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Bond frowned at the dark, blank screen of his phone. He could have sworn he just felt it buzz. He felt another buzz and his frown deepened as he reached into the inner pocket of his overcoat to pull out his other phone - his personal phone, the one that approximately six people in the world knew existed.

The first text was from Q. Need to see you in Q Branch asap.

The second was from Eve. Get your arse over here. That means NOW, James.

Well then. His natural inclination to ignore such abrupt orders - especially when they came from people who technically couldn't order him around - was tempered by the fact that they both reached out to him on his personal phone. Which meant that whatever they needed wasn't strictly on the up-and-up.

In Heathrow baggage claim hell. be there when I can, he wrote back to both of them.

Isn't that redundant? came the swift reply from Eve. He chuckled quietly, imaging Eve, perched on the edge of Q's desk, swinging her legs and laughing at his message. Q would raise his eyebrows in that infuriating way of his and his mouth would quirk into a smirk at Eve's message.

They were an unlikely pair of friends - inasmuch as MI6 agents had friends - but in recent months they had kept him grounded, become his anchor to life. They had become the reason he might spend a split second longer considering if there was a way to accomplish a task without quite as much risk to himself, might pause before doing something suicidally heroic.

He moved to shut off the phone when one more message came in. do NOT see M whatever you do.

Well that cinched it. When Eve Moneypenny explicitly said not to go see the big boss, only a fool would disregard her. And James Bond was many things, but "fool" was not often included on this list. At least not when it came to following Eve's directives. He'd learned that lesson the hard way.

He shut down the phone and dropped it back in his pocket. He considered turning off the department-issued phone as well, but decided against it. No one would be surprised if he chose to ignore it.

Schooling his features into a neutral expression, he stared at the baggage carousel as if force of will alone could make it start moving. All he wanted was to grab his bag, get to his flat and sleep for six hours, uninterrupted. Twelve would be preferable, but he would take what he could get. Clearly, though, that wasn't going to happen. He would have to deal with whatever this crisis was first. Then, maybe, he could sleep.

He also decided that if he ever found the person who uttered the phrase "Well, at least things can't get any worse," he was going to bloody well prove why he was MI6's most successful (and, not inconsequentially, most dangerous) Double-O agent.

The weeks and months following Silva's death had disproven that sentiment, and things had gone from bad to worse, and then passed quickly into the realm of Are You Fucking Kidding Me?

Although they recovered the original hard drive that had been stolen, it quickly became apparent that Silva's decrypted list had made its way out into the world. A dozen more agents had been killed, and Mallory was scrambling to get the rest to safety while putting other, uncompromised agents, in their places. All while trying to defend himself to the government and the press.

Bond was rather at peace with the vindictive glee that he took in seeing his new boss on the hotseat. While he would follow Mallory's orders - up to a point, anyway - respect and trust were things that would take time to earn. Some of the distaste he felt for the man for being the instrument that had forced out M - his M, thankyouverymuch - was tempered by the fact that Mallory had, at least, put himself on the line when the situation required it. Bond still firmly believed, though, that if she hadn't had the prospect of a forced retirement hanging over her head, things would have gone differently. And that was a tough stumbling block to get around.

But the bad run of luck for MI6 (and the world) hadn't stopped with the list. Swiftly on the heels of the purge of undercover operatives came the coups. In an unprecedented move, rebel groups across the globe (perhaps sensing vulnerability in the world powers) coordinated their efforts and within a span of three days, governments in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia had all fallen. In one of those quirky coincidences of fate (but was it truly a coincidence? Bond's ever-cynical mind wondered), the leader of another Southeast Asian government died unexpectedly, and the line of succession was unclear. One of the rebel groups, sensing an opportunity for expansion, quickly made a bid for control of that country as well.

The result was that the whole of Southeast Asia was teetering on the brink of war, and one wrong move by anyone was going to send everything up in flames. Normally, Bond would have expected to be sent out to investigate that, to find out what had brought the disparate groups together, and if there was any sort of overarching organization that needed to be brought to heel.

But then the unthinkable happened. Someone dropped a nuclear bomb on Hong Kong's Central district, killing or critically injuring over half of the 250,000 resident and leveling many of the buildings. The pictures that came flying across the social media networks were the stuff of nightmares, and the news broadcasts that followed were no better. In a heartbeat, the world looked into the abyss and shuddered back.

While the world's attention was focused on the humanitarian and economic disaster in Hong Kong, many of the rebel groups took advantage of the divided attentions and solidified their positions. Practically overnight, the balance of power in the world's developing countries had shifted.

In response, most of the world's intelligence agencies, including MI6, had issued a general recall of their personnel. Any agents not on an Alpha-One priority mission were to make their way as quietly as possible to their section chiefs and await new instructions. For a Double-O, that meant finding his way to the headquarters in London.

Which was why Bond was braving Heathrow baggage claim and the tube on a Friday night, rather than being comfortably ensconced in a Cape Town hotel.

An irritating hour later, he paused on the corner a few blocks down from the MI6 headquarters building and pondered his options. There were, he knew, at least half a dozen entrances besides the conventional doors. Of those, two ran the risk of him being blown up, and another three couldn't be entered without immediate human observance.

The last was, of course, the most tricky to navigate, but also had the advantage of coming out directly in Q Branch. Giving a heartfelt sigh, and not caring who observed the motion, Bond spun on his heels and began to make for the first of the series of concealed doors and passages that would eventually lead him into the basement of the building. Part way there, he paused outside a cafe and made a snap decision. He was not going to attempt this without coffee. Possibly several coffees.

Half an hour later, the door to a supposed utility closet near Q's desk swung open from the inside to reveal a slightly dusty James Bond, who was holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a utility knife in the other.

"Q, you need to patch a bloody hole in your security system," he announced. "And I do mean 'hole'." He waved the knife a bit and dropped it on Q's desk.

"I wouldn't have to keep patching them if you didn't keep making them," Q replied without looking away from his computer. "Welcome home, 007. You look like hell."

"Good to see you, Q. You also owe me a damned coffee. The third door in wouldn't open until I shorted it out." He hefted the cup to show that it was empty and then binned it.

Q closed his eyes briefly, as if praying for patience. "Karen," he said, raising his voice enough to be heard over the electronic hum that pervaded the room, "would you kindly grab a kit and go repair the damage that Mr. Bond has inflicted on our systems?" One of the women in the room detached herself from her desk and headed back down the hidden passage. Q opened his eyes again and turned to Bond. "Sit, before you embarrass us all by falling over."

"What's going on?" Bond asked as he sat in the chair Q kicked towards him.

"Eve will be down in a few minutes. We'll explain then."

"With coffee?"

"With coffee," Q confirmed. That seemed to satisfy Bond, who closed his eyes and relaxed into the chair. Q turned back to his computer.

The tap-tap-tap of heels on the floor signaled Eve's arrival. Without opening his eyes, Bond held out his hand.

"Welcome home, James. You look like hell," Eve said as she curled his fingers around the mug.

"So I've been reliably informed," Bond replied without opening his eyes. He sat up a little and downed half the coffee in one go.

"Do I want to know how many cups you've had?" Eve asked.

"Only one since I landed. The second was sacrificed in the name of getting in here."

Eve raised her eyebrows.

"Apparently when Double-Os can't remember the passcode for a secret door, they throw coffee on it instead," Q said.

"Oh, James," Eve said in a tone of profound disappointment, but her eyes danced with mirth.

Bond heroically ignored them both and continued communing with his coffee. When he had drained the mug, he finally opened his eyes and shook himself lightly. He placed mug on Q's desk and turned to them, and Q was relieved to see that the agent's eyes were noticeably clearer and focused than they had been.

"Tell me why I'm here and not unconscious in my bed," Bond said lightly, but there was an edge to it.

Q and Eve exchanged a look, and Eve pulled over a third chair.

"We're starting to get information back from Hong Kong," she said quietly.

Surreptitiously, Q reached under his desk and pushed a button on a large box and there was a faint hum. "Muffling field," he explained. "Generates a white noise field in a five foot radius, making it harder for anyone to eavesdrop. It's not that I don't trust everyone in the department, but . . ."

"Someone's been reading Harry Potter again," Eve teased.

Q sniffed. "I'll take ideas from wherever I can find them."

"Hong Kong?" Bond prompted.

"It's bad, James. Worse than we thought. The fall-out alone. . . "

"But we were able to identify the bomb that was dropped," Q said.

"I wasn't aware that any were missing from known stocks."

"There aren't. Not current stocks, anyway."

"Then - "

"Bear with me, 007. After a nuclear detonation, the isotopic composition of the non-plutonium elements of the setup can be analyzed and traced. We can identify things like the lead that is used in the casing, maybe the aluminium or beryllium from the interior of the bomb. We've run the analysis and I'm reasonably confident that the bomb was made in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Bombay."

"But you just said there weren't any weapons missing."

"I know. That's what we thought, too. So we started to do a bit of digging. It turns out that none are missing today. Forty years ago, however, a prototype bomb went missing from - "

"The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Bombay," all three chorused together.

"So you're saying a nuclear bomb was hidden for almost forty years, and we're only finding out about it after it was detonated over Hong Kong?" Bond asked. "This is all very interesting, but since I presume that Mallory is also aware of all of this, it doesn't explain why I am here and not at home, asleep."

"Mallory does know all of that," Eve said. "But what we didn't tell him was where we found the information about the bomb."

Bond accepted the tablet that Q held out to him, and swallowed hard when he saw the painfully familiar face staring back at him from the digital file.

"Do you actually have the clearance to be accessing this?" Bond asked mildly, when he could speak again.

Q didn't even bother to roll his eyes. The flat look he gave was more than enough to answer the question.

"Olivia Mansfield earned her Double-Os at the age of twenty-six, making her not only the first woman to do so, but the youngest of either gender," Eve said quietly as Bond flipped through the pages.

"She was even more precocious than you, 007. And had a similar lack of regard for other people's property."

"She survived a remarkable fifteen years as a field agent, became the assistant to the head of MI6 for a while, and then was made Section Chief of Station H in the run up to the Handover. And the rest, as they say, is history."

This wasn't anything that Bond didn't already know. He had made it a point to go through her file as soon as he had the ability to do so.

"And the point?" he asked, impatient to get on with it. The guilt and pain were entirely too fresh to enjoy a waltz down memory lane.

"The point, 007," Q said as he took the tablet back and quickly brought up a specific section of the file, "is that no matter how good an agent she was, we all know that even Double-Os fail occasionally." He handed the tablet back to Bond.

Bond read through the section, and felt his eyebrows creeping higher and higher. "Damn," he swore when he had finished reading. "Damn, damn, damn. If only."

"I know," Eve agreed. "Hindsight is a bitch at the best of times, but to be able to see so clearly what could have been done to prevent this whole sequence of events. If they had listened to her, we might not be where we are today."

"So why tell me and not Mallory?" Bond asked, looking between Q and Eve.

Q cleared his throat. "Let me ask you this. If you could change the situation, if you could give her the help that she knew she needed, would you do it?"

"Of course."

Q said nothing, merely held Bond's gaze steadily. The agent's eyes widened in comprehension.

"No fucking way."

Q remained silent. The corner of Eve's mouth began to twitch, as if she were holding back laughter.

"You're not serious."

Eve began chuckling quietly and Q shot her a disgusted look. "Like you were any better when you found out?" he asked. Eve tilted her head in concession but kept laughing.

Q turned back to Bond. "I can do what I say."

"You haven't actually said anything," Bond pointed out pedantically. "But assuming that is true. Is it worth the risk? Say you could somehow send me back in time and we stopped the bomb from being stolen then. How do we know that makes anything better?"

"While there are certainly ways in which things could worse than they are right now," Q agreed, "we are rapidly reaching that situation. We have here a clear-cut scenario where there is a remarkably high probability that if event X had happened, event Y wouldn't. There's no such thing as a sure-fire solution, especially when dealing with time travel, but this is about as close as we are ever going to get."

Bond closed his eyes against the world, and the three sat for a few moments in silence. Neither Q nor Eve dared to say anything, sensing that the agent was balanced on the edge of a decision.

Finally, he opened his eyes again. "Why me?"

"Because you have proven over and over again that you will do whatever it takes to finish the job," Eve said immediately. "Because you will do anything for Queen, country, and her."

"Don't make this personal," Bond snapped.

"But it is, don't you see that?" she said.

"Look, would you trust anyone else to do this?" Q cut in before the other two could start arguing. "Is there anyone else in the world you would trust with watching her back?"

Bond snapped his mouth shut and glared at the Quartermaster, silently conceding the point.

"Haven't you always wondered what it would be like?" Eve whispered. "She was the best, and she made you the best. Haven't you ever wondered what it would be like to partner with her, out there in the field? Do you think there would be anything the two of you couldn't accomplish together?"

It was seductive, Bond decided, hearing ideas he had never dared to even consciously think being voice out loud.

He pushed those questions aside and gave Eve a hard stare. "Can Mallory separate his own opinion from whatever his official position might be?"

"You want to tell him?" she said, surprised.

"Answer the question, Moneypenny. You're in his pocket all day. Would he be able to turn a blind eye to something if he couldn't officially support it?"

Eve chewed on her lower lip and thought hard. "Yes," she said slowly. "Yes, I think he would. If it was something he felt was necessary, but couldn't be seen officially supporting."

Bond gave her a searching look and nodded sharply. He turned to Q. "Just how sanctioned is this little project of yours?"

"It's been an official project in the department since well before my time. We've known for years the theory behind what needs to happen, but the technology is only now catching up to where we need it to be." Q paused. "The fact that I have what should be a working prototype is. . . less well known."

"Should be?"

"Well it's not like I can test it, now can I?"

Bond sat back to consider the situation, to test the choice he was going to make. The decision settled into his bones softly, like it had always been there and was just waiting for him to notice it. He could feel his adrenalin starting to simmer, wiping away some of the exhaustion.

"Eve, go get Mallory. Do whatever you have to to get him down here. I'll take the blame."

"Don't you always?" Eve tossed back as she headed out.

Bond prowled restlessly around until Q snapped. "Oh do sit down, 007, and stop behaving like a caged animal."

Bond glared at the back of his head, but Q was largely immune to that by now, so the agent sat down again with the tablet and began rereading the file.

They heard Mallory before they saw him.

"Q, what the hell is so important - " Mallory stopped when he rounded the corner. "Bond. I should have known you were mixed up in this mess. I wasn't expecting to see you until tomorrow."

"To be fair, I wasn't expecting to be here either, sir. But we've got some new information that you need to hear." He nodded to Eve.

"As you know, sir, the bomb that was dropped on Hong Kong was taken from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre sometime in 1973 or '74. What we've just discovered were the circumstances under which the bomb was stolen. Olivia Mansfield, acting in her capacity as Agent 005, was sent out to investigate something called the Phoenix Foundation, which was behind the unsuccessful bid in 1972 to create an independent, libertarian nation in the South Pacific. The request for help actually came from the then-newly independent government of the Bahamas, who feared that the Phoenix Foundation was trying something similar with the island of Abaco. They were, and 005 successfully foiled that plot."

Mallory gave his agents a pained look. He knew perfectly well who Olivia Mansfield was. He sighed audibly, realizing how ridiculous it would be to ask this group how they gained access to her files. "Continue," he ordered.

"After the plot in the Bahamas," Bond said, picking up the narrative, "she realized that the group might try more violent attempts to gain control of a territory. With permission from Six, she stayed on the trail and eventually discovered that the Phoenix Foundation was going to attempt to infiltrate India's fledgling nuclear program. Their aim, she said, was to either steal a nuclear weapon outright or create a hostage situation where they could demand a territory of their own. She followed, hoping to be able to stop them."

"But obviously she failed."

"No, sir," Bond said firmly. "She was not allowed to succeed. When she evaluated the situation in Bombay, she quickly realized that, as good as we are, even a Double-O can't be in two places at once. She suspected that some of the government officials had already been bought off, and short of going to Prime Minister Gandhi herself, she wasn't sure who to trust. So she requested help from Six, only to be flatly denied. She knew she couldn't do the job herself, but wasn't allowed the help she requested to complete the mission."

"This is all fascinating, I'm sure, Bond, but what's the point?"

"The point is that if she had got the help she asked for - even just one more agent working with her - she probably would have succeeded, the bomb wouldn't have been stolen, and Hong Kong would still be standing today."

"What do you want me to do? We don't deal in might-have-beens, you know that! It's not like I can turn back time and - "

Q cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably. Mallory rounded on him. "What?" he snapped.

"Have you been briefed on Project Wells, sir?"

Mallory's eyebrows flew up into his receding hairline. "You mean that's real?"

Bond felt the corners of his mouth trying to twitch and when he caught Eve's eye, she gave him a pointed look, as if to say "See? Told you."

"Yes, sir. We could, in fact, send someone back in time to give 005 the help she requested and prevent the bomb from being stolen."

Mallory sat down heavily in the chair that Eve had abandoned and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Let me see the file. Don't play coy with me," he said when Bond started to make noises of denial. "Let me see the damned file. I want to read it for myself."

Bond handed over the tablet and there was a tense silence as Mallory read through the file.

"How confident are you that this would work?" he asked without looking up.

"In the technology or in the potential outcomes?" Q asked in return.


"Very confident in the technology, reasonably confident in the outcomes, sir. Determining cause and effect is a thankless task at the best of times, but this scenario eliminates many of the more awkward variables. I can show you the analysis if you'd like."

Mallory waved him off. "No, no. This is what we pay you for. If you say doing something as crazy as this wouldn't leave the world in a worse situation and might even make it better, I would be a fool not to listen to you."

He looked from Q to Bond and finally to Eve. "You three are going to go ahead with this, no matter what I say, aren't you?"

The silence he received in response spoke volumes.

"So why tell me at all?" To his surprise, both Q and Eve looked at Bond.

"Because contrary to popular belief," the agent said, "I do not particularly like entrusting the fate of the world to an unauthorized mission. I would prefer to do this with your blessing, sir."

"But you'll go behind my back and do it anyway, if I say no."

"As you say."

Mallory glared half-heartedly at Bond, and turned back to Q. "I assume waiting a few hours at this point won't really make much of a difference in your calculations?"

"No, sir."

"Good. Bond, go home. Go home and sleep. I don't want to see you back here for at least eight hours. Ten would be better. Q, start figuring out whatever it is that you need to figure out to make this happen. I'll meet you all back here in twelve hours. Either I'll find a way to make this official, or I'll be here unofficially. Moneypenny, with me."

Mallory stood and turned to go, but then paused and turned back. "Bond, off the record - I can't think of anyone I'd rather have watching her back."

Twelve hours later, the four met again around Q's desk. It was amazing what eight hours of sleep in your own bed could do for your outlook on the world, Bond decided. The adrenalin that had begun to simmer before was even more pronounced now, and he was itching to do something. A small satchel lay at his feet. He wasn't sure if Q was going to allow him bring anything with him, but he wanted to be prepared.

Mallory gave him an appraising look and nodded once, sharply.

"This will be an official assignment for 007," Mallory said. "However, there will be no written trace of it until after he passes through Q's time portal. If I am understanding things correctly, our conception of the 'present' will change radically as soon as he does so, and quite frankly, none of us may be here, or if we are, may remember why he did it. If the situation arises that I do remember what we've discussed and done here, I will write it up as Eyes Only for future directors to know about."

He looked around and received three nods of acceptance. "Good. Now there's just one more thing we need to do."

"And what might that be? Sir," Bond added belatedly. He was anxious to get going now that the pieces were all in place and only years of training was preventing him from fidgeting.

Mallory barred his teeth in a mockery of a grin. "The rules of the mission, Bond. You didn't think we were going to let you romp around through time without some sort of guidelines, did you?"

They spent several hours hammering out a list of rules to obey when time traveling. Bond endured this delay with surprising good grace. When Eve questioned his uncharacteristic submission, Bond said mildly, "I can hardly break the rules if I don't know what they are, now can I?"

"These are meant to be followed," Mallory retorted in exasperation, "not a checklist of things to do."

Finally, though, things were hashed out to everyone's satisfaction. Q outfitted Bond with as many small pieces of technology as he felt he could keep concealed.

"Look, 007, I am well aware of your typical laxity when it comes to returning my equipment in one piece. However, I must impress upon you the absolute necessity of it on this mission," Q said sternly while adjusting the earpiece on a pair of sunglasses that would link up with several satellites. "You cannot leave any of this behind, and it would really be better if you didn't leave any bits and pieces in a trail behind you either. The last thing we need is technology forty years ahead its time getting out and contaminating the time-stream."

He handed over the glasses with a glare. "Capisce?"

"Capisce," Bond agreed meekly.

Q eyed him suspiciously for a moment and then moved a boxy object about the size of a large speaker into the clear area beside his desk.

"This," he said, indicating the box, "will generate the portal necessary for sending you back to 1973. We have set the coordinates for an alleyway in Bombay near to the hotel where M - Olivia, that is - was staying. The portal will be something of a one-way mirror. We shall be able to see through it, but it will not be visible from the other side. Hopefully this will allow 007 to make his entrance unobserved."

"What happens if someone on the other side touches or walks through the portal?" Mallory asked, looking intrigued.

Q made a face. "Things would get messy. Very messy." He turned back to Bond. "Now then, this," he held up a small object that looked like a car key fob, "is your ticket back home. It will open up a portal to this room in the present time. It is set for fifteen minutes from now, in fact, so you shouldn't have any difficulties. I don't think the universe could handle two 007s. The black button will open the portal, the red will close it again behind you. Do. Not. Lose. This." He punctuated each word with a shake of the hand that was closed around the device. Reluctantly, he handed it over to Bond.

Eve looked curiously between the two devices. "Why -" she started to ask.

"-is one so much bigger than the other?" Q finished for her. "Because here," he patted the box, "I'm fighting against the very structure of the universe. There is nothing more unnatural than creating a disruption in the space-time continuum, especially one that seeks to move backwards in time as we understand it. I need a great deal of power to do so with any sort of precision. That one," he gestured to the key fob he had handed Bond, "really only needs to create the rip in space-time. I'm working with the universe in that case, and like the body rejecting a foreign object, it will seek to spit out the intrusion."

Eve laughed at the look on Bond's face when Q finished his explanation.

"I'm not sure I like that comparison," Bond said.

"Aww, poor baby," she mocked, but came over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Take care of her, and then come home to us," she said quietly before stepping back.

He smiled faintly at her and then looked to Mallory.

Mallory cleared his throat. "You know what to do. I don't need to tell you how important it is. Even if you never do it again, I need you to put your ego aside and concentrate on the mission." He paused. "And so help me, Bond, if you fuck this up - "

"With respect, sir, if I fuck this up, whatever you want to do to me will probably be irrelevant."

Mallory opened his mouth to respond but closed it with a snap. His mouth contorted into something resembling a smirk. "You have a point there. But for all our sakes, just - don't."

"I'll do my best, sir."

"Ready, 007?"

"Whenever you are, Q."

Bond nodded firmly, and Q tapped a few things on his tablet. The box beside him began to hum and the air in front of them seemed to shimmer and vibrate.

There was a bright flash of light and what could only be described as a tear in the universe appeared. The brightness expanded outwards into a ring whose edge just brushed with floor. Within the glowing circumference, the air wavered before resolving itself into the image of a dank alley.

Bond picked up his satchel and, trying very hard not to feel like he was walking to his execution, stepped up to the portal. He looked to Q for confirmation.

Q nodded once. "Whenever it's clear. Good luck, James."

Bond took a deep breath, waited until his field of vision down the alley was clear of any observers, and stepped through.

The next ten minutes were some of the strangest Q had ever experienced. The closest analog he could come up with was being in a dream state. From his perspective, he was the constant, while locations and people seemed to flicker in and out around him. But at any given moment, the place he was and the people he was with made perfect sense.

One moment he was standing by his desk in Q branch with Eve and Mallory, the next Mallory was gone, but the previous M was there, alive and unharmed. Then he was in York, in Oxford, and then back in London. Eve was there and then she wasn't and then she was there again but she was a he.

Different realities cascading through as Bond changes the timeline, he managed to think, before that thought, too, was swept away, or possibly never was.

Existences flicked by faster and faster and faster until -

Blinding light.

And then everything stopped.

Q shook his head, trying to clear the vague sense of memory, like a dream half remembered, and tried to focus on the situation at hand. The tear in the universe started to expand into the portal, and he motioned everyone to the side, out of the direct path of the portal.

"Hopefully, 007 will be the only one attempting to come through, but let's not take any chances, shall we?"

He nodded in agreement as Eve quietly drew her gun, and then there was movement in the portal image, and everyone froze, holding their collective breath.

Bond staggered through the portal, concentrating all his effort on making it through and pushing the button to collapse the field behind him. Having accomplished that, he dropped to his hands and knees, head hanging and gasping for breath, but still tense and ready for attack.

When none came, he allowed himself to relax enough to become aware of his surroundings. The floor beneath his hands was smooth and cool, and there was an omnipresent hum of electronics that he hadn't been aware he had been missing. He tried to open his eyes and look around, but the fluorescent lights, unbearably harsh compared to the dim back streets of Bombay, made him flinch. At least his brief glimpse convinced him that he had made it back to Q Branch - a Q Branch, anyway.

"Did it work, then?" he croaked. His voice was laced with exhaustion, pain and smoke.

"Indeed it did, 007. Indeed it did." The painfully familiar voice from behind him made Bond spin around on his knees, a new surge of adrenalin giving him strength.

"M?" One hand involuntarily reached out to her.

"Welcome home, my dear James," she said, and dropped to her knees, impeccably tailored pantsuit be damned, in time to catch Bond, as relief swept away the last of his reserves.

Then, for the first time in living memory, on the cold, impersonal floor of Q Branch, in the arms of his M, a Double-O agent broke down crying.