They didn’t even wait for the fires to be put out before summoning him. He stood in the bunker -- one of Churchill’s bunkers -- and tried very hard to concentrate on what M was saying, but he couldn’t stop thinking that the old building was still on fire, and here he was, probably about to be fired himself. He couldn’t stop his hands shaking either. He couldn’t do a lot of things right now. He wasn’t ready for this. Why hadn’t Q --
But the Quartermaster was dead. He’d known that from the moment he saw the blank eyed stare; that long, old face -- familiar and yet empty. An agent who couldn’t adapt quickly wouldn’t survive. Everyone knew that, but no one had expected...
“Are you even listening to me?”
He blinked out of his reverie at M’s exasperated tone, the fire in her eyes challenging him to return to the present.
“Yes ma’am,” he said quickly. Her face was half-blurred by the obstruction of a deep gouge in one lens. He honestly wasn’t certain what had hit him. Medical had forced an oxygen mask over his mouth for a while, but he hadn’t even needed stitches, and the bruises were well-hidden by his cardigan.
“Then what did I just say?”
“You… you were asking if I was the one who filed the report about refurbishing the computer systems two months ago.” His voice felt like fire in his throat and sounded scraped high and raw, like an out-of-tune violin.
“And were you?”
He nodded. “But I don't know if it would've stopped--”
“We'll never know now, since your proposals were shot down by older and supposedly wiser heads.” She sounded deeply irritated. “They told me you were a cocky little shit.”
He couldn’t disagree with that. It had been presumptuous of him to even put forward the proposal, but he'd loathed how inefficient the old systems were. They'd have to revamp now, of course. All too late for the Quartermaster.
“Here.” M waved to someone behind him. When he turned to look, he saw Tanner coming forward with a red briefcase. Tanner laid it out on M’s desk, opened it, shuffled through, then pulled out a file and handed it over.
He took it from Tanner with shaking hands, and tried to read it, but his glasses really were very badly scratched. The words swam together, shattered and blurred in one eye. “Sorry, what is this?”
“Paperwork for the new head of Q-Branch,” Tanner said.
“Of course.” The words were like glass in his throat. Smoke inhalation was a bitch. His brain felt slow and foggy, like it was full of smoke too. “Who shall I take them to?”
M lifted one white brow. “They’re for you, Quartermaster.”
He almost dropped the papers, as though they might snarl and bite. “What?”
M’s gaze was steady. “We need to get up and running as soon as possible, so after you sign these, Tanner will take you down to temporary Q-Branch so you can tell him what needs doing. Those suggestions you made two months ago? They’re a good start, but we’ll need more than that. I think I don’t need to tell you that we can’t allow what happened at HQ to happen again.”
The Quartermaster -- the previous Quartermaster’s blank eyes swam in front of him, like the specter at a grim feast. “Ma’am, I -- I’m not... Surely someone more senior--”
“Seniority is no guarantee of efficiency, and efficiency is what we need.” M didn’t stand up, but she still seemed to be a towering presence. He felt her words like they were an iron bar being strapped to his spine. “We are facing a new kind of threat, and we need to move fast to counter it. I need a Quartermaster who understands that threat -- who else could possibly do that better than the man who pointed out this very vulnerability two months ago?”
“I’m… due respect ma’am, but I’m not -- I’m not ready to say--”
M looked positively affronted by this. “I don’t give a damn if you’re ready. You are needed."
He swallowed, and swallowed again. He could still taste smoke and the sharp air of the oxygen mask. Somewhere, the building was still burning. He picked up the pen. His hands had stopped shaking, but he still couldn’t see through his scratched glasses. “Show me where to sign.”
He adapted quickly. He understood the importance of that, now more than ever. By the time his bruises faded, he was the Quartermaster, through and through. They even buried his old life in the condemned rubble of their ruined base. No one would use his old name ever again: the position of Quartermaster was too important, too valuable to risk anyone even finding him, much less blackmailing or manipulating him.
Being legally dead was disturbing on an intellectual level, of course. But Q felt a visceral, shameful relief once it was done. He had no family to mourn him, no real friends outside the agency. Killing his old identity gave him clarity and freedom. He felt like a snake that had shed a too-tight skin. He was the Quartermaster, and now he didn’t have to worry about being anything else.
“There,” he said to R, their heads bent together over the computer. He pointed to the screen. “Fix that and anyone who wants to hack us will have to walk into the bloody control room and plug in manually.”
R sighed and went back to fix the coding in their firewalls. Her hair was done up in braids today, like a crown looped around the top of her head. She never wore it the same way twice, and Q had no idea where she found time for that.
Q leaned back, eyes scanning over the screen as she worked. “Right,” he said sharply. “I’m going to go off-site and try to hack in. See if you can stop me.”
“We’ve got minions for that,” R said, looking up.
“They’re not as good as me,” he said, confidently. “But let’s get Clarke and Patel out there too.” Clarke and Patel were ex-black hats, not quite as good as Q, but better versed in the dirtier tricks. “Three heads are better than one.”
“Alright,” R said amiably enough. She wasn’t quite as young as he was, but she was younger than her predecessor, and hungry to prove herself, just like Q -- and standing in a dead man’s shoes, just like Q. Neither of them thought about it much. Most everyone left in Q-Branch these days was young, hungry, and standing in the shoes of dead and/or recently fired men.
Despite this, Q was proud of his department; they were coming back stronger than before. Being able to build his own systems from the ground up was a dream, even if Churchill’s tunnels were less than ideal. The relative youth of those who remained in the department had been turned to advantage. What they lacked in experience, they more than made up for in drive, ambition, and an ability to run all night on energy drinks and cheese puffs.
“I’ll call for a car.” Q jumped nearly out of his skin when Tanner’s voice spoke at his elbow. For a man who supposedly wasn’t a field agent, he could walk without making a damn sound. A slight smile quirked the corner of Tanner’s mouth. “Come on.”
“I can take the tube,” Q protested automatically.
Tanner visibly resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “No you can’t.”
Of course he couldn’t -- he was the Quartermaster now, and more importantly, he was supposed to be dead. He wasn’t allowed to take the tube or visit any of his old haunts.
“Fine,” Q said. “R, don’t forget to--”
“I won’t,” she said, waving him away.
It felt a bit like leaving his child with the babysitter, but he walked away from Q-branch with Tanner pacing silently at his elbow.
“So. Tanner. Any hot goss from upstairs?” he asked, jokingly. Tanner was notoriously close-lipped with those who didn't have security clearance, but he also had a bone-dry sense of humor. He had a habit of answering that sort of question with something like ‘well it was a bit touch and go with the space lair and the orchid poison, but that’s all sorted now.’ So Q was thrown when he was answered with a simple:
Q missed a step. The loss of 007 and Ronson might have been somewhat overshadowed by all that followed, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t still a raw wound. It seemed in poor taste to joke about that, especially after everything, but...
Tanner’s smile was mild but not ironic, and belatedly Q remembered that he was the Quartermaster now, and that meant that he had all the clearance. He’d probably heard the last of Tanner’s farcical cover stories.
“You’re… not joking?” Q guessed.
Tanner made a face. “Seems I owe Trevelyan a hundred quid when he gets back from Yakutsk. Bond’s definitely back. He’s doing his re-entry exams now. Seems he’s been on a beach somewhere, doing God-knows-what, probably drinking with scorpions. Anyway, he broke into M’s flat last night to report in.” Tanner said all this in a calm, even tone, apparently unsurprised. But then...
“That… does sound like 007,” Q allowed, thinking back to the stories he’d heard, in the days when he was just another Q-Branch Minion. 007 had been a legend before Q was out of uni. And while M had never been officially accused of playing favorites, the news that she had sacrificed 007 for that drive spoke volumes about its importance. “Does Eve know?” Q asked suddenly.
“Is she… alright?” Q hadn’t known Eve very long, but he liked her. And with good reason; she’d practically saved his life.
“She can look after herself.”
Q didn’t doubt that. He still remembered her -- smoke streaked and bleeding, evacuating Q-Branch almost single-handedly, gun out, covering them against an unknown threat. He’d seen her file; she’d been a top scorer on the tests to become a field agent. Taking the suspension after Bond’s death -- absence -- had been a bitter pill for her to swallow.
They were nearly out of Q-Branch by now, near the weapons development labs. Q paused, Tanner stopping with him.
“She’ll want him back in the field sooner rather than later, won’t she,” Q said. They weren’t talking about Moneypenny anymore.
Tanner’s lips turned down at the corners. “Whether she wants it or not… he has to pass his tests first.”
Q gave a swift, thin smile. “Of course. Just one moment, I need to sort something out,” he said, before stepping aside to visit the labs. He just wanted to make sure that the palm-grip on the Walther was ready to go.
Tanner’s face said it all: he didn’t think 007 would be ready, and while Q didn’t doubt Tanner’s assessment, he had a hunch...
I don’t give a damn if you’re ready. You are needed.
Q went out the next day to the National Gallery cafe, drank Earl Grey and tried to hack past the firewalls they’d been building. He’d never been so pleased to be thwarted in all his life. Feeling rather smug, he ordered a scone and nibbled it while checking the feedback from Clarke and Patel. They’d had no more luck than he had. MI6 was as secure as they could make it, and Q felt a kind of wholesome pleasure at a job well done.
Once he’d finished his scone, he got a text informing him that 007 was en route. He took the discreet black box and the little envelope that he’d been entrusted with and went to walk through the exhibits.
He found 007 staring down The Fighting Temeraire like it was his next target. He’d only seen the agent before from a distance before. The double-ohs came swanning into Q-Branch regularly, but they didn't linger. They were all striking; from Scarlet (004, with fire in her green eyes and her choppy bob dyed whatever color was called for by the next mission) to Eddie Donne (001, who looked disturbingly like Mr. Rogers.) Even 006 was striking by his absence (he'd been in deep cover in various parts of Russia since before Q joined MI6.)
Still, Bond was something of a standout. Obviously there was his age (he was the most senior double-oh in more than one sense) but his leonine grace, the glowing tan, the honey-blond hair -- no one could escape being struck by it, and Q was an observant, thoughtful sort of fellow. A small frown tugged at the corners of Q’s mouth. He’d never seen stubble on the double-oh’s chin before -- it was more silver-white than gold, and the tan did nothing to hide the shadows lingering under his eyes.
Q’s first cat had been a positively murderous stray named Brewster. She’d been old already when she started haunting the fire escape of his student housing, but she’d gone on to live another ten years out of sheer spite. So he recognized the look on 007’s face the moment he saw it -- like was only still breathing as a savage fuck you to the world around him.
The frown quirked up into a smile at the thought. He glanced at the Turner masterpiece, and suddenly he knew exactly what he was going to say.
Eve picked him up after the meet with Bond, since Q still wasn’t allowed on the tube. Q had a car of his own, but it was questionably road-legal, so he never mentioned it.
“How did he look?” Eve asked.
Q paused, thinking back to the grizzled bulldog of a man that he’d left in the Gallery. “He looked like shit, to be honest,” Q said, but he was smiling to himself as he said it. For some reason.
“Good,” said Eve, without taking her eyes off the road. He glanced over. Her eyelid twitched.
“What on earth did he do to you?” he asked, bemused.
“Nothing,” she said, settling back in the driver’s seat and cruising easily around the car in front of her. He felt safe with her behind the wheel, even though he knew her reputation among the other field agents. How she drove in London seemed to be quite different from how she drove in the field.
“Come on, Moneypenny, you can trust me, surely. I already know he’s a horrible prat. He told me I still had spots.”
“You do still have spots.”
“I really, really hate you.”
“No you don’t.”
They drove on in silence for a few moments, but then, out of the blue, Moneypenny said: “He told me that it isn’t for everyone.”
Q looked at her, eyes scanning over her face and reading uncertainty. He didn’t think he’d ever seen uncertainty on her face before. “What isn’t?”
“Field work.” She enunciated the words with precision -- and something else. Spite, perhaps.
“Well then he’s a prat.” Q frowned. “You scored higher than he did on your field tests,” he pointed out.
“Have you been snooping?”
“I’m the bloody Quartermaster,” it still gave him a small thrill to say it, even now, “I don’t have to snoop.”
She laughed. “You cocky bastard."
“It has been said.”
“Well.” She settled back into the driver's seat. “I’m not going to let James bloody Bond keep me out of the field.”
“Didn’t think for a second that you would.”
“Strip the headers, trace the source,” ordered Tanner’s voice in crisp, calm tones.
“Bollocks to that,” muttered R in a low voice so he couldn't be overheard on the line. “We should shut down.”
“We have our orders,” the Quartermaster said. His long, solemn face was tense with worry. He looked over at the minions in the cybertech division, “You on it?”
The head of the cyber division didn’t need to be told to get on it. He was already on it, hunched over his computer, green eyes scanning back and forth behind green-rimmed specs. All he had to do was link Tanner’s laptop into what he was already doing.
“Getting the trace back now,” said Tanner’s voice a moment later.
The head of cybertech had written this tracer programme personally. It was racing through the code, pinging a location for them faster than any commercially available product, but he couldn’t help thinking that it could be faster, somehow, there had to be a way to make the code better, more efficient. He was full of dread that they weren’t going to get the location in time. His nerves were pulled tight and singing, he felt sick to his stomach as the hack’s source isolated.
“It appears…” Tanner’s voice stuttered with shock. “It appears to be your computer, ma’am.”
Faintly, M’s voice came down the line. “Shut it down.”
He was already moving to follow the order when his hands snapped back from the keyboard. A jaunty musicbox rendition of God Save The Queen started playing from every computer at once. He looked over and saw the Union Jack popping up, with M’s disembodied head laughing, in a Monty Pythonesque mockery, from every direction. It all burned away.
THINK ON YOUR SINS
He looked over and saw the Quartermaster’s old, long face, slack with shock.
Then he smelled the gas.
Then his memory skipped like a needle jumping from one track to another -- because one moment he was sitting at his desk, staring at the Quartermaster and the next --
The next --
He was on his back. His vision was blurred, something obstructing his sight in one eye. He reached up, terrified to feel blood -- but there wasn't any. He pulled off his glasses -- one lens was scored with a deep gouge. He put them back on and tried to look past the obstruction. There was a hole in the ceiling, and everything was hazy and swirling with black smoke. Lights flickered, on and off and on, and then off again. For good. One emergency light strove valiantly on, tinting the whole of Q-Branch with red. His ears were full of a high pitched ringing and the breath had been knocked out of him. He tried to inhale and his lungs burned, his throat burned. He coughed. He tried to sit up. Where was he? His desk was metres away -- how had he gotten over here?
Something was burning somewhere, but all he could see was thick black smoke. He looked the other way and saw--
And saw --
Blank eyes, staring up at the hole in the ceiling, a familiar old face, long and almost comically shocked, but his eyes were empty in a way that made his whole body crawl.
The Quartermaster was dead.
Someone grabbed him and he looked up to see a woman, her dark skin smeared with smoke but her eyes hard as flint. Moneypenny, he remembered. The suspended field agent assisting Mallory. Her lips were moving, but all he could hear was the ringing. She had a gun out, pointing into the pall of smoke. She grabbed his arm, hauled him to his feet. She put a hand on the back of his neck, forcing him to duck as they moved.
He was shaking. The hacker. They weren’t just behind the firewall, they were in the building, they were under his very skin somehow, crawling around in his brain and laughing, laughing. His ears were ringing with it, and the ringing was just getting louder and louder and…
… Q was awakened from a dream of black smoke and blank eyes by his phone. He shook the lingering ringing from his ears and answered. "What?" His voice was rough with slumber.
"They’re on their way back," said Tanner’s voice tartly in Q’s ear. Did the man ever sleep?
"Who?" Q mumbled.
"Bond and Moneypenny. They got Silva and they say they’ve got a present for you. Get into the office, won't you?"
Q glanced at the clock. It was nearly time for him to wake up anyway. "Right. Be there in an hour," Q said.
007 didn’t remind Q of Brewster any longer. Something had changed in Shanghai and Macau and the South China Sea. He was less vicious stray and more caged tiger as he paced through Q-Branch to deliver Silva’s laptop personally. Q set it up to run some diagnostics. He didn’t think for a second that it would be easy to get in, but he equally had no doubt that he could. He was half worried that 007 would be a nuisance, but the agent was silent. There was a strange look in his eye, like he was mulling over something. Q wasn’t sure what it was, but he’d heard rumors that Silva was a real snake, that he could get under your skin with a few choice words. He wondered what Silva had said to 007.
But he had enough to do with Silva’s laptop here; a tantalizingly locked box full of possibly deadly treasure. Q waited for his diagnostics to finish, drumming his fingers idly on the desk.
“Am I really supposed to believe that your name is Quinlan Devereaux?” 007 said in a low voice, barely above a rumbling purr.
Q blinked. He looked up from the computer; 007 was standing there, feet shoulder-width apart, hands tucked into his pockets, a half-mocking imitation of parade rest. It took him a moment to realize that yes, of course 007 had access to his official file but also, of course he hadn’t known Q’s name before he became Quartermaster. He was thorough, but he wasn’t the sort to learn the name of every minion in Q-Branch.
“Sorry?” Q said, adjusting his glasses to buy himself time.
“Had a bit of spare time on the flight.” One muscular shoulder rolled lazily. “I was curious. It’s not much of a cover name though, is it. Quinlan Devereaux. And your predecessor was Quentin Cleese. And before him was Quincey Boothroyd and the very first was a Mr Quintus Algernon, I believe?”
“You can’t really think I’m just going to tell you my old name?” Q said. “After all the trouble we went through to bury it?”
007 smirked, blue eyes twinkling. Q could’ve been mistaken, but it seemed approving. “Well,” he rumbled. “I can find out on my own.”
Q rolled his eyes and turned back to his computer. “I’ve no doubt that you can, but I’d ask that you don’t. The new identity is part of my protection. Not all of us like to throw our real names around like candy at Christmas,” Q retorted tartly. He narrowed his eyes at the diagnostics, mentally trying to make them go faster. He didn’t much like having 007’s attention fixed on him this way -- it was… distracting.
“Well. Not all of you can look after yourselves, I suppose. Hide if you can’t fight.”
Q felt his eye twitch, and was reminded of Eve, tense behind the driver’s seat when she picked him up at the Gallery. Silva wasn’t the only one who could get under your skin with a few well-placed words. He knew that Bond was baiting him, poking him to see what he would do. When he spoke, it was with a frost over every syllable. “I don’t think I need to tell you--”
“Pyjamas. I remember,” said 007, sounding bored now.
“--that as your Quartermaster, not only do I have the highest security clearance, I also know the backdoors to our firewalls, and I have seen blueprints for weapons that were deemed too dangerous to even build prototypes for.” Q looked back at Bond once more. “I’ve had my RTI training, just like you, but I’d really rather not test it, for all our sakes.”
Bond’s expression had sobered again, turning thoughtful. He inclined his head ever so slightly, conceding the point. Q’s diagnostics pinged at him. Q scanned them, but they hadn’t found anything he wasn’t expecting. Q reached over and started up the laptop.
“Now. Looking at Silva’s computer…”
...Looking at Silva’s computer had been a mistake. Q could’ve kicked himself for it, for not double and triple checking, for not just bloody thinking it through.
They told me you were a cocky little shit.
This had all been deliberate, and he’d danced in Silva’s hands like a marionette, his every move playing into the master plan.
I’m your new Quartermaster.
You must be joking.
It had left him second guessing himself for the rest of the mission; it had slowed him down spotting Silva, seeing where Silva was headed -- this was the first real fight of his career as Quartermaster, and he’d been on the back foot every minute of it.
Not such a clever boy.
His hands were shaking again. It had taken a tremendous effort of will to stay quiet after the little Bond-dot arrived at Whitehall, listening to the screams, gunshots, and explosions that followed. It felt like he was blindfolded and gagged.
“Q? I need help.”
Q’s eyes tracked over the map, back and forth. His nerves were still singing, but he’d be damned if he let it show. “I’m tracking the car -- where are you going?”
“I’ve got M. We’re about to disappear.”
“I need you to lay a trail of breadcrumbs impossible to follow for anyone except Silva, think you can do it?”
A sick, jittery lurch twisted Q’s stomach. He checked behind him. Q-Branch was a disturbed ant colony, swarming with people trying to track down the damage done by the virus Silva had left them. No one was paying attention to him. He looked back and leaned in towards the mic. “I’m guessing this isn’t strictly official.”
“Not even remotely.”
“So much for my promising career in espionage.” But his mind was already back on track, speeding like a bullet train. Could he do it? Certainly. And given that all this was at least partly his fault… He gritted his teeth and swallowed Earl Grey like it was cyanide. He honestly didn’t know which was more galling; that he’d let Silva into their systems, or that Silva had known that he would. Was he truly as predictable as emergency protocols that hadn’t changed since the Cold War?
...youth is no guarantee of innovation...
“Right,” Q said lowly. “You’ll need some equipment, hold on.”
Q pulled his earwig, switched Bond’s feed to his phone and put the phone against his ear before striding out of Q-Branch, not wanting to risk being overheard. “You’ll need to change vehicles. M’s car is tagged and so is yours, I expect.”
“What?” 007 sounded affronted.
“You can’t really be surprised that MI6 keeps tabs. Especially on you.” 007 made a disgruntled sort of growling noise in his ear. Q was out in the hall now, and glanced either way to be sure that he was alone before striding away towards the gent’s. “Lay low for a bit, meet me at my flat later. I can get you a clean car, but I don’t know that I’ll be able to get you much by way of munitions,” he said apologetically.
“Oh I think I know where I can lay my hands on a few.”
Q sighed. “Of course you do. Well. 1900 hours. You know where my flat is if you’ve seen my file.”
“1900 it is,” 007 confirmed.
Q hung up and pushed into the loo. He went straight for the sinks, turned on the taps. He took off his glasses and splashed frigid water onto his face. He looked up at his own reflection -- fuzzy and indistinct at this distance.
My complexion is hardly relevant.
Your competence is.
“Not such a clever boy,” Q told himself through gritted teeth.
Q felt jittery and unsure as he waited for Bond to turn up. Even though his phone showed him Bond approaching, and even though he keyed off certain security features to let Bond up, the knock at his door still made him jump nearly out of his skin. He peered through the peephole and found glacial eyes staring back at him. He opened the door. “Where's M?”
“In the car -- we've got a few minutes while she takes it around the block. Moving target. Harder to hit.”
007’s gaze prowled around, trying to peer past Q into his flat, as if he thought there might be threats lurking under the couch. It did nothing to soothe Q's nerves. He felt self conscious. The little quirks that had attracted him to the place suddenly felt like he was revealing too much. He didn’t move to invite 007 any further than the entry hall. “I can assure you that there’s nothing in here more dangerous than you. Potter can be quite vicious, but he’s sleeping.”
007 narrowed his eyes at Q and looked no less wary. “Boyfriend?”
“Cat,” Q snapped. “Here.” He held out an envelope.
Bond glanced over Q’s shoulder one last time, then took the envelope and opened it. He pulled out a jingling ring of keys. He arched a brow in silent question.
“It’s mine. It’s completely clean. Picked it up when MI6 was decommissioning old equipment -- had to take out the trackers, of course. If MI6 knew I had it…” He cleared his throat. “It was a wreck when I got it. I fixed it up, made some. Additions.”
“Additions? Why Q, you naughty boy," 007 rumbled, pulling papers out of the envelope now.
Q ground his teeth. The car had been a pet project of his practically since he started at MI6. He'd saved it from the scrapyard and spent years painstakingly restoring all the Cold War-era gadgetry, from the glory days of Q-Branch, back when they really did do exploding pens. It was a relic from a bygone era of spying. It was a piece of history, he'd told himself, to mollify his conscience when he first nicked it.
It was also incredibly deadly, and if anyone found out that he had it, much less that he’d restored it…
007 was looking over the papers from the envelope. Specs for the car, it’s capabilities, location of the garage where he kept it. Q folded his arms tight over his skinny chest, lips thinned. He was expecting to be mocked, any minute now. He knew what it looked like; a boffin like him playing spy -- it was as bad as those skinny internet shut-ins who kept genuine katanas on their walls.
But when 007 looked up, it was with barely contained excitement. He seemed to be practically vibrating with awed glee. “You restored the ejector seat?” he said, blue eyes alight with an inner fire, and in an instant, Q knew.
007 wasn’t mocking him, because somewhere underneath his suave exterior, sociopathic tendencies, and cool-guy sunglasses, he was just as much a geek as Q was -- about cars if nothing else.
Q’s heart did… something funny. “Feel like Christmas now?”
Q was treated to a full-on James Bond grin. Not the half smiles and smug smirks, not the feline amusement or the predatory flash of teeth… this was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. Deep lines framed his mouth, his eyes became sapphires nearly lost in crow’s feet, and his teeth stood out white against his warm golden tan. It very nearly bowled Q right over.
007 looked back down at the papers and made a happy growling sound somewhere between a laugh and a purr. Q was not remotely prepared for the shiver that went rocketing down his spine. The sheer charisma on that man, dear God --
“You’ve been holding out on me, Quartermaster.” He looked up, eyes more pleading than Weasley's when he was angling for treats.
“Holding out--” Q spluttered. “We’ve barely known each other a week, I was hardly going to tell you about my borderline-illegal restoration project, was I?”
007’s eyes narrowed. “Hang on. You don’t even drive. You take the Tube, you said.”
“Just because I take public transport doesn’t mean I can’t drive,” Q griped, folding his arms again. “She still runs like a dream.”
“I don’t doubt it, Quartermaster.” 007 tossed the keys up, following them with his clear blue eyes, and snatched them back out of the air, still grinning. “Still. It's a crime that she doesn't get out more often.”
Q opened his mouth, closed it. Christ, that smile. It was making his heart stutter and race as surely as if he were staring down the barrel of 007’s gun. But then, charm was just another weapon in the hands of a double-oh. He cleared his throat. “Yes. Well. Bring it back in one piece, and perhaps I'll let you take her for a spin. Occasionally. How's that sound?”
“Quartermaster, I could bloody kiss you.”
Q gave a thin, strained smile as 007 made to leave. “Please don't.” Then, a he took a swift step forward. “007--”
The agent stopped and looked back, head cocked.
“Where are you going? Where should the breadcrumbs lead?”
007 blinked. His expression shifted again, becoming more distant, more shuttered. “Skyfall,” he said. “It’s in my file. Thanks for the ride, Q.”
Q watched 007 go, heard the locks click shut behind him. “I’m never going to see that car again,” he told the closed door.
The day after Skyfall was a long day. Bond had to be brought back from Scotland. There was damage control to be done. More emergency protocols and contingency plans. And it had to be done through a haze of shock and loss. By the end of the day, long after he should've been gone, it was all Q could do to put his head in his hands and just not cry.
“Come on. You need a drink.”
It was Eve, thank God. Q’s head slipped off his hands and he looked up at her. There was grief around her eyes, mirroring the grief wrapped tight around his heart, choking him. She held out his coat. He took it.
They were halfway out of the tunnels when Eve paused, asked him to wait a moment.
She came back a moment later with James Bond in tow.
The man looked dead inside, all systems down, and Q couldn't help remembering the last time he’d seen Bond; his face lit up by excitement for his new toy. The car hadn’t come back, but that bitter twist of regret didn't even register beside the gaping maw of their other loss.
Eve ordered them a cab -- they went to a restaurant called Rules and she showed her MI6 ID to get them in the door. Q had never been there before. It was a bit out of his comfort zone; all leather seats and dark wood and walls covered in vintage prints and paintings. It was empty save for the man behind the bar, which seemed suspicious for a Friday night.
That brought something like life back to 007’s face. His eyes were prowling again, looking for threats. “What is this place?”
“Mallory's regular,” Eve explained. “He bought it out for the evening; everyone who comes here tonight will be MI6, and the drinks are on him.”
Q felt a surge of gratitude towards the man. They claimed a booth and ordered drinks. Well. Eve and Q ordered drinks. Bond ordered a bottle.
Q couldn’t think of a single thing to say into the heavy silence between them all. He wasn’t sure he wanted to say anything -- the air was too weighty with their loss to be disturbed. Q glanced at Eve, but she didn’t look up from her drink.
He glanced at 007. Bond drank like a man who was drinking alone; and drinking to forget. Why had he come here with them at all? Why not go straight to his flat? Perhaps Eve had twisted his arm somehow. Perhaps the fact that he was still living out of a hotel had gotten to him. Perhaps even Bond didn’t want to be alone tonight.
“I remember, after that field mission -- the one where you --” Eve paused, swirled her tumbler in Bond’s direction. “She looked at me, and she just said: ‘I’ll thank you to remember that’s my kill you’re getting credit for.’” Eve shook her head and looked down again.
Q bumped his elbow against hers. She didn’t look over, but her lips pursed in what might have been a small, bitter smile. For the first time, it really hit Q what it must have been like for her; Bond had been her supervisor on that mission. She’d been a young but promising field agent, and Bond's death had cut her off at the knees. To lose him like that, and then to get him back only to lose M…
Bond didn’t say anything. He didn’t emerge from his cloud -- he didn’t even look up.
“I can’t imagine the place without her,” Q said suddenly. “It won’t feel…”
“The same?” Eve said.
Q shook his head. “Safe.” He adjusted his glasses. “Which is nonsense. I think it’s because she wasn’t there when they blew up the old HQ. I know it isn’t logical but… on some ridiculous level I feel like they wouldn’t have dared if she had been there.” He shrugged, laughed bitterly at himself, and looked back down at his drink. “It's stupid.”
“Extremely.” It was 007’s voice. He still sounded faraway, a low rumble on the horizon. “Thank god we’re all spies here. It would be dreadfully embarrassing for you if anyone found out you thought that.”
Q kicked him under the table, then belatedly remembered that the double-oh could kill him seven ways from Sunday. Luckily there was no immediate retaliation.
007's expression was guarded, his blue eyes revealing nothing at all. Then, without warning, he said: “After a mission went south -- one of my first after I made double-oh -- I broke into her flat.”
Eve sighed. “Of course you did.”
“She said…” he paused long enough to take a sip from his tumbler and swallow it. "She said ‘I knew it was too early to promote you.’” Bond was looking down at his glass now, and after swirling it contemplatively, he finished it off and poured another.
Q couldn't help staring at him. He looked older and more grizzled than ever. He hadn’t shaved since he left for Skyfall -- since all of the rest of it. And Q remembered how long ago it had been that James Bond was promoted into the 00 Programme. Perhaps not that long ago compared to other careers, but double-ohs simply didn't live as long as Bond had. They simply didn't. 007 had been with M longer than any of the rest of them.
“She also said that the next time I fancied blowing up an embassy, I should shoot myself first,” he added.
“Oi. That’s my job,” Eve cut in.
That made 007 smile -- a half smirk, a ghost of the smile that Q remembered from three nights ago.
“What about you, then, Quartermaster?” Eve prompted.
“We're not actually doing this, are we? Favorite M qoutes? She’d hate that, you know,” Q pointed out.
“Yes well. Let’s carry on to spite her,” 007 rumbled.
Q gave a half-smile. “Alright. When she first promoted me to Quartermaster,” he started.
“Right after your twelfth birthday, wasn’t it?” 007 cut in.
“Watch it, Gran,” Q shot back. Bond winked at him -- actually winked, the bastard. Q cleared his throat and looked away. “Anyway. She said ‘I don’t give a damn if you’re ready. You are needed.’”
They smiled at that. “That sounds like M,” 007 murmured, topping off his glass and then tilting the neck of the bottle towards Q. Q wasn’t normally a scotch drinker, but he’d finished his gin, and Bond had drunk more of that bottle than he probably ought to.
“Go on then,” Q said, holding out his glass. He didn't care at this point that the lingering gin would mix horrifically with the taste of scotch. Bond filled the glass, and Q lifted it. “To M, I suppose.”
“To M,” Eve agreed.
Bond’s blue eyes drifted from one to the other, then he lifted his glass too, with an ironic twist to his mouth. “Her name was Olivia,” he told them, his tumbler chiming briefly against theirs. “Olivia Mansfield.”