The day that started the beginning of the end was a lot like any other day. When Peter thought about it later, what stood out in his mind was that he should've gone with his first instinct: Never trust the CIA.
That said something, coming from Peter. Peter Andrew Burke had worked for the FBI for over a decade, and while he wasn’t entirely sinless—who was?—he knew, in a distant sort of way, that for the average American, his own record came pretty close. Neal would say that Peter had majored in do-gooding with minors in decency and sanctimoniousness. (Neal would also say that Peter was a square—but Peter was pretty okay with that description, all things considered; it had two sides to it, one bad and one good, and if he was honest with himself, Peter could admit that both applied equally.)
Today, though, he was working on another adoption fraud case. This type of case always made Peter feel slightly soiled, no matter how many times he washed his hands or how crisp the starched lines in his grey pinstripe suit were. He hated cases where kids got the short end of the stick worse than any other kind. At least this one looked pretty cut-and-dried.
"Caffrey, Burke, my office."
Agent Hughes's voice came through Peter's doorway, and both he and Neal looked up from their respective paperwork—or, well, Peter was doing paperwork. It looked like Neal was doodling on a FR-130 form, but still. "Be right there, boss," Peter said, and Neal nodded.
"Am I in trouble?" Neal said to Peter as he stood and buttoned his jacket. "You would tell me if I were in trouble, right?" Neal’s voice was light, his smile easy, but Peter knew him well enough by now to catch the faint note of tension in his words.
"If you're in trouble, I don’t know about it," Peter said. He closed the manila folder he'd been looking at and put it back in the drawer before standing himself. “Why, did you do something?”
"No comment,” said Neal, but he laughed as Peter slugged him in the shoulder on their way out of Peter’s office, and his matching smile was real.
Hughes was standing beside his desk when Peter and Neal entered, talking to a tall, dark-haired man with what his wife Elizabeth would have said was cute hair. The man wore a dark-blue suit and a light grey shirt, high enough in quality that Neal made a faintly approving noise at Peter’s side. At Hughes's direction, Neal closed the door. "Now I'm sure I'm in trouble," he murmured to Peter.
Hughes must have overhead Neal’s comment, or at least guessed at it; the corner of his mouth quirked as he gestured at the man beside him. “Burke, Caffrey, this is Jack Pfotenhauer,” he said. “Agent Pfotenhauer’s with the CIA. He’s got a unique request for the two of you.”
Pfotenhauer smiled slightly, reaching out a hand to shake, first Peter, then Neal. Peter got the distinct impression that Pfotenhauer was only dealing with him to get to Neal, and yeah, he was used to that by now. That still didn’t mean he had to like it.
“Call me Jack,” Pfotenhauer said, as they all took a seat.
"Jack," Peter repeated. "So, what does the CIA want with a CI art forger?" Peter kept his eyes on Pfotenhauer, although he kicked Neal’s foot lightly under the chair. Neal’s role with the FBI as a criminal informant was not without precedent, by any means, but Peter still sometimes had to be overzealous with preventing other people from abusing the fact that Neal wasn’t technically an FBI employee and therefore lacked certain legal protections.
"Alleged art forger," Neal interjected, megawatt smile firmly in place.
"Alleged art forger," Peter amended.
Hughes' mouth quirked again, but Jack's blandly-stern look didn't change. He looked as though he practiced that expression in the mirror: I am so far from impressed right now that I am on another planet, his face said, and Peter had to slap down the urge to smile at the thought. He’d been spending too much time with Neal. "In the last forty-eight hours,” said Jack, “The Tate Modern, Tate Britain, and the Louvre have all reported discovering that some of their more priceless works have been tampered with, and likely replaced with forgeries." He held out an open manila folder, displaying photographs of paintings that even schoolchildren would recognize: Caravaggio’s second Fortune Teller, Turner’s The Golden Bough, a Titian, Klee’s Comedy, a painting that Peter vaguely recognized as a Kandinsky, and several other Turners.
Peter took the folder from him and held it between himself and Neal, flipping through the photographs. He whistled. "Pretty impressive collection of paintings to have all been stolen at once."
“The thief has excellent taste,” Neal commented, seemingly unaware of the Olympic-gold-medal eye roll this prompted from Peter. “Ingres’s Grand Odalisque... well that’s priceless, despite the fact that she may have five vertebrae too many. And Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose—that’s one of my favorite John Singer Sargents. Can’t fault his choices at all.” Neal’s smile was wide and relaxed; now Peter knew he was playing coy. Then again, Neal was always coy. That was part of the problem.
"So what exactly are you here for?" Peter glanced over at Jack again. "If it's to accuse my CI of something, I'd be happy to pull his GPS tracking logs to prove to you that he's been nowhere near either London or Paris, or, for that matter, anywhere outside of New York. And I haven't heard you mentioning anything here." He left the in my jurisdiction unsaid.
Jack's smile was half-smile and half-sneer, but Peter held his gaze anyway. A moment passed, and then Jack said, "We aren't accusing Mr. Caffrey of anything. We just believe that he may possess information that would help us investigate this case."
"'We'?" Peter asked.
"At the moment, the CIA, Interpol, and the Met are all working together, although MI5 and MI6 are also being brought in for consults." Jack's quiet huff let Peter know exactly what he thought of that.
“Wow, that’s a pretty good alphabet soup,” said Neal, eyes widening fractionally. “Why is the British Secret Service’s international division involved at all? Isn’t that more MI5’s party?”
Jack shrugged fractionally. “MI6 specifically requested a consultation with Neal Caffrey, and once that was submitted, Interpol seconded it; MI5 will be making arrangements for you should you agree to participate,” he said. “I’m here primarily as a facilitator.”
"I was wondering why the CIA was involved," Peter said, trying not to make it sound accusatory.
"Wrong place at the wrong time," Jack said. Peter felt the slightest inkling of sympathy for the man, which he ruthlessly suppressed.
“So what exactly do you want me to do?” Neal asked, eyes still wide with his best who, me? expression, the one that could charm Scrooge out of his last coin. “I can’t exactly identify a forgery from pictures.”
“If we send Caffrey out of the country, he’ll need to be on a short leash, since the GPS beacon in his tracker won’t work in the UK without serious tweaking,” Hughes said, interjecting for the first time. “No offense, Caffrey. And he’d need to be under FBI supervision the entire time.” Peter felt a flare of gratitude for his boss. Neal had apparently moved beyond simply “good asset” territory to something more, and Peter was glad to not have to defend Neal all on his own.
Not that it would have stopped him.
"Both conditions that we expected," Jack said, "and of course we'll pay for presumably Agent Burke here to accompany Mr. Caffrey to Paris and then London to consult with the authorities there, regarding the authenticity of the paintings and, assuming they are forgeries, to suggest who might have painted them."
"Agents Burke and Berrigan," Hughes said. "No offense, Peter."
"None taken, sir." As ‘reformed’ as Neal professed (and even appeared) to be, he was still a handful, and Peter would appreciate Diana’s—Agent Berrigan’s—presence. She’d been his probie and was a hell of an agent now, if he did say so himself. From Neal’s face, he didn’t look as though he minded either, despite the implied impugnment of his good name.
In fact, if Peter didn’t know better, he’d say Neal looked downright pleased. Neal sat up straighter in his chair, expression shifting from simple attentiveness to something like glee. “So,” he said casually, “How long of a trip are we talking here?”
"No more than three or four days," Jack said. "We can leave as early as this afternoon, if that's time enough, and including travel time, you'll be back by Wednesday evening."
“I have cases here we’re in the middle of,” Peter pointed out, by way of stifling his very unprofessional urge to grab Neal by the back of his neck and not let go till Jack Pfotenhauer left the building. “Are you signing off on this, sir?”
"I'm sure Jones can handle your cases for a few days," Hughes observed.
Peter sighed. It was true, and the cases they were in the middle of weren't particularly delicate—nothing that really required his personal attention. Besides, CIA agents and possible major theft aside, he'd love to see Neal light up again like he had when Jack mentioned Paris. Unless Peter missed his mark, the reaction would be even better when confronted with the real thing.
Unfortunately, so would Elizabeth’s. Peter stifled a surge of disappointment; they called it ‘work’ because it wasn’t necessarily meant to be fun. "I can be ready to go in a couple hours. Neal?"
“I can be ready by then,” Neal said swiftly. Of course he could.
Which just left Elizabeth. She wasn’t going to love Peter taking Neal on a trip to Europe without her, even if it was brief and for work. And to Paris, no less. “I think that’s that, then,” said Hughes, bringing Peter back to the moment. “I’ll get the paperwork arranged; we’ll have to get Caffrey a tracker that works with European cell service—”
“Oh, MI6 has already said they’ll handle that, once he gets to England,” interjected Jack, not looking up from the paperwork he was flipping through on his lap.
“Good,” said Hughes, “but it still means he won’t have a tracker for approximately twenty-four hours, so we’ll have to notify the Marshalls of his status regardless. Now.” Hughes sat up, leveling a stern expression at Neal. “Caffrey. I hope I don’t have to tell you how much faith the FBI is putting in you right now. Don’t make me regret it.”
“Sir,” said Neal, adopting his best kicked-puppy eyes. “I would never—”
“Save it,” said Hughes, but Peter thought he sounded amused. “Get out of here, you’ve got lots to get covered. Peter, we’ll be in touch with your itinerary.”
Peter nodded. "Sir. Jack."
Jack followed them down the hallway to Peter's office, acting as if he were the one escorting them rather than being escorted, but when he reached his doorway Peter said, "The elevator's there. I'm sure you can find your way out from here."
It wasn't a question (in fact it barely qualified as civil) but Jack nodded anyway. "I'll see the both of you later."
When the elevator doors closed behind the CIA agent, Neal turned to Peter, all but bouncing on the balls of his feet in excitement. "Peter. Paris! And London!"
"I know," he said.
"It’s been so long since I’ve been out of Manhattan, and Paris is absolutely gorgeous at this time of year—and maybe we can catch one of the exhibitions at Tate Modern, and...” Neal deflated, just a touch, as reality seemed to catch up. “El's gonna be jealous,” he finished, eyes flicking to Peter’s face and holding.
"I know that, too," Peter said. "I’ll talk to her. Let's get you back home to June’s. I'll call and let you know what time we're leaving as soon as they get back to me." It was a credit to June Ellington, the retired widower who owned the honest-to-god mansion that Neal rented a room in, that she never seemed bothered by any of the odd hours or random situations Neal got himself into. Peter knew that was more because of her late husband’s own criminal history than anything else, but he still couldn’t help but like her for it. She was one tough lady.
"Okay." Neal flashed him one last huge grin. Peter did not sigh, although it was close.
On the drive home from Neal's, Peter called Elizabeth, because (he was prepared to admit it) he was, on occasion, a coward.
"Hi, honey," she said. "Is something up?" Her tone was somewhere between cheerful and knowing; Peter reflected that someday he would have to time exactly how quickly she figured him out based just on the tone of his voice and the time of day he called her.
"Well, yes," he said, maneuvering deftly between a couple of taxis and almost getting run into by a bike courier. "It turns out that Neal and Diana and I are going to be shipped off to England and France for a couple days, to see about some possibly-forged paintings. It'll be pretty boring; I think most of our time will be spent traveling, and I'll be home in three or four days."
"Oh," Elizabeth said. "Well, what a strange coincidence. I have some suppliers over in England I'd been planning on visiting in person for the last few months, but never could seem to find time to. Maybe we could coordinate our trips, and I could meet you in London, maybe share a hotel room if that's possible, and have a nice dinner out if we've got time?"
"Huh," he said.
"At the very worst," she said, "at least we won't be taking work trips at opposite times."
"That's a good point," he said. Caterer, he reminded himself wryly. Organized, meticulous, capable of turning any situation to advantage. Still the most brilliant woman he’d ever met.
"And, oh, look, I can get a ticket to London for about a thousand dollars, leaving tomorrow," she said. "That's pretty good."
"It's true," he said. "Well, we're leaving later this evening, I think, but—” Use your words, Burke. “—well, to be honest, El, I would absolutely love to have you there. I'll have to check on the hotel room business—they may want me handcuffed to Neal for the whole trip or something else ridiculous like that . . ." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he flushed, but went on. ". . . but otherwise, that sounds great."
"Good!" she said. "I'll call, make some meetings, rearrange some events. It shouldn't take me too long."
"Good," he said. "Good."
* * * * *
That was alright, though. Fixing things, making things, that was what he was good at. Q loved his job and almost everything associated with it.
On the list of things Q didn’t love, however, “phone calls at 4 am” were definitely in the top five. It slotted in above doctor’s appointments, but several spots below being poisoned by synthetic snake venom. Thankfully, that last one had only happened the one time, and he’d escaped relatively unscathed.
Phone calls at asinine hours of the morning, on the other hand, happened all too regularly. On this occasion, his mobile went off at 3:52 am, bleating demandingly at him from the nook carved into his recessed bookcase alongside the bed. James grunted in Q’s ear, the arm wrapped around Q’s stomach tightening minutely as Q rolled over, groping for the mobile and shoving it against his face.
“What is it,” he snapped. Oh, this had better be good. James had only just got back from a mission to Syria not eight hours ago.
"Why, Q, it is so lovely to hear your dulcet tones this morning," Moneypenny's voice said.
“Moneypants,” Q sighed. His ire subsided, but only infinitesimally, and Moneypenny's chuckle in his ear didn't help. "Do I need to come in?"
"You do," she said, no doubt secure in the knowledge that she was just about the only person who could call Q at this hour of the day without incurring a string of curse words for her troubles. Ostensibly, Moneypenny was M’s personal secretary; in reality, her most typical job description was more Black Widow than Pepper Potts (though she could switch between modes with flawless ease). "Do you remember the tracker I asked you about yesterday? Well, the time-table's been moved up, and we need it around nine this morning. The person we need it for will be flying in at around quarter past."
"Oh," Q said, and rubbed his eyes before grabbing James' arm and removing it from his body, not without a significant amount of effort; James seemed about as happy with letting Q up as Q was with being called in. "Alright. I'll be there in about forty-five minutes. I had it mostly done, so I'll have no problem finishing it off. Who was it for, again?"
"I never told you in the first place," Moneypenny said.
"That's right, you didn't. So who's it for?" Q grabbed his glasses and put them on. “Tell me now or I’ll look it up myself, as you bloody well know.” Deprived of his human bed-pillow, James grabbed for one of the down ones Q’s head had previously been on and rolled over onto his stomach. Q eyed the inviting curve of his lover’s arse, only half-hidden by the sheets. It was such a nice distraction that he actually didn’t hear Moneypenny’s response the first time. “I’m sorry, what?”
“I said, it’s for a Neal Caffrey,” said Moneypenny. “Do try to keep up, boffin.”
“NealCaffrey?” Q frowned, coming fully and sharply awake. He knew that name. He hadn’t heard it in years, but he knew it, and the person it belonged to. “He’s out of prison, then?”
“Sort of. Works as a consultant for the FBI, apparently.” Beside him, James gave up the pretense of soldiering back to sleep, and sat up, watching Q. Considering that the last time they’d been woken by an early-morning phone call for Q, the ensuing shit-storm had nearly killed them both, Q couldn’t exactly blame him.
“Right,” said Q. “That’s worth knowing. I’ll have it ready right away.”
"I'm sure you will," she said. "Bring it to M when you're done."
"I will." Q ended the call, set his phone back on the shelf, and looked up at James. "Alas, duty calls."
James made a low, rumbly noise in the back of his throat. "Who's Neal Caffrey?"
"An artist," Q said vaguely, rolling out of bed and onto his feet, accidentally dislodging Carly from her position behind his knees. She made her displeasure known with a loud yowl and a flounce as she jumped off the bed. "Sorry, kitten," he called after her, and searched by the bed for his previously-discarded pants. "Anyway. I knew him for a bit back when I was in my less-than-lawful days, mostly by reputation. He was in prison for a number of years, went in right after I came back to England, and now he's out and apparently working for the FBI."
"What was he in prison for?" James asked.
"Bond forgery, but at the time I met him he was mostly forging paintings." He found his pants and pulled them on before going to the wardrobe for a fresh shirt and trousers. “Just one of the tricks in his arsenal, supposedly. Janessa once told me a story about how he conned a lawyer into giving him the Gucci coat off his back, and I'd believe it. Brilliant man. Charming, too, could give you a run for your money in that department.”
James lifted his chin slightly, his eyes focusing sharply on Q’s face. “Is that so,” he said mildly.
Q glanced at James, his smile arch. “It is, as a matter of fact,” he said. “But more importantly, if even half the rumors about him are true, he was one of the best con men in the business. I’ll be interested to know what he’s doing here.” He pulled on his shirt, fumbling the buttons through the holes, his whole body aching with the need to go back to bed. They hadn't actually fallen asleep more than perhaps three hours ago, despite the fact that James had been awake for a long time before that, and so he added, "You should stay and sleep."
"Oh, no," James said. "You've got me intrigued now, and I'd like to meet this Caffrey character. When did you say he gets in?"
Q shook his head. "Not until after nine, fortunately," he said. "So you could get more sleep, take a shower, and be at your best when you swing by to meet the man who's got MI6 so scared I had to invent new technology just to keep track of him."
“Mmm.” James stood up, stretching, helpfully showing off his bandaged-but-still magnificent abdominal muscles; the bullet had just grazed his rib cage, resulting in a bloody but superficial wound. Q liked to tease James about being some kind of carven Greek statue that had up and wandered out of the British Museum, but sometimes he had to pinch himself from exactly how close to the truth that was. “I look forward to it,” he said, and stepped into Q’s personal space, cupping his face and kissing him softly. Q lifted his head to kiss back, his hand lingering on James’ shoulder.
“Enjoy your rest, 007,” Q said, pulling back with some reluctance.
“I intend to, Quartermaster.” James smirked and slid past Q towards the door, not bothering to look over his shoulder to watch Q staring at his arse. Bastard.
Q made it to work five minutes later than predicted, thanks to a certain double-oh agent's wandering hands, and slid into his seat a little before five in the morning. He pulled up all the information he could access on Neal Caffrey, spreading it out over his monitors, and looked over it as he compiled the code for the nanotracker he was working on.
Apparently Neal had been a busy boy. He'd managed to escape jail just three short months before his four years were up, and had almost immediately been re-captured by Agent Burke—who then got him out as a consultant. Together, they'd garnered rather impressive case-closing statistics, including putting away such criminal luminaries as The Dutchman, Ghovat, and Lao Shen. Q didn't handle much in the way of art crimes in his daily duties, but some of those people had committed crimes within his remit, and he was glad to see them gone. And as an art aficionado himself, Q could appreciate the kind of work that Neal and his agent did together.
He chewed on the inside of his lip, eyes going distant for a moment as he finally let the guilt he'd been repressing wash over him. Q hadn't been—entirely truthful with James about the extent of his familiarity with Neal Caffrey.
It wasn't as though he was hiding any great secret, really. He and Neal had both been very thoroughly spoken for at the time of knowing each other, and anyway their connection had had much less to do with sex and more to do with the kind of chemistry Q had only ever experienced once or twice in his life, sparked by a mutual love of art in all its glories.
Q would have needed a lot more tea and a lot more sleep in order to effectively lie to himself about the fact that he was nervous at the prospect of seeing Neal again. The last time he’d been confronted by someone out of his past, it… hadn’t gone so well. He’d put that period of his life behind him for a reason. Neal, though, was a very different matter. And the more Q thought about the six weeks they’d known each other, the more his anxiety dwindled.
What's more, Neal had seemingly been on the straight and narrow the entire time since leaving prison--the second time, as it were. There were indications of a couple of investigations over the last year, but the notes unanimously said that he'd been exonerated of all charges against him. Q found that a bit difficult to believe, based on the young man he'd known for just shy of two months, but people could change, he supposed.
Especially given a good reason.
Q minimized the folder he’d been looking at and returned his attention to the computer program on his screen, a faint smile lighting his face. Neal Caffrey was coming to London. Q was going to make sure he just happened to run into an old friend while in town.
* * * * *
In fact, if pressed, she would have gone with “crabass.”
"I do not drool," Peter was saying as Elizabeth walked up, weaving her way through the crowd of people at Heathrow’s arrivals area.
"Yes, you do," Neal said, rubbing at a damp patch on the shoulder of his suit. "You drool almost as much as Satchmo."
Peter scowled, and just as he was crossing his arms over his chest and drawing himself up to retort, he noticed Elizabeth and cut himself off. “Hi, honey,” he started to say, and then his bag dislodged itself from his shoulder and went crashing into the besuited man next to him, who already had a pained look on his face. Peter gave the man an apologetic look and pushed the bag back into his place with one hand.
“Hi there, Mrs. Burke,” said the stranger, pointedly ignoring Peter. “It’s very nice to meet you. I’m Jack Pfotenhauer.” Ah, thought Elizabeth. The CIA agent Peter didn’t like, probably just on principle.
“Hi El,” said Neal, with considerably more warmth.
“Glad to see you all made it in one piece,” Elizabeth said, unable to repress a grin at the various shades of cross expressions. She came forward and accepted a hug and a kiss from Peter, a hug from Neal, and a handshake from Jack, before looking around. “Where’s Diana?” she asked. “I thought she was coming too?”
“Starbucks run,” said Peter.
“She got tired of listening to us argue, so she abandoned us to go get coffee,” translated Neal, earning himself another dark look from Peter.
Elizabeth grinned. “Ah,” was all she said.
With permission from various law enforcement agencies, Elizabeth had arranged to meet her three agents and con man at Heathrow. She'd been in London for all of three hours by the time they got through customs and hadn't made it out of the airport, but Peter's presence really ameliorated the jet lag and grimy feeling. She was extraordinarily lucky that they would be allowing her to stay in the hotel with Peter, but since he'd have his own room anyway, it wasn't as if she was really incurring any more cost for them.
It didn’t really surprise her that everyone was cranky, though. Twelve hours of international travel plus a mere four hours on the ground in Paris, combined with attempting to keep Interpol from putting Neal into an oubliette (okay, not actually, but they had tried to arrest him), and then another couple hours in airports getting them to London... she’d be cranky, too.
Diana re-appeared with coffee mere minutes after Elizabeth located her group, and then they all trooped outside to wait for the car MI6 had sent over. “I’m surprised they’re not here yet,” Elizabeth observed. “The fuss they made over Neal...”
“Yes, well, I don’t think Neal has offended the British quite the way he has the French,” said Peter. Neal pouted, and Elizabeth patted him soothingly on the shoulder.
“Either that or traffic is just really bad,” said Jack blandly. He was wearing dark sunglasses now that they were outside, and Elizabeth would have thought it an affectation if she weren’t wishing for a pair of her own. Traveling with two FBI agents, a CIA agent, and Neal Caffrey's legendary charm probably made international travel a lot easier, but it certainly didn’t help with jet lag. Elizabeth winced and rubbed her temple when a car blared its horn a little too close by for comfort.
“That’s why I love this job,” Diana remarked. “It’s so glamorous.” She was lingering behind and slightly to the right of Elizabeth, her affect casual, but Elizabeth Anne Wilburn had only been Elizabeth Burke for about six months before she’d learned to recognize that pseudo-nonchalant hover all law enforcement agents had, the one that said they would have their hand on their gun in a split-second at the first sign of trouble. Elizabeth didn’t think that was really necessary here, but she could understand why everyone was a little on edge.
She'd heard only a few details about what had actually happened in Paris, but what she had heard disappointed her. The Parisian authorities had apparently been ridiculous and revoked their promise not to arrest Neal at the last minute, and Peter and Jack had been up all night keeping Neal out of jail and arranging transport to London. Peter had mentioned how disappointed Neal had been that his main view of Paris had been half an hour in a taxi, and that tugged at Elizabeth's heart, too. Hopefully London would be better, but she was on edge, too.
And if she were lucky, she'd get to take Peter on a date. One could only dream.
Her mind wandered a little as they stood around, watching other peoples’ cars stream by. The only thing better than taking Peter on a date would be bringing Neal along; she and Peter had talked about doing just that, but though by now she was almost 100% sure Neal was interested, she still had yet to think of a graceful way to ask.
“I think that’s them,” said Jack, and Elizabeth jumped, feeling a faint flush of guilt, though it wasn’t as if she had done anything wrong. He was pointedly not looking at Peter, his eyes tracking the cars floating past the curb. Elizabeth’s eyebrows went up as not one but two sleek black Volvo sedans pulled up and stopped, their flashers going on at almost the same moment. A man and a woman respectively got out of the driver’s side of each car, clad in nearly-identical sharp black suits, and then Elizabeth found herself watching the universal International Law Enforcement Agent Dance, known to every civil servant to ever work outside their own borders.
Somehow it all shook out with the jurisdictional disputes (as Peter would call them—“pissing contest” is what Elizabeth would have said, herself), and Elizabeth found herself and Diana in the car being driven by the woman, while Peter, Neal, and Jack bickered their way into the car driven by the male MI6 agent.
"Boys versus girls, how not unexpected at all," Diana muttered under her breath as the car pulled away. Supposedly they were going straight to the hotel, to allow them to drop off their bags and, well, Elizabeth herself, before meeting with more MI6 people. She had a meeting with her European wine representative at his office in the Bankside region at two PM, and she was fairly certain she’d be able to get a shower before then.
"I'm sorry," Elizabeth offered, and Diana shook her head.
"I'm glad to have a few minutes' respite from the floor show," she said.
Elizabeth wanted to ask her what her opinion was on Jack Pfotenhauer, but she was well aware that the driver of the car, mere inches away, was yet another law enforcement official from yet another international agency, and probably shouldn't overhear anything more sensitive than discussion of the weather. "Maybe if we both beat them over the head, they'll stop."
"Not likely." Diana sighed. "And, I'm sorry, El, but I hope we've got multiple rooms. We had to share last night, and I respect your husband greatly as an agent and investigator but he snores like a freight train."
"Earplugs," Elizabeth said. "Lots and lots of fancy earplugs."
The drive was mercifully short. Peter’s suit was wrinkled and he had a harried look on his face that made Elizabeth ache; Elizabeth hoped he’d get some time to shower and relax before meetings. Diana looked better, but not by much.
(There was the completely separate and unfair fact that Neal, no matter how rough the previous umpteen hours had been, no matter how long since he’d last had a shower, always looked exactly as though he’d stepped out of the pages of Vanity Fair. He wore other people’s suits like they’d gone through three tailor appointments to be fitted for his body; his hair was never a strand out of place; his smile and pretty blue eyes were always just as winsome and charming as a spring breeze. Whatever his secret, Elizabeth wanted in.)
But she’d forgotten how much she liked London. It reminded her of New York in some ways, with its sprawl and its business and its coolly majestic skyline, but while she always pictured London in her head as gray, today is was as crisp and sunny as any she’d ever seen in New York. They pulled up outside the Grand Arms thirty minutes after leaving Heathrow, and were whisked immediately upstairs to their 4-bedroom with ensuite kitchen and dining area.
“Isn’t this a little out of our price-range?” she asked in Peter’s ear as they took the elevator up.
"I have no problem with spending MI6's money," Peter replied, also in her ear. Neal apparently heard, because he smirked briefly before schooling his expression.
The elevator doors opened a moment later, and the bellhop pushed the cart with their bags out first, allowing them to follow him down the hall to a door labeled “Suite 300.” Jack dropped back and tipped him while Peter keyed his way into the room—and froze.
The door entered into the main, shared room of the suite; the kitchen and dining area were to the left, a sitting area in front of them, and a conference-style table to the right. Four doors—two to each side—opened off of the side walls. The carpet was dark red, the walls were off-white, and the room was surprisingly airy and charming.
What was less charming were the three people standing in front of the couch by the window, causing Peter and Diana to reach for the guns they hadn't been allowed to bring. Peter moved to step in front of Elizabeth, but one of the three—a woman, very pretty, with short, curly hair and warm light-brown skin—stepped forward, holding out a badge and ID in a leather wallet. "Eve Moneypenny, MI6," she said.
Peter stepped forward and took Moneypenny's ID from her, looking it over for a moment, brief flicks of his glance downward. He didn't take his eyes off of her as he passed it behind him to Diana, who then passed it to Jack.
"Looks fine," Diana said.
"I recognize the name," Jack said, and all of them relaxed.
“Excellent,” said one of the other strangers. “Always a red-letter day when I can avoid being shot before a proper breakfast.” Elizabeth looked at the man in some surprise; boy was what she wanted to call him, actually, whippet-thin with a mop of dark hair and big glasses that made his eyes look larger than they really were. But his voice was sharp and intelligent, and he seemed utterly unconcerned with the number and size of the egos in the room, to say nothing of the collective weaponry.
“My name is Q,” the man continued, producing his ID from the pocket of his tartan pants and stepping forward, holding it out to be inspected in turn. “I’m MI6’s quartermaster. I must apologize for surprising you in your rooms, but we were informed of your—early arrival from France and assumed that you might prefer not to come to the office just yet.” He gave a faint smile as he said this, and Elizabeth suddenly knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this unprepossessing young man knew exactly what had happened in France, and found herself a little unsettled at the implication.
"Bond," said the third person, a man. "James Bond."
Elizabeth knew the moment that Peter's perception shifted to him because he stiffened and stepped a couple inches to the side, placing himself in front of both Neal and herself and even a little in front of Diana.
Bond didn't hold out an ID, but he did hold his hands out from his sides, trying to indicate that he wasn't dangerous, but even Elizabeth wasn't fooled; he radiated a lethal sort of intensity, from his ice-blue eyes, slightly-too-broad shoulders, and wide hands to his immaculately-shined shoes.
"Was there a reason MI6 sent a double-oh agent?" Jack inquired, his voice deceptively calm. Peter stiffened even more, and out of the corner of her eye, Elizabeth could see Diana shifting into a better fighting stance.
Bond blinked; Moneypenny snorted delicately, and Q sighed. "Bond, stop it," he said. "Sit down, and do stop making the nice Americans wish they'd brought all their guns."
Now it was Peter's turn to blink; not that Elizabeth could see his face, but his shoulders dropped.
"I wish I had mine anyway," Diana muttered, but the tension was mostly diffused.
“Bond is here at my request,” said Q patiently. “And also because he was curious to see who warranted the invention of an expensive, state-of-the-art nanotracker on such short notice.”
“Oh, is that my present for giving up my anklet,” said Neal. Q’s eyes cut to Neal as he said this, and Elizabeth saw—something, something in Neal’s face, some complicated expression that rippled across his features for a moment and was gone, so quickly she wasn’t entirely sure she’d even seen it. She glanced back at Q, and saw the same not-quite-poker face, and was no longer unsure.
The tension in the room did not abate, though, and Elizabeth frowned. This was getting ridiculous.
She cleared her throat, stepping around Peter as everyone’s gaze shifted to her. “If everyone is absolutely done with our Mexican stand-off, I’d really love to put my suitcases down,” she said pointedly. “Double-ohs and nano-whatevers and everything aside, I’m pretty sure your government asked Neal to come here as a favor, so.” She, of course, had not been included in any plans whatsoever, but occasionally Elizabeth got sick of sitting quietly and pretending not to matter in the face of these things. And she didn’t know the extent of what Neal had done in his past, obviously, but she didn’t think he or any of the others deserved the amount of hoops they were being asked to jump through.
Moneypenny grinned at her. “Of course,” she said, and stepped forward to grab one of Elizabeth’s bags. “Can’t be remiss in our hosting duties, now can we.”
A moment's discussion had the room situation taken care of—Peter and Elizabeth in one corner, Diana on the same wall, and Neal and Jack in the two rooms to the right—and they took turns putting away bags before rejoining the MI6 employees in the sitting area. Moneypenny, Q, and Bond occupied the long couch; Elizabeth seated herself on one loveseat, closest to Moneypenny, and Neal sat beside her. Peter stood behind them, which was fine with her because he was going to pace anyway, and Jack and Diana took the other loveseat.
"So," Elizabeth said. "What's a double-oh agent?"
Jack and Peter exchanged looks; Q grabbed Bond's knee to keep him from speaking. Finally, Moneypenny said, "It means he has a license to kill."
"Oh," said Elizabeth. Well, it made sense, but that was the last question she was going to ask.
(Her brain hitched, and then replayed the way that Q touched Bond with apparently very little fear of repercussions. They were clearly close, which seemed odd; if she had to guess, she would have said lovers rather than friends, which was adorable, really.)
Peter reached a hand down and touched her on the shoulder, bringing her back to the moment. She knew what he was going to say, so instead, she pre-empted him and said, "You know what, honey, I'm a little tired and I don't really need to be here for the nuts-and-bolts conversation, so I'll just go read my book for a while, okay?"
He looked relieved and Diana nodded at her, so it was the correct call. Only Neal looked a little worried, but he flashed her a smile anyway.
"Good to meet you, Mr. Bond, Mr. Q, Ms. Moneypenny," Elizabeth said, and stood to shake hands.
"Just Q," the boy-Quartermaster said.
"Eve," said Moneypenny.
Bond said nothing, but he gave her a level nod.
She high-tailed it out of the room and into her bedroom, shutting the door, and settled herself at the edge of the bed furthest from the door so she wouldn't be tempted to try to listen in. Opening her book, she looked down at the page but didn't see any words.
Elizabeth didn't think even Peter had expected the level this trip had escalated to, what with the disaster that was Paris, and then MI6 sending a deadly agent into their hotel room. It seemed to be an odd contrast to how quickly the British authorities—MI5, she guessed—had acquiesced to his request that Elizabeth be allowed to stay in his hotel room. She'd had to give her personal information for a quick background check, but nothing beyond that. However, she'd gotten so used to thinking of Neal as harmless, as reformed, that she'd forgotten that other people didn't—something made quite obvious from the sheer number of law enforcement agents involved with this trip, as well as the trackers that two different countries (so far) had threatened him with.
Really, maybe coordinated business trips was not the best plan she'd ever had.
On the other hand, there'd been an—edge to Peter and Neal's fighting earlier, one that had been there on occasion for the last few weeks (again she thought guiltily of her daydream of going out with her men on a date). And Elizabeth did want to make sure that Peter and Neal didn't pull each other apart at the seams. She could have left that task to Diana, who had demonstrated competence in most Peter-related matters, but she didn't have to, so she didn't.
And anyway, Q had said that Bond was there at his request, and then he'd touched the deadly agent so casually... it could mean for a personal reason unknown to Elizabeth and the rest of the Americans, and not because lethal force was necessary when dealing with Neal. So likely the situation wasn't as dangerous as her sleep-deprived brain was trying to make it.
And even if it were, she trusted Peter, Neal, and Diana.
This would work out.
* * * * *
Agent Moneypenny started in with a short precis of their current situation, reviewing some minutiae of interagency politics and procedure with the calm efficiency of the very capable, and Peter’s mind wandered a little, assessing each of the MI6 agents in turn. It was—probably largely pointless, he supposed, as they were all theoretically on the same side, but some habits were ingrained so deeply that he couldn’t turn them off anymore than he could fight the urge to sit with his back to the wall in any room he entered, or decide he didn’t need to breathe today.
Bond was the most obvious threat; Peter didn’t remember the last time he had been in the presence of someone so intrinsically dangerous who wasn’t also trying to kill him. He’d clearly earned his double-oh status a few times over. Peter let his eyes rest on Moneypenny’s face, listening to how she spoke and how it matched up with her demeanor, her economy of movement, and came to the unsettling conclusion that, though she wasn’t as... pointed about it as Bond, she was almost as dangerous as he was. She was just better at hiding it than Bond.
“While you’re here,” Moneypenny said, “you will be provided with mobile phones that have all your relevant contact information pre-programmed.” Q retrieved aforementioned phones from his briefcase as Moneypenny listed the contacts in each of the speed-dial slots. Q was an anomaly of sorts; despite being ostensibly a tech geek, he seemed totally at ease with Moneypenny and Bond, which either meant that he was close to both of them (likely) or that he was just as dangerous in his own way as they were.
Probably both, Peter decided. Q was probably one of those computer people who could ruin your life given ten minutes and a good internet connection, if he had a mind to. Great. Peter was just so reassured now.
“I understand your reticence at being asked to submit to yet another security measure when we are the ones who have asked a favor of you in the first place,” Q was saying to Neal when Peter tuned back in. “Hopefully this will satisfy everyone.” Q reached into a different compartment in his briefcase, bringing out a thin plastic sheet, in which was encased two metal caplets. They looked like nothing so much as a pair of metallic vitamin pills. Peter raised an eyebrow, but Neal’s expression of cheerful interest did not so much as waver.
“These,” said Q, “are miniature GPS trackers, significantly more accurate than an ankle unit. They are made of a unique titanium alloy, and are virtually indestructible, though I suppose if you insisted on flinging one into an active volcano it might give up the ghost.” He smiled faintly at Bond. “Which is good, because it has to stand up to your stomach acid.”
“My stomach acid?” repeated Neal, eyebrows crawling towards his hairline. “You want me to swallow it?”
“Okay, that is not happening,” said Peter, frowning and leaning forward. What little good humor remained to him was rapidly evaporating. “I realize that MI6 wants to keep an eye on my CI, but this is—”
“Entirely harmless,” Q cut in, “as I was going to finish explaining, if you would be so kind.”
Peter glowered at Q for a moment before giving a curt nod. It still was not in any way all right, but he would let the man finish his explanation.
“Thank you,” said Q, witheringly polite in the way that only the British seemed to manage. “It’s designed to remain within the digestive tract for six to eight days before passing naturally. In addition to GPS location, it also provides basic biofeedback data. It’s the first of its type, and if it proves as precise and useful as I believe it will, a longer-lasting variant of it will be standard issue for all of our field agents.” Q cast a brief glance at Bond as he said this, adding, “Though I’m sure some of them will still find a way to destroy them, despite my best efforts.”
“So you want to use my CI as a guinea pig,” Peter said darkly. No matter how harmless it sounded, it was still untested technology and Neal.
Q pursed his lips, giving Peter the look that one might give a child who’s just thrown his dinner on the floor. “As I have already stated, Agent Burke, the device is perfectly harmless,” he said evenly. “Which is why I will be swallowing the second tracker, and comparing the feedback from both devices.”
Peter saw Bond start out of the corner of his eye, but he did not care in the least. Q was welcome to swallow any amount of his own experiments, but Neal would be doing no such thing.
“I'll do it," Neal said, squashing the objection rising to Peter’s lips. "C'mon, Peter. Q's hardly going to poison me with something that he'll be ingesting himself. Besides, I don't think poisoning is his style."
Peter shook his head, barely restraining himself from saying anything else. Although Neal’s wording rang strangely in his ears—why would Neal have an opinion about Q’s style, having known the man all of two minutes? Although, to be fair, if Peter had to guess, he would have said that poisoning wasn’t Q’s style, himself.
“You do seem like the type to try anything once,” said Q lightly. Okay, yeah, that there was a little weird, Peter thought, if not an inaccurate assessment of Neal. “Right. That’s settled. Let’s go on, then.” He thumbed back the edge of the film, peeling off a layer like cellophane. “We’ll need water, if someone would be so kind?” Q looked around at the assembled agents; the request was polite but obviously full of the expectation of its being met.
Peter, Bond, Diana, and Agent Moneypenny engaged in a short, intense staring contest. Finally Jack stood and said, "I'll get the water," in the voice of one whose suffering has been long and undeservedly painful.
"Thank you, Agent Pfotenhauer," Neal said, and when he and Q each had a glass in their hands, he added, "To our health?"
"Cheers," Q said in agreement, and they clinked their glasses before swallowing the trackers.
“Brilliant,” said Moneypenny, straightening slightly. “Now that that’s sorted, we’ve got the rest of the day to get to.”
"You've got a couple hours here, and then our boss would like to meet you. At half past one, we'll be meeting Agent Malhotra at Tate Britain—that’s your MI5 contact—and we anticipate that will fill in the time until dinner. This evening, Q and Bond and I will debrief you on the meeting at the Tate; that should take no more than an hour, and you will be on your own for the rest of the evening. In the meantime," Moneypenny concluded, "I understand you've been traveling for a while. Is anyone hungry?"
"Me," Neal said immediately.
"I could eat," Peter said grudgingly.
Moneypenny nodded. "I'll go pick up some pastries and coffee, if that's okay with everyone."
At the mention of pastries and coffee, Bond’s look of intense disinterest slipped, and he straightened. It was still a far cry from “enthusiastic,” but it was as expressive as Peter had yet seen the man be. Peter watched Q glance at him, fondly amused and a little more intimate than ‘coworkers’ would imply, and added that to the tally of odd things in his head.
"If you don't mind, I'll come with you," Diana said. "I could stand to get some fresh air."
Moneypenny gave her a swift, sharp look, and said, "Yes, of course."
Peter felt a little guilty there—Diana was probably sick to death of his and Jack’s arguments over Neal—but he wasn’t exactly about to stop fighting on Neal’s behalf.
The women stood, and the men followed suit. "If no one minds, I've got some superiors to update on current events," Jack said. He turned and went to his room before anyone could comment, pulling out a cell on his way—the one he’d had back in New York, not the phone Moneypenny had just given him—and unlocking the screen.
Peter relaxed slightly once Pfotenhauer was out of the room, and saw Neal do the same. "I'm going to check on El," he said.
"Bring her out," Neal said, and Q nodded.
Elizabeth was sitting on the bed with a magazine; she looked up as he poked his head in the doorway, and slid off the bed to come out when he beckoned. “We’re done talking shop,” he said. “You can come back out.”
“Okay,” she said, and left the magazine in the bedroom.
When they returned to the main room, Peter decided it was high time to figure out what the hell was going on. He raised an eyebrow at Neal, who smirked back before turning to smile at Elizabeth. He shook his head, and turned to Q, who had his head bent over his phone—no help there. Peter caught Bond’s eyes over Q's head and held his gaze for a moment until he had to break, and then looked back at Neal.
His gaze flicked to Q for a moment, and then he said to Neal, "So how long have the two of you known each other?"
“Is this another criminal ex of yours that you neglected to mention, Q?" Bond said, a little lazily.
An ex? Peter’s eyes widened, but he felt a little smug—no, a lot smug, because really, he knew something was going on there.
Neal started, and turned it into a theatrical gesture, saying, "What have you gotten yourself into, Simon?"
Q looked from Bond to Neal and back again, eyes too wide, and then buried his face in his hands. "You all are so fired."