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Lesson Three

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It’s cold on the roof. His watch is full of water, and no longer functioning, or he’d be able to figure out how long he’d been there. Long enough to regret not buying a packet of cigarettes on the way. It doesn’t matter anyway, he was already late for his meeting with Mallory - M - when he came up here. By now he’ll have missed it completely. Why he can’t bring himself to care is beyond him right now.

At some point, he needs to replace his watch.

He has been finding himself up here a lot recently. The route up had presented itself completely by chance about four weeks ago. He had no use for it then, had investigated out of curiosity rather than anything, but now it’s a good place to come. Not nice, exactly, nor quiet, but quieter than the heaving, writhing mass that is MI6 during working hours. He much prefers it at night, when it’s dark, and quiet, and only the most trustworthy and least loyal remain. It’s easy to differentiate them, once you know how.

The city lives below him, unaware of his presence. He feels like a predator; watching, waiting. But there is no prey. Just people. Today, there are just people. Tomorrow, who knows? Maybe they will be prey.

It is peaceful, though, in a strange kind of way. The rumbling and bustling of the city is far enough below for it not to bother him. The sky isn’t blue so much as a hazy, cloudy kind of grey. Down below, in the streets, it will be warmer than up here, where the houses are sheltered from the worst of the wind. Still grey, though. The dust of buildings and buses is swirling through the air, tossed by the wind, gritty and rough. It bites at his bare skin, tugs at his cuffs and his collar.

He doesn’t know why he thought coming up here might help. This kind of peace and quiet, though only relative in terms of gunshots and screams, serves only to clear his mind and allows him to think properly. There is no surge of adrenalin to trust now, no fight-or-flight instinct. When did it all get so complicated?

He breathes deeply, letting the cold sting cruelly at his lungs. It doesn’t bother him. Refreshing, really, rather than aggravating.

Willing his mind blank, he stares unseeing over the familiar yet alien cityscape, bright blue eyes dull and tired. His skin is as grey as the city, lost somewhere between black and white, no longer clean-cut and clear, and he’s not thinking of his skin anymore.

Damn cigarettes. Damn alcohol. Damn everything.

A large drip of water runs down the inside of his collar, and he wonders when it started raining. He wonders why he didn’t notice.

 

-0-

 

M doesn’t think much of the fact that Bond misses his meeting. It is annoying, yes, and considering that 007 is a professional, rather odd, but it is Bond. There is too much work to be doing, too much paperwork to be pushing through. Tomorrow, Miss Moneypenny will assign another agent to the mission, and Bond will answer for his absence. The thought is put aside in favour of a more pressing and urgent matter which he needs to attend do. He doesn’t look up from his paperwork until Miss Moneypenny enters with another file, and a mug of coffee.

“Thank you.” He nods at her, a clear dismissal. She doesn’t move.

“Sir, I would advise that you delegate that file to Q. It concerns last week’s mission with MI5.”

M nods, understanding perfectly why the young man would deal with it better than he.

“Ah, the issue with the borrowed mobile phones. Please do so, Miss Moneypenny.”

Nodding, she takes the file from underneath the one she just placed on his desk and tucks it in the crook of her arm.

“Sir.”

“You may go.”

She hesitates. He catches the movement out of the corner of his eye.

“Miss Moneypenny? Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“It’s Bond, sir.”

“Yes, I am aware that 007 did not attend the briefing this morning. Please delegate the task to another of the sector. 004 should be free.”

“Are you sure, sir?”

“Of course I’m sure. That was an order, Miss Moneypenny.” His tone is sharper than it needs to be, he knows it, but Eve is too fond of that agent. In MI6, that is not acceptable. It is dangerous. He trusts her judgement, though. If she protests further, then he will listen. After all, she has been here longer, and he is willing to admit that she knows the staff better than he, despite his best efforts. The last M had been useless at keeping records. Everything had been inside her head.

For a second, she looks like she will obey, but to his relief, he finds that she trusts her own judgement enough to stay and fight for it. There is a reason that he promoted her to his PA, after all. She has a good head and is not afraid to use it.

“Bond has never missed a meeting, sir. Ever. He has been tardy, admittedly, but he has never missed one completely.”

He nods.

“And what do you suggest that we do about it?”

 

-0-

 

At ten minutes past twelve, Q checks his watch one last time and concedes defeat. Wrapping his Parka around him to keep out the worst of the wind, he heads back to TSS. Only so much of his time can be wasted, after all. He would wait longer with anyone else, but it seems pointless with him.

He hadn’t honestly expected 007 to show, but he had gone anyway, out of… well, he wasn’t sure really. It wasn’t dedication to the job, but rather a foolhardy kind of optimism. The gun case in his pocket bangs uncomfortably against his hip, but he's not worried that it'll be damaged. The equipment that he is handing out now is considerably more robust than the flimsy old things the field agents used to get.

For a second, he contemplates hailing a cab, but decides against it. It may be raining, but it’s not far back, and it does him good to get out of his office every now and then.

 

-0-

 

R is waiting in the chair opposite Q’s desk when he gets back, a Q-branch modified tablet perched on his lap. He looks like he’s been waiting a while - his eyes are wandering over the bare walls of Q’s office, as if expecting to find the cracks and fissures in the damp wall paint interesting.

“R.” He greets cordially, removing his coat and hanging it on the back of the door. The heater under his desk has been doing a good job - stepping through the door was like stepping into a sauna. Q likes the heat, always has done, and it is the bane of his life that England is always cold and rainy. It is one of the country’s only shortcomings, in his opinion. One day, he will invest in an umbrella, and then he won’t have to dry his hair out whenever he arrives at work.

When he first arrived, it was a complete mystery to Q why MI6 thought it well to give him a desk. Naively, he had assumed that all he would need was his laptop and room for the occasional blueprint. He had not anticipated the sheer amount of paperwork that had yet to be electronically registered, nor that instead of using the labs and stations in TSS, his desk would become a temporary workstation. Five months of MI6, and there were so many layers of paperwork and wires that Q was always slightly worried whenever he took his equipment apart that something might spontaneously combust.

R places the tablet face-up in front of him as he settles in his chair, the most comfortable huge leather recliner known to man. It had replaced the small, plastic contraption within days of his arrival, and had a tendency to migrate around TSS. The thing was heated, and the rest of the branch members coveted it, fighting over it whenever Q was working at the main screen, where he mostly chose to stand. Well, they fought over that as a substitute to fighting over the main screen itself, which they seemed to be doing whenever Q wasn’t using it. He still wasn’t quite sure how to treat them, honestly. Friends, fellows, or employees? It was a precarious balance.

“The blueprints that Danielle had edited.” R announces, gesturing to the screen. Q leans forwards, immediately interested, but R gets no further. A knock on the door is quickly followed by the entrance of Eve and M. Q looks up, amused, as R scrambles to his feet.

“What can I do for you, sir?” Q asks, rising with considerably more grace and decorum than his assistant. M looks about the same as he always does - slightly harassed, a hint of exasperation, but largely fairly calm and collected. It’s Eve that worries him; her usually cheeky grin is pulled straight, her brow furrowed and her eyes flashing with something he doesn’t quite recognise, something that doesn’t quite fit on her face.

“Did 007 meet you this morning?” M asks, sounding weary. Eve’s mouth twitches.

“No.” Q answers, calmly. Eve knows already, because he texted her as he was leaving, but M must have wanted to check. As far as he knows, this has never actually happened before. Of course it would be Bond to be the first. They’ve known each other for barely three months, and already Q knows that Bond is, for want of a better word, unique. He’s the most troublesome of his sector, came back from the dead two months into Q’s new job, fucks and shoots his way around the world on a regular basis, and if the rumours are to believed, has as much scar tissue as a ginger tomcat which has spent it’s life scrapping for titbits. Sarcastic, suave, smooth, and according to the little brunette nurse who tried to chat him up last time he was in the medic block, infuriatingly blasé about his injuries. She also may have mentioned the fact that he was fitter than a racehorse with muscles the size of the hulk and golden tanned skin, but if she did then she swore him to secrecy. Q likes nurses; they gossip.

Despite all that he knows about 007, especially his reputation, Q has as yet come into contact with Bond more than once. The single occasion that they did meet, he is not afraid to admit, was an unmitigated disaster. The only way it could have gone worse was if Bond had actually died, but the death they did have was bad enough. Loosing M was a blow that none of them had expected, and Q had been stunned beyond comprehension. He had pretty much taken it for granted that he would be fired or at the very least demoted after that last fiasco, and had even begun looking for another job. To his great surprise, M had kept him on, apparently because his branch had vouched for him. His only comment, apparently passed on from 007, was to ‘think outside the box’, a statement which he was pretty sure was a nice way of saying that he had been too confident, blinded by his own intellect. Q had never seen it as a weakness before, and after a few days of feeling a little irate about it, had decided to take the advice on board. After all, the whole reason he’d taken this job was to learn, and so learn he was bloody well going to do, even if it wasn’t in the way he expected to. Let it never be said that he is too arrogant to see good advice when it is presented. Besides, Bond had also requested that he got another of the palmprint guns for his next mission, which Q counts as a success, even if he did lose the last one. As much as he hates to admit it, the news that his plain and simple equipment had received the seal of approval from a field agent, and the infamous 007 no less, had made him a little smug. R had called him insufferable behind his back and winked when Q turned around his face him.

“Can you find him?” Eve asks, and M gives her a completely unreadable look, but Q can guess that it’s not the nicest expression to be on the receiving end of. He almost winces in sympathy, but holds himself back. Eve is nice to him, and accommodating of his little quirks, besides being very competent. He is slightly afraid that if he’s any nicer to her she might start asking personal questions about what his actual name is and when his birthday is.

“Yes.” Is the simple answer. Not caring to elaborate, he stands, sad to leave the comfort and warmth of his office so soon. “I’m sorry, can we resume this later?” He asks R, taking his still-wet coat from the hook on the door and shrugging it around his shoulders. R nods, eager to please, his fringe, too long for his face, falling over his eyes. Resisting the urge to sigh, Q turns and heads out the door.

“I’ll see what I can do, sir. R, if you’ve got a minute, talk to Andy about getting that laptop upgrade, he’s not responding to his emails again. Oh, and the tea in the break room is running out again - make a note of it would you?”

“Yes sir.” R pulls the tablet back towards his body and moves to follow him out the door. They head out across Q-Branch together, tailed by Eve. M watches them go, shaking his head. Q is terrifyingly competent sometimes, and other times he seems to be the head of one great big network of computer geeks who need a constant supply of caffeine and chocolate, and can go from completely focused to dangerously scatterbrained in 0.2 seconds. It’s a constant battle of wits down here, and he never knows whether to be impressed or terrified. Both, usually.

R breaks off to find Andy, and Eve comes up next to Q’s shoulder.

“There’s a file on your desk that M needs you to take a look at, I put it there this morning while you were out. It’s about the…”

“MI5, the mobiles?”

“How did you guess?” She looks almost offended by his deduction. Smirking, he glances over at her, clicking along next to him in her high heels, easily keeping pace with his hurried stride.

“Psychic.” All he gets in reply is a roll of her eyes.

“Yeah, right. All-powerful overlord and frustratingly intelligent you might be, but that's a bit of a push, even for you. Speaking of which, shouldn’t you have somebody else looking after the break room? You’re the head of TSS, you should be running the branch and doing smart things, not checking the coffee machine, or whatever it is that you do when you’re bored.”

Q stops by the stairs, and gives Eve a look of incomprehension.

“Well how else am I supposed to keep them under control?” Letting out an ungraceful little bark of laughter, Eve immediately slams her hand over her mouth to stifle the noise. Q winks at her, and turns to make his way up the stairs.

“Do you really think you’ll find him that easily?” Eve calls after him. It takes a second for him to realise that she’s referring to Bond. He doesn’t even bother turning round to reply, but just calls over his shoulder.

“Of course. If I’m not back by Two, text me.” She hesitates, watching him ascend out of sight.

"Q..." She starts, but then stops, wary. Turning, he stares at her from behind his glasses, lips curled slightly in amusement. As yet, she has never seen him break out into a real smile - that smug little smirk is all that they've been treated to.

"Moneypenny."

"Just... Be careful. You know what he's like." She warns. Slowly, Q raises an eyebrow, though somehow his expression remains unreadable.

"I work with world-class assassins on a daily basis." He smirks again, and she thinks that it's supposed to be reassuring, but it really isn't. All she can think as he turns away is that Bond is different somehow, more animal than human, more dangerous. He gives the impression of being barely contained, that there's something wild and untamed behind those cool blue eyes.

"Don't worry about me." With that, Q vanishes, leaving her to stare at her watch and wonder in disbelief why he needs an hour and a half. How far away is Bond, anyway? And how is Q so sure that he’ll find him so quickly?

 

-0-

 

If Q had known what Eve thought of Bond's nature, he might have laughed. It was a good analogy, as they went, but he wouldn't agree with it entirely. Bond was not wild or untamed. He was an individual, certainly, and there was something damaged about him that all the time in the world couldn't fix, but he wasn't wild. Feral, perhaps. It had always amazed him how the agent was expected to answer to M, and yet managed to remain so rebellious and independent. MI6 might pretend that they could control Bond, but he may as well be working for them on a freelance basis. He gave off the impression that he was accepting a suggestion, rather than receiving an order. Q would have to work with that.

Now, though. Where would a wounded animal go to lick its wounds?

Q gets it on the first go. Stepping out onto the skyline, he spots Bond's silhouetted outline against the grey cloudbank, thankfully no longer blurred with rain. Moneypenny would have been able to find Bond here easily, if she hadn't let worry cloud her judgement.

Not bothering to hide his approach, he splashes noisily through the puddles towards 007's sodden stance. Honestly, the man is so melodramatic. Q appreciates the effect though, because Bond's wet suit means that it clings to his toned body even more than usual. Still, it's impractical. He could easily get pneumonia, and they've only just got him back from the edge of death. Twice, in fact, in the space of two months.

Another thing about Bond; he's proud. You can see it in the way he walks, the way he holds himself. The nurse, Sally he thinks her name was, swears blind that nearly every inch of him is covered in scar tissue, but Q hasn't yet met anyone who can claim that they've seen Bond bleed. He knows that he has, because after Tanner had finished with the fragments of the bullet, he had passed them on to Q. He'd have to be an idiot not to realise that Bond had cut them out himself. They still had blood on them, actually.

Q places himself strategically next to Bond, following his gaze. There is something fascinating about the London cityscape, he must admit. It makes him feel patriotic from up here in a way that being down on the dirty, murky streets never does. It's probably got something to do with perspective.

After a while it becomes clear that Bond either has nothing to say, or if he does, is refusing to say it. Having predicted this, Q takes a half-finished packet of cigarettes from his pocket, lights up, and takes a deep drag. Finally, Bond's head swing in his direction, though Q suspects that he's had the agent's attention for a while now.

"Don't you need a licence to buy those?" He quips, but there's no venom in his tone. Q decides not to sigh, and instead resigns himself to a lifetime of age-jokes.

"Stop making jabs about my age or I won't let you have one." He says, staring straight ahead, refusing to look at 007. Even so, he catches out of the corner of his eye the surprised expression that this change of tactics produces. Well, if Bond won't play nice, then Q can play dirty too.

"That's rather pretentious of you." Q smirks, blowing smoke out through his mouth. It swirls and dissipates in the cool air, fading into the same murky grey as the clouds.

"Yes, it is rather, isn't it? Only I know it will work because you have an addictive personality. Probably a side effect of all that sex. Can't be good for you, you know." Taking another deep drag, he revels in the smoke, before releasing it slowly. He's been smoking for far too long, longer than he can remember, but it never stops feeling good.  Never as good as the first, but never as bad, at the same time.

"How would you know?" It's not a jab at his age, technically, but it's precariously close. He raises an eyebrow, warningly.

"You'd be astonished." Drawing out the reply, he fills the statement with weight, relishing in the implications it suggests. Bond notices, and seems to do a sudden re-calculation of the man who is now his Quartermaster.

"I'm surprised Pyjamas didn't come into that reply somewhere."

"I'm not the type to leave my socks on, if that's what you mean."

Bond chuckles, amused, and Q allows himself a small smile, pleased with what he's managed to draw out so far.

"As fascinating as this conversation is, I'm sure it's not the reason you came up here. Why did you want to find me?"

Q sighs, breathing out smoke, and passes what's left of the cigarette to Bond, who gives it the kind of look that suggests dirt on the bottom of one's shoe. Ignoring the blatant display of snobbery, Q digs into his coat pocket, producing the gun case in which 007's equipment is nestled.

"I don't like being stood up." He declares. "Please don't do it again."

Bond looks away, and refuses to take the box. Sighing, Q places it on the ridge of the roof, and stands back, crossing his arms over his chest, party to keep the wind out as well as show his displeasure. Bond is still holding his half-finished cigarette, not smoking it, so Q steals it back, his cold fingers brushing against Bond’s warm ones.

“You do know what Q stands for, don’t you?” Silence. “Of course you do.” He sighs. “I’m your bloody quartermaster, Bond. I’m supposed to support you. Admittedly, I didn’t realise that it meant emotionally, or outside of missions, but seeing as this is having a detrimental effect on your work, we should resolve it, yes?”

“There is nothing wrong with me.” Sullenly, he stares straight ahead. His expression could be carved out of stone. Q recalculates, and turns his snark back on full. If Bond won’t discuss this like a man, then fine, they’ll discuss it like children.

“I never said there was.” He shrugs. “Though it is probably worth mentioning that I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t suspect that you’re not all cold-hearted stone.”

Bond glares at him, his mouth set in a thin line.

“I’m a glorified assassin.” He states, truthfully, much to Q’s regret.

“Yes, and you’re also human.”

“Humans die. More so if I get emotionally invested.”

“Yes, I know. You have to remain objective. I can understand why you’d think that.”

For an entire second, Bond lets his temper rise, ready to dampen it down, before Q’s tone registers. It’s not mocking, not sympathetic, just… understanding. He glances back to Q, confused. What he sees in Q’s eyes answers everything.

“You’ve read my file.” It’s not a question, but a statement. Q shrugs one shoulder.

“I can’t work with total strangers. Mind you, your file didn’t give me any help. The man on the paper is nothing like the one in the flesh.”

Bond tilts his head, his lips curled, not with amusement, not really, but with something that could be described as interest. Q knows he messed up with their first mission together; the admission that he may have miscalculated is as close to an apology as he's going to get.

“Oh really?”

“Hmm. No words can accurately describe the sheer size of your ego. I’m amazed that anyone can fit in the room with you, the size it takes up.”

“There isn’t enough room for me and your ego” He remembers. It startles Bond, to hear that said again, especially from so long ago. It disturbs him, to recall a voice he thought he’d drowned, banished from his mind.

Q almost expects Bond to chuckle again, but he doesn’t. Instead, he’s watching the cigarette smoke pour from Q’s mouth, his face expressionless, his poise unreadable.

“How much detail is there in my file, then?” He asks, eventually, his voice softer, less amused than before. Q lowers the cigarette slowly, studying 007 quietly.

“Is this a test?”

“If you want it to be.”

Q shrugs, though he knows it’s not a light conversation. It never was, not really, but now it seems more important, somehow. He’s navigating unfamiliar ground.

“I know their names, how they died, why, when and where.”

Bond breathes deeply, his lungs protesting against the cold, dank air and the tense, wary tightness of his chest.

“You hacked it then. That’s not open information.”

“A known secret, you might say. But yes, I hacked it, if you insist on using such terminology.”

“Then you know.”

“I do. I know more than you realise, I think.”

Now that's an interesting admission.

"Who have you lost?"

Q sighs, and looks him straight in the eye. It's unnerving, to say the least. His eyes, dark and dangerous in the glass tunnels inside, catch the light of the sky and reflect the charcoal irises, hinted with the almost glacier-blue of the winter sky. His dark curls fall across his brow, touching the top of his glasses. He looks vulnerable, more so than Bond saw in him before, but older, somehow. The daylight catches his face differently.

Q thinks, personally, that you can't lose something you never had, but he keeps it to himself.

“Hey, kid! What’s your name?” The first day of school, repeated over and over for days, weeks and months after he starts.

“...kid?” He answers, bewildered, the first time it happens. After that mistake, he learns to ignore them. Not the first time, though. The first time, he doesn’t know better.

“Don’t you know what kid means?” The boy demands, already laughing. He doesn’t get time to explain that he doesn’t have a name, that ‘kid’ or ‘child’ is the only name he’s ever had. The boy wouldn’t care anyway, he realises afterwards, though he still hates the him of the past for not standing up for himself. He’s tallish, fairly stocky, tiny compared to the older kids but gargantuan in comparison to him, cowering small and quiet in the corner. His long, dark hair flops over his terrified eyes, his bag too large and too heavy for his back, dragging him down.

He’s never been to school before, never understood the concept. He’s just turned ten, a year younger than the others, but smart enough to start secondary school a year early.

The taunting lasts all day, especially when they realise that he’s younger than they are.

“He’s ten? Really?”

“Isn’t that the guy who didn’t know what ‘kid’ meant?”

“Yeah, I bet his parents are screwed up. Hey ‘kid’, what’s up with your family?” Q knows better to respond now, knows better than to show his naivety. He’s never had parents, never had a family. The honest answer would be ‘I don’t know’, but he learns fast.

Lesson 1 - never admit that you don’t know something.  

"You know." Bond states, when Q doesn't reply. "You know why I didn't turn up this morning."

Q sighs, and turns away.

"So you're just going to turn up when we need you then?"

"You always need me."

"Exactly the point that I'm trying to make."

They are silent for a second.

"It will destroy me, eventually."

"Yes. It will destroy all of us."

"You don't think I didn't know that when I signed up for this?"

"Then why now?"

There's a short silence. Bond takes a deep drag of the cigarette, like water to a dying man. The little box sits conspicuously on the edge of the roof.

Q knows what the problem is, of course. Bond was tired when he met him, and not in the way you get when you haven't had enough sleep.Tired of fighting. Tired of MI6. Tired of living. Having spent so long as 007 though, he doesn't know how to let go.

The thing is, Bond is old. Not in the usual way, not in relation to the rest of the population, but in himself. He's seen a lot in his lifetime, more than most people can hope for in several lifetimes, probably too much. Q knows the feeling. Besides, for a double-0, he is old in the archaic sense too. The oldest, actually. His 'death', though nobody would admit it, was actually convenient. Yes, they had lost an agent - several in fact - but Bond had been past his prime. A lifetime of being shot at will do that to someone.

Still, Q is here to do a job. They need 007 now, more than ever before. Q is well aware that MI6 is old, and that makes it weak. It needs to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the new era of technology. Bond, for all his faults, and there are many, is reliable. Or at least, he was. Q isn't so sure anymore. The man beside him seems so innocuous, so quiet, not the man whose whole file took him three entire hours to read.

He needs a push, and Q thinks that it might just be his job to give him one. Though he has not known Bond for very long at all, he is more interesting than the others in his sector. Three months ago, he was just another assassin, a number without a name, a face that pulled a trigger and finished the job. If only it was so simple.

Q accepts the cigarette back from the agent, trying not to be frustrated by how little of the cigarette there is left for him. Bond, always alert, always sharp, is testing him again. If Q gives him an inch, he'll take a mile, and Q's favourite mug too if he thinks he can get away with it. The frustrating thing is, he probably could.

Finally, he turns to look at 007, meeting the piercing- blue eyes face-on.

"I don't do part time agents, Bond. Either you come back to MI6 now, or you never come back again." In less than a second, Bond's expression goes from neutral to poker-straight, and Q knows that he's hit a nerve.

"You can't give me an ultimatum."

"I just did. You needed one. You can't stay away, it would kill you,"

"I can't..."

"And you can't come back because it will destroy you. Yes, I know."

Bond contains his temper admirably.

"What kind of fucking choice is that?" It could be spat, but it’s not. He could be angry, but he’s not. It’s just a statement. The curse is the only clue that Bond isn’t as calm as his exterior suggests.

"It's a choice between dying as 007 or as James."

Bond breathes it quietly, escaping his mouth with the smoke, no more than a whisper. Q thinks he’s not supposed to hear it. "Oh fuck me."

"As much as I would like to, I think it's against the regulations."

Bond recovers quickly, chuckling, but it does little to break the tension building between them.

“You’re not my type.”

“Male?”

“Single.”

Ah, now that’s interesting. Bond isn’t looking at him now. He’s kicked back, leaning away, false nonchalance leaking from his every pore. Q tilts his head, as if contemplating this, before he replies.

“And of course, technically I’m your superior.”

"As if you haven't broken regs for me before."

"I broke regs for queen and country in the name of 007."

"They're the same thing, surely?"

"No. James Bond and 007 are not the same person. You think I wouldn't notice? You need to separate yourself from your job, James, or it really will kill you."

"I thought you said it would kill me anyway."

"I said it would destroy you. I didn't say you had to let it."

"Who says I was?"

"Your watch. Omega, was it? A real shame."

"How is that in any way related?"

"You haven't replaced it."

Q revels in the silence, just for a few seconds. They've been testing the ground, facing off, a battle of wits that neither is going to win. He doesn't want to win, because that means that Bond will back down completely, and if he does that then Q can't help him. Backing off slightly though, that's good. That means that Bond is recalculating, re-evaluating. Besides, he can take his small victories.

"There's a new one in the box. Waterproof, before you ask. Fireproof, as well, though I'd prefer if you didn't test it. It’s not designer, I’m afraid, but maybe one day if you don’t destroy it, it will be worth a good amount because it’s one of mine."

He doesn't quite know what to expect from that, but it certainly wasn't this; Bond throws his head back and laughs, a short sharp bark of genuine amusement, over all too soon. Q amazes himself at the spike of want that goes through him at that.

“You’re a precocious little bastard, aren’t you?”

“I resent the ‘little’ - skinny I may be, but we’re nearly the same height.”

“But not the ‘bastard’?”

“Of course not. Getting a rise out of you is trophy enough, don’t you think?”

“Hey! Guys, it speaks! The kid speaks!” Immediately, a crowd of kids gathers, mostly boys but with a few girls too, all watching maliciously, wanting to know what the stupid kid has done now, what they can tease him for next.

He watches them arrive one by one, remembering their names, their grades, their friends and their enemies, and wondering what each and every one’s weakness is.

It takes two seconds. The insults, kept bottled up for years, spill out, sharp and witty and mostly completely beyond the vocabulary level of the kids around him. He leaves them gawping, confused, until the effect starts to wear off and a few of them begin to titter. He finishes, still, and waits for the outcome. Nobody punches him. Nobody dares to be the first to take a step. Satisfied, he turns to go.

He walks away with his head held high, and though their laughter follows him, it doesn’t sting nearly as much as it did before.

Lesson 2 - Always have a sharp reply.

‘Bond never laughs’; it's a superstition that his colleagues in TSS gossip about all the time. If Bond laughs, the world is coming to an end. Obviously he isn't going to be able to tell them about this; twice in as many minutes. Not that he would anyway, but still, the knowledge sits warn in his stomach.

Q smirks, breathing out the last of the cigarette smoke before dropping the stub and stepping on it. Bond is looking at him, his head tilted slightly to one side, a curious look on his face.

"I agree. I think we should fuck." He says, and Q has to bite back the grin of satisfaction. It would be inappropriate. “I need to test that you were telling the truth about the socks.”

"Good. My place, ten tonight." Bond likes that about Q - most women would play coy, pretend that they weren’t that interested, require a bit more work. Q just acknowledged that the interest was there and was prepared to make the most of it. There was no point beating about the bush with it, it wouldn’t get them anywhere faster.

"Tonight?"

"Too soon?"

"Too bloody late."

Q glances over at the agent, trying not to look too astonished. Bond's eyes flick back up from his body to focus on his face, and Q wants to laugh, because really, Bond is so damn complacent.

The train of thought never gets much farther, because Q suddenly notices the hunger in Bond's eyes, and God, if he didn't look like a predator before, he does now.

It starts to rain again.

 

-0-

 

It's five to two, and Q-branch is in a panic. There's a mission suddenly in red alert, and R is struggling to cope on his own. There are TSS people running about everywhere, carrying files, equipment, even entire computers. The main screen is running too many programs at once, and the desk computers have migrated to sit among the growing nest of laptops and cables surrounding the main desk.

"Where the hell is he?" R demands, two parts furious and three parts terrified, but nobody can reply. Half of them probably can't even hear him over their own panicked yelling and the whirring of machines.

Moneypenny hurries in, closely followed by M. R turns to them, a wild look in his eyes.

"Have either of you seen Q?" He pleads, desperately. Eve checks her watch, the minute hand reading just five minutes to two.

"He's still after Bond, but he said not to worry unless he wasn't back before two..."

"Did he really?" Bond's smooth suave voice makes them all jump and turn to stare at the other entrance. The agent is flanked by Q, who is staring around his branch in horror.

"R, what happened?" He demands, ignoring Bond, and heading straight towards the main desk. R practically collapses with relief.

"It's Delaney, he's run into the unit too early, and there's no way to get him out fast enough, we're going to lose the intel..."

"Stop panicking." Q says, pulling his sodden coat off his shoulders and tucking it under the main desk, out of the way of the electronics. His hair is dripping wet, but he pushes it out of his eyes and takes over the main screen, plugging himself into the system in seconds. As he types, the screen writhes and reforms under his adept management.

"Right. Delaney, this is Q speaking.  Have you got that radio I gave you?"

"Where the bloody hell have you been?" The agent on the other end of the line demands, irate, breathless.

"Elsewhere. Have you got the radio?"

"Yes." Q relaxes at the affirmation, and immediately turns to his team. "Right then. Stay exactly where you are, Delaney, don't move an inch. I'm just going to talk to my branch and we're going to get you out of there."

"About bloody well time."

"Language, Delaney. Now," he turns to his assistants, and starts issuing orders. "Matt, Andy, get to work on the signal, find a nearby transmission you can intercept. Cole, get me that program you wrote last week, we're going to need it. Alice, set up the override code. Dan, I need to you to get hold of Adam from GVHQ, I could do with some back-up on this one. The rest of you, get rid of this mess." He gestures to the laptop nest on the bridge. "You've got perfectly functioning desks, you can bloody well use them. R -" his assistant flinches, looking ready for a scolding. "Try not to panic next time, it's dangerous. Believe me, I know. Now, if you could put the kettle on, that would be wonderful. I think that we're going to need some caffeine."

He turns back to the main screen.

"Delaney, report."

The agent's voice does not return, but Q is nodding still and replying to someone, so he must be there.

Bond notes with some satisfaction how Q looks perfectly put-together, except for the large, dark bruise on the back of his neck. It just pokes out from underneath his collar, where drips of rain are running down the inside of the staunch material. R returns with Q’s tea, and Bond sees it register slowly in his mind. The man looks over at Bond, instantly making the connection, and 007 smirks back, smug. R blinks and looks away, flushing from his collar up, and hurries to give Q his tea.

He’s not the only one either. The whisper is going around the branch already, and Eve is exchanging meaningful looks with R now.

Bond nods at M, and at his gesture, follows him from the room. Q remains, not giving them a second glance, until Eve and R approach his desk.

“Ah, yes Moneypenny.” He says, without glancing up. "007 has returned, I believe. He apologised for his lapse."

"Did he really?" R’s expression of surprise is enough to draw Q away from his laptop screen for two seconds, an expression of amusement flashing briefly across his face.

"No, but he didn't protest when I told him that I would inform you as such. He did say that it wouldn’t happen again though, which I suppose is something."

"Where did you find him?" Eve asks, but then shakes her head. "Actually, more importantly, why the hell didn't he go this morning?"

Producing the ruined Omega from his pocket, Q holds it up for her to see.

"His watch. I gave him a new one, a temporary replacement for this, on the condition that I fixed it for him."

"You bought him back - with a watch?" Q shrugs one shoulder, non-committally, and takes a sip of his tea, relishing in the warmth of the liquid. He can practically feel his fingers steaming as they thaw against his mug. They're losing the unattractive tinge of blue, and all the blood is rushing to them, making them twinge painfully. Aware that he should be taking better care of the digits that are so essential to his job, he reluctantly places the mug back on his desk, and resumes typing.

"Amongst other things." The code flows uninterrupted under his fingers, a beautifully crafted network of signals that will tie everything together.

Eve doesn't know whether to be furious or amazed by Q's lack of emotion, and settles for a mix between the two.

"I told you to be careful." Disbelieving though she may sound, the evidence is right there on Q's neck, for all the world to see.

"We were." Q throws over his shoulder, before turning back to the main screen. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do."

If he looks a little smug when he gets home that night, then he has every right to be. The day's work had been a success; the vital intel had been attained remotely and the agent had escaped unharmed, and yet another valuable contact had been made. Adam from GVHQ may prove to be very useful indeed, and Q-branch will be better off for having him at their side - or covering their backs, as the case may be. R had learnt a valuable lesson, Q had proved that he was more than capable of doing his job, and Eve had, for this first time in living memory, been stunned into silence. Even the rain can't dampen his spirits, because not only is his flat warm and cozy, but there is a half-naked double-0 waiting for him on his sofa.

Closing the door softly behind him, he creeps into the living room for a better look. 007 is facing away from him, his arms crossed across his bare chest, staring up at the ceiling, waiting. Q smirks. With only one night left before he heads off on another mission to the other side of the world, Bond had better make the most of the limited time he has. Q has every intention of helping him.

Lesson 3 - Always make the best of every situation.