little message this time, it's black for a moment then the screen dissolves into Q's desktop. His icons, his quick links to security back doors. Everything exactly as he left it.

A small box appears in the corner of the screen. Program cancelled. Reverse all actions Y/N?

He hits Y and a new progress bar appears, moving much quicker than the last. He opens one of the security programs that Ryan failed to disable and hits play.

Ryan's voice comes out of the speakers. "No, it's their quartermaster's computer. Yes, I'm sure I can hack it. I lived with him, I memorised his security systems. It's fine, he trusted me completely."

The recording is two months long, but luckily Q has lackeys who will go through it for him. "Word of advice," he says, saving the audio file in three locations with a quick shortcut. "If you're going to frame a hacker, don't use his own computer to do it."

He's so focused on reclaiming his computer and dealing with the security files that he doesn't even notice Ryan is moving until the computer is pushed out of his lap and skidding across the floor with a crash. "I'll remember that next time," Ryan says a moment before he grabs the gun from Q's relaxed grip and slams the fingers of one hand directly into Q's side.

If the agents poking it outside MI6 was bad, this is something much worse that Q will come up with when he's not busy kicking out at Ryan's face. His hip is bleeding again, Q can feel it dripping out from the bandages that were apparently not designed for this level of physical activity. Ryan's hands are pushing up, aiming for Q's neck, and Q wedges the foot of his non-wounded side against Ryan's shoulder to keep him down.

His head is swimming, the remains of his glasses have clattered off into the shadows somewhere. Ryan shifts somehow and Q's leg is thrown loose, his ill-fitting shoe flying off into the distance and his body skidding across the stone floor and into a wall. Ow.

"You're a bit of an annoyance," Ryan says, using his hands to push himself across the floor to Q's laptop. "I should have remembered that part."

Q thanks God and Mallory that they locked him up in the deepest dungeon of MI6 where the wall is still old stone and he can dig his fingers into the gaps between the stones to pull himself upright. Of course he can't stay up without leaning against the wall, but Ryan doesn't seem to have regained the use of his legs yet so they're almost even. "You're kind of a dick," Q says. "Did you forget that too?"

Ryan is ignoring him, moving the pointer across the laptop screen like Q might have just hidden his virus somewhere off the edges. "What did you do?"

"Robert Carter," Q says. "It's not all that original, you should have a word with your parents about tha-" the laptop slams into the wall where Q's legs were half a second before. He twists nimbly to the side, the movement pulling his hip and sending him sprawling—less nimbly—to the floor.

Ryan's feet are twitching. Q reaches into the back of his jeans for the second gun, but somewhere in the rolling and the falling over it skidded across the floor. He turns his head for a moment to find it—there's a blur caught on one of the bars of the cage but it could be anything—and a hand closes on his ankle.

He kicks out—his heel slamming into something soft—but without shoes on and with barely a few inches of room to move, there's not a lot of force behind it. He rolls his body forward with it, tries to roll over Ryan's arms in a move that should lock them out behind him and put Q in a position of strength.

Ryan lets go, grabbing Q's shoulder instead and twisting him around in the middle of the move to slam his back into the floor again.

Q should just give up on having a spine. He's pinned down by a hands on his upper arms and Ryan's—still slow and heavy, but getting more functional by the minute—legs pressing his lower half against the floor.

Ryan smiles a slow smile, his face close enough for Q to see clearly. "This seems familiar."

Q twists experimentally. No possible movement. There's blood soaking into Ryan's jeans, and it's probably not Ryan's blood. "You should probably be using this time to run."

"From who? Without you, without that damn recording, there's no crime. I haven't done anything." He leans in close enough to kiss. "I could walk out of here."

"Sure thing, Bobby. Just see how that goes."

Ryan raises a fist for a punch and Q uses his free arm to jab four fingers sharp into his armpit. When Ryan recoils, Q curls his legs up and slams both feet out together, catching him in the stomach and knocking him back. "Why use your real name, anyway? They knew it, it was yours in prison. You must have known I'd have seen it."

Ryan pushes himself up from the floor, one hand held to his stomach. "Like you would believe it. You never trusted anything someone else told you, you erased your old life so fully it didn't exist. What was it they call you in prison? Subject X? RS1771?"

Q tries to push himself up, but his left leg won't co-operate, his fingers are aching, all he manages it pushing himself half a foot back across the floor as Ryan bears down on him. He's still for a moment, as Ryan reaches down to grab him by the collar.

Just before his fingers reach, Q throws himself sideways. The stone floor doesn't offer a soft landing. He rolls three times, bruises all the remaining parts of his body, and slams into the metal bars of the cage. "In prison?" he says, stalling for time, hand scrabbling sideways for the shadow he saw earlier as Ryan snarls and turns to his new position, leaning one hand on the bars so he can reach down with the other.

Q's fingers tighten on the metal object and he swings it up. The handcuffs hang from his fingertips and as Ryan's hand closes on his shoulder, he snaps one end around Ryan's wrist. "They called me Rat," he says again, as the fingers on his shoulder squeeze tight with a sharp pain, pulling him upright with his back against the bars. "Because I used to bite."

He drives his knee into Ryan's crotch as hard as it'll go. Ryan's knees buckle, Q slams him forward with one hand, slips out the gap and turns to snap the second cuff shut around the bars.

Ryan lets out a cry of rage, turning around and stretching his arm out as far as the cuffs will go. Q ducks the arm, just about manages not to fall over until he's stumbled out of range. Then he trips over one of the guns and goes down on the floor in what he'd like to imagine is a sophisticated kind of tumble.

"Ow," he says pointedly.

Ryan responds with a stream of expletives and advice for what Q should consider doing next. None of it sounds particularly enjoyable. "Could you keep it down?" Q asks, lying on his stomach and stretching out his fingertips until he can catch the edge of his laptop and start tugging it closer. "I have a bit of a headache."

Ryan's response is an animalistic sound, almost like a roar and a sharp clattering as he pulls his wrist against the handcuffs again. Q picks up the gun off the floor, tosses it a couple of times to check the weight, then throws it as hard as he can in Ryan's direction.

The butt end hits him in the middle of the face. He goes quiet. Q pulls the laptop onto his knees, runs his fingers across the various new dents and nicks in the casing.

Back in Manchester, he remembers wondering around a scrapyard with Ryan behind him salvaging whatever parts they could come up with. Ryan had laughed when Q took the strongest materials he could find for a casing, "What are you planning to do?" he'd asked. "Fight a war with it?"

Q runs his fingers across the trackpad and watches the screen light up. His desktop, his command line structure, the fans whir as he brings up a coding platform and the sound is like the murmur of a house welcoming him home. He starts his hands moving, picking out shortcuts and code structures, pulling together a program that would've taken him at least a day on the VAIO in about two minutes.

It's like the laptop is hooked up to his brain directly, responding perfectly to his whim. God he missed this.

He runs the program, lets it pick up the key moments from Ryan's testimonial and send them directly into the protected inboxes of every high-up in the government—from the men at his trial to M to the current prime minister. When he glances over at the cell, Ryan has sunk down into a crouch, his fingers alternating between scrabbling across the floor in an attempt to reach a gun that's fallen just out of reach and pinching his nose to try and stop it bleeding.

Q turns back to his screen. He opens a command prompt and pauses for a moment, fingers hovering over the keys. Where to start. What to hack to bring them all running.

He smiles and starts to type.

*

"A billboard in Times Square," Mallory says, not for the first time, while the MI6 doctor sews up Q's side for a second time and Angharad pretends she isn't grinning at him as she slides his computer into an evidence bag for processing. "You hacked a billboard in Times Square to tell me to come down and bring medical attention."

Q smiles. Through the haze of painkillers that the medic put him on, Mallory's voice is more of a soothing haze of sound. "They said you weren't answering your phone." He looks up at Mallory, watching the man swim in and out of focus. His glasses are probably still broken, he should send someone to Q branch for a new pair. "You could always have rescued me earlier."

"I wanted to see what you'd do," Mallory says, looking around the basement apparently to take in the two agents slowly regaining consciousness after the medical patches had been pulled off their skin. Ryan is sitting on the bench in Q's old cell with his wrists chained together and blood crusted around his nose.

"It's that attitude that makes it hard for people to trust you," Q says, turning his head away from Ryan's cell.

"Bond said you had a plan to get him to confess, and we needed a confession to charge him with anything."

It was nice that Bond thought there had been a plan. As far as Q could remember, Bond had turned him over to the police and washed his hands of the whole situation.

Mallory arches one eyebrow like he can read Q's mind. "I can promise you both 007 and Miss Moneypenny were ready to run in guns blazing at the slightest sign that you were in need of aid."

Q wonders if Bond or Eve might have regarded him being manacled, falling in and out of consciousness from blood loss or about to be shot in the head as him being in need of aid. "You never think I need protecting."

"I'm usually right."

Q almost laughs at that, but moving his chest hurts—breathing kind of hurts, but it seems a waste of a lot of effort to quit that now—so he just lets his head loll back against the wall. "What happens now?"

"We have a video of Carter's confession, and multiple counts of conspiracy to commit murder. That should get him locked up for a good few years and I can promise you no one's going to be in a hurry to pull him out again."

Q nods. There's a familiar chill running through him at the mention of prison but it's lost behind a haze of exhaustion and drugs. "And me?"

Mallory sighs. "Well. No one's letting you go if that's what you're hoping. You have eleven years of a sentence left to serve."

Q closes his eyes. They took the guns but if they say they're sending him back to prison—he could still grab one. He could—if he could remember how his legs worked.

"There's also the matter of that missing two billion. I understand you spent a couple of hundred pounds, but if the rest of it made its way back to where you found it, that might just give me enough leverage to convince the council to release you back into MI6 custody." There's almost a twinkle in his eye, a smile playing across his lips like he planned this whole affair.

Q is reminded suddenly of another person in a sharp suit, a woman walking into his cell with her guards and her weaponry all left outside like clothes to be shrugged on or off. A woman who knew she held all the cards, and waited to play them until the exact right moment.

"I could have a look for you," Q says. "See if any of it turns up."

M nods. "You'll have to go to the infirmary of course, I'll have the VAIO sent to you there."

Oh God, the fucking VAIO. "It would be quicker with my laptop," he says.

"I'm sure it would," M says. "But I'll sleep better knowing you're riding the tricycle." He turns to leave the basement—a team of men with a stretcher ducking in after him.

"I thought you didn't like me," Q calls after him, pushing away the medic trying to give him a sleeping jab. "What happened to all that stuff about good people being involved in my arrest and none of them being me?"

M turns in the doorway. "If I hired good people, Q, we would never get any work done."

Q smiles at that one, even tries for a one handed salute although it turns out using the arm on the same side as the flesh wound was a bad idea.

He pushes the stretcher away, steals a cute young stretcher bearer instead so he can lean all his weight on the boy's shoulders and limp across the floor. The medic is fussing in a way that says it's terribly bad for him, but he seems to be on the good drugs because he can't feel anything as he tugs his stretcher boy towards the cell.

Ryan is sitting on the bench, his manacled hands held neatly behind him. If looks could kill, Q would be bones picked dry by vultures and buried six feet under in the desert.

Q pulls his last reserves of energy into a bright smile. "You should've run."

*

When he wakes up he's in the comfy bed at the end of the MI6 infirmary wearing a pair of his own pyjamas. Eve and Bond are both sitting next to his bed, which is something of a surprise. "Did evil decide to take a break while I recovered? Has M learnt how to use his blackberry?"

M doesn't actually have a blackberry. He bought one, but then made the mistake of standing too close to Q's desk one afternoon where Q could steal it, tinker it into something fantastic, and return it.

Either people always forget that Q started out in street crime, or they were never able to track him back that far. It's probably for the best, if they knew they might guard their pockets and not shut him up behind locks that can be picked.

"It's midnight," Eve says. "Some of us don't work twenty four hour days but we figured if you were going to wake up, you would do it at the most antisocial time possible."

Q looks over at his bedside table. There's a glass of water, a small pot of pills and the pieces that at one time made up his second favourite glasses. He picks up the front section and tries to balance it on his nose.

Eve and Bond come into sharp focus. Bond is wearing a suit because he's allergic to casual wear even when he doesn't have a job. Eve has at least thrown a sweater over her dress and swapped her heels out for trainers. He wonders how long they've been sitting here, how long he's been asleep.

"Ryan?"

"His trial's set for tomorrow. Last I heard, a lawyer was trying to convince him to plead guilty but apparently he's somewhat stubborn. I wonder who else we know like that."

That's an unfair accusation. Q pleaded guilty ten whole minutes before his trial was due to start. He remembers, because it was the moment they told him the source of all their evidence. "He was angry that I wasn't angry about him cheating on me," Q says, like stating it out loud might make it fit somewhere in his head. "He also pointed out that I'm not great at relationships, but that still strikes me as a little strange."

Bond shrugs, which is fair enough because Q's read his mission reports and everyone Bond fucks seems to betray him or die or both. "He wasn't that attractive."

Q considers this. "He was better before I broke his nose," he says eventually. "Though I understand that you probably have higher standards."

He throws Eve a wink and she rolls her eyes at him, reaching for one of the black sticks left on the bedside table. "Did you really put a dart and a firing device into your glasses?" She sounds simultaneously impressed and like she can't believe he'd be that stupid.

"In the black pair," Q says, letting his head drop back onto the pillow. "You should see what I keep in the pink."

He feels tired. Not the constantly terrified tired of prison where he always wanted to sleep but could never drift off because he had to stay alert. Not the bone deep weariness that he's been living in since he got out and discovered that—hey—nightmares are totally a great way to spend every night.

He feels tired like he could close his eyes again and sleep for a week.

"Your trial is tomorrow as well," Eve says. "M needs the details for the last few accounts."

Right. Q spares a moment to mourn his two billion pound back up plan, then presses the buttons to bring the bed into a sitting position.

Bond hands him a piece of paper and a pencil. "He said the information would be fine for now, and you can transfer the money when you're out of here."

"Right," Q says. Beside his glass of water, his scrabble mug is sitting. "Who brought the mug?"

"One of your team, I think," Bond says. "He was wearing a cardigan. It's probably cold by now."

That's fine. Q picks it up and takes a long drink. He starts with the account they drew money out, wonders what Bond did with the rest of the two grand they withdrew, and moves on jotting down account number, serial number and the amount of money that should be stored in each.

"How long's your sentence?" Bond asks.

"Another eleven years or so," Q traces his hip with one hand. "Did they put another tracker in?"

"They were a little preoccupied dealing with the exhaustion and major blood loss," Eve says, and Q notices for the first time that he's on a drip.

He must be on the good drugs.

"Are you really scared of flying?" Bond says, as though it's been bugging him for days.

Q knows absolutely everything that can go wrong with a plane, from unexpected birdstrikes to captains who don't know how to sound a mayday. He also knows everything that can go wrong with a train or a car or walking down the street every day.

If he was going to be scared of anything, he would be scared of people before any kind of machine. "I set off metal detectors," he says. "And I'm not allowed outside London. I guess they think I might run away, can't imagine why." He holds the list out to Eve.

"You didn't run away after I cut it out," Bond points out.

"No," Q says, and then thinks no...

So you didn't run...

Fucking Ryan and his fucking mind games.

Eve holds the list back out to him. "And the last three."

Q uses his best wounded face. "What last three?"

She raises one eyebrow at him, and he remembers the way she put down the security team sent to apprehend him. He takes the page back and adds three more accounts on the bottom. "I don't see why you can't leave me a little. It's not like MI6 pays me a salary."

"You don't get paid?" Bond says, with the surprise of one who has never seen a casino he hasn't had a small fortune to gamble away in.

"I get an allowance," Q says. "It's like being twelve all over again but without the spots or the abandonment issues."

Eve takes the piece of paper, folds it up neatly and slips it into some hidden compartment somewhere in her jumper. Bond steals Q's mug and takes a long swallow.

A moment later he's grimacing and pushing the mug away. "That's not tea."

"No," Q says, taking the mug of dark rum and sipping at it, sending a silent thank you to Richard downstairs.

Richard caught him, he remembers. Richard and Angharad and everyone, they caught him and they locked him up and they must have got the video of Ryan's confession off his laptop and they brought him rum.

"If the trial goes well, there'll be a man coming tomorrow afternoon to give you a new tracker," Eve says. "And you can go back to work as soon as the medics clear you."

Which means he can start sneaking downstairs to work on his cars by tomorrow since the infirmary has the least security of anywhere in the building. Of course that's only if he's awake. He might steal whatever drugs he's on. He could do with a bit more dreamless sleep.

"I'll visit when it's over," Eve says, standing up and straightening her chair a little. "Let you know how it goes."

Q should maybe be worried, but Mallory is M and M always had a tendency to get whatever it was she wanted.

Everything's going to go back then, Q's going to have a tracker and go home to his tiny apartment with his endless cardigans and go back to saving the world when he's busy and getting into trouble when he's not.

"Eve," he says. If he holds out a hand it shakes, but whether that's the exhaustion, the drugs, the alcohol or the underlying problems, he doesn't know. "Can you book me an appointment with the psychiatrist? I have a bingo card to start."

Eve smiles and nods before slipping out of the room. On her, the shapeless woollen jumper and old trainers look like high fashion. Q should ask her for tips, since all he manages to do is make designer cardigans look like he pulled them out in a charity shop.

"I should go too," Bond says. "They said you needed drugs and sleep."

They were probably only allowed in because Eve has her 'do as I tell you' stare and everyone is a little bit scared of Bond since he has a whole shoot first and ask questions later, thing. "M said you were ready to burst in and rescue me."

Bond smiles ever so slightly. "I did promise to visit you in prison." He looks over at the door Eve just walked out of. "How many more accounts are there?"

Q laughs, lowering his mug so he can look at Bond over the rim. "Mr Bond, are you accusing me of lying to my superiors?"

"I'd say strongly implying," Bond says. There's a moment's pause, Q tries to find the buttons to lower the bed back down and comes up with three revolutionary designs for an alternative mechanism that he'll forget by morning.

He's half expecting Bond to leave on that note but, "She said they're re-installing your tracking chip tomorrow afternoon."

Q feels his mouth curve into a smile. "You noticed that too." He rests his head back on the pillow, looking around him at the large windows, the assortment of doors. Tomorrow's a Sunday, there'll be a nurse on duty and maybe one guard.

"A test?" Bond asks.

If he passes, it's a test. If he fails, it's a mistake. Ryan's voice echoes in his head, 'I guess you could say I was betting on you being a coward.'

Ryan always knew him best, could read him like a billboard right outside the window. They fit together, they worked. "He was angry that I wasn't angry, that doesn't even make sense."

Bond frowns, finding the controls that Q lost and pushing them into his hand. "That's the thing about people."

Q closes his fingers on the buttons and the bed sinks back horizontal.

Bond stands to leave, picking up his jacket from the back of the chair. "Did you love him?"

"He was my best friend," Q says. "Or—well—my only friend. I've never been great at people." He lies back on his pillow and thinks about Eve and Bond waiting for him to wake up, Richard bringing rum from the emergency late night coding supplies in Q's favourite alcohol mug, Angharad sliding his laptop into an evidence bag with a wink that said she would totally switch it with an old computer from the labs before they took it off her.

"I have more friends now," he says, and the pills must be kicking in because he's pretty sure he wouldn't normally say something like that. "I keep trusting people, probably a mistake but there it goes. You're all pretty hard to get rid of."

Bond laughs softly. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Q closes his eyes, letting the drugged sleep wash over him. "Who knows," he says to the sound of Bond's retreating footsteps. "Maybe you will."