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Only If For A Night

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And the only solution was to stand and fight
And my body was loose and I was set alight
But she came over me like some holy rite
And although I was burning, you're the only light,
Only if for a night...

James buys his first painting because he needs something to match the carpet. He buys the portrait because he's fascinated.

The first painting is a seascape, almost abstract in its simplicity: thick stripes of blue and grey and green in a heavy frame the colour of tarnished gold. It will fit well with the dusky blues of the rug in the study, and put a splash of colour on the walls of his new flat.

The portrait is something else completely: black watercolour over thick white paper, contained in an unassuming black frame; the subject is a young man with messy black hair, looking over his shoulder. It's not a particularly striking piece, but it catches James' eye as he waits for the gallerist to shake off a couple of tourists who obviously don't plan on making a purchase.

Five minutes later, the gallerist is all smiles as she compliments James' taste; apparently, the portrait will make a wonderful 'conversation piece', whatever that is. The gallerist is an elegant blonde in her early thirties, and James has sex with her on the same desk where he signs the cheque for the two paintings.

Two hours later, he's back on the hotel where he's staying while MI6 finish upgrading the security in his new flat (one would think that, as often as he is presumed dead, they'd stop selling his stuff after one month). He lies on the bed, still in his suit, and stares at the ceiling. If he closes his eyes, he can almost see the portrait again: the wild mop of dark hair, the play of light over the stranger's face, his wistful look, as if he was leaving something very dear behind him.

The chirp of his mobile interrupts his daydream. It's Moneypenny, M's new assistant (a reward for 'saving' James with a lucky shot in Istambul), with the details for what should be a quick assassination in Poland. There and back again in less than two days, she assures him, and by the time he's done, his flat will be ready.

It takes a week, five countries, and the creative use of a shovel. During a chase along a bridge in Helsinki, James thinks he sees a familiar head of dark hair, and almost loses his footing turning around; it turns out to be a young woman with one of those modern hair-styles, and James loses his target and has to catch up with him in Denmark.

By the time he's back in London, James is almost surprised by the reality of the black-and-white portrait now hanging in his study. He's thought about it so much since he saw it at the gallery that at this point he could almost swear he knows not only the vulnerable curve of the back of the man's neck, but also what his hands would look like (long, with delicate pianist fingers) and the colour of his eyes (hazel).

It could be no one, he knows, just a vagary of the painter's imagination, but there's something solid and tangible about those features, little imperfect touches here and there that speak of reality. Besides, it's pleasant to think of something else that isn't work and isn't the bittersweet memory of Vesper.

James sits on his study, with the blue carpet and the seascape hanging above the mantelpiece, and begins to look for information.

Along with the paintings, the gallerist sent along her business card, with a message scribbled on the back, but also the cards that had been besides the paintings on the gallery walls. James pours himself some scotch, throws away the message suggesting he meets the gallerist again, and looks at the card for his mystery portrait.

John L. White
1920-2010
Q
2008
Watercolour on paper
20x14

In a way, James is satisfied at not getting an answer straight away: Q, whoever he is, is too lovely a mystery to unwrap in one go.

Still, James has been trained for intelligence gathering, has an internet connection, and has never been any good at denying his own curiosity.

John Louis White seems to have been a civil servant all his life, starting as clerical staff for the Foreign Office in 1940, and staying there until his retirement; he only started selling his paintings after his retirement, but never attained more notoriety than an article or two in his local paper. There's no mention of anyone called Q that James can see.

John Louis White, 90, passed away suddenly at home on 6th June 2010. His funeral service will be held this Friday at St. Albans Parish Church, Albert Rd, Ilford, Essex, followed by internment at Forest Park Cemetery & Crematorium, Hainault.
He is survived by his sister Helen, and two nieces, Rachel and Samantha.
Arrangements courtesy of Co-op Funerals. His family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations are sent to The British Heart Foundation.

Apart from his obituary, there seems to be nothing of note about John White on the internet, except for a few samples of his work, all of them watercolours, none of them portraits.

James closes his laptop and turns to look at 'his' portrait again. He should leave it there, he knows. He's making a big deal out of nothing. 'Q' is probably someone absolutely normal who passed through White's life at one point and left an imprint, with his improbable hair and tempting lips. There's no reason to believe that, even if James managed to find him, he'd be anything but a disappointment when compared with the image James has in his head.

Still, before turning in for the night, James sends a request for someone at MI6 to access the gallery's records and find out where the painting comes from.

When he checks his messages the next morning, after his five-mile run, he has a list of financial records and an arch enquiry from Moneypenny, who wants to know if this has anything to do with Poland.

The painting comes from John White's personal collection, which his nieces have been shopping around London, hoping to make their meagre inheritance count for something.

James arranges to meet Rachel at lunchtime, posing as an art collector interested in English watercolourists. She's young, naïve, too obviously impressed by the modernist Thai restaurant where they'll be having lunch, but she has with her a folder full of inexpertly taken photographs of John White's work. James examines them quickly while making conversation: there are watercolours of shop fronts and bus stops, churches and streets, but no portraits.

He mentions this to Rachel, who is forced to admit that her uncle always refused to paint any of his friends or relatives who offered to sit for him.

“He was a bit grumpy,” she says with a laugh, toying with her drink. “I think he only painted someone once, I mean, there was a portrait between his things, but we sold that one to a gallery. It was no one from the family, must have been the neighbour he had, who used to help him with his things.”

Rachel never met said neighbour, though, and has no more useful information to offer. James says goodbye to her after lunch, promising to give her a call about the watercolour of an off-license, and goes straight to MI6. There always are competent minions around who he can charm or intimidate into helping him.

His mistake is making a detour through the gun range afterwards, to get a spot of practice before going home. That's where Moneypenny finds him.

“What did you do?” she asks, not looking the least intimidated by the armed Double O agent in front of her.

“Nothing,” James is prompt to answer. “I am taking things easy, as recommended by my latest psych evaluation.”

Moneypenny gives him a sarcastic smile.

“Why are you looking into James White's past?” she asks.

“I bought one of his paintings for my flat.” Sometimes, the truth is the best bait. “I was curious.”

“Curious enough to ask for a financial enquiry and scare an intern into looking through council records from the Sixties?” Moneypenny seems unimpressed.

“I'm very curious.”

“If you've found something, you need to let us know. There's enough going on that we don't need to get the GCHQ upset over your internal investigation.”

“The GCHQ?”

“James White worked for them since it was the Code and Cypher School, back in WWII. We've never had a reason to believe that there was anything special about him, he had forty years of unassuming service when he retired, but if you are poking your nose into his business...”

“Miss Moneypenny?” an agent asks from the doorway. “I'm sorry. I think you should see this.”

They follow the man to the office where James left a frightened young intern not thirty minutes before. There are at least five people assembled there now; judging from their clothing choices, most of them are from the Communications Branch.

“I didn't do anything!” the intern says when he spots James. “I just clicked on the 2008 council records for the address you gave me!”

“What is it?” asks Moneypenny to one of the geeks standing around.

“Good question,” he answers; something comes up on the screen and all of them make ruefully admiring noises. “Whatever is it, it just crashed through our firewall and is deleting information from our databases.”

“Fucking son of a bitch,” says the woman who is sitting at the computer. “I hope you didn't really want to see those records, no amount of recovery is going to get them back. Bloody hell, Greg, call downstairs and tell them to establish Code Achilles, see if we can contain him here.”

“What did you do?” Moneypenny asks James again, before turning on her heel and leaving, probably to give the news to M.

James stays a while, but the squawking of the C-Branch minions soon gets tiresome. He's always been more of a hands-on man, after all.

It's not yet dark when he arrives at the building where John White lived the last few years of his life, at the address that sparked the cyberattack on MI6. James waits for a while on his car until he spots an elderly woman dragging a flowery shopping trolley behind her; soon, he's helping her into the building and all the way to her flat in the fifth floor.

Yes, she remembers John White. Very sad, very sad, but he was getting on in years. Then again, aren't they all? Why, except for the Patils on the fourth floor, everyone in the building remembers TV in black-and-white! Much better these days, though she doesn't like that new girl in Corrie. Does he watch Coronation Street? Ah, Corrie is a great comfort to her. That and a good cuppa, and she's set for the evening. No, luckily the television signal is very good in the building. Something to do with the antenna. That nice boy Jules explained it to her once. He used to live in the third floor, across from Mr White. Lovely, helpful young man, though not the marrying sort, if he knows what she means. Yes, yes, dark hair like a bird's nest. Really lovely boy, though very shy. He moved away a few months go. Or is it almost a year? After Mr White died, and about the time that the widowed Mrs Fincher moved in. Now she's talking about not renewing her rental if the landlord doesn't fix the gutters. Jules what? No, she doesn't remember the last name. JQ were the initials on the mailbox, though. Or maybe JG. It's hard to tell, with the handwriting of young people nowadays. When she gets Christmas cards from her grandchildren, she can barely make out any of the letters.

James extricates himself from the conversation fifteen minutes later, and calls Moneypenny, who is fuming. Apparently, their search triggered a virus that has been violently wrecking havoc on government databases; MI5 is making noises about getting involved and M is furious. Maybe next time James is feeling curious, Moneypenny suggests, he can do them all a favour and go get himself shot in some backwater African village instead.

“You'd miss me,” James says with complete certainty. “Now, if there are any databases still standing, look up a Jules Q. Q for Quebec. Probably a hacker, if the mess over there is any indication. Late twenties, early thirties. British.”

Moneypenny makes a point to inform him that she's not his secretary before hanging up on him.

James stops in front of the portrait when he gets home. Even with the MI6 computer geniuses at the end of their rope, he has not forgotten what started it all.

Maybe Q isn't the lovely, helpful Jules who has dark hair like a bird's nest and is not the marrying kind. Maybe Q is Jules, but he's only a student or shop assistant who happened to live in front of a man who worked as a codebreaker for the British Foreign Office since WWII. But maybe James' gut-feeling is right and the cyberattack on MI6 does have something to do with that beautiful, elegant face.

James takes a shower and then goes to check his messages for news from Moneypenny.

Situation contained. M says you are not allowed to speak to the interns without supervision.
Q, alias Quartermaster? One of the big names of the European hacking scene since the late Nineties. Known for his work on safeguard protocols and failsafes. Never identified, no criminal record or warrants pending. His online presence disappeared eight months ago.

John White died seven months ago. It can't be a coincidence.

James is still pondering this (can White have been Q, his codebreaking work turning him into a hacker in his old age?) when he notices something unusual: the light on his laptop's camera is on.

Someone is watching him.

With one hand, James reaches for the gun under his desk. With the other, he opens a blank document on his laptop.

Q?, he types.

The cursor blinks for a minute.

James shoots to his feet when he hears a noise in the living room. He pads carefully over his blue carpet, gun in hand, and peers across the doorway.

The noise belongs to the TV, which has turned itself on to show Jason Statham looking unconcerned under a hailstorm of bullets falling with the backdrop of an scenic explosion. James snorts and turns off the TV, then goes back to his study.

There is a new line under the Q? and the light from the laptop camera is off.

Don't look for me.

James sits and ponders what to say next. Unconventional as the negotiating technique is, it's progress. He looks up at the portrait on his wall and types a new message.

I don't want to hurt you.

There is no answer, and James goes to bed, leaving the laptop on just in case.

He wakes up at 6 AM, gun in hand. His TV is on again, blaring some infomercial about a juicer that also makes fruit salads. James briefly considers throwing the TV out of the window before realising that it's is connected to the same box of blinking lights that provides his wi-fi.

Sure enough, there is a message waiting for him at his laptop.

Do NOT look for me. Even if you don't want to hurt me, there are others who do.

James only pauses to take a seat before he's typing.

Do you need help? And then, Stop hijacking my TV, I don't need a juicer and don't enjoy unrealistic gunfights.

The light on his laptop camera blinks on after a minute.

Are you offering to help me?

In the living room, the TV turns on again and James can hear Air Supply sing about making love out of nothing at all.

Yes. In spite of your awful taste in music.

One would figure a man your age would enjoy the classics.

Cheeky. What do you know about me?

Suddenly, James' file starts flashing on his screen. Not the file he's seen before on M's desk when he's called in for a lecture, but a file with mission reports that should have never been put down in writing and psych evaluations James didn't even know existed.

I know everything, types Q as the file disappears from James' screen. What do you know about me?

James hesitates only a moment. Then, he stands up, takes the portrait off the wall, and positions it in front of the laptop's camera.

You knew John?

No, answers James. I bought your portrait in a gallery and wanted to find out more about you.

The cursor blinks for a minute or two. James can imagine Q running his hands through his hair, wondering how to answer.

So, you're not really looking for me?, is what he gets in the end.

I'm looking for the man in the portrait. I didn't know he was also capable of tearing down MI6 cyberdefences like so much tissue paper.

Please tell your employers to hire someone halfway decent to update their firewall. It was embarrassingly easy to break in.

So I noticed. James is smiling as he types. Why did you do it?

Your search for my records raised a flag.

If that's how you react when I'm looking for your address, England needs to prepare for when I ask you out for dinner.

Again, a pause. James smiles. He's glad to see his charm is not diminished by typing it out instead of speaking it over a martini.

I should have known, from looking at your psych evals, that you'd be insane.

That's not a no, James points out.

i have togo, Q types then. The speed of writing and the typo means that he's probably not fleeing from James' flirtations.

Do you need help? James types, but his camera is off and he doesn't get an answer.

For the next two days, James waits to hear back from Q. The geek squad that MI6 sends to look at his laptop and router doesn't discover anything useful. Just in case, James moves the portrait into his bedroom and leaves his laptop on at all times.

On Friday, he gets home from a day of having Moneypenny dodging his steps in MI6 to a message.

You have been compromised. Be careful.

“That I'm used to being compromised doesn't mean I have to like it,” James tells Tanner over the phone. “How about someone tries to find out what happened?”

“You're trusting someone you've never met,” Tanner points out, unruffled.

“Trusting the people I've met never seems to give me the results I expect,” James snipes back.

“Hang on, then.” Tanner gives orders while James goes to his bedroom to pick up an extra gun. “Your friend left this in such a mess that it's hard to tell anything, but there seems to be an additional layer or five of safeguards around your file, and also an unauthorised access two hours ago.”

“Wonderful.”

“You do realise this could be a trap, right? Your hacker friend could be luring you out.”

“Please continue to tell me how to do my job.”

“Your job is to get here as fast as you can. We're running out of safehouses you haven't made explode at least once, and M wants to have you at hand in case we need to send you out there.”

James hangs up and gives one last look at the portrait on the wall. He can't carry it with him.

Instead of taking the Aston Martin, James leaves the building by climbing over the bins at the back and into a small alley. He'll hotwire a car a few streets over and take the long way around; the last thing he wants to do is to lead whoever is chasing him straight to MI6.

He wonders who is it that's hunting Q and now, by extension, James. What kind of enemies can a hacker make? James knows better than to underestimate the threat. Practically everyone is dipping their toes into cybercrime these days, so a disgruntled client or competitor could be anyone from a Mexican drug cartel to the Russian Federal Protective Service.

His phone beeps quietly, a sound James has never heard it make. Still walking, he takes it out of his pocket. Private number.

“Bond,” he answers, stepping aside to let a woman with a baby carriage through. “James Bond.”

“Turn around,” a voice says on the other end of the line. “Turn around before you reach the corner. Don't bother trying to make it look natural.”

“Q?” asks James, coming to a stop at the edge of the kerb.

“Speaking,” Q answers; he sounds young but self-possessed, and his voice has a breathy quality James finds very distracting. “You need to go back to the last intersection and turn right. There's a BMW there you might want to borrow.”

“A BMW?” James asks, turning around and walking past the woman with the baby carriage. “I thought you knew me.”

“Because you'd be completely inconspicuous hotwiring an Aston Martin at midday in the middle of London, even if I could find you one on such short notice?”

James can hear typing on the other end of the line. He wants to know where Q is (he knows how he's watching James, if the CCTV cameras swivelling around as he passes are any indication), but it's not precisely the time.

“At least it's not red,” he says agreeably when he spots his target.

“Yes, you wouldn't want to attract attention or anything,” Q says. “Hurry up, will you? They've noticed you turned around.”

“Someone told me not to bother making it look natural,” James replies as he jimmies open the driver's door and gets into the car.

“Your file says you are a lot of things, but subtle is not one of them. Have you started the car?”

“Give me a moment.” James bangs his head on the steering wheel and drops the phone. “Damn it.”

“Don't bother,” Q says, and now his voice is coming from the GPS system on the dashboard. “Start the car, you're about to get shot.”

The first two shots break the rear windscreen. By the time the third comes, James has started the car and is driving away.

“Straight ahead, don't bother with the brakes, I'll make sure all lights are green. Were you hit?”

“I'm fine. You can control traffic lights? That's much more useful than turning on my TV at ungodly hours of the morning.”

“Controlling London's traffic is nothing,” says Q. “Turn right.”

“It's more than my handlers can usually do.”

Q snorts.

“I'm not surprised. I'll wager I can do more damage in my pyjamas, before my first cup of Earl Grey, than MI6 can do in a year.”

“Modest, I like that.”

“Turn left.”

“Wait, where are you leading me? I was going to Vauxhall.”

“You don't want to go to MI6 right now.”

“Why not?”

“Well, to begin with, a bomb has just exploded there.”

“What?”

“Yes, in an office in the upper levels.” Q sounds unimpressed. “There were a few casualties, from what I hear... what are you doing?”

James turns the steering wheel sharply and executes a perfect 180-degree turn in the middle of the street, missing an incoming lorry by about three inches.

“I'm going to see,” he replies between gritted teeth.

“Don't be ridiculous,” Q snaps. “The last thing you want to do is to go back there.”

“Turns out you don't know everything about me,” James says, and blows through a suspiciously-timed red light.

“Stop!” Q demands indignantly through the GPS. James ignores him, choosing instead to overtake a bus and veer sharply into a residential street. “I will set the police on you if you don't stop right now.”

“Do it,” James answers. “If you think the London police or some jumped-up little shit of a hacker are going to stop me when MI6 is in danger, you don't know anything about me.”

The GPS is silent. James is very angry, and disappointed like he hasn't been since the last time that M pulled one of her intricate chess moves with him as the pawn. Something in his chest twists when it occurs to him that M's office is in the upper levels, that she and Moneypenny and Tanner are always there playing with lives the fates of several countries.

And Q wants him to turn back? For the first time since it all started, James regrets pausing by that watercolour, and chasing the ghost contained in it.

“Fine,” he hears Q say after a moment, and James' hands loosen just a little on the steering wheel. “In ten seconds you are about to come within sight of a blue Audi carrying four people who want to shoot you.”

“London traffic is not what it used to be,” James sighs, mock-mournfully, as he ducks a spray of bullets. “Can you gets us somewhere with less civilian traffic?”

“I'm diverting traffic away from that road instead,” Q informs him. “Are you going to be able to lose your pursuers before you reach Vauxhall Bridge?”

“I would, if the bastards stood still for a second.” James takes a moment to lean out of the window and shoot the guy with the mini-Uzi. “Only three left.”

“If you can take out the driver, that should stop them, or at least slow them down.”

“I really don't need instructions on how to shoot people from a boy who sounds as if he still has spots,” James informs him, but he doesn't really mean it because the road ahead of them is almost empty and he can hear Q's frantic typing through the GPS' tinny speakers. The MI6 handlers could definitely learn a thing of two from this so-called Quartermaster.

“My complexion is hardly relevant,” Q says prissily. “Also, you'll be relieved to know that the head of MI6, along with her personal assistant and her Chief of Staff, was in a meeting with the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, outside of MI6 headquarters, at the time of the explosion.”

Something uncoils in James' stomach. He might butt heads with M more often than he gets shot at, and he's convinced she'll be the death of him sooner than later, but he simply cannot imagine MI6 without her.

He looks ahead to see Vauxhall approaching fast. Babylon-on-Thames will be swarming with police, MI5, and emergency personnel. Leading the gunmen in the Audi there will lead to chaos at best, more civilian deaths at worst.

“Q, is anyone else following me?”

“Mmm no,” Q says after a pause. “Just the Audi, which I see it's gaining on you.”

“Not for long.”

“What are you going to do?”

The BMW's tires screech, but hold. James thinks that he maybe should have a little more respect for German engineering, and then the Audi is slamming right into him, and everything goes dark.

Chapter Text

And I heard your voice
As clear as day
And you told me I should concentrate
It was all so strange
And so surreal
That a ghost should be so practical…

“Bond? James, can you hear me?”

James knows that voice. It's a good voice, a voice he can trust.

“Open you eyes.”

He's followed instructions from that voice before. James opens his eyes. It's bright, very bright, and it takes a few vitals seconds for his vision to clear.

He knows the ghost hovering above him. Messy dark hair, pale skin, hazel eyes, startlingly red lips, pianist hands stained with blood. He's seen this face before, in his dreams.

It's not real.

“You need to concentrate on me and keep awake, James. The ambulance has been held up since all the roads around Vauxhall Bridge have been closed.”

It's so strange and so surreal, that a ghost should be so practical. James smiles, and closes his eyes, and doesn't open them again.

***

James wakes up for the second time in hospital, which is a depressingly common occurrence. He's feeling much more clear-headed this time, and when he opens his eyes, all he sees is a sterile room, a junior field agent guarding the door, and the cloudy London sky outside his window.

And no hallucinations, which is not disappointing at all. It's one thing to become a little overinvested in a painting, and another to have deathbed visions of his black-and-white watercolour ghost.

The doctor tells James that he's concussed, has three cracked ribs and some tendon damage in his left hand, where it was caught in the wreckage. The field agent tells him that six people died in the attack to MI6, that the two gunmen who survived the crash were taken in for questioning, and that M wants to see him as soon as he's well enough to stand on his own two feet.

Two hours later, Tanner is driving James around.

“The assailant hacked into the environmental control system, locked out the safety protocols, and turned on the gas, all of which should have been impossible,” Tanner is saying as he takes the car into what seems like an underground parking. “On top of that, they hacked into M's files. They knew her appointments, they knew she's be out of the building.”

“They weren't targeting her, they wanted her to see it. Where are we?” asks James. He has a headache and an allergy to being led to places he doesn't know the layout of.

“New digs,” says M's Chief of Staff. “The whole Vauxhall building was declared strategically vulnerable.”

“That's putting it mildly,” James replies; while he got dressed in hospital, he'd seen footage of the explosion.

“Whoever it was, he was able to breach the most secure computer system in Britain. So we're on war footing now.”

There's a hacker, James thinks, who could probably do that without changing out of his pyjamas.

“When do I see M?” he asks instead.

“Right now.” Tanner precedes James into what looks like the cross between the catacombs and a modern office building. “Welcome to the new MI6.”

“Brave new world,” James mutters.

“You don't know half of it.” Bill gives a quick smile to a passing agent, but hurries along until they reach a set of stairs. “Are you armed?”

“You brought me my clothes, you tell me.”

“You're James Bond,” replies Bill, and waits.

Reluctantly, James hands over the gun that he took from the agent guarding his room.

“Honestly, Bond, they get fined for losing equipment,” Tanner huffs, and then motions Bond to go into M's office.

She's sitting behind her desk, silent and grim, and even though James knew she was alive and unharmed, he's glad to see her with his own eyes. Which might be how he doesn't notice the office's other occupant until a moment later.

A now familiar head of messy dark hair, hazel eyes set in an elegant face, long hands. Q looks up, meets James' eyes for a moment, then looks away.

“Bond, how good of you to join us,” says M.

For lack of a better thing to do, James takes a seat in the second chair and points at the porcelain bulldog on the table.

“The whole office goes up in smoke and that bloody thing survives.”

“Your interior decorating tips have always been appreciated, 007.” M fixes him with a dour look. “Particularly since I understand that you've brought this whole thing about by becoming interested in art.”

“Not that I haven't been responsible for an explosion or two in my time, but...”

“The same people who tried to take the list in Istambul are behind this,” M interrupts him. “This young man has offered to provide us with more information, since you couldn't find anything.”

James turns to Q, who is very pointedly not looking anywhere but at the corner of M's desk.

“And?” he asks.

“It's Raoul Silva,” says Q.

James realises this is not the first time he hears Q's voice without the interference of electronic equipment. His hallucination after the car crash might not have been as much a hallucination as he thought.

“That's not his real name, of course,” Q continues, as if he were reciting a lesson. “He has been hiring cybersecurity experts for several years for unrelated jobs, here and there. Destabilising a multinational by manipulating stocks, interrupting transmissions from a spy satellite over Kabul, rigging an election in Uganda...”

“Or an explosion in London?” James asks.

Q nods, still not looking at him.

“He is... persistent with his job offers,” Q says after a pause. “I tried going offline a few months ago. It didn't work. He found where I lived, and my neighbour died as a consequence.”

“Your neighbour, John White? His death was ruled natural.”

“Heart-attack,” Q agrees, before adding, “While being interrogated about my whereabouts.”

M nods.

“Was he involved in-?”

“No,” Q interrupts at once. “We talked about codes and cryptography, sometimes, but he wasn't involved. He didn't do anything, and he didn't tell me any secrets.”

“But he knew who you were?” M insisted.

“I don't have any warrants pendings,” Q says petulantly. “He didn't have to tell anyone. He didn't tell anyone, not even when Silva's men got to him.”

M doesn't look entirely convinced, but motions the hacker to carry on.

“I've been dodging Silva since then, so when I saw that someone was searching for me and getting close...”

Q shrugs. James experiences an unfamiliar surge of guilt.

“This man Silva, whoever he is, got through into our system,” M says.

Q snorts.

“No offence, ma'am, but everyone can get through your firewalls. I did it with with a stolen Blackberry and the wi-fi from a Starbucks.”

M looks personally offended, though James knows that she has never given C-branch a tenth of the attention (or budget) that she gives the Double Os.

“Is that so.” Q doesn't flinch or fidget under M's glare. “Well, if that's what you can do with a stolen phone, I want to see what you can do with some proper equipment.”

“Are you-?” James starts asking.

“Are you trying to recruit me, ma'am?” Q asks, looking both horrified and flattered.

“Either you accept our generous job offer and sign the confidentiality agreement that comes with it, or I'll have you arrested on at least two counts of domestic terrorism,” M says.

Q blinks. How similar to Silva's offers this must seem to him, muses James, and feels a little sorry on top of the guilt.

“Well.” Q gives a little laugh. “How can I refuse? I do have some conditions, though.”

“Settle it with Tanner,” M says airily, and -as if summoned-, Tanner appears on the doorway. “Tanner, take the new head of C-Branch to sign his contract.”

Tanner looks as surprised as James feels, but only gestures Q to follow him. Q unfolds himself from the chair in a single, graceful movement and follows Tanner out of the room without glancing back.

“Bond,” snaps M, and James returns his attention to her and away from the way Q wears his jeans (tight). “Why can't you find yourself a quiet hobby? I shudder to think what would happen if you ever took up knitting.”

***

MI6 takes to its Quartermaster surprisingly quickly, and the Quartermaster takes to his new job like a duck to water.

James often walks past what they've taken to calling Q-Branch. He mourns the way Q has taken of trying to style his hair into something less resembling of a bird's nest, but approves of how the planes of his face look when clean-shaven. James even likes the new, thick glasses (an affectation to make Q look older, which fails utterly at its job).

Sometimes, Q will look up from his job as James walks past and they'll exchange a look. If James is lucky, Q will smile as he looks away.

When Raoul Silva attacks, they are ready.

It's not without its casualties and its losses (James will mourn his Aston Martin for as long as he lives), but in the end, England is still standing and so is MI6. Gareth Mallory not-so-grudgingly admits that M is still well capable of leading her department and dealing with a crisis, and Moneypenny comes to terms with the fact that she's not cut out for fieldwork and takes the position of M's assistant permanently.

As for James, as soon as he's released from medical, he makes his way down to Q-Branch and to the throne of screens from where Q rules with a Scrabble mug and an exasperated raise of his eyebrows.

“So,” James says, and Q half-turns towards him, still keeping the pretence of monitoring 004 in Manila. “I think we've proved that England can withstand some of the worst cyberattacks that can be.”

Q makes a non-committal sound, which James chooses to take as agreement. After all, it's not as if Q has ever been shy in voicing his displeasure with James' decisions.

“In that case,” James continues, “I feel safe asking you to dinner at last. Tonight?”

Q lowers his Scrabble mug and finally turns his full (disbelieving) attention on James.

“You were waiting for what?” he splutters, indignation bringing a fetching touch of pink to his cheeks. “For the job to be done? For me to prove my loyalty?”

“No,” James replies. “I was waiting for you to become comfortable enough in your new position that you'll come to dinner with me without worrying about what anyone will say.”

Q stares for a moment, likely trying to gauge James' sincerity, then turns back to his screens with a little disdainful sniff.

“You forget I outrank you now, 007,” he says.

“That's not a no,” James points out.

“It isn't,” Q concedes gracefully. And, after a pause during which James definitely does not fidget, “You can pick me up at 7. And take me somewhere nice, or you will forever be stuck in red lights when you're in a hurry.”

“I hope you come up to my place for coffee after,” James replies. “I have a painting there that is quite the conversation piece, I've been told.”

Q huffs a laugh, but doesn't make any promises and instead tells James to go away so the Quartermaster can dedicate his attention to getting 004 somewhere with less bullets flying around.

As he walks out of Q-Branch, James sees a new reminder pop up on every screen in the place (and there are a lot of them).

After 7 PM today, Q-Branch is NOT to contact the Quartermaster for anything else than a Code RED-3.