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Ghost in the Machine

Chapter Text

Q’s smile faded as his eyes dropped to the fresh wounds on Bond’s chest. “Dr Swann, is there a first aid kit back there?” he asked.

After a bit of rummaging, Madeleine handed one forward. Bond cut the zip tie around Madeleine’s wrists with the bandage scissors, and then began to patch himself up with practiced efficiency. “So you’re Q,” Madeleine said, her tone measured and cautious. “And you’re on our side?” 

“Ah. I can see how that might have been confusing,” Q said gently. “I wasn’t quite myself. But yes, Bond and I work together.” 

She said simply, “He’s told me about you. The machine that acts like a man.” 

Bond looked over to see Q’s eyes narrow on the horizon. “Indeed,” he said. “And you’re a cluster of cells that acts like a woman. Still, isn’t it curious how that description tells me nothing about who you are?”  

To Bond’s relief, Madeleine smiled. “I see why he likes you.”

“It doesn’t hurt that I’m the one who gives him all of his best toys.” At the mention of toys, there was a tiny mewl from Q’s side of the cockpit.

“Please tell me you didn’t steal the evil mastermind’s cat,” Bond said, but Q was already reaching down beside him with one hand and pulling the little white cat up onto his lap while making little cooing noises at the creature. Q kept one hand on the cyclic as he stroked the purring cat with the other.

“I didn’t steal him, I saved him. And I’m sure I’ll be a much better master than mean Mr Blofeld, isn’t that right, Watson?” Q crooned.  

“Watson?” Bond repeated skeptically. “As in, ‘elementary, my dear’?”  

“As in IBM’s Watson computer system, which represented an incredible breakthrough in early machine learning and reasoning. Watson was really quite remarkable, and a precursor to developments like—” 

“M’s never going to let you keep it,” Bond said, derailing Q before he could work up a good lecture.  

Q huffed out an irritated sigh. “I beg to differ. I could make a very convincing argument for how taking care of an animal would better help me understand the principles of non-fabricated life. Or, I could rely on my knowledge that M is very much a cat person, and one look at Watson’s adorable little face will melt his icy heart.” 

Bond scrubbed a hand down his face. As much as he could pretend exasperation, however, he was glad to have Q and his antics back. “Of course M’s a bloody cat person.” 

“Would one of you mind telling me where we're going?” Madeleine piped up from the back.

“The nearest airport is in Marrakesh, about three hours away,” Q replied. “You have time to get some rest if you like.”

Madeleine nodded. “Wake me if someone tries to shoot us out of the sky,” she said wearily, and then curled up on the back seats. Bond watched the rise and fall of her breathing slow in the rear view mirror. He was surprised she could fall asleep so quickly after what she’d just been through, but it seemed like this business with SPECTRE was rapidly winding to a close, and she would finally be safe after a lifetime of looking over her shoulder. She must have been exhausted. 

“Did you happen to pick up my glasses?” Q asked, breaking Bond out of his thoughts.

Bond dipped his hand into his breast pocket and pulled out the twisted frames. “They broke, unfortunately.”

Q took the frames from Bond’s outstretched hand and examined them before raising his eyes to examine Bond. “And when you say ‘they broke’, do you really mean ‘I broke them’?”

“You know me too well,” Bond said, giving Q his most charming smile.

“That's two guns lost and two expensive pieces of equipment destroyed on this mission, and I never actually gave you the equipment.” 

“Well, you’ve missed your opportunity to torture me.” 

“Have I?” Q’s voice dipped a little lower, as did his eyes. Bond glanced at Madeleine’s sleeping reflection in the rear view mirror, and then leaned over to rest a hand on Q’s thigh and claim a kiss from his Quartermaster. But the moment their lips met, a biting electric shock caused Bond to draw back with a yelp. Q grinned as Bond pressed a hand to his stinging lips. “That’s for the DB10,” Q said.

“Fair enough,” Bond grumbled. “Have you gotten the vengeance out of your system now, or should I keep my hands to myself?” 

Q seemed to deliberate his response carefully before he replied. “I’m satisfied. For now.” 

“I should hope not,” Bond said, and kissed Q properly, until he had the A.I. purring like his new cat. They kept the kiss brief, since Q was still piloting the helicopter, but it was enough to leave Bond a little dizzy when they drew apart, and he couldn’t blame it all on the blood loss.  

“It’s good to have you back, James,” Q murmured against his lips.

“Likewise,” Bond said. The smoking crater lay behind them, and the golden desert stretched out beneath them until it met the orange sunset ahead. “We killed a ghost today. And what a lovely day it is to be alive.” 

###

At the airport, Q tried to get Madeleine to return to London with them so she could be assigned a protective detail until they were certain she’d be safe from whatever was left of SPECTRE. “There may still be free agents and independently functioning subsidiaries like Quantum that would want to kill you because of what you know.” 

“Their secret is out,” she said. “And I trust the two of you will keep them too busy to worry about me. I must return to Austria to tie off loose ends, and then I’ll go somewhere new.” She smiled, like the prospect was exciting.  

“If you find yourself in need of employment, they always need new people in Psych,” Bond said. “Apparently, we’re rather hard on our shrinks.”

Madeleine shook her head. “I can’t go back to that life.”

“I understand,” Bond said. “It’s a brutal business.”

“It’s who you are,” Madeleine said. “But you’re the kindest killer I’ve met. You’re a good man, James.” As she glanced at Q, beneath it all she seemed to be saying, You may be damaged, but you’re not broken. “Take care,” she said, and walked out of his life as quickly a he'd managed to drag her into it. 

Back in London, Whitehall was in chaos. The moment they checked in with Moneypenny, she marched them into a harried-looking M’s office for a full debrief. “Please explain to me what the hell the two of you did in Morocco,” he greeted them. 

“We eliminated the head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and his chief of intelligence, C, before they could launch their very own global surveillance system,” Bond said.

“Yes, that much I gathered from the explosion that was seen from space, and the fact that C, myself and the Home Secretary were in a meeting when it happened, and in the middle of it C stood up and made a full confession, then started singing ‘Daisy Bell’ before he collapsed on the floor. I take it you had something to do with that, Quartermaster.” 

Q shrunk back in his chair a little. “You’ve not read my after action report, sir?”

“Do I look like I’ve had time to read your forty-page AAR brimming with technical jargon? Summarise it for me. In plain English, if you please.”

So Q did. “SPECTRE was responsible for C’s development, and most of the private funding for Nine Eyes and the Centre for National Security came from SPECTRE subsidiaries. While Bond and Dr Swann were being held at Blofeld’s base, I hacked into C’s mainframe using the same method Silva used on me. Since C was built to my designs, and Blofeld almost certainly wouldn’t have allowed him the same level of autonomy that you’ve allowed me, I cracked open Blofeld’s admin file and used his override codes to control C and thereby control the base. That far out in the desert, they had to use powerful generators to keep C running. It wasn’t hard to start a chain reaction. But before C’s mainframe was destroyed, I managed to copy all of his files. Everything we need to know about SPECTRE, we now know it.”

“So you caused that explosion?” From where she stood beside M, Moneypenny discreetly held out her hand, and M grudgingly passed her a tenner. “Please don’t tell me you’re picking up bad habits from working with Bond.”

Q looked as though the thought had never occurred to him before, and that it represented something of an alarming prospect. “I hope not, sir, but I’ll make some adjustments in my learning protocols just to make sure.”

“See that you do. Now, is there anything you’ve overlooked?”

“No…?” Q said, confused by M’s leading tone. 

“The cat, Quartermaster. Why do you have a cat?” 

Q looked down at the cat in his lap as though he’d forgotten it was there, even though he’d been idly running his fingers through its fur through the entire debrief. “He was Blofeld’s cat, sir. I didn’t think he deserved to share his master’s fate, so I took him with us. I could use a cat in Q Branch, sir. I’ve noticed mice around the workshop. You know how they like subterranean buildings.”  

M nodded, recalling their stint in the bunkers. “That’s a good idea, Q. Have you given him a name?” 

“Watson,” Q replied.  

“Watson. Hm. It suits him,” M said. “May I?” 

Q lifted the little cat off his lap and set it on its feet on top of M’s desk, where it mewled plaintively at the head of MI6. M obligingly scratched behind its ears while Moneypenny reached over to stroke its back, and the happy cat wasn’t the only one to melt under their attentions. The stress seemed to ease from M’s face, and after a moment, he even smiled.

“I didn’t have you pegged as a cat person, sir,” Bond said.  

“I love cats,” M said blandly. “I’m even subscribed to Q’s Monday cat video emails. They’ve raised morale around the offices considerably. I particularly enjoyed the one last week with the cat sitting on the Roomba.”

“Thank you, sir,” Q said.  

“I liked the one with the kittens trying to climb the stairs,” Moneypenny enthused. “I thought I was going to die of laughter.” 

Q beamed. Bond wondered if all of MI6 had gone mad in his absence. M reluctantly returned Q his cat. “That’s all I need from the two of you for now. I’ll need you both at the top of your game tomorrow when we reestablish the 00 Programme to which this country and eight others owe the integrity of their covert intelligence.” 

“Yes, sir,” Bond and Q said in unison.

“And Bond, go to Medical. You’re bleeding through your shirt.”

Bond looked down at the red stains. “Damn,” he said. “It was Armani.” 

###

That night, Q lay beside Bond in bed, lightly tracing the stitched red seams on Bond’s chest. The moment Bond had stepped out of Medical he’d stripped off his bandages and tossed them in the nearest bin, but he wasn’t quite self-destructive enough to pull out his stitches. “These will leave scars,” Q said sadly. 

“In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been collecting those,” Bond said, taking Q’s hand in his and entwining their fingers. His skin was latticed with scars, and if he were being honest with himself, the ones he would mind the least would be the ones put there by Q’s hand.

“I should have been faster…”

Bond stopped Q’s mouth with a kiss. “It doesn’t matter. You found a way, like you always do.” 

“I suppose I have pulled your arse out of the fire a few more times than my job description strictly requires,” Q murmured. “You’re going to make me blow a fuse someday, I’m certain of it.” 

Bond chuckled and pulled his Quartermaster closer. He still marvelled at the fact that, far more often than not, Q chose to stay with him through the night, even though he didn’t sleep. Q had said that the purpose of him having a body in the first place was as a part of his user interface, and at night, when there was no one working in Q Branch, there was no reason for him to be there, either. So he might as well be here, with Bond. But Bond knew that the practical explanation was only half the truth. Q wouldn’t stay with him if he didn’t want to. Bond still didn’t quite know what he’d done to make Q want to stay, but whatever it was, he would keep doing it, even if it killed him.  

Bond didn’t expect to wake a few hours later to a knife at his throat, or a scream the next moment as the hand that held the knife was snatched and bent back until bones and tendons snapped. Blofeld looked about as surprised to see Q in Bond’s bed as the two of them were to see him. His right eye was gone with nothing but a snarled, fleshy scar in its place, but he was unmistakably alive.  

Q, in just his briefs, had Blofeld incapacitated with his cheek smashed against the floorboards in a matter of seconds, while Bond pulled on a pair of track pants and picked up the knife Blofeld had dropped on the bed. “You’re a hard man to kill, Blofeld,” he said.

Blofeld wheezed out breathless laughter under the weight of Q’s knee pressed between his shoulder blades. “You really can seduce anyone, can’t you? My father, Vesper, the late M and a host of other dead women, your fellow agents, Dr Swann, and even a cold-blooded A.I.. I must admit, I’m impressed.”

“No one knows he’s alive,” Q said with that rare, calculating coldness of his that reminded Bond of what Madeleine had said, that beneath the man was a machine. “He can disappear and no one will miss him.” 

“You're leaving it up to me?” Bond asked, surprised that Q would be willing to violate regulations so blatantly.

“He’s your family. And he deserves your worst.” 

“Finish it,” Blofeld snarled, straining to lift his head under Q’s unbreakable hold. 

Bond considered it. He couldn't deny that we wanted to carve that knife into Blofeld’s throat as Blofeld had intended to do to him. But the mission was over, and his license to kill wasn't a license to kill whomsoever he pleased. He may have been an assassin, but he wasn't a murderer. He wasn't like Blofeld. “Fucking hell,” Bond growled. “We’ve got to bring him in.”

Q nodded curtly, and knocked Blofeld out cold. 

###

An hour later, they were standing outside the holding cells while an interrogator worked Blofeld over. The night shifters were enjoying this rare moment of excitement in their otherwise uneventful routine, but M was not so happy to be called in at two in the morning. And because M was a firm believer in giving his misery company, Moneypenny was roving about with a murderous glint in her eye as well.

Meanwhile, Bond and Q were trying to be as unobtrusive as possible in the hope that they might be overlooked amidst the turmoil. But it didn’t take long for Moneypenny to find them, like a shark scenting blood in the water. “Gentlemen, I just need to get a few facts straight,” she said, by way of greeting. 

“I submitted a report,” Q offered meekly.  

“Yes, an uncharacteristically laconic one,” she replied. “It was rather like reading Hemingway. So, to flesh out the details, Blofeld broke into Bond’s flat just after one in the morning, held the knife we now have in forensics to Bond’s throat, at which point, Q, you were able to wrest the knife from Blofeld, breaking his wrist in the process, and subdue him for transport by means of a concussion. Is that correct?” 

“Er, yes… Should I have been gentler with him?” Q asked.  

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Moneypenny said. “No one here is particularly concerned with his comfort. What you neglected to mention in your report was what you were doing at Bond’s apartment at one in the morning. Having a little sleepover, were we?” 

“I don’t sleep,” Q said.

“No, I thought not.”

After a beat of silence, Bond asked, “Are we in trouble?” 

“Not as of yet.” 

Bond frowned. “What does that mean?”

“It means that Q’s position in this agency is entirely unprecedented, so no regulations exist that govern his behaviour. Not even the employee handbook applies to him, since, even though Q receives a sizeable budget for his branch, he receives no actual salary, so he’s not technically an employee. That puts M in the position of having to make up regulations for him when situations arise. As for governing Q’s relationships, the prospect makes M uncomfortable, since Q is bound to follow procedures in a way that no one else is. So M has decided to err on the side of leniency. If it were anyone outside the agency, or a low-ranking employee, it would be problematic given Q’s profound connection to the agency itself, but a 00’s clearance level is sufficient to render that a nonissue. And the usual concerns about conflicts of interest don’t apply, since any loyalty to Q is, for all intents and purposes, loyalty to MI6, and it’s Q’s job to be protective of the 00s anyway, so it would be difficult for him to show preferential treatment. M has therefore come to the conclusion that, as long as this thing between you doesn’t affect either of your work, it may be allowed to continue.” 

“M’s not concerned that I might be…taking advantage of Q?” Bond asked carefully.

Moneypenny snorted. “I think we all know Q well enough by now to pity the poor bastard who ever tries to take advantage of him.”

Bond and Q shared a bewildered but relieved look. “Why isn’t M the one telling us this?” Q finally asked.  

“He has…old-fashioned sensibilities,” Moneypenny chose diplomatically, “and he’s rather flustered about the whole thing. He’d rather not have this conversation with you two, which is why I’m here.” She gave them her pleasant, administrative smile edged with the brittleness of sleep deprivation that threatened to fracture the façade at the least provocation. “Any more questions?” They were quick to answer in the negative, knowing better than to question mercy from above. “Good. Then go home. We’ve got a busy day ahead of us tomorrow.” 

In an organisation of spies, gossip spread quickly, and by the time Bond returned to HQ the next day, it seemed everyone was talking about the events of the night before. As he’d expected, he was on the receiving end of more than a few strange looks, but interestingly enough, he only got them from people who didn’t work with Q directly. Those who did were still curious or amused, but otherwise didn’t seem to think of his and Q’s relationship as some outrageous scandal. Bond hadn’t realised just how many people at MI6 had truly accepted Q as their peer until that day. And Q Branch, when Bond made it over there at the end of the day, was another matter entirely. The attitude among Q’s staff seemed almost celebratory. Bond had made a point of arriving after hours, when all of the Q-Branchers were usually gone, but that evening they were all still there, playing with the new cat and chattering happily about current projects and other, less work-related topics. Someone had even brought in cupcakes, ostensibly for catching Blofeld. Q, however, was nowhere to be seen. 

“Good evening, 007,” Aditya, Q’s chief of staff greeted him as he walked in. “Care for a cupcake?” 

“No, thanks,” Bond answered cautiously.

“I suppose you don't get a physique like that by eating cupcakes,” sighed Aditya, from where he was perched on his desk. “Is there something we can do for you? Or are you looking for the Quartermaster?” 

“The latter, if you please.” 

“He’s down in his workshop. Just so you know, 007,” Aditya said, leaning forward with a smile still on his face, “we’re all very happy for Q, as long as Q is happy.” He gave Bond a pointed look. “You may not think much of us nerds here in Q Branch, but we’re more dangerous than we look. If for any reason Q is unhappy, we’ll be the first ones you hear from. And possibly the last.” 

Before Bond could respond to that, Q’s voice crackled irritably through the overhead speakers. “Please refrain from threatening 00 agents, Aditya. It’s generally not conducive to one’s survival.”

Aditya grinned. “Yes, boss,” he called back. Then, to Bond, “You can go right down.”

Bond took the lift down to Q’s workshop, where he found the A.I. on his back beneath Bond’s old Aston Martin, welding the underside of a wheel arch to the body. Bond observed the process with interest, standing just outside the radius of sparks. After a few minutes, Q finished with the arch and turned off the arc welder. He extricated himself from beneath the car, pulled off his gauntlets and flipped up his visor. There was a smudge of motor oil on his face, and the coveralls he wore over his mesh turtleneck were filthy.  

“I’m surprised you’d dirty your hands with this kind of thing,” Bond remarked, reaching out to rub the oil from Q’s face with his thumb. "Don't you have robots for that?"

Q caught Bond’s hand as he lowered it and brought it back to his face, this time to his lips. Delicately, he flicked out his tongue to lap up the oil from Bond’s finger. “I like getting my hands dirty,” he said, and released Bond’s hand. “Besides, everyone upstairs is interminably cheery today, and there’s only so much of that my processors can handle.”

“They seem like good people,” Bond said, despite his own uneasiness around cheery types, especially those who remained that way after working at MI6.  

“They are,” Q said fondly. “My technicians, on the other hand, are awful people. They tried to ask me all sorts of personal questions today, as if I don’t know what I can and can’t do with my own hardware, and as if it’s any of their business anyway. I told them to shove it, of course.” 

Bond chuckled. “I would’ve liked to have seen that. Are you ready to leave?” 

Q had been scandalised when Bond had confessed to him recently that he’d never actually seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it just so happened that it was being shown in 70mm in Leicester Square that weekend, so Q had immediately purchased two tickets. The show started in an hour. Q quickly stripped out of his coveralls and pulled on a hideous parka that did nothing for his lovely figure. “Ready,” he said with an excited grin, and Bond sighed wistfully. “It’ll be a treat seeing it in seventy millimetre. They just don’t make movies like they used to.”

“You’re the future, Q," Bond teased. "I’m not sure you get to be nostalgic.”

Q swayed into him playfully as they took the lift up to the surface. “What can I say? I’m a sucker for the classics.” Bond leaned in and kissed him then. It tasted a little like motor oil, and a lot like perfection.  

###

Blofeld kept quiet in holding over the next few weeks, but Q had extracted all the information they needed from C to dismantle what remained of SPECTRE. The 00s were roving across the globe dispensing bullets and taking names. Meanwhile, the merger with MI5 had fallen through, the Joint Security Service had been gutted and restaffed at the highest levels, and MI6 was relocating yet again. After M had explained to the PM and the Home Secretary how the 00 Programme was singularly responsible for exposing the massive conspiracy, the programme had been reopened with immediate effect, and, as MI6 was in need of a new headquarters, they were presented with the state-of-the-art CNS building by way of recompense.

Q had elected to keep Q Branch in its off-site location, at least until the rest of the transition was complete, as moving all of his servers securely was a logistical nightmare he had no desire to repeat so soon. For the new building, he had salvaged the A.I. Bond had found in L’Americain, and upgraded her to run on the requisitioned Nine Eyes servers. She still wasn’t as advanced as Q, nor was she fully self-aware, but she now had the processing power and advanced programming to administer the new building while Q stayed focused on Q Branch. Q maintained access and administrative privileges over all her systems, making him sort of like her boss. That was why he called her R.  

M got C’s old office, and immediately remodelled it because, despite what C might have thought, glass walls really weren't well suited for the head of an organisation of spies. The first thing to go was C’s glass desk, which had strange cracks in it that Q denied knowing anything about when asked. Eventually, things settled down, and they made themselves a new home out of the spoils of a silent war.  

Bond went back into the field to help with the SPECTRE clean-up ops, beginning with Ms Human Trafficking. He had a meeting scheduled with her the next morning, posing as an investor interested in salvaging her operations from financial ruin and getting business booming again. That night, though, he lay back in bed in his hotel room in Munich and switched on his mobile. All agents’ phones now came equipped with a standard issue software package courtesy of Q Branch, and one of the less practical but more entertaining apps they’d all received was a Scrabble game in which the user could elect to play against the standard CPU, other MI6 agents, or Q himself. Of course, no one had managed to usurp Q’s throne as reigning champion yet, but that never stopped Bond from trying. He loved a challenge, after all.  

Hours later, when he lost his fourth game, he called it quits and signed off. He went to sleep with a smile, never having enjoyed losing so thoroughly before.