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A Programmer in Q-Branch

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He had been bundled into the back of a van and sedated. He didn’t even see the colour of it. They moved unbelievably fast, to their credit. Q was reminded very abruptly of precisely why he didn’t often leave HQ; Q-branch were not often given a high security detail, yet held more vital information than most of MI6 put together, and were – quite honestly – the least likely people to withstand torture.

Q fought initially, but there were several of them, and he was physically very underwhelming. He could shoot a moving target at fifty paces, could fuse and disarm and detonate literally any explosive, while blindfolded, but in hand-to-hand combat with highly muscular and well-trained men, he usually pressed a transmitter and hoped somebody would find him quickly.

The room was nondescript. Peeling wallpaper and mould in the top corners. Décor implied Western, temperature implied north, but it was rather unlikely that he had been kept in the UK.

It didn’t matter either way. MI6 were excellent at retrieving hostages, or indeed compromised agents, especially somebody like Q.

He was too valuable to be forgotten. He knew too much to be allowed to remain under external control. They couldn’t risk him breaking and releasing information, nor wait for him to succumb to temptation if they offered to let him switch sides. Q had some idea of the lengths people would go to for information; he was relatively certain he could withstand most things, but he knew he would reach his limits at some stage. Everybody has limits.

Given the information that lived treacherously in his skull, he needed MI6 to move quickly. He could not depend on himself, not when his physical self could be severely compromised. He was not an active agent for a reason.

Information. It was entirely about the information they could extort from him. He was able to hack into most computer systems in the world, and he had essentially created the new infrastructure of MI6 security from scratch; they needed him to do precisely that, show them the workings of MI6 and compromise the security of infinite quantities of agents whom Q had been tasked with protecting.

They continued asking, initially. They tried to tie him in intellectual knots, and realised they were hilarious outclassed. Their combined intellects were nothing close to Q on his own.

Physically, he was dwarfed by them. Their leader was utterly average, his associates ranging from ‘large’ to ‘monstrous’. Q was thin and lithe, the annoying side-effects of a lifetime spent with computers rather than with any physical exertions. Apart from playground bullying, he had no real experience of beatings or other physical pains. MI6 had trained him to withstand certain forms of torture, but those were specific, and did not cross into the levels of pain where information was liable to be released. MI6 didn’t bother with self-defence, as a rule, not for non-field agents. It was too expensive.

Q ran through his cover story repetitively, almost to comfort himself. It was unlikely that they knew who he was. He was not exactly the type to be head of Q-branch, living under an initial rather than a name. He was young, bespectacled, and at least appeared naïve as compared to the previous heads of branch.

His name was Oliver, he was a programmer in Q-branch, he had no access to classified files. If needed, Q would ‘break’, and sacrifice information that would give them access to a secondary database he had constructed. This would either get him killed, if they bought it, or would piss off his captors, if they didn’t. The database was still in early developmental stages, relatively easy to see through, but would buy him a little time.

They beat him first. Q told himself it was not surprising. His sun-deprived, chalk-white skin blossomed with bruises. He gasped for air as he was kicked in the stomach, breath flying out of him, struggling to draw oxygen back. He concentrated on the breath coming into and leaving his body, however disrupted, however irregular.

His eyes were wet and his nose running, his glasses mangled, like his ankle is shortly after they hit it with something hard, Q couldn’t see what, he needed his glasses, and oblivion seemed to be there for an unfairly short while, and then he was conscious and retching from the pain that radiated in white-hot pulses through his body.

His name was Oliver, he was a programmer in Q-branch, he had no access to classified files.

Q had been told it was better to make them kill you. If you were on the verge of breaking, you stood the chance of subjecting dozens to the fate you were undergoing. The risk of millions of life, dangling in the balance, waiting for you to shatter under pressure.

A white-hot brand against the soles of his feet. Oblivion lasted a little longer, but not long enough for the pain to recede, or for the room to lose the smell of burning flesh.

His name was Oliver, he was a programmer in Q-branch, he had no access to classified files.

Somebody slipped a blindfold over his eyes. It was oddly the most terrifying thing that had happened so far. Even with his glasses shattered, he could make out the softened shapes, could have some idea of what was happening before it happened and pretend he could steel himself.

Now, the darkness was all, and he listened with frantic desperation. He heard the belt being slid off; his blood froze, bile rising in his throat, before the buckle snapped against the doorframe with a terrifyingly loud crack.

He couldn’t see where the blows were coming from. After every single one, they asked him another question, and he held onto the information like a drowning man to a lifebuoy, the only thing they would not take from him.

I’m not Q I’m not Q I’m not I’m not I’m not I’m not

He drifted. They called him ‘pretty’. Some part of him still understood what that meant. He was in too much pain to feel afraid. They left him alone for a little while. He didn’t move from where he was lying, despite not being tied down. He concentrated on breathing, and it wasn’t enough.

He didn’t object when they lifted his frail body, placed him in a lukewarm bath. He hadn’t known there was a bathroom here. He hadn’t known there was anything other than here. His head lolled when unsupported, and he told them again and again and again that his name was Oliver, he was a programmer in Q branch, he had no access to classified files.

They cleaned him, their touches rough or inappropriate or both. Q wants to drown himself in the few inches of water. They won’t let him try. He is frightened of dying. He is more frightened of becoming something he is not. Ironic, then, that all he can see or hear of think is his fucking cover story.

Tell us about the 00 agents. Tell us about M. Tell us how to access MI6 files. Tell us.

Voices, everywhere, the same questions, the same answers. He doesn’t know. He knows everything. He could give them entire biographies. He doesn’t know anything about them. He can programme computers, he is clever, he is so much more clever than they but he can’t show them as much as a shadow of it, cannot confess to his own genius.

MI6 aren’t coming. They would assume his death by this stage. His computers would have been locked down, his life transferred to a series of boxes. He had a family, once. He wonders where they are. There’s a part of him that wishes he could have told the truth. Or at least, fewer lies. He’s going to die lying, pretending to be something and someone else.

He was once Q. He was once a superb quartermaster. He saved lives. He did extraordinary things. Just to prove he could, at one stage he actually did achieve more from his computer, in his pyjamas before a cup of Earl Grey, than Bond managed in two weeks of active duty in Pakistan.

His name is Oliver, he is a programmer in Q-branch, he has no access to classified files, and he is going to die.

The addendum is almost comforting, in a slightly perverse way. It signals an ending. It illustrates that there is eventually a way out. The more he repeats his little mantra, the closer he comes to that final sentence, and he is trying so hard to give them reason to just fucking kill him already, he doesn’t know anything, he doesn’t know, no matter how much they hurt him.

They continue to call him Q. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t his name. It isn’t his first initial. Q was his title once, and he is no longer Q now he has been missing this long. There is another Q in the branch, probably R has been promoted. The man who had once been Q has forgotten his name. He isn’t Q, his name is Oliver, he is a programmer in Q-branch, he has no access to classified files, he is going to die. Four statements out of five are now true.

He is also pretty. He wants to be pretty even less than he wants to be Q.

They want him alive. They keep him alive. They wash him, and feed him, and let him drink, and when his mind starts to constantly escape into itself, give him painkillers and drugs to wash everything away into a blue-green ocean that reminds him of somebody he once knew.

The man who was once Q feels himself stop fighting, when the man who calls him ‘pretty’ begins another round of interrogation. “I’m not Q,” is the only thing the man who was once Q manages to gasp, before the last fragments of himself fall from a shelf and breaks to splinters on a concrete floor in a room he doesn’t recognise but will dream about to the day he dies.

He had a family once. He sold his soul to the British Government. He’s mostly forgotten why by now.

---

It was a damn good thing, on balance, that the British Government gave a shit.

---

“What the hell are you doing here?” Sherlock Holmes snapped lividly, as he walked through the door of 221B Baker Street to find his obnoxious elder brother, settled in his armchair, drinking his tea (and John’s milk), looking utterly placid, as though he hadn’t just broken into Sherlock’s home.

Which he hadn’t, as it happened. Mrs Hudson had let him in. Furthermore, she had made the tea. And hadn’t even used John’s milk.

Mycroft raised an eyebrow, entirely unperturbed. "I require your assistance."

“Not interested,” Sherlock told him instantly. John placed a placating hand on Sherlock’s arm; Mycroft smiled genially at him. John was a very good influence in Sherlock’s life. He heartily approved of the man.

Mycroft reached into the interior pocket of his suit, withdrawing a series of photographs. “An important figure in MI6 has been abducted. We need him back,” he stated simply.

Sherlock looked, eyebrows furrowing as he examined the face of a young man, surprisingly fashionable-looking for somebody in espionage, an intelligent man who – at the time of the photograph – had been working too hard for too long, had eaten shortly beforehand, worked at computers most of the time and was almost never involved in physical labour. “Q-branch?” Sherlock asked, narrowing down the viable options within MI6. “What was he working on that’s so important to get back?”

“Everything. That is Q. He has been missing five days. His retrieval is no longer an MI6 concern; after five days, the average mortality rate is deemed too high to continue expending resources on a retrieval. It has thus been passed to me. Usually I would employ other colleagues, but this is a little too vital to entrust to simply anybody.”

“This is the new quartermaster of MI6?” Sherlock asked, with utter scepticism. “He’s far too young.”

Mycroft's expression did not change. “I assessed him myself. His appointment was entirely justified. Whomever has acquired him will be aware of this. If he is dead, we have little to fear. If he is not, it is imperative that we get him back before a great proportion of our secret service is compromised. In either instance, I need your assistance, Sherlock.”

“Jesus, how old is he?” John asked, looking at the photographs.

“Twenty-six,” Mycroft replied. John looked profoundly disturbed at that statement; the man was far too young for this kind of profession. Mycroft was implying torture and death, for somebody who looked about half his age. It didn’t sit well with him.

“Why are you so personally invested in this one, Mycroft?” Sherlock asked, voice heavy with suspicion. “You’re obviously anxious.”

John stared blankly at Mycroft. The man looked completely implacable. ‘Anxious’ was certainly not a term that sprung to mind. “That is not something I care to explain at this moment," Mycroft replied calmly. "I’m certain it will come to light in the near future.”

“We’ll accept,” John said for Sherlock, making Sherlock grimace as he watched Mycroft with unguarded mistrust. “Sherlock. Grow up. You don’t have any pressing cases, this will keep you busy.”

Sherlock sighed, rolling his eyes with childish petulance. Mycroft and John watched him, with surprisingly twin expressions of expectation.

Sherlock’s eyes snapped open, and he looked straight at Mycroft. Mycroft looked back. Sherlock’s eyes assessed, questioning, and Mycroft didn’t move even fractionally.

“Fine,” Sherlock conceded, tucking his legs up and glaring pointedly at John as though the man had personally affronted him. “Give me data.”

---

MI6 had tracked Q a decently long way, to a private airbase in the Midlands. Sherlock knew – from prior experience with MI6 workings – that while the priority was retrieving the lost agent, there was a decent amount of resources dedicated to damage control. If somebody as high-up as Q broke under torture, it risked more than anybody could afford.

Q’s disappearance was the latest in a series of lower-profile disappearances. Obviously, they were working their way up through different levels of security clearance. The first had been a minor secretary, body discovered fifty-six hours later. The next was a programmer, basically a drone in the scheme of things, body discovered within twenty-four hours. The third was a member of Q’s own department, who had presumably been the one to give the information leading to Q’s capture. His body had not emerged for nearly four days, and was in quite a few pieces.

Sherlock demanded to see the corpses. He needed to ascertain the modus operandi of the abductors, find any leads towards where they had been held and killed, and attempt to confirm whether Q was even alive.

A small part of Sherlock hoped Q’s body would emerge quickly, so he would have more tangible data. But this posed a challenge, and a challenge was always excellent.

The torture techniques were relatively standard; beatings, deliberate broken bones, electrocution in the case of the third, sexual assault on the first, who had been a rather pretty young woman, and a running theme of burns. The bruising was very telling, indicating no more than four assailants, consistent on all three bodies. A single unit, then, probably within a larger organisation.

Sherlock could safely confirm that looking at the bodies did very little, except make John feel exceptionally uncomfortable about the state Q was likely to be in. “Does he have a name? A real name?” John asked, staring at the mutilated body of the third. Sherlock didn’t grace him with a reply. “Sherlock.

“Yes?”

“I asked a question!” John snapped. “Does Q have a real name?”

Sherlock's tone was bored, concentration elsewhere. “Probably. It doesn’t matter. He won’t admit to having a real name any longer. He probably hasn’t had a name since joining MI6. His name is now Q. Or actually, now he’s been replaced, he doesn’t have a name. But for convenience's sake, let us call him Q.”

John nodded, still looking over the corpses, set immortally in throes of death, of pain. His mind kept bringing up the images he’d seen of Q; he reminded John of Sherlock, in many respects. Thin and dark-haired and too intelligent for his own good, and in this case, far too young for this. He should never have been hired at his age, he had a whole life to lead, and John had already had a go at Mycroft for the intense stupidity of hiring somebody of Q’s age.

“Do you have any ideas as to how the hell we get to him, and quickly?” John asked, brow knotted.

Sherlock looked up at him, appraising. “You are genuinely concerned about him,” he stated flatly, eyes sharp. Sherlock, over the years, was beginning to understand far better how John worked, could recognise his concerns and his upsets.

“Yes,” John returned in a similar tone.

Sherlock nodded, attention firmly placed on the corpses.

“I’ll find him,” he said eventually, looking up, staring at him through clear blue irises. He always looked so alive when on a case, as though a thousand different light-bulbs were all going off at once, flaring, dimming, igniting once again. “You know I can, and I will.”

“How?”

Sherlock closed his eyes, and let out a soft sigh. Evidently, this mattered a little too much to John. Christ alone knew why. Sherlock was idiotic enough to have not noticed how very similar he and Q were, and it was that similarity that continued to resonate for John. Q was somebody’s son, somebody’s friend, somebody too young to be consumed by work just yet. He still had time, and he didn’t deserve to die.

Sherlock had long since worked out what he would need to do, but it was such an abhorrent option that he had been strenuously trying to avoid it. He gave a slightly indulgent groan. “Okay. Fine. I know how, but you need to leave me alone to deal with it.”

John kissed him very lightly, unspoken gratitude. “Is there anything I can do?”

“Yes,” Sherlock said blandly. “We’ll need to be ready to move at short notice. I also need you to contact the ridiculously overenthusiastic double-oh agent who apparently wants to get involved.”

“We could use a backup,” John noted.

Sherlock nodded distractedly, waving John away. He needed to think, and most importantly, he needed to be absolutely ready.

---

Bond was on a mission, location classified, mission classified, everything bloody classified. He had been out of communication for a week – Q had supplied him with a device that transmitted his location and status nightly, without his needing to speak to MI6 directly – while working on some very delicate communication aspects with a local drug cartel.

“Good evening Bond,” the voice in his ear told him. “Rendezvous at 20:00, but I understand we have no further developments?”

Bond raised an eyebrow. "And who the hell are you?"

“Q,” the man replied; Bond gave a harsh snort. “I can give you security codes if you…”

Bond let out a slow breath, trying not to allow anger and genuine concern to slide into his tone; he was very fond of Q. He was a good quartermaster and had fast become a fairly good friend to Bond. They shared a sense of humour, albeit not concerning Bond's appalling record of equipment returns, and Bond had quietly been harbouring hopes that their relationship would take on a different slant at some stage.

“I am the new head of Q-branch,” the voice told him.

“No shit. Patch me through to M, right now,” Bond hissed at him.

There was a brief moment of silence, a single dial tone, and the sound of M picking up. “Bond?” he asked calmly.

“Where the hell is Q?” Bond asked, through gritted teeth.

“Ah. The previous quartermaster went missing almost six days ago now. We have had to reinstate a new head of branch.”

“That doesn’t answer my goddamn question. You haven’t found him?” Bond spat, pacing in his room, pinching the bridge of his nose hard. He didn’t need to hear the answer to know Q was still missing. Probably already dead, after a full six days. “How did this happen?! I’m coming back, now. He's our most valuable resource to date, and if there's no body, he could still be alive.”

“Bond, you will remain on your current mission, do you understand?” M told him firmly. Bond told him, in no uncertain terms, to fuck off – his current mission was going nowhere, and he was not going to be commanded by an agent he did not know and did not trust. M pointed out that he didn’t trust anybody.

“Yes, well. I trusted Q,” Bond told him, pulling out the earpiece and throwing it hard at the wall, breath harsh in his throat, his lung.

It shattered, tinkling plastic and wires in a sorry heap. It occurred to Bond that Q would be livid at him trashing good equipment. He also needed to find some way of getting to the bloody airport now. Brilliant.

Chapter Text

They were refusing to kill him. He wanted them to, now. Everything was a haze of hurt. His body was beginning to fail on him, taking his mind with him, sending him sliding rapidly down the murky route to insanity. He couldn’t continue to hold on, something would have to slip.

He had no idea what day or time or hour it was. He hoped somebody was still looking for him. He was dying. His name was Oliver. He wasn’t Q. He had no access to classified files. He was a programmer in Q branch.

They tried to make him dictate the computer coding to access MI6 servers. He had given them the backup databases a lifetime ago, and he could only assume that they knew it was false, because he was still hurting, and nothing had changed.

Everything suddenly, abruptly stopped. The leader of their little unit cleaned him again, as they seemed to do relatively frequently, whenever he looked too repulsive or his injuries were at risk of infection. The touches were gentle, soft. The water was stained a dusky rose, blood and dirt spiralling down the plughole, shampoo run through his hair, a welcome scene of something indeterminately fruity

Tucked in a thin blanket, he let them lift him as though he had any choice in the matter, lain on a flat mattress in the corner of the room. This was new. His feet hurt. A voice called him Oliver, and he could have cried because they called him by his not-name. He could smell food. He didn’t know what it was, but his stomach clenched in on itself. His throat stung from bile.

They supported his head, a spoon to his mouth, chicken broth. It tasted good. It sat too-heavily in his stomach. He could feel he had lost weight. He couldn’t focus. He didn’t know how to hack into MI6. They didn’t like that.

He wanted to go home. He wanted the life of a man called Oliver.

“Give us what we need,” somebody told him gently, and Q gave a shattering sob. He couldn’t. His mind was sliding away from him and he didn’t know what he was or wasn’t saying. He would have given them anything, anything they wanted, but please, his name was Oliver, he was a programmer in Q branch, he had no access to classified files.

He passed out while somebody was fucking him. He didn’t wake up for a while.

---

“You must be James,” John said politely, holding out a hand. Bond shook it, and John was reminded of how handshakes were often a character reflection; firm, confident, not too confrontational but with the potential strength to break fingers.

“John Watson. What developments do we have?” Bond asked shortly.

John stepped back, inviting him into the warm enclosure of 221 Baker Street. “Sherlock has gone out somewhere, he should be back soon,” John told him, leading the way upstairs to his and Sherlock’s flat. “Last I knew, he had some ideas. He was trying to find a contact who…”

“What contact?” Bond interrupted shortly.

“He refused to tell me. He does that. Sherlock has a lot of contacts,” John told him. Bond was quiet for a moment. “So you’re a secret agent, called James Bond?” he asked, eventually, watching Bond carefully.

“Yes, why?”

“No reason. Tea?”

“Don’t suppose you have something stronger?” Bond asked in a low tone. John shrugged, grabbing a bottle of obscenely expensive cognac Mycroft had given the pair of them weeks ago, handing it to Bond with a glass tumbler.

Bond knocked back a glass without blinking, and poured himself out another one.

“That is very good stuff,” Mycroft pointed out, making John yell in shock; the man had ambled out of John's kitchen, clutching an already-brewed pot of tea. “John, you have no milk left that isn’t supporting its own ecosystem. 007, put away the gun.”

Bond was getting extremely bored of being the least knowledgeable person in the equation. "And you are?"

“Mycroft Holmes," he said, smiling genially as he placed the pot of tea on the table. "I am Sherlock’s elder brother, and the man who is currently directing the investigation to retrieve your quartermaster. Sherlock has an exemplary track record in terms of cases he has taken; I am certain he will have the leads we need imminently.”

Naturally, Bond's expression didn't shift into anything resembling trust. "Why are you in charge?"

Mycroft tilted his head slightly, curious at the hostility. “It is no longer in MI6’s remit given the very high statistical probability of Q’s death, and I took a personal interest in this case for my own reasons. However, I feel there is a good possibility in this instance that he is alive; he is a prodigiously talented young man, and if his captors are as skilled as I understand they must be, they know this."

Bond stared at him impassively. “You think they will try to turn him?”

“I believe it is a possibility,” Mycroft conceded.

“Why not kill him?”

Mycroft smiled, with a disconcerting coldness in his expression. “Q is not like any average victim; his information does not simply expire once he has given out a list of names. He has information, but more importantly, he has the means to access all information. He is one of the top five computer programmers, decoders, hackers, in the world. He is far more valuable alive,” he detailed, tone relatively crisp.

“Why aren’t MI6 doing anything then?” John asked from behind them both; Mycroft started slightly, he had been so concentrated on Bond that he had tuned out John’s presence.

Mycroft raised an eloquent eyebrow. “I know he is more valuable alive. Anybody with half an ounce of intelligence knows that. M knows that. However, protocol must be obeyed," he explained, the final sentence causing a note of repugnance to creep into his otherwise neutral tone.

“We lost a brilliant double-oh in a mess like this once,” Bond mused, Mycroft nodded in concurrence; he remembered that case, the agent going missing, MI6 refusing to bail him out after wires got crossed and deadlines not met. Government agencies were often very hard line. “I will not lose Q. He’s damn good at his job.”

“Yes," Mycroft agreed, without hesitation. "Bond, you and Sherlock are not going to get on. That much is a certainty. All I ask is that you try not to kill one another, and remember that the aim to get Q out alive.”

“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Bond said flatly. “He can’t be that bad.”

John snorted, and Bond began to wonder just how wrong he was likely to be, on this subject.

---

Very, as it turned out.

---

“That’s Q’s laptop.”

“Yes.”

“Why do you have his laptop?”

“I broke into his flat.”

I can’t break into his flat.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. Your musculature has long since filled any space your brain may have occupied.”

Bond breathed heavily through his nose, and reminded himself that this man was supposedly able to get Q back. And if he failed, then Bond would have very few qualms about killing him in the various ways he had already calculated. It was quite a comfort, actually, to design innovative ways of killing him.

He had twenty-seven already.

“MI6 are idiots. It is a shame their active agents are so lacking in intelligence…”

Twenty-eight.

---

“Sherlock,” John murmured, a hand on Sherlock’s shoulder.

Sherlock jumped, sleep deprivation making his head whine slightly. “I’m close. His security is ridiculously intense,” Sherlock blinked, voice very quick, everything twitching; he had been attempting to hack into Q’s computer systems, and finding himself outdone spectacularly. The kid really was good. Sherlock hadn’t come across many systems that were this hard to hack after over a day and a lot of caffeine.

John sat back, watching Sherlock work. Bond was a marble monument in the corner of the room, as he had been for the duration of the previous twenty-seven and half hours.

Q had now been missing for seven and a half days, give or take.

“If Q doesn’t want to be hacked, you won’t manage it,” Bond said in a flat, toneless voice. Sherlock ignored him, his fingers still tapping away lines of code, pausing to make notes in a moleskine by the side of the laptop.

“Sherlock,” John said suddenly. “You’re looking at this the wrong way.”

Two sets of eyes found him at once. Both looked a very long way from encouraging. Actually, at least one looked contemptuous. It was a shame the contemptuous one had to be John’s partner. John stared straight back, unflinching.

“Do enlighten me,” Sherlock drawled, abandoning what he was doing briefly. John took it as progress that Sherlock’s eyes were sharp with colour and energy, focusing on whatever John had to say, no matter that his brow were contorted in that way that made it very evident that he was not listening with any real degree of concern.

“He works in MI6, yeah?” John tried. He was met with blank silence. “Technology. Weapons, communications, trackers. Radios, things like that.”

“Q’s development programs,” Bond supplemented.

Sherlock’s brow creased. “Of course. Research and development,” he said aloud, and grabbed for his phone. He speed-dialled. “Yes. I need you to send over everything Q was working on, including encrypted files. Good.”

Exactly twenty seconds later, his phone beeped obnoxiously loudly. He held it, scanning through the images and text as quickly as he could manage, deleting the superfluities and zeroing in on anything potentially useful. “He’s working on an exploding pen. How cliché,” he muttered dismissively, missing the way Bond’s fists clenched spasmodically. “Ah. There we are. Tracking devices. None cleared for active use yet, but this, ah, this, looks technologically sound… He’s tested these particular prototypes on himself… Oh. Oh, you clever idiot.”

John was in the process of asking what said ‘clever idiot’ had done, when a voice began to speak from Sherlock’s laptop. Bond’s attention suddenly clarified on the laptop with rather frightening intensity.

Hello. Use the coding installed under the hyperlink, it’s quite simple. It isn’t very precise, I’m afraid. You will need to do some work of your own. These prototypes emit a very certain signal, but it’s too diluted at present without poisoning the subject, in this case, myself. If you’ve had to resort to these files, well. Please do what you’re hired for, and retrieve me within the allotted time span.  I dislike tardiness at the best of times.Thank you.

Bond’s snarl epitomised everybody’s opinion of the ‘allotted time span’. John was once again struck by how young the man was, the gentle round vowels and the perfect diction, in a confident but quiet tone. It posed a stark contrast to the gravelly, obviously masculine tonal quality of Bond, for example.

Sherlock wasted no time. He had underestimated Q’s intelligence; in this instance, a rather dangerous oversight. Sherlock’s greatest weakness, his greatest failure, was undoubtedly the inability to accept anybody else’s brilliance.

The signal was lamentably weak, and random. Sherlock would devote time to working out how precisely it worked soon, but he predicted a variable wavelength transmitter, presumably swallowed, a new transmitter daily to ensure it wasn’t excreted and he was left without a tracker. If Q hadn’t been fed – a likely hypothesis – then the transmitter would still be in him, his digestive system would have slowed.

Sherlock’s mind flitted through possibilities, scanning through Q’s working notes; he had attempted to make the transmitters responsive for only as long as they were in contact with Q’s genetic code. It would ensure that if the transmitter was removed, or ejected, it would stop false signals being released. An incredibly intelligent idea.

Sherlock narrowed the field to London, and then into North London. Brilliant. Q hadn’t even left the bloody city, let alone got any further. MI6 were useless bastards; all it would have taken was to scan through Q’s files, and they would have had something to work from, rather than following presumably planted leads trailing to the damned Midlands.

Bond shifted to Sherlock's shoulder, eyes darting over the screen. "Where are we looking?"

“There is no fixed location. We now need to narrow down his location within this perimeter,” Sherlock explained, indicating a massive stretch of pure suburbia in North London. “I need to revisit my contact.”

Bond straightened slightly, adjusting his shirt cuffs. "I'm coming with you."

"No, you are not," Sherlock retorted, growing irritated beyond measure at the sarcastic and surly secret agent.

“It wasn’t a question,” Bond informed him, tone oddly mild. He didn’t move; he would have shifted a hand to his gun, to make a point, but it seemed a little superfluous.

Sherlock rolled his eyes, teeth bared a little. “I am meeting a man who works almost exclusively in the criminal underworld. The kind of man you have probably either met, or heard tale of. I would rather like you to not kill the only man who could take us to Q," he explained, with uncustomary delicacy.

“Does he pose a threat to national security?” Bond asked, eyebrow crooked.

Sherlock considered the question for a moment, running through his contact’s various ventures. “Unlikely,” he drawled noncommittally.

“Then he is not my concern. If you trust him…”

“Trust is a very relative term,” Sherlock interjected with a wry smile.

Bond grimaced very slightly, but made no further comment. “If he can get us to Q, then I will allow this,” he rephrased. Sherlock nodded; the man in question was a terrifyingly long way from trustworthy, but he did have more information than Sherlock in this field. If anybody was likely to know the location of a small working terrorist cell, it was his contact.

Sherlock stood, moving swiftly from the laptop, sliding his phone into his pocket and retrieving his coat. “John, I need you to call Mycroft. Get him to look at the new information, and tell him to have a team on standby, including medical backup. Also, if he follows me, I’ll tell Mummy what actually happened to the gardenias.”

“You aren’t going to tell me who you’re meeting?”

“No,” Sherlock confirmed simply. He shrugged on his afore-mentioned coat, wrapped his customary scarf around his neck, and disappeared out the door with James Bond at his heels.

John breathed out a sigh, and called Mycroft. This day probably could not get much worse.

Chapter Text

His throat hurts. The screaming has died to a series of gurgles and strangled inhales, occasionally decorated with sobs or whimpers. They are bored of hearing him repeating that his name is Oliver, he is a programmer in Q branch, he has no access to classified files. He doesn’t know if he’s going to die any more. It seems increasingly less likely. They keep forcing him to eat, when he is aware that he would starve quite happily if they would just let him. They gag him. He has come to prefer the moments he is gagged, because of what they make him do when he isn’t. He has no idea how much time has passed. It feels like his entire life has unfolded in this room.

---

Sherlock’s contact was excellent, but conceded that it was unlikely that he would have a definite location in anything less than twelve hours. Bond found the man repulsive, and understandably so, but had restrained himself from bodily harm. Sherlock simply found him a necessary evil.

There was little to do but wait.

“We have a spare bed upstairs,” John suggested to Bond, who was still utterly motionless in the corner of their living room, to the extent of being mildly alarming. “Might not be a bad idea, we need to get ready for tomorrow, if we end up getting anywhere. I’ve got some spare clothes of mine, some might fit you, I could have a look?”

“I diverted via my flat to collect a few items,” Bond said noncommittally, nodding at the bag John hadn’t noticed lying by the door.

Bond had a fleeting memory of when he used to wait for action from a bar somewhere, with a shaken martini, and a beautiful woman. But then, espionage was never predictable, and it was better than the time in Hanoi when he had been in a rather repulsive barn for two days.

MI6 also were not exactly supporting this current mission, so he supposed he shouldn’t be picky. He declined the tea quite graciously, and allowed John to show him up to the spare room. “Feel free to nick the bathroom, Sherlock tends to use all the hot water if you don’t get there first,” John said, and vanished out the door as quickly and efficiently as he was able.

Bond took a cursory look around the room. It was surprisingly military, in neatness, even in how the bed was turned down; Bond wondered absentmindedly whether Doctor Watson had any army background, given that he somehow doubted that Sherlock did. M had kindly allowed Bond access to the files they had on John Watson and Sherlock Holmes, which would certainly occupy some time in the coming few hours.

He settled on the bed, cross-legged, thinking absentmindedly of when he had stumbled into Q’s office to find Q sat on the edge of his desk, legs swinging, clutching a watch that had shot a small dart into the place where Bond’s hand had been microseconds beforehand. He had laughed across two octaves, and informed Bond that he deserved nothing less for entering his sanctuary unannounced.

Bond truly did care for his new quartermaster, tracing back to their earliest meeting, Q keeping up admirably with his stinging comments and returning a fair few of his own. Bond very rarely classed anyone as his equal, god forbid his superior; even with somebody like Eve, there was a sense of inherent superiority. He had respected M, his M, entirely. She was among the few he was prepared to defer to.

Which was why Q was such an anomaly. A man that looked half his age, clever and sharp and brilliant, and simultaneously light and impassive and bizarrely gentle. He was a walking oxymoron; he was able to order and organise quite exceptional murders with seemingly little concern, but had the capacity to care more than was probably wise for his agents.

Bond had always liked challenges, and Q was an absolute enigma. He had found himself seeking out the young man’s company, pestering him in Q-branch to force the quirk of a smile or the biting acerbity of a man too busy to pander to Bond’s whims. He was unshakeable, immovable, shy, understated, eccentric.

He was also quite exceptionally good at his job.

Bond laid out the various items he hadn’t managed to trash in various field missions across the plain bedspread. The watch with embedded radio transmitter, for all the bloody good it did when the receiver was imprisoned. His genetically-programmed gun, his ‘personal statement’, which had fast become one of his favourite-ever items of weaponry. Q teased him about that with irritating regularity, especially given that Personal Statement Mark One had been ingested by a komodo dragon. Finally, the smallest earpiece and microphone he had ever seen in his life, the latter laced into his favourite tie.

“Where are you, Q?” Bond muttered to himself, and pinched the bridge of his nose. He was in deep shit with MI6 over this; one of their best double-oh agents had essentially gone rogue, over somebody who had already been replaced. They could not understand the reasoning. Bond didn’t care for them enough to explain.

He moved everything off the bed, the gun in easy and immediate reach. He lay back on the bed, watching the ceiling for a moment. He had no difficulty sleeping. He knew exactly what needed to be done, and he was very accustomed to sleeping when the stakes were intensely high. He lay back, closed his eyes, and slept.

---

“Do you think there is any chance that he’s still alive?” John asked at two in the morning, waking from his doze on the sofa. Sherlock was naturally still awake, staring at his laptop, information from Mycroft streamed in front of his eyes as he blinked too rapidly. Mycroft appeared to be working at the same kind of speed and capacity as his younger brother, an unprecedented situation.

“I expect so… I quite honestly don’t know what we’ll find,” Sherlock conceded eventually. “I believe I have found the correct group, but I cannot be certain. If we raid the wrong house, we could lose Q entirely. They will move locations, the tracker will be lost, we will be back to where we started.”

“But he’s alive,” John reiterated slowly.

“John, use your intelligence,” Sherlock snapped, looking up from his computer with a frightening expression. “These men will do anything in their power to get the information they require. They have a past record for violence, as the previous disappearances confirm, and I am almost entirely certain that they are linked. If Q is not dead, I strongly suspect that he wishes he was.”

John was silent for a short while. Sherlock was impossible when he was on a difficult case. In addition, the longer he worked on a single case, the more single-minded and absolutely impossible to live with he got. “Is there anything I can…?”

“Shut up, and let me think,” Sherlock interjected, before the sentence had come close to finishing. “I don’t need you blathering from the sidelines about how important this is. I understand, and I am doing everything in my power, including things I would rather not, to find this man. If it weren’t for the evidence on his laptop and the fact that Mycroft is obviously panicking, I’d be questioning if it was worth my time, but as it happens…”

John cut him off, finally issuing the question that had been rotting on his tongue: "Who is your contact?"

“You already know,” Sherlock hissed, dealing John a body blow in the process. Of course he knew. He just truly and completely did not want to consider it.

John Watson was a practical man. He put his newly-acquired knowledge into a box at the back of his head, locked the box, padlocked it again for good measure, and chucked away the key. He didn’t say another word on the subject. He dozed on the couch, and let Sherlock drive himself into a sleep and nutrition-deprived frenzy.

---

“I’ve had some updates. There are at least five different cells working in North London alone, we have no way of knowing which have Q. I know who the group are, their modus operandi et cetera, but their location could be any one of the five,” Sherlock said, looking just a little bit pale, eyes very wide and ringed with bruise-like shadows. “I have the precise details of the unit bases.”

Bond's voice remained steady. "We storm them all."

“With what resources, exactly?” Sherlock asked snappily, fingers dancing in curious, tense convulsions. “MI6 aren’t funding this any more, we will have a few of Mycroft’s units at our disposal, but organising several different raids with a potentially badly-injured hostage, simultaneously? I think not.”

“Is he certain of the locations?”

“To the best of his knowledge, which tends to mean yes,” Sherlock said simply. “He is working with me. I have asked that he contacts his own resources, in an attempt to narrow down who may have abducted him. This is the quartermaster of MI6, this is going to be a large issue. Word will have gotten out.”

“More than we may have believed,” Mycroft interjected from the doorway. As usual, nobody had noticed him coming; Bond went for his gun in less than a second, Sherlock actually jumped, and John just rolled his eyes.

Sherlock calmed and stared at his brother, eyebrows knotting; Mycroft had been making all updates over the phone or email, digital media, not appearing in person. Something had changed, something momentous.

He looked, for the first time in Sherlock’s memory, tired.

John sighed slightly and offered Mycroft a cup of tea, coming to accept the random materialisation of strange men in his front door as a fact of his rather unusual life. Mycroft accepted gratefully, taking small sips from a distressingly below par tea and not mentioning that the milk tasted, well, a little peculiar, to say the least.

Bond's jaw was tight, strained. "What happened?"

Sherlock continued to watch Mycroft in utter silence, mind working at absurd speeds, analysing every facet of Mycroft's being and trying to understand what could have possibly altered, quite so dramatically. "Oh," he murmured, as he finally understood. It was obvious. No information had been extracted thus far, or Sherlock would have been alerted by now. The only other option was that the captors had decided they could not achieve anything more useful from their captive, and thus decided to recoup their losses. “They have publicised. Selling him out to the highest bidder,” Sherlock breathed, eyes bright with a repulsive type of excitement. “Which criminal rings?”

“Foreign governments are displaying an interest,” Mycroft said quietly. “With more money than the British Government are prepared to pay out. Others believe they will be able to extort the relevant information, and use him to break into essentially any and all servers you care to mention.”

Sherlock held out an imperious hand. "They must have released images, documentation," he stated, waiting.

He was beaten by Bond, who materialised out of seemingly nowhere. Mycroft wordlessly handed him the single, printed image.

It was indisputably Q, and the accompanying documents confirming the man as the quartermaster of MI6 were rather condemning.

Almost unnoticed, Sherlock’s phone started to ring. Sherlock took a cursory glance; his contact, of course, forwarding the information to him even as Bond looked expressionlessly at the single photograph.

Q was curled on a makeshift mattress, unconscious, hair damp and sticking against his forehead in soft curls, a blanket covering parts of his evidently naked body. Cuffed hands rested in front of him, indented gashes in the wrists from struggling, a bruise on the visible temple, split lip. The circles around his eyes were bruise-coloured, pale lips slightly parted in an unconscious breath. Dark cord and hand-print marks cloaked his throat, the rattle of breath almost audible through the still image. A love bite beneath his left ear, the sight of which made something in Bond’s stomach contract with enough force to near knock him off his feet.

The aim of the photograph appeared to be to highlight Q’s vulnerability. It was logical; nobody would consider somebody who looked like a teenager able to withstand anything whatsoever, regardless of his formidable computer skills.

The four men stood silently in the living room of 221B.

Sherlock broke through the silence first. “Have we traced anything?”

“These people are excellent at what they do. It would take Q himself to trace them,” Mycroft said with a slightly sad smile. “I have some excellent people on the case. Q has a lot of friends in Q-branch, all of whom are now working on a private basis where they are able.”

Sherlock stared at the picture for a long while, utterly silent. Nobody disturbed him; Mycroft and John knew he was thinking, Bond simply playing mute for a while in the expectation of something more. Sherlock was not at Mycroft's level of observational skills, but he had a wider scope of experience in deduction of such a nature; he worked with criminality, injury, could join the dots more efficiently.

“The bruising on the face is older, maybe spanning back the duration of his time in captivity,” Sherlock muttered. “Around the neck is more recent, I’d hazard at no more than thirty hours. John?”

John assessed the photograph, brow creasing. Jesus. “I’d agree,” he said simply. “The mark on the temple cannot be more recent than a week, so unless he had it before disappearing…”

“I saw him that day, he didn’t,” Bond said, not betraying a hint of emotion. He hadn’t so much as twitched. It was quite impressively unnerving.

“So the photograph is within the past thirty hours or so. We know the generalised area, the houses within are… that beam, the beam in the top left hand corner,” he said suddenly, noticing a millimetre-wide darkness of a wooden support beam. “Not a new build, they don’t have centralised support beams, certainly not highlighted ones. No, this is an older house.”

“Has he been tested for drugs recently?” Bond asked Mycroft dryly, an oblique reference to the fact that he had been through the rather thick file labelled ‘Sherlock Holmes’ several times the previous night.

Sherlock didn’t pause to tell him to shut up, a testimony as to how fast his thoughts were currently flitting. “That mould, the growth, the wallpaper. Dates the house back at least thirty years. Narrows our range considerably. I need to get onto the Network, and quickly, we don’t have time. Mycroft, estimates?”

“Maybe another sixteen hours, if we’re very fortunate,” he said grimly.

---

They were a very long way from fortunate.

Chapter Text

Somebody who was once called Q had been moved. He hadn’t noticed moving.

Consciousness registered with an electric, burning pain radiating upwards from the burnt wreckage of the soles of his feet. He had been forced into standing, arms cuffed above his head, letting out a sobbing cry as he tried to find any position that was bearable, mind screaming with absolute white noise, distantly aware that it was so much colder than before, the ground beneath him the rasp of concrete rather than the polished floorboards he was used to.

He had never been this hungry in his entire life. His dried lips cracked when he moved them, mouth feeling like something had died in it and was now rotting. The cold bore into each separate fibre of his muscles, freezing the blood, his extremities numb and fingers unresponsive.

They left him there. Eventually, his legs simply stopped supporting him, and he dangled limply in the chains with pain spasming through his shattered ankle, the burns, blotting out the pain in his backside and through his ribs, desperately wanting just to hear somebody’s voice while simultaneously terrified at what the hell they would do to him when they inevitably arrived. He needed circulation back in his hands. He couldn't lose his hands.

“Dictate the coding needed for the MI6 servers,” a voice intoned, in a deeply foreign accent. The man who was not Q flinched. He hadn’t heard anybody coming. There was nothing beyond the hurt, hiccupping in breath and trying to find words, trying to remember what he was supposed to say, inches from telling them anything they wanted just to make it stop.

“It’s a mutating code. It needs an active response,” he whispered, struck by how raspingly quiet his voice had become, echoing in the thin silence as his entire body shook. “I’m a programmer, I can’t hack it, I don’t know how.”

Clipped footsteps. The blindfold was pulled harshly away from his eyes, flinching, so bright, the entire world is too bright. “Look at this. Can you now tell me that you are not Q?”

They showed him papers, and he couldn’t read a damn word without his glasses and his eyes wouldn't focus anyway, but it had to be evidence. His head hung limply, the perfect figure of defeat, his mind working so quickly to find explanations, trying to force thoughts through treacle. They had to believe him. If he could make them believe him, he would be safe.

“Q is good, he framed me to make it look like… I’m Oliver, I’m not Q, I’m in his department but I’m not, I’m not…”

They detached him from the ceiling. He fell to the floor in a crumpled heap, unable to move, sobbing like a child and trying to curl away as hands grasped for him. This time his captors wore balaclavas, for all the good it was; arms slid under his arms, under his knees, lifting him between them and pouring him into a chair. He was in front of a table, hands resting in his lap, a long chain attached to one wrist from the centre of the table, broken ankle shackled to a chair leg.

Somebody placed glasses (his prescription, not his own frames, he missed his own frames) on his nose, opened a laptop in front of him, and told him to get to work. He was pathetically grateful to have his vision back, however pointless it was, given that the lights were painfully bright and everything was swimming.

He looked up wearily at his tormentor, standing opposite, still in a bloody balaclava. “I can’t,” he said brokenly, and wasn’t lying. He couldn’t focus, couldn’t think, the pain turned every thought foggy and he could not allow himself to betray his country now.

One the men standing slightly further back, in what the man who wasn’t Q could only assume was a warehouse, stepped forward. The man who wasn't Q had no time to even register fear, before something was injected into his upper arm, the sting barely noticeable in the melee; he gasped, feeling the pain spanning his body begin to gradually numb, anaesthesia crawling through his bloodstream with every heartbeat.

The same man placed a bottle of water on the table next to the laptop. The man who had once been Q glanced around, seeking permission, inches from pleading.

The man opposite nodded. The not-Q reached for the bottle with hands that wouldn’t stop shaking. So cold, colder than he had thought possible. He tried to grasp the cap, fingers not gaining purchase properly, managing to take off the lid with a smirk of triumph that made him despise what he had been reduced to.

Gulping the water made his stomach cramp with awe-inspiring pain. It faded after a little while, leaving his head spinning, stomach feeling incredibly full after a few mouthfuls, most of it falling past his mouth onto his bare chest. Rehabilitation was not going to be a pleasant experience, he sighed reluctantly, before realising; for the first time in days, he was harbouring hopes of ever getting free again.

“I will not ask you again,” the man told him.

The man who was not Q looked at the screen, some small sensation rising at the back of his mind with lethal fervour. “I will need to be able to use my hands,” he commented, with a familiar touch of sarcasm. One of the men moved too suddenly, making the not-Q flinch violently; they laughed, handing him a ready-snapped, cloth-covered heat pack. His breath shuddered out in a long exhale, the relief of sudden heat and warmth thawing his fingers, wishing his whole body could have this warmth.

They even fed him, slowly letting him sip at what he was relatively certain was Ensure or an equivalent. It tasted of chocolate. He hadn’t tasted anything in a while. His thoughts began to quicken out of strangled lethargy.

In the clarity, he began to consider.

This computer, an antiquated piece of crap that he could replicate in his sleep, was safe, familiar. They had made a phenomenal mistake, allowing him access to an actual computer. For the first time since all of this had begun, he had some form of power, real, actual power to fight back.

They would work it out quickly, if he tried. Of that he had no doubt. It was simply a case of doing whatever he could, as fast as he could.

He took a soft breath, transferring the heat pack to his stomach, hoping it would quell a little of his incredible hunger. “I’m not Q,” he said one final time, before lifting his stiff, less than dextrous fingers to the keyboard, and beginning to type.

---

“God damn it,” Sherlock yelled, stamping his foot in an excellent impression of a petulant child. They had found the correct house, assembled a team with Mycroft’s assistance, and Bond had knackered all their carefully laid plans by entering an unsecured building, in the middle of the night, without even deigning to tell anybody, let alone ask.

It made very little difference, given that Q was already gone.

Sherlock stepped into the small house, a detached house in Ealing which looked to have once belonged to a family, perhaps. There was little of note downstairs, barring the dead man in the kitchen. A cursory glance confirmed that he had been shot in the last handful of minutes, presumably by Bond.

“Where are you?” he snapped down the phone at Bond. The man answered tersely that he was upstairs, and that Q was gone. “Don’t move anything, I need to assess everything if he was definitely here,” Sherlock informed him, taking the stairs two at a time, hanging up as he did so.

Sherlock looked at the door directly opposite the stairs, and could already smell the worryingly familiar tang of blood, mingled with musk, sweat, some vomit. He pushed open the door with one hand, immediately cataloguing information.

Quite obviously the room from the photograph, but that was mostly inconsequential. The thin mattress was stained unpleasantly, thin smears of blood across the walls, a story painted in Sherlock’s language: that which can only be observed, rather than told.

It didn’t matter. Q was patently not there, and Bond was leaning over a thirty-something year old man with a knife in his thigh. The agent's hand was circled around the black plastic handle; a rather lower-class piece of weaponry, probably stolen from the kitchen downstairs given that it was hardly Bond's style.

Sherlock simply watched, unwilling to move or intercede in any way. Bond's voice was a low, deep growl. "Where is he?"

The man didn’t answer. Bond twisted the knife a quarter-turn, his expression entirely impassive. The man gave a garbled scream, blood welling and spilling out over the varnished wood, merging with the older red-brown stains peppering the floor.

“Once again. Where is he?” Bond repeated, his tone still frighteningly calm; he raised an eyebrow at the man's silence, and twisted the knife once again, blood staining his fingers.

Sherlock simply stood the doorway, watching a man scream pathetically, clawing at air while Bond waited patiently. Sherlock simply couldn’t bring himself to show concern of any variant, not when he could see what they had done to Q.

Sherlock heard John running up the stairs behind him, drawn, perhaps, by the guttural shrieks of the man Bond was proceeding to torture.

John knocked Sherlock to one side, taking in the scene in front of him. "Jesus fucking Christ," he managed, every instinct in him screaming; he moved to Bond and wrenched him backwards in quite an impressive show of strength, Browning in hand, angrier than he could recall being in a long while. He anticipated Bond retrieving the knife; John took a hasty step backwards as the blood-drenched knife whipped around to him, priming his gun. An easy shot, should Bond try anything further.

“I wouldn’t threaten me,” Bond informed him, a something dark glinting through his otherwise calm demeanour.

John's jaw was tight, voice near-shattering with tension. "I wouldn't torture, for fuck's sake," he snapped. Bond stared back at him impassively; John slowly lowered the gun, letting his heartrate return to something near normal. “He’s not an innocent man, god knows he isn’t, but this? We’re not doing this, we are not them.”

“John, step back,” Sherlock said calmly, earning him a shocked glance from his partner; Sherlock actually took a moment to placate him, a small but notable moment of communication. “Bond, is there anybody else?”

Bond stood, hands absolutely coated in slick blood. "One in the far bedroom, neutralised," he stated, the tone of one who had reported such incidents more than once in his life. John, meanwhile, had torn off his shirt; he pressed the thin cloth against the man’s thigh, fingers at his throat, tracking the rapidly diminishing heart rate. They needed him alive to have any hope of tracing Q.

“Sherlock," John told him, voice brittle. "Sherlock, he’s dying," he continued, pulse slowing in obvious increments, second by second. “Sherlock. He shouldn’t be dying, not like this, it isn’t a lethal wound.”

Sherlock leant down by the man’s face, at John’s side, delving fingers into the man’s mouth and wrenching his jaw open with efficient movements. “Suicide capsule, back molar,” he diagnosed instantly. He swore angrily, slapping the man’s face as his expression took on an oddly dreamlike quality. “Bond, check the other. We need one of them alive or we’ll lose Q.”

There was a mumbled, dull laugh. “So he was Q then,” the dying man breathed, and his eyes glazed.

“No. No,” Sherlock yelled, slapping him again, cursing fluently. “John, can you…?”

“He’s dead, Sherlock,” John confirmed a moment later. “Whatever it was is potent, there’s no way I could resuscitate him without equipment.”

“This one’s dead,” Bond called from the other room.

Sherlock let out another volley of curses, kicking the doorframe furiously, spinning, coat flying slightly under the cascade of movement. “Fine. Fine. We have something to work with, they haven’t cleared the building. What do we know, John, what do we know?!”

John took a moment, the pair a cohesive, single unit. “He was here, we was moved on, transferred to other people..."

Sherlock nodded, pacing up and down the room. “Yes, but how. Q is badly injured, obviously, and being held against his will. Getting him to a vehicle would be difficult, at best, unless unconscious which would be rather obvious to other residents. Somebody must have seen something.”

“CCTV?”

“Mycroft checked, we have nothing on that front, disconnected a while ago,” Sherlock said with a disparaging wave of annoyance, still pacing. “So, we’ll need a door-to-door of nearby house, find out who has information.”

“Excuse me?” Bond asked placidly, appearing in the doorway; he’d washed his hands, thankfully, but beneath the nail and around the nail bed it was still red, drying to a rusty brown that perfectly mimicked the spatters on the wall. “I sincerely hope that doesn’t include me.”

---

The single good thing that came of them not managing to get Q back was the MI6 were back on board; faced with incontrovertible evidence that Q was alive, they began to understand the precarious and potentially lethal nature of their situation. Q’s retrieval suddenly went back to high-priority in MI6; given just how Q-branch felt about their young quartermaster, it meant a great deal got achieved without quite so much effort.

Mycroft and Sherlock were excellent with deductions, less so with computers. Mycroft passed on the orders for monitoring various firewalls, receiving regular updates while scouring his own monitors to find evidence of Q in Ealing, through neighbouring streets.

The door-to-door achieved a grand total of absolutely nothing. Nobody was saying a word. Given Q's potential state, that was not overly surprising.

Another day had slipped by when anything of interest happened; Mycroft was scanning through updates linked through to him via Q-branch when he found something of note in the lines of coding, the activity around the server. Mycroft knew enough about coding to recognise anomalies, if not understand their implications.

He contacted the newly appointed Q - the man technically now in charge - and asked that the coding be analysed in detail. The new Q was a little overwhelmed; there had been a lot to do in the previous week and a half or so with the pre-existing missions, and the focus on his predecessor’s disappearance was simply adding to his stress.

The response came through quickly, several lower minions in the branch setting to work. Embedded in the nudging and quiet assaults on the servers, most of which were imprecise and unprofessional, there was a concealed message strung through one of the more elegant attacks. Superfluity of characters strung together, creating a clear message.

Russiancoldsaltopenfindme.

“Sherlock,” Mycroft said into the phone. “Q has found an innovative way to communicate. I can only theorise that they allowed him access to a computer. Stylistically obvious, according to those more experienced than I in such matters; it is Q. I do not believe we are likely to find anything further, although his branch are on alert.”

“What do we have?”

Mycroft repeated the characters in their constituent words, and listened to Sherlock’s harsh breathing as he thought frenziedly; Q's intellect implied that there would be something underlying, some form of data that he could tangibly work with. “I will call you back,” Sherlock said, and hung up. Mycroft too laced his fingers beneath his chin, and began to think, eyes staring unseeingly into space.

---

“He couldn’t have used the last few characters to give us another clue?” Bond asked rhetorically. He took a swallow of cognac – the bottle nearly emptied over the previous few days – and sat on Sherlock’s sofa with the bottle and glass in either hand.

He continued to drink, while John dozed on his armchair. It was nearly four in the morning, but Bond and Sherlock had mostly eschewed sleep in favour of alcohol and caffeine respectively. Sherlock had come off the phone to Mycroft barely ten minutes previously, had sunk into a strangely suspended state with fingers steepled beneath his chin, his brain almost audibly whirring.

Sherlock gave a sudden yell of frustration. “What is he doing? Every algorithm I can think of, every derivative, anagrams, there is nothing…”

“What if we assume it is exactly as written?” Bond suggested, his tone remaining flat. Sherlock spun to him, his eyebrows knotting. It literally hadn’t occurred to him that it would be that simple. “It’s what he can see.”

“Salt?”

“The air,” Bond suggested, eyes narrowing slightly. “By a sea front? Low temperature, open space… a warehouse, perhaps? Russian could be the distinguishing feature of his captors.”

Sherlock looked momentarily side-swiped. “That’s brilliant,” John commented blurrily from the armchair, through eyelids weighted with sleep.

“That wasn’t my suggestion,” Sherlock pointed out, feeling a touch put-out, aware that his mind was becoming addled by having not slept for more than a few hours in approximately three days. John’s comments were usually reserved for him alone, not for a testosterone-fuelled idiot who had happened upon a good idea that should have been his.

John lifted his head, blinking exhaustion away from him. “Sorry,” he mumbled, smiling at Sherlock in a way that made Sherlock forgive everything without even knowing why. He yawned slightly, fidgeting as he tried to awkwardly sit himself up. “We’re assuming UK still?”

Sherlock smirked slightly, with a type of quietly malicious satisfaction. “Mycroft ordered the monitoring of every single public and private plane in the skies, and all boating. I think he caused about eight hours of delays at major airports, there haven’t been this many planes grounded since that volcano in Iceland. He’s really going all out on this one.”

“MI6 can be involved at this stage,” Bond pointed out. “They have access to everything we could want.”

“Call your superiors,” Sherlock said, already dialling Mycroft, as Bond pulled out his own mobile and dialled M. “Mycroft, we’re narrowing… yes. You fat idiot, you couldn’t have phoned me? … Yes. I know… Mycroft, the man could hack into MI6 in his sleep if he so wished. This was clever, calculated… No. Tell them to get this done, or we will lose him… yes. I know. I know, Mycroft. I’m not… I’m fine, even if you’re evidently not… We will work it out. Yes… Call when you have something useful to say.”

Sherlock slumped back, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hands. “What was that about?” John asked, as Sherlock slipped away from the table and into his usual armchair, Bond speaking in low and angry tones to.

“Mycroft worked it out before me, he’s already sent out orders,” Sherlock muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose, yawning slightly; there was nothing he could do for a little while. Sleep was now quite urgently required. “Then he began bleating about how to evade protocol, and I do not want to contemplate that right now.”

“What protocol?” John asked. Sherlock’s eyes cut through him with a hideous intensity, and John had the sudden sensation that there was something nobody was telling him.

Chapter Text

The man once called Q was not aware of MI6 protocols. It was above even his sphere, buried in innocuous files that to be frank, he had little interest in.

His captors were not entirely stupid. While they were hardly exceptional with technology, Q's work was being linked away and out, monitored by others Q would probably never meet. They were not the types of people who would care much about where their information came from, as long as it came, and they did not need to ever get their hands dirty. In far less time than Q had hoped for, they realised that within his pathetic attacks on MI6, were a host of anomalies that - when strung together - could lead MI6 to their doors.

They punished him. The only rule appeached to be to preserve his hands and arms, and they didn’t want him dead, which seemed to mean open season on literally every other part of his body.

He could feel himself heading towards a severe phobia of needles, after they were inserted beneath his toenails. He hadn’t been keen to start off with. His legs were targeted as a point of apparent interest; after so much hurt, after so much injury, knees and shins and bone and cartilage, all the constituent parts of a human body, Q wondered - from a place very much removed from himself - how much of it was irreparable. How much of him beyond his goddamn hands would be left, if MI6 ever showed up, if anybody ever came.

They didn’t rape him. He was incredibly grateful for that, at least, although the thought was dimmed by the frankly stupid levels of pain.

Just to finish off, they strung him back up to the ceiling.

The pressure on his feet and legs had him screaming until his voice gave out, and he hung limp, body convulsing, trying to sink into unconsciousness and not being able to, he was teetering on the edge, but each movement sent electric spasms through him and woke him up again, and cold water was blasted at him to wash the worst of the blood and grime, and it was so cold and everything was falling to pieces, and he tried to scream but no sound was coming out, he just retched and sobbed like a child and prayed for it to end.

He had never been so grateful for being drugged in his entire life.

“We can discuss this again when you’re conscious, Q,” the thick-set Russian told him.

“I’m not Q,” the man who really wasn’t Q whispered, as the world was laced white and he fell into a place where nothing could follow him.

---

It transpired that there were a lot of seafront warehouses, or open buildings, that were likely to be cold in January. Everybody was now trying to narrow down the links to Russia, and who was liable to have taken Q of the various and infinite Russian groups who operated on UK soil.

Mycroft was working on the Russian connection, Sherlock on tracing who had taken Q initially. Irritatingly, all of it was the kind of the work Q would have been best at: technology-based. Sherlock sent out his scouts in the Network to acquire any information he could on the house in Ealing; as a testimony to their efficiency, he had the group in question located in just under thirty-six hours. Three men of that cell were dead, but they had been receiving orders from higher authorities.

Thus, Sherlock tracked down those who had issued the orders. He established a link via his elusive contact who had links to any and all criminal rings one could think of, and was promised a location. When he had a confirmed fix, he informed Bond that he had the location and identity of the men who had issued the orders, directly leading to Q’s capture and torture.

Bond nodded just once, and Sherlock pretended not to notice the jump of muscle in his jaw that spoke of his incandescent anger, and imminent departure.

Sherlock's smile was a razor, and he allowed Bond a two hour head-start before giving Mycroft access to the same information.

By that stage, Bond had efficiently taken out the heads of the organisation concerned. Mycroft’s people stormed the building to find a collection of imaginatively decorated corpses. It appeared that Bond had taken great joy in the deconstruction of a human body while still alive and conscious, and - quite by accident - had also managed to acquire some new information that Sherlock found remarkably helpful.

Mycroft was livid, MI6 threatened to pull Bond out altogether and revoke his double-oh status, and Sherlock laughed in a cold way that was devoid of humour and was one of the single most frightening things John had ever heard. This case was not doing good things to Sherlock, and it was a little bit worrying to see.

“We have progress,” Sherlock told Mycroft, with a dispassionate shrug. “Bond managed to extract the name of the group that now have Q. It becomes simpler from this point to work out where exactly he is.”

“He murdered an entire terrorist unit in cold blood, without authorisation.”

“You gave him a license to kill, you truly shouldn’t be surprised that he uses it,” Sherlock said coldly, and hung up. Mycroft emailed through the information about the group and their methods, in the optimistic hope that it would help narrow down their locations. He didn’t say a further word about Bond. The entire topic abruptly blew over.

“Bond, can you stop pacing like a caged animal?” Sherlock snapped. He had slept a few more hours, but while the case was active, his mind was simply not allowed to relax. He was consequently more than a little bit irritable. John had resorted to using the Browning to make him eat when it became evident that Sherlock was continually ‘forgetting’.

Sherlock was combing through different areas, in tandem with many operatives in Q-branch, exploring local data and rumours. He called local residents; many hung up, a fair few curtain-twitching older ladies – the most effective spies in the world – were prepared to discuss local affairs. Each time Q-branch flagged something promising, Sherlock was copied into the update email to conduct his own investigations.

John was inches away from drugging him. Bond was far more businesslike, sleeping like death itself in the moments where he wasn’t pacing and getting quite visibly frustrated with the lack of progress. He lacked the requisite patience for difficult cases. Sherlock continued to make cutting comments, when he wasn’t sweet-talking little old ladies with a face like he was chewing wasps.

Over two weeks had passed since Q was taken. Bond was getting increasingly volatile, John was irate and worried, Sherlock was pretty much hallucinating, constantly on the phone and computer, temper past the point of unpleasant and into the realms of unbearable.

Nothing was changing, nothing was progressing.

---

The criminal underworld had rarely been so alive over a single abduction. The investigations Sherlock and Q-branch had been conducting managed to unearth a number of other smaller cells, from various groups, in pockets around the UK. Gradually, a fair number of smaller groups were taken out, through more accident than judgement.

One man leant back on his gilded throne, and laughed as his world thrummed with activity. The Russian cell who had custody of Q had been displaced a full day ago, something Sherlock and his gang of minions were blissfully unaware of. Anybody of any note had worked out that Q was a hostage of considerable value, and he held the information for getting to him, for the correct price.

He would accede to Sherlock’s request, if he asked nicely, if they could come to a mutually agreeable arrangement. This could all be over remarkably quickly, if Sherlock would just… relent, on certain matters. He already had done, prostituting himself for the sake of titbits of information. He didn’t care much about agent Q. He cared tremendously about Sherlock.

This was a game he had never expected to play, and it was truly fascinating. How far would this go, he wondered, before they gave up? After all, the group that had now acquired Q had rather different tactics, and by all accounts, were achieving more than either of the previous groups.

As it happened, they also owed him a favour now. And he was rather interested to find out more about this curious child who seemed to have all of MI6, and even the Holmes brothers, in a completely panicked mess. How delightful.

He smirked, and sauntered towards the door, suit jacket over his shoulder, and whistled old tunes as he went.

---

Somebody once called Q should have accepted the suicide pill when MI6 had offered it. He knew that. It was the only repetitive thought he had left, and it annoyed him. He wanted to get rid of that thought. It was ridiculous, absurd, to still be thinking like that.

His captors were no longer Russian. He was in the same building. He had been blindfolded but screamingly conscious and unable to escape, forced onto his feet, when he heard the series of gunshots.

His optimism had been enough to make him breathless. They had come. They had found him, and they were getting him out, and he was going to be free and they would stop it hurting any more. “Bond?” Q had rasped. If they had come, Bond would be on the retrieval mission. They were friends, and Bond was stubborn and had lost too many people and Q had always known he would come, which meant he was here. He had to be here.

The hands and touches were incredibly soft, incredibly careful. “You took your time,” he rasped, released from the ceiling and laid down carefully on icy concrete.

“Stupid fucking idea, he can’t use his hands if they cut off the bloody circulation,” he heard somebody muttering, as strong fingers massaged his own hands, making him cry out as the circulation came back with a vengeance. A thermal blanket was tucked around him tenderly; he hadn’t realised how cold he was, hadn’t stopped shivering in hours, the blanket sending him into sobbing trembles as he started to remember what it felt like to not be so cold.

The boy who wasn’t Q let himself be looked after, flexing his fingers when he was told to, the shivering begin to slow down a little. He didn’t feel the moment somebody placed an IV in his arm, most definitely felt the terrifying stab of antiseptic across open wounds. He sipped obediently through a straw at some unnamed substance, unable to stomach much before his stomach tried to forcibly eject it again. Somebody rubbed his back soothingly, gentle.

Coherency returned very, very slowly. He lifted a hand to his face, clawing at the blindfold over his eyes with no real strength, but with obvious meaning.

“Poor boy, we forgot about that, didn’t we?” a voice cooed, British again. Fear crawled up his spine. The tone was wrong. Something was wrong.

It wasn’t MI6.

They wanted him alive so they could use him more efficiently. Once they saw his face, it also became apparent that they shared a very important trait with his original captors. It was obvious; the hums of approval, the obvious physical evidence of prior treatment, the fingers that lingered and brushed and stroked.

He didn’t cry.

They placed him in front of a computer again, and told him to get into the primary Chinese servers in Beijing. It would affect several treaties and cause one hell of a mess, but it would not be a release of British information. He couldn’t say no to everything, it was too much, it had finally reached the stage of it being just too much, and he didn't quite cry but allowed the paralysis of thought that came with finally breaking around the edges.

He did what they wanted, prayed it would keep him safe. They had really messed with his concentration; he could usually hack China within an hour, had done it in forty minutes once. On this occasion, it took nearly four.

He did what they asked him as long as it did not involve the British government or MI departments. They gave him painkillers in quantities that would kill small animals, and punished him whenever he tried to defy them. After the first night, he accepted that he would give them whatever the hell they wanted to make them never punish him again.

He typed, blinking to clear the strange fog that kept building in front of his eyes, behind his eyes, somewhere in his thoughts that would not clear.

“Oh now, he really is pretty,” a new voice commented; somebody once called Q stalled in his typing, managing an error that would cost him time and potentially painful repercussions. They were using him to delve deeper into the Chinese databases, and he couldn’t bring himself to feel anything about it. He was keeping his country safe. For Queen and Country. It was enough, because there were no other options.

The new arrival stalked around, settling himself in a chair opposite the man once called Q. They looked at each other, one touch-typing with an IV snaking out of his lower arm, the other smiling very slowly and not speaking, just watching for a moment, curious. “You remind me of someone," he commented lightly.

“Whatever you want from me, get on with it. If you want to fuck me, hurt me, extort information we all know I’m not going to give you, by all means do, just please, don’t taunt me,” he said exhaustedly, looking up through enormous grey-green eyes.

The attitude was excellent, a backbone hidden beneath all the waif-like features and broken expression. “Don’t mind me, I’m just here to say hi,” the man grinned, waving his fingers in greeting at the boy everybody was making such a fuss over.

He looked unsurprisingly terrible, in a strong yet delicate way. The glasses, thin growth of beard and floppy hair made him look absurdly young, and he was shivering lightly from the cold, dressed in a loose grey tracksuit that covered the worst sins, shredded bare feet cuffed to the chair legs. The man was barely in his mid-twenties, had once managed to look almost his age; now he looked like an, admittedly battered, teenage boy.

He could understand why everybody had wanted to fuck him, too, looking like that. The kid was pretty, and that unusual flicker of defiance in a trashed and broken body, well. It was tempting to break that defiance out of him, and enjoy oneself in the process.

It was remarkable that he had done so well. He had yet to betray a single line of code that could get anybody into MI6, extraordinarily. True, he was now hacking everything else they could throw in his direction, but nothing about MI6. Hell, he was still resolutely denying that he was anything more than a programmer in MI6, not Q, couldn’t access MI6 even if he wanted to.

“You’ve gotten everybody into a real state,” the man trilled, leaning forward conspiratorially. The boy flinched slightly. “Aww, bit jumpy?”

“Who are you?” the boy murmured through cracked, bloodless lips.

“James Moriarty,” the man smiled. “And you?”

The boy took a trembling breath. “I’m Oliver. I’m a programmer in MI6,” he said, as though by rote.

“That’s not what I heard.”

“I know what you heard,” ‘Oliver’ snapped back, and Moriarty smirked as the boy cringed, the figures in the shadows moving forward. “I’m not Q, please, I’m not Q,” he whispered, again and again, in the echoing quiet. Moriarty held up a hand, and the figures fell back again. The tension drained out of Q’s posture, just a fraction, but enough.

“You should tell them what they want to hear,” Moriarty advised. The boy smiled disconnectedly, the typing abandoned, and just shook his head slowly. Moriarty reached out a hand to close over the boy's own, stroking a thumb over his palm briefly, the fingers spindly but strong.

The young man, the easily underestimated young man, shut his eyes a moment. “I’m so tired,” he breathed.

“Goodbye Oliver,” Moriarty said quietly, and pulled away from him, hand following him as he left, suspended for a heartbeat in air before falling softly back to the table. The young man gave the first genuine smile Moriarty had seen from him; he had used his name, the name he was trying so hard to make everybody believe was his.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Moriarty called into the warehouse, voice ringing. “All yours.”

Moriarty listened to the sound of frantic typing. “Please, just give me time, I’m doing everything I can, please no no no please…

Moriarty knew what the group were going to get out of Q, and wasn’t entirely adverse to the idea; the laptop they were using had been accessed via him, meaning he was piggy-backing any hacking Q managed. It was fascinating to watch, and he could do a lot of damage if he had access to Chinese systems.

He would give them another five days. A lot could happen in five days. Q could take down half the world in five days, or at the very least, give Moriarty the means to do so.

Five days, and he would tell Sherlock.

---

Sherlock threw a temper tantrum when Mycroft got in contact to tell them that a Russian terrorist cell had been found dead, in several bits, in various different locations. He broke his phone throwing it at the wall. John gave him his, with a roll of his eyes and the sigh of the harassed.

Sherlock examined the body parts, Bond checked in at MI6 to be screamed at by his superiors, only to tell them he was not going to stop this impromptu mission until Q was found, dead or alive, preferably the latter. He showed absolutely no remorse for the several exceptionally nasty murders he had committed. Most took one look at Bond’s expression, and decided not to press the matter.

M pinched the bridge of his nose and explained that the rest of the world appeared to be going to hell; there were incidents erupting all over China, there were serious risks emerging to national security if the Chinese got angry enough. He was needed. They could not afford for him to be wasting his time when they had no conclusive proof that Q was even still alive.

There was blood under the fingernails of the Russian corpses. DNA placed it as Q’s. Sherlock tried to get as much as he could, trying to date the blood samples with precious little to go on. The body parts themselves were contaminated with the various stains of wherever they’d been dumped, so there was little progress on that front.

“I don’t know what more I can do,” Sherlock said eventually to John, who was sat watching him work. John stared at him. Sherlock had never come even close to admitting he was lost on a case before. “I can’t solve this. I don’t have any information to work from. Q’s changed hands again, if I’m not mistaken. We have no way of knowing if he’s still in the country, and he is probably dead by now.”

“Mycroft doesn’t think he is,” John reminded; Mycroft had called earlier that day, updating Sherlock and John on the fact that Chinese servers, in various major cities linking through to the espionage factions of China, had been breached. It had been beautifully done, a masterwork of hacking, the kind of work that would usually be attributed to Q himself.

Mycroft theorised that Q was alive, being made to work, but not on anything that directly compromised the UK intelligence systems; the Chinese systems issue had to be linked to him. It left them ever more keenly aware that Q was cracking around the edges. If they were not careful, Q would crack down the middle, and take the UK Intelligence Services with him.

They had no proof, but Mycroft Holmes was taken seriously, as a general rule. M swore more colourfully than anybody could have believed, telling Tanner to get Bond full clearances, and ask the new Q to equip him properly on the assumption that this was now a proper mission.

Q-branch had been preparing this as a proper mission for days; they had the equipment ready, along with a full debrief. They were going to get Bond into a meeting with several criminal contacts, Sherlock and Bond connected by earpieces, which was probably suicidal.

“That man to your left is your mark. I’m not too concerned what you do with him, just get the requisite information,” Sherlock drawled. Bond rolled his eyes. “I saw that,” Sherlock quipped; Bond was wearing photographic contact lenses, a charming innovation that couldn’t be worn for more than a few hours at a time without causing serious eye irritation, but was still a lovely little invention.

Bond did exactly what Sherlock didn’t expect. “She may be your type, Bond, but she’s not exactly important in this moment,” Sherlock told him angrily, as Bond started to flirt outrageously with the woman he had spotted talking to their mark earlier.

It took Bond less than fifteen minutes to be introduced to their mark, who raised an eyebrow at him, and entered into conversation.

Sherlock wasn’t sure how Bond managed it. It probably had something to do with the number of veiled threats Bond issued, the fact that he didn’t even try to conceal his identity, the gun in his jacket pocket. The catalyst was when he told Sherlock to shut up, in front of his mark; probably on purpose, actually, as it finally inspired action.

In any case, the mark died, Bond didn’t, and they were given more names. Bond and MI6 busied themselves, while Sherlock examined the body of their original mark, quickly confirming that he had had no direct contact with Q. Bond didn’t stop to check in; he had a name, Sherlock got a location through the Homeless Network, and they moved to the next.

Three weeks since Q had disappeared, and everything was in limbo. MI6 were dealing with unprecedented changes in policy, given that they were still trying to track down a target who they should have abandoned over two weeks ago. Mycroft was in and out of meetings with senior colleagues to get permission for active units to continue tracking.

Twenty-three days. Moriarty was about three hours away from calling Sherlock with the information, when Sherlock worked it out all on his own. Bond had eliminated several further units, taking his kill total on this mission alone up to double digits. He couldn’t bring himself to feel guilt for that fact.

“Bond, I have a location,” Sherlock said, already getting into his coat, John packing up the laptop and other items. “You’re about five hours drive away, four if you inevitably break speed limits. I’m taking Mycroft’s jet, I may get there before you.”

“Send me exact co-ordinates,” Bond said sharply, and Sherlock merrily obliged. He told Mycroft, who agreed that MI6 should be informed on the proviso that Bond and Sherlock secured the scene before a full unit became involved. Mycroft also willingly allowed Sherlock the Holmes jet and pilot; he and John began their flight to a small airstrip in Scotland.

Sherlock slept, for the first time in two days, on the flight there. There was nothing more he could do. He was almost entirely certain he had found Q this time, and he needed to be at the scene, in any case, even if he was wrong again.

---

Bond was driving, knuckles white on the steering wheel. At least he had acquired a decent car. Not his own, obviously, but it was fast. He was less than half an hour away, if Sherlock was correct. MI6 had contacted him with details of the backup that were waiting for his clearance.

He vaguely regretted that he was unlikely to have the chance to really exact revenge on these people. For as long as Q was compromised, he could not risk personal vengeance. He would need to eliminate the group quickly and efficiently, and could work out his own retaliation later.

“Bond,” Sherlock whispered in his microphone. “He’s here. I’ve found him.”

Chapter Text

Everything was blurred. So tired, so incredibly tired, and so cold he had given up on trying to actively conserve any body heat. It took up too much energy, and he just wanted to keep breathing, keep his heart beating. The pain was a consistent, pulsing nightmare. He was given drugs in the morning, before being set to work; no matter how, they still faded after a few hours, meaning that by the end of the day, he was trying to type with freezing and unresponsive fingers and pain that made all coherent thought fade in a rising high-pitched whine.

It was almost five in the morning. Q was still mostly conscious, despite his best efforts to the contrary, despite pleading for sedatives just to make everything go away from a little while. He never slept any more. Pain kept him in a semi-catatonic state, drifting in and out of uneasy semi-consciousness, throughout the evening and night until he was drugged again in the morning.

His broken ankle was fastened to a thin pipe, every movement sending blinding pain from the swollen joint. It was infinitely better than being made to stand, however, as long he didn't move. He lay on bare concrete, shivering faintly, eyelids flickering open and shut without seeing.

Sherlock, meanwhile, broke into the warehouse via a small window, landing cat-like on the floor in pitch-black shadow. The cold was certainly notable, salt lingering heavily in the air, almost tangibly sticking to the tongue. Industrial strip lighting cast eerie, impenetrable shadows in the sides and corners, the central area starkly illuminated and glaringly bright.

The table in the centre of the room bore a pair of folded wire-rimmed glasses and a laptop, wires trailing out to an unseen port in the shadows at the opposite end of the room. Near where Sherlock was standing, a hose with jet attachment dripped into the drying puddle of water beneath, spiralling into a small drain.

There was a mottled patch of floor a few feet away that Sherlock assessed and dismissed rather quickly; chains hung from a lower metal strut above it, rather old-fashioned shackles swinging like pendulums. It was incomparably unnerving to see.

Sherlock eyes traced the stains leading from the afore-mentioned patch, to the curled form of a young man at the foot of a ceiling-high pillar, an IV bag dangling from another pipe higher up on the pillar and leading to the boy's wrist. The warehouse was remarkably silent, echoes bounding from the slightest noise, broken by the soft rattling of breath.

“Bond. He’s here, I’ve found him,” Sherlock murmured, taking silent steps around the perimeter, flattening himself into the bleak shadows. He looked around carefully, but there was no sign of any guards or anything similar; John slid into the warehouse behind him, gun drawn, covering Sherlock as they crept along the edge of the warehouse in perilous silence. Sherlock was aware that these were people who would shoot first, ask questions later, and he didn’t want to risk John. The conspicuous absence of any hostiles left Sherlock and John’s situation too precarious; the moment they entered the light, they would be seen. Two of them against an unknown number of assailants was also less than promising.

Sherlock and John made their way very quietly along one wall of the building; Sherlock held up a hand to still John, as he saw the infinitesimally small flinches of shadow across the room. He still had no idea how many.

Sherlock’s mind sifted through ideas, before landing on an obvious one. He backed John against a pillar, out of the immediate range of any gunfire.

“I’m here on behalf of Jim Moriarty,” Sherlock called.

There was a sudden crash, a litany of swearing, two bullets shot in absolutely random directions. John also cursed vociferously, hissing at Sherlock as to what the hell he thought he was doing. “Where the fuck are you?” a rough voice yelled back, clearly unnerved and absolutely livid.

“I have no desire to be shot,” Sherlock pointed out. “Call Moriarty. My name is Holmes, my associate is Watson.”

“Find them,” hissed a low tone, tracing round the outside of the room. Sherlock pulled John away from the pillar and back against the far wall, hiding in the deep shadows and trying to throw his voice. John covered them both with his gun extended, breath coming a little shallower.

“He will be exceptionally displeased if you kill either of us,” Sherlock called, while John began to get very antsy with his gun, hypersensitive to every movement or flicker of light.

“You’re an idiot,” Bond told Sherlock through the earpiece.

“Yes,” Sherlock mused in a whisper. “But hopefully I will not be a dead one.”

From a point worryingly close to Sherlock and John, a man emerged with a phone pressed to his ear, gun in his hand. “Come out,” the man called, voice bouncing off the walls. Then, into the phone: “We seem to have your… colleagues here…. Holmes and Watson… He wants to speak to you,” the man completed, calling out again, brandishing the phone.

“Don’t you dare,” John hissed.

Sherlock whipped round, pressed a soft kiss to his lips. “Whatever happens, it is of paramount importance that you play the part,” he told John, eyes sharp and intense, utterly captivating. He waited for John’s nod of understanding, and shadowed into the bright central lights of the room. He felt John’s hand fail to grab his coat, fingertips catching the fabric briefly as Sherlock walked away.

The man looked round, his expression not quite managing to be neutral as he took stock of Sherlock. The two men assessed one another for a long moment. “I’m unarmed,” Sherlock told him clearly, arms outstretched.

Slowly, avoiding sudden movements, the man placed the phone on the ground, sliding it towards Sherlock; Sherlock took a step forward, bowing gracefully to retrieve said phone without breaking eye contact, and pressing the mobile to his ear. “Good morning,” Sherlock said calmly.

“Oh, Shirley-boy, you found him!” Jim crowed, his giggling laugh making Sherlock grimace slightly.

“And you lied to me,” Sherlock countered, sounding considerably less than impressed. “Would you tell these people not to shoot us? We don’t have backup, I refused to work with MI6 when they would have cocked this up royally, so it’s hardly like we will manage anything of consequence.”

“You’re working with MI6?” the man asked; Sherlock held up a gloved hand to silence him, mildly condescending.

Moriarty's smile was literally audible. “Am I to believe that Mr Bond is not with you?”

“On his way, but far enough still by my reckoning that he will not be able to help,” Sherlock told him. Bond, in Sherlock’s earpiece, appeared to think otherwise – Sherlock didn’t bother to relay the information.

“There are five, altogether,” Moriarty told Sherlock, in a tone that implied he was getting rather bored with the proceedings. “They have a mole in MI6, so if your backup is utilised before time, they will know long before MI6 reach you, and you and darling Doctor Watson will both be dead. They may shoot Q for good measure rather than let MI6 take him back.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“You probably shouldn’t. Put me on speaker,” Moriarty ordered; Sherlock obliged. “He’s clear, gentlemen, now let’s all behave like grownups. If you hurt my boys, you will strung to the ceiling and left to the mercy of carnivorous birds, am I clear?”

The man shot sceptical, hostile glances at Sherlock. "Yes," he growled.

“One day I should really find out just how much influence that man has,” Sherlock muttered, as Moriarty hung up. He placed the phone back on the floor, sliding it back to its original owner. “Alright. Are you going to introduce me?”

“Where’s your colleague?”

“John, come out here, keep your gun in sight,” Sherlock called out; John walked out slowly, gun held between two fingers by the barrel, universal indication that he wasn’t intending to use it.

The man raised an eyebrow, looking at the weapon and John, clearly assessing. “Put the gun on the floor and kick it towards me," he ordered.

“I won’t shoot you if you won’t shoot me, so I’m keeping the gun,” John told him succinctly.

Sherlock schooled himself to not grin, both he and John wearing identical expressions of dispassionate interest as their gaze flickered between the laptop and Q respectively. “What progress do we have?” Sherlock asked, as the man led them closer. Next to him, John was all but vibrating with tension, his gaze constantly remaining in Q's direction.

The man didn't so much as glance at Q, moving to the table instead; he pulled the laptop open, tapping out a password Sherlock catalogued immediately. “He still denies he is Q. However, we have managed to get him hacking various systems. We hope to use him against British intelligence within a few days.”

“As I understand it, two groups have failed before,” Sherlock pointed out in a level tone.

The man smiled a comfortable, frightening smile, glancing up from the screen. “Our methods are different. We have actually been using him for other purposes. Our predecessors were focused on British intelligence; useful, yes, but this man can be used for far more.”

“So you conditioned him, building him up until he’s ready to do whatever you ask, including betray his country” John supplemented, a very slight edge to his tone.

“Precisely. We were also concerned with keeping him alive and useful, there would be no point having him if he couldn’t work,” the man explained, showing Sherlock and John the laptop. On it were a series of files and folders, written programmes, stolen files and the means to access more; Sherlock nodded in neutral appreciation, glancing over the collated information.

John stood a foot or so back, still scanning Q's body. “He’s badly hurt, there’s no way he’s that useful,” he pointed out, brow contracted a few millimetres. High-pressure situation, and he was entirely steady, not a single tremor. Sherlock was always pleasantly surprised by John in these scenarios.

“We have incentives for him to keep working as quickly as he is able. Progress is slower, yes, but still happening,” the man said simply, unapologetically. “I’ve been in this business, shall we call it, for a long while. I know how people’s heads work. If his initial captors hadn’t been bloody stupid, this would have been a lot faster.

Sherlock raised an eyebrow, taking his first full glance at Q. “He looks barely able to string a sentence together," he commented.

The man locked the laptop, and turned to Sherlock with a thin smile. “Do you want to talk to him?”

“I’d prefer to, yes,” Sherlock answered carefully. The man nodded. He grabbed Q’s glasses, extracted a syringe from his inside pocket and strode towards Q with echoing footsteps. Sherlock and John watched, mute, as the man lifted Q’s thin wrist roughly, and injected the substance directly into his IV port. Q gave a soft, mewling cry at the contact, cringing back as the man placed Q’s glasses on his face in an appalling mockery of kindness.

“Give that a few moments to kick in,” the man shrugged, stepping back, wiping his nose with the back of his hand as he stared at the emaciated boy. “He’s not worth talking to without it.”

“The IV?”

“He can’t stomach much, we didn’t have an option,” the man said with a slight grimace of disgust. "Water, glucose, saline. He has some solids too, but minimal, it's not worth the effort.”

Bond had gone very quiet in Sherlock’s earpiece, but Sherlock couldn’t fail to hear the compressed ‘pop’ of a silenced gun; he had been listening out for it, after all.

“He is far more attractive than your average MI6 operative,” the man mused to himself, watching Q vibrate like a taut string against the concrete, eyes squeezed shut, while John’s fists clenched spasmodically. “And very young. Without evidence, I wouldn’t have believed for a moment that he could be Q.”

“I’m not Q,” Q rasped, curling his body tight in anticipation; the kick caught him in the chest, and Q let out a wrenching wail, dissolving into a worryingly wet cough. Regardless of what they were doing to keep him alive, Q did not have long if he stayed here.

Sherlock felt a twinge of distinct satisfaction at the sound of the second gunshot.

“You are idiots. At this rate, he will be dead long before you extort any necessary information,” Sherlock drawled, watching as John ducked down beside Q’s head and gently placed a hand on his arm, avoiding any visible injuries. Q flinched, but didn’t make a sound. Sherlock watched silent tears slide down Q’s face, expression impassive while the tension in John's body visibly ramped up a notch.

The man looked at the pathetic figure at their feet, visibly annoyed. “We told him: he will have medical attention when he starts to bloody well cooperate."

“And if he doesn’t, you will have a very dead operative who could have been useful,” Sherlock said dismissively. “Get him medical attention. For god’s sake, you could get several times the productivity if you weren’t quite so intent on enjoying yourselves. You have people to report to. Don’t forget what you’re here for.”

“Understood,” the man said, suitably chastened. “I will need clearance.”

“John, how severe are the injuries?” Sherlock asked casually.

“The hypothermia and malnutrition together should get him first, that could be as little as a few days now,” John informed him; Sherlock noted the businesslike tone, the way his hands moved methodically across the narrow, wrecked planes of Q’s body. "To be honest, with this level of injury, I wouldn't be too surprised if his body simply gave up under the stress."

John was beyond horrified. Q's legs and feet were completely destroyed, ankle shattered and clearly not given scope to heal, the burns terrifying, feet and legs battered; in short, he would not be standing, far less walking, for a very long time. A handful of broken ribs, which would be painful but not life-threatening. He was also emaciated, heartbeat slow and tremulous. Most of it would not kill him. Yet John could only barely conceive living through it.

A third gunshot. Unfortunately, that appeared to be the full extent of their luck.

“There’s somebody here!” came a sudden yell.

The man was in instant, fluid motion, grabbing Sherlock and placing a gun against his temple. “Move, and I’ll shoot you,” the man told him curtly. Sherlock obediently fell still; his combat skills were excellent, but he knew when there was no point in fighting. These men truly would kill him without further thought or discussion, and at present, all it would take was a twitching trigger finger. The man twisted to John, pulling Sherlock with him. “Put down your gun and move away from Q, or I shoot him.”

“I really wouldn’t, Moriarty would be very pissed off,” John pointed out, apparently coming to terms with Moriarty’s involvement in all of this, or perhaps merely accepting that name-dropping was likely to keep them alive.

Back in the shadows, a fourth, muffled gunshot silenced the penultimate hostile.

“Come out, or I start shooting,” the man holding Sherlock yelled. The silence was oppressive; he primed the gun, prodding it hard into the side of Sherlock’s skull.

Bond emerged, his gun still drawn. “Put it down,” the man told him. “Last chance.”

“They’re nothing to do with me, I’m here for Q,” Bond announced. “Kill them if you want, it makes no difference to me.”

There was the sound of a gunshot, Sherlock’s body buckling suddenly. John yelled in horror, Bond taking an abrupt step forward to assess whether Sherlock was still alive. “I’m alright!” Sherlock said quickly, wrenched back upright a heartbeat later. The man had flicked the gun away from Sherlock’s head for a split second, firing as he did so, before returning it to Sherlock’s head.

“You do know them,” the man told Bond quietly, moving the gun to nestle beneath Sherlock’s chin, their heads side by side. Sherlock glanced down to John, Bond watching them both while attempting to assess whether he had any hope of removing the hostile.

John stood no chance of taking the shot, he had nowhere near sufficient marksmanship skills. Bond, meanwhile, had quite infamously failed his more recent tests. The mark wasn’t moving much, but there was still a substantial possibility of Bond hitting Sherlock if he tried.

“Did you fuck him?” Bond asked, point-blank. The man looked temporarily taken aback. Bond gestured with his gun towards Q, and back to his mark. Sherlock’s eyes widened incrementally as he began to understand what Bond was about to do. “I won’t ask again.”

The man smiled a horrific, repulsive smile. “I enjoyed it,” the man hissed in response, knifed smile splitting his face.

Bond took the shot.

Sherlock bellowed, and the man holding him crumpled as the bullet soared through his head. It had the unfortunate effect of also managing to take off the upper shell of Sherlock’s ear.

It was amazing just how much blood there was. A moment of shock, Bond internalising the fact that supposedly all their targets were dead, John staring blankly at Sherlock and the blood pouring from the side of his head, and Sherlock just cursed violently with a hand against his ear.

“Bond, get pressure on Sherlock’s injury,” John said quickly, immediately dropping to Q's side. “Keep it there. I’ll look at it in a minute. Alert MI6 to get in here, medical teams as a priority.”

Bond returned a quick affirmative, ripping off his shirt to create a vastly oversized compress for Sherlock’s ear. To be fair, it was bleeding quite impressively. “Fuck that hurts,” Sherlock yelped, as Bond pressed down on it, the cotton blossoming red.

“Q,” John murmured meanwhile, handing Sherlock over to Bond’s care while he focused on the obvious priority.

Q stared at him with huge eyes, mouth slack as he continued to take stuttering breaths, shaking his head faintly. “I’m not Q,” he said again and again, eyes ranging down John’s form, comparing his own physical strength against the new arrival and accepting that he was once again outclassed. “Please. I’m not Q. I’m Oliver, I’m a programmer in MI6, I’m…”

John hushed him gently, looking to the cuffs around his ankle, examining them briefly. He turned around to look at Sherlock, who was busy batting Bond away to hold pressure against his own ear, thank you very much. “Sherlock, do you have your lockpicking kit?” he asked.

Yet again, everything seemed to happen with ridiculous speed. John wasn’t actually certain of how, given the state Q was in, but he dived for – and reached – John’s Browning, which he had left to lie on the floor a foot or so away from them both.

Q whipped round with it, firing a shot in John’s direction; it soared over his head by inches. Q had never killed anybody in his life, not directly. Bond knew that, he knew Q’s files intimately. He wouldn’t kill anybody if he thought there was a way of avoiding it, or the three of them would probably have already been dead.

John knew nothing of the sort, hands in the air, trying to keep Q calm. “Q…”

I’m not Q,” Q screamed, emotionless tears falling freely, unable to breathe properly and in more pain than he kne whe could feel. “Give me a reason, a fucking reason, not to shoot you.”

“Who thought it was a good idea to give the severely traumatised torture victim access to a live weapon?” Sherlock mused aloud.

John could have slapped him. This was by far the most dangerous point of everything so far, for the simple reason that Q was not in control. His terror was dictating his actions, not any conscious thought. “Alright,” John said carefully, very still. “What’s your name?”

“Call me whatever the fuck you like, it hardly matters,” Q said, voice falling towards shattering.

“You said you were Oliver, yeah? So, Oliver. I’m John, this is Sherlock, and you know James already.”

“Bond?” Q asked, voice hitching as his eyes focused. He needed this to be real. More than he could ever say, he needed this to be real.

Bond looked at him, steady as he had always been, vaguely arrogant smile crooking his lips upwards. “I’m hallucinating,” Q moaned, the gun trembling slightly but still pointing very resolutely at John, who was closest. “Fucking brilliant.”

“Do you want me to tell you some touching anecdote from when we met?” Bond asked with drawling sarcasm.

“I’ll settle for your security codes,” Q countered. Bond let out a surprised laugh, letting out a string of numbers and letters that meant very little to Sherlock and John, but apparently held some resonance for Q and 007. Q nodded, and John shifted slightly where he was crouching.

Q fired a single shot at the movement, the bullet about a foot above John’s head. Given the way Q’s hands were shaking, John honestly wasn’t convinced that he was supposed to still be alive. “Don’t move,” Q told him bluntly, glancing quickly at Sherlock, whose hand was reaching out to John. Both froze, Sherlock slowly retreating back to his original position. “Bond, do these people have clearance?”

“They’re not MI6, but they are cleared,” Bond explained. “Q…”

Q started to very violently shake at the mention of his title. “Alright, Oliver, Oliver listen to me. We want to get you out of here,” John interjected. Q stared at him blankly, his eyes fathomless. “I’m a doctor, I can help. Backup will be here in a minute.”

“Hold, wait for my clearance,” Bond said into his microphone; if MI6 burst in now, Q could panic and shoot. Until all live weaponry was removed from all threats, it wasn’t safe. Sherlock could hear the whine of the agents outside who were now all on the same wavelength as he and Bond had been, and were now talking incessantly.

John had done this before, in Afghanistan, with a soldier running on pure adrenaline and most of his left leg missing. The man had threatened everybody in the vicinity, terror and pain completely whiting out any better judgement. It was the closest John had ever come, at that time, to being shot. “Oliver, I need you to put down the gun,” John told him calmly. 

“I don’t know who you are, and I sure as fuck don’t trust you,” Q spat at him.

John nodded in unashamed agreement. “I know you don’t, and I wouldn’t expect you to. Can you trust James?”

Q’s eyes flickered to Bond, and back again. There was almost complete silence, barring the occasional curse from Sherlock, who was still bleeding copiously into Bond’s shirt and seemed to not appreciate the gravity of the situation. Q gave a tiny, subtle nod.

“Okay. Can you give your gun to James?”

Q hesitated. “Why?”

“I’m a doctor. I need to have a look at your injuries, and I don’t want to do that while you’re threatening to shoot me,” John explained simply. “If I do anything, James can shoot me for you.”

“I wouldn’t hesitate,” Bond assured him, making Sherlock raise an eyebrow.

John took a steadying breath. “Can you give him the gun for me?” he asked again. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

“Yes, I’ve never heard that one before,” Q hissed. John could see that Q was getting tired, the immediate thrum of action and adrenaline stilling. Q’s face contorted with worry, the fear of being asked to trust. “Bond, they’re cleared?”

“Yes, they’re cleared,” Bond repeated in his low, steady tone. Q nodded again, this time to himself. Everybody held their breath for a scarily long moment. Watching John still, he lowered the gun, placing it on the concrete. He pushed it towards Bond, who reached forward and plucked it off the floor.

Q’s body seemed to immediate drain out, collapsing completely onto his side, expression relaxed barring the crinkle of worry in his eyebrows. “Will you let me have a look?” John asked, hands reaching out to him.

“I can vouch for him being a doctor,” Sherlock noted. Q’s eyes closed slightly.

“Bond, please get me out of here,” he whispered emptily.

“Clearance on the building, hostiles neutralised. Cleanup can get in later, I need medical only,” Bond said into his microphone. “Maximum of five, unarmed.”

There was an immediate flurry of very quiet movement, doors opening, footsteps. John looked behind him to see four people walking towards them, bearing more medical equipment than John could ever recall seeing in one go. “Sherlock. Your lockpicking kit.”

Sherlock reached, one-handed, into his coat to pull it out, sliding it to John; this time, nothing seemed to go wrong in the few seconds it took. John was immediately glad he had spent quite so many boring nights in front of the TV practising using it; when spending that much time with Sherlock, it was an invaluable skill.

Q didn’t even flinch as John reached down to his ankle, a few deft clicks opening the cuffs. John’s fingers gently pulled the metal off from around the swollen joint, Q giving a soft whimper.

“Please, somebody knock me out,” Q asked nobody in particular, as the proverbial locusts descended around him and he started to approach a panic attack. Too many people, too many fucking people, and they were starting to poke him and probe at him, and he realised the screaming was coming from him.

“Can we sedate him?” Sherlock called over the din, somebody injecting various substances into his ear, hopefully something to stop the blood flow, and something else to anaesthetise it. The latter was confirmed after a few moments.

“We have to know what he’s already been drugged with,” John filled in, sitting back slightly as two doctors busied themselves around Q, taking a quick diagnostic inventory of all that had happened. John was feeling marginally overwhelmed, as one of the doctors lifted Q’s tracksuit top slightly, and the young man let out a gasping, terrified sob and a keening plea.

Next to him, one of the medical staff started to conduct actual surgery on Sherlock’s ear, with him conscious and sitting upright in the middle of a freezing cold warehouse. Sherlock watched somebody take blood from Q’s arm, trying to hold him still while he fought and screamed, a sound John was certain he would never forget.

One of the medical stuff dripped the blood onto some form of portable reader, as Bond shifted forward past the medical help, lifting a thrashing Q closer to him, lacing arms around his arms to keep them from lashing out at everything around. “Calm down, it’s alright,” Bond muttered to him, as Q let out a hollow, wrenching cry and closed his skeletal fingers around Bond’s wrist, weak grip trying to push him away, push himself free. “You’re safe now.”

“Got it,” one of the medical staff said quickly, reaching into a case filled with syringes and vials. “Alright, we’re going to sedate you now,” one of them said in a soft tone.

Q fell completely, breathtakingly still. The silence was more oppressive than any of his screams had been.

Face blank, he simply turned his wrist upright so they could access his cannula, and cried silently into Bond’s bare chest as he fell into proper unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

Sherlock was more than a little bit surprised to wake up in a hospital bed. John was dozing in a chair next to him, hands crossed on his lap.

“John?” Sherlock asked curiously.

John gave a gruffling snort, opening his eyes to fix on Sherlock. “You’re awake then,” he noted, a little coldly.

“What happened?”

“Malnutrition and exhaustion, apparently. Heart arrhythmia was the final straw,” John said, sounding incredibly unimpressed. “You’re an idiot.”

Sherlock blinked foggily, attempting to clear his vision fully. “Q?”

“Still in intensive care. They’re going to keep him sedated for a while. He’s a mess,” John said in sporadic sentences. Sherlock sat up, his head spinning, his ear hurting like hell; he lifted a hand to it, to find his entire skull festooned with bandages. “Oh yes, they finished with your ear. It’s not aesthetically the best thing that that’s ever happened to you, but you’ll live.”

“It is, after all, only transport,” intoned a deeper voice from the other side of Sherlock’s bed.

Jesus, Mycroft. How the hell does a man your size even manage to sneak up on me?!” Sherlock yelled at him.

Mycroft sat back placidly, legs crossed, umbrella in one hand. “I have listened to the recordings and collated data,” Mycroft told him, without preamble. “It appears Q did not release any sensitive information.”

“So it would seem,” Sherlock drawled, fiddling with his IV until John batted it away, proffering a tray of sandwiches and other hospital canteen food.

“He also caused a crisis in China,” Mycroft pointed out. “This is, well. Everybody is rather upset about it.”

“You’re not going to lose him, he’s the best agent you have,” Sherlock said through a mouthful of cheese sandwich. He had considered ignoring the thing, but the look John gave him was simply lethal, so he figured it was best to just eat the damn thing however repulsive it may be.

Mycroft nodded in accedence. “Personally, no, I’m certainly not going to let Q come to harm. Yet MI6 can’t afford to have this much protection on one agent, and I…”

“They do on most other departmental divisions. You seem to have an antiquated belief that all Q-branch does is play with gadgets and occasionally blow things up, and that is no longer true. Q used to be a dispensable role, and it no longer is. Get the security detail on him, and make sure he doesn’t get into this situation again,” Sherlock said snappily. The sandwich actually wasn’t too bad. The cheese was approaching the texture of plastic, but that was hardly surprising.

“He’s vulnerable now,” Mycroft said quietly, almost sadly.

Sherlock shot him a look of pure vitriol, missing the slight depress of Mycroft’s expression, the indication of something he hadn’t yet worked out. “He was vulnerable before. Most trained agents wouldn’t survive that kind of interrogation, you’re damn lucky the strongest part of him is his mind,” Sherlock told him lividly. “His intellectual strength is unparalleled. That is somebody you need.

“I am acutely aware, Sherlock,” Mycroft snapped back at him. Sherlock looked almost alarmed; Mycroft did not get angry, he was the perennial epitome of calm.

“Mycroft. Last chance. What are you not telling me?” Sherlock asked with lethal quiet. Mycroft looked at him, expression haunted. Sherlock didn’t understand, he had to understand.

“I’m sorry,” Mycroft murmured, and left the room before Sherlock could interject.

---

Bond hadn’t left Q alone. He didn’t really care what anybody thought about that. He had been tortured before, and he knew what it was to wake up somewhere unrecognisable, in pain, with the lingering memories of fear and nobody familiar in the vicinity.

True, Bond was probably not somebody Q needed. Q would need somebody supportive and loving and calm, none of which Bond was. Secret agents were in the unenviable position of having none, or maybe very few, people they could class as friends. Agents certainly had no lovers, nobody to hold them and care for them and tell the comforting lies they needed to hear.

In lieu of absolutely anyone else, Bond would have to do.

Q was attached to enough machines to swamp him. Given the dilapidated state of his body, he needed round-the-clock monitoring; Bond knew what to look for on the monitors, so he was on the alert if anything changed. He was being fed with a tube inserted into his stomach, IV restoring fluid levels and electrolytes, heart and blood and everything else measured every few minutes.

He still hadn’t properly regained consciousness since being sedated in the warehouse. It had been five days.

Bond had avoided medical attention through obstreperousness, although M had certainly not enjoyed that decision. Nobody especially appreciated still being a double-oh agent down either, given the current nightmare in China – and in the past forty-eight hours also in several Middle Eastern locations – that had unfolded.

He therefore sat by Q’s bedside, his brain whirring with utter boredom, and waited for Q to wake up. Just for the sake of something to do, he phoned HQ.

“Have we traced the groups that took him?” Bond asked M flatly.

M gave a deep, tired sigh. “Our priority is the first cells, as they worked their way through MI6 hierarchy; they could easily do so again, it risks higher up members of the organisation,” he explained slowly, trying to avoid irritating an already rather frazzled Bond.

“You mean you’re scared they will take you too?” Bond asked, a rising note of anger.

“It appears evident that they only wanted Q, but we cannot take that risk. We have an international mission working to take down that organisation, given that they appear to have no governmental links,” M told him.

Bond considered that for a long moment, heartbeat slow and loud in his chest. “And the others do?”

“He was exposed to two very similar groups, after being moved north. Both wanted him to hack, without much recourse to his other skills, and we knew that government agencies were interested in him. We think there is a link. We’re going through the laptop he worked on, we’re exploring all possible avenues.”

“Alright,” Bond accepted. He would not be able to change their policies, and was simply unable to attempt tracking down the different groups on his own. He was also aware that while they may have been in an MI6-run hospital, Q was a long way from safe. He could not attempt anything at the present moment.

Q’s chest rose regularly, the monitors an encouraging, soft backdrop. Bond shut off the phone, leaning back in the surprisingly comfortable hospital chair. The staff had realised quite quickly that Bond was not intending to move for a while; being MI6 briefed, they eventually received a message through from one of Q’s very few friends in Q-branch. After that, nobody even tried to eject Bond.

Bond’s head rested backwards, and he fell into an efficient sleep.

---

It was bright, and white, and clean.

Pain thrummed through every single neuron of his entire body.

There was a background of constant, rhythmic beeping.

His vision was blurred and he couldn’t focus, but there was a shape next to him, and all he could see was that shape.

The shape reached slowly towards him, and he started to scream.

---

It was bright, and white, and clean.

There was an intense pain in his legs and feet that overrode all though, making him whimper slightly as it registered.

The beeping was still going, regular but rising, climbing towards some peak.

His vision was blurred and he couldn’t focus, the light was too bright, everything in the room surrounded by fuzzy haloes.

“Q…”

He heard the name, the name that was not his. They wanted him to know things, tell things, say things. They would make him do things he didn’t want to do, and in exchange, he got nothing but the half-strangled hope that they wouldn’t hurt him. He wasn’t Q, he couldn’t be Q, not any more, please not any more.

He started screaming.

---

It was bright, and white, and clean.

Everything still hurt, but the pain felt like it belonged to somebody else.

The beeping was getting quite irritating.

His vision was blurry. He missed his glasses.

He turned his head to one side. His glasses were on a table next to him. His actual glasses, the glasses he picked out and wanted, not the wire framed ones he had been made to wear.

He stopped that thought very quickly. He didn’t want to think about that. If he let himself think about that, he would start screaming again.

“You’re awake,” a voice commented. Q lifted a hand towards his glasses. It didn’t feel like his own hand, was covered in a white sterile bandage that protected the cannula.

Somebody’s hand reached over him for the glasses, and he felt himself cringe despite himself; the hand stopped a moment, taking the glasses and pressing them into Q’s own hand. Q felt a surge of absurd gratitude, as he flipped the glasses open and placed them on wonkily.

The world swam into focus.

“Bond,” he murmured, surprised at the croak of his own voice. His throat didn’t hurt so much now, his stomach had lost the sensation of stabbing him repeatedly, his head didn’t throb so badly. He had almost lost the taste of blood that had been lingering in his mouth. “Where am I?”

“Hospital. Location classified,” Bond said with a wry smile. Q forced a half-smile that felt somehow foreign, not his own. “How much do you remember?”

Images flickered with terrifying speed, and Q’s breath hitched frantically. He breathed, slowly and carefully. The white haze of panic receded from his immediate vision, just a lingering memory of the harsh glow of artificial lighting and voices and hands, and guns and metal and the certain knowledge that he will never get out, because they simply won’t let him.

“Enough,” he said, several minutes too late. He gave Bond a quick once-over. “You look like shit.”

“I’ve spent a month of my life trying to track you down, forgive me,” Bond noted sarcastically, regretting the words when Q’s lips fell open in a little sigh.

“A month?” he murmured, fingers knotting into the bed sheets, eternity unfolding in that room. “Is that all?”

“Give or take. You’ve been in hospital for another couple of weeks,” Bond replied. There was a sudden motion outside the room, somebody knocking loudly and throwing Q into another immediate panic as he heard the tapping of footsteps, people coming closer, and they’re going to hurt him in so many ways please, please stop.

“It’s alright, everyone here is clear,” Bond interrupted over the chaos of thought, voice steady, something to anchor himself to. “Would you prefer a female doctor?”

“What?” Q whispered, wondering if he’d heard correctly. Bond’s posture softened; he wasn’t sympathetic, particularly, but he was kinder. This was dangerous ground to tread.

“A female doctor. If your captors were all male…”

“It doesn’t matter,” Q responded quickly; Bond noticed that his hands were closer to fists now. He was trying so hard to be brave, and Bond was not the person to take that from him.

“Do you remember John? One of the men I was with when we found you?” Bond asked.

Q’s mind scanned back slightly, hesitantly, images blurring. “I think so,” he replied slowly. “Why?”

“John’s partner got himself hospitalised finding you. Saying that, I think you’d get on better with John at the moment,” Bond explained quite honestly, keeping his expression blank as Q looked at him curiously. He could only remember the doctor, the doctor with the businesslike voice and careful hands. “He’s been helping with some aspects of your medical care too, if you want to talk to him.”

Sudden remembrance sparked like lightning.

Flashes of images you could get several times the productivity the caged posture, dark hair and invasive gaze and sarcasm, intimidating and tall, the horrible semi-awareness that he was on their side, he was there to hurt him, and he couldn’t take that thought out of his head.

“Come back to me,” Bond said steadily, and Q opened his eyes, Bond’s voice anchoring him into this moment, this place. He didn’t know when he had closed them. He nodded to Bond, subtle thanks. Bond didn’t respond, his voice impassive.

The person at the door was knocking again, presumably had been alerted to Q’s new state. “We should let them in,” Q said, his heart rate beeping faster, body beginning to tremble almost imperceptibly.

“Probably a good idea,” Bond concurred, standing, walking towards the door. “Do you want me to stay?”

“Yes,” Q said quickly. He paused for a brief moment. “If you would.”

Bond nodded brusquely. He walked to the door and opened it, exchanging a handful of quiet words with the medical staff in the doorway. Q watched with unearthly stillness as a young man slipped into the room, white medical coat and stethoscope dangling around his neck.

Q let whatever was being said rush in waves over his head, not swamping him, just whining gently in the background along with the repetitive beeping. The whine mutated into a constant humming, and he didn’t notice sliding into sleep.

---

“He’s improving,” Bond told John. John visited quite regularly, Sherlock less so, but they both turned up, John managing to visit at one stage while Q was actually conscious. John was constantly drawn back to Q, mainly to see if he was alright, after all the effort they had gone through to find him. Q remembered John from his rescue, making him one of the few that didn’t cause his heart rate to rocket.

Sherlock was mostly simply interested. While Q was unconscious, he was entirely uninteresting, but conscious, now. That was going to be far more exciting. He was also aware, from Bond, that Q knew very little of his involvement; he wanted to meet the man who had wound up MI6 to such a degree, who had got Mycroft so concerned, who was clearly valuable enough to keep alive for a month of captivity despite giving impressively little in the way of information.

He and John, either alone or together, visited daily. Sherlock was still technically recovering after his own short stint in hospital, meaning John would let him no cases until he was more stable, and John was doing locum work once in a while in various surgeries.

John walked in that particular morning to see Q vomiting into a bucket, Bond rubbing soothing circles on the jutting bones of his back. He looked up, taking a shallow breath as he saw somebody in the doorway.

“Apparently the taste of chocolate is a trigger,” Q rasped, once he’d accepted that it was John. He could still remember the chocolate-flavoured drinks, the only food he was given, and his stomach contracted painfully, churning bile. “Sorry, not something you need to see.”

“It’s alright, I’ve seen worse,” John said lightly. “I worked in a war zone.”

Q nodded, seemingly placated. He settled back against the pillows, looking exhausted, but far better than he had in previous days. He sipped at water through a straw to remove the taste of chocolate and bile. “How are you doing?”

“Me? I’m fine, yeah. Was just wondering if you were feeling up to meeting Sherlock?” John asked, his tone conversational and very normal. Sherlock still hadn’t met Q, and Bond had made it clear that Q’s memories of Sherlock were hazy at best, and panic-inducing at worst.

“Sherlock?!” Q asked with vague alarm. That name, it was an unusual one. Nobody had really spoken about John’s partner, except in very loose terms about how he had been rescued. Thirty-four people in the UK named Sherlock, when he had last checked. Nevertheless. The chances were far too slim.

Q considered meeting him for a moment. While he was still having flashbacks and panic attacks, guarded tone and the knowledge that he was one of them he had John classed in his head as an ally. John trusted Sherlock, as did Bond. That would have to suffice.

He shrugged at John, who nodded, and called: “Sherlock, come on in.”

Sherlock stalked into the room, thankfully devoid of the rather intimidating coat. He had his purple shirt, suit trousers, looking surprisingly casual. “Sherlock Holmes,” he said without delay, nodding at Q with his hands firmly in his pockets.

Q was suddenly, abruptly still.

“Sherlock Holmes,” he repeated to himself. “Oh. Oh. And you’re John Watson, then. Doctor John Watson. Of course.”

Surnames had not been really mentioned, they didn’t tend to come up in normal conversation. Q had simply failed to make the connection. Sherlock was an unusual name, yes, but the chances of it being Sherlock Holmes had seemed so slim. He berated himself furiously. He should have worked it out.

“Yes,” Sherlock said carefully, standing by the wall, aware that too many people crowding him was likely to be uncomfortable for Q. “Why?”

“I failed to make the connection,” Q murmured. “It’s alright, I just didn’t realise Sherlock referred to Sherlock Holmes. Uncommon name, obviously, but not completely unique… and of course, working in a government department, I know your brother.”

“He headed up the mission to find you,” John said helpfully, and Q nodded in evident understanding.

“Of course he did,” he continued, still in a slightly disconnected tone. Bond watched, evidently unnerved by Q’s reactions; he seemed somehow absent, distant suddenly. “Did he tell you?”

“Tell me what?” Sherlock asked, brow contracting. Q shook his head, as though trying to dislodge the thought, trying to put Sherlock off any further questions. “Tell me what?!”

The tone of voice was what did it. Q flinched, swearing slightly at his own response as his mind started to literally cloud over. “Out,” Bond said sharply to Sherlock and John, eyes fixed on Q who had turned very white.

“I’m fine,” Q said, his breathing suddenly heavier, more strained, his expression one of intense concentration. “I’m fine, Bond, just… a moment, please.”

Everybody stayed still, calm, with the exception of Sherlock, whose expression was thunderous. Bond fixed him with a murderous stare, one that Sherlock returned in kind, with full ferocity. “Both of you, please,” Q said in a strained tone, looking between them. “Sherlock, speak to Mycroft.”

“I intend to,” Sherlock said sharply. Q nodded, looking apologetic for some ridiculous reason, as Sherlock turned on his heel and stormed out. Q watched him leave, expression neutral.

“I should go, make sure he doesn’t break things. Mycroft’s nose included,” John said with a wry type of sarcasm. Q bid him a goodbye as he followed Sherlock with a sigh that spoke of a long-suffering boyfriend.

“What was that?” Bond asked, when John had left. Q sighed, sinking back into the pillows.

“It will not be popular,” he said simply. “It was supposed to be hidden from both of us, but I… well, it’s difficult to keep information from me if I wish to find it. Sherlock had no reason to go looking, either. Only Mycroft knew, I contacted him once I found out…”

“Go on?” Bond probed, admittedly intrigued. Q pursed his lips slightly, and sighed again.

“He’s my brother.”

Chapter Text

Sherlock did not take the news especially well.

“You mean to tell me that my brother is currently lying in hospital, tortured and sexually abused? And you didn’t think to tell me this?”

“Sherlock, you are a being of infallible logic. You would not have applied any more or less effort to the case if you had known. In fact, it would have detracted, as you would have been plagued by emotion and other such trivia. He is our brother, yes.”

“How?” Sherlock asked, his voice caged and livid.

“Mother had an affair,” Mycroft said simply. “You were about five, myself aged twelve. The parentage was disputed when she fell pregnant. I knew of the child, but was unable to explore what became of him until several years later, by which time he was settled with adopted parents.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You had your own issues at the time,” Mycroft said flatly, an oblique reference to Sherlock’s several ‘blank years’, years of drug abuse and limited memory of what he did, or what was done to him. He had finished rehab with entire months of his life missing.

Sherlock gave a faint grimace. “He knows, Mycroft. He knows who we are. He said he contacted you.”

“Yes, he did,” Mycroft replied quietly. “We felt it best that we continued in our own spheres. I was intrigued, but not surprised, by his appointment in MI6. But yes, Sherlock. He is our youngest brother.”

Sherlock sank into the chair opposite Mycroft, fingers beneath his chin, face strangely pale. Mycroft was pleasantly surprised that Sherlock hadn’t found it necessary to attempt physical mutilation; his actions when emotionally compromised were often exceptionally erratic, unpredictable to a concerning degree.

Mycroft watched him without speaking; it was kinder to allow Sherlock to work this out on his own terms, let him think and process the information. Mycroft satisfied himself with the knowledge that he had done entirely the right thing. His actions had been reasoned, measured.

He simply failed to understand the complexities of emotion as it applied to Sherlock. Sherlock and Mycroft’s relationship was antagonistic, yes, but Sherlock would do almost anything to keep his brother safe if the need arose. He may not have liked Mycroft, or indeed his own mother, but his commitment to family as a general concept could not be faulted.

He now had a brother. A brother he had met only once, who he had seen the work of, who he respected as an intelligent man without having conducted a single conversation. He had forged his own life, and not fallen into the cracks of personality that overarching intelligence caused.

After over an hour of absolute silence, Sherlock stood, and left the room without a further word.

---

After the disastrous events of the a few days previously, Q had not seen Sherlock. John appeared, to have a brief chat with the man he now knew to be Sherlock and Mycroft’s brother, but also vanished after a short period to try and track down his partner. He could optimistically assume that Mycroft wasn’t dead.

It was about three in the afternoon, and Q had been in hospital for just over three weeks. He was now conscious most of the time, which meant, among other things, that the bastard doctors had already started him doing physical therapy in the hope of ever getting his legs to operate again. He had always harboured a hatred for physical exertion. This was not helping.

Bond had temporarily disappeared, hopefully to find Q some tea. Q hadn’t had tea in a very long time, and had been cleared to have his first cup earlier that day now that he was stomaching more food, and could probably handle dairy.

The moment Bond had disappeared, Tanner had slipped into the room. Q narrowly restrained himself from a panic attack, and watched Tanner settle in the chair Bond had vacated.

Q calmed himself; Tanner looked unbelievably uncomfortable, sitting awkwardly in a chair by Q’s bedside, Q covered in blankets and looking very delicate. For the first time, Q felt more in control than somebody else in the room; he at least was comfortable and almost confident in his present environment, where Tanner was far from it.

“I understand you are expected to make a full physical recovery?” Tanner asked, at a loss for much else to say.

“I will not be able to stand for a while, walking is entirely out of the question for a long while yet,” Q explained unapologetically. “My ankle is shattered, and the burns will take several weeks, not to mention the other damage to my legs. I’ve begun physical therapy to ensure the muscles recover from the pre-existing atrophy.”

Tanner began to look mildly nauseous. “Yes,” he said ultimately, carefully. “We’ve also received reports that no information was leaked…”

“I intend to give a full report as soon as my physical health allows me,” Q told him, proud of himself for keeping a sustained conversation on the matter without Bond present. Bond had been keeping him anchored in the previous days, and Q was aware that he needed to learn to cope without the obvious security.

“… I’m here to discuss what happens now, for your safety and wellbeing,” Tanner explained. “Your physical rehabilitation and mental rehabilitation will take place in a facility designed for that purpose, so…”

“Why not here? I know of agents who have undergone physical rehabilitation on an outpatient basis,” Q interjected quickly. His brain may have working at less than full capacity, but he was more than capable of seeing where this conversation was going.

“Given the circumstances, total removal from the situation…”

“Q-branch will need me,” Q pointed out.

“On that subject… We have employed your replacement, of course, given that we will need to assess whether you’ll be able to return to MI6.”

Q fell quite still. “Of course I can return to MI6. I’ll be able to type quite as well from a wheelchair as from standing.”

“That isn’t the point,” Tanner said apologetically. “Mentally, you are now…”

“Oh god, you’re going to fire me,” Q whispered, paling as the thought impacted fully. He took a sudden snatch of breath, feeling his hands begin to tremble slightly. “You believe I’ll be vulnerable, and therefore a liability.”

Tanner didn’t move to contradict. Q let out a shuddering exhale, staring up at Tanner through haunted eyes. “M couldn’t even come to tell me himself?” he asked in a tight voice.

“We will of course have the final debrief, but he thought it would be best that you were forewarned,” Tanner explained. “We felt it may assist your recovery, knowing you will not have the stress of Quartermaster hanging over you.”

“The stress? I’ve been back barely three weeks, how could anybody think that it would be a good idea to tell me I’ve lost the only goddamn thing I was trying to protect?” Q asked rhetorically, laughing with agonised humour. “I should have given them what they wanted, jesus, what was the point of all this?!”

“You are being considered for a medal of recognition for services to your country,” Tanner told him, as though it mattered, and Q just stared at him.

“I’m a risk,” Q said softly, not a question. “I got hired because you knew I could take down everything. It was safer having me for you rather than against you. So what happens to me now?”

Tanner looked like a rabbit in headlights. He really hadn’t expected to talk about this aspect of the proceedings while Q was still in such a state.

Tanner,” Q cried, with a mounting sense of hysteria. He already knew, of course he knew, but he needed Tanner to deny it, he had to.

“We are considering options,” Tanner explained, feeling a touch more in his element, although still very wary of Q. Q could feel his fleeting control slipping out of his grasp. They couldn’t do this to him, yet he knew, with a horrible sense of certainty, that they would. “There is a facility for retired agents…”

Q’s head started to throb. They would section him. They would take him to somewhere quiet and safe, where he would be medicated and kept away from computers, could live out his life in an anaesthetised splendour with the other ex-agents who needed to be monitored.

“Get out,” he rasped, feeling himself slipping a long way out of control. “Tanner, please, please get out.”

Tanner didn’t seem to need much encouragement. He stood, with a businesslike apology, slipping out the room and letting Bond replace him, steaming cup of Earl Grey in hand.

Q felt hot tears slide down his cheeks, mouth gaping slightly, panting slightly, jaw trembling. “Q? Are you alright?”

I’m not Q,” he whispered, and it was truer than it had ever been. He was no longer Q, he had lost his job. He had lost everything. He would never be allowed a computer again – never allowed to escape into his own world – to be taken somewhere quietly, out of public view, and left to rot.

He felt the scream somewhere in the back of his skull, anger and frustration and absolute devastation. He wasn’t Q. He was in pain, alone, not Q, they had taken everything now, everything in his world was gone.

Bond’s hand on his arm. He knew it was Bond, but all he could think of was the people who had touched him, hurt him, piece by piece destroyed him, for information he should have given them, just so they would kill him rather than let him live like this, without anything, without anything.

The world went kaleidoscopic, colours flickering through spectrums, somebody yelling, somebody else caught in screaming sobs, somebody else talking quickly and calmly, his stomach convulsing with enough force to make him sick, head pulsing out of his skull until he was split apart, his body falling to infinite pieces, shredded, pain, scattered through his consciousness, so much pain, and the knowledge that he had lost what he had been living for, unable to breathe, unable to think, let me breathe please let me breathe…

Black.

---

Sherlock had walked into the room to see Bond yelling, covered in scalding-hot tea that hadn’t cooled down yet, and Q in the full throes of a panic attack.

It was terrifying to witness. Sherlock slammed the alarm for help as Q’s convulsing body ripped open with a shattering, desperate scream. It stopped Sherlock short for a moment; he had never heard another human being make that sound.

Q’s body curled in on itself, mindless of injury, foetal, spasming out of control into the centre of itself, a tight ball, limbs vibrating, the screaming fractured with sobs of breath and pain, blood welling in the pristine white bandages, thrashing slightly as he pushed himself away to gain control and the scream became un-muffled by bed sheets.

Bond ignored his shirt and the burn on his torso to try and calm Q, placing a hand on his arm. The screaming very suddenly stopped. Q’s eyes were open, seeing absolutely nothing, tears falling down blank, papery cheeks, body still shuddering. no no no no no no nononononono

Nurses, doctors, swamped the room, pushing Sherlock out of the way. Whatever dim state of awareness Q still possessed noted the sudden onslaught of people. The screaming started again, dulling out as sedatives started coursing, left with too-rapid breath. The last noise was a quiet, defeated sob, almost a hiccup. His body stilled, and everything stopped.

---

Q woke up with his throat sore, ribs aching, and head thrumming a constant rhythm.

He could hear the bloody irritating beeping still, with a tapping underneath it, the kind of tapping that sounded like a hamster running around in its cage, over and over again.

He opened his eyes, reaching out his hand to his glasses, putting them on carefully. The tapping didn’t seem to stop, but he could see where it was coming from now. “…Sherlock?” he asked, uncomfortably, throat feeling raw and rusted.

Sherlock didn’t look up. “Bond got called in by M, against everyone’s better judgement. He couldn’t keep making excuses and threats, and he dislocated the shoulder of whoever got you panicking, so M wanted a word. John and I thought we’d probably better stay here a little while, make sure you didn’t panic yourself unconscious again.”

“… you’re doing a bang-up job,” Q said, still looking a little alarmed.

“John’s better at this, he’ll be back soon,” Sherlock shrugged, and finally looked up. The family resemblance was startling. Completely different eyes, but build and hair and general demeanour were quite similar. Sherlock couldn’t believe what he was seeing. A younger brother. He had a brother.

Q nodded. The sadness seemed to linger, a tightness in his chest, like somebody had strangled his heart and lungs. It was over. The panic didn’t return. It was as though all of his emotion had poured out in one go, leaving him hollow.

Sherlock didn’t speak to him, and Q had never been plagued with a compulsive need to speak to other people. He stared blankly at nothing.

“I hope you’re not going to let them get rid of you,” Sherlock said unexpectedly, still typing.

“What?”

“I heard what happened. I hope you’re not going to let them,” Sherlock repeated, slowly, slightly patronising.

“Have you tried contesting MI6 on a decision before?” Q asked, with a touch of acid. Sherlock gave a slow, arrogant smile.

“I contest everyone on everything, never did me any harm. You’re the best Quartermaster in years. You survived this, which really better qualifies you for a job in espionage than anyone – you understand the reality. They have no reason to remove you, so don’t let them,” Sherlock said, as though it were that simple.

Q was straining his neck to see Sherlock. He sought, and found, the button to lift the back of his bed. He spent a slight bizarre moment elevating himself, until he was a little bit more on a level with Sherlock. He looked at the bandage still wrapped around Sherlock’s head with a grimace, but continued to speak.

“I…”

There was a soft knock on the door. “Come in, John,” Sherlock called, ignoring Q’s faint flinch.

“You’re awake, hello,” John said to Q, businesslike, but not quite as brusque as Sherlock was being. “How’re you feeling?”

“My head is cloudy, but I’m not in pain, so I’m taking that as a positive,” he replied quietly. “I apologise for my… my attack.”

“Don’t worry about it. I had PTSD, I get it,” John shrugged, settling down with a tea, handing one to Sherlock who sniffed it suspiciously. He also handed Sherlock a sandwich, and instructed him to eat it. Sherlock rolled his eyes, and Q’s mouth crooked in an understated smile as he watched them.

Sherlock unwrapped it, took a bite, spoke with his mouth full. “So, Q…”

“I’m not Q,” Q interrupted, half on instinct, half a conscious remembrance that it was no longer his title to keep.

“So what do you want us to call you?” Sherlock asked belligerently. “If Mummy named you, I’m sure you have a sadistic Holmesian name somewhere in your past, which you don’t want to use, and I don’t blame you. I’m not calling you ‘Oliver’, that’s an alias, and I dislike aliases. So Q will have to do.”

“But I’m not…”

“So don’t use it as a title, use it as a name,” Sherlock said flatly, shrugging. Q gaped slightly, uncertain of how to respond.

“How’s the ear?” John asked, a fleeting tenderness in his voice that was reserved only for Sherlock, a hint towards vulnerability that stoic Captain/Doctor John Watson never usually illustrated in his day to day life.

“Hurts,” Sherlock whined childishly, seeking sympathy. John smirked, let his fingers brush against the bandage, against Sherlock’s hand, their hands resting in the midair space between their chairs. Q watched with the slightest shadow of a smile.

Sherlock settled back, tea abandoned, biting into a sandwich with his free hand. Q watched, surprised by how appealing it looked.

“Want the other half?” Sherlock offered, holding out the sandwich. Q stared at it. A cheese sandwich, it seemed, probably Sherlock’s favourite type given that this was the second time he’d had one in recent days. Q calmed himself, cataloguing information. He didn’t get a chance to answer before Sherlock reached over and placed the half-sandwich on the small table by Q’s bedside, sliding it over to Q.

Q looked at the sandwich, and back to John and Sherlock. John continued to drink his tea, looking over it at Q. Sherlock stared with a strange expression of semi-triumph.

Q took the half sandwich, and tore it apart with lithe fingers. He nibbled at pieces of it, John watching carefully, noting that he was eating almost normally. Small bites, but that was more logical than anything else given his proclivity for throwing up. It was promising.

He stopped quite abruptly, pushing it away from him.

“Can I have a moment to myself?” he asked quietly. John looked slightly dubious, and Q rolled his eyes emphatically. “Of course, I guess I’m on suicide watch? I’m not going to kill myself.”

“He’s not the type,” Sherlock supplemented, observing every facet of Q’s expression. He was absolutely certain that Q would be quite safe; in any case, the nurses had monitors of all the various machines he was hooked up to. Any discrepancies, and they would be there in seconds.

“Ten minutes, then I’m coming back to check on you,” John told him firmly. Q shrugged. He needed some time on his own, to know he could still handle being alone.

The moment the door shut, the paranoia began to creep with breathtaking force. This had not been his most fantastic idea. The beeping, the sodding repetitive beeping, a constant reminder that he was still here, that they wouldn’t let him die, no, no, he was alive, he was alive and getting better and safe, and he looked down to see a white mass where his legs had been, and when he twitched pain sparked like lightning, and he was trapped and hurting and alone.

He cried silently, in utter devastation, watching the bleached white ceiling as it faded into a blur.

When he was exhausted, a minute, a lifetime later, he slipped into a welcome sleep. He was unconscious, tears drying on chalk cheeks, when John and Sherlock returned.

Chapter Text

His brain teetered on a perilous edge between control and panic. The knife-edge he trod was precarious and painful, and liable to change at any given moment. He could bring himself back from the edge, with difficulty, and could also fall at the vaguest suggestion.

He despised the seesaw, the inconstancy. He could not predict, nor control, his responses. Parts of were still himself, but the fear that clawed in the base of his skull reasserted itself without warning and subsumed his conscious or rational thoughts.

As the days trickled past, building to over a month in hospital, Q’s physical state finally reached something passable. He was eating, albeit slowly and only small quantities. He was warned that given the interference in healing, his ankle was unlikely to regain full dexterity; he didn’t care enormously, as long as he had his hands, fingers and mind. The former two he had, the latter was taking more time.

Slowly, he began to regain it. He refused to speak openly about MI6, or computers, but it was obvious that the boredom was beginning to eat at him. He needed to be busy, he needed something, anything, to keep him occupied. The mounting panic that lived in him was quelled during his conscious hours, unless he was given scope to remember.

He needed his computer. He needed to know he was still damn good at what he did. Most importantly, he needed to get back to MI6 and demonstrate that he was more than capable of doing his job.

Sherlock fell asleep in Q’s room, middle of the afternoon; he had spent the previous two days on a case, come back, passed out on the chair next to Q’s bedside while Q himself lay in a gentle doze. John had been working at the surgery to at least pretend he had his own income and was self-sufficient, and Bond had been called to HQ on supposedly urgent business, although he was still refusing to take any missions.

Sherlock woke to find Q, bare legs and white bandaged feet jutting out from beneath his paper hospital gown, curled against the wall with what had once been Sherlock’s laptop. The laptop itself was now in several pieces, the plastic casing discarded, the hard drive hanging by a series of wires. In fact, there seemed to be a disproportionate number of wires for a single laptop.

Q had used a scalpel he’d nicked off a nurse two days previously to undo the bolts attached the control panel by the bed to the wall; it too lay discarded, while Q yanked out wires that were now attached to Sherlock’s laptop. It looked like he had also dismantled some of the medical equipment that was supposed to be monitoring him. Distantly, Sherlock wondered how in the hell he had got there in the first place, given that he still could barely place weight on his feet without screaming.

“That’s my laptop,” Sherlock said stupidly, side-swiped for the first time in a long while.

Q didn't look up, typing with speed that for him was slow, to Sherlock impressively fast. "Correct," he returned.

“It’s protected, encrypted…”

Q looked up, his smile faintly patronising. “Don’t insult me.”

“What are you even doing?” Sherlock asked curiously. The boy, all eyes, was lit by the light in front of him; while most people subjected to the dim shine of computers look pasty and bloodless, Q suddenly looked intensely alive.

“Reviewing the security status of all personnel in this building. Allow me my paranoia,” he said with a wry smile at his own eccentricity. “The systems are also linked into MI6 servers, so I’m hijacking their connection and tapping into the secure systems. I promise to replace your laptop with one that’s worth the money. This thing is rubbish.”

Sherlock nodded mutely. The kid really was very good. MI6 would probably breeze in imminently to confiscate the laptop, probably removing Sherlock in the process and sedating Q; he knew enough from Mycroft to know that Q would not be allowed electronics until he was a confirmed non-threat.

“John?” Sherlock said into the phone. John was on his way to the hospital, his working day finished; he wasn’t quite sure why he continually returned to Q’s bedside, but there was some draw. He strongly suspected that Sherlock also felt a sense of obligation, or god forbid affection, for the boy who was technically his brother. Not to mention there were precious few in the way of cases at the moment, and Q was certainly not boring.

“Yes Sherlock, I’m on my way.”

“Grab a lot of sandwiches and water, and come up here,” he said. “Be quick.”

“Why?” John asked, echoed by Q.

“I’ll explain in a moment,” Sherlock replied, shooting Q a glance. Q watched him, obviously confused. Sherlock waited by the door, looking out for anybody who may be preparing to relieve Q of his technology.

“Ah, John,” Sherlock said brightly, seeing John walking towards Q’s room with a collection of sandwiches, as asked. “Come in. I’m going to barricade the door.”

---

It was a truly excellent idea. It allowed Q the time to settle with Sherlock’s laptop, and do what he excelled at in absolute freedom. MI6 took another fifteen minutes after the construction of the barricade to start trying to break in.

Sherlock and John had moved the bed up to the door along with a couple of chairs. It was really superfluous, given that Q had hacked into the hospital security systems. The door to Q’s room contained an electronic locking system; MI6 hospitals were consistently concerned with the safety of their patients, meaning the doors to each room could be locked down in the case of a security threat.

Q, therefore, overrode the codes. They could just hear the sounds of shouts and thumps on the door through the metal. Q was evidently uncomfortable with being trapped in a confined space, but allowed himself comfort through the laptop. He settled in, every once in a while fiddling with wires and ripping more things through the wall.

“Sherlock, what the fuck is going on?” was a question asked by two different people, calling Sherlock’s mobile in fits of pique. Bond was genuinely angry, his concern showing through in the snapping edge to his voice. Mycroft was just weary and resigned, rolling his eyes as Sherlock explained.

“Mycroft, tell them to back off,” Sherlock told him bluntly. “This is the best thing for him.”

“His physical state…”

“Is stable, and John is in fact a doctor, we can cover it,” Sherlock cut over him. He hadn’t spoken to Mycroft since finding that Q was his brother. The taught relationship between them was now at a razor’s edge. Sherlock could not abide being lied to, or having information withheld. “They won’t be able to get through anyway, Q’s busy randomising the door codes.”

“I cannot promise that, MI6 are adamant that…”

“If he does anything untoward or illegal, fine, but he’s not. So leave us alone. And please get ready to bail me and John out when we get immediately arrested.”

Mycroft hung up.

“Bond, we’re allowing Q to do what he’s good at. When you inevitably attempt to break in through the window or something equally bizarre, please bring all of his medication and some tea, I think he’d like that,” Sherlock told him, quite calmly.

“Is he alright?”

“The best I’ve seen him,” Sherlock assured him. “John is monitoring him, he’s in good hands. We do need more medication however, we only have a few hours before it starts to wear off.”

“Fine. Contact me if anything changes, and if he’s in any way…”

“He’s fine, Bond, speak to him yourself,” Sherlock said with obvious exasperation, voice tending towards vague disdain. He passed his phone to Q, and the pair spoke for a few minutes, Q’s tone soft and placating, almost tender. He ended the call, passing the phone back to Sherlock with one eye still on the laptop screen.

Q ultimately settled back, propped against the wall with a profusion of wires spewed everywhere. John had coaxed him into sitting up on blankets and pillows, wrapped in a thin duvet, IV reconnected. He worked for a while; every hour or so, he set the laptop to one side and dozed for ten minutes, before waking and returning straight back to what he was doing.

---

Mycroft Holmes was settled in a relatively comfortable chair in the Diogenes club. He always attended when he needed to think, a quiet oasis of absolute silence where his mind shouted far louder than the rasp of padded feet on carpet.

He noticed his phone light up with an incoming message. It didn’t ring, not in here, but noted a message all the same. Only three people in the world had his direct number; his mother, Anthea, and Sherlock.

This number was not recognised.

Thank you, the message read, quite simply. Mycroft’s mouth twitched in an almost-smile. There would be little gained through a response neither expected to be given. Mycroft had remained on the fringes for years, there was no call to become involved now. In any case, Sherlock would resent Mycroft’s interference.

His youngest brother would be safe, now. He was being afforded the best care, the best attention in the world, from two people Mycroft could honestly say he trusted: John Watson, to care for him, and Sherlock Holmes, to stimulate him back to life. Their little demonstration in Q’s hospital room was evidence enough of that.

He would remain on the fringes, as was his wont. It was safer for everybody that way. Mycroft, the hard drive of the government, able to compute every variable in moments and intake more information than anyone. He would watch, he would wait, and he would be the one best placed to save his brothers should they ever need him.

Mycroft placed the phone back on his lap, closed his eyes, and continued to think.

---

The entire affair was perfect until the pain medication started to wear off.

Q had turned very slightly pale. John had been watching carefully for this moment; he knew it would come, and knew they needed supplies. Bond was unable to break into the MI6 hospital from the exterior, a testimony as to the security in the building; the few sandwiches had run out, and the three of them were getting hungry. In Q’s case, he was also trying to manage his pain response.

“Sherlock, we can’t do this much longer,” John admitted reluctantly. Q was trembling faintly, eyes flicking from the screen to his bandaged feet.

“I’m fine,” Q said quickly, pulling the laptop slightly closer to him. “Let me finish.”

“What are you doing?” Sherlock asked directly; Q smirked slightly, watching the screen carefully.

“Reviewing the recent work through Q-branch,” he replied, typing sporadically, his careful construct of calm and ease beginning to falter. “Essentially, hacking into the new Q’s email to see what’s been going on, catching up. Right now, I’m amending some blueprints sent through for new interferers.”

“You need rest,” John pointed out. Q looked at him with a surprisingly childish expression, worried and expressive.

“I need to work,” he said softly, devastatingly. “I have to be busy, or I remember. I don’t want to remember right now.”

John nodded. Q was very like Sherlock, in that respect, the hell-bent need to be doing something constantly, keeping his mind occupied to save it from the things he didn’t want to face. “I know,” he said, very honestly. “But pissing off MI6 any more is not going to help that.”

“They want to fire me. I’m not going to let them,” Q said simply, and Sherlock – in his position by the window – grinned. John noted, as he saw, how Sherlock seemed incapable of grinning without looking vaguely maniacal.

“Alright. They’re going to confiscate the laptop, and arrest us both. Bond is waiting outside…”

“I know, I contacted him,” Q said with a shrug. “Used the computer network to send messages to his mobile, quite simple. He’s ready to come in first, so I have somebody there when a large number of people flood into this room and attempt to subdue two of my support system.”

“I hope I’m not a part of your ‘support system’,” Sherlock noted with a hint of alarm. He truly wasn’t the kind of person who should be depended on for ‘support’ or ‘care’; that was John’s division. Q rolled his eyes.

“Are we ready?” he asked lightly. Sherlock and John nodded, pulling the bed away from the door; Q remained in his cubby against the wall. “Alright, lifting the security on the door… now.”

Everything descended into very quick chaos. Bond was instantly in the room and by Q’s side, Q watched mutely as Sherlock and John were subdued with unreasonable force, John getting whacked on the side of the head by a livid looking man in a coal black suit and a very obvious earpiece. It was laughably stereotypical.

Q’s heart rate rocketed, but given that he had expected as much, he kept himself away from a panic attack. Bond crouched by him, keeping Q’s eye contact as best he could to steady him, tie him to the moment.

“I’m fine,” Q said gently. Bond gave the customary mouth twitch that passed for a smile, and held Q’s hand as the MI6 officers prised the laptop away and yanked it out of the wall. Q watched it go with palpable sadness.

“They’ll rehire you,” Bond told him. “They aren’t that stupid.”

Q nodded. He was abruptly incredibly tired, and wanted his laptop and safety and security.

So he leant forward, falling onto Bond’s chest, blanket falling from around his shoulders. Bond froze for a moment, unsure of how to respond; he snaked his arms around Q’s shoulders, letting Q shuffle about until he was in a comfortable position.

Bond pulled the blanket back up over them both, settling back, leaning against the wall. Q moved with him. The medical staff bustled about them, adjusting monitors, trying to coax Q back to the bed and failing spectacularly; he was safe here, in this cubby of his own creation, with Bond.

The medication surged through his system, muting the wail of pain that was rising from his feet and legs, and spiking through every breath. Q became stiller, calmer, still leant against Bond’s torso, Bond holding him in a loose embrace.

A moment or two later, Bond felt the steady rhythm of breath, of heartbeat. Q fell asleep against him, letting Bond’s warmth lull him, pull him away.

Chapter Text

Q was discharged from the hospital on a strict outpatient basis a few days after the laptop incident. He had gained a little weight and was stable as far as physical injuries went. He was supposed to see the hospital psychiatrist once a day, but given that the man was regularly demolished by Q’s intellect, it was not exactly something either party relished. There was an unspoken assumption that those visits would fizzle out of existence relatively quickly.

Q was still in a wheelchair, and was likely to be for a little while longer. As far as his mental state was concerned, he was almost entirely calm barring the nightmares that woke him, screaming, in the middle of the night.

Bond’s commitment to MI6 kept him away through much of the day. Yet for some reason Q couldn’t quite fathom, he was always, without fail, there waiting for him during the nights.

Q was not surprised when he was taken immediately to MI6 HQ. He would need to be debriefed fully before being carted off to some institution, after all, and M would need to do the official shpiel to fire him.

Nobody was informed that Q had been discharged, in an act of cruelty from MI6 officials. John was back at the surgery, Sherlock on a case, Bond on a small domestic assignment; they had been leaving Q alone for increasing periods of time as the days progressed, as the panic attacks died down. Naturally, MI6 took advantage of his solitude to try catching him out.

By the time Sherlock had contacted Bond, Q was long since on the way to M’s office with a notable lack of Bond, which not something he considered ideal. Having nobody there to support him was a blatant attempt to derail him and illustrate that he was no longer fit to retain his job.

He let it slide off him, and shook off the men escorting him to M’s office. He could there quite amply on his own, thank you, and did not need babysitting. After a few stinging comments, they left him well enough alone in the familiar building.

He was happy enough; the wheelchair was electronic, which naturally meant he had been tinkering with it over the previous few days. He directed himself through the corridors of MI6 - as a government-run building it of course had disabled access everywhere - and rather than going to M’s office, he predictably went straight down to Q-branch.

Q was very easy to underestimate. Almost everybody Q had ever met had underestimated him, with the possible exception of Bond. His time on the laptop had not solely been spent nosing around MI6 business; he had also contacted each and every one of his supporters in Q-branch.

Q-branch were almost all of a similar mind; Q was the best quartermaster any had known in their time at MI6, and possibly the best historically. Q-branch were all quite similar people; technologically minded, quiet, exceptionally hard-working, and enduringly loyal. They had all allied themselves long ago with Q. It took very little to have them on side.

Q directed himself into Q-branch, sighing slightly at the architecture, his domain. This was his home. He had a flat somewhere, he had places to live, but this, this, was where he belonged.

Q,” somebody called. Within moments, Q-branch were all alerted to Q’s presence. Nobody flocked to his side, but everyone turned, and in an odd type of unison, gave him a standing ovation. Q just raised an eyebrow.

“Thank you,” he said, a slight smile crooking the corner of his mouth. “Now back to work, ladies and gentlemen, we do have a country to protect.”

Q was surprised to notice that his office was closed off. He had expected that he had been long since replaced by R; instead, while his belongings were all absent, there was nobody there. A little peculiar, but then, Q-branch were relatively renowned for being ‘a little peculiar’.

Q remained a moment at the back of Q-branch, watching work unfold, the familiar thrum of electronics and hum of monitors, the safe, comforting noises, the almost sterile smell and look, the polished glass and chrome.

“Tosh, may I speak to you a moment?” Q asked, wheeling himself to her desk. The girl in question looked up at him; she was a technological and computer genius, quite honestly, and Q had always harboured a fondness for her.

She turned around, fixing him with a smile and a nod. “You emailed Q about a series of incidents around our firewalls. Have you explored it any further?”

Tosh took the concept of Q having hacked into new Q’s email as a given, and shook her head. “I was told not to worry about it, it’s not any more traffic than usual…”

“But it was regular, bizarrely regular,” Q asked, brow contracting. “That’s why you flagged it. I believe you were right to be concerned, and I’m going to ask you to conduct an investigation. I need to see M. Be mindful of the fact I am technically not your quartermaster, you may ignore me if you wish.”

“No, it’s fine – I’ll get on it,” Tosh said, with a slightly mischievous grin. No doubt she would, and very well. Q nodded his gratitude, and Q wheeled himself away, to the no doubt horrendous event that would be his meeting with M.

---

“… That as may be, you need me,” Q continued, blithely ignoring M’s pontificating; he was being ordered by his superiors, he had no control, et cetera. Q raised an eyebrow. “I have reason to believe we’re currently under a mechanised attack on our firewalls, which is being investigated as we speak, and that our new Q managed to entirely dismiss.”

M was silent for a moment, watching Q with obvious concern. “You shouldn’t be working,” he pointed out. “You’re on medical suspension.”

“And you should be monitoring security threats, which is currently not the case,” Q retorted, his usually calm demeanour breaking slightly around the edges. “I am more than capable of returning.”

“Your experience will affect your judgement,” M said carefully. “If you were to encounter a situation where an agent that required extraction, subjected to torture, could not be removed without a major risk to civilian life…”

“I would certainly sacrifice the agent,” Q confirmed, expression hard. “I would have chosen the same in my own situation. As it happened, given that my skills were being utilised in a way that was distinctly anti-British interests, it was in your favour to extract me. As I understand, it did not jeopardise any other lives. Bond was due leave, so even his absence cannot be deemed a problem.”

M could not help but concede that.

“I would like you to undergo the usual battery of tests,” M said brusquely. “I will review them myself. If there is any evidence that your experience will jeopardise your ability to do your job…”

“…which it will not…”

“… then we will need to discuss options,” M told him. “Given the somewhat, well, personal aspects of your torture, in addition… It is only to be expected that you are… fragile.”

“Other than an expectation that I will shun sexual contact for a while yet, I do not see that it will have any more or less effect on me than the shattered ankle, to be quite frank,” Q told him with a sideways shrug, sounding far more in control than he felt. “You are clutching at straws. I am good at my job, and that has certainly not changed.”

“Report to medical. If they sign you off, we can discuss this again,” M said with a tone of finality. Expression mutinous, Q drove himself out of M’s office, and practically ran over Bond in the process.

“The bastards didn’t tell me,” was Bond’s opening gambit.

Q gave him a tired smile. “It’s alright.” A simple sound, weary and grateful. Bond looked at him a moment, quite obviously assessing him, and Q shrugged slightly. How the hell any of this happened, he had long since forgotten. Yet he had a 00 agent on side, as well as Q-branch, and all he needed to do was convince an MI6 shrink that he wasn’t crazy.

He could manage that.

The shrinks – bastards that they were – intentionally did everything in their power to derail him.

He was doing very well. The final aspect of his assessment, designed for Q-branch operatives, involved an example case; they intentionally made it a serious trigger. Q heard a sudden, wrenching scream through the earpiece; the idea was for Q to talk through his responses to the situation, to deal with a challenging scenario.

Q panicked, the thrum rising in his head, juddering desperately. His hands started shaking, voice trembling very faintly. He cursed himself, and breathed, calming. He talked his way through the mission, said and did precisely the right things. He could imagine Bond yelling at people that this was a ridiculous simulation to force him into given his state, the thought oddly comforting.

Q finished up, aware that he had done a good job. Not perfect, but certainly passable. They couldn’t fault it, he was almost certain of that.

He nodded at the psychiatrists, and excused himself to find a toilet.

He sunk onto his knees out of the wheelchair, and vomited violently. He fell to one side, mindless of the pain in his feet, leaning against the wall of the cubicle. He rested his head against the lacquered plasterboard, and breathed carefully.

He had no idea how long he was there, letting his mind swirl repeatedly, the blackness washing and receding like waves, adrenaline slowly fading out.

Time ticked.

His mobile rang. He tugged his phone out of his pocket, the number not recognisable. “Hello?”

“Q, Bond’s running around like a kid on crack, where are you?” Sherlock drawled at him.

Q couldn’t help but let out a strangled laugh, pushing himself up slightly from the cubicle wall. “I’m fine, just needed a moment,” he told Sherlock, trying to keep his hands from shaking further. “I just… a simulation, of a man being tortured, I had to listen, and it was… difficult.”

Q listened to the unmistakeable sound of John grabbing the phone off Sherlock, Sherlock swearing crossly, John telling him to shut up. “Q, it’s me. You alright?”

“I’m fine,” he assured him, feeling far from it but beginning to calm. “Really. I’ll be fine.”

“Q?” asked a voice from outside. Q sighed. Bond had found him, it seemed.

“I’ll just be a moment. Thank you John,” Q told John. John reiterated the importance of keeping away from dangerous situations, and Q pretended he lost signal and hung up. He worked in MI6, dangerous or triggering situations were a constant. He simply needed to be in control of said triggers.

Q manoeuvred himself back onto the wheelchair with notable difficulty, hissing in pain as he placed weight on his feet for a fraction of a second. His amendments to the electronics of the chair gave him more precise control over his movements, meaning he found it blissfully easy to navigate out of the cubicle.

Bond leant by the sinks. “I just screamed bloody murder at M, and issued several death threats that I may or may not follow through on. I thought you should probably know,” he said flatly.

“Thank you. I must admit I’ll be having words myself,” Q replied. Both acted with the casual nonchalance that defined them, as though Bond hadn’t been worried and scared, as though Q hadn’t been terrified and vulnerable. They were not supposed to feel those things, in their jobs. It didn’t mean they didn’t.

“M told me to take you home, he’ll see you in the morning with the test results,” Bond returned. “Your flat? You probably shouldn’t be alone.”

“I agree. I’m actually staying with Sherlock for a while,” Q said, with something approaching shyness. “John’s offered to supervise my recovery, physical therapy, things like that. I’d like to get to know Sherlock better, too.”

“Oh,” Bond said simply. There was a moment of silence. Bond looked at Q with an unforgiving stare, Q returning the gaze steadily, just slightly flickering.

“You could stay too,” Q told him quietly, eventually. “I mean, just… you’ve been…”

“If you want me there, I will stay,” Bond said simply, cutting over the fragmented sentences Q was trying to construct. Q nodded, twitching a smile. He allowed Bond to take him home, to the brother he didn’t know, and the doctor he let himself trust, and let himself be lulled.

---

Q woke up in the night with a sob literally trapped in his throat. He was suffocating on his inability to voice pain. The light was dim, but not extinguished entirely, and he lay paralysed, choking in lethal quiet, tears tracking down his cheeks.

He shuddered, tried to scream, tried to cry out, the only way he had left to force out the noise from himself and somehow express to the empty world that he needed help, somebody needed to find him, please.

Q cried in complete silence.

Even in the dim light, without glasses, he could recognise Bond. He always recognised Bond. The ridiculous, irreverent and utterly impossible double-oh agent, who trashed his equipment and seemed to take joy in irritating him in Q-branch, the only agent Q trusted in a world of liars.

Q didn’t say a word, and neither did Bond. He just held Q in a loose embrace until he had cried himself into exhaustion, never questioning, never condemning, never coaxing or coercive. He didn’t tell Q it would be okay (because it wouldn’t be) or that it was over (because it wasn’t).

He let Q drain himself dry, until the jagged breathing stilled, and he passed out against the drying patch on Bond’s shirt.

---

“We have a situation. Your replacement in Q-branch is overwhelmed, we need you there.”

Tanner sounded reluctant, apologetic and resentful in equal measure. Q sipped his tea; John had made him a mug when he and Bond came downstairs that morning, and actually, it was surprisingly reasonable as far as Earl Grey went.

Q looked at Bond without a flicker of emotion as he listened to Tanner. Q and Bond appeared to have reached a mutual understanding where neither referenced or discussed anything that transpired when Q was at his most vulnerable. Perhaps they would, at some stage. Certainly not yet.

“The attacks on the server have been proven problematic, I take it,” Q asked, not waiting for Tanner to respond. “I will begin remotely, and be at Q-branch within a half hour. I will contact Tosh directly with instructions for the branch. I’ve linked Sherlock’s laptop with the MI6 mainframe; allow me through the firewall, if you would, hacking would waste time.”

“We are sending a car,” Tanner told him simply, and hung up.

Bond watched him, Sherlock not bothering to hide his interest. “We need to go to MI6, there has been an incident,” Q said succinctly. “Sherlock, can I borrow your laptop?”

“It’s in fourteen different component parts, I can hardly use it myself,” Sherlock said dismissively, waving a hand at the laptop in an open invitation. Somewhere internally, Q smiled; Sherlock showed care through dispassion and sarcasm, and wasn’t that all too recognisable.

“Bond, would you accompany me?” Q asked. Please, unspoken, unvoiced, startlingly audible.

“Yes,” Bond replied. Always, implied, suggested, immediately internalised with a nod from Q.

“These stairs were not made for wheelchairs,” Q muttered, as he exited 221B. “Bond, Bond…”

Bond had been carrying him up and down stairs, the few times they were at 221B. Previously, Q had been tired or simply not worried enough to object; he was trying to be professional now, illustrate that he deserved his job back. He certainly didn’t need to be carried places by a double-oh agent.

James just laughed in that familiar, deep tone, and let Q’s arms snake around his neck. He held Q just as firmly, another unspoken confirmation that neither would ever let go.

---

Time trickled by.

---

His name was Q. He was the quartermaster of MI6. He could encrypt, decrypt, unravel the world if he wished. He was startlingly, brilliantly alive.

He wheeled himself into Q-branch, settling in front of the large computer screens that dominated the far wall. Keyboards and smaller monitors dominated the desks. Red and blue dots moved through pixelated streets, cameras tracking a dark-haired figure who was ducking and diving through people and side streets and shops.

Q moved the keyboard closer, attached a headset. He took a breath.

“005, this is Q. Take the turning to your left, and keep running.”

Q allowed himself a wry smile as he watched the dots progress, his mind active and body healing. This was his space, his domain. He was acutely aware of the persistent danger that would linger around him; at least now he had a decent security detail, and apparently siblings who were rather good at tracing people.

Bond was simply present. Q wasn’t sure whether or not to analyse that little quirk in detail. He wasn’t quite convinced that it mattered, what it meant, if it meant anything. He was simply there, steady and constant and stupid and reckless, as he always had been. Little had changed, except that he had moved into the top room of 221B with him, at least for the time being.

He remembered, of course. He would always remember. He was scarred, now, in every respect. He would never quite walk normally again, he had no idea if he’d ever manage sexual contact of any variant, he would always be hyperaware of the cold and of hunger. He would have nightmares, and flashbacks, and panic attacks. He could control them to a degree, enough to do his job.

His name was Q, and he was the quartermaster of MI6.

“Keep running,” he reiterated to 005, and started to type.

---

A man sits on his gilded throne, watching.

And here we are again,” he whispers to the footage of the young quartermaster, the fascinating boy, the person who can open any door, any safe, anywhere in the world. Everything. He could have everything.

The man leans back, and laughs and laughs and laughs and laughs