In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
(1st stanza of “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae)
Of Red Poppies and Poppy Seeds
A shot rang out and Bond woke with a start, surging upwards from his sweat-drenched covers before he could stop himself. Sucking in a reedy breath, he clenched his fists in the linen, bit his lip and forced himself to relax his throat and breathe deeper.
After several long moments he stopped and pressed his forehead into his knees. The right one twinged. The cold air of the flat stung through his wet grey T-shirt.
“And here’s Dex Patella with today’s weather forecast,” Bond muttered with a wry twist to his mouth as he rubbed at the pain. He didn’t need to look outside to know that it was still dark. He never woke up after 7am post-mission, and the street-light outside the window of his Pimlico flat showed no signs of having the help of a reluctant sunrise.
He had hoped to prolong his first mission post the SPECTRE fever until at least the 12th or the end of the week, but for once his target had been remarkably helpful in refraining from using either explosives, or military trained personnel in the protection of his fancy Alpine chalet/evil lair. It was a milk run, nothing more. The sort of stuff M would normally assign 003, if it weren’t for the-
Even Q couldn’t keep a note of contempt towards the target out of his voice as he directed Bond in the deployment of “his babies”, as he called the various cyber-bugs and viruses and whatnot.
A smile curved Bond’s lips and he finally glanced at the glowing digits on the face of his alarm clock. 5.15am. Bond started to play with the fraying edge of his collar as he mentally calculated what he recalled of the shifts in Q-branch.
On Monday, Q had to have the afternoon shift to be on the comms with him during his mission. And yesterday, he was still in at 8pm to collect Bond’s tech.
Bond checked his alarm clock again, and sighed. WED 11 NOV blinked sleepily at him. It was Wednesday, which meant no Q. MI6 was an organization that ran like clock-work, and even-numbered weeks meant the shift change fell on the previous day.
All the same, Bond heaved himself out of the bed, ignoring his protesting knee, and went to look through his kitchen cupboards for breakfast. A visit to Q-branch was bound to distract him, no matter its occupants.
Bond shook out and folded his large umbrella, as he got into the lift. Then he hooked it over his forearm and went to wipe the rainwater off his face. The previously bright red poppy on his lapel had turned maroon.
As the lift jerked and began its slow descent into the depths of MI6 labs, Bond made a mental note to needle Q about needing to continue the previous Quartermaster’s good works in inventing a water-repellent force-field coat for true London weather. (Not that any of Boothroyd's efforts proved any good, Bond still shuddered when he remembered the debacle with a junior field agent and a prototype bulletproof coat. But there was no need to specifically mention that to Q.) Then the lift door opened and Bond deflated, suddenly remembering that his prickly Quartermaster wouldn’t be in until midnight.
That was why he simply blinked in surprise for a while when a high-pitched meow at his feet and a stroppy “Just where do you think you’re going, agent?” greeted him simultaneously.
The black shadow at Bond’s feet gave a satisfied purr when he squatted to run his palm along the black fur.
“Did you run away from your Dad, Aggy?” he murmured under his breath as the bony back arched beneath his hand, seeking more contact. “You shouldn’t do that, you know.”
The door of the Quartermaster’s inner sanctum banged open and the lanky figure of the Quartermaster himself stood sideways in the doorway with an armful of teetering tea-cups.
“Now where did you get off to- Bond?!” The last word came out as a squeak and the cup that formed the pinnacle of Q’s pyramid wobbled dangerously, before Q secured it with his chin. Then he stood still in the doorway and blinked owlishly at Bond, his bewildered face quickly reddening in a blush.
Bond tensed his jaw muscles and swallowed three times, before he could reply without bursting out laughing.
“Good morning, Quartermaster.”
“Good morning, 007,” came a brisk reply as Q finally shook himself out of his stupor and began to make his way towards Q-branch’s kitchenette. “What on earth are you doing here so early?”
Bond picked up the lanky kitten and followed behind.
“I could ask you the same question, Q,” he replied and raised his chin, allowing Aggy on his shoulder to butt the side of her head against his jaw. Q shot him a strange look from the corner of his eye as they turned into the kitchen. “Don’t you have the night shift tonight? Sleep is important for the body development in the young of all species, you know.”
Q put his burden carefully on the counter, then straightened and turned to him with a look of disbelief in his eyes. Bond fought to hide his wince, and was glad when Aggy chose that moment to bat her paw against the side of his nose. That was one of his worse lines in their on-going youth v. experience banter, and wildly inappropriate besides. Before he could come up with a follow-up to cut through the awkward silence that settled on the room, Q shook his head and huffed out a laugh:
“I don’t think the lady appreciates her body being discussed like that publicly.”
“I’ll apologize with a tuna steak later,” Bond replied, glad for the out, and scratched the kitten’s head as Q opened the dish-washer and bent down. Before jumping back up like a jack-in-the-box.
“Don’t you dare, Bond!” the Quartermaster threatened with a tea-cup. “Do you know how long it took me to get her back on dry food after my Mum cat-sat for me during Trevelyan’s last 48-hour-explosions-all-around extravaganza of a mission? Feeding her smoked salmon?! Smoked salmon! Because Jagienka’s little teeth are too fragile for dry food!”
Q sat the cup down on the counter and rolled up one sleeve of his sweater, showing thin red lines and half-moon marks on his milky-white skin. Bond swallowed again to keep a straight face, and Q stilled his gesticulating arms with a self-deprecating laugh, as he realised the ridiculousness of showing such battle wounds to a 00-agent.
“Jagienka’s fragile teeth!” Q snorted. “I mean, I love my Mum to bits, but sometimes she drives me crazy.”
“Yagyehnka?” he repeated questioningly. Q turned back to the dish-washer and picked up another couple of mugs off the counter, but not before Bond noticed the rapidly flushing spots on the pale skin of Q’s cheekbones and neck.
He hummed and exchanged a thoughtful look with the kitten, who had failed to find a comfortable perch atop Bond’s shoulder and began to dig her claws into the thick dark wool in an attempt to climb downwards.
“Jagienka’s the Polish for Aggy, 007,” Q answered and put away the last of his dirty tea cups. “And you really shouldn’t let her do that, she’ll ruin your coat.”
“It’s fine,” Bond replied and took Aggy in his arms. “Polish, huh? I thought you said you’d named her after that German philologist lady.”
“Yeah, that’s true…”
Was it, though?
The Quartermaster had turned a delightfully new shade of pink and Bond cocked his head, puzzled, as he rubbed at Aggy’s belly to distract her. She had turned around in his arms and became quickly enamoured of the soggy red paper on his lapel.
Before he could decide how to get to the bottom of Q’s fidgeting, the Quartermaster had turned back around to the counter and picked up the kettle.
“Tea, agent Bond?” Q shook the kettle, but the sound of water sloshing inside was eclipsed by a loud meow.
Then one sharp claw dug into the meat of Bond’s thumb. Aggy had apparently decided it was time to go exploring.
“Yes, please, quartermaster, sir,” Bond drawled out and bent to put the kitten down.
The tips of Q’s ears had turned scarlet. Curiouser and curiouser.
“Sorry, right… I was… What was I…?” Q babbled with his back to Bond.
Bond stepped forwards and took the kettle out of Q’s hands with one lingering brush of fingers.
“Of course, the tea!” The Quartermaster dug his fingers into his hair. Bond gave him another thoughtful look, before filling the kettle and putting it on the stove.
“Are you alright, Q?” he asked after a moment of silence. The Quartermaster’s sudden preoccupation didn’t seem serious, but Bond was certain he was missing something.
“Oh yes, don’t worry, Bond. I was just…” Q huffed out another self-deprecating laugh and Bond turned to look at him.
Some traces of the blush still remained, but beyond the half-smile on his lips Q seemed just like the put-together Quartermaster Bond knew and…-, knew so well.
“I was wondering if it would be appropriate to wish you a happy birthday,” he said with a soft smile, and Bond stilled and blinked in surprise. Of all the things, he did not expect that. “Or if you prefer to pass the day unremarked.”
Then there was silence.
“That’s not in my file,” was what finally came out of his mouth and Q chuckled.
“Just as mine doesn’t say that my Mum’s from Poznań,” he countered, still with that soft light in his eyes.
Bond was used to his teasing, to his scathing remarks on comms and easy banter in downtime. That was why he came down to Q-branch so often, this… he wasn’t sure what to do with this.
“I… thank you,” he said, finally. Q was watching him carefully. “Alec knows, of course. And M did. But…”
“But you weren’t expecting anyone else here to mention it,” Q finished with a brisk nod, and turned to put clean cups and saucers on the counter. “I’m sorry, 007. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
Bond shook his head.
“That’s not… it’s fine, Q, just unexpected.” He smiled to reassure him. “Thank you.”
And it was fine. Bond wasn’t sure if he’d be as sanguine if 003, or even Eve took it upon themselves to wish him a happy birthday, but Q was different. It was fine.
They waited for the kettle to boil in companiable silence. It was nice. Aggy was somewhere at their feet playing with a bit of red paper, batting it back and forth with her front paws and jumping back intermittently.
“Have you had breakfast yet?” Q asked suddenly. Bond hummed non-commitally, unsure if half a toast before he realised that the clumps in the jam weren’t pieces of orange peel but mould counted. Q continued:
“It’s St. Martin’s Day according to the Polish calendar. It’s this whole thing, especially in Poznań. Mum always makes rogale. I’ve got a few extra, if you wanted to try them.”
“I’d love to,” Bond replied. Alec had him try a couple of Russian specialties, but he couldn’t say that he’d ever had anything Polish.
The kettle hissed experimentally before letting out a loud shriek, and Q jumped forward to douse their tea bags in hot water.
“Oh, I probably should have mentioned. There’s poppy seeds and nuts in rogale, in case you’re allergic- What on earth are you doing, agent?!”
The question at the end raised Q’s voice several octaves in a loud wail and Bond started in surprise, looking around for an intruder. There was no one there, though, and when Bond turned back, he saw Q on his knees wrestling Aggy for the piece of red paper she had been playing with.
“Bad kitty, bad Agent!”
Bond felt his eyebrows fly up without his consent. Then his shoulders started to shake, as the kitten answered with:
“That’s my red poppy, you naughty cat! Mine, Aggy!”
Bond folded his arms across his chest, leaned against the kitchen counter and grinned unrestrainedly, waiting for the Quartermaster to win his battle with sharp teeth and stand up. This was gold.
“So remind me, Q: ‘Agent’… Which famous German philologist was she again?” he asked and watched with interest as a most intriguing shade of lobster red took over the Quartermaster’s face. Sadly, it disappeared from view fairly quickly as Q’s hands flew upwards to cover his face.
“Oh bugger!” came a muffled whine. After a several long moments during which Bond tried to fight the urge to laugh out loud, a pair of miserable green eyes emerged again from behind the Quartermaster’s hands. “You know how she is, Bond! She’s always climbing everywhere, and getting into places, and attacking passers-by, and one day I slipped and called her ‘agent’-“
“Meow!” Bond couldn’t help it anymore. He threw his head back and cackled with glee.
“See! She likes it, and-“
“Oh Q, thank you! This is the best birthday present! You named your cat after me!”
“Not after you!” Q squeaked indignantly. “Agent-“
“-doesn’t necessarily mean you!”