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We Are Not Legends Yet

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He never meant to do it.

Bond might not believe him and Eve might smile knowingly and M might raise his eyebrows appraisingly and all the rest, but Q knows that he didn’t mean it.

At least, not the way it turned out.

----------

Once upon a time, Q was alarmed by the sounds of gunshots; hurried in the opposite direction from the rumble and crack of the destruction of private property; shivered at the very idea of murder.

Admittedly it wasn’t a very large shiver. Q might have blended in a bit better, way back when, but he’s never exactly been normal.

The point is, as he listens to the audio representation of 007’s latest rampage-disguised-as-a-mission, he finds himself stifling a yawn and wondering idly about whether Q Branch should order in Chinese or Indian tonight.

“Q!” 007’s voice cuts through this daydreaming reverie and Q snaps back to sharply-honed attention, adjusting his glasses a little guiltily.

“On your left.” Thank God the package has a tracker on it: 007’s in a blind zone, the kind Q can’t believe still exist in cities these days, and Q’s left with watching blipping flashing lights on a digital map as if they’re living in the eighties. (Maybe he should go hack the Pentagon again, just for full historical accuracy.) He wonders if it would make it any more bearable to insert some Pacman animation. Or to just abuse his power and privileges to insert some sort of CCTV – just for him, of course – pretty much everywhere his agents could possibly go, because it’s not like he’s allowed to ignore their calls but he’s not entirely sure how this helps.

(Unfortunately M just seems amused by the suggestion of CCTV in the Tube tunnels.)

Attempting to cover all of 007’s routes might be an exercise in futility though, he admits. No matter what Q does with regard to borrowing satellites and mobile phones, a clear visual on his shenanigans often dissolves into a mere pipe dream. And yes, he will refer to them as ‘shenanigans’. When the subject in question pulls off this many stunts where others might, oh, use the door, anything else might sound like an endorsement.

A loud crash rings out. “What was that?”

“Shabby workmanship.” Surely, Q thinks, at some point someone must have had to explain to 007 the concept of accurate reports. He wonders if they felt the abyss of futile despair opening up as they spoke. Still, 007 does have the decency to follow it up with, “We’re in the station tower.”

“Ever the cinematic one,” Q mutters. “Try to pin him down there –the last thing we need is another train-top showdown.”

007 starts to retort with something which is no doubt another variation on ‘don’t tell me how to do my job’, but thankfully Q is saved by the target deciding to take the initiative.

Fist-fights as heard over the comms are, for the most part, a confusing mess. Lots of short gasps and grunts and various other sounds from 007’s comm which under other circumstances would make Q roll his eyes and switch it off. Without a visual, Q has very little idea what’s happening.

Then comes a wet thud, accompanied by the involuntary gasp of suddenly bloody breath. The quality of the comms being as good as it is, there’s no mistaking the sound of a knife punching its way into the stomach.

(Christ, Q can’t even remember not knowing what that sounded like.)

Q didn’t give 007 a knife. Not that that’s all that significant, 007’s perfectly capable of picking up weapons wherever he can find them. From the sounds of things, the fight continues regardless, only now somebody is very obviously ignoring a lot of pain.

A window shatters, and against the background rumble of an express train Q hears
the sound of a body collapsing to the ground.

“007?”

007’s breath comes heavy and laboured over the comms. Small hitches summon an image of attempts to move, dragging himself forwards when his body screams at the slightest jolt. Then words, no doubt intended cool and collected but escaping as a pained snarl: “Package retrieved.” A gasp. “Well, half of it.”

Something’s wrong. Something’s so very, very wrong. “And the target?”

An animalistic sound, a growling stifling of a curse. “Out the bloody window and onto the train roof.”

With most agents, that might have qualified as explanation enough. That is because most agents don’t have 007’s infamous gung-ho attitude towards the laws of nature and logic.

Q hates not having eyes in the room; hates having to rely on somebody else to know what’s happening. He learnt his craft in bloody London, as far as he’s concerned everywhere could and (increasingly) should have CCTV, should have eyes he can use, because right now he is bloody blind and there are few things he hates more than not knowing. “007, I need a report on your situation.”

There’s a silence which stretches out a little too long, punctuated only by more of those awful plodding breaths. Q fancies he can hear the thought crossing between each member of his branch at his back, the same thought he actively blocks, for all that his subconscious is already there, already knows the truth. It’s funny how the mind can try to fight itself this way. Funny how humans as a species are so specifically wired to both recognise and reject their very reality. Funny how anybody lives for long at all.

“All right,” 007 growls out, as if the notion of obeying is somehow the more hateful option, “something you might understand: SNAFU.”

The sheer incongruity of hearing that in 007’s voice – the acronym lent the spit of anger and significance Q has rarely heard in MMORPGs except from players taking it terrifyingly seriously – actually throws Q off for a moment. Then the full meaning sinks in, particularly with regard to the fact that naturally 007 is trying to undermine any sort of concern. He almost laughs – almost, it’s more of a shaky surprised breath and he’s not entirely what his face attempts to do in order to match it – and informs him, “The technical term is ‘agent down’.”

“Do I sound like I bloody care?” No. He sounds like he’s on the floor and bleeding out.

“Where did he get you?” Q’s seen 007 shrug off gunshots and hypothermia. Surely a mere knife wound should be nothing. (Surely Q isn’t just falling victim to wishful thinking.)

Presumably 007 tries to move – the idiot – because he lets out an involuntary snarl of pain. Q knows it’s involuntary because there’s no way 007 would ever have let anyone hear it otherwise. (The rest of Q Branch stills, abandoning the very pretence of not listening. Q doesn’t care; is barely aware of anything else, eyes staring unseeing at the map as he imagines what’s happening a thousand miles away.) “Does it matter?”

“It does if you care about the remarkable acidity of stomach acid.” He winces as 007 laughs, not even bothering to pass verbal judgement on Q’s impeccable bedside manner. He can’t help it: that’s all he can think about, descriptions in The Da Vinci Code and missions overseen where he discovered that that was something of an understatement as far as accounts went. When 007 tails off, it’s into a series of hacking coughs, and Q doesn’t need his camera eyes to confirm the blood bubbling out of Bond’s mouth.

“007,” he says, hopefully firmly (it’s not), “you stay with me now.”

“I hardly think that’s your call.”

“The fuck it is.” It slips out before Q can stop it. No doubt in the future he’ll pay for expletives over the comms (again), but he doesn’t care about the future. He cares about what’s happening in this very moment, right now. “You are not dying on me.”

007 laughs – hollow and mocking. Q can feel himself bristling. It sounds like you’re such a child; sounds like just try and stop me.

“007,” he repeats, “fuck, Bond, you don’t die like this, you understand?”

“Who says so?”

“I fucking say so!” And yes, he does sound like a child, that’s why the meaning riles him so much. He can feel the anger swelling, at 007 and at himself and at bloody well everything, and it’s the kind of anger that’s hiding something deeper, something that cuts so deeply anything is better than paying attention to it. Maybe he’s never lost an agent in the field before – certainly not like this – but there’s something more than a little primal about the no, about the not mine. “007, you listen to me right now!” He slams his hand against the desk, so hard that the echoes bounce around Q Branch and loud and clear down the line to halfway across the world.

“James Bond, you do not have my permission to die!”

The last word rings out into the silence. Q can hear his own heavy breaths now, just, over his heart pounding in his ears. There’s nothing from the other end of the line, and as he stands there, hand stinging, he feels the eyes of his whole department on his back and, quite suddenly, feels very stupid indeed.

He lets his shoulders sag and his head fall forward. As quickly as the anger came, it’s gone again, and a bone-deep weariness settles in its place.

“Q,” he hears 007 murmur, “I didn’t know you cared.” It hardly takes any experience with him to recognise that he’s being mocked.

The words slip out on instinct. “Fuck you.” Because this is already the most inappropriate agent-quartermaster exchange in history, so he might as well give up at this point. He lets his eyes drift over what the screen can tell him. “Extraction’s en route,” he informs his agent, words suddenly seeming oddly heavy. “Keep breathing for me, 007.”

“I rather got the impression you weren’t giving me a choice.”

“Correct,” Q confirms, trying to fake-smile even though nobody can see it. Perhaps it’s the thought which counts.

“You know,” 007 says conversationally, with the slight strain which might be from a stab wound and might be because the idiot is trying to move, “I would have thought shouting my name might count as a security risk.”

Q hadn’t even realised. “You say that as if you don’t introduce yourself to everyone you meet. The words ‘secret agent’ clearly mean nothing to you.”

“It makes things simpler.”

Another minute or so until contact, the read-outs reckon. Thank Christ for that: if he has to listen to much more of 007 acting as if everything is fine and he doesn’t sound close enough to death for any distinctions to be fairly moot, Q may put his fist through the computer screen. And then he’d have to pay for it, and spend hours he could be using to, oh, help other agents in the field less inclined towards suicidal escapades fixing all of the wiring and programming so that it runs exactly how he wants it. Not passing any of this on, he instead grumbles, “I wasn’t aware that the idea of espionage was to keep things simple.”

“Well, you’re still new.”

Feeling that he should at least give 007 something to hang on to, Q informs him, “I’ve been working here for five years.” The comms go terrifyingly quiet. “007?” Shit. Shitshitshit, did he collapse? “007, report.” His eyes are wide and his knuckles, only just relaxing, go white.

A laugh comes over the line; an awful, pained laugh, more groan save for the breaks. “I had no idea.”

“You say that as if you haven’t viewed my files.”

“I tried. You have some wonderfully paranoid impediments.”

Q’s smile is shaky and a little crazy, but this time there might be something genuine in it. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Over the comms, he hears approaching helicopter blades; the sound of heavy boots hitting the roof; a cornucopia of medical terminology as, for once in his life, 007 lets them bring him home. (There are a few sarcastic bites, but they’re far more tokenistic than usual. A cat trapped in the corner.)

“Sir?”

Q doesn’t startle because he honestly doesn’t feel like he has the energy. Blearily he blinks around at one of his subordinates. Davies, he recognises, but her Christian name swims away from him. He feels like he’s pulled one of his coding 48-hour days, only to discover the Earl Grey’s all gone. The look in her eyes suggests she agrees, and Q’s not even that good at reading expressions, beyond the basics.

“Why don’t you let us take over? We’re on clean-up anyway.”

Clean-up. Christ, this mission’s a bloody write-off, isn’t it? Worse than Rio. (Except this time they got the package. Q’s struggling to remember that as a plus.)

Again, she must read something in his face, because her expression does this thing where she seems to be trying to comfort him. It’s a little too matronly for him to entirely like it, but he supposes she means well. “It’s alright, sir. Gerty’s already talking to 004, he’s in the area. Remember?”

In the area. If within a three-country radius counts as ‘the area’. Still, he knows his department will do its best. It’s his department, after all. “Right,” he confirms, and he’s about to say something else – piece it together, come up with a strategy, get somebody to get some bloody eyes down there – when he interrupts himself with a sudden wide, ear-cracking yawn.

“Damn, sorry – ”

“No, it’s fine,” she insists – Katy, finally, his brain tells him, Katy – and there’s a definite worried tone to her voice. If he felt like flattering himself, he’d say she sounded scared of him. Probably she is, but he’s only kidding himself if he thinks it’s due to his amazing presence as a leader and a commander – as opposed to, say, having a meltdown in front of his entire fucking department, Jesus Christ, it’s only just sinking in now. “Um, why don’t you, er, just go and have a lie down? I promise we’ll get you if something comes up.” This last comes out all in a confused jumble of a hurry, some sort of protective talisman held before her.

Q pushes himself away from his desk to tell her that no, he’s fine, if you think he’s going to have a lie down when there’s this cock-up to fix then you have another think coming. Unfortunately, as soon as he lets go of his support, he sways on the spot. He really is quite ridiculously tired, all of a sudden. It’s weird enough to catch him off-guard, to swallow up his comebacks in confusion.

He’ll give them this one, he decides. Just this once. When he blinks, his eyelids stick together before he can open them again, a recognisable danger sign repeating itself throughout his life. The adrenaline’s wearing off and he’s not a big fan of what follows.

Besides which, the walk to his office feels a little too much like a walk of shame after his tiny outburst. The prospect of remaining at his post, his neck burning hot under the scrutiny of all and sundry (shit, how long until M hears about this?), quite frankly does not appeal in the slightest.

A quick nap, that’s all he needs. Thirty minute cat-nap – like Napoleon, he thinks, with a small smile that stretches into another yawn – and he can check back in with the mission, and 007.

The cot in his office isn’t very comfortable, but it doesn’t have to be. The moment he lets his eyes fall closed, the world vanishes.

------------

Somebody’s saying his name – or at least the initial which (thankfully) replaced his name so completely and utterly less than a year ago.

“Q, love. Time to wake up.”

He feels a hand brush through his hair and follows the sensation back up from the depths of sleep. The familiar voice makes him smile absently, more open than usual perhaps, because he feels oddly well-rested – such a novelty – and that never fails to bring his defences down for those few tell-tale moments as he returns to the world of consciousness.

“M’wake.”

“Of course you are, dear. Come on, I’ve made you some Earl Grey and everything.”

“’Thought y’weren’secretry.”

“Your vocabulary really does take a nosedive before your brain warms up, doesn’t it?”

“S’diction. No’ voca’blary.”

“Q.” The soothing warmth in his hair turns abruptly to sharp pain, making him curse. “Up.”

Begrudgingly he opens his eyes, it being rather difficult to glare at somebody otherwise. Her face is blurred – somebody must have taken off his glasses whilst he was out – but he doesn’t need to see it to know the exact smile of unmoved superiority that defines Eve Moneypenny.

“After all your lectures on my sleep patterns,” he comments, accepting first the glasses which bring the world into bright and uncalled-for focus and – more eagerly – the mug which is getting to be an extension of his arm these days. “Some might call those mixed messages.”

She only hums in reply. This is incredibly suspicious, in that ‘innocent’ is not something which sits well on Eve’s shoulders, especially since Q has learnt very quickly not to trust a single thing that makes her seem anything less than the grand puppetmistress of all creation. It’s a little paranoid, but the accuracy of its results is undeniable.

“How long have I been out?” he asks carefully, blowing steam off the surface of his tea. Granted, the performance might be tied to anything – the zombie apocalypse, perhaps – but the sleep issue is the most obvious candidate, so it seems fair to start from there.

“Oh, not long at all,” she assures him. “Twelve hours, give or take.”

Eve must have been waiting for him to take his first sip. That sort of timing doesn’t come from anything less than nefarious plotting.

Wiping his chin with the sign of his hand, Q accuses, “You’re lying.”

“No, you lied when you said you’d ‘look into that sleep thing’.”

He narrows his eyes at her, despite knowing full well that all he’ll get is the same sweet smile as ever. He’d say that Eve relies on that smile too much – he’s seen her use it on casual visitors, heads of branches, agents (Double O and otherwise), and the PM – except that he knows that the smile isn’t the point so much as what it’s hiding. Yanking his hair with a smile is just the tip of the iceberg that is Eve Moneypenny. It’s possibly why he loves her so much.

Then his brain reaches optimum running speed, and he remembers. “007 – ”

“- is fine,” she tells him, clearly having anticipated the question all along. (No surprise there: Eve anticipates everything, it’s as useful as it is bloody terrifying.) “He’s stabilised and he’s on his way back now. Mission accomplished.”

“What do you mean?” Q demands, sitting up and narrowly avoiding getting tangled in the blanket (who the hell put a blanket over him?). “He – You don’t stabilise from that!” Granted, he never saw the wound, but, “He got stabbed!”

“I would have thought you’d be familiar with James’ record by now.” Q peers closely at her, even though he already knows that if Eve is hiding something, he doesn’t stand a chance at uncovering it. “No doubt he’s already checked himself out of Medical – unless, of course, they’ve finally started listening to me about handcuffing him to the bed. Now,” she goes on, cutting off any further questions with a sweep of her hand towards the door to his office, “Sleeping Beauty, your minions await.”

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Q does not run to Medical at the first opportunity for a tearful and lustfilled reunion (that’s not his prediction, Q Branch is more than a little inclined towards crazy and they do love their gossip, real or imagined, it doesn’t matter). He’s fairly certain that anybody who’s even remotely familiar with him should realise that he’d rather chew off his own arm than confront such a minefield of embarrassment and awkwardness. His two least favourite things in the world, and 007 there to make them even worse. Quite simply, Hell lurks in Medical.

Besides, there remains a mission to run – even though his team, bless each and every one of them (except the gossipmongers, obviously), have done a sterling job patching up wherever they can under Gerty’s guidance – and another after that. Q now considers himself fairly topped-up with regards to sleep (in fact he plans to never sleep, if that’s what happens), and he refuses to leave his department in the lurch like that, ever again. Far better to bury everything under a pile of work. If nothing else, he has to make sure nobody reckons they can send him off to bed twice.

(Katy, he notices on one of his very pointed ‘I am master of all I survey, bow down ye mortals and despair’ perusals of the room, is doing her very best to hide behind her workstation as if she very definitely did not order her boss to bed. Quite frankly, Q smells the florid brimstone of Eve’s influence, and decides not to hold it against her, in lieu of some sort of lecture regarding spurning temptresses and all that.)

Q does such a good job of hiding in his work – his specialist subject, not that he really is hiding, of course – that when he looks up from his workstation to relocate his mug after the latest refill and sees 007 watching him, he feels the sound he makes in response is fully justified.

The expression on 007’s face suggests otherwise, but then again, Double Os are all twats anyway.

“Came to return this,” 007 offers, raising his Walther along with an eyebrow before sliding the gun across the desk to rest by Q’s keyboard, followed afterwards by his earpiece. Q blinks down at it in what is definitely disbelief, even if he’s not sure which part he’s reacting to.

“Imagine that,” he says, determined not to sound faint, “both you and your equipment in one piece. Will wonders never cease?”

“Funny, medical said something roughly similar.”

“What are we calling ‘roughly’?”

“’Are you fucking kidding me’.”

Q’s head snaps up. 007 shrugs expansively. “Those were the exact words they used.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Q doesn’t want to think about what a headache 007’s continued existence must be for the poor souls in Medical. It’s not the death wish, since all the Double Os – and a fair amount of the rest of MI6 – have one of those, it’s all but actively encouraged in the service of Queen and country. No, it’s not the lax attitude towards survival, it’s the fact that he continues to survive nonetheless. 007’s file contains statistics to make your head spin. “Still, you’d think they’d be used to it by now.”

“She did sound resigned,” 007 reports, and Q frowns slightly, because there seems to be something hanging in the air. As if 007 isn’t saying everything. Normally Q doesn’t pick up on things like that, but talking to 007 is very much connected with his ‘work brain’ (Eve calls it that, he finds it oddly charming in implying that there’s any other part of his brain to bother with), and hence he can’t really stop himself from analysing, well, everything.

Such as the way 007 is looking at Q in the exact way he looks at mission targets. It’s equal parts looming, suspicion and supposed amicability, and Q doesn’t trust any of them. Nothing sets off alarm bells quite like the idea that 007 is dawdling. Double Os don’t dawdle; they hunt.

“I’m sure we can all sympathise,” Q assures him. With any luck, maybe the trained special agent with more than a decade of experience won’t notice that he’s nervous. “Anything else I can help you with?”

007 narrows his eyes. Feeling less like a department head and more like a visualised target, Q deems the best course of action ‘retreat’.

----------

Technically 007 isn’t a stranger to Q Branch. If it’s part of his mission, then he’s there, getting under their proverbial feet like one of Q’s cats. He might not know what’s going on, but he knows when to go quiet and when to speak up (even if he often ignores such knowledge), and he absorbs information far better than anybody gives him credit for. Besides, he hates not being present for every moment. Q thinks he can relate to that.

What’s different here is that this isn’t for a mission – not precisely. Not his. Oh, it started with 004’s assumption of that clusterfuck, which naturally turns out to contain wheels within wheels and the sort of globetrotting associated with one of 007’s missions. At first Q assumes 007 is just brooding over what might have been. Certainly 004 sounds exasperated when he finds out that he has to fly from Moscow to Puerto Rico on the thinnest of leads – “Are you sure it’s not to late to give this back to 007?” is the question, and you can tell 004 is a professional because he so obviously wants to say ‘that wanker’ but doesn’t.

Only then it’s not just 004. It’s every mission. 007 becomes this looming ghost in Q Branch, one who only leaves when Q snaps his fingers and orders it, and even then there’s a distinct air of resentment which hangs in the air. Before, 007’s presence could be irksome but at least made for some decent conversation, a distraction, who didn’t mind when Q tails off mid-sentence because he’s noticed the espionage equivalent of something shiny in the data feeds. Truth be told, Q enjoyed the company, especially when the clocks claimed the time as 0400 hours and Q Branch minions grew scarce and overly-caffeinated.

This is so very different, though. This is oppressive.

Especially when, in the days that follow, suddenly 007 is everywhere, provided you look hard enough. Not quite often enough for Q to sound less than paranoid, only he knows his agents.

The meaning is obvious: Q’s being watched.

He just doesn’t know why.

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Bond clears the checks – Medical say they have nothing to complain about, besides the usual, and Q checks the records and they’re really not kidding – and also the psych eval – mostly because the shrinks would love nothing more than to ground him but need a more specific reason than ‘everything’. In what seems like no time at all, he’s out in the field again.

Quiet missions, for 007, with almost no explosions. It’s bloody unnerving, is what it is.

Except there’s something off. Something Q can’t quite put his finger on. And it’s not just the bloody explosions.

The kills, maybe? He does a very poor job of hiding his flinch at the wet sound of a knife punching its way into flesh, over and over, with surprised gasps and chokes which sound all too familiar. Just when he thinks this job has killed off so much of his humanity, here it is, lurking in the form of a fairly basic piece of memory association. He flinches and forces himself to breathe, and neither he nor 007 says a word about it.

The body count itself is fairly standard. That’s not the problem. 007 shows neither more nor less inclination towards murder as a result of his own brush with it. Nothing unusual about that: it’s not like he’s never survived before, and murder, as he put it so eloquently, is nothing but employment.

007’s certainly more curt with Q now. If there’s flirtation (as the loathed gossipmongers put it), that’s only because that just how 007 talks. Q thinks he should be pleased that for once he doesn’t have to deal with backchat, but instead he feels just the opposite.

Of course, all of this just seems to highlight that it’s not 007 who’s off, but Q. After all, they’re both on trial here. (Q did indeed receive that reprimand, barely escaping another eval by the skin of his teeth and his terrifying way with a computer.) Anybody could say that he’s jumping at shadows. Q in particular does not appreciate Eve not even trying to come with excuses to stand at his shoulder (oh God he’s so glad she’s there).

More than once, he feels her hand settle on his shoulder, or momentarily rest at his back, supposedly to better squint at the screen. He’s not buying it, she doesn’t lie to him, and the rest of his department know better than to comment. If Q isn’t saying anything, then they won’t either, and he loves them all for the pile of social anxieties and awkwardness that they are.

After 007 signs off, Q asks, “Is something wrong?”

“With him or with you?” Eve murmurs, right as ever. “Calm down, love. You both just need some time.”

“Time for what?”

Eve, cryptic gatekeeper that she is, raises her eyebrows and says nothing.

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007 returns his gun intact. Again.

“You’re spoiling me, 007.” Q wishes he could see this as some sort of present, even if the earpiece is missing, like one of his cats presenting him with a dead rodent. Unfortunately, he reckons that if 007 is putting any meaning into it, it’s not a good one.

“I didn’t need it,” 007 responds, and he might just mean that he didn’t need to, oh, feed it to a Komodo dragon, or use it as a rudimentary and highly expensive missile, but at the same time Q can hear a knife to the gut over and over and he can’t think straight right now.

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Being dragged out of his department by Eve Moneypenny is one of those things in Q’s life which should seem odd but in fact come off as perfectly natural.

There are quite a few of those, these days.

“Q,” she announces, her hand pointedly covering his screen and ignoring his small yelp at the thought of the fingerprint smears on his display, “come with me if you want to live.”

As ever, the reference slows him down, distracts his thought processes enough that long-nailed fingers are already closing pointedly around his shoulder to turn him around towards the door. “If the machines are rising against us, don’t you think I’d be the first to know?”

“I think you’d be the first to design them,” is Eve’s assessment.

“Thank you,” he says, mostly on instinct but also more than a little flattered, since he knows there’s truth beneath her flippancy. There are more than enough memos from other, more ethically-bound departments to assure him of that. “So, have I unknowingly become your new overlord?”

“You need to eat, love, your delusions of grandeur are even worse than usual.”

He gets as far as “I don’t have – ” before it registers. “Eve, please say you’re not taking me to lunch.” She says nothing, but he fancies he feels that grip tighten. “What’s wrong with just bringing me sandwiches?” he whines. “I was just in the middle of a very important – ”

“You were in the middle of your eleventh hour without eating,” she interrupts.

“That’s not bad, for me.”

“The last thing you ate was half a chocolate biscuit.”

“Have you been spying on me?”

“We’re in the espionage business, love,” she reminds him with an unnerving smile. “And you’re not the only one with minions.”

It’s at this point that the door to Q Branch whispers closed behind them, so Q can’t immediately start screaming about the security breach. He’ll have to hunt down the moles later.

He follows Eve, grumbling all the way even he barely stops short of hissing as the light of the outside world burns itself into his retinas. “Since when did the sun show itself in England?”

“I imagine it happened after you decided to confine your department to an underground bunker.”

Not only does Q have holes in his security, he also gets to deal with Eve bringing this up again. Today keeps getting better. “It’s a secure location,” he reminds her, “we have everything set up; it keeps back-up servers separate; you don’t have to worry about providing test facilities because we have all the space anyone could need and it’s all in the centre of London; in age of the war of terror where despite being a secret service we’re supposed to have a public face, we maintain a bunker Six can retreat to at any time – ”

“Q,” Eve interrupts, almost sad, “please don’t start ticking off points on your fingers. I have heard you recite these before, I have read them more times than anyone could want, and when you do that it ruins your disguise of not being a mad scientist liable to bring down the world to prove his theories.”

Sheepishly, Q lowers his hands, stuffing them deep inside his anorak pockets lest they fly forth again. It’s only then that he registers where they are. “Eve,” he says slowly, “I thought you meant popping out to a Costa.”

Eve smiles as she guides him gently but inexorably through the door of possibly the only non-chain restaurant within several streets. “I’m feeding you. That means feeding you something other than your third ham and cheese panini this week.” Then Q discovers that it is indeed always possible for things to get worse, because suddenly she perks up and exclaims, again too innocently by half, “So good of you to make it, James!”

Truth be told, it’s all Q can do not to turn tail and run out of there as fast as he can.

Sure enough, 007 is lounging in the foyer with the air of someone who would much rather be having sex with beautiful women right now. Unless Q is just projecting his own idea of whatever it is 007 does when not almost dying or stalking him. The only comfort lies in the observation that he looks just as surprised to see Q, albeit less panicked by the revelation.

“Eve,” Q hisses through his rictus grin, “what the hell is this?”

“Darling, this is lunch.” She even has a reservation. Q can’t help but wonder how long she’s been planning this. He almost asks 007, except that would involve engaging him in conversation, and when he turns towards him, he shrinks back from the intensity of the look directed his way. If his walk to the table is a little stilted and robotic, that’s only because, again, he’s trying not to make a run for it. Amazing, really, the hold Eve has over him.

Still, he can do this. This is just an extremely awkward lunch with work colleagues. He’s had plenty of those, especially before MI6 picked him up and every conversation was just a distraction from time he could spend poking at things online which should not be poked.

“Oh,” Eve announces suddenly, before she can sit down, “just remembered I have to head back to the office. Have fun, boys!”

It is possibly the worst performance ever, and he hisses, “How the hell were you a spy?” through clenched teeth at her back, before she is gone – with no further goodbye than the accursed blown kiss through the restaurant window, he is going to kill her – and oh no.

Q is alone in a restaurant with James Bond.

He turns back in his seat, not even looking at his now sole companion, and lets his head drop onto the table.

“Slightly overdramatic, don’t you think?”

For once, Q does not immediately have a witty rejoinder. For once Q’s brain does not respond instinctively to 007’s particular brand of banter; for once conversation is not simultaneously exhausting and easy as breathing.

He feels his right eye noticeably twitch, and manages, “Pot.”

“I never said otherwise,” 007 points out, and grins at him around the rim of the wineglass before taking a deep draught.

It is entirely possible 007 is not human. It is entirely possible that he is some sort of cyborg or genetic experiment, because 007 is not possible, and Q hates him.

“Weren’t you being monitored for smoke inhalation?” Not that 007 doesn’t already inhale enough toxins to give him lung cancer three times over, but things like ‘your agent is caught in a burning building because he prefers stabbing to shooting now’ tend to linger in the mind.

For 007, however, they presumably barely register. At least, that’s the impression given when he answers coolly, “They cleared me after they couldn’t find anything.” Because of course they couldn’t. Because 007.

Food arrives and Q barely tastes it. It must be good to get an endorsement from both Eve – who’s eaten everywhere in London and who Q trusts not to subject him to something foul unless he’s done something reprehensible – and 007 – who can’t be coaxed anywhere sub-par under duress. He’s honestly distracted by the slightly awkward silence between them. 007 seems comfortable enough with not having to talk, especially if the alternative remains inanities, but Q’s just very aware that beforehand their conversations used to be fairly natural. Something to look forward to, even. There’s just this looming fact of Q’s tiny breakdown over the comms and personally he finds that hard to talk about and even harder to forget.

Feeling like he really should be making some attempt to fix this – as far as there might be anything to fix, Eve did give that impression-slash-direct-order, but humans are hard and Q’s really not certain that there’s anything about 007 right now that’s any different to how he has been all along, a growing messy map of scars both physical and psychological, it’s only natural – Q says quietly, “How are you?”

007 raises his eyebrows. At first Q thinks it’s some sort of commentary on the inanity of the question, until some sort of social skills hind brain he didn’t even know existed suggests that it might be more related to the fact that Q said it more to his fork than to the agent opposite.

At least grateful that he doesn’t blush easily, he repeats the question. When there’s no immediate response, he adds, “You know. Almost dying. People… I think you’re fine, except you’re not, people say you aren’t, they’d know, I thought I should ask?”

007 looks at him, long and hard and distinctly unimpressed. “I’m not dead,” he points out.

“And that is a good thing,” Q agrees. “Is that all, though?”

007 lets out an exasperated sigh, which finally makes Q less awkward and more annoyed. “Please don’t try to make this some philosophical discussion.”

“Perish the thought. I find those ghastly.”

“Had a fair few, have you?”

“Late nights at Q Branch,” Q divulges. “You’d be surprised what gets discussed with insufficient sunlight and more than sufficient drinking.”

Leaning back in his chair, arms crossed, 007 comments, “So good to hear you’re running the department responsibly.”

“Don’t push me, 007,” Q warns. “I have an army of cat spies arrayed across this city and I will use them.”

007’s eyes narrow fractionally, clearly assessing whether there’s any validity to the threat, even as he scoffs, “I doubt they’d be able to do much to me.”

“Then you have clearly never been on the receiving end of an angry ball of fur and claws.” He means it lightly, although there’s the slight darkness of memory at the edges of his words. 007 looks as though he isn’t sure whether to feel amused or threatened. “What I am asking,” Q pushes on, “is just if I should be worried.”

“Worried about anything in particular?”

Q frowns. “Well, you. Apparently I’m supposed to be worried about the agents under my care, and you are one of those agents, so here we are.”

“So sorry to be a burden.” Ah. A little belatedly Q can see the stormclouds gathering overhead. Very few field agents enjoy someone making repeated enquiries into their wellbeing. It always sounds like an undercover eval. Double Os hate it even more, and naturally 007 bears the honour of the least tolerance for this sort of thing. “This isn’t a job where you’re not familiar with the idea of death. I’m used to it; we all are.”

Overdramatic as ever, 007 stands and throws a few notes onto the table, before striding off out of the restaurant.

Q glares at the space he left; the food he apparently didn’t need finishing; the money which covers the bill and then some. He thinks that he shouldn’t have to put up with this shit.

Fortunately, he reflects that he now has access to two very finely made dinners, and no agents to bother him.

Unfortunately, his appetite always dwindles into near-nothingness when presented with puzzles and a nagging sense of paranoia.

Idly he creates some terrible hybrid concoction in a protest against the strict divisions of class within a capitalist society, and muses on just why he feels like he didn’t just undergo an awkward lunch as a thinly-veiled inquisition.

----------

Being ordered home is humiliating, sleep deprivation or none. Never mind that Q’s building looks far less familiar than the outer reaches of Darfur. If they wanted someone less obsessive, they shouldn’t have hired him to run that department. In fact, they probably shouldn’t have hired him at all, and that’s even before you get into how if anything he forms the perfect picture of the ideal dedicated MI6 employee. Frankly, he doesn’t understand what the problem is.

There’s a faint mewl from the general vicinity of his feet. He sighs, glancing down because if he doesn’t confirm then he’ll have to put up with Eve’s security lecture again (it is pointless to hope that she won’t know, Eve always knows, he is the one with almost unlimited if occasionally illegal access to most cameras in London but he has no idea how she does it).

“I have things to do tonight.”

The cat – the kind of Heinz variety of breeds that Q loves and pedigree-holders loathe – ignores this piece of information, preferring to continue staring up at him pointedly.

“No, really,” he insists, unlocking Entrance #3 with the voice-print analyser at the same time (some day he should probably change the password), “I am a very busy and important man, not your entertainment.”

Not for the first time, he has the enviable experience of being side-eyed by a cat, before it stalks past him through the open door, tail held loftily erect. Q indulges himself by rolling his eyes up to the heavens, then follows, resetting the lock behind him. Unsurprisingly, today’s honoured guest has already made himself at home on the kitchen counter, pointedly positioned next to the fridge.

This sort of behaviour really is disgustingly presumptuous. Almost as disgusting as the fact that there is indeed food in there for him, because Q is a bit of a softie when it comes to cats who have temporarily tired of their owners’ preferred dishes. (And yes, of course he knows who he belongs to, he’s a bad enough security breach as it is. He just prefers not to linger on the turn his life has made where he has to run background checks on bloody pets who showed up on his fire escape months ago and won’t leave him alone.)

Opening the fridge door, he tells him, “I don’t have time for this.” Taking out Eve’s latest pointed gift of leftovers and dividing it between two plates, he reminds him, “I don’t spend all of my time waiting for you.” He nudges his – distinctly larger – portion towards his discerning nose. “I have a life.”

Naturally, despite the fact that this has been going on for months, it isn’t until later that evening, with Heisenberg curled up distractingly in his lap and Q reaching awkwardly around him to reach his laptop’s keys, for once grateful for these ridiculously spindly pianist’s fingers, that it occurs to Q that there might be more than one over-demanding cat in his life.

At least this one hasn’t blown anything up.

(Yet.)

----------

“You know, 007,” Q says reflectively, “it might be nice to actually leave someone alive to interrogate. Just to speed things along.”

“Do I tell you how to do your job?” comes the growled response, accompanied by a choking gurgle which makes Q wince (not because the sound is unpleasant, which it is, or he has a basic empathic revulsion at the sound of death, which he probably should, but because the audio quality makes it really rather distracting).

“Yes.” Not that Q listens, any more than Bond listens to him. It’s just one more example of the great value they both place on good communication. “I’m just offering some friendly advice.”

Bond’s reply makes Q’s eyebrows shoot up. It’s nothing he hasn’t heard before, regardless of Royal Naval backgrounds, it’s just far more vehement and vulgar than he’s used to from Bond’s communications. Generally on missions the agent is far more prone to painful one-liners, to the point where they’re cited on the psych evals as evidence of ‘sociopathic tendencies’ (“Besides all the killing?” Q has to query). Turning the airwaves blue is something Q would expect of one of the younger agents, unused to the more old-fashioned ways of expressing displeasure.

“Whatever makes you happy,” he hears himself reply.

----------

“Just tell me I’m wrong,” is the phrase which Q instantly regrets.

Quite rightly, the shrink blinks at him in some considerable surprise before answering. Q feels far less charitable towards the subsequent slow smile at scenting blood in the water. He knows it’s unfair, and that he shouldn’t generalise, and that really MI6 needs these people to monitor the miasma of insanity over this place, but he really hates psychologists and psychiatrists and therapists and pretty much anybody paid to potentially go rooting around in his brain. He supposes he’s just funny like that.

“Is this a burning desire to introduce a source of criticism into your life?” Jeffries thinks he’s funny. He uses this delusion to be far blunter in his line of questioning than the rest. Q can do this psychoanalysis thing too.

He smiles politely, because unlike 007 he has enough sense not to provoke people who can use phrases like ‘sociopathic tendencies’ on evals and make his superiors take them seriously. “Nothing so general,” he assures him, refusing the offer of a seat. “I wanted to ask you about one of my agents.”

“007?”

Q keeps his face perfectly blank, the way he’s practised, but the pedant in him points out, “I do have other agents.”

“Yes, you do.”

Jeffries looks at him in a way which can only be described as Psychology, and Q finds himself uncomfortable enough not to pursue whatever vague point was supposed to be made there. “I realise asking if you’ve noticed anything irregular with regard to 007 might seem a little redundant, or at least incapable of a short response, or possibly an evaluation of whether it’s actually possible to apply the word ‘irregular’ to 007 as anything other than a definition, or – ” He interrupts himself. Jeffries has the stillness of a hunter trying not to disturb his prey. “…I was just wondering if you’ve noticed anything recently,” he finishes lamely.

Gazing at him steadily, lest Q have some sort of breakdown unobserved, Jeffries taps a few commands into his laptop. Q takes some small pleasure in the moment that he finally does glance at the screen, only to frown and have to hit a few more buttons.

Allowing himself a smile, Q asks, “Do you need any help?” because there are few things more satisfying than getting one of the shrinks to break character and glare at you. “A simple yes or no would suffice. With regard to either question.”

Jeffries apparently gives up on the computer performance, which is less embarrassing for both of them, in favour of the more traditional steepled fingers. “There are some who say that your current position involves too much power and responsibility for your age.”

“Then I suggest they find someone older who can do it better.” A brief stand-off. Q really hates having to come here, but anybody even tangentially or by-acquaintance associated with HR is, ironically enough, quite appalling when it comes to answering e-mails, especially when it comes to straight answers. “Now: 007.”

Were this an anime, Q reflects, Jeffries’ glasses would glint diabolically before every sentence. (Occasionally Q has a similar suspicion about himself.) “He’s certainly displaying some curious patterns in the field, isn’t he? His Walther must be positively dusty by now.”

“It’s seen less intact days.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Jeffries,” Q says, only glad that he kept the growl out.

“Of course, you’re concerned. I understand. Who wouldn’t be, on observing that in the aftermath of a near-death experience one of their agents has chosen to reproduce the incident, again and again?”

“What – ” Q stops and has to swallow and force the words out, as much as they feel heavy and bitter on his tongue. “What do you think it means?” This is a dark day.

With clear delight, Jeffries replies expansively, “Well, it could be any number of things. Obviously 007 is notoriously recalcitrant when it comes to his own evaluations, not to mention his reports, leaving us to extract what signs of trauma we can. It’s certainly a worrying tendency, and we have reported it – ” Q can just imagine M’s retort of ‘tell me something I don’t know’, with just enough extra language to throw people off as ever “ – but he has refused an extended leave and given his record we’re in many ways more concerned about the effects of prolonged relaxation than violence.

“Now, as to his motives, we can obviously place our faith in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but whether there might be something more – something sufficient to cause his usually equally reluctant Quartermaster to visit in person – ”

“If you’re concerned, I can leave.”

Jeffries sighs, before taking on an air of absolute patronisation. It fits him like a glove. “He’s exploring the odds. He’s simply dealing with a traumatic event – ”

“Through sociopathic serial killing?”

Never before MI6 had Q ever heard a grown man titter. He greatly dislikes the experience. “I fear you use the word facetiously. As I said, given 007’s unique psychological circumstances – ” Given that he’s fucking insane and you’re terrified, you mean “ – we can only speculate without proper observation. But the act of attempting to re-enact a traumatic experience to gain some understanding of your own ‘luck’, there is some sound research in that area. Coping mechanisms come in all forms, and in that, this would seem one of 007’s more normal moments. Not healthy per se, but hardly his worse, possibly even encouraging. Perhaps even 007 is beginning to lose faith in his own remarkable odds of survival, as he grows older and – ”

“Thank you,” Q interrupts.

Jeffries looks surprised, eyebrows raised and eyes subtly wider. “For what?”

Q offers a mild inclination of his head and a smile, both of which when observed can make all of Q Branch go very still indeed. “For confirming my opinion of your own. Good day to you.”

It really is insufferable, the way they’re all answerable to these people. Having to smile at them rankles; not being able to get back to his computer to make their lives a living hell is worse. However, that’s a legitimate job for you, he reflects on his way back to the bunker where he feels most at home. At least he’s heard the official explanation, and there is some merit to it, he’ll admit. There’s definitely statistics at work here. He can smell that a mile off.

Numbers are the easy part. It’s people who are the problem.

Every now and again, Q finds something he doesn’t want to be right about. He never enjoys the experience.

----------

Technically you can break into Q’s flat – in the same sense that you can break into Buckingham Palace. All it takes is perseverance, good reflexes, superior skills in both hacking and covert operations, and sheer dumb luck.

When the sensor in Q’s pillow vibrates – developed for the deaf or hard-of-hearing, quite useful as a silent alarm for the paranoid or government-employed – this shopping list presents him with a flatteringly short range of suspects.

(Q is actually fairly alert when he wakes up like this. It’s the ‘healthy’ amounts of sleep that take it out of him; four hours doesn’t slow him down and serves amply to recharge the batteries.)

On the other hand, he recalls as he slides his hand under the pillow for the taser disguised as a mobile and reaches out for his glasses, such a short list means he most likely doesn’t stand a chance against the intruder. Which is why it is quite so unfortunate when he checks the low-brightness screen under the covers to discover a few different alarms have been tripped, all of which mean he may well have to fight his way out. He can’t help but frown at the screen in confusion though, because if that particular set of alarms has been triggered, then there should be at least one dead body involved for precisely the reason of not getting trapped, yet there’s definitely somebody still moving through his home.

God, he hates professionals.

Thankful for wearing pyjamas, Q slides out of bed as silently as possible for someone lacking in training. No cats around tonight: another thing for which to be grateful. It’s important to keep track of these things, lest he instead focus on how (potentially) utterly fucked he is.

He’s not going to question why there’s a knife on the table by his bedroom door. Q tends to sit down and tinker wherever he is, then finally get up when he needs tools only to bring them back to where he started. Besides, it’s not a huge kitchen knife or anything like that, so really there are worse hazards in his life. Like intruders, for example.

His breath sounds far too loud, so he holds it. Leaning in close to the door, he can’t hear anything, and he weighs up the pros and cons of hiding here whilst ignoring the list of every single thing in Q Branch which could help him right now.

Suddenly he remembers, breath escaping too loudly, and, cursing himself for an idiot, he thumbs the sequence which sends a distress call to Eve.

Right. He could just hide out in here. He has a taser, and a knife, one of which is useful in terms of defending himself at a distance and one of which makes him feel better. There is a former field agent on her way (hopefully).

Then he hears soft rustling, as if someone is turning pages, and it occurs to him that an intruder here could just as easily set up a nice little bomb and make off with a lot of extremely sensitive and potentially lethal information. Of course, they’d have to find somebody to decode the manic scribblings of someone unused to holding a pen or who could break through Q’s personal firewalls (Q has a lot of backups, and they can’t all be in the bedroom), but if there’s one thing he’s learnt, it’s that with enough money and enough threats you can find pretty much everything in this world. That’s where MI6 comes in, after all. Not for the first time, he curses the fact that whilst he does have cameras in his flat, anything he’d have to do to access them would make far more noise than he’d prefer. The phone-taser’s only supposed to be a rudimentary emergency device – much like a very advanced rock to throw.

He might hear or he might imagine the sound of something being picked up in his living room. This is how mothers feel when their babies are in trouble.

Cautiously, ignoring screaming alarm bells in the back of his mind where he keeps his more rational thoughts, he reaches down and turns the doorknob awkwardly with his knife hand. (At least he doesn’t follow through on the idea of holding it between his teeth.)

The door doesn’t creak much, but he still winces and recoils. He can’t hear anything, reactions or otherwise. A glance at his screen tells him the intruder is still in the living room. He is getting very tired of not having any eyes these days.

Being a skinny rake of a seventeen-year-old – or so he’s been reliably informed by people who apparently lack the ability to accurately guess ages – he can slip out through the gap he’s made without needing to move the door any more. Again, that’s a (very small) thing to be grateful for.

He just needs visual. He’s sure he can get a look without being seen. Maybe.

Holding the taser out in front of him as if it can actively ward off evil, he advances, one careful step after another, glancing down to make sure he doesn’t step on or trip over any wires. In vain he hopes that the intruder doesn’t think to do the same.

Whoever they are, though, he’s convinced they’re somewhere after the next corner, where the living room awkwardly bends in the middle. (That’s much better than thinking about how the circular construction of his flat means it would be very easy for the stranger in his home to keep walking and end up right behind him.) Trying frantically to control his breathing – and entirely possibly only making it worse – he edges along, pressed against the wall. He thinks that if he survives this, Eve will kill him anyway.

He comes to the corner and stops, unsure of what to do next. That indecision is only compounded when he hears a soft step and the adrenaline means he can hear a faint breathing which does not belong to him, and he realises that the intruder is just around the corner and, worse, knows that he’s there.

Somehow, Q contrives to go even more still than before. Behind his glasses, his eyes are wide, even though all he can see is his own flat wreathed in shadows. Suddenly he feels very foolish, standing there with a wire-stripping knife in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. (The fact that the phone is actually a taser makes little difference in this image, and distantly he wonders whether he would have called the police even before he started working for the secret service.)

The intruder stays put; so does Q.

It occurs to him that each is waiting for the other to make the first move, and if his life wasn’t potentially at risk he might laugh. (As it is, he keeps his laugh internal and only allows himself a quick smile instead.) He can hear the stranger’s breathing and notes that it’s steady, even, and only audible thanks to the adrenaline heightening his senses which should have been used for flight from the very beginning. In the seconds before somebody finally breaks, he thinks, They’re not trying to hide it, and later he’ll claim that was what gives his opponent the edge.

There’s barely a hitch in the breathing before the man – it is a man, Q thought as much – quickly steps forward to pivot around the corner, left hand coming down to catch Q’s wrist before it’s even halfway through its own motion and the right arm slamming and pinning him against the wall, forearm pressing pointedly against his throat. The taser’s secured, but Q still tries with the knife, and hears a hiss as he manages a compensatory shallow cut across the ribs before:

“Stop fucking fighting me,” 007 growls in his ear, and quite frankly Q’s first response is to lash out on principle.

“What the bloody flying fuck – ”

007 releases him, probably not due to Q’s impeccable self-defensive skills and more to properly observe him flailing in indignant bewilderment. (Q can only imagine what he looks like, spluttering with outrage, hair and glasses askew and pyjamas horrendously old-fashioned.) His calm demeanour does nothing to encourage similar in Q.

In the mind-spinning confusion of wild adrenaline rush and disorienting revelations, Q reflects that perhaps if one of the cats had been around, he might have had some sort of advantage.

“What the fuck do you think you’re fucking doing, 007?”

“You’ve got a mouth on you,” 007 observes with a smile, moving past him like somehow that’s resolved that and homing in on Q’s cupboards. Fucking alcoholic, Q thinks meanly, and it says a lot about the jolt to his system that he doesn’t even feel guilty. “You keep that under wraps.”

“One of us has to act like a professional.”

007 opens a door at random and hesitates slightly at the sight of a mixture of cat food and various assorted wires, for all that it shows in that effortlessly smooth drawl of his. “Where’s the fun in that?”

Rather than answer, Q says with a petty smirk, “There’s some JD, third from the left,” taking some pleasure, despite the fading twitch of adrenaline and dreamlike quality to everything, in 007’s grimace. Hit the man in the balls, he barely gives an inch, but wave your cheap student-y excuse for whiskey at him and that poker face of his just falls to pieces. Like it physically pains him that Q doesn’t give a damn about quality when he’s drinking at home.

Q’s not exactly sure what it says when, after weighing up the bottle in his hand for a significant and heavily judgemental moment, 007 still pours a rather generous glass. His assessment is stuck between addiction’s lowered standards and the principle of breaking into a superior’s flat to steal his booze.

The fact that 007 throws it back like a shot regardless of the size does not help in deciding the matter.

“You might have better luck if you tried breaking into M’s,” Q offers coolly as 007 visibly winces. Really, it can’t be the worst he’s ever had. Q’s only been working with him a few months, but that’s more than long enough to get an idea of the kind of dives 007 gravitates towards outside of the tux. It’s a wonder his insides exist at all. “I don’t have the time nor the inclination to spend extortionate amounts of time or money on getting drunk.” He’s waking up properly now, he’s happy to find, enough to engage in a defence of some sort. From their very first meeting, he’s learnt that that nothing gets 007’s back up quite like playing the part of the overeducated over-privileged toff. (Real-life accuracies notwithstanding.)

007 raises a disdainful eyebrow at him, setting the glass down with a loud clank which makes Q wince. “It’s called ‘taste’, Q.”

“I thought the point of drinking was to get drunk – although I can’t imagine where I got that impression. Any ideas, 007?”

It might be unfair to refer to the twitch of 007’s expression as a ‘snarl’. That assumes that under the circumstances of home invasion, Q actually cares.

“As it is, apparently we’re now having unscheduled briefings outside of office hours, and for that, I need something a little less alcoholic and a little more caffeinated.” He forces a smile, if only because he knows that before that treasured first cup of Earl Grey, any baring of the teeth can come across as a little feral. “Stick the kettle on, would you, 007?”

007 doesn’t move an inch, towards the kettle or anywhere else. “Lock the door.”

Demanding and rude. Naturally. “The door is locked,” Q hisses. “Despite your assumptions to the contrary, I’m not actually open to visitors right now.”

“Lock it properly, then.”

Q bristles, but as ever focuses on “Why?”

“There’s something I want you to see.”

Q feels his face twist, although he’s not sure whether it’s in disgust or disdain or disappointment. “Really. Frankly appalling pick-up line, even for you, 007.”

007’s eyes narrow. “I’m not trying to pick you up,” he says – there’s that not-a-snarl again – “I assumed you’d know security when you hear it, the way you go on.”

Which isn’t fair in the slightest, because ‘security’ is not Q’s main concern – at least, not when it comes to this area of his job. When he homes in on one particular subject, it’s almost always 007’s blatant disregard of each device and every advance placed in his hands as anything other than his due. Security is what concerns Q when not allegedly in charge of human time bombs. Security is what Q uses 007 for.

He restrains himself from saying any of it. If nothing else, grandiose speeches aren’t something 007 respects. Rather the opposite: it tends to mark you out as an enemy.

Instead Q forces himself to recognise the tells of his own agent, and certainly not to bridle like a teenager at the outright dismissal, and acknowledges that even if it is unnecessary, the best way to prise the truth out of 007 is to humour him.

Exaggerating his movements, including a weary sigh and a roll of the eyes which he learnt seriously from his teachers and half-seriously from his mother, Q goes to lock the bloody door. 007 tails him. Q wonders if it’s too late for the taser.

Tapping a screen next to the front door in order to at least appear to be locking the door – the door is pretty locked already, but Q engages a few emergency protocols because clearly 007 is jumpy or something and thinks they need something a little extra, no doubt just to build suspense – Q also pulls up a few basic records. 007 came through the window, it seems, but is apparently satisfied as to the security there. Which is good, because God knows Q isn’t. If the protocols displayed really did engage, as they claim, Q’s problems tonight should consist of how to dispose of a body.

Speaking of, he also cancels the distress call to Eve. If she does still burst in, guns blazing, then frankly 007 deserves whatever he gets. Either way, this should make the next couple of days fairly unpleasant. He makes a mental note to consult Q Branch as to which chocolates you buy a woman as an apology for calling her out in the middle of the night to deal with an assailant who turned out to be your mutual colleague. Lindt, maybe.

“As soon as you’re done,” he announces, “we are going to have a very long and no doubt boring – for you – chat about boundaries.”

“I couldn’t agree more. Although I doubt it’ll be so unpleasant for me.”

Q sends the message and shuts away the screen, rolling his eyes at 007’s typically overdramatic self, before turning around in just enough time to see James Bond shoot himself in the head.

----------

 photo 00Q-BB-illustrations-2-co.jpg

There is blood all across his ceiling, a fair amount spattered on the walls, blood and something denser and with more body, and the next hot-cold-panicked flush to sear his face and claw at his insides is very likely nausea, deep and visceral, and he’s choking on his stomach’s tremors right up until his mind chokes on the sight presented and – just for a single, terrifying, deafening moment – it just shuts down.

007 is standing there, watching him. There’s no hole in his head where Q can see it; no red creeping into those bright blue eyes. The gun is still held casually at his side, decorated with its own spatter, and focusing on it does at least let Q escape meeting that piercing gaze for a moment. He needs that.

Horror lies at the forefront, Q knows, with its potent mix of fear and repulsion and a screaming primal urge to run. Shock lies just behind, reaching round to temporarily dunk it in anaesthetic but soon to be forced either to retreat or to bed down for a potentially permanent stay. Admittedly curiosity and fascination do lurk in the background, but they’re like children peeping from behind parents’ legs, their boldness temporarily sucked away.

About when Q notices distantly that his own hands are trembling, 007 breaks his silence, if not his gaze, to prompt, “Q?”

Q nods, not really knowing why. “I think I need to sit down now,” he announces, just before his legs give way and deposit him unceremoniously on his hallway floor.

His mind is like a stalled piece of machinery. It was working, and it will work again, only in between there’s a lot screeching and hissing and painstaking restarting involved. He can practically hear the key being turned again and again.

He sat down too fast. He thinks he must have banged his elbow on the wall or the door or something, because there’s a very dull throb at the edge of his perception. At least the shock’s keeping that at bay too.

He just saw something impossible. All the evidence around 007 doesn’t add up, unless he accepts the impossible thing, which can’t be done because it’s impossible, this isn’t Alice in Wonderland, he doesn’t have to believe six impossible things before breakfast because this is the world where the impossible doesn’t happen, that is what impossible means

It takes the not entirely pleasant quirk at the edge of 007’s mouth to begin to pull Q back in. Nothing quite so grounding as remembering that Bond is a bastard.

“I think this is the least composed I’ve ever seen you.”

A few witty rejoinders catch themselves in the anger building beneath his skin, comments about 007’s own ‘leasts’ or ‘mosts’. And yes, it is anger, because there’s no need for 007 to stand there like that after something like, well, that. Smugness has never failed to rub Q up the wrong way.

Still, that’s enough of an anchor for him to take a deep breath and ask, “Are you waiting for me to ask how it’s done?”

“How what’s done?” 007 raises an eyebrow along with the gun, as if Q could have forgotten it was there. “You know what you saw.”

And the thing is, yes, Q could very easily decide that this is some sort of elaborate practical joke. For all that his talents lie more in the binary, there’s enough trickster in him – and the tech innovations in which he delights – that he could at least begin to conceive of how you’d pull something like this off.

Except for two things. First, that 007’s sense of humour might be twisted as much as the next government-employed killer, but it’s not this kind of twisted; and second, every starting point and tactic currently offering itself inside Q’s head as his eyes dart around simply don’t fit 007’s M.O.

Apparently sensing that something is going on, even if he’s not sure what, 007 obligingly kneels down – Q’s flinch is purely instinctive – and inclines his head. Truth be told, Q finds himself briefly a little touched by the gesture. It’s his excuse for why his fingers drift out of their own accord, brushing against the stained blond hair but finding not so much as a scar beneath.

“You knew that would happen.”

“Of course.”

In the breath between, Q notices something they have in common: the edge of accusation in their voices.

Recalling certain recent intel – certain recent observations, damn it, why didn’t people believe him when he said there was something wrong with his agents, his agents – forces him to take a deep, steadying breath. “By trying to get yourself killed even more frequently than usual – no small feat, as we both know – or by re-enacting the same stabbing again and again just to be certain?”

There is something so unnerving about the cold edge 007’s eyes can take on when decades of training and life experience take hold, belying what you already assume is on full display. “Why the stabbing?”

“What?”

“Why specify the stabbing?”

Q’s eyes grow more incredulous, his voice more annoyed. “Because you are stabbing them? Because it’s been every killing since then? Why don’t you tell me why the stabbing’s significant? It’s not – ” While the penny doesn’t drop, it moves enough to get him thinking. “That’s where…this started?”

“Are you having a little trouble there?” 007 drawls. “Do you need me to do it again?”

“No!” Q yelps quickly, pushing himself to his feet. “That’s really not necessary, there’s already enough blood on the walls.”

007 surveys said blood appraisingly, no doubt speculating whether he could have made a better mess from a different angle. Shooting from the side, perhaps, although you’d have to get the right angle, or else you wouldn’t actually die –

“Okay, so you’re…” The word catches in his throat. Say it out loud, he knows, and the whole thing becomes real. Say it out loud, and you acknowledge that this is reality. That you really did see what you just saw. That the world might still hold the fantastic and miraculous within its own traceable logical laws, but there’s something outside that, where his laws and logic have no place.

In the end, he discovers that he’s a coward. He just can’t shatter his own world that way.

So 007 does it for him.

“Immortal?”

Q’s never quite had the sense before of a word hanging in the air like this, the letters flashing with searing neon-brightness. He doesn’t want to look at it, but when he tries to avert his gaze, there it is, staring back at him. Logically, he knows this is because it’s not literally there. Unfortunately, logic has just died a messy death in James Bond’s place.

“I was going to say Wolverine, but whatever makes you happy.” The weak joke naturally falls flat: 007’s stony face offers no amusement, and Q’s always hated that character anyway.

Stumbling past 007 – trying not to step in the blood, Jesus fucking Christ, this is without all the lights on – he makes it to the kitchen, picks up the JD from where 007 left it, and even makes it to his armchair with a glass too. He’d be proud of the achievement, if his hands weren’t visibly shaking as he pours it out. He does not offer 007 any. No doubt if he wants it, he’ll take it anyway. After all, it’s not like Q would have much success fighting back right now. The moment he takes a sip, he thinks about getting stabbed in the stomach and the acid burning its way out and it’s all he can do to swallow.

“So,” he says, “you’re stabbed on a station tower in Singapore and you stop dying.”

“I thought you’d already worked that out.”

“I appreciate having intel confirmed.” He manages a more successful drink, and actually feels a little calmer, so long as he doesn’t look at Bond’s face or his bloodspattered suit. (He pities Bond’s tailor, right up until he notices that Bond had no such compunctions about bloody footprints, and he starts pitying his future self who has to clean all of this up.) “I presume you’ve already carried out your own experiments?” Setting any up in MI6 could be fiddly. Cameras are easy enough to handle; people offer more of a challenge.

“Bullets, knives, fires, explosions, car crashes,” 007 lists off. Q matches what he can to the missions he’s overseen. “Poisoning’ll have to wait until someone tries their luck, and so far drowning’s just been boring.”

Q sighs. “I should have known you’d be the sort of immortal who’d complain about it. Not sure if you’re written by Anne Rice or RTD yet.” Ah, the enjoyment of watching 007 try to parse what you’re saying. Simple pleasures matter, when cleaning up gore lies in your future. “From the lack of slurred speech, you heal instantly?”

“Anything lethal. A few cuts and bruises, enough to stop Medical having kittens.”

“Fascinating.” Q can’t help himself. “Instant detection of wounds and assessment of danger. The drowning means you don’t even have to breathe. Obviously you are now, though, so it must only be present for as long as you need it – a quick fix, no long term consequences.” He knows his laptop is around here somewhere. “There’s no long-term effects? Do you still get colds?”

“I’m not your lab rat.”

Q stills and turns. 007 has dropped all pretence and is now outright glaring at him. He can’t possibly be looking for sympathy. Granted, 007 possesses very little idea of how normal people interact, yet surely that doesn’t extend to surprise at Q’s reactions to seeing someone shoot themselves in the head (ignoring for a moment how naturally 007 had to build up the drama). If anything – if the shrinks are anything to go by – Q’s breakthrough into analysis is unnerving, not rage-inducing.

There’s an undercurrent here. Something’s off; something’s staring Q in the face and the fact he’s not looking back means everything else doesn’t quite fit.

Finally something in 007’s tone, in the precise angle of his body and the subtle nuances of a face schooled in the art of casual subordination, gets through to him, and the revelation is so unexpected and so insane that he can’t help but blurt it out loud before he has a chance to actually pick it apart and decide a plan of attack. “Why do you blame me?”

“I never said I did,” 007 responds, in the calm threatening voice that very clearly assumes I’ll take that as a confession.

Q smiles. It’s not genuine, but who the hell cares at their job anyway? “007, it’s increasingly becoming a necessary part of my job to know you far better than I’d prefer.”

“So you keep saying. You do seem overly concerned for my wellbeing.”

“Yes,” Q agrees, loading on the sarcasm, “God forbid any of us should actually care about you.”

007 looks away, down at the floor. Thank Heaven for small mercies. “Is that mobile phone a taser?”

“You’re not having one.” Goes without saying. “That is for my personal use and isn’t economical by anyone’s reckoning. And I recommend considering the fact that you’re pouting.” 007 schools his face, a little. It doesn’t matter all that much: Q knows he’s still pouting in his mind. “Now, if you don’t mind, you’ve given me rather a lot to think about tonight, yet they will still expect me not to get anyone blown up in a few hours, so I don’t suppose you could either get to the point or leave me to deal with an impending existential crisis?”

007 informs him, “They’re over-rated,” but apparently would much rather string this out than actually say anything helpful and to the point. Such a victim of his upbringing.

“Might as well leave by the front door,” Q tells him, in a way that hopefully clearly conveys you broke into my flat I hate you so much. “I don’t suppose you’d tell me where the holes in the system were? Only I think MI6 at least would prefer it if didn’t get kidnapped by the first sociopathic serial killer to take a fancy.”

The commentary passes straight over 007’s head – or at least completely fails to make any sort of impact on him. Of course, that’s to be expected. The whole point of the Double O programme is to produce killers on demand, desensitised and deadly. Perhaps, according to Q’s quiet conspiracy theory, that’s why Q Branch seems to favour those who find it that bit easier to detach – the two are designed to compliment each other, after all, regardless of where the currents of progress seem to be taking them. (Although Q’s reaction to 007’s brush with the reaper would appear to contradict such an assessment to some extent, which might bear some investigation.)

“If it’s any consolation,” 007 announces with his hand on the door handle, as if consoling Q is something that actually concerns him, “most of those traps would have killed me.”

The meaning settles as a chill down Q’s spine.

007 pulls the door open with a cold twist of a smile which doesn’t even try to reach his eyes, and then he is gone.

Needless to say, Q doesn’t get any more sleep that night.

----------

Life continues. It has a habit of doing that.

Unfortunately now the observation makes Q shift uncomfortably; sits hot and uneasy just under the skin. As much as he tries to focus – and perhaps he at least fools the agents, maybe even a fair amount of his minions, for all that Eve’s appearance a few hours into the day reminds him that the mole is still at large – it’s like his brain split in two that night, one half in the here and now, the other watching 007 shoot himself in the head again and again.

Most of those traps would have killed me.

So he just walked right through them. Q checked the security footage.

Funnily enough, doing so seems to do more to reassure him – or at least to give him some sort of grounding – than the actual sight and sense experience of watching it happen ‘in real life’. It helps to remove it to another level of reality, where he can act as a passive observer, rather than needing to act and react and that whole mess. Q sees better from a distance; always has done. It makes him a good Quartermaster, beyond just a good ‘cyberspy’ (or whatever the kids are calling it these days, quite frankly if MI6 had just offered him that by now he’d be crawling up the walls – you don’t convert someone by giving the same under a new heading and new restraints, you give them something they never knew they wanted).

Over and over, Q watches the footage. At the same time as he’s wondering why he stopped at black-and-white (it adds effect, it seems ‘right’, and yet you can be as artsy as you like but it doesn’t change the fact that colour leads to fewer misunderstandings about what exactly you’re looking at), he’s picking apart some early erroneous conclusions and suppositions, proposing hypotheses, analysing and evaluating.

(At his side, he keeps a list of which traps do best, which seem delayed, which only look all the more painfully fanciful when placed in the context of James Bond. No reason to reject field test results, after all.)

Bond doesn’t die, there on the screen. Nor does he suffer any ill effects – the simple evidence of his intact brain, exhibiting no signs of the slightest damage (in a highly relative sense) in their subsequent exchange, establishes this. There could have been blood loss – Bond’s something of an expert at ignoring that – but oxygen deprivation is a tougher challenge altogether. (Not that Q wouldn’t still put his money on him.)

Detaching it like this does help a little. Whilst Q still has an HD surround sound auto-playback behind his eyelids – the far less rational, more panicked one – there’s something solid and reviewable on his computer screen, and that helps him breathe a little easier.

A keystroke closes the window, in reaction to the sound of the door to the roof opening and closing.

When he looks up, it’s evident that Eve knows there’s something he, well, doesn’t want her to know. She has that film noir look to her.

“I didn’t expect to see you here.”

He shrugs. “What, in all this fresh air?”

In what the Quartermaster side of him instantly pinpoints as a classic piece of powerplay, she walks up to him but doesn’t sit down next to him. He can advocate its effectiveness, since he still can’t help but avoid her eyes.

He’s not doing anything wrong. He resents the fact that he feels guilty nevertheless.

“I haven’t seen many people up here.”

“Hence its appeal.”

“I’m sure. Did James tell you about it?”

The problem with someone who has both field and secretarial experience is that they can often seem more like they’re reading a transcript of the conversation rather than actively experiencing it. In practical terms, it means that any tells are very clearly being broadcasted to them loud and clear. Here, even though it’s barely for a second, when he says, “No,” he knows she’s instead focusing on the stage direction writ large over his head, Q hesitates before answering.

(Possibly Q likes to imagine that other people take the same sort of detached analytical view of things that he does, meaning he only has to account for their speed of response.)

“Well, he does have a way of finding these hideaways. That’s the risk of letting the agents roam around, I suppose: it’s so hard to keep track of them.”

“Are you insinuating something, Miss Moneypenny?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, Quartermaster.” Her gaze keeps tracking over to the tablet at his side. The idea that he’s keeping this secret from her makes Q feel a little queasy. So much of this friendship of theirs is built on their having one person they can talk to – only this is too ridiculous, too wild, and while he does have video evidence, he finds himself highly reluctant to hand it over.

007 came to me, he thinks, as their conversation picks out a meandering pathway to something more familiar.

He also thinks, 007 blames me.

Responsibility and accusation. The fact is, at the moment it’s just between them. 007’s made it that way, if nothing else.

He flinches every time Eve mentions 007; covers her latest musings on the mystery of 007’s recent behaviour by tossing bits of dissected sandwich to the crows who seem to have beaten down the usual flying vermin of London near HQ.

Life goes on.

Q’s not entirely sure what he’s supposed to do about it.

----------

007 really is deeply and inherently creepy. Terrifying as well, but first and foremost creepy, like the kind of stalker you just know is going to kidnap you and break your legs one of these days.

Q would greatly like to tell him this. Unfortunately, there are some circumstances which rather deprive him of his gift for banter. Waking up in the middle of the night to find an undead assassin watching you sleep is one of them.

“I have to admit,” 007 drawls, a slow, mocking smile curling his lips, “I wasn’t expecting the cats.”

A little belatedly – due to trying not to scream or have a coronary – Q remembers his house guests, two of whom, on this occasion, have chosen to curl up on his pillow. Quite frankly they’re lucky he isn’t a restless sleeper, although he supposes that if he were, they would have cured him of that by now. “I did tell you about the army of cats. It’s hardly my fault if you ignore key intelligence.”

“I thought you were exaggerating. You are prone to that.”

“You’re prone to having sex with everything that moves. I don’t assume that every word you say is a come-on.”

007 raises an eyebrow, seating himself at the end of the bed and offering his hand for a newly-awakened cat to sniff suspiciously. Q reminds himself that that is no reason to decide to like someone who just woke you up by appearing in your bedroom. “Not one of your best,” he assesses, not even a little offended.

Q snaps, “We can’t all be witty all the time,” shooing Bast away so he can get his glasses without her thinking it’s some sort of game.

Apparently 007 decides to let Q’s admission go without commentary, for once. Maybe he’s just enjoying the sound of it. Besides, he seems to have gained the approval of the white cat now pushing at his hand in a demand for his attention, because of course 007’s ridiculous charm works on cats as well. He could probably charm the pump at a petrol station.

“You’re the one with an army of cats,” 007 points out, and Q closes his eyes and flops backwards in despair. “Although I’d hardly call ‘two’ an army.”

“These aren’t the only two,” Q informs the ceiling. “They all come and go however they want. And yes, 007, I do run background checks; that is my life now.”

007 sounds amused, but also confused, if he is indeed capable of that emotion. “Stray cats just flock to you?”

“The dogs can’t get this high.” Q is very grateful he can’t see 007 face. To ensure this state of affairs continues, he pulls out the same phone-taser from before to check which route Bond took this time. (He hasn’t had much luck uploading a camera playback option, although a live feed is showing slightly more promise.)

“You’re like a bloody Disney princess. Do birds flock to you as well?”

“Mostly just crows,” Q replies absent-mindedly, before flinching and silently cursing. He swears, one of these days he is going to stop just handing these pieces of information over. That kind of thing is 007’s job; for fuck’s sake, let him actually use those skills.

007 is indeed smiling when he forces himself to look up, but whilst the disbelief makes sense, the mild concern does not. “What?”

“If you’re ever kidnapped,” 007 says slowly, “we’ll need to rescue you very quickly.”

Q scowls, bridling despite having thought something very similar himself. “Why, do you think Britain’s enemies are counting on information about which animals stalk me?”

007 leans back enough to be granted the full honour of a lapful of cat. “I’m more worried about you unleashing all the creatures of the woodland on them.” The joke falls flat, leaving only the suspicion that that wasn’t what 007 had been about to say. “She just arrived one day?” he asks in a shameless display of changing the subject.

“They all do,” Q admits, as Bast pointedly headbutts his hand in search of her own show of attention. He supposes he should be grateful they haven’t both abandoned him. “Some are strays; some just decide they don’t get fed enough at home. That one,” he points, “just likes attention. She seems to like you better though.” Jealousy is not relevant here, he reminds himself.

“The lady has taste. What do you call her?”

“Stelmaria.”

007 examines her regrettably hot-pink collar. “That’s not what it says here.”

“You asked what I call her. It’s hardly my fault you didn’t think about your phrasing.”

When 007’s eyes flick up towards him, Q thinks that for once the smile on his face might have reached them. It’s unnerving, so much as the suggestion of real warmth, enough that Q’s own is nervous and he’s quick to look away again.

“What’s it mean?”

“It means you don’t know children’s literature.”

“I’ve never had it cited as a failing.”

“There isn’t enough space on the form for all of your failings, 007.” As soon as the words escape him, Q winces. He knows what he meant: that 007 isn’t necessarily the best-adjusted of agents; that the shrinks despair of him; that he’s far from tame and trails literal and diplomatic destruction in his wake. Essentially, Q meant a light jibe at 007’s idiosyncrasies. Not for the first time, he appreciates the vast difference your precise choice of noun can make.

None of which 007 indicates aloud, of course. Looking at him, most people wouldn’t even guess he’d heard the words. Most people, however, don’t have experience of both cats and assassins, and therefore don’t have to deal with a guilt for which you can’t even apologise.

So you ignore it.

“Not that I don’t appreciate the company, but I honestly think sleep is the one thing Eve would prioritise over social interaction, so why are you here, 007? Because if it’s to shoot yourself again, would you mind warning me so I can put down some plastic sheeting? You could at least let me do the honours, after how long it took to get rid of it all last time.”

“You did a good job.”

“Compliments on cleaning up blood from a man with a body count. High praise indeed.”

“I can appreciate the trouble.”

“Hence why you leave it for the rest of us to deal with.”

Darkly, 007 comments, “Hard to shoot yourself in the head without leaving a little mess.”

Q’s proud of how he doesn’t so much as stutter in reaction. “You could have always warned me. The bathroom’s right there if you wanted an easy-wipe surface.”

“Now where’s the fun in that?”

Bast hisses and swipes at Q’s hand, before scampering off. He doesn’t blame her.

Stelmaria is of course unmoving under 007’s attentions. God help whoever her owners are: from what Q’s seen, if he spoils his cats, that’s nothing compared to what 007 might be capable of, especially with the additional motivation of goading him. “Besides,” 007 continues, “it made my point.”

“It’s frankly tragic that your job has so warped your vision of how reality works.”

“The last mission I was on, I was in an explosion that levelled a four-storey building, and here I am. Is that how reality works?”

“Touché.” And yes, there it is yet again: the distinct edge of accusation. More than that, though: Q is familiar enough with cat mannerisms to recognise when they’re being demanding, and showing up with no concern for the other person’s convenience or current circumstances or indeed anything about their life (because clearly they only exist when you allow it) whilst constantly bringing up or implying something over and over until they get it? He’s not entirely sure who he’s describing in his life anymore.

“I know you can’t die, 007. I’m just still not entirely certain what you expect me to do about it.”

There’s something a little bit satisfying (albeit possibly self-defeating) about trying to play the weary mother to a man who makes so many biting comments regarding age and maturity.

“Fix it.”

The abrupt laugh torn out of him doesn’t even have to be faked. “How? How – Why?”

“Because I don’t know how you did it before, but it was you. So you fix it.”

“Not ‘why me’, 007; why do you want it fixed? Don’t you think that’s a little more relevant?”

007 glares at him.

“And don’t try to sidestep the question by looking at me like I’m dinner. One of us is a key asset without whom England’s defences would crumble, and one of us is a man with a gun and possibly a lot of ingratitude.”

“So you think I should be grateful towards you?”

“007, stop acting like you’re going to get a confession, because I have nothing to confess to. I didn’t do anything. So I don’t know how I’m supposed to fix it – and, just for old time’s sake, why do you want it fixed? Isn’t immortality something of an advantage? Especially in your line of work.”

Unless Q’s very much mistaken, when 007 looks away, it’s to hide a mutter of “That’s part of the point.”

“Please don’t say you want an even playing field.” Q pinches the bridge of his nose, the twinge of a headache of an idea lurking in the shadows. “Because that would be insane and inane and…something else which sounds similar.” Fuck it, Bond might have given him a trademark good old burst of adrenaline, but it’s still some ungodly hour in the morning. (At least in the sense that Q has woken up to it, rather than raising his head from programming to discover it as a not-even-all-that-interesting fact.)

“I don’t.”

Q peers at him over his fingers. “Are you just saying that because I asked?”

“Why would I want to give them an advantage?”

“That’s what I’m asking you.”

“Not precisely.”

Q’s predecessor-but-one supervised 007 for the latter’s entire career, save for the last year and a half. He didn’t think it was possible, but Q respects the man even more now than he did before. Personally, he gives himself another month at the most before he snaps and finally appears on the news as a criminal mastermind or waving a chainsaw and screaming in unintelligible rage. Certainly the latter accurately depicts his feelings right now.

“You know what? Fine. Fine. You want it fixed? I’ll fix it. And then the first mission you go on afterwards, you can get shot in the back in some Godforsaken back alley in a country most of England’s never heard of, and you’ll get another bloody obituary as Commander James Bond of Her Majesty’s Navy, and nobody will care! Because dying’s clearly more important than living, and you’re nothing if not a broken obsolete record!”

He catches himself finally – too late – chest heaving, face a blotch of embarrassing flushes creeping down the rest of his skin. He’s both angry and mortified at the same time, neither of which is helping him look any more normal. Quite frankly, he can’t remember the last time he exploded like this.

Worse, though, is how 007’s face has gone so hideously blank. By all rights, the bastard should look at least a little amused right now. Q often gets the impression that when he loses his rag, he can come off as comical. The curse of bespectacled otherwise mild-mannered geeks everywhere, it seems. Generally 007 seems pretty amused by him, for better or for worse, intentionally or less so. The only times previously have been fairly intrinsically linked to immortality or accusing Q of magical powers, circumstances Q’s strongly inclined towards labelling as ‘unusual’.

This, however – this is different. This is Q lashing out – not even one of his accidental slips (you can’t all calculate every second of everything you do, we’re not all machines, fuck), but an all-out attack.

If he were to flatter himself, he might say this is 007 with a flicker of genuine anger. At this moment he could read a hundred tells – only he’s too close. He has to get away, because right now 007’s almost too large to see clearly. Almost as large as the sudden growing panic in Q’s head.

007’s always too large; always too hard to read. It just took an accident of overabundant life for Q to fully appreciate that.

“I’m sorry,” he stutters, sounding as teenaged as 007 so frequently accuses (sometimes with a little more bite).

007 eyes him, effortlessly cool as ever. Judgemental just by existing, just by Q’s own bloated sense of guilt, just by that one fuck-up that set loose a killer and brought down the only person left Bond might’ve given a damn about.

Which is why he doesn’t exactly lie, but he does say what Bond wants to hear.

“Bond, I – ” The words catch in his throat, forcing him to stop before he imitates one of his cats having trouble with a hairball. (He considers some sort of metaphor to do with secrets or problems that just gather more and more trouble before you just have to get rid of them, no matter how dislikeable the situation is, but disregards it.) Apologies and guilt are hard, of course, and that almost distracts from how face-to-face ‘deception’ really isn’t Q’s forte. “I don’t know what I did, or how I did it.

“But I promise that I am going to fix it.”

The words hang there in the air. Belatedly, Q realises that he’s adopted 007’s phrasing.

007 doesn’t smile at him. However, he does incline his head, enough that it might be thanks or perhaps just acknowledgement, but at least it’s not rejection, and, sad case that he is, Q is willing to accept that much.

Then – presumably because to say anything would in some way ruin the moment – 007 turns and leaves the room and, judging by the distant click, the flat. From a distance, Q thinks he should be grateful that the agent used the front door.

Making his way into the kitchen with a sigh, he makes himself a cup of tea, more for the ritual than for the actual beverage. A haughty Stelmaria, accompanied by Einstein and Ada – camped outside, it’s quite a turnout tonight – watches him from the kitchen counter. It reminds him of food he doesn’t want anymore. Watching them eat, Q so easily dismissed now, he once again reflects on how much easier the world must be for cats.

Bast’s waiting for him when he sleepwalks into the bedroom. Automatically he reaches out to stroke her, sipping at his tea as he tries to think.

At least the bed is somewhat welcoming when he flops backwards, with an exhalation shaped like, “Fuck.”

He wants to sleep; knows he won’t be able to move from here, in any case. He’ll toss; he’ll turn; he’ll checks his e-mails on the nearest piece of electronic equipment without turning the lights on. He’ll tap out unknown rhythms on his sheets and curse the fact that he already went through this tonight. Eventually, he’s aware, he will fall asleep out of sheer boredom.

And finally, as the first traces of dawn threaten in the sky and he naturally finally feels himself falling, the thought that lies on the boundary of consciousness wraps itself around him:

What if I really did do it?

----------

For all that Q dodges its demands as often as possible – he’s not aiming for an unhealthy lifestyle, same as the missed meals, these things slip his mind and there’s always something else he could be doing, especially now that he has been unexpectedly promoted to a VIP – he is actually aware of the beneficial effects of sleep with regard to his work. Despite how long it takes for his mind to get back up to speed, the key causing a reluctant whine from the ignition as it’s repeatedly turned, he knows that this sort of reboot is necessary. Eve’s preference for the more dramatic ‘burnout’ indicates her choice in metaphors, not his own.

The point is that Q is very aware that sleep does in fact have its uses. The unconscious mind continues to play with ideas when unwatched, and his dreams often offer solutions to problems that have plaguing him for days or those he didn’t even realise he had. Naturally they’re not all that coherent, being dreams, but the law of numbers indicates the sheer frequency with which there is at least the seed of a good idea buried within, so they do bear some attention.

For this reason, way back in secondary school, Q started keeping a notebook by his bed. The trick is to transcribe the fading brightness inside his head before it vanishes altogether. Even the vaguest impression can lead somewhere new and exciting. What’s important is not to hesitate for a moment.

This means that when Q blinks awake in the morning (or the evening, or whenever he successful achieved REM sleep this time), he’s reaching for that notebook and scribbling before he’s truly aware of what he’s doing.

Often this results in him looking down at a new design for hardware or code, already smiling at the prospect of a day which starts so promisingly, mind connecting this fragment of an idea with another to create something new to think about on the Tube.

This time, however, he still feels half-asleep, caught in a dream, because he sees three words that don’t make any sense at all – cryptic, too film-esque to be real.

Follow the tunnels

----------

 

Thinking it through logically – as much as the word rankles in its current context – Q shouldn’t have been able to do this, meaning that the starting point must therefore be: how did he do it?

(Q is, if not a man of science per se, then certainly a man with a great love of the world that science describes. Entertaining the very notion of this leaves him occasionally this close to sobbing – the tired kind of sobbing, where it’s not so much crying as your whole body just giving up.)

You do not have my permission to die.

His hand aches at the memory.

So he has a when, that’s always nice, ticking off the interrogative pronouns as he goes, meaning he has some sort of place to start, except…

He sighs; snaps at a minion; chucks back the last of his tea because doing shots whilst on the clock is frowned upon. (Not that Q Branch is a shining example of sober teetotal work enthusiasm, but it’s reserved for after hours and when they’re the ones with explosives rather than agents who might hunt them down.)

Except he can go over the moment as many times as he likes, he can’t find anything. There’s nothing to find. Not like this.

----------

“Can you think of anything?” he asks, slumped against the wall up on the roof and wishing he’d bought something gloriously nicotine-filled on his way to work. “Anything at all?”

“I wasn’t dead.” Bond, standing magnificently posed against the spread of London, somehow converting all he surveys from shitty cynical eternally damp grey streets into hope and defiance and patriotism (did that Union Flag just manifest on its own the moment he walked up here?), remains a complete shit. “I believe that counts.”

Q doesn’t throw anything. The only ammunition up here is old cigarette butts.

“Slight tingling sensation? Melting? Sudden blindness?” The harsh cry of a crow gives him something else to look at. He’s always a fan of seeing something that isn’t another pigeon. “Glowing sigils, looming shadowy figures, a mysterious disembodied voice announcing that it is not your time…” In retrospect, he should have given the attempt at a mysterious disembodied voice a miss. Whatever else might ever be said about his own, it is never going to manage ‘deep and booming’.

Bond glances over his shoulder at him. “You don’t think I would have mentioned any of that in the report?”

After another caw, Q finally traces the origin to just above him. “It was one of your reports, 007. I’m surprised you mentioned being stabbed at all.” Feeling around in his pockets, Q finds some crumbs leftover from a sandwich shoved away after a rare lunch break turned out to be as mistimed as all the others.

“Yours wasn’t much better.”

“Please don’t say you’re trying to copy my work, 007. Anything to confirm your mental age would make me weep for England’s future.”

Bond turns to no doubt make some sort of witty comeback, again. Instead, he hesitates. “…Q?”

“Yes?”

“Are you feeding the birds?”

“A bird. Singular. And yes, that is an entirely accurate description of what I am doing at this very moment.”

Q ignores the mutter from behind him, if only because anything which has the slightest resemblance to ‘Disney’ or certain members of a royal family is clearly nonsense and deserves to be treated as such. He can’t help it if crows like him.

The silence stretches out, each with their own thoughts. Q jumps a little when Bond steps into view and the crow flies off again. “Who would you ask, if you could?”

Blinking a little in confusion at the question, Q shrugs. “Q.” Bond’s brow furrows a little, and he elaborates, “My Q. The one you obviously still think of when you try to picture ‘the Quartermaster’.” The resentment bleeds into the title without him meaning it. Still, that’s probably better than anything to indicate the hole inside him that aches at the thought.

If Bond senses anything in it, he doesn’t comment. “What about your predecessor?”

“R?” Q chuckles at Bond’s surprise. “You should be more careful about the nicknames you choose, 007. They have a habit of sticking. Especially when the person in question is such a disaster at their job.”

“Are you allowed to talk about him like that?”

“Wide open security and an invisible car? I think so.” He grins, with an edge he misses sometimes. “Besides, some of us aren’t as bound by incorruptible cameras and mikes as others.”

There’s something vaguely unsettling about the smile which unfurls in response – unsettling, that is, to anybody whose moral compasses aren’t quite as rusted as theirs. Personally, on observing it, Q can tell why everybody keeps falling for this man. It takes his breath away too.

“Tell me more.”

----------

Here’s the thing: Q and Bond might make a good team in the field, but without an active mission or clear goal to achieve, their own little flaws are rapidly becoming major hindrances.

Like Bond’s complete lack of patience. Like Q’s need for something solid, something logical. The fact that both of them can sympathise with each other doesn’t make it any easier.

“You can stop looking at me like that,” Q snaps, eyes not rising from his laptop. “You can also stop breaking in here.”

“I’m making sure you’re aware of a worrying flaw in your security measures.”

“If you’re suggesting I need to start planning for immortal assassins, I can assure you, you are the only one in my life.”

And so on.

Q’s skin is itching and his brain even more so, sleep almost entirely falling by the wayside in the face of the impossible things – mortality and Bond – he has to deal with constantly, endlessly, always. Even when Bond’s away – Q can hardly report ‘immortality’ as a concern, if anything it’s a boon, and the last thing either of them want is ‘experts’ poking around – the fact remains there, floating in neon behind not only their conversations over the comms but also existence in general. Not to mention Q’s still not certain if he’s supposed to feel guilty, or outraged, or anything at all.

In the end, with Bond off not dying in Kabul, Q finds himself inevitably turning to the one steady dependable rock of certainty in the world, the one-hundred-percent reliability, the one person who might be able to make it all make sense.

----------

“What would happen if, say, for example, 007 were to be, just off the top of my head, but supposing he was – ”

The jumble of words is brought to an abrupt halt as Eve Moneypenny turns sharply on her heel and presses a firm finger against his lips. “Q, darling, as much as I love the sound of your voice, I’m going to need you to think before you speak for a change. I love the sound of your finished sentences rather more, I’m afraid.”

The finger retreats to hover a threatening centimetre away. “I’ll try not to take it personally.”

“Do,” she encourages. “Now, what’s this entirely hypothetical situation concerning James?”

“I’m just wondering what – ” Eve’s fingernails are bloody terrifying. ‘Bloody’ being the very real potential here.

“Alright then,” she breathes, “let me give you a sentence to finish: ‘Eve Moneypenny, light of my life, it has come to my attention that Agent 007 is…”

Q mumbles the impossible, insane word, deliberately obscuring not just the sound but the lip movement as well. He’s only delaying the inevitable, he knows this. He does it anyway.

Eve threatens, “Don’t make me ask James myself,” and it turns out that’s enough to drag the truth out of him. (In fairness, if she’d resorted to torture he probably wouldn’t have held out as long as most would hope, if only because Eve knows his weak spots in a way nobody else does or hopefully ever will.)

“Immortal.”

A pause. “Louder, please.”

“007’s immortal.” When she doesn’t immediately react – at least not visibly, not with any of the twitches or quirks he’s starting to catalogue from his army of trained killers, although for the most part those are based on limited samples in limited situations – he adds, “Possibly.” He’s not entirely sure why: there’s not a whole lot ‘possible’ about a secret agent blowing his brains out in your flat only for said (alleged) brains to remain (more or less) intact.

Carefully, Eve comments, “Interesting theory.”

“You might say that.”

For a moment, as Eve purses her lips, Q suddenly and highly unpleasantly feels a hand of pure panic seize his heart, only now truly picturing a world where she doesn’t believe him.

Christ, he realises, he needs Eve to believe him. He needs her. It’s something almost too basic, too intrinsic to put into words. Eve is his best friend and very likely the main reason he’s not run himself into an early and ignominious grave, and if he loses her because 007 has gone and become somehow even more impossible than ever before, then let’s simply say that Bond’s new lifespan will not be an especially enjoyable one. Q turns nasty when he cares.

Finally – it might not have been all that long, Q’s scrambling back from a particularly violent onslaught of thoughts – Eve reaches out again; traces the line of his tie from the hasty-but-improving half-Windsor knot down to where it vanishes into his jumper; abruptly flicks it up again, just missing his nose and making him instinctively recoil. He hates it when she does that. What he does not hate, though, is the very familiar smile that accompanies it.

“Alright then,” she says, already taking hold of his tie and guiding him gently but firmly along, “start talking.”

It doesn’t mean she believes him straight away, and he knows that. He could hardly expect anything else. After all, he is all too aware of what his own reaction would be.

But she listens to him anyway, lets him explain and produce a carefully-encrypted file he’d secured permission for when he’d convinced Bond they needed a third person in this odd supernatural conspiracy who could be trusted to be, well, a little more level-headed about the whole thing. And really, it’s that which matters the most.

----------

It’s later – much later. They’re in Eve’s flat, all curved lines and soft furnishings and both more ordered than Q’s chaos and more personal than he imagines 007’s page of a catalogue. Q feels at home here, if only because Eve goes out of her way to make sure of that. He likes having a neutral ground, not work and not his own flat either, where things are comfortably out of his control.

Eve taps her right index finger thoughtfully against her mug of bog-standard Fair Trade English Breakfast tea. Normally when they’re together on her sofa after midnight like this, they’ve broken out the latest red from Tesco’s, but by unspoken agreement they’re eschewing that in favour of a clear head. Far better to discuss this sort of thing without the excuse of drunken fantasy.

Q drinks his own tea thirstily, not caring that it’s far from ideal. Talking at length like this is far from normal for him. He’s half a mind to go get a glass of water, only that would involve moving.

Eve breaks the silence casually, casting a much-appreciated veil of normality over her words. “Only you, dear, would complain about superpowers.”

“They’re not exactly helpful ones. It’s not super-speed, or flying, or the proportionate strength of a spider – ”

“Yes, control of life and death, no possible applications there.”

“Bond was a bloody accident. I still don’t even know how I did it, let alone – ” And he stops himself there, if only because he realises that he doesn’t know how he was going to end that sentence, or even how he wants to. Let alone what? Why he did it? Whether he’d have ever chosen to do it?

If somebody had told him about this – had so much as mentioned in passing that a poor choice of words and some unknown extra Ingredient X could lead to immortality – would he have ever decided in cold blood to bestow that on James Bond?

Heat of the moment; fluke of the universe. That’s all it was. That’s all that caused this mess. Remove one of them, and would the whole thing have been averted? Is that what he wants? Is that what he’d do, if the opportunity arose to have time rewritten?

“Would you do the same for me?”

He looks up at her; squints because his glasses are still somewhere near her table. “Do what?”

Another brush through his hair, down to cup his chin. “If I was dying, would you try to stop it?”

“Of course.” Possibly he’s supposed to make some grand gesture with that – jump to his feet and strike a heroic pose, organise a swelling soundtrack, swear it on his father’s sword or somesuch rubbish – but the idea of any other response is just so obviously wrong. In fact, that’s just it: it’s obvious. So he says it as such.

She’s smiling. He can’t see that, but he recognises it in her voice. “Even if it was the same thing you’ve done to Bond?”

“Especially if that was the case.”

Quite simply, a world without Eve Moneypenny doesn’t seem to have much longer left to live itself.

“Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why’? Is that any way to react to an offer of immortality?”

“Oh, so now you’re offering?”

“Isn’t that what you want?”

“Sweetie – ”

“Don’t call me that,” he grumbles, knowing it’ll go ignored but determined to put it out there nevertheless.

“ – if you think this was about me manoeuvring for a shot at forever, then you don’t know me half as well as you think you do.”

“Nobody ever does. Isn’t that sort of the point of a secret service? Did you know Bond likes cats?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

“Because it’s not in his file. You need to stop relying on computers so much, love.” Love is not that much better than sweetie, but what the hell, he’ll take what he can get.

“I was under the impression I have this job precisely because of computers.” He paused, then added, “That and my predecessor getting murdered by an act of terrorism.” He refers to the incident the way he always does: calmly, precisely, devoid of any emotions except dry resignation and perhaps a trace of humour, depending on the context. Q Branch roughly divides into those who ignore this and those who visibly flinch – or, as he sees it, Tier One and Tier Two. Favouritism is alive and thriving.

Needless to say, Eve is very much Tier One.

Lazily, Q muses, “I wonder if he had to put up with the home invasions as well.”

Eve’s hand stills momentarily, before reluctantly coming back to life when he half-consciously pushes up against it. (He really should stop picking up habits from his cats.) “James was in your house.”

“Several times. Bit unnerving really, waking up to an undead assassin in your room. You’re not sure if he’s going to just kill you or eat your brains to boot.”

“Oh, love,” she says fondly, in the precise tone of voice to indicate that Q is an idiot. She does not follow up on that point, rather letting them lapse temporarily into silence. That’s probably for the best.

After a few minutes of just sitting, Eve still sipping at her tea and Q more comfortable and relaxed than he has been for weeks, Eve observes,“You seem very certain that you’d do it to me, if you could.”

“You’re my friend,” he tells her, simply and bluntly. “You’re the best person I know. I love you, in the non-romantic sense, obviously; you’re funny, you’re practical, you have the decency not to look bored when I get a bit specialised.” Eve is smiling at him, possibly indulgently, but he doesn’t miss her muttered repeat of the phrase ‘a bit’. “Why wouldn’t I want you to live forever?”

Her sweet smile is dimpling, the lines defining the move from affection into amusement, but she doesn’t laugh in his face. Her eyes seem a little bright, which only adds to his confusion as he tries to remember what that means, and her hand’s stilled again, leaving him with the sense that he might have done something wrong but with no idea precisely what.

Finally she says, “Never grow up, Q. I mean it.”

Instantly he flares up, sitting up despite the sudden chill so that he can properly level a glare at her. “I’m not a bloody child – ”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“ – I’m almost thirty, for fuck’s sake, why does everybody act like I’m still seventeen – ”

“Q,” Eve says sharply, cutting him off mid-rant if not doing a thing to halt the rage, “I’m not calling you a child. We both work for MI6; we both carry some measure of daily responsibility for theft and murder – we work in espionage, love. If it weren’t for your sudden brush with the supernatural, you would have heard James die and, no doubt, endlessly tortured yourself with whether you could have stopped it.

“This is not a job for the innocent. It’s a job that turns you bitter and cynical. You only have to look at James for that.” Q winces involuntarily. “Which is why I say: never grow up, dear.”

They watch each other. For all that she insisted otherwise, Q still feels so very young, at the edge of the void of realising just how ignorant you are. Eve isn’t all that much older than him; perhaps that’s what working out in the field does to you.

He breaks the moment, looking away to better guzzle down his tea, as if he’s trying to swallow the feeling of cowardice as well. By the time he glance back, Eve’s expression has turned far less grave, and a weight on his chest eases. Slowly the conversation gathers itself once more, through commentary on grand speeches and the number of visits to the kettle in a single evening. The weight lifts a little, Eve also seeming more comfortable when allowed to rest in her specialist area of light teasing. Not for the first time, Q reflects on what a good pair she and Bond would make. For now he ignores the fact that the rest of the world wouldn’t survive it.

Save for the new barbs regarding superpowers, the conversation’s previous iteration rears its head only the once, as a warm flat and warm company and feeling relaxed for the first time in weeks take their toll and Q finds himself drifting. From previous experience, he knows that Eve has no intention of letting him make his way home, preferring as she does to ensure one good night’s sleep.

“I mean it,” he slurs against his pillow, wandering mind admitting that this is better than the sofa. “If I knew how, I’d do it to you in a heartbeat.”

“If that’s the case – ”

“Of course it is, why would I say it otherwise? You’re better at scheming and deceit than me, Eve, you know that.”

“And I rely on it thoroughly. But since you claim it is the case, then perhaps you need to start asking yourself why you’d do it to James.”

He protests, “It was an accident.”

“Q,” she says, ruffling his hair affectionately but her voice full of the confidence in a winning gambit, “you’re no doubt familiar with this phrase, and given that it’s been applied not just to James but to you too, separately and, I can tell you in strict confidence, together, I really do think it bears some consideration.

“There is such a thing as ‘an accident waiting to happen’.”

----------

The next day Q opens his door to find Bond, freshly returned from the Middle East, who’s arrayed himself with his usual instinctive comfort in the armchair facing the door, Stelmaria stretched lazily in his lap.

“Ah, Mr Bond,” Q says, for want of anything else, letting the door click closed behind him, “I’ve been expecting you.”

“The feeling’s mutual.”

Q stifles a yawn, moving out of Heisenberg's way lest he claw his way past. “Eve knows.”

Bond looks up from where he’s scratching behind Stelmaria’s ears. It really is quite appalling, the way she shows such a clear preference for him. Still, that’s cats for you: no accounting for taste.

“I told her,” Q goes on, letting himself fall back on what really is a very over-stuffed armchair. Bond didn’t ask, but he has this way of asking questions without actually asking them out loud which is annoying but apparently also rather effective. Or maybe Q is just the type who likes explaining things out loud. “So that’s another pair of eyes.”

“Did she have any ideas?”

Q considers discussing the matter. Then again, he’s not sure there’s anything from the conversation last night which he altogether wants to discuss. It feels as though he spends all of his time lately talking about this, or desperately trying not to talk about it when he can’t suggest over the monitored comms that Bond just walks straight through a gunfight since it’ll get him to the target faster, and he’s just getting so tired. The nice thing about Eve was how she could just let it be, once she’d made her own points.

Besides, the main breakthrough last night had actually been the moment he’d had to lie to her – Eve, of all people. Before the conversation had taken that unsettlingly personal turn, she’d asked him whether he had any suspicions about what might be so remarkable about himself. Honestly, he couldn’t believe it took him until then for the penny to drop.

However, if he doesn’t want to mention it to Eve, then he’d damned if he’ll give Bond the privilege.

Instead he announces, “I was actually just going to watch a film, 007. You know, those things which carry an uncanny resemblance to your life.”

Bond shows no sign of moving, nor of reacting to the barb. “What kind?” he inquires warily, as if probing the details of a villain’s master plan.

Delightedly, Q realises that Bond has no intention of running. He suspects that might have something to do with Stelmaria, who was after all named for having an uncanny resemblance to a miniature snow leopard and has all the haughty entitlement and hidden blood lust you might expect. Small wonder Bond likes her. “How’s your knowledge of Star Wars?”

“Seen all three,” Bond informs him smugly as if to say ‘is that the best you can do?’ Q ponders correcting him. On second thoughts, he’ll leave what innocence Bond has left intact.

“Indiana Jones?”

“All three again. You do you realise you just winced twice?”

“You live in a happier world. Harry Potter?”

“Does anything important happen after the fourth one?” At the look on Q’s face, he explains, “You’d be surprised what you have to know for a cover.”

“I’m certainly surprised you bothered to do the reading.” Whilst this is undeniably a great opportunity, it occurs to Q that it might be better to play the long game. After all, if Bond is so insistent on showing up here on a regular basis, it might be best not to undermine the possibility of a repeat. “I’m just going to put on Indiana Jones, all right? You never know, it might give us a few pointers.”

----------

As many who leave home quickly discover, you might not live with your parents anymore, but that does not exempt you from semi-regular contact.

Q and his mother have been going to the same restaurant for years, to the point where Q already knows how their small-talk will go, revolving like lazy planets around what’s changed, what they’ve brought back (or should), what’s stayed the same, endless little observations recording the progress of time if not entirely agreeing with it. Just standing here, waiting for her, he’s already taking notes, letting his eyes rove over the slightly altered table layouts, the new painting at the back which aims to elevate the traditional family-owned business to something higher-end.

Really, it’s depressing, the way it’s clearly been ‘found out’, the clientele shifting upwards in the wages bracket. The script is writing itself in Q’s head: the chip on his shoulder about how in London the pushy businessmen take over everything and never appreciate it. What can he say, he’s a victim of his upbringing that way. Just take the guy who’s just moved in front of him, all perfect suit and shoes, practically screaming about how much money he’s spent on his clothes, who even does that, and why is he just standing there like he’s watching Q –

His inner tirade fizzles out as it crashes into reality.

Bond observes, “You’re not that observant off-the-clock, are you?”

Comically wide-eyed, Q can only stare at him in stunned silence.

“I know you’re not waiting for Moneypenny,” Bond continues, “so either we have another lunch date I wasn’t aware of or there’s someone else.”

The surreal suggestion of jealousy implied at least surprises a response out of him. “I could be eating alone.”

“Except you’ve been waiting for someone.” Bond gives him the cocky grin he apparently reserves for when he knows a person has momentarily forgotten that he is a spy, he is capable of making deductions, he just likes blowing stuff up more. It’s grating, right up until it isn’t and it becomes something else altogether.

Which is precisely the distraction Q doesn’t need right now. It doesn’t take the head of Q Branch to foresee the impending car crash. “Very impressive, 007. In the future though, do you think you could save your stalking for after hours?”

“I’m between missions,” Bond reminds him, with the flirtatious smile he must be levelling at everything with a pulse right now, “this is after hours.”

A treacherous flush, clearly of anger, creeps its way up Q’s neck. He stands, eye to eye, mouth set in a line of determination. “Bond, it is none of your business what I do when I’m not trying to sort out your messes. I am your superior, for all that you ignore that fact, and as such, I am ordering you to leave me alone.”

Bond’s eyes narrow slightly, assessing the situation. Q continues to meet them, starting to smile himself, shoulders relaxing from stiff near-embarrassment to something more confident. Arrogance is something he hasn’t fallen back on for some time, and, for a moment, he feels like he might be in control.

“Dorian?”

For all that he fights it – for all that he tries not to give anything away, how the hell do his agents make this look so easy – Q can feel his smile stiffen into something painfully fake. If he needed any proof, he only has to compare it with the slow dawning pleasure which succeeds Bond’s initial frown. Quite frankly, there’s something more than a little bit evil about it, but maybe that’s just the captive part of him talking.

Q could just ignore her. Really, he could. Long enough to get Bond the fuck out of there.

“Sorry I’m late, Dorian, you know what the traffic’s like.”

Except that plan totally ignores the force of nature at work here. A fatal miscalculation.

He winces before forcing his face to comply with demands, the smile suddenly far more pained, more reluctant to show itself, as he turns to greet her. The knowledge of what he is about to give away – has already done so – makes the words catch, turning his voice strange. “Mum. Hi.”

Truly, Q doesn’t need to see Bond’s expression. He can feel the waves of triumph just fine.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that. You know full well what the Tube’s like at lunchtime, and we are getting the first proper tourists. Bloody nightmare. Now, just give me a moment to find Harry.”

That’s how long they’ve been coming here. Not only does his mother know the guy’s name, but it never even occurs to her that it might be somebody else.

When she turns away, Bond murmurs in his ear – leaning in close, Q can practically feel the breath against his skin, it’s making him flush and he really bloody hates that – “Dorian?”

“I will eviscerate you.” The advantage of that particular phrasing being that when his mother glancing around, it’s not that hard to smile at the same time.

“You can try.”

“007, you will turn around and you will walk away. Now.”

Before Bond can respond, his mother is back, which only wins her a few points, because her first question is, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I know your name?”

“Bond,” is the inevitable answer, and Q can’t help but mouth along with, “James Bond.”

“Well, Mr Bond, I’ve asked and, if you can spare a moment, Harry says it’s no trouble if you want to eat with us.”

“He can’t spare a moment, he’s very busy,” Q says, perhaps a little too quickly, judging by the way her eyes narrow. “Besides, he wouldn’t want to intrude,” he adds through gritted teeth, glaring pointedly at Bond’s beatific smile.

“Oh, you’re welcome to join us,” she says, with the universal smile of a mother determined to grill her son’s friends for intimate details behind his back.

“No, he’s not,” Q informs both of them, at the same time that Bond (of course) replies, “I’d be delighted to.”

“I will kill you in your sleep,” Q informs his agent – his agent, he is Bond’s bloody superior, this is ridiculous (albeit hardly unprecedented) – once his mother’s back is turned.

Bond smiles at him – a far more characteristic smug, sly flash of teeth than the charming facsimile he’d presented before – and invites, “You can try.”

----------

007 talking to my mother, he fires off under the table.

Eve’s reply takes slightly longer than he’d expected. He suspects she was laughing too hard to be able to text properly.

Meeting the parents already? You are moving fast.

He scowls before he can stop himself, and he’s halfway through a reply – so, about five seconds – when he hears an admonishing, “Dorian.”

Guiltily – not that he is, not one jot, only his mother and specifically that voice have this very odd effect on him, as if he really is the little kid 007 used to enjoy comparing him to – he looks up to see his mother holding out her hand imperiously. “Stop texting under the table.”

Sometimes it’s remarkable, the way your parents and those old family traditions make you regress. For them – the two of them – it’s always been the admonition of stop texting. Sometimes it really is texting; sometimes it’s something that looks an awful lot like texting because people can be very narrow-minded indeed when it comes to imagining what on Earth a teenage boy could be doing constantly on his phone; sometimes he’s not even holding a phone but rather an i-Pod or a tablet or remote control or pretty much anything electronic (not always, but nine times out of ten). The exact details don’t matter though, only the code: ‘stop fiddling and pay attention to the human beings’. Sticking to ‘texting’ gives them the veneer of normality. If Q’s reticence regarding his own genius when he first started at MI6 (after he’d been hauled in but before his predecessor painstakingly lured him out into the glorious sunlight of justified arrogance) had seemed unnatural in that den of egos, it’s only how he’d been raised. As proud as she undeniably has remained of his abilities, Cathleen has always impressed upon him the need to hide. As if she was in danger of being discovered, not him.

In hindsight, he should thank her for such a firm grounding in espionage.

His excuse for the sigh and roll of his eyes as he makes a show of reluctantly handing it over – the regression to teenagerhood as well as actually giving the phone over at all – is the long history of this happening at every birthday party and parents’ evening and enforced children’s socialising event in his life. Sometimes muscle memory is your own worst enemy.

“Thank you,” she says primly, placing the phone in her own pocket, where its buzzing or flashing lights can’t distract him from social functions.

Unfortunately, that also means no distraction from Bond’s expression. Apparently his judgment of the environment means that his sadistic glee is a little less restrained than if his mother had been, say, the Prime Minister. However, Q is just relieved to prove able to fight down the incredible urge to stick out his tongue, even if his glare is increasingly too familiar to produce much visible impact.

Bond is immortal, Q reminds himself. That means he can do whatever he wants and there is no way he’s going to get in trouble for killing 007. If nothing else is going to get him through this meal, the thought of sweet revenge should do the trick.

Perhaps it’s just Q’s imagination, but when he meets Bond’s eyes a moment later, the agent’s smug amusement meeting his own scheming bloodlust, he thinks he sees Bond’s pupils dilate.

Except that would mean he’s watching closely enough to notice something as small as that, which is not only highly unlikely, but also kind of inappropriate in present company.

Quickly averting his eyes and settling lower in his seat as if he really is as old as people keep assuming, Q determines to return to resigning himself to the pure horror of the situation with which he has been presented. It’s not even as if he can run damage control, since technically speaking there is no damage to control – as impossible as that sounds, considering one of the participants. The problem is that, of course, James Bond is more than capable of becoming one of the most charming people known to humankind. Q was already aware of this, having been the oh-so-lucky voice in Bond’s ear and hence also eternal eavesdropper on perhaps too many missions, but somehow things seem rather different when instead of chatting up the girlfriend of an international arms smuggler, Bond’s target is instead Q’s own mother. Their conversation revolves less around extracting information about weapon drops and more about discussing Q’s childhood pet dog.

Q’s ridiculous metabolism means he really shouldn’t drink much in the middle of the day, when he does have work to get back to, and especially when he is in fact here on a mission. He has already downed two glasses of wine and only now has the main course arrived.

His mother is not being taken in by any of this. She can’t be. His mother is one of the most canny individuals he’s ever met and surely she can sense how incredibly unsettling a charming Bond truly is. Q just wishes she’d be a bit more obvious about it and not smile so much.

Then again, at least Bond has a little more experience lying about his job, and by extension Q’s. He picks up on the not-technically-a lie of ‘working for the government’ with effortless ease, expanding and elaborating without a moment’s hesitation, and once again, fuck, Q has to admit that there is maybe a reason why, despite the endless trail of destruction and near-misses with regard to international incidents, 007 remains MI6’s longest-serving and most successful Double O agent.

His mother giggles coyly at another piece of thinly-veiled flirtation which Q didn’t even know could exist in the harsh light of non-cinematic reality, and Q pours himself a third glass.

“How could you never mention you had a friend like this one?” Cathleen admonishes him – and there’s no question about, it is an admonishment. Bond smiles at him triumphantly, the familiar 007 twinkle over the wineglass, and Q’s own almost shatters under his grip. Given that he can’t openly glare, Q hastily imagines three new death traps and derives some comfort from that instead.

To his mother, he explains, “Bond’s more of a colleague. You know I don’t like talking about work.” He grants himself a petty point for not even lying.

“Well, I think that’s a shame. He’s quite charming,” He’s also right there, Q thinks, “and it does an old woman good to be charmed once in a while.”

“You’re too hard on yourself,” Bond says, because of course he does. “You don’t look a day over – ”

“Oh, please don’t,” Cathleen interrupts with a laugh, giving Q at least some hope. “When you have a son who’s almost thirty, trust me, Mr Bond, ‘old’ is the only word for it.”

The fact that Bond finally has some sort of independent confirmation that Q is not a bloody child isn’t nearly enough to stop Q squirming in mortification and wishing that either he or Bond were dead.

Only when he finally surfaces does he realise that goodbyes are being said. Apparently Bond isn’t staying for dessert, and Q can’t believe his luck, whilst wishing he hadn’t missed how it had happened. He can’t imagine Bond wanting to miss out on any of this, yet his mother frankly seems to have been enjoying it just as much. Still, he’s hardly going to object, and if Bond only seems slightly amused by Q’s idea of a firm handshake, it’s the thought that counts. The thought in question being how very much Q is going to make him pay for this.

Finally, with a courteous nod and oh God did he just kiss her hand how is he even real, Bond makes his usual understated exit. Q counts at least four women and two men inspecting various parts of the departing anatomy – he also notes the areas in question – and sighs to himself.

Cathleen watches Bond go as well, smiling softly to herself, before Q suddenly finds himself pinned by a gaze turned suddenly steely. “Now, dear, I know you didn’t call me to make small talk with your mother, with or without your charming friend. Out with it.” It’s not threatening at all: only the dropping of the disguise she assumes so naturally in company – something Q remembers a little belatedly.

For all that she never fails to strip back his mental maturity, Q really does love his mother.

“But – Bond!”

“As I said, very charming. I’ve known few men who can turn it on as easily and competently as that. You must pass on my compliments on the performance. Very well done indeed.”

He stares at her. “That was one of the most excruciating moments of my life.”

“And I’m fully aware of the fact. You always have let your guard drop when you’re embarrassed, whether you’ve been caught doing something you shouldn’t, or when I finally get to meet someone who can give away a thing or two about you.”

Q protests, “You’ve met Eve.”

“As I said, someone who can give things away. It takes ego when it comes to your job, dear; Eve hardly qualifies. Now,” she goes on, before he can even begin to consider any sort of response, “don’t deflect. You know I can always tell. Why are we enjoying a lovely lunch on this particular occasion?”

Her gaze is steady, inviting but piercing as well. Cathleen has never been a woman to suffer fools gladly, or any kind of deceit or beating around the bush. She taught him the little deception he’s capable of without stuttering, at the same time she taught him that it can never work on her. So he doesn’t even try.

“What do I ask you every 1st January?”

Her eyes narrow and her face closes off. “It’s April, dear. I thought even you would have noticed that.”

From someone else, it might have been an insult. As it is, he’s not denying that there’s an insulting element, but he doesn’t bridle the way he would at work. Eve has mastered this as well, and he’s starting to wonder whether Bond isn’t headed the same way: the understanding that this isn’t an attack, but something else, be it defence or affection or diversion.

“Special circumstances,” he tells her, getting his usual pleased thrill from assuming an air of mystery, however temporary. Before she can object, he plunges right in with it.

“Tell me about Dad.”

Cathleen lets her eyes fall closed and sighs deeply.

This is what he hasn’t been telling Bond or Eve. This is what occurred to him nights ago; this is why he wanted to meet his mother, regardless of what he might have claimed.

Q has been over the facts, time and again, forming theories and suppositions (and incidentally extensively upgrading his security at the same time), and the undeniable advantage he has over the two of them is the confidence in this single truth: that the only real mystery about him, where something like this might lurk, is in his parentage. His mother, granted, might be hiding something, most likely is, yet something like a missing father is too large a hole to pass by unnoticed and unchecked. Q’s read enough fantasy to know how this works.

“Care to tell me why it can’t wait?”

“Because for once I actually need an answer. Now.”

“Why?”

“I told you, special circumstances.”

“That’s not telling me anything, that’s avoiding the question.”

“I learnt from the best.”

“I’ll try not to take that as an insult.”

“Mum,” he sighs, letting a little vulnerability slip through voluntarily, “I need to know. I already suspect, but I’m not entirely sure what it is I’m suspecting.”

“Don’t be farcical, Dorian. Life’s too short.”

He pinches the bridge of his nose, under his glasses, and forces out, “Dad wasn’t as…normal as you’ve let me assume, was he? I mean,” he continues, before she can start misleading him, “he was someone…something, maybe, a little more, well,” God, it hurts, “supernatural?”

He chances a look. Cathleen’s face is blank – a little too carefully blank. It’s not an admission in itself, but it hardly helps any denial, and Q feels a small swell of something perhaps akin to hope even as his world slowly falls apart.

“Are you certain of that?”

“I’m not certain of anything. But the only way recent events make sense is if the world really isn’t what I thought it was, and that means Dad wasn’t some layabout who vanished off the moment he got you pregnant.”

“Well, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.”

She takes a sip of her wine. When Harry comes to offer the dessert menu, she waves him off, asking only for the bill. Harry hesitates, but complies, moving away without questioning her. Silence lingers in his wake, and when he returns, Q notes twice the amount of complimentary chocolates weighing the paper down. It’s the first time in almost twenty years that they haven’t stayed for dessert.

He jumps when Cathleen speaks. “There is one thing, though. It wasn’t the last time I saw him.” She gathers herself slowly, grandly, to her feet. Q follows suit, slipping a higher contribution to the tip as he does so.

“He left something for you.”

This is why Q remains unmoved by Bond’s idea of the grand exit. His mother already perfected it.

----------

“I expect you’re all wondering why I’ve gathered you here today.”

Eve observes from an overstuffed armchair, “All two of us,” and Q deflates a little.

“Can’t you indulge me just this once?”

Leaning coolly against the wall, eternally posing for a high-class fashion magazine (occasionally dipping into the lower end of the industry, Q thinks cattily), Bond comments, “We might never stop.” Q closes his eyes tightly for a moment, trying not to linger on possible meanings and especially not the low inviting tone of Bond’s voice, and opens them again to see that Eve’s smile has turned very knowing indeed.

Hastily moving on, he informs them, “I found out why this happened.”

Being, respectively, current and former field agents, neither Bond nor Eve noticeably react – noticeable, that is, to someone unaccustomed to the type. Unfortunately, Q’s job demands that he is accustomed, and automatically he registers and files away how Eve’s teasing eyes harden, how Bond’s back straightens, how in both cases their former casualness becomes a disguise designed to set others off-guard.

It depresses Q sometimes what being good at his job actually entails.

“From whom?” Bond queries, good education always lurking even when you forget about it.

Q forces a smile. “As a matter of fact, from my mother.” He watches the various recollections and calculations flickering across Bond’s face and allows himself to enjoy the view. It is, after all, far better than focusing on the alternative.

Eve comments, “So it wasn’t just so James could meet the family?” and it’s only much later that Q fully appreciates it as a distraction. The conversations he has with Bond are meandering and maybe ten times longer than they ever have to be because the two of them seem to get distracted by everything about each other. It’s hardly an inefficient way of doing things.

Here and now, though, he makes a face at her of the sort favoured by six-year-olds who have the excuse of not being old enough to have any wit with which to respond. It’s one step away from sticking his tongue out.

It heads off one deviation, however. Hiding never works around Eve.

“Did you know I never knew my father?”

“I wasn’t aware that I cared,” is Bond’s typically empathic response. For someone who so recently got Q to squirm in his seat, he seems pretty on edge.

Before Eve can mount some sort of defence, Q simply replies, “Normally I’d agree. Unfortunately, 007, this is actually relevant. Believe me when I say that that is the only reason why I would be forcing you to listen to this.” It’s true: just mentioning the matter of his father makes his stomach twist and complain, even when you ignore what Q’s learnt. Abandonment issues, perhaps, except for the most part those were over and done with when a secondary school pupil realised he could just prove himself better in any way that mattered. Now, Q just hates mentioning something that always makes people judge him on terms he didn’t choose.

“I have tried to find him, on numerous occasions; MI6 did so as well, first to gather intelligence and then as the more standard background check.” If Bond is unfamiliar with the circumstances surrounding Q’s employment, Q is certainly not going to be the one to tell him. Especially not at this moment. “He’s always been dismissed as a ghost – impressively so, at that.” He can’t help the wince at his accidental choice of words, and resigns himself to knowing that both of them saw it. “I knew MI6 wouldn’t find anything through online databases unless he’d suddenly surfaced since I’d last checked after not existing for his entire life. I was a little surprised to find out they’d run a DNA check as well, and particularly when it only came back with results for my mother’s side of the family.”

Bond frowns. “Doesn’t seem likely. Not unless they all kept squeaky-clean for their entire lives.” His tone suggests just how much credence he gives to that, living as he does in a world where if someone doesn’t seem guilty you can’t have done enough digging yet.

Q appreciates that he didn’t say it’s impossible. “Quite. Apparently there were a few hits which could indicate, say, a common father, but supposedly there’s something unusual enough to muddy the waters. I must admit that I follow technology far better than biology.”

“Careful, Q,” Bond warns, “that almost sounded like you don’t know something.”

“Almost being the key word.”

“You said this was relevant?” Eve reminds him. She doesn’t look bored – if anything, she looks a little sorry for him, a slight turn to her mouth Q notices precisely because he’s so sensitive about those sorts of things. It’s enough to rankle; enough to force him to get to the point.

Q sits back in his chair, rubbing at a spot on his trousers which might in fact be nothing. “The only person who definitely knows something has always been my mum, and she’s never been particularly forthcoming on the subject. She might never have told me, if I hadn’t been having a few suspicions lately about what might possibly cause…well, you,” he says lamely, indicating Bond, who stays curiously silent.

“In my defence, it’s not the sort of thing that occurs to you straightaway – especially since it doesn’t quite fit the standard narrative.”

Eve obediently prompts, “What narrative?”

And here it is: the impossible thing. Another one, at any rate, and yet if Bond shooting himself in the head shattered reality around him, this next truth shatters Q himself.

He lets his eyes fall shut. “What happens when a human has a child with a god.”

It’s nice there, in the dark. He doesn’t have to see their faces. It’s quiet too, which is another blessing. Neither of them laughs, or starts yelling, both of which he considered to be possibilities. The silence just stretches on.

It occurs to him that perhaps it’s that he doesn’t dare look. Does he really want to see their faces? Does he really want to confirm that yes, he really did say that; that yes, he believes it as well, because it makes sense, because it’s the only theory that has fitted, because a woman who has never been fanciful in his life (save for the usual motherly lies) told him with a straight face?

From somewhere far away, he hears Eve repeat, “A god.” There’s no trace of emotion in her voice, something he’s sure she waited until she could be certain of. Well, it doesn’t sound judgemental, he’ll give her that on the comforting front.

Still resting his head against his hand, propped up on the chair arm, he nods. “To be more specific, the god of death. Hence the…” He waves vaguely in Bond’s direction – assuming he hasn’t moved, of course.

“Do you mind looking at me when you’re talking about me?”

The complaint doesn’t sit right in Bond’s voice. Not that Bond can’t sound petulant – he most certainly can, then has the nerve to accuse Q of being young – but this isn’t how he does it. However, it does make Q open his eyes again, to see that whilst Eve seems to be struggling to figure out the appropriate response, Bond has settled for the standard unimpressed vague glower with a dash of cynicism to add interest.

Q raises his eyebrows – I’m looking at you now – and Bond’s expression does not alter.

“So, whatever you did to James…” Eve starts awkwardly.

“I believe the traditional term is a blessing,” Q finishes, leaning on the word whilst glaring at the person in question.

Bond refuses to catch fire. It’s aggravating. “I didn’t ask for it.”

“If we’ve learnt anything from this, it’s that you really are an ungrateful twat.” As ever, Q tries not to lapse into that kind of language: he got the idea in his head a while ago that it in some way meant he was less intelligent, and even now the satisfaction is at war with his own ego. It’s just that Bond really does bring out the worst in him – and the divine, it now seems. How about that?

Eve questions, a little too loud, “And do you have a plan of how to reverse that blessing?” She barely stumbles over the world. Secretarial skills win again: that knack for instant familiarity with new vocabulary.

“At the moment, my plan consists of asking him.”

After a rather sudden silence, Eve leans forward and asks cautiously, “How, exactly?” She then adds, oh-so-helpfully, “I can think of a few ways that trying to literally summon Death might backfire.”

“We could always get 007 to do it,” Q mutters, still feeling a little stung. Somehow knowing a bit more of the ‘how’ actually makes Bond’s reaction worse. Whilst it remains something of a cosmic accident, it’s also gained the slight aura of a present hurled back in his face, to say nothing of the fact that now Q’s bloody erstwhile father has got involved and there is the small matter of what this actually means about Q which he’s been frantically dodging around so far and doesn’t intend to stop doing so any time soon. “But no. It seems he left a means of getting in touch, should I ever wish to or should my mother ever decide I should have the option.”

“You almost sound angry at her.”

“I’m not,” Q lies, except that’s not entirely accurate either.

His mother has kept something this huge from him his entire life; she’s dodged his questions and made a game, a family tradition, out of refusing to tell him. Every second he’s been alive – and technically before he was even born – she’s known who he really is. She’s known that logic is laughable, that the fabric of reality isn’t the material everybody assumes, that everything Q’s built his life around is, from a certain point of view, utterly and entirely wrong.

Then again, up until a few weeks ago his precise parentage hasn’t been relevant. In fact, Q’s gone out of his way to avoid making it so. He has never ever wanted to be defined by his father. The world as he’s always known it – the world that matters – spins on regardless of whether it’s right or wrong about the more supernatural elements of it. He was only able to call Eve and Bond here when he’d realised that really, what could she have said? Besides simply knowing – and granted, that is something Q usually values rather highly, browsing Wikipedia and trading trivia with his team for the simple delight of learning – besides that, what was there to gain from telling him that he isn’t, well –

“She gave me this,” he announces, a little too loud, picking up a yellowing letter from the coffee table before him. With some small satisfaction, he notices that Bond narrows his eyes but says nothing. Yes, Q will admit that he deliberately put it right there in front of them, on top of a pile of far more recent post, just because he could. It’s been an interesting few days, so he figures that he’s allowed.

Sliding open the flap – really, except for the absolutely inevitable signs of age, it’s survived remarkably well – he carefully removes a rectangle of card, about the length of his middle finger and a muted shade of white just giving in to yellow. Words and numbers are printed across it, still legible today: a station, a charge, a fare type.

Bond and Eve both come in closer to inspect it, as Q carefully places it back on the table. Given that at least two people in the room are currently (and, Q’s case, almost always) avowed Londoners, it’s not long at all before realisation dawns.

“So, your father left you a Travelcard?”

“No, actually.” Q taps the offending scrap of card. “Those only came in in 1983 – this is from before then.” Google to the rescue again. He hadn’t been surprised to find that this ticket was unusual for more than its age, for two main reasons.

First, there was no date. By implication of it being presented to him, that might mean it was still technically valid, should he find a machine which would recognise it. Which he doubted.

Second, the station from which it was allegedly a return.

“’North End’,” Bond read out over his shoulder, because personal space was for normal people. “Never heard of it.”

It’s more than a little petty, but Q still mutters, “A little more obscure than Granborough?” and derives a pleasure that is all to do with nastiness at Bond’s stillness. Still, he can feel the waves of disapproval from Eve’s seat, making him clear his throat and elaborate, louder, “That’s because it doesn’t exist. Technically.”

He glanced up to see Bond’s eyebrows raised, evidently awaiting an explanation.

“They started working on it around the turn of the century – between Hampstead and Golders Green – only the plans fell through before they connected it to the surface. In the Second World War they used it to store secret archives, and after that it was part of civil defence preparations if the Cold War ever became…less cold. It’s emergency evacuation for the Tube now.”

“Somebody had fun on Wikipedia,” Eve observes with a wry smile.

“It also would have been the deepest station in the network,” Q agrees.

“But it’s not actually a station,” Bond interjects.

“That’s what I said.”

“So,” Bond grinds out, “how is this supposed to help us?”

“Apparently I’m supposed to know what to do with it.”

“Except you don’t.”

“Thank you, 007, for once again stating the bloody obvious. You truly are invaluable in that capacity.”

“No need to get your claws out because you don’t know something.”

“Well, obviously I’m supposed to use it to get to, well, wherever the hell he is – ”

“Possibly apt phrasing,” Eve comments, and he smiles as he notices the flash of concern in her face.

“ – only the station doesn’t exist.” He pauses, then amends, “Strictly. It’s there for evacuations and whatnot, but any trains are just passing through to somewhere else. I know, I went down there.”

Shit. He didn’t mean to admit that. Not yet, anyway.

Bond is the first to recover, with the steady voice that conceals more danger than any audible anger ever could. “On your own.”

At least he has the decency not to bother making it a question. There aren’t a whole lot of ways of construing the meaning of I went down there. So Q doesn’t bother confirming it. “As soon as I found out there was surface access. I would’ve thought you of all people would be familiar with the concept of recon.”

“By trained agents,” and now Bond’s voice is dropping into a low growl and it occurs to Q that he might have misjudged the situation, even if he’s not entirely sure what factors he missed.

Still, as ever the supposition that Q somehow can’t handle himself makes him bristle, so he bites out, “What do you imagine might have been down there? Hordes of killer zombies, perhaps? Silva’s reanimated corpse? For fuck’s sake, 007,” he lapses into stronger language and doesn’t regret it, “it’s the fucking Tube.”

Bond looks ready to lash out, until Eve hastily steps in. “What did you find, then?”

Not breaking eye contact – Bond’s angry, really and quite unexpectedly angry, Q has apparently stumbled into something and he doesn’t know what and he doesn’t know why – Q says, “Nothing. Obviously.”

“Which means there has to be more to it.”

Bond answers before Q has a chance to do so. “Or the whole thing’s a bloody waste of time.”

“Sorry, do you think there are monsters in every shadow or do you think it’s all a joke? You can’t have both.”

“It’s not your job to go throwing yourself into danger – ”

“You throwing yourself into danger is what got us into this.” Q can’t hold back the addendum, “As usual.”

Boys.”

Eve’s voice cuts through the discussion-cum-argument, even as Bond’s face twists into the closest thing Q’s seen to anger on him (it occurs to him that so far he’s only ever actually witnessed Bond as ‘highly vexed’). They glare at each other a moment longer, Q challenging and Bond fuming, before turning away as one towards a new focus.

Eve looks a little surprised to suddenly have their mutual attention. Still, being the wonderful woman she is, it’s hardly surprising that she soldiers on barely a moment later. “Well, you started this on the theory that this is how fantasy works, didn’t you, Q?”

Q can hear Bond’s scoff and carefully keeps his eyes fixed on Eve.

“So why not follow it through? You’ve got the magical dad, you’ve got the heroic journey, you’ve got the mystical object to get you into Moria – ”

“I’m starting to think you’re not taking this seriously.”

“ – so maybe you need the right door?”

Q doesn’t think he can be trusted with an expression right now. “If you come out with some sort of ‘if there’s a key, there must be a door’ nonsense, I’m leaving.”

Think about it, dear. If the ridiculous comes for you, you might as well try to play along. Although,” Eve says brightly, clearly warming to the theme of torturing Q with the unbelievable irrationality of the turn his life has taken (Bond’s fault, all he can think, Bond’s fault), “you have been short-changed, you poor thing. By now you should have met an old mentor to sacrifice himself, an appalling piece of poetry passing for a prophecy, a mystic vision or two – ”

She stops suddenly as he lets out a low groan of horrid realisation. “What?”

Wordlessly, he reaches into his pocket, and tosses a crumpled missive onto the table between them. Her eyebrows furrow as she reads, even though it consists of only three words, because they are three words which don’t make any bloody sense – except that they’re very quickly starting to.

Because Bond is from the land of exposition, he finds it necessary to read them out over Q’s shoulder. “Follow the tunnels’?”

“When did you write that?” Eve asks, and Q doesn’t bother to restrain a pre-emptive wince.

“I dreamt it.” He does his best to load these three words with as much irony and pure loathing as possible, even though it will never be enough, even though it is impossible to convey with mere words and inflection how much his blood boils and his mind rages at what’s been dragged into his life and is now trailing mud and misrule through what little logic the world had going for it.

Fortunately, not only does Eve look distinctly unimpressed – the physical embodiment of are you fucking serious, if Q is any judge – but a glare behind him reveals that Bond shares the emotion, if not doubly so.

“You…dreamt it,” he repeats, and it’s only Q’s own hatred of this turn of events that stops him from instinctively lashing out at that particular tone of Bond’s which is so perfectly designed to convey the maximum degree of subordinate disdain.

Eve instead chooses to focus on, “I said when.”

“A couple of nights ago.”

“When you decided this was something that needed fixing?”

He decided,” Q reminds her, firmer than he’d intended.

“You agreed.”

“I felt bad! I just – ” He stops himself before anybody else can jump in, his eyes turning wide as the end of the sentence attempts to vanish out of sight.

Coolly, Bond asks, “You pitied me?”

“I didn’t say that!” Q squawks, before realising the trap too late. “I mean – ”

“I don’t need your pity,” Bond growls. “I don’t need your charity. I want you to fix this, and then I never want to talk about it again.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

“Because it is! If you ignore all of this…this, about gods or blessings, all I want is for you to put things back the way they were. I never asked you to do this, and I can assure you that I never would have. I don’t care what you do, just so long as it gets done.”

Q scoffs. “Because of course you have no interest in living forever. That’s something that holds no appeal for you whatsoever.”

“Correct,” Bond growls. “So glad we understand each other.”

“Trust me, 007, we don’t. The way I see it, you just miss being able to almost kill yourself every day.”

For a moment, he truly believes Bond is about to punch him. His face has gone dangerously still, those vivid blue eyes full of anger and – just behind – a composed promise of death; the set of the shoulders, the centre of gravity, Q’s witnessed those tells a thousand times. That’s his job, and from a distance he never fully appreciated what it’s like to have James Bond bearing down on you.

When he moves, Q flinches.

Maybe he missed something when he instinctively screwed up his eyes, but when he looks again, Bond is gone. Leaping to his feet, Q makes it to the hallway just in time to have the sight of the door slamming shut.

It takes Q a moment to register that he did indeed just witness James Bond storming out of his flat. He wants to make some sort of comment in relation to Bond revealing his mental age, except when he turns to do so he quails before the force of Eve’s glare.

On the back foot and on the defensive, he protests, “You were supposed to be damage control!”

“Was I,” she states dryly, not a hint of a question mark for him to cling to. “So that was my fault?”

Q recognises a trap when he hears one. His mother does this all the time. Unfortunately, that experience only means that he can sigh and willingly resign himself to his fate with a helpless shrug. At least he can get the most neutral response this way.

Eve levels an accusing finger at him. “That was a fair example of why I said you two are an accident waiting to happen.”

Slumped over, suddenly lethargically despondent in Bond’s wake, Q returns to collapse bonelessly in his chair and ask, “You mean we haven’t yet?” When all she does is sigh herself – less weary, more despairingly – he elaborates, “Because I’m not sure if you mean the accidental immortality or the constant yelling anymore.”

“Both,” she snaps. “You two have been getting under each other’s skin since you met, and whilst it’s usually adorable, occasionally the shared obliviousness inevitably results in an explosion.”

There’s just too much in that sentence for Q to comprehend, so he just jokes, “That’s Bond for you.” The joke falls flat, and he’s not surprised.

“Q, you say you love me, and trust me, the feeling is mutual. The fact that I love you is why there is only so much of this I can take.”

“I don’t even know what ‘this’ is supposed to be.”

“Because you might have a genius level IQ, but that has never stopped anyone from being an idiot. Just the opposite, in fact.” Eve stands, making Q flinch and not even be ashamed of it. At least it makes her pause, with a distinctly sad turn to her mouth all of a sudden, before she walks over and takes a seat on the arm of his chair, running a comforting hand through his hair as he peers up at her.

“I have heard,” she tells him gently, “the story of the first time the two of you met from both sides, and to be honest, neither of you comes off that well. The same could be said of how both of you are handling this, and not just what I just witnessed.

“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, the way you get to each other. You need someone to take you down a peg or two – don’t interrupt me, love – ” Q obediently closes his mouth again, “ – and frankly James needs the same. I honestly think you help to keep him grounded as well, as unlikely as that sounds, which is why it honestly hurts a little to see you fighting like this.”

“It’s not like we never fight,” Q objects. “We’ve always been doing that.”

“But not like this. Which makes me wonder just what changed.”

Q tilts his head slightly, looking up at her over the rim of his glasses, regardless of the fact that he can’t actually see her expression that way. It’s the gesture that counts. “Well,” he suggests sarcastically, “007 is immortal these days.”

He misses the scowl, but he can deduce it from the light smack to his head. “Idiot,” she informs him. “I meant besides that. Or because of it. Either. Both. Whichever actually gets through to you.”

“I really don’t know what you’re talking about, Eve.”

She lets her head drop. “You really don’t,” she agrees. Then she proposes, “Just let me ask one question.”

“All right.”

“Why do you think James is angry?”

Q stares blankly back at her.

At least he knows it isn’t ‘because it’s 007’. As previously stated, he has never seen Bond like this. Unfortunately, there are just too many variables, and it’s not like 007 is easy to psychoanalyse. If he were, then maybe the shrinks in HR wouldn’t cry so much about setting him loose.

“I suppose,” he says slowly, “he doesn’t like not having control?” The feeling’s mutual in that respect. Q hates being ignorant more than anything, certainly, but not being in control ties into that considerably. Knowing things is the only way a scrawny pale kid in glasses from single figures has any power at all. As heady as the idea of controlling life and death undeniably is, the fact he can’t control it in any way is enough to make him sick. Yes, he waited until this evening to tell the two of them because he wanted to investigate the station, and there was a long-lost father and an earth-shattering revelation to deal with, but some of the intervening time was also spent trying not to panic about losing so much control, and frankly the psychological implications are something Q is trying very hard to avoid.

To the point where there is no way he is going to be telling even Eve any of that.

“007 might be petty enough to resent not being asked…” He can see in Eve’s eyes that neither of them think that’s the real reason, just as neither of them can deny it as a factor. “It’s possible he hates the supernatural involvement even more than me, although I seriously doubt it.” He shrugs. “It’s something he can’t shoot, that has to hurt.”

“You think that makes him angry?”

Something in Q snaps. “Or he’s just angry that I almost went off to the Underworld without him. 007’s funny like that.”

Eve recoils slightly; Q’s shoulder feels cold without her hand there. Still, as much as he might regret it, he glares up at her steadily, as she gets to her feet once more. He does nothing to break the silence as she pointedly collects her things, and all she’ll offer is the muttered “You two are ridiculous” before she shows herself out.

Q curls up in his chair and sulks. He’s not deluded enough to deny that that is precisely what he is doing; just the opposite, he takes a certain delight in it.

The same goes for when he resigns himself to the inevitable, retrieves Bond’s superior scotch from the cupboard, and alternates taking large pissed off swigs with giving the train ticket the finger.

----------

The physical hangover passes with time and Alka Seltzer and a department on tiptoes (except for Jez and Gerty, who between them have secured a wealth of hangover cures in a single hour and coax him in with the fervent and reverent whisper of “science”); the mental hangover, more’s the pity, takes rather longer.

Q isn’t human. That’s the long and short of it: if there was a way for testing for this (he knows he’s been checked over thoroughly on a regular basis, knows he would have heard by now if there was anything to find, and yet he still takes blood samples and bullies people into explaining the parts he doesn’t yet know without saying as much, and there’s nothing), if there was a way of pointing it out, of making his warped DNA light up like a Christmas tree with identifiers and the like, Q has been and always will be only half human. (At most.)

And he’d thought Bond’s immortality was bad. This is Hell.

Speaking of Bond, Q knows that despite their appalling gossiping tendencies (when something is sufficiently obvious) nobody in Q Branch will comment on it in his presence, but he also knows that they have all noted the distinct lack of a certain field agent hanging around and making the place look messy. Q has no idea what Bond’s doing to kill the time now, and frankly he doesn’t care. He doesn’t have to see Bond’s face. That’s the main thing.

Eve’s gone quiet too, although he doesn’t think it’s for precisely the same reasons. He has a horrible feeling that she’s ‘giving him space’, which is possibly the worst idea in the world. They gave him space after his own Q died; after the fucking disaster labelled ‘Skyfall’ and hidden where everybody can pretend it didn’t end the world, at least for MI6. The best he can say about either occasion is that the palmprint handguns did go down well, and their security really really needed upgrading. He just wishes those weren’t his greatest successes from the occasion.

When he goes home – if he goes home – it’s too quiet. His cats haven’t abandoned him, which is something, only now it doesn’t feel like enough. (Stelmaria treats him like a stranger. Naturally.) The one time he stays the night, properly, he lies there staring at the ceiling wondering when bickering became his life. He doesn’t want to hear the answer.

The ticket sits there in its box, judging him. He leaves it at home and it judges him, and he takes it to work and it judges him, and he runs away one lunchtime to the park where he peers suspiciously at the crows which always show up and the dogs which gravitate towards him and the box laughs long and hard from afar as it judges him.

He doesn’t even last a week. He can’t even be sorry about that.

----------

Tracking down Bond is not nearly as hard as it probably should have been. Q would feel sorry about that, or even possibly concerned about Bond’s espionage expertise, if it weren’t for the facts that firstly, Bond is not on mission right now, and secondly, in fairness, it is Q who’s tracking him.

Subdermal tracking devices never seem to last with Bond – Q has a recollection of his original Q throwing up his hands and announcing that they could probably trust 007 to either find his own way home or blow something up to let them know where he was – but in a city like London, you can’t really avoid the CCTV unless you’re Batman.

He leaves a polite text for Bond to find in the morning, and a polite profile on his current bed partner. Not that he think Bond cares, but it has a nice 1984 thrill to it, and Q’s always been a sucker for that.

Two intersections down from Q Branch, two days from now. Pack for the Underworld. – Q

He’d considered something a little more oblique for the latter sentence, but on reflection decided that it already sounded like code anyway.

Two days gives him time to ‘get his affairs in order’ – in that he arranges for his deputy to take the helm for an extended period (who, magnificent woman that she is, only asks whether there’s anything about to explode in the next month she should know about) and starts compiling a list of what you might need on some sort of quest of this type. It’s one of the few occasions in his recollection that he finds himself crossreferencing survival websites and basic mythology.

(‘Mythology’. Every now and again he has to just stop and rub at his eyes and wonder what the fuck happened to his life.)

Eve is the rock he always knows she will be, after she’s stopped asking him if he’s insane. Admittedly she stops asking because she seems fairly certain she’s got her answer, but Q is willing to settle for that if it gets him a normal conversation. Even if he doesn’t always like the subject.

“You don’t think you need to debrief him?”

“I’ll be right there with him. We can debrief right before we set off.”

“Q…”

“And he’s ignoring my texts and keeps changing his routine as if it makes him harder to find and it’s just easier to ignore someone when they’re acting like that.”

Her nose wrinkles and she looks decidedly unhappy. Still, she does let them move on.

“You know I have to tell M.”

Q splutters, “Why?”

When Eve turns determined, her face set without a hint of a smile, it’s not too hard to tell why she was a field agent first. You remember things like the small personal pistol she carries in that handbag of hers, tucked away in a secret pouch and constantly upgraded to the best Q can provide. “Q,” she admonishes, “I realise you’ve been distracted lately by this business, but you do still work for MI6 and you answer to M. I can cover for you as much as I can, but I have my own priorities and my own loyalties. Don’t worry,” she lays a hand on his knee, “I won’t let it get any further. Just don’t make me lie to my boss because you made an idiot decision like this. You’re the head of your department and James is one of the best agents we’ve got, despite his best efforts, so you can’t disappear nearly as easily as you seem to think, love. If you want a decent lie, you need M and Tanner to know – ”

“The list keeps growing,” he bites out.

“I don’t need your permission. I would like your endorsement because I love you and I hate parting on bad terms, but you have to understand how our lives work.”

He sighs, the fight vanishing out of him just as easily as it came as he collapses in his chair, rubbing at his face. “I do. I really do. Thank you.” Digging in his pocket, he holds out a small blinking device. “Speaking of covering for our own stupidity.”

She takes it to hold it up to her right eye, examining it closely. “It’s a distress beacon. No signal down there, but this, this could work its way through a nuclear bunker.”

Eve raises an eyebrow.

“Hypothetically. The tech’s all there, I designed it myself – ”

“Then it must be flawless.”

“I hope you’re not questioning my undeniable brilliance. Again.”

“Only your arrogance, dear.”

“My arrogance has nothing to do with it. I haven’t had a chance to test it properly yet, what with the immortal idiot making the place untidy, but it will work.”

Pocketing the beacon, Eve leans forward; looks steadily into his eyes the way only she can, as if she’s not so much looking through him as into him, examining the spaces where he’s still Dorian and so very fallible.

“Because it has to?”

He meets her gaze and admits nothing.

Once she’s apparently judged the moment to have lasted long enough, she sighs and nods. She does not look away, but her gaze becomes distinctly less intense, and that’s more than enough of a relief.

“Okay, sweetie. You can count on me.”

“I already knew that.”

He smiles weakly at her, and while hers isn’t much stronger, he knows that she’s trying, and more than anything, he knows that he’ll miss her the most.

----------

He meets Bond just down from Q Branch, at the edge where MI6 territory bleeds into the uncharted unknown. Of course Bond is dressed impeccably, in one of his thousands of suits which shouldn’t be suitable for any mission outside the usual charm or meet and greet (or seduce, as Bond’s missions inevitably go). Idly Q notes that he recognises this one: a survivor from a mission in Burma where Bond was caught in the crossfire of gang warfare and walked away without a scratch on him. (Once again, Q queries what a difference immortality really makes.) Were he to accuse Bond of such superstitions, he’d call it his battle armour.

As always, Bond looks him over with a pinched expression of barely controlled pain. There is absolutely no truth in the rumour that Q occasionally dresses just to test 007’s resolve not to resort to violence against clothing. (The image of Bond ripping his clothes off is an intriguing one, albeit best reserved for outside work hours.)

“What’s in the bag?” he asks, for the moment apparently restraining himself from passing unrequested judgement on Q’s wardrobe. It’s the closest to courtesy Q can ask for, and with a shrug of his shoulder, he offers his backpack up for inspection.

“Water for two, distress signal, mobile phone, torch, batteries, compass, whistle, knife, matches, lighter, newspaper, emergency rations, honey – ”

“Honey?”

“I Googled it. Only food that doesn’t spoil. If they try to pull some sort of ‘this is the world of the dead, everything dies here’ trick on us, there’s still something to eat.”

Bond is looking at him with the expression Q recognises from others as an indication that he may have overthought things. He has no idea why though: it is Q’s job to think of everything Bond – and hence, on this particular occasion, himself – might need on a particular mission. If he didn’t do that, well, he’d have to hand in the initial, wouldn’t he?

Just because Bond likes to pick and choose what he calls ‘necessary’ and others call ‘idiotic’ and destroy any piece of truly useful equipment ever issued to him (Q knows he has his Walther on him because he issued it himself, God only knows what Bond’s hoping to shoot but he knows a placebo when he sees one), it doesn’t mean Q is going to take risks to make him feel at home.

“Problem, 007?”

Bond shifts his weight in that precise way to indicate that yes, there are plenty of problems, he has a problem with you and your way of thinking and your way of dressing, he has a problem with what you just said and he has a problem with what you didn’t say, and at the end of the day he intends to proceed exactly as he was always going to without any acknowledgement that you spoke at all. It’s quite impressive for such a subtle movement, but then, Bond is old school Secret Service surviving in a modern MI6 and the only subversive behaviour he’s allowed in person that hasn’t gotten him fired or executed several times over is the subtle kind. If M can’t describe it out loud without sounding petty, then there’s at least less that he (or she) can do about it.

Then again, Q isn’t M – will never be M, that’s Eve’s job – and so he braces himself for questions about why the hell Q thinks this is something he can prepare for, or why he needs a bag of supplies when Bond has apparently brought nothing (again, that’s Q’s job), or whether he is really basing that honey thing on bloody Google.

“Are those Converses?”

Q considers a biting inquiry regarding Bond’s ability to recognise such items – except he’s fairly certain Bond should remember them from the first time around, maybe he could comment on that instead – but he restrains himself at the last minute. Plenty of time for arguing while trawling around the tunnels searching for a tube station which may or may not connect to the realm of the dead.

“We’re descending into the Underworld on a quest to ask a god to undo an accidental blessing and restore your mortality,” Q reminds him instead. “Forgive me for wanting to add an element of the ridiculous.”

----------

At first, the tunnels really are in very good repair. As the cold modern light and steel of MI6 vanishes behind them and they switch to torchlight, there are still good brick walls and solid footing beneath them. Q isn’t as obsessively caught up in modern progress (as some people seem to assume) that he can’t acknowledge that once upon a time things were built to last.

Nevertheless, he’s still happy to hear the first apparently location-less ominous drip in the darkness. It just seems appropriate.

It’s not long before his sense of time starts to go. Admittedly that’s mostly his fault: for all that he can keep track when he deems it relevant, generally it’s all too easy to stop caring about individual minutes or hours (or, occasionally, days), and that’s even when he’s not endlessly walking down seemingly identical tunnels with absolutely no idea where he’s going.

Funnily enough, as the tunnels stretch on and on and his bearings vanish off into the shadows building up all around them, any claustrophobia doesn’t come from their surroundings, but the oppressive silence between the two of them.

Q doesn’t usually mind silence. Sometimes he babbles to himself, sometimes he’s content to say nothing, it’s all the same to him so long as he can think. This is different though; this isn’t so much silence as the sound of two people not speaking. It’s something which manages to both suffocate and needle him at the same time, in a way which makes him wonder if the fault doesn’t lie in a basic inadequacy of language to truly encompass the horror of an intentional awkward silence. The longer it goes on, the less he feels like it’s possible for him to talk, and the more he fancies that even if it were, Bond would kill him in seconds.

Presumably Bond is suffering none of this. Q has little doubt that the bastard is having a merry old time trawling along and casually torturing him.

They come to one fork, and then another. In lieu of asking, or indeed stopping and thus showing so much as a moment of indecision and therefore weakness, Q chooses the way at random, plunging further and further down into what he fancies are the bowels of London. At first he was following what he’d guessed from overlaying the explored tunnels over a map of London, attempting to use logic to work out a route (as far as logic applies to the London Underground); then he was aiming in the rough direction as they ran out of known territory; and now he’s just alternating left and right turns to try to keep them pointed roughly the right way.

Eve had offered directions; to stay in radio contact and tell them where to go. She hadn’t been delighted with Q’s answer, and he couldn’t blame her. It rankles for him too.

 

When Bond finally breaks the silence, Q can only be grateful he didn’t let out the potential squeak of surprise.

“Do you actually know where you’re going?”

Q considers lying. Unfortunately, he considers it a little too long, and hears Bond come to a halt behind him. Taking a deep breath, he turns around, and is honestly a little surprised not to have a gun already levelled at his own head. Perhaps the glare, which is admittedly of true 007 pedigree, is supposed to suffice.

He says, “I know where we’ve been.”

“Tell me why I shouldn’t shoot you right now.”

“Because that would be quite the overreaction. It also wouldn’t solve anything other than your concerning bloodlust.”

“You got us lost!”

“I realise observation isn’t something you always prioritise, 007,” Q says, always finding some pleasure in needling Bond, accusing him of not being a very good spy for no other reason than petty anger, “but I have in fact been marking the road taken, so no, we are not lost. I am not just saying that I know where we’ve been, I can point to the arrows we can follow home, which is hardly ‘lost’.”

“You don’t know where we are, though.”

Q has to admit, “No, I don’t.” He’s rather impressed that Bond does not immediately commence gloating, although that might mean he’s in even more trouble than expected.

“When were you going to tell me?”

“Was I supposed to? I was under the impression that you – what was it – ‘don’t care so long as it gets it done’?”

Truly, there is nothing quite like quoting Bond’s own inane outbursts back at him to make the agent snarl. A little belatedly, Q recalls that this is usually a strategy practised over the comms, or at the very least not when it is just the two of them in a dark tunnel far beneath London.

Bond insists, “You should have told me.”

“Told you what, 007? That ‘follow the tunnels’ means giving up? The whole point is to just trust and have faith that we’ll end up in the right place.” The words drip from his mouth like acid, burning, scarring. Q hasn’t trusted to a higher power since his mother stayed so awkwardly silent in response to his endless questions. Frankly, the idea that her silence might have carried a different motivation only serves to make the new expectations tear that bit deeper.

Bond’s eyes narrow – disbelief, if Q’s any judge. “You want me to ‘have faith’?” The feeling’s mutual, it seems. It’s hard to guess which of them looks the more pained at having to so much speak the words, much less believe them. Personally, Q is rooting for himself in that contest, if only because he has the hot flush of embarrassment to add resentment to the rest.

“So it would seem,” he bites out.

“And how do you know that?”

Q drawls, “Isn’t it always the way?”

“Not good enough.”

“In that, we are in agreement.” Q turns away, makes to leave – stomping away sounds like a good idea, it’s not like there’s anyone else around to see except the man who already seems to have formed a fairly low opinion of him. He’s fuming, practically spitting with anger. Already bad enough that he has to do this; worse to have to say it out loud.

A steely grip closes around his upper arm, and something snaps. He spins back, throwing himself against Bond’s elbow. When his hand comes up to follow through though, Bond isn’t there anymore. Q’s hand strikes down on thin air, and before he can pull back Bond’s hand is closing around his wrist, yanking it painfully back and trapping it up behind his back. At least Bond has the decency not to do quite the same to the other hand, this one instead pinned in front of him.

In his ear, Bond hisses, “What the fuck was that?”

“The part where I didn’t appreciate you manhandling me?”

“The part where you attacked an operative who murders for a living. Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

“Perhaps I spend too much time around you,” Q spits out, struggling uselessly but refusing to stay still. Bond’s hand tightens around his wrist, pushing the arm slightly higher, and Q gasps, “Fuck, fine, I yield, let go.”

Instantly, Bond does so. Q supposes he should be grateful for that. However, he can also still feel Bond’s fingerprints.

Bond watches him nursing his wrist. “You’ve got a chip on your shoulder.”

“I believe the saying is ‘takes one to know one’?” Q mutters in disgust. The pain’s fading already, actually. Perhaps he’s bruised, but that’s all, and barely. He realises that even when acting on instinct, Bond held back, and it gives the anger still bubbling under his skin a bile-tinged edge.

“Except I’ve never seen you like this.” Q glances up to see the light rather unfairly picking out those ridiculously blue eyes focused like lasers on him. It’s enough to make him recoil, curling up defensively. Q hates being the focus of attention. He stays at the edge of crowds, or far enough in that he just blurs together with the rest; runs a faceless department within an organisation which prides itself on anonymity; values his new obscuring initial more than anything. He’s the voice at the end of the line. He is definitely not what he wants James Bond looking at like that.

He snaps, “Perhaps you don’t know me as well as you think.” It rings out as weak before the words have so much as finished leaving him. If anything, as depressing as it sounds, Bond knows him better than most. Definitely if you agree that Q’s newly discovered parentage changes who he is.

Bond’s quiet for a moment, no doubt considering his next move, calculating how to manipulate the truth out of Q. That’s what he does, after all. “You don’t like not knowing something,” he announces. Q restrains himself from a slow round of applause, barely, settling for rolling his eyes instead. “You don’t know much more about what’s going on than I do.”

“It’s concerning that you’ve only just realised that.” Q shrugs defensively. “I don’t have all the answers. Do you feel disappointed?”

“Do you?”

Technically, Bond is way off the mark. ‘Disappointed’ may well be the one thing Q doesn’t feel about all of this.

However, it still qualifies for ‘one question too many’, and for all that Q can feel it building up inside him, he just can’t hold it back anymore.

“I don’t think you quite comprehend how much I hate this!” he finally snaps. “None of this makes any sense! You’re complaining that you’re immortal, and no, I still don’t understand that, but the fact is that you being immortal is just the tip of the iceberg of how ridiculous this all is! I have to follow tunnels – I have to deliberately get lost – to get to a Tube station which isn’t there unless you do this specific walk to go to the Underworld to talk to my father who happens to be a god – the god – of Death, even though nothing happens when you die, you just die! I have to abandon any idea of how the world works, and no, 007, it’s not the same as it is for you, because you have always bent the laws of physics and everything else to just keep going. You live on obscure loopholes and one-in-a-million chances, but I don’t. It’s my job to live in a very solid world of numbers and facts. I have to account for the other nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine times, the ones we normal people have to deal with every day of our lives – except that’s just it, isn’t it? It turns out I’m not human, so things like blessings and field trips to the Underworld, I suppose that’s my life now, isn’t it?”

To be honest, he doesn’t stop because there’s nothing else to say. There’s so much to rail against, every logical human part of him is screaming to be heard, to voice its pointless protests against a world that doesn’t fit his precious beliefs anymore. In fact, that’s just it: there’s too much. First he can feel it all building up inside him, and then it’s rather like a computer overloading and overheating and choosing emergency shutdown as the only option it has left anymore.

He’s still shaking with anger; with embarrassment, too. He covers his face with his hand because he really can’t stand seeing Bond right now. If he has to admit it, if only to himself, he just wishes he could vanish off down yet another one of these dark tunnels and die.

“You seem pretty human to me.”

It starts in his throat as a laugh; it emerges more like a sob. “That’s the point, isn’t it?”

The silence is back again. This time, however, it is far, far more awkward. Q’s had a charming breakdown in front of 007 and now Bond is stuck with a quivering mess for a Quartermaster and yes, that ‘dying in a tunnel’ plan grows more appealing by the second.

“Does it matter?”

“Whether I’m human? I think I am petty enough to think so, yes.”

“Does it stop you doing anything you’ve already been doing your whole life?”

Q risks a glance over his hand. Whilst there’s an awkward edge to Bond’s posture – shoulders too stiff, affected slouch a little too casual – his gaze is steady, not unimpressed but rather Bond’s unfailing unruffled response to a world of insanity and evil geniuses trying to blow it up. He looks like a man who really doesn’t see what the problem is. Presumably, Q thinks (a little unkindly), if he can’t shoot it, then why worry?

He does feel guilty about thinking that, almost immediately.

Stupid as it sounds, he can feel himself calming down. Bond doesn’t say anything big or meaningful, and as Q watches he straightens up and regains most of that patented 007 coolness (if Q knew how to bottle the stuff, he’d be rich in no time). He doesn’t even make a painful quip, although frankly Q isn’t sure he’d survive one right now. Nevertheless, just making eye contact (good God, the man almost looks concerned, Q hopes he stops before he pulls something) makes Q feel a little less like he’s about to shatter into a thousand pieces.

Unconsciously his breathing slows down to match Bond’s. With a little more time, his thoughts follow suit.

He lets his hand fall from his face; takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” is Bond’s only response, before nodding down the tunnel. “We were headed that way.”

“We were, weren’t we?” Q agrees softly. When he forces himself forward – reluctant feet setting up a slow pace, not weary but certainly resigned to getting nowhere fast – Bond falls into step, this time at his side.

The silence is back. It’s far more comfortable, this time.

After a while – seriously, London is big, but it isn’t this big, not if North End is where Q left it the other day – Bond asks, “What’s worrying you?”

Q leaves “Who says I’m worried?” unsaid, since neither of them has much time for that particular piece of avoidance. Instead, he asks dryly, “Besides the trip to the land of the dead?” and is rewarded with the sound of surprising a laugh out of Bond. It never fails to make himself smile as well.

“Anything in particular? We seem to have skipped the briefing.”

“Your lack of professionalism is catching.”

“I’d already realised that.”

Q’s not sure if it’s a smile or a wince that takes hold of his face. With Bond, the two can lie so close together. So much for my promising career in espionage, he recalls. He’s lucky the new M can at least see the merit in the less orthodox methods. Must be the prolonged exposure to the PM.

He doesn’t answer at first, content just to walk, Bond content to wait. Eventually he sighs; says, “Because this isn’t fantasy anymore; it’s mythology.”

“What difference does it make?”

“Precedent, for the most part. 007, trips to the Underworld rarely go well. Persephone’s kidnapped, eats six pomegranate seeds just because she’s hungry, and then she’s trapped down there for half of every year. Orpheus tries to get his true love’s soul back but can’t resist looking back to see if she’s really coming with him; she’s lost and he lets himself get torn apart rather than live without her. I’m not as familiar with other cultures, but from what I’ve seen, this is the one thing you’re not supposed to meddle with.

“And here we are. Meddling.”

The word escapes with a roll of the eyes, to the sound of laughter. When he turns to glare, Bond is looking at him with something which on somebody normal might be affection and on licensed professional killer looks more than a little out of place. “Isn’t that our job?”

Q looks at him, honestly rather enjoying his little moment of melodrama, before he gives up and laughs himself. “Yes, it certainly is.”

“Would you really have left it alone, if I hadn’t been pushing?”

There’s only one honest answer to that. “No.”

“Thought not.” Then, damn him, Bond reaches out and ruffles his hair.

Q’s white-hot glare of indignation does not reduce him to ashes. This is a great shame and clearly requires further experimentation to ensure later success.

“There you are,” Bond says, before Q can launch into any of the variations of the themes of ‘I am your superior and you will show me some bloody respect’, ‘I am not eighteen’, and of course the time-honoured ‘I will stab you in your sleep’.

“Meaning what, precisely?”

Bond is uncharacteristically silent – or possibly very characteristically, since he’s defaulted to the kind of smile of mystery which on most people comes off as unbelievably rehearsed but on 007 just seems effortlessly cool and natural. In fact, Q reckons this is one of the more obscure prerequisites for the Double O programme, down in the depths of the small print. He certainly sees it far too often, to the point where it really just rubs him up the wrong way. Like most of their shared attributes, he has to admit, although Bond generally pulls them off better, his treacherous mind with its treacherous tendency towards favouritism adds.

“Fine. Be all secret and mysterious. See if I care.” When in doubt, revert to petty sarcasm worthy of a five-year-old. If secret agents can do it, so can their quartermaster.

While he can’t see out of the back of his head – yet – Q doesn’t have to hear the echo of Bond’s steps to know that he’s staying close, and matching his huffy angry stride pace for pace.

“Well, you never know. We might get our souls eaten instead.”

When Q stops to look back at him in alarmed confusion, Bond just smiles. “The Egyptians thought your heart was weighed against the Feather of Truth. If the lies you told weighed more, then you were turned over to the Devourer of the Dead.” While Q is certainly glad that Bond is happy, he could do without the disturbing glint in his eye. “Part lion, part hippopotamus, part crocodile. If she ate your heart, your soul was condemned to wander the afterlife for eternity.”

It’s childish ghost stories at their finest, just the right balance of truth and the macabre.

“Well,” Q says, slowly smiling, “if lying is what decides it, I guess we’re both doomed.”

Later on, Q might reflect on their matching grins at the very thought.

----------

Finally, finally – Q knows London’s not exactly small, and that things like gauging distance travelled should probably be left to the professional next to him, but he also knows that something is amiss about how long they’ve been walking and seeing nothing but one dark shadowy tunnel after another – they see a light up ahead.

Q opens his mouth and Bond says, “Don’t.”

In silence, they emerge into the stuttering washed-out light of a Tube station, black words in an old-fashioned style proclaiming it to indeed be North End. Except this isn’t North End – at least, not the station Q visited only yesterday. Then, he’d emerged from vaguely threatening stairs to the sight of nothing but grey dismal rubble and an overwhelming sense that he shouldn’t be present. The only signs of life were the odds and ends – cigarette ends, old tickets, glimmering foil packets – which accumulated no matter where you went in London. Unsurprisingly (and rather satisfyingly, for Q’s purposes), it had looked like every other rundown abandoned station London had ever chosen to forget about.

Not so this station. If it’s grey, it’s because the white paint desperately needs a touch-up, or even the most basic of washes, to clear the grime of the Underground for however long it’s possible. If there’s rubble, it feels more like an apology; like something escaped from the Other station, because there was just too much of it. If there’s rubbish, it’s because it’s London.

What draws the eye, however, is the ticket barrier which cuts off the platform itself from the rest of the station. Without exchanging so much as a look, they both approach it, with all the wariness due an alligator.

“That wasn’t here before,” Q croaks, breaking the silence. Feeling in his pocket, he produces the ticket, and Bond examines it with evident deep distrust. However, that is nothing compared to when he reaches out across the barrier – it does look a little flimsy as far as supernatural barriers go – and his hand knocks against, for want of any other way of seeing things, an invisible forcefield.

Frankly appalled, Q knocks against it himself. There’s ‘down the rabbit hole’ and then there’s the whole world turning against you. “Today just keeps getting better. There goes the idea of jumping.” Not that he had put any thought into the matter. “Maybe it’s possible to fool supernatural forces if you just run through right behind me?”

He deserves the look he gets. If he could, Q would probably punch himself for that. He gives the more visible barrier a desultory kick. “I’ve got a screwdriver, I could always – ”

“Get out of the way.”

Q scowls, but does oblige. Bond braces himself, one hand on each side, before snapping out his leg at the plastic gates. The plastic did not move; Bond did, staggering backwards before catching his balance and trying a little belatedly to look like that was precisely what he’d intended. Whilst Q can recognise the laws of physics at work (in terms of driving Bond backwards, not in terms of flaps of plastic withstanding the sort of kick Bond likes to use to break, well, everything), he still indulges in a smirk. Seeing Bond’s feathers ruffled – or, more accurately, seeing Bond look like an idiot rather than the epitome of effortless suave charm – never gets old.

It’s something he regrets as soon as Bond pulls out the Walther and fires.

Once the ringing leaves his ears, he realises Bond is saying something. “What?”

“I said, flailing backwards doesn’t stop a bullet hitting you.”

Ignoring him, Q says, “I didn’t know you’d signed out the Walther.”

Bond just looks at him. Come to think of it, Q supposes it is rather silly not to have realised that.

Pointedly examining the turnstiles, he concludes, “Well, judging by the lack of damage, breaking through isn’t going to work.”

Maybe Bond has some sort of comeback there. It wouldn’t surprise him. Looking at the barrier, however, the words vanish into the background. There’s a faint ringing in Q’s ears instead. It’s like realising the truth of the words that brought them here; like trusting the tunnels to lead them to the right place. There’s something old at work here, and Q is so small in front of it.

The ticket catches at his fingers in his pocket, full of promise. Dreamily, Q pulls it free. He can get Bond through, he thinks, but he has to be on the other side first.

In through one slot and out another, and the gates slide open before him. Bond catches at his arm before he can go through, though, and Q blinks up at him. If he tries, he can tell Bond is demanding to know what he’s doing. All he can say is a helpless, “We can’t do anything on this side.”

The rushing starts as soon as he passes through: the building wind, the approaching clatter and groan of a train which should have been retired long ago. It matches the ringing as rational thought fights to catch up with what the fuck just happened.

He turns to look back, eyes wide with horror at how easily that took him. Bond stares back at him, white-knuckled grip on either side of the turnstile. “You had better have a bloody good plan.” For all the world, he sounds like he’s scared. Imagine that.

A second later, Q realises he might have said some of that out loud. “I do,” he lies. Behind him, the roar of the train is building.

Bond raises his eyebrows. “Well?”

Q opens his mouth. Fortunately, whatever answer might have escaped vanishes, drowned out as the train bursts through onto the platform, and he can’t help but watch.

At first, he thinks that it looks like every other train prowling the tunnels of the Tube. It’s large, long, and that precise shade of grey which according to legend was once white. Through scratched windows, he can see uncomfortable seats sheathed in a covering designed by monkeys. When the doors align directly in front of him and open with a pained exhale, it’s hard not to imagine that he’s at any other station.

What sets it apart is the feeling. First the impending doom and inevitability as it pulled in, the sense that without realising it, he has always been waiting for this train; that leads into the odd nostalgia as it stopped before him; and finally the acceptance as the doors welcome him. It feels oddly like coming home.

It might all be nothing but fancy. The last thought though – ‘home’ – offers something akin to a possibility. Despite everything, Q doesn’t believe in pretty much any cosmology besides the concept that they all fixed to a planet hurtling through a solar system itself hurtling through the universe until everything ends. If he speculated on anything in connection with the last week, the last few months, he doubts would have pictured the Underworld as a beginning as well as an end. Which means that, if he feels some sense of home, it’s a matter of heritage.

The ticket is still there, in his hand. His father left this for him. The train arrived as soon as he summoned it. The rules bend for him, or else they wouldn’t be in this bloody mess to begin with.

Mindful as any commuter that the Tube waits for no man, he fixes an image in his mind. If he has faith in nothing else, he has faith in this. “007,” he announces, “get on the train.”

The first try comes out too quiet by far. “Get on the train.” Immediately he tries again; hears the words blur together as he rushes through them; swears under his breath.

He sees the train tremble; eyes the open doors nervously. Abruptly they start to close again, and it’s only years of experience with the Tube that make him jump on in time, reaching out behind himself to block their passage, shouting again, “Get on the bloody train!”, instinct driving his movements because logically, why on Earth would a route to the bloody underworld follow the same security protocols as a train on the District Line?

He hears a familiar clatter and an equally familiar snarl of frustration, followed by a barely-restrained yell, “Are you even trying?”

He bridles at the accusation (ignoring that that was no doubt precisely Bond’s intention), even as the doors thankfully slide back again to grant them a few more seconds accompanied by the high-pitched whine of a vexed and hindered train; closes his eyes and thinks. Once again he summons up the memory of that day when he was panicked and invested enough to actually care whether or not this bastard survived, and not just to complete the mission. This time, though, instead of focusing on the why, he homes in on the how. Not the emotions or thoughts, but what exactly did he do? How had he said the words that started this whole mess?

You do not have my permission to die!

It hadn’t been about the anger, he realises. A fine motivator, to be sure, but he’d been angry plenty of times before. It had been something else; the order?

The door bounced off his arm a second time, and in the manner of any frantic scrambling mind, a calm and detached offshoot observed that really, it was very lucky and convenient, but why?

“Q!” he hears Bond yell.

“007,” he responds on pure instinct, too soft for Bond to hear right now, because it’s the controlled voice of one dealing with high-pressure situations over sensitive equipment, guiding events from far away (even if with Bond it’s more like herding an extremely angry cat). Because what’s an order if not the expectation that you’ll be obeyed?

Like expecting a Tube’s door not to close on you.

“Bond,” he announces, locking eyes across the platform with where Bond is clearly contemplating whether emptying an entire clip into a cosmic ticket barrier will have any effect other than soothing his own frustration, summoning up the same confidence and simple ‘you will do this because you have to and there is no other way for things to fall out’ as the first time he gave Bond the same order, “Bond, get on the train.”

Perhaps it’s his own fanciful imagination at work, but he reckons he feels a faint tingling sensation in his fingertips where they hold the door open.

Then again, that might just be his own reaction to the sight of Bond’s savage grin as no, the barrier doesn’t open (presumably because Q wasn’t asking for that), but he does vault over it, hitting and crossing the platform in two steps before leaping onto the train next to Q, just as he has to snatch his hand away as the train lets out a piercing whine and the metal beneath his fingers turns suddenly red-hot.

(Three tries. Was it because Q pushed his luck or simply the law of three?)

The doors slide shut before them, and the train moves off with the abrupt jerk which sends anyone not anchored in place flying.

“You want to put that somewhere safe,” Bond informs him, nodding at the ticket still clutched in his hand. Q frowns at it in confusion. “You don’t want to lose it,” Bond presses, “not for a return trip. I might not remember much mythology, but I know people will tear each other apart for a ticket to freedom.”

Q wrinkles his nose. “Thank you for that pleasant image.” Nonetheless, he recognises good advice when he hears it, and after a moment’s consideration he opts for removing his shoe and placing the ticket inside. If you’re being paranoid, might as well go all the way.

As he replaces it, somehow not falling over at the same time, Bond asks, “Now what?”. Q wonders how exactly he manages to maintain that air of louche unmoved indifference even when he’s in a moving train carriage with an even more doom-laden destination than usual.

Q shrugs the rucksack off onto one shoulder and then dropping down into his hand, as he moves to slump into a seat in just the same way he has every day for years upon years of his life.

“Now,” he announces, as if he has the slightest idea what he’s talking about, “we do the same as commuters all over London: we wait for the next stop.”

----------

Reading is harder than Q expected. His eyes itch with tiredness and the words blur. There’s nothing else to do, though: he’s talked quite enough lately, and the view outside is nothing but blackness, slightly too deep and menacing to be a normal tunnel anymore. The book makes for a nice distraction, both from the passing void and a train which is unsettling and impossibly (to a Londoner) empty.

Next to him, Bond sighs, dropping his head back. Q endeavours to ignore him.

“How do you stand waiting like this?”

“I like the Tube.” When Bond starts drumming his fingers on the seat behind him, Q grits out, “I apologise for not including a Sudoku for you.”

“I suppose you didn’t have space next to the ‘emergency rations’.”

“That’s the label on the box, Bond. If you want me to inventory all the survival bars, I can.” Q shifts in his seat, reading the same sentence for the eighth time. Never has he been so convinced that Bilbo announced a party of special magnificence and that this in turn led to much talk and excitement in his home.

Once again, Q feels simultaneously like he is being dismissed and examined in great depth. He wonders if that’s Bond’s tactic in general, or just when dealing with any form of authority. (Of course, Bond’s general tactics are a little bit more…sensual, but the rest of time, when a sudden descent into coitus might be deemed a little too abrupt.)

“You don’t enjoy camping.”

It seems a non-sequitur, but Q’s found those to be quite popular around MI6 – especially since he unearthed the Sherlock fanbase in Q Branch – so he rolls with it, a tad indulgently. “Trapped in the middle of nowhere with the mud, cows and a bunch of idiots obsessed with ‘communing with nature’, and no web access to make the time pass faster.”

“I guessed as much,” and yes, that is a smug smirk, in fact it is the smug smirk, God, Q hates it so, “but lately it seems better not to make assumptions about you.”

And Q really, honestly can’t help it: he tries not to show it, but he can feel a smile grow and his back straighten as he preens like a bloody cat.

Bond’s smile turns momentarily sly – amused as well, but undeniably sly as well – and oh yes, there’s the usual undercurrent to any interaction that makes Q want to punch him in the face – or at least there’s the thrill of adrenaline and he’s going to assume that’s what it’s there for.

“What are you reading?” Bond asks, another abrupt change of subject on the heels of the first no doubt intended to catch Q off-guard (either that or sidestep wherever that was going, or maybe Q just reads far too much into these things).

Q blinks, looking down at the battered cover as his mind goes momentarily completely blank. “Lord of the Rings.” He raises his head and shrugs at their reflections in the opposite window. “I highly doubt I’ll be able to charge my Kindle in the Underworld and, as much as the reference appeals to me, my copy of Dante is far too heavy.” He sighs, a hint of pessimism/realism brushing against his awareness. “Besides, it’s not like I don’t know how it ends.”

He’s aware that there are plenty of things in that statement for Bond to pick at, but instead all he gets is, “Any good?”

He closes it properly and holds it out. “See for yourself. I’m not particularly in the mood.” As an afterthought, he adds, “There’s today’s paper in my bag too, remember. Source of kindling if nothing else.”

Impressively, Bond doesn’t take one of the most famous fantasy novels of all time gingerly or with disgust, and does in fact seem to intend to read it. “You’ve had this a while.”

“As I said, 007, I know how it ends. Never fails to kill time though.”

Bond reading Lord of the Rings. It should be worth watching. Unfortunately, just as his attention had started wandering, now his eyelids are growing impossibly heavy and his mind is already spiralling off into the ether.

Sighing, he settles back in the seat – seeking comfort where he knows from experience there will be none – and lets his eyes fall close.

He hadn’t thought he’d be able to sleep, and certainly not all that quickly, but, well, he’s been wrong about quite a few things lately, hasn’t he?