Q is a fixture in the Q-branch lab at odd hours of the night because his body is simply tuned to the prime coding hours from midnight to 5AM. MI6 isn't embroiled in the middle of an international crisis at the moment, so the only other people in the lab are Boothroyd and an engineer on loan from Naicho who hasn't adjusted to the time difference yet. She's working on some kind of micro-explosive, and her workbench is all over with black scorch marks. Their department certainly attracts a type.
Q's own workbench is littered with empty crisp packets and sandwich crumbs, and it's a godsend that he has such a quicksilver metabolism or he would need an anti-gravity belt like that man from Dune. He's been trying to cut out the crisps anyway, not at all because Bond mentioned his spots. Not that he has spots.
Q startles as his phone rings, and his fingers smash an unintelligible string of letters across the screen. Boothroyd laughs but not unkindly, and Q scowls at him.
Speak of the devil. The caller id on the screen says 007, and Q wonders what Bond has destroyed this time. He puts the phone to his ear and resumes typing. "Q-branch, Q speaking."
"How soon can you be in Upminster?"
Q settles back into his chair. Ever since the incident with Silva, Bond has been on suspension till he’s able to legitimately pass his examinations, and he's been puttering around London making a nuisance of himself in the meantime. No one has the courage to tell Bond that domestic affairs are not his milieu.
"I would hazard not at all since the tube is closed." It's amazing that Bond doesn't know these tiny mundane details, but he's probably never taken the train unless he's ridden on top of it. To be fair, Q didn't know Bond would take 'get on the train' quite so literally.
Bond makes an impatient noise. "Take a company car—"
"I don't know how to drive."
Silence on the other end.
"Hello?" Q clutches the phone closer to his ear. "Hello, Bond? Have you fainted?"
Now Bond's voice is chiding. "Still got your L-plate, have you?"
Bond has seized the opportunity to mock him. Q wonders if Bond will ever tire of the age jokes. "It's London," he says shortly. "Why on earth would I learn to drive?"
"To get to Upminster."
Q rolls his eyes. "I can work remotely. I'll just go through the camera in your mobile if I need visuals."
"I would really rather you came in person."
He can tell Bond isn't pleased, but he can't bring himself to care. It isn't his job to cater to Bond's every whim. "Is it that important?"
Bond's voice goes curiously light as it does when he's staring down the barrel of a gun. "It seems our friend Mr. Silva has a copycat with a few hundred pounds of explosives. I believe I've just triggered the timer."
"Oh, is that it?" Q says with forced relief. "Get out your bomb kit and your camera phone. I'll help you disarm it."
"Yes, Q," Bond says obediently, and Q can tell when he's being laughed at. It would make him doubt the severity of the threat if Bond hadn’t demanded he come in person.
Bond is not an accurate measuring stick for the proper reaction to weapons of mass destruction. Bond, who walks around regularly with five weapons on his person and who took the event of his own death with indifferent grace. Bond with his steady hands as he's preparing to defuse a bomb that could destroy an entire London borough. Q is forced to carry the burden of nerves for the both of them.
“Pay attention, 007,” he orders with more irritation than he really feels and begins rattling off bomb diffusion protocols.
The Naicho engineer disappears in a cloud of ash and gunpowder at three in the morning. At five o’clock, Boothroyd hangs up whatever gun he's designing to catch the first train home. Urban legend has it that Boothroyd was hired after he called MI6 to report the inferior quality of their firearms via earpiece he'd lifted off a field agent that he had incapacitated with a well-placed flowerpot to the head. Boothroyd is a special brand of old school ex-military.
He nods at Q on the way out and drops what turns out to be a partially crushed Toffee Crisp on top of Q's keyboard. He's a good man, Boothroyd. Old as Methuselah and knows more about weapons than Q is strictly comfortable with, but Q has become accustomed to living in fear of his subordinates. He suspects they only let him think he's in charge because he pretends he doesn't know what they get up to when he's away. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement.
He takes a bite of the candy bar and watches the numbers on the bomb wind perilously close to single digits. The wrapper crinkles near his microphone, and he sees Bond's magnified fingers pause on the delicate wires inside the bomb casing.
"You're eating at a time like this?" Bond's voice is carefully neutral, but a bead of sweat falls from his forehead to the back of a hand that is currently holding apart a very crucial triggering mechanism. The camera is close enough to pick out the blue traces of veins in Bond’s hands.
"Almost done. Orange wire," Q says indistinctly around another mouthful of chocolate and nougat. "No, the other—not that one. The wire you were just touchi—yes."
The bomb winks off with a beep. Very anti-climatic. Q thinks they would have a considerably worse time of it if their enemies stopped adding countdown clocks and beeping sounds to their detonation systems, and there's a joke in there somewhere, but he's too tired to suss it out so he just snorts.
"What are you laughing about?" Bond asks.
"Nothing. Bombs," Q croaks. His voice has gone hoarse from talking, and his mug is empty and stained with the remnants of a thousand teas, each thinner and fouler than the last. He tips it back for the last drop, and it tastes like death on his tongue. He wonders if the lingering taste of terrible commissary tea has been permanently branded into his mouth, and if this is why he has been a bachelor since he was hired.
"Bombs?" Bond says doubtfully.
"Boom," Q supplies and then lets out a peal of hysterical laugh, because it dawns on him that he's been working in MI6 for the last three years without the smallest proprietary touch of another human being. He knows no one outside of his colleagues, and office romances are not advised in MI6. For one thing, they end up being short-lived in all senses of the word.
"Q, go home. Sleep. In that order," Bond says. He sounds almost fond.
"Mm hm," Q replies and puts his head down for just a moment to rest his eyes.
It's almost eleven in the morning when he opens his eyes next, and someone has draped his mustard yellow cardigan around his shoulders like a blanket.
If you ask ten different people at MI6 to describe Bond, they'll give ten different answers.
Bond is a hero. A criminal. A dead man walking. He's the right hand of the secret service and the left hand of death. A touchstone and a disgrace. A force of nature. He's the prodigal son struggling back into the fold. (Q doesn't believe this one, because Bond wouldn't know the meaning of contrition if he were handed a dictionary.)
They say Bond is an attack dog on a short leash. A war criminal. He's died—quite literally died—for MI6's sins and then resurrected again like a messiah. Or perhaps like Dr. Frankenstein's monster. He's an indefatigable lover, an unstoppable killer, and mixes the best damn martini anyone's ever tasted. Q likes that one best because it appeals to the secret romantic in him.
But when Q thinks of Bond he thinks of the bitter winter of 1812 and Napoleon's invasion of Russia. He thinks of the Russians razing their own crops and destroying their cities rather than see it taken by the invading French. How they released their own criminals into the streets. He thinks of them giving up their scorched earth meanly, strategically, inch by inch. Their vicious guerrilla warfare across a land that was desolate and ruined and theirs. He thinks of their love of country and sheer bloody-mindedness and their refusal to capitulate to anyone.
For all of Bond's Cold War era nationalism, Q thinks his recent deployment to Moscow must feel like a homecoming.
Q can't say it's lonely now that Bond is back on assignment, because then he would have to admit he misses him, and attachment is unprofessional. He will admit it's less exciting.
His daily routines like reading the paper and picking up the milk and returning overdue library books are mundane again now that England isn't accommodating a grounded international agent with a penchant for explosives and poking his nose where it doesn't belong. Q used to imagine that 007 was lurking in every unsuspecting corner of Sainsbury's, ready to leap out and embroil Q in an international incident, and Q would be forced to drop his shopping and come along—reluctantly, of course—because someone has to keep an eye on Bond, and Q is nothing but responsible and long-suffering.
Maybe Bond is right, and Q is terribly young.
Which is not the same as terribly stupid, so he doesn't break stride when a long black Jaguar XJL sidles next to him one morning as he's emerging with hot breakfast from his favourite shop.
The driver's side window rolls down. "Get in the car," the woman says. Her accent is peculiar. Not quite British. African subcontinent, certainly, but Q doesn’t have a talent for accents to pinpoint her to somewhere useful.
He keeps his eyes ahead. "Identification, please,"
She tsks. "You expect me to flash my ID in the broad daylight?"
"Do you really expect me to trust you without?"
"Oh for godsakes," she snaps. "It's a company car."
Q skims over it. "Not quite, though you've done a good job," he says. It occurs to him that he should take off running at this point, but they must have some leverage if they think he'll drive off with them to certain death.
"Allow me to rephrase," the woman says. The back window rolls down, and Q sees a minor Q-branch technician bracketed by two dark-suited men that look like they're chiselled from stone. The leverage, then.
The technician is pale and scared. He can't be more than nineteen. Q thinks about giving him a reassuring look, but there is nothing comforting about the situation. He settles for a glare that's meant to convey a stern reprimand to the boy for allowing himself to be taken hostage. The technician drops his eyes.
"If you don't cooperate, we'll—"
"Yes yes yes," Q says and finally stops walking. It is no coincidence that they chose to snatch him from the tiniest emptiest street in all of London. They must have tracked his movements and don't mean to have witnesses. That doesn't bode well for the technician, who is clambering out of the car with all the grace of a newborn foal.
"You are not shooting that boy," Q snaps. The tech looks like he's about to vomit.
The woman looks surprised. "No, of course not."
He's manhandled into the backseat, and the car roars away. They take his phone and his shopping and throw it all into the passenger seat. He puts up some token protest that his breakfast will crumble and go cold, but it's just a remnant of the old M's policy for impertinence in the face of danger. Q hopes his captors can't see how his hands are shaking.
"Thought you were locking me in the boot. Isn't that how it's done?" he quips with false bravado.
"We've already given your subordinate a list of demands to give your employer," the woman calls over her shoulder. "We'll be gone by the time they're notified."
Ah. He's being ransomed. It's a little flattering being ransomed, like he's someone important. Q knows he's a poor bargaining chip, but he keeps his mouth shut because weak leverage means dead weight, and these people look the sort to start shooting when they’re disappointed.
In the sphere of super villain monologing, his captors don't disappoint. They're an obscure Sudanese arms dealing group that Q pretends to know, and MI6 has apparently taken a few of their colleagues into custody for being the accessories in some larger criminal racket. Not pre-meditated in the slightest, but the woman seems to think it was a direct assault on their organization. She thinks MI6 considers her a major threat. She should be so lucky, Q thinks.
She's crazy, the woman. Ange, a false name obviously. She's actually barking mad, something she's hidden very well behind her string of pearls and vibrant green sheath dress. Q might have missed it entirely if not for the tremble of her finger on the gun trigger and her eyes, which suggest that she might consider shooting Q anyway to spite M. Q is not an advocate of this plan, especially now that the city has fallen away and the softly rolling hills in the suburbs are as quiet as the grave.
Q closes his eyes. It's a poor choice of words.
The decision is made for him when one of the men jostles his glasses, and the embedded tracker gives itself away with a little damning whine and a spark.
"What was that?" Ange shouts. She wrenches the car to a stop and spins around to wave the gun in Q's face. And it's perfect, actually.
"Need a new pair of specs. I have terrible vision," Q says. "It's also a little known fact that I can hold my breath for an entire minute."
He smashes his wristwatch against the plastic console between the two front seats—they didn't even bind his hands, thought he'd been cowed—and fills the car with Q-branch's prized knockout gas. It takes his captors less than five seconds to succumb. Q is careful not to breathe in, but the gas prickles his nostrils as he shoves one of the men out of the way and climbs over him to the door.
He closes the door behind him and breathes in the blessed fresh air. His stomach takes a moment to protest loudly, but the knockout gas has inundated the pasty by now, and he doesn't want to chance it. Kidnapping, arms dealers, a ruined breakfast. A brilliant start to the week.
He circles around to retrieve his other things from the passenger seat. The residual knockout gas makes him go a little woozy as he opens the door. He doesn't actually have many important things on his mobile, but he's attached to it and doesn't relish transferring all five contacts in his address book to a new phone. He pockets it and checks if the locks on his briefcase have been broken.
He's famished and shaking from nerves, so the safety clicking off a gun doesn’t register till he looks up and sees it point blank between his eyes. Ange is barely conscious, but her lips are pulled back in a snarl, and her eyes are wild.
"Bastard," she snarls.
"You really should have locked me in the boot," Q says and cracks her in the face with his briefcase before slamming the passenger door shut again. Her blood-red fingernails skate down the glass and then go still.
He gets ten paces from the car before he realises he's shaking, and then he sinks to the packed earth and takes a few deep breaths. The gas won't last forever. Twenty minutes at the most. He needs to take care of Ange and her cohorts before they come round.
He takes another breath.
He has his briefcase, his phone. He's alive. It's enough.
Walking back to the car is the most difficult thing he's ever done, more difficult than his doctoral defence, worse than the rainy day he was approached for a job with the British secret service that would drop him off the face of the earth.
He has nothing for binding, so he tears off strips of his shirt and ties their ankles and wrists with the knots he was taught in mandatory basic training. In truth, he's a bit pleased with himself. He can just see Bond's face when he hears about this.
He airs out the car and inspects every inch of it, but it's a rental, and he finds nothing except a pack of cigarettes, the receipt from the rental company, and a glossy brochure welcoming the reader to London.
He calls MI6, and M himself picks up on the first ring.
"The devil happened to you?" he demands. "Kidnapping, Q?"
"It was really more of an exchange," Q says.
"Yes, we have the technician in interrogation."
Q winces. MI6 interrogation is never pleasant, even when you're one of their own. "I've…incapacitated them."
"I daresay you have," M says with exaggerated patience. "And when shall we expect you back in the office?"
"Er." Q wheels around and sees nothing but a distant cluster of chocolate-box cottages. He checks the GPS on his phone. "I'm near Petham Downs, sir. I have their car here, but…I can't drive."
It was a point of pride when he mentioned it to Bond, but now he feels useless and incompetent. M is very good at that.
M gives him a moment to squirm. "They'll be someone to fetch you shortly," he says finally and hangs up.
Q doesn't feel so pleased with himself anymore. The feeling intensifies when another black car—legitimate company plates this time—arrives a few minutes later, and M's secretary Moneypenny hops out. Moneypenny is the most ruthlessly competent person he's ever met, Bond not excepting. And here he is with dishevelled hair and a torn up shirt, looking like he spent most of the trip lashed to the top of the Jaguar.
Moneypenny inspects his handiwork with the knots, pensively toes Ange in the ribs, and tells him a team will be on-site shortly to retrieve the car and his three assailants. It's all very cool and professional, and he can't help but wonder when the other shoe will drop.
He knows all about Moneypenny because data mining is his business, and she is the infamous double-o who shot Bond off a train and nearly killed him. Out of all the field agents he's met, she strikes him as the most socialised, the one that was let out of her paddock more than her fellows or came into the game late with most of her head screwed on properly. The other agents can be as smooth and charming as high socialites, but each word is surgically precise, and there is nothing behind their eyes. It chills him. At least Bond's eyes look like they belong in a living face, angry and exhausted and so very blue.
The other shoe finally drops after they've crossed into London.
"Tell me," Moneypenny says, her voice cutting through the silence. "Please tell me they clubbed you over the head. Or chloroformed you. Tell me you didn't just climb into the car with them."
"It was an exchange," Q repeats. He suspects the excuse is wearing thin.
She strikes the wheel with the palm of her hand. "Damn it, Q. We could afford to lose Charlie. We can't lose you."
He frowns. "I didn't think—"
"No," she says. "I suppose you didn't think. In fact, I'm sure of it. I never thought 007's quartermaster would be such an idiot. The two of you quite deserve one another."
"I got the information."
She purses her lips. "Yes. You did. It wasn’t bad work." And then, before he can be flattered, she adds, "Now, you will stop entertaining these notions that you are a field agent and do your own damn job, do you understand? You could have been killed. You're too valuable to the organisation."
"But I'm," he starts. She glares at him but doesn't interrupt. "I never thought to run."
Moneypenny's anger transforms into something else. Something softer and heavier before her scowl is back, and she snaps her fingers in his face. "Oy. I'm only saying this once. The next time something like this happens, you can help by protecting yourself and letting us do the espionage. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I understand," he murmurs and looks down at his clasped hands. They itch with needing something to do. He's never been able to sit still for very long. Perhaps it's one of the reasons he hates to fly.
There's something bothering him, and it's out of his mouth before he can stop it. "Who's Charlie?"
Moneypenny's eyebrows come together. "Charlie? The technician that works in your lab?"
He shakes his head.
She looks incredulous. "Are you saying you don't know the name of the man that comes into your department every single day?"
"No," he says. There are other more important things on his mind, quite honestly. "Why should I?"
"You're a bastard," she says in wonder. "You've got everyone believing the sweet naïve boffin racket and all. And you're a complete bastard."
It should sting, but she grins at him with something like approval, and he finds himself smiling back.