Alec had heard about everything that had gone down at MI6 while he was away. He was in deep cover, not living under a rock. Of course he heard. MI6 getting blown up had been on every news channel in the world, international airwaves freaking out over a terrorist attack in the heart of London. And then there was the fact that the voice in his ear as he brought his mission to a rather explosive finish wasn’t old Boothroyd or his second-in-command, who had a slightly better grasp of information technology than the old Major, but a smarmy little boffin who introduced himself as the new Quartermaster.
A smarmy, efficient little boffin, Alec had to give him that. He’d never had a mission end so smoothly before, and when he said as much, the new Q had returned the compliment by way of informing Alec that James had told Q good things about him, and that he was looking forward to working with Alec in the future. Which was why Alec was mostly unsurprised when he got home and James told him he was fucking the new Quartermaster.
With James, that usually would have been all, and Alec would have assumed Q was just a pretty toy to pass the time until he got bored – or something disastrous happened to Q and Alec would have to piece James back together yet again – but the fact that he was their Quartermaster made things a little more complicated.
Alec knew James, better than James knew himself sometimes, and he knew that for all his reputation, James wasn’t actually insatiable, and he could control himself. He also knew that James knew that fucking their Quartermaster was inviting trouble. Personal feelings could get very messy, very quickly, and there were all sorts of risks with getting involved with the man responsible for outfitting them for missions and guiding them through said missions. Hurt feelings could see James going out into the field under-equipped, or even worse, sentimental feelings could see Q trying too hard to protect James instead of letting him do his job.
The fact that James was fucking him anyway meant that James thought he was worth the risk, and that meant that it was more than just a convenient fuck with a pretty man. Alec was more curious than jealous though. He and James had never really discussed their relationship, it had evolved organically between them without so much as a word spoken on the subject of feelings, but even though they were far, far more than friends, and were committed to each other in very serious ways, and occasionally had sex if they were in the same country for a while, neither of them had ever really entertained the idea of anything exclusive or official. It just wasn’t them.
“I think I’d like to meet this Q properly.” Alec remarked, instead of saying anything of his thoughts aloud. James smiled at him, amused and pleased and maybe a little bit anticipatory, and jerked his head towards the stairs that lead down into the Technological Services Branch, or Q-Branch, as it was apparently being called now. If Alec wasn’t much mistaken – and he rarely was when it came to James – then James was actually eager to introduce Alec to Q. That was… very interesting.
Official introductions, though, it turned out, would have to wait. When James pushed open the door into a surprisingly open-plan office, with desks and computers scattered about in a superficially haphazard manner, it was to bustling efficiently-frantic chaos. But Alec was trained to spot hidden patterns, and he didn’t miss the way that everything that went on in Q-Branch was arranged to orbit around the station set up in the center of the far wall, which was absolutely covered in screens, and the desk facing them, at which was stood a dark-haired string-bean of a man in a dirt-brown cardigan.
That was where James headed, some of his levity fading as he took in the chaos around them and acknowledged, like Alec had, that this wasn’t normal. Once they were within easy conversation distance of the Quartermaster, said man greeted them without ever looking over his shoulder. “007. 006. I’m afraid if you need anything from me, it will have to wait.” He said, even and polite.
James didn’t say anything, just settled in to wait, so Alec followed his lead, and turned his attention to the screens that Q was so focused on. He could see a handful of views from security cameras on one screen, a 3D blueprint with several moving dots within it on another, a larger-scale satellite map on another. Yet another screen was showing a scrolling wall of code that Q was occasionally disrupting with his own input, and several more showed more arcane things, like something Alec thought might be a heart-rate monitor and the schematics to several different types of guns.
Q’s voice almost startled Alec, even though Q wasn’t even talking to him. “005, there are hostiles coming down the stairs towards you. If you take the next left you should be able to avoid them.”
“Whyever would I want to avoid them?” 005’s voice snarked from the speakers tucked away beside Q’s desk, only just loud enough for Alec to hear over the bustle of Q-Branch behind him.
“Because I counted at least eight of them in that unit alone, 005. You might be Too Stupid To Die, but that doesn’t protect my equipment from suffering for your recklessness. So pick up the pace, there’s a good boy.” Q retorted, still in that unflappable, level tone. Alec was accustomed enough to wearing comms and not reacting to a conversation only he could hear that he managed to choke back the laugh, but it was a near thing. Q hadn’t gotten nearly so snippy with him, and he was kind of regretting his attempts to make nice with the new Quartermaster now.
“One day that smart mouth of yours is going to get you into trouble, Quartermaster.” 005 growled, not sounding in the least bit pleased. But then, Alec had always known that 005 was an uptight bastard with a skewed sense of humour. He did, however, do as Q said and dive into the aforementioned corridor just in time, if Alec was reading Q’s 3D moving map correctly.
“And on that day, I’m sure my smart mouth will get me right back out of trouble again.” Q replied. “They only left one man to guard the stairs, 005, I’m sure you’ll be able to handle him without straining yourself.”
There was a security camera covering the stairs, so Alec got to watch as 005 made quick work of the guard, and turned to head up, only to freeze. “You didn’t mention more incoming!” He hissed, throwing himself behind the wall beside the stairs just as a hail of gunfire peppered the ground where he’d been standing.
Q’s back stiffened, and his fingers flew across half a dozen different keyboards, changing the views on some of the screens and setting the wall of code into a new flurry of activity. “My apologies, 005, it seems my interference has finally been noticed. You’ll have to find a different route off this level, they’ve got a small army at the top of the stairs waiting for you.”
“There is no other route.” 005 replied, shooting back with the downed guard’s gun.
“One moment, 005.” Q murmured. “There appears to be a ventilation system you might be able to make use of. I do love it when the idiots make such an exploitable feature a necessity by building underground. And do hurry, the gunfire has attracted the attention of the men on your level, and they’re converging on your location.”
005 swore and bolted, and Alec felt tension creep into his gut as he assessed the situation. As 00-Agents, they were all routinely thrown at missions that no one else would have a hope of surviving, but this looked bad even by Alec’s standards. Trapped underground in a remote location, with a veritable army of enemies hunting 005 through the warren of storage rooms and offices.
“No good.” 005 panted some five minutes later. “Shafts are too narrow, I’d get stuck.”
“Damn.” Q hissed, professional mask slipping to allow a touch of very real frustration through. “If you can hold out long enough, 005, I have an extraction team on their way to your location. Given that your cover’s already been blown, I thought I might as well.”
005 made an acknowledging sound, but he was prevented from responding as he was forced to fight his way out of the room with the too-narrow ventilation shaft in. Q didn’t have a camera on the scene, but the sounds of the fight came through the comms loud and clear. Then, abruptly, the only sound was 005’s harsh breathing. “How long?” The man gritted out.
“Forty-five minutes minimum.” Q’s tone was equally tight. Alec counted the number of red dots on Q’s incomplete map, and winced. “I think the most efficient use of your time would be to do your best to cull the herd. I can direct you to some of the smaller teams if you’d like to start with the easy targets to warm yourself up.” Alec was a little impressed that Q was managing to sound so droll even as the mission went so spectacularly wrong.
He stayed impressed as Q talked 005 through a bloody game of cat-and-mouse. Q honestly didn’t look like much. He looked young and distractable and soft, but Alec was no stranger to the concept of appearances being only skin-deep, and Q proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was skilled, focused, and ruthlessly indifferent to the deaths he could hear over the comms. Still, there was no shortage of people like that at MI6, and although, yes, Q was very pretty, Alec still had yet to see anything from Q to explain why James was so enamoured of the man.
“Shit. I’m pinned.” 005 said, voice somewhat ragged after fifteen solid minutes of killing.
“Yes, I can see that, 005.” Q replied tersely. The little blue dot that was 005 was in a small storage room on Q’s 3D map, and the corridor beyond was so thick with red Alec couldn’t actually tell one dot from another. “I’ve electronically sealed the door, but I’m afraid that won’t hold them for long.” He informed the agent, which explained why the door hadn’t been busted open yet. “Unfortunately, they’ve been marginally sensible with their networks, because I’m having a hard time finding anything I can use to distract them.”
“Can you kill the lights?” 005 asked.
“For perhaps five to ten seconds.” Q replied, clipped and unhappy. “They’re currently running on the same power-grid as their computers, but the blueprints of the building suggest there are at least two back-up generators with no external access.”
“It’ll do.” 005 groused.
“Very well, then. I’ll unlock the door on one, and then kill the lights on zero. Be ready.” There was a grunted affirmative. “In five, four, three, two-” Q counted down, fingers flying. Alec finished the count in his head, the thunk of the door unlocking as he hit one, and a faint fizzle as he hit zero, followed by shouts of confusion and the racket of gunfire. Alec counted the seconds of chaos, keeping time perfectly even has a much louder cry sounded over the comms, and then cut out abruptly. At seven and a half seconds, the lights came back on, with the red tint everyone seemed to prefer for their emergency lighting, and the security camera at the end of the hall 005 had been in showed his body being hauled away.
“Well, shit.” Alec murmured lowly.
Q didn’t react beyond a single, bracing breath. Then he shuffled a few programs about, tracking 005 as he was carted off, and clicked onto something that mimicked the sound of a phone ringing. Alec realised a moment later it was a phone call, just made from a computer instead of a phone, when M’s voice came through the speakers instead of 005’s. “Quartermaster?” She greeted.
“005’s mission has been compromised, ma’am. His cover was blown and he’s been taken captive.” Q reported briskly.
“The information he was sent to retrieve?” M asked coldly.
“005 verified that it is there, but was unable to reach it before he was discovered.”
M made a displeased sound that had both Alec and James cringing a little. Q, however, didn’t so much as flinch. “Is there any chance of a covert retrieval?”
Q didn’t reply for a moment, which Alec knew was all the answer M needed. “It’s unlikely, ma’am. The building is locked down tight. I’ve only barely managed to maintain my hold on the surveillance equipment, and we don’t have any other undercover operatives in the area. There’s a retrieval team half an hour out, but they’re-” Q cut himself off with an aggravated noise. “Pardon me, ma’am, but they’ve just found and disabled 005’s primary tracker, and it appears they’re removing him to a different location, unless they’re planning to shoot him on the roof instead of putting him in the helicopter.”
M sighed heavily. “Then it’s time to cut our losses and prepare to try again later, if we can. If he can’t escape on his own, there’s nothing we can do without revealing our hand.”
Alec gritted his teeth on a surge of bitter, helpless fury, aware peripherally of a certain tense stillness coming over the rest of Q-Branch as that statement filtered out among them through whispers. “I understand, ma’am.” Q replied stiffly. M ended the call without another word, and for a moment, Q just stood there, hands braced on the edge of his desk, head bowed. Then he lifted his head again and glanced over his shoulder. “Back to work, everyone.” He called sharply, sending his minions scurrying again, although with less haste than before.
Wordlessly, James stepped forwards, but he didn’t go to the Quartermaster, nor did said man so much as look at him, attention already back on the screens in front of him. Instead, James snagged something off the corner of Q’s desk and disappeared into the chaos of Q-Branch. Alec debated following him, but he was honestly more interested in whatever the Quartermaster was up to.
Because there was still a tracker on 005, Alec could see the little blue dot now on the satellite map, and there were other things popping up on the screens, like schematics for a specific type of helicopter, a weather report, and flight plans that looked like they’d come direct from an official flight control tower. “Does M know there’s a second tracker?” Alec asked.
“Yes.” Q replied evenly.
“And how come they didn’t find it?”
“It’s in his comms.”
“They didn’t remove his comms?” Alec asked, startled.
Q glanced at him, a cold little smirk playing about on his lips. “It’s a subdermal implant.” He explained, tapping the skin just below his ear and behind his jaw. “A prototype of my own design. Unless it’s thoroughly destroyed, I should always be able to find it, and with it, the agent attached to it.”
Alec’s eyebrows flew up. Because anything that talked back to MI6 should have been cut off the moment M declared the mission a failure and 005 lost. Before he could say anything along those lines, James came back, carrying a steaming mug of tea that he placed on the corner of Q’s desk. Q glanced over, and for a moment, his professional mask cracked enough that Alec could see something very like desperation in his eyes. Then he was smiling, bland and calm, and Alec wondered if he’d imagined it. “Thank you, 007.” Q said quietly.
James just nodded, and came back to stand at Alec’s side as they waited. It was a tense wait, but Alec was kept occupied as Q pulled up a lot of interesting bits and pieces, some of them obviously relevant, like the helicopter’s predicted flight path, and other more obscure things that Alec had a hard time deciphering. Lots of code, he noticed, sometimes filling up an entire screen, and sometimes only half, leaving the rest to show various official-looking websites.
The blue dot stopped moving somewhere over a small mountain-range, and then, with no more warning than a sharp gasp, a new voice came from Q’s speakers. “Good morning.” The voice was cheerful, but only on the surface. Under that it was as hard and sharp as a knife’s edge, and far more cruel. “You’re in a little spot of bother, now, aren’t you, Mr Mason? If that’s even your real name.”
“As if anyone in this business uses their real name.” Q remarked dryly.
005 made a choking sound. “You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.” He snapped at the man interrogating him.
There was the sound of flesh impacting flesh and a ragged grunt from 005. “That is not how this works.” The interrogator informed him coldly. “Ah, but you’re well trained, I can tell that much already. You’re not going to tell me anything yet, are you?”
“Bold of you to assume I’ll ever tell you anything.” 005 replied.
“A meme? I had no idea you were so internet savvy, 005.” Q quipped.
“Oh, you’ll tell me what I want to know eventually.” The interrogator announced without a shred of doubt. “Everyone breaks in the end. Have at him, boys.” The order was given almost negligently, and what followed were the very graphic sounds of a man being tortured.
Alec had heard those sounds, caused and made them, often enough that he could clamp down on the visceral reaction and ignore it, and he knew that James had similar experience, so his stone face wasn’t a surprise, but Q impressed him. Instead of cutting the comms like he had been ordered to, he kept up a running stream of snarky, droll commentary that had 005 choking back laughter even through the pain on more than one occasion. Even when 005 lost his composure and screamed to accompany the sharp sound of bone breaking, Q’s demeanour never faltered.
The torturers took a break eventually, and the sounds of bitten-back pain were replaced with heavy breathing. “Are you alone, 005?” Q asked, entirely professional.
“Mostly.” 005 breathed, voice just a touch muffled. “Camera in the corner, men outside the door, but the room’s empty. For now.”
“How are you holding up?”
The question had been dry, and it startled a dark snort of laughter from 005 and from Alec. “I’m being tortured, Quartermaster. How do you think I’m holding up?” 005 demanded with vicious humour, aiming to wound.
“Fairly well, if you’re still capable of sassing your Quartermaster.” Q replied, flippant and off-hand, and Alec laughed again over 005’s outraged silence. “I assume you’re restrained?” Q pressed on efficiently.
“Metal cuffs attached to the chair, not each other. Metal chair, bolted down.” 005 reported briskly. Q clicked his tongue in annoyance. “And even if I wasn’t-” 005 went on, tone slipping into darkly amused and bitterly resigned. “-I’m in no fit state to run. Blown out kneecap.”
Alec closed his eyes. He’d never liked 005, he was a stuffy, uptight bastard who looked down his nose at just about everyone except M, but he liked to think he had some little loyalty left in him, even if it was only to MI6 by proxy through James. He wouldn’t wish this on a co-worker, no matter how stunted his sense of empathy.
“I see.” Q said, calm and collected as ever, even as the knowledge settled over him that there was very little anyone could do to save 005 now. Alec watched it sink in, watched it drag his shoulders down and turn his hands into white-knuckled fists. And then he straightened, his shoulders stiffened, and he shook his hands out briskly. “Is there anything else I can do for you, 005?” He asked crisply, making Alec frown in confusion. That seemed like a fairly stupid question to him. He glanced at James to see if he had any insight, and James caught the look and returned it with a dark smile and a tip of his head towards the Quartermaster. Intrigued now, Alec settled in to watch.
005 laughed viciously, like Alec probably would have if someone had been stupid enough to ask him that question if he’d been in that position. “You could blow this entire place up. Save me from having to work up the nerve to poison myself.” He snapped, cruel and with intent to wound.
But Q didn’t react like he was meant to. He just nodded. “Very well. Would you like a British missile, or should I steal one from Israel?” Alec straightened, because while the Quartermaster was fairly good at delivering droll, flippant quips in a relatively serious tone, there hadn’t even been a hint of humour in that question. It had been grimly professional and a touch vindictive, and Alec couldn’t help but wonder if Q was actually serious.
“What?” 005 asked, uncertain now.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Q said, his voice going arctic and not at all apologetic. “Did you think I was joking?”
“There’s no possible way you have authorisation to blow this place up. It’s secure enough that there has to be valuable information here.” 005 announced, but despite the certainty in his words, there was just a touch of suspicion in his tone, that told Alec he was asking the same questions that Alec was.
“What on earth makes you think I need authorisation?” Q replied, still chilly, still professional, and now perfectly, irreverently dismissive.
005 scoffed. “I appreciate the sentiment, Quartermaster, but I think I know you well enough to say that you’re not a traitor. England needs this information, and just because I screwed up doesn’t mean there isn’t still a chance for someone else to complete the mission.”
“That is all perfectly true.” Q confirmed, but it wasn’t the sort of confirmation that was actually agreement. Alec realised he was holding his breath, caught on an indefinable sort of hope, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d ever had cause to hope that someone might actually impress him as a person, rather than just as a killer or manipulator. “However, you’re making a fundamental mistake here, 005.” Q went on in the same moment that Alec recognised the website he was hacking into as belonging to the Israeli government, and that there was already a screen up with Her Majesty’s coat of arms on it.
“What’s that?” 005 asked warily.
“Your priority is the mission, and M’s priority is England’s best interests.” Q informed him, low and deadly serious. “However, my priority, 005, is you. And since I cannot see you safely home, I will do everything in my power to see to it that your service, your sacrifice, and any last requests you might have are honoured as they should be.”
There was dead silence after that explanation. Alec’s heart was in his throat, and he was staring at the Quartermaster with entirely new eyes. This was skirting perilously close to treason, but Q didn’t look an inch less steady and determined than he had when Alec had walked in. There wasn’t a trace of doubt or shame on his face, just certainty, and the sort of patience that could watch mountains crumble to nothing under the force of time alone.
When a solid minute had passed by without anyone else speaking, Q nodded once, as though satisfied his message had been properly received. “Now, let me ask again; would you like a British missile, or an Israeli one? Or any other nationality of your choice? The world is yours, so long as they have a missile that can reach you.” He paused, head cocked a little. “Unless you were joking?” He wondered, and his tone softened to something that made it clear it wasn’t a challenge, a dare, or an attempt to goad 005 into following through. It was a simple question, and Alec was entirely certain that Q would respect whatever answer 005 gave.
“Make it an Israeli one. I’d rather implicate them than England when this place goes up.” 005 replied, quieter than ever, but to his credit he sounded entirely certain, too.
With two clicks, Q pulled up a missile targeting system, and in barely a minute, the missile was primed and ready to fire. “Ready for launch.” Q reported evenly. “Is there anything else I can do for you, 005?” He asked again, and this time, everyone knew he meant it.
“No, that’s all. Thank you, Q.”
Q nodded once, and after a moment of tapping away at his keyboard, he sighed. “Thirty seconds to detonation.” He announced calmly. 005’s own sigh, on the other end of the comms, sounded both shaken and indescribably relieved. “It’s been an honour working with you, Nathan, and England is grateful for your service.”
005 laughed. “You know, when you say it like that, I almost believe you.” He remarked, all dark humour and complete irreverence in the face of his impending demise. In the background, Alec heard voices, perhaps one of the guards demanding to know who 005 was talking to. “I’m sorry I underestimated you, Q.” 005 went on, ignoring his captors.
“Fifteen seconds.” Q murmured. “You have nothing to apologise for. You had no way of knowing I meant it when I said I had your back. Most people who say that are lying, after all. Five seconds. Three. Two. Goodbye, 005.”
Any response 005 might have made was cut off by a sudden burst of static, and then silence. The heart-rate monitor Q had up went dead, a little ‘no signal’ sign flashing up to replace jagged line. The entirety of Q-Branch was silent and still in the wake of that distant explosion, and Alec wondered morbidly if there had ever before been such a sincere minute of silence for a fallen Agent before.
After exactly one minute, Q reached out and picked up his half-drunk mug of tea, taking a sip, and putting it back with a hand that trembled minutely. That was the first sign Alec noticed that Q was not as unaffected by what had just happened as he appeared. “Fiona, if you could tidy up here for me? I believe M will be demanding to see me in a moment.”
“Yes, sir.” A pretty blonde woman nearby said, voice subdued. There were tears in her eyes, and her lower lip was trembling, but she stepped up to the Quartermaster’s desk without faltering, and set about extracting MI6 from Israel’s missile control system with the same efficiency Q had shown getting into them in the first place.
Alec drew in a breath to say something – he wasn’t sure what, it had been a very, very long time since he’d ever tried to comfort someone with genuine sincerity – but before he could, James caught his eye and shook his head, a pinched look around his eyes. Alec looked at Q again, but didn’t speak, because James was the one screwing him, so James likely knew him better. If he didn’t think Q would welcome comfort right now, he was probably right.
It was barely two minutes before the door to Q-Branch opened, and M strode in, tightly-restrained fury all but beating off her in waves. She was getting on in years, and the drama at Skyfall had worn her right down to the bedrock in ways even the rest of her years of service hadn’t. She was retiring, Alec knew, her health damaged enough that she couldn’t argue the point any longer, but grooming a successor took time, so for now, she was still at the helm of MI6, and none of that had done anything to weaken the iron grip she had on the organisation.
“What the bloody hell was that?” M demanded furiously as she approached the Quartermaster, who squared his shoulders and raised his chin as he turned to face her.
It wasn’t a conscious thought, deciding to move. It just happened to Alec, and he didn’t bother to question or fight it. One moment he was standing back by one of the pillars that broke up the large room that housed the main section of Q-Branch, and the next he was at Q’s shoulder as he walked forward to face M in all her fury. James was beside him a beat later, hovering over Q’s other shoulder, and Alec knew that M hadn’t missed that. That she couldn’t miss the way they were very obviously flanking Q, a pace behind and to one side of him, the most lethal guard dogs in England.
And Alec abruptly, and with stunning clarity, realised that even if James hadn’t already been loyal to Q, and therefore offering Alec’s loyalty to him by proxy, he wouldn’t even hesitate to turn on M if Q asked him to. The only person in the world he wouldn’t kill without question on Q’s orders was James. And perhaps some of that showed on his face, because the Q-Branch minions around them scattered like a bomb had gone off, leaving only Fiona at Q’s desk at their backs. Even Moneypenny, standing in M’s shadow, went wide-eyed and took an abortive step backwards.
“I was honouring 005’s last request, ma’am.” Q informed her simply.
M’s nostrils flared like she was about to breathe fire – Alec wouldn’t put it past her – but she reigned herself in before she could lose her temper entirely. “005 was already lost.” She stated coldly. “That is no excuse to go around blowing up mountain ranges! I am not stupid, Quartermaster, I am entirely aware that if they moved him, it was to a more secure location than the one we’d already had so much trouble getting into, and now, thanks to you, we have no chance of figuring out why. I should have you brought up on charges of treason for this.”
Alec would like to see her try. He subtly loosened his stance, settling ready to lunge if he needed to, and he knew M saw it because her eyes narrowed, but she didn’t back down an inch. James might hesitate to turn on M, because she had given him a home – albeit a cold one full of killing and lies – after he’d gone for an age without one, but Alec had no such sentimental attachments. MI6 – and M for her part – were responsible for the deaths of Alec’s parents, and even if James had convinced him not to burn them and the rest of the world for that fact, there was now Q to consider.
And the fact that Alec was abruptly and entirely willing to cut those ties for himself and for James if he needed to, for a virtual stranger, was something he was going to examine later. Right now, that virtual stranger was facing down the very real threat of being accused of treason with a straight spine and a calm voice. “England is in no more danger now than it was an hour ago, ma’am, so I hardly think what I did counts as treason.”
M’s eyes narrowed further. “England is at very real risk of being caught unaware by an enemy we could have predicted, had you not jumped the gun at the word of a dead man and destroyed any and all proof of the information they might have.” She reprimanded sternly.
“Exactly.” Q replied evenly. M’s eyebrows flew up, and her expression turned cold enough to threaten frostbite. At least Q had the sense not to make her ask for an explanation. “As 005’s captor so astutely pointed out, ma’am, everyone breaks. I can imagine I don’t need to tell you what they could have done to England with everything 005 had in his head.”
Oh, Alec was in very real danger of falling in love with this man. He didn’t need to know the full story of what had happened during the Skyfall mission to know just how many teeth that mildly delivered excuse really had. There were so many accusations wrapped up in it that Alec was honestly surprised that M didn’t do more than blink and go a shade paler as the implications settled in. M had been a personal victim of an MI6 Agent gone rogue only a handful of months ago, and the memory of just how much damage he had done to MI6 and England in his quest for vengeance on her personally was fresh.
“You believe 005 would have given them what they wanted?” M asked, still cold, but less angry now, more willing to listen.
“Better safe than sorry, ma’am.” Q replied, dodging the question.
M stared him down for a full minute after that, glaring at the imperturbable front the Quartermaster had put up while she turned over her options. Alec knew that she was not oblivious to what she was risking if she pushed the issue. Alec, at least, wouldn’t hesitate to go rogue on Q’s say so, and once this story got out, he was fairly certain that at least three other 00’s would join him. The problem with recruiting so many orphans, Alec thought with vicious smugness, was that unless you could give them the family – the loyalty – that they secretly craved, you ran the very real risk of losing them to someone who could. Someone like Q.
“You’ll be suspended for the next week pending further investigation.” M announced finally. “If you set foot in this building or if I catch you in our servers before the week is out, I will have you arrested for treason.” She warned. “And regardless of my decision, you will not do anything like that without proper authorisation again. Am I clear?” She commanded.
“I understand, ma’am.” Q replied simply.
Which wasn’t a yes, Alec realised gleefully. Q had said that before, when M had ordered him to cut 005 loose, and now, Alec could hear what he really meant. It meant ‘I understand that is what you want’. It did not mean ‘I am going to comply with what you want’. And Alec could see that M heard it, too. For a moment, he thought she was going to push the issue, was going to apply pressure until Q broke, and Alec wasn’t entirely prepared for the surge of protective fury that rolled up from the depths of his vestigial soul.
Alec had learned long ago that the sort of safety and loyalty he craved was the stuff of fairytales. No one in real life would face down dragons without a single weapon to protect people they didn’t have their own selfish motives for saving anyway. Except, apparently, MI6’s new Quartermaster. And he was doing it for a man who had clearly disliked and underestimated him for the few short months they’d worked together, and he was doing it just because they worked together, and Q saw this as his job.
Which meant, of course, that he would do it for Alec, too. Alec found himself suddenly aware that he was standing under Q’s aegis, safe; perhaps not in the conventional way, with it’s implications of a lack of violence and bloodshed, but safe in the sense that there was solid ground beneath his feet, a fixed point from which he could always orient himself, without fail. And he’d wanted that for so long without really understanding what it was he wanted, that he knew he would rip the still beating heart out of anyone who tried to take it away from him.
Alec glanced sideways, and caught James’s eye, and knew in that moment that they were in complete agreement. And when they looked back at M, she saw it too, and Alec watched the realisation dawn in her eyes that if she pressed this fight, she would lose. Perhaps not entirely, perhaps MI6 would survive, England certainly would, in one form or another, but M would lose not only her Quartermaster, but two of the best 00-Agents MI6 had ever seen, and possibly more. After all, Alec wouldn’t hesitate to spread this story, and then sit back to watch the mass exodus with smug vindication.
“Then get out of here, Q.” M ordered crisply.
“Yes, ma’am.” was what Q said this time, and the stark difference in the response compared to his last made M’s eye twitch. Still, she didn’t say anything else as Q walked past her and out of Q-Branch, his two 00-Guard-Dogs on his heels. They walked in silence all the way down to the underground garage, where Q abruptly froze next to an entirely bland dark blue Ford Fiesta.
“Q?” James asked, voice low.
Q sucked in a sharp breath. “If you wouldn’t mind driving me home, 007? Only I don’t think I’m in any fit state to drive right now.” He requested, holding out his keys to James without looking around. The keys jangled discordantly in time with the trembling of Q’s fingers.
“Of course.” James answered, taking the keys without hesitation. Alec stepped forwards without a word as James unlocked the car, and opened the back door for Q. It seemed to startle Q, because he blinked at Alec from behind his glasses – and, okay, the glasses were adorable – like he’d half forgotten Alec was there. Then, his lips pulled into a flat little smile of wry gratitude, and he slid into the back seat with a small measure of grace. Alec made sure he was properly seated before he closed the door, and rounded to the other side to climb in himself.
The first ten minutes of the drive were made in silence, while Alec watched Q hold himself stiff and upright in the seat beside him, eyes on the glimpses of London flashing by outside the window. It dawned on Alec, slowly, that the droll professionalism Q had shown, the straight back and the calm face and the even tone, were probably all just as much a mask then as it was now. Q was very, very good at concealing his reaction, but Alec was beginning to see cracks in the mask, and even if he couldn’t yet see beyond it, he didn’t need to be a genius to guess. “How are you holding up?” He asked, sincere but… maybe a little bit morbidly amused, too.
Q obviously caught the humour, and the reason for it, because he snorted. “I appreciate your concern, 006, but if you don’t mind, perhaps we can save this conversation for when we get back to my flat? I have it on good authority that a car is a terrible place to have an emotional breakdown.”
Well, that was Alec told. “Fair.” He acknowledged, and the final ten minutes of the drive were made in silence, as well. Once they came to a stop around the back of a fairly tall and fancy block of flats, Q was the first out of the car, moving with a haste that suggested his carefully crafted composure was slipping yet further. Alec shared a worried look with James, and then they both got out to follow Q into the building and up the stairs – sensible, because if a car was a bad place to have an emotional breakdown, an elevator was probably worse – to the top floor. There was a gamut of security measures that Alec noticed, and probably more than he didn’t, but Q bypassed them all in short order, and then they were stepping out into a large and surprisingly homey flat that took up the entire top floor.
They were in a little hallway, with an open archway ahead of them leading out into the living room. The two solid walls boasted coat-hooks and shoe-racks and an umbrella-stand, but Q ignored them, choosing instead to simply kick his shoes off in the vague direction of the shoe-rack, and then pad light-footed into the living room. Alec did the same, and followed, taking in his surroundings with a combination of practicality and curiosity.
It was a very open-plan space, with a little corner dedicated to a reading nook, and a desk with a computer nearby, and a sofa and armchair set neatly sectioning off the TV. There were large French doors leading to a balcony – which seemed rather insecure to Alec but what did he know? Maybe the railing was electrified – and there was another archway leading into the kitchen on the left, and further along the living room spilled out into a dining area, which the kitchen overlooked by way of the wall between them being mostly only rib-height and sporting a wide counter-top lined with barstools on the dining room side. There was a door off to the right, and another two doors to the left, beyond the dining room, but Alec didn’t get a chance to explore further.
Q had just been standing in the middle of the open space just beyond the archway while Alec took in the flat, and Alec was so preoccupied absorbing the environment that he failed to notice Q’s increasing shivers until the man’s legs gave out on him, and he sank to the floor with a sudden, gasping sob. “Shit, Q.” James swore from behind Alec, but Alec was the one who reached said man first, kneeling down beside him and doing a quick scan for injuries, even though he was fairly sure that wasn’t what this was.
Sure enough, there was no blood or any signs of injury, just another choked off sob, and tears cascading down Q’s cheeks. He wrapped his arms around his middle like he was trying to hold himself together, and screwed his eyes shut. “Sorry, I’m-” Q managed to say before the emotion swallowed his words with another barely bitten back sob.
Alec hushed him before he could try to finish that sentence, and looked back at James, who was hovering at Alec’s shoulder, looking pained and angry and torn. Like he wanted to offer comfort, but he didn’t know how. So Alec decided it was his turn to take the lead. “Q, I’m going to touch you now, if that’s okay?” He asked, keeping his voice low and soothing.
Q sniffled, made a sound that might have been a laugh, but could just as easily have been another sob, and nodded. The motion was barely distinguishable from the way he was shaking all over, but Alec decided it was good enough, and put a hand on Q’s shoulder. When the man didn’t so much as flinch, Alec slid the hand around his back to his other shoulder and took some of Q’s weight against his side. “There. I’ve got you, Q. You’re going to be fine.”
“I-” Q began again. “I know.” He assured Alec, showing more cognizance than Alec had honestly expected for someone so clearly lost to a breakdown. “It’ll p-pass, eventually, but I still need to- I can’t- can’t hold it back forever, and I-” He interrupted himself with a sound that was almost a whine, as he hunched in on himself and leaned more towards Alec, turning his face like he was tempted to hide in Alec’s shoulder, but wasn’t letting himself.
So Alec brought up his other hand to card into Q’s hair and tug his head around until it was resting against his shoulder, the edge of Q’s glasses cutting into the skin just below his collarbone. “I’ve never lost an Agent before.” Q confessed in a whisper. “Not- I mean, I’ve seen- but not personally.”
Well, shit, Alec thought wryly. And it wasn’t hard to guess that Q was going to take it harder than most handlers. He’d put himself out there, made himself vulnerable to this knowingly and willingly, in order to show 005 the loyalty and respect Q felt he deserved, not to mention he’d listened to a man get tortured, right before he’d pulled the metaphorical trigger himself. A man that Q felt it was his sworn duty to bring home safely. And this was the first time he’d failed.
“I’m going to pick you up now, if that’s okay?” Alec said, and this time, he could feel it when Q nodded. So he got an arm under Q’s knees and hauled him in and up until he had the Quartermaster safely cradled in his arms and held tight against his chest. Q gave a small huff of laughter, followed almost immediately by a broken sound and a fresh flood of tears that went straight to Alec’s shrivelled little heart and found the only tender spot left to bury itself in like a knife.
Alec relocated to the couch, sitting down and setting Q on his lap. James came to crouch in front of them, resting one hand on Q’s knee and looking up with acute empathy into Q’s face. “First time is always hard.” He remarked, and there was a double entendre buried in there that made Alec snicker. James shot him an exasperated look, but Q gave a wet little chuckle that made Alec feel inordinately proud of himself. “So, what’s your poison?” James asked. “I know Alec would say the best answer is a bathtub’s worth of vodka, and I favour whiskey when I want to get knock-down drunk and forget why it hurts for a while.”
“Thank you, but- Just tea.” Q said, a little broken, but more than coherent enough. “I don’t- don’t really do alcohol. Addiction- It runs in the family.” He explained haltingly.
“Tea, then.” James acknowledged. “Which kind? Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you have a lot of tea, Q.”
Q’s smile was weak, but it was present. “The ginger and cinnamon.”
James nodded, got to his feet, and padded off towards the kitchen. Q watched him go, the smile on his face twisting into a mask of pain as the distraction wore off and he was left to his thoughts again. He curled in on himself as the tears came thick and fast, and Alec tugged him a little closer to remind him that Alec was there, and didn’t mind being cried on. “I should have been able to do more.” Q confessed in a tiny, stricken whisper. “He was counting on me, and I should have-”
“You did everything, Q.” Alec assured him.
“I killed him.” Q countered in a ragged, furious, aching breath, and then dissolved into equally ragged, furious tears. “I- I got him k-killed, and then- then I killed him.” He forced out between sobs, and the stuttering, wet mess he made of that sentence should have made it sound fragile and weak, but it didn’t. Brittle, perhaps, like ice, and just as fiercely biting as any Russian winter.
“Yes.” Alec confirmed ruthlessly. It earned him another annoyed look from James as he returned with a massive mug with a Q printed boldly on it – just like the one in Q-Branch, Alec noted – and full to the brim of steaming Christmas-scented tea. “You did. And it was the best thing you could have done. You gave him everything with that. Don’t regret that.” James’s expression softened at the ferocity of Alec’s words, and he reached out to grip Alec’s shoulder in support and agreement and comfort, wordless but understood.
Q cried for a while longer, but eventually settled into a lull – momentary, Alec suspected – with a wrung-out sigh. “I don’t.” He confessed, mustering up a wan smile as he took the tea James was holding out and cradled it in both hands, breathing in the steam before taking a careful sip. “Not really. But I regret letting it get to the point where that was the only thing I could do.” His expression twisted with bitterness and renewed pain. “I should have been able to get him out. It’s my job to get him out and I-” He cut himself off as he dissolved into tears again, and James had to move fast to rescue the tea before it got spilled all over Q and Alec’s laps.
“You didn’t fail.” James interjected, quiet and steady.
Q gave a slightly hysterical laugh at that. “That’s sweet, James.” He replied, very clearly not believing James for an instant.
“You didn’t.” James insisted in exactly the same tone. “You are not to blame for the fact that these people were prepared for a 00-Agent. You are not to blame for the fact that they didn’t have as much hackable technology as you’d like. You’re not even to blame for the fact that 005 didn’t have some magical piece of tech that could have gotten him out of there. You did everything you could to bring him home, and when you couldn’t, you did everything you could to make sure he went out the proud 00-Agent he really was, instead of a broken shell of himself.”
“It’s still not good enough.” Q replied, sniffed again, and then made a disgusted sound.
Laughing, Alec nodded James towards the box of tissues tucked away on an end table, and James went to fetch the whole box, even as he said; “It’s never good enough.” He came back with the box in hand, but tugged one free to offer to Q. “Blow your nose.”
“Yes, mum.” Q snarked, and James and Alec shared a grin even as he did as he was told.
James nudged his way under Q’s legs as he sat down, leaning his shoulder into Alec’s and massaging his thumb in circles over Q’s shin. “There’s always another threat, another crisis, another death, another mission. It’s never ending, and we’re pretty much throwing snowballs into hell for all the good we’re doing.” James went on, startling Alec and Q both with the pessimistic attitude.
“It’s not quite as hopeless as all that.” Q retorted, and then wrinkled his nose. “Okay, yes, thank you, James, point made.”
James laughed, free and honest, and gave Q’s leg a small squeeze. “That wasn’t actually my point, but thank you for making that one all the same.” He said, for which Q kicked him petulantly in the thigh with his heel. “My point was… There’s always going to be chaos. Hell, we help make some of that chaos, doing what we do, but we do it anyway, because in whatever way, we love England and we’re loyal to the people who call her their home. We went out before we had you to watch our backs, Q, and we’d go out even if you didn’t. And we died then, and we die now, and we’ll keep dying in the future. In the grand scheme of things, it hardly matters if we die sooner rather than later…” James trailed off, giving Q a look of such honest admiration and affection that Alec’s breath caught, never mind Q’s. “But it matters to us. You, and everything you do, matters to us.”
Q let out a sigh that sounded like it was carrying a metric fuck-tonne of tension with it. “I know.” Q said, even though Alec didn’t think he really had. He’d hoped, certainly, otherwise he wouldn’t be doing it, but Alec didn’t think he understood even now, just how much everything he’d done today meant to people like them. “That’s never going to stop it hurting when I fail.” He added wryly, but it didn’t bring about yet another storm of grief and guilt, so Alec decided to count it as progress. “It won’t stop me, you don’t have to worry about that, but it will always hurt. It has to, or I wouldn’t be able to do what I do at all.”
“So long as you know.” James answered simply.
Q sniffed, blew his nose again, and then shifted like he was maybe thinking about trying to get up. Alec tightened his arms around Q, not so much that he couldn’t break out of them if he really wanted to, but to make sure he knew he was wanted, right where he was. Q did subside, glancing at Alec with a touch of surprise in his features that was swiftly overcome by embarrassment. “Well, this is hardly the way I’d have preferred to introduce myself.” He muttered. “Hello, Alec. It’s nice to finally meet you face to face.”
Alec grinned. “I think it was a fantastic introduction.” He said irreverently, laughing into the face of Q’s shock and bewilderment. “Not that I wished 005 dead, but honestly, there’s not really anything else you could have done to make a better first impression.”
“I-” Q began, squinting at Alec. “I don’t even know where to begin with that.”
“You get used to it.” James informed him with dry humour.
“You’ll have to.” Alec added, tone flippant but gaze serious. “Because you’ll have to kill me to get rid of me now, Q.”
Q blinked at him, startled. “I- Oh.” He said, glancing at James as if for reassurance. “That sounds very absolute.” He pointed out, as if he thought Alec might, at some point, want to retract that statement. Alec wondered how someone so smart could be that much of an idiot.
“The fact that James cares about you enough to keep you was enough to make me interested in you even before we met.” Alec pointed out. “But…” He paused, bracing himself to try and explain something that would have most people trying to have him committed. “People aren’t really real to me, most of the time. They’re… flat. Even the more interesting ones, like M, aren’t engaging like they seem to be for everyone else. They’re ambulatory scenery at best; pleasant in their way to be around, but ultimately… insubstantial.”
“You’re a functioning psychopath.” Q concluded, and Alec maybe loved him a little for the fact that he sounded more academically curious than wary or frightened.
“That’s the conclusion I came to, as well.” Alec agreed with a shrug, then he slanted a side-ways smile at Q. “Until today, James was the only person in the world who felt real to me.” He stated, and let the implications settle. Q stared at him, wide-eyed and a little breathless, and- Shit, he was blushing, and Alec hadn’t seen anything quite that adorable in a long time. It was enough to give him the courage to make the implications a little bit more solid. “I don’t think I can really love like most people seem to, but… I think it’s pretty close.”
“Oh.” Q said again, going very wide-eyed. “I didn’t think- I mean, I was sure that-” He grimaced. “James mentioned the two of you are… involved, but I hadn’t thought you’d be… interested in more than just… sharing him.”
“I was always up for a little messing around.” He corrected with a lascivious grin, to which Q only rolled his eyes, impressively unflappable even now.
“But you hardly know me at all.” Q pointed out.
Alec shrugged, because in light of the fact that Q was the sort of man who did what he’d done today, Alec didn’t really think anything else he was or would do would be enough to make Alec any less invested in him. “I know enough.”
Q stared at him a moment longer. “Is it just the loyalty?” He wondered. “That because I’m offering you something you feel you need, you respond by trying to keep me close to you?”
“Isn’t that what love boils down to?” Alec responded, raising an eyebrow.
Q snorted his way into laughter. “I suppose it’s a way of looking at it.” He agreed. “Maybe it’s a selfish instinct, but I don’t dislike it.” He added, which reassured Alec more than he’d thought he needed. “I just don’t want you to be disappointed if I fail to uphold this ideal I’ve set for myself.”
Alec considered that for a moment, then shrugged, dismissing the fear. “You’d still be the man who tried. Everyone else; M, Boothroyd, the old R, every handler I’ve ever had… Not a single one of them would have even thought to do what you did today. You thought of it. You did it. And then you told M to go screw herself when she tried to charge you with treason for it.”
“You noticed that?” Q asked, trying to look sheepish and entirely failing.
“We did.” James confirmed, sounding proud.
Q gave in and smiled lazily. “I admit, I came into this job with this… this noble idea of how I would treat the Agents, how I would do things right, but… I hadn’t at all thought it through, you know. I was very naive. But then… then Silva happened, and I realised… it wasn’t just that someone ought to show appreciation for what you all do, but that it was necessary. And somewhere along the line, everyone had forgotten that. That even if you’re psychopaths-” He nudged Alec teasingly in the ribs, so Alec nudged him back, unable to keep from grinning fondly at the fact that Q felt he could tease Alec about that. “-you’re still human, and you have every right to need someone in your corner.”
Alec decided that there wasn’t really anything he could say to that, but it still deserved a response. So he lifted his hand to Q’s hair and pulled him in, telegraphing his move so that Q had plenty of time to push him away before he leaned in and kissed him. Q made a faintly surprised noise against his mouth all the same, but he kissed back, and that was all the encouragement Alec needed to press in and plunder Q’s mouth like he was trying to devour him.
Q kissed like he was trying to memorise every tiny detail about Alec’s mouth, lingering and drawing the kiss out into something indulgent, almost decadent. When Alec finally drew back, Q looked thoroughly debauched, even though all they’d been doing was kissing. “That-” James began, and Q twitched like he’d forgotten James was there. “-was easily one of the most attractive things I’ve ever witnessed in my life, and that’s saying something.”
Alec grinned, especially at the way Q couldn’t manage to hide just how smug that compliment had made him. “I bet we could put on a better show if we really put our minds to it.” He remarked.
Q cleared his throat. “Dinner first. I don’t know about you two, but I haven’t eaten anything in… nearly twenty-four hours, so if we’re going to have kinky threesome sex all night, I’d like some fuel, first.” He announced without an ounce of shame.
James and Alec both laughed, acquiescing with good grace to the demand. “I’ll get cooking, then.” James said, disentangling himself from Q’s legs. “But you have to keep Alec occupied and out of the kitchen, if you don’t want the whole building going up in flames.”
“That was one time.” Alec protested. “And on purpose!”
“So you keep saying.” James drawled as he sauntered away, even though Alec knew that James knew full well that Alec was telling the truth. It made Q snicker, though, so Alec could forgive him.