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Chapter 1: The End in the Beginning
"Summer to Your Heart"
I know I am but summer to your heart,
And not the full four seasons of the year;
And you must welcome from another part
Such noble moods as are not mine, my dear.
No gracious weight of golden fruits to sell
Have I, nor any wise and wintry thing;
And I have loved you all too long and well
To carry still the high sweet breast of Spring.
Wherefore I say: O love, as summer goes,
I must be gone, steal forth with silent drums,
That you may hail anew the bird and rose
When I come back to you, as summer comes.
Else will you seek, at some not distant time,
Even your summer in another clime.
~ Edna St. Vincent Millay
University College Hospital; National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London, England: Mid-December 2013 (Three Weeks after Westminster Bridge)
Of all things, it was ultimately a crying baby in the hallway that tugged Q back to consciousness. As the plaintive wail of the quickly hushed infant faded, other things sought to push through the heavy veil that clung to Q’s awareness: the click and wheeze of automatic doors opening and then shutting several moments later; the rattle of a heavily laden cart with a dodgy wheel being pushed down the hall; a soft, rhythmic beeping that seemed to come from somewhere behind and to the left; the hiss of pressurised air and a tightening followed by a gradual release around Q’s right bicep; the sharp smell of disinfectant that lingered in the coarse bed linens.
The fact that she couldn’t breathe!
Q seized in panic, instinctively fighting against the loss of control of this most basic function. She clutched at the endotracheal tube at her mouth, but before she could pull it free from the tape that held it secure, strong fingers encircled her wrists and pulled her hands away.
“Easy, Q! Everything is fine. You’re safe. Relax. Let the machine do its work. Help is coming.”
The deep voice was familiar, comforting, but she couldn’t place it. Opening her eyes fully, Q searched blindly for the source, but without her glasses all she could make out was the blurry shape of a massive form at her side. The man released her wrists only to press her hands together atop her chest, holding them there with one large paw while the other cupped her chin, thumb caressing her cheek.
“ Ugomonit’sya … settle down, myshka . Ty v poryadke . You’re okay, little mouse.”
It was the Russian that finally clicked.
Alec Trevelyan’s face suddenly filled Q’s myopic vision, his green eyes bright with concern. He continued to murmur reassurances and though he never let go of her hands, Q gradually stopped fighting against the ventilator and relaxed a bit against the pillows behind her.
Though Q couldn’t speak, the air between them was heavy with her questions and fear.
The shuffling of feet and the rattle of a cart through the doorway heralded the arrival of the medical team. “Let them do their job, Q,” Alec said, squeezing her hands one final time before stepping out of the way of the nurse who had advanced to Q’s beside. “I’ll explain everything when they’re done.”
It was then that Q began to take note of her surroundings, what little she could without her glasses. There were at least four other people in the room, but she recognized neither their voices nor the way in which the ‘blurs’ moved. She didn’t know these people! She grabbed for Alec’s hand, her tight grip staying his departure. Her eyes grew panicked once more as she looked from him to the unfamiliar people and back again, desperate that Alec might understand her meaning without the words themselves.
“Right,” Alec said with a curt nod of understanding. “No, you’re in hospital, not Medical. UCH London. They’ve been vetted and read-in,” the agent assured her. “You’re safe, myshka . I promise.” Alec gave her fingers a reassuring squeeze before letting go to stand next to the door, out of the way yet not out of Q’s line of sight.
The nurses were efficient and kind and incredibly informative for all that they said nothing of importance. Nothing that let Q know what had happened to her that was so severe that Medical – whose experienced staff and state-of-the-art facilities had pulled more than one critically injured agent back from the brink of death – was unable to care for her.
She was in surprisingly little pain, rather numb, truth be told, but Q attributed that to the morphine she was apparently on. Immediately after she’d been extubated – and wasn’t that an experience that never needed to be repeated … EVER! – Q had been given instruction on how to use the medication pump to manage her pain levels.
“Use it,” the head nurse, Liam, insisted. It took him another 10 minutes to finish up with Q’s vitals, but with a final check of the oxygen that now flowed through the cannula under her nose, he headed for the door of the private critical care room. Liam stopped long enough to tell Trevelyan that the surgeons had been notified that Q was awake. They had just finished up a long procedure in the operating theatre and would come to evaluate Q once they’d had the opportunity for a wash.
“She’ll be groggy. Drift in and out for a while, but if things get … difficult,” Liam said quietly, looking over his shoulder at where Q lay in the bed, “let us know and we can bring in a sedative.”
“The morphine?” Alec asked. He had crossed his arms over his broad chest and tried not to look like he’d rather be anywhere else. Moneypenny said he’d drawn the short straw, but there hadn’t been any straws, and Alec wouldn’t allow any of the rest to deliver this news.
“Yeah. That’ll work, too.” Liam’s voice was sad, but he held it low enough so as not to reach Q’s ears. He had been one of the young woman’s primary nurses since she had been admitted to the ITU and had grown to know the spies that considered her family quite well. He did not envy Alec the task that lay before him.
“You’re supposed to be in Sri Lanka,” Q said to Alec once they were alone. She was weary, and her throat felt raw and sounded painful even to her own ears. She had said little during the half hour the nurses had fussed over her, too overwhelmed by the entire situation to answer any but their most direct questions and muzzy-headed enough to be unable to form any of her own.
“Yes, well, mission parameters changed when you and the rest of the home team decided to blow up half of London,” Alec replied with a smirk.
For a moment Q had no idea what Alec was talking about, but a series of quick flashes in her mind’s eye – a tableau of fiery images – woke her memory. Ah. Yes.
“It was hardly half, and the blame for that can hardly be placed at our doorstep.”
“Tell that to the blokes pulling what’s left of Six out of the Thames.” Alec pulled a pair of black-rimmed spectacles from the inside pocket of his leather bomber jacket and slid them into place on Q’s face.
“Thank you,” she said, grateful more than she could say to have her sight again.
“ Pozhaluysta .” Alec settled into the chair at Q’s bedside and propped his feet up on the edge of the mattress.
Nonchalance was 006’s hallmark, but there was an edge to it that even Q’s medication-numbed mind was able to pick up on. It was unsettling.
“And it’ll be another month at the earliest before Westminster Bridge is fully repaired. The detours have been murder on commuters to say nothing about holiday shopping traffic,” he continued.
“How long have I been out?” Q asked, bewildered.
“Three weeks. Medically induced. They’ve been bringing you out of it the last day or so. It wasn’t surprising to any of us that you’re just as much a pain in the arse half dead as you are fully alive.”
“What happened? What’s wrong with me?”
“What do you remember?”
“Answer the question, Double-O Six,” she demanded in her Quartermaster tone.
“Answer mine first,” insisted Trevelyan, in that voice that brooked no argument. The stalemate between them lingered for several, long moments before Alec added, “It’s important, myshka . What do you remember about that night?”
Q searched Alec’s face and acquiesced to the concern she saw there. Alec waited quietly and assessed the MI6 Quartermaster as she considered her response. While the dim light above her bed wouldn’t do anyone’s complexion any favours, Q’s was so pale and sallow that it was almost difficult to look at her. Her hair – normally a riot of long, dark curls, nearly impossible to tame no matter what she did with it – was lank and lifeless. The nurses had fashioned it into two plaits to keep it tidy and out of the way, but the plaits only served to make Q appear still younger than she already did. Even M had been taken aback at the sight when he had visited earlier in the week.
Q blinked slowly twice before closing her eyes, and Alec thought that the lingering medication in her system had pulled her under, but tired, hazel eyes opened again a few audible heartbeats later, and Trevelyan watched as her gaze slipped, unfocused, into the middle distance as it often did when Q was focused on solving a problem. This time it seemed as though injury and medication fogged the solution, keeping it hidden from her normally exactingly precise memory.
Alec dropped his feet to the floor, leaned forward, and after a moment’s hesitation, rested a hand on the top of her knee, moving his thumb back and forth in a soothing motion.
“Bond came back to London with that doctor from Austria in tow,” Q began, the images finally coalescing in her mind’s eye. “M, Moneypenny, Tanner, and I met them at one of M’s bolt holes near Trafalgar. Bond had learned Denbigh was working for Blofeld. All the intelligence streams would funnel directly to SPECTRE if we didn’t take out Nine Eyes before it came online. They’d control everything.” Q paused in her narrative. The normally posh enunciation of her speech slurred a bit with the effects of the morphine. She inhaled deeply through her nose, letting the oxygen saturate her system to revive her. “We left for the CNS building. The doctor …“
“Swann. Madeleine Swann,” Alec provided, and a single raised eyebrow told him everything Q thought about the other woman.
“Dr. Swann wouldn’t come. I’m uncertain as to why she walked away then, but Bond and M were going to keep Denbigh occupied while I hacked Nine Eyes. Our convoy was ambushed – ” Q looked hurriedly down at her right side. The side that had been closest to the SUV’s door. The side that –
“I was shot.”
“But … three weeks , Alec?! It shouldn’t have – ” Though exhausted, Q was becoming agitated in her confusion, and the agent used his free hand to cup her face again, trying to focus her attention on him rather than the situation. It didn’t work. Q was too perceptive, and she instinctively knew there was more to it than just that.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Q continued, insistent. “Hurt like the bloody devil, but I kept the bleeding under control for all that woollen scarves make for rubbish tourniquets – that jumper’s likely ruined, too – but M wasn’t even aware … I had a job to do, so I didn’t say anything, but –“ Movement further down the bed drew Q’s notice for the first time, and her protests cut off abruptly when she saw Alec’s strong fingers etching patterns into her leg just above and then below her knee and then back again.
Patterns that she could not feel .
It was fully five minutes before Q said anything else, and Alec waited patiently for her to sort through her thoughts, questions, and emotions. He moved his hand from her leg, resting it on the mattress next to her hip. No longer touching but close enough that she could grab it if she wanted.
“The bullet, then? Not the wound itself,” Q said at last, having reasoned out that where she had been shot was not sufficient to render her permanent injury. “Tell me,” she demanded, voice as toneless as Trevelyan had ever heard it.
Denbigh had not been the only traitor in Her Majesty’s Intelligence Services. In addition to a small army that Blofeld had amassed, eight agents in MI5 and another four in Six had been rooted out in the days following the attempted coup. Of those twelve, five had taken part in the ambush on Bond’s convoy to CNS but prior to that had broken into MI6’s Dead Armory where Q-branch housed weaponry and ammunition – most confiscated, but some of it created by R&D itself – that were slated for destruction. They had made off with countless crates of guns and ammunition they intended to use to secure Blofeld’s hold on London once Nine Eyes went live. The confusion surrounding the dismantling of the Double-O programme and the reassignment of its key support personnel had made such an infiltration easy, and it likely wouldn’t have come to light for some weeks had Q not been shot.
Until her collapse on Westminster Bridge, quite literally at M’s feet, none of Q’s colleagues had any inkling that she had been wounded, but the paramedics on scene could not reconcile her symptoms – a rapid but irregular heartbeat, vomiting, confusion, diaphoresis, and paralysis – with the seemingly shallow bullet wound they discovered, low behind her right shoulder blade. Blood tests in A&E revealed digitalis poisoning and a CT scan identified its method of delivery: the fragmented remains of a 9mm bullet coated in a highly concentrated dose of digitalis and designed to explode fully upon impact to maximize damage, or so R had informed them upon his arrival at UCH. Following established procedure, Q’s second-in-command had been unwilling to trust that comms had not been compromised and had reported the break-in to Mallory in person.
“Would have been faster if I had just shot myself,” Q said in a tight voice about the bullet that had taken her legs. One of 200 that she had crafted herself for testing before ultimately consigning the failed experiment to the Dead Armory for destruction.
Q then lay back against the pillows and trained her eyes on the ceiling. She said nothing more.
In 2010, Alec Trevelyan had set up a sniper’s nest on a rooftop in Kanchanaburi, Thailand where he’d had nothing but his own company and that of a couple of velvet-fronted nuthatches for the three days it had taken his quarry to finally show up. At the time Alec had thought it was the most agonisingly quiet mission of his MI6 career. In retrospect, however, it had nothing over those 20 minutes of silence he spent in hospital at Q’s bedside.
He could have kissed the surgeons when they finally arrived.
The neurosurgeons, one of whom was coincidently enough – or perhaps not so coincidentally – a former SAS doctor who had served with Mallory, ran through a quick evaluation of Q’s physical state before delving into the specifics of her particular injury.
The fragmenting of the bullet that had taken its own sweet time detonating inside Q’s body had done rather notable damage to her right lung, kidney, and liver and had even gone so far as to do enough damage to her spleen that it had been removed, but it was the destruction done to her uppermost lumbar vertebrae and the nerves thereabout that was the most devastating injury.
Her paralysis was what the surgeons termed “incomplete,” meaning that she would likely have some sensation and possibly even limited use of her legs; now that Q was awake, they could more accurately evaluate the extent of the damage and determine what she could do and feel.
“What about therapy?” This from Alec who had been asking all of the questions. Q’s contribution had been limited to nodding or shaking her head in response to the direct “yes” or “no” questions the doctors asked, choosing to remain mute as she processed the information.
Q could expect to see a series of therapists – physical, occupational, and psychological – as well as a social worker over the next days to help her recover her strength and adjust to her new situation with the eventual plan being to move her to a specialised rehabilitation clinic in the City until such time as she was ready to return home and, eventually, work.
“Mr Trevelyan, if you could come with me for a few moments,” the senior surgeon said at the end of the consultation. “There’s some paperwork that I’d like to share with you that outlines the course of treatment.”
“Certainly,” Alec said, rising from his chair. He squeezed Q’s hand and laughed silently at the flash of irritation Q shot his way at the doctor’s banal attempt at subterfuge. “Time to talk about you in private,” he whispered in her ear before giving Q a quick peck on her forehead which earned him yet another glare.
“Though she’s only just woken from sedation, I’m nevertheless concerned about the patient’s mental state,” the doctor told Alec when they were alone in the hallway. “While people can react in any number of ways to the news of such a life-altering injury, the fact that she seems unwilling or unable to participate in her own treatment leads me to believe that the patient –“
“ Q ,” Alec interrupted, his voice low, tight, dangerous. It was his assassin’s tone, and it brooked no argument from the surgeon. “Not ‘patient.’ Not ‘she.’ Not ‘her.’ Q .” Alec took a step closer to the doctor, just enough to push the other man’s back to the wall next to the door to Q’s room. Not to threaten but rather to … reinforce his point.
“You attained the rank of Major in the SAS when you served alongside Mallory, and one doesn’t achieve the additional degrees and certifications you have attached to your name without a great deal of hard work. Work and focus that we all owe you a debt of gratitude for in terms of saving Q’s life. However, the reason you are able to continue to do the work you do in the way that you have always done it is because three weeks ago the woman in that bed used her brilliant mind and sacrificed her body to halt a terrorist attack that would have changed the face of Britain forever. ‘Q’ is the title that she has earned and the name she has chosen, and you’d do well to remember that.”
The doctor opened his mouth to reply, more likely to renew his concerns about his “patient,” but Alec forestalled his comments with a gesture. “I have heard and appreciate your concerns about Q’s psychological state. There has been little of Q’s life that could be termed ‘easy,’ but she is the strongest woman I have ever met and she will face this injury with the same determination and fortitude that she always has.” He took a step back, signalling that the didactic portion of their chat had come to an end. “Now if there is, indeed, paperwork to be had, please give it to me, and you can be on your way. I’m sure that you’re quite exhausted from your time in the operating theatre.”
When Alec entered the room five minutes later, it was to a mostly darkened room. The nurses had pulled the blinds on the exterior windows earlier in the day, and Q had switched off the light above her bed while he was gone. The only illumination came from the light in the small loo in the corner of the room.
Alec set the treatment plan and a fresh cup of ice chips on the tray table that was positioned next to Q’s bed and resumed his seat at her side. She lay quietly, eyes closed, though he was pretty certain she wasn’t asleep.
In spite of what he said to the surgeon, the truth of the matter was that Alec was deeply concerned about Q’s reaction – or, rather, lack thereof – to the news of her paralysis. Even more worrisome was that she hadn’t once asked for a tablet or laptop, or even a cuppa, for that matter. Items that were her life’s blood no matter the circumstance. But Alec would be twice damned if he ever shared that information with the doctor.
Best to tackle this head on, then.
“I know you’re not asleep. And I know you heard everything we said out there. You and that bat-like hearing of yours. Little wonder you’re always able to keep your minions in line. They never know if what they’re saying will come back to haunt them.”
Q opened her eyes and turned her head to face Alec, but she said nothing.
“You can talk to me, you know that. You have before, myshka . Ty doveryayesh' mne , da ? You trust me, yes?”
Q smiled softly and nodded her head. Alec tried not to notice that the smile didn’t reach her eyes.
“It’s the wrong question, I know, but … are you going to be okay, solnyshko?”
Q bit her lower lip and he could see that she was fighting back tears. “How are the others?” she asked after several deep, composing breaths. “I should have asked before now.”
“How are the others?!”
“Mallory must have been concussed after they rammed his car,” she rushed on before Alec could redirect the conversation back to her. “Did anything happen to Moneypenny? Tanner?”
Alec sighed and tried not to let his exasperation be too obvious. Q: Master of computers, code, weaponry, minion management, and deflection. He rubbed his eyes before answering her question. “They’re fine. They’re all fine. M was concussed, but it was minor. Nothing wrong with Eve or Tanner that a little R&R and a lot of wine didn’t cure.”
“And Bond?” she asked softly, anxiously, after a moment. “He was already injured, from Marrakesh, but then, when is he not injured?”
Bozhe-moi! Alec’s stomach dropped with the question and the mention of his friend’s name. Of all the things for Q not to remember, it had to be this. They’d been told that Q would likely experience some memory loss of the minutes just prior to her collapse, but … bloody, buggering, fuck! There truly was no God to take pity on him. Moneypenny had been right. He had drawn the short straw. She should be here for this, not him. Not that Q and Eve were overly close, but … der’mo ! Shit!
“Alec?” Worry had seeped into Q’s tone. Fear touched her expression.
“No,” Alec rushed to reassure her. “James … he walked away. He’s fine, but … well, he’s … he’s gone, Q.”
Q released a breath she hadn’t known she had been holding, and Alec’s heart lurched in his chest at the smile that crossed her face. The first positive, carefree moment he had seen from her since she woke.
“Well that explains it,” Q said in a rush, her relief clear in her voice. “I’d have thought that he’d – well, never mind any of that, I suppose. So where’s he off to, then? Before all this craziness with SPECTRE, M mentioned possibly sending Double-O Seven off to Bulgaria. We’d received updated intelligence on those weapons traffickers in Sofia --”
“No. No, Q, you misunderstand me.” Alec clasped both of her hands – so small, they were – in one of his. “He’s not on a mission. When I say James walked away, I mean he walked away from all of it. From what Mallory told me when I got back, James refused to kill Blofeld. Instead he left the Bridge and walked away with Madeleine, hand-in-hand. No one’s seen him since the next morning when he popped into Q-branch and managed to wheedle the DB5 out of the minion on duty. He left his Walther, Six, all of us, even bloody England behind. He’s gone, Q.”
He’s left you. Her interpretation of Alec’s words lay unspoken between them.
The smile on Q’s face fell so quickly it was as though she had shuttered it behind iron and replaced it with a mask that was a facade of emotion.
“Did he …” Q struggled to find her voice, to keep it level in spite of the anguish roiling inside of her. “Did he know about this?” she asked, pointing with her chin at her legs.
“No. No, myshka . He couldn’t possibly have known. The minion in the garage hadn’t even heard about it yet.” For the third time that day, Alec cupped her face in his palm. “And for all that he’s a right bastard sometimes, James would never be cruel like that. Not to you .” James and Q were friends, extremely close friends by even Alec’s assessment, and Bond would never do Q such a disservice, no matter how badly he wanted to escape. Though why James had wanted to leave ... Alec had had plenty of time to think about James and Q and their relationship, and all the evidence had once pointed to James wanting to strengthen his relationship with his Quartermaster, not sever all ties. Alec couldn’t begin to imagine what in the hell had happened while he was in Sri Lanka to make things go so wrong.
But even as he tried to reassure her, a series subtle expressions flashed so quickly across Q’s face that had Alec not been looking directly at her, he would have missed the grief, pain, and humiliation they conveyed. Alec could think of nothing that could humiliate his friend. She was one of the post competent, skilled, professional people he had ever known. Interpersonal relationships were more than a bit of a challenge for her at times, but she had long since started to grow in that regard, too. In fact, since James had become something of a fixture in her life, Q had even started to --
A sudden sense of dread filled the agent. Q and James had been dancing around each other for months, but Alec knew that the physical desire and the emotional connection had been there. Very much so, but the last he had known, Q and James hadn’t actually done anything with it. Or, perhaps they had.
“Q, what did you do? What did he do? God! You two finally did it. You slep –“
Q pulled a hand from his grip and pressed her fingers to Alec’s mouth. “Don’t. Don’t say it. Not now. Not ever! Bond is never to know about any of this, do you understand me, Alec Trevelyan? The world we work in is very small. Even if James never comes back to England, you’ll run into him sometime … somewhere. He made his choice,” and it wasn’t me was left unsaid, but Q’s implication was clear to Alec. “And we both know that if he knew he’d come back to a life he didn’t want any more simply because of misplaced guilt.”
As her speech wound down, Q gasped suddenly in pain, and Alec felt guilt of his own fill his conscience. He should have paid more attention. Her body had barely begun to heal, and now to be faced with all of this …
Q fumbled through the bed clothes for a moment until she found the button for the medication pump she had been instructed to use. She pressed the button twice, letting the full dose of morphine slip through her veins, taking the pain away. Alec would never be completely certain which type of pain – physical or emotional – she sought to suppress at that moment, but he strongly suspected the latter.
“You’ll stay?” Q asked, eyes heavy and her voice slurring as the drug took full effect.
“Of course I will.” Alec tugged gently on one of her plaits before settling it back against her shoulder, letting it cover the ragged, near decade-old scar that peeked out from beneath the hospital gown. “You still love him, don't you? In spite of it all.”
Q’s “hmmm” in confirmation didn’t surprise him, but her mumbled, “Rather pathetic, don’t you think?” did.
“No, myshka ,” Alec affirmed, lifting her glasses from her face and setting them down on the table next to him. “Not in the least.”
“Thank you … for being here, Alec,” Q said as the medication finally pulled her under.
“Always, mladshaya sestra. Always.”
University of Oxford, February 2000
The first time she met James Bond, Q – who was well over a decade from actually becoming Q – was sat at a table in a large conference room in one of the Engineering buildings at Oxford. For nearly a month, she had been anticipating her meeting with Major Boothroyd to discuss MI6 applications of the ideas she had researched and recently published in two separate monographs. However, only five minutes after Boothroyd’s arrival, news of an explosion in nearby Shipton-on-Cherwell had Bond, the Major’s bodyguard, anxious about his charge’s safety.
In retrospect, to say that she ‘met’ James Bond that day was initially a bit of an exaggeration. It would be more accurate to say that she was in the same room as James Bond. As stated, she was sat at the table, self-designed laptop open, fingers dancing over the keyboard hoping that the gentle click of keys would disguise the fact that she was hanging on every word of the argument between the junior agent – the recently recruited Commander Bond had only completed his MI6 training six weeks prior and was still years from earning his Double-O status – and Boothroyd.
“I’ve not come all the way up from London to simply turn around on a whim,” the Major insisted. Though both men stood in the open doorway at the far end of the room, the acoustics of the space were such that she had no problem hearing the frustration in either man’s voice.
“It’s hardly a whim, Major,” Bond said. He tugged idly at the collar of his tailored – no, not yet bespoke— suit as if he was still getting used to the finely-milled cotton at his neck. Young though she was, even she could tell that he was ill at ease with both the clothing and the circumstances. “There’s word that the explosion may have been triggered by an incendiary device –“
“It’s bloody Shipton-on-Cherwell, Bond, not Westminster! No terror agency worth its salt is going to waste resources to bomb that hamlet. It’s hardly a strategic asset –“
“No, but the London-Oxford airport nearby is.” Bond’s head bobbed once as if the gesture finalised his point. “So, if you’ll follow me back to the car, we can return to London where it’s far simpler to keep you safe.”
Her fingers faltered on the keyboard at the agent’s declaration. For all that the man’s voice was like listening to the whisper of sin itself – really must stop reading that romantic dribble Eustace keeps leaving all over the flat; his questionable tastes in fiction were perhaps not the best influence under the current circumstances – Bond’s words caused the bitter tang of disappointment to fill her mouth. The Major and she had been exchanging phone calls and, eventually, email, for years, and yet this was the first time they had met in person. There was so much to discuss now that they were in the same room, he couldn’t leave yet, it just wasn’t …
“I’m not leaving until I’ve had the conversation I’ve come all this way to have.” Boothroyd’s voice took on a steely edge that she had never heard in any of their phone conversations. “Now you can either accept that fact, Junior Agent Bond, or you are welcome to phone HQ and explain to M why you are disobeying a direct order from your Quartermaster. Given that there is no substantive evidence that the explosion was either a bomb or the work of terrorists thereby warranting my immediate removal to London, I think that we both know what M’s reaction to such high handedness would be.”
A giggle of surprise burst past her lips at the look of pained horror that spread across the young agent’s face, and she quickly began coughing in earnest to cover her gaffe. Clearly Bond knew all too well what M’s reaction would be. So, for that matter, did she. She risked a peek over the top of the laptop and caught the glower the agent sent her way. For some unexpected reason, and for all that she was 15 now, she stuck her tongue out at him in response.
“Sir, what could that slip of a girl possibly have to share that’s worth risking your life?” Though Bond managed to stem the true force of the glare that he really wanted to shoot the whelp’s way, he was wholly unable to keep the incredulity from his voice.
Instantly, her spine stiffened with indignation for she knew what he really meant by calling her a ‘slip of a girl.’ She’d heard enough of that from her so-called Uni ‘peers.’ Sodding bastard! She didn’t need his censure, too.
“That ‘slip of a girl,’ as you call her, is fifteen years old and has been an official recruit for nearly half her life. Far longer than you have been, Commander Bond,” Boothroyd said with more than a touch of pride in his voice, and Q felt some of her resentment ease with her mentor’s approval.
“She’s a child!” Bond pointed a finger at her, his incredulity palpable. “What could she possibly have to contribute to MI6?!”
“Only some of the most inventive thinking in the fields of cyber security and nano-technology, or are you suggesting that you could shed some light on ‘Correlation-Based Data Dissemination in Cyber Security Monitoring Sensory Networks’ and ‘Lyotropic Liquid Crystal with Large Monodomains with Conjugated Polymer and Carbon Nanotube Dispersion’? I was unaware that you had completed your doctoral studies in the same two areas that she is currently pursuing.”
Bond looked at Boothroyd as if the Quartermaster was speaking in tongues. She hid her smirk behind her hand, though she now openly watched the evisceration taking place. If she took perverse pleasure in Bond’s sputtering, well then, could anyone really blame her? Shame they hadn’t chosen to meet in one of the rooms at John Radcliffe. Bond might need their A&E to stitch him together again by the time the Major was done.
Ignoring the young agent’s scepticism, Boothroyd turned a fond gaze toward her that she returned; she tried to remain as dispassionate as she could while the Quartermaster shared what little information about her Bond had security clearance to know. “That girl has one of the brightest and most innovative minds we have seen in over a generation; she has the potential to become the greatest asset any branch of the Intelligence Services has had since the War. To say that MI6 is fortunate to have her is a gross understatement, and with luck and hard work, one day it will be she that you guard as Quartermaster.”
“What’s her name?” Bond demanded, glaring at her, though his tone had started to shift from confused frustration to grudging neutrality.
“That, my boy, is far above your current security clearance,” Boothroyd chuckled. “But for today, if you need to call her anything, you may call her ‘Zed’.” The Major pointed Bond to a chair at the far end of the table closest to the door. “While she and I have our chat, I want you to sit down, shut the hell up, and pay attention. You’re rather intelligent in your own right, Bond; you might actually learn something.”
Boothroyd rounded the table to embrace Z, and after a few moments of polite conversation about her experiences at Uni – Fine, thank you, Major. No, nothing I haven’t handled before. People always feel threatened like that. It’s all fine – they quickly sat and began dissecting the conclusions Z had come to in her monographs and began outlining plans for the current denizens of Q-branch to begin implementing them.
Two hours in, they broke for tea, but even then, the conversation merely shifted from Research and Development at MI6 to a discussion of literature, history, and philosophy before eventually returning to cyber security and nano-tech once all but their cups and a fresh pot of Earl Grey had been cleared away.
Though he kept one ear on the hallway, alert for any threats, Bond, nonetheless, did as the Quartermaster had ordered; he shut up and paid attention. Bond had found the tea-time discussion enlightening. He didn’t participate but found it thoughtful and illuminating, and clearly the girl’s intelligence went beyond those subjects she was studying at Oxford. Admittedly, however, the science and technology were far beyond that which Bond would likely ever use and would certainly ever understand, so he chose to apply those skills that he would use as an agent of the SIS: observation and assessment. Even as a child Bond had read people accurately, and doing so had served him well in both his stint in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy and his tenure with MI6.
As the afternoon progressed, Bond found himself surprisingly impressed with Z’s confidence and knowledge in her chosen fields. Almost half his age, she was unlike any teenager Bond had ever met. Highly articulate and self-effacing, Z accepted the Quartermaster’s praise graciously and his criticisms with thoughtful introspection before scribbling out alternative theories for his inspection and consideration. Bond held to his earlier assessment, however. She was a little slip of a thing.
Z was also a study in contradictions. Though she was confident in her science, Bond could tell that she lacked the self-confidence to go with it in other areas. Petite and willowy, with a cloud of curly dark hair that needed a pair of shears – or perhaps hedge clippers – taken to it, Bond was reminded of the bedtime stories his mother used to tell him of the Scottish Fair Folk, for in another lifetime, Z would have surely been seen as fae-born.
Her voice was a soft contralto, and though it would probably still change as she got older, the accent was posh in a way that her clothes were not. While clean and largely well-mended, the blue jumper she wore was several sizes too big, and the wool (definitely not cashmere) was worn thin at the cuffs and the stretched-out neckline. Thickly lashed, expressive hazel eyes were hidden behind a pair of frankly awful spectacles that did nothing for her appearance. James didn’t envy her the spots, but the underlying complexion was smooth though surprisingly pale.
No. Z would never be a true beauty, Bond determined, but with time, she might become rather pretty – in her own way – and that added to her striking intelligence was potentially a dangerous combination if she got past the self-consciousness. Bond silently pitied the future blokes unlucky enough to fall under her spell.
She wasn’t all sunshine and roses, however. As Bond listened to the Major and Z talk, he discovered that she had a biting sense of humour that could easily turn cutting if she didn’t curb her tongue. She was self-critical to a point that screamed ‘perfectionist’ and while kids her age were always awkward – Bond cringed whenever he remembered what he had been like at 15 – Z’s awkwardness was not driven simply by the unpredictability of teenage hormones.
Bond knew all too well the pain of loss, and he recognized in others the insecurity that developed when faced with growing up alone, without parents. Like Bond, Z was likely an orphan, but whereas James had spent many of his formative years with his aunt and, eventually, Hannes Oberhauser, if Z had been a recruit since the age of seven, she hadn’t had the benefit of even an extended family. Z had been raised by the SIS itself – God, what that must be like! – and Bond began to view her with the beginnings of respect and, to a lesser degree, sympathy.
It was late afternoon by the time the Quartermaster and his apprentice wound up their talk. They were by no means finished, but Boothroyd expressed his desire to return to London before full dark. They would continue outlining their plans via the telephone or secure email over the coming weeks. Bond radioed the driver to bring the car round while the Major and Z said their goodbyes.
Bond was escorting the Quartermaster out into the hallway when he felt Z touch the sleeve of his jacket. Bond turned and was struck again by how tiny she was. The top of her head barely came to his chin, and if she wasn’t quite as small as M, well it was a near thing.
“Thank you, Agent Bond,” she said, pushing her uncontrollable hair behind her ears so she could see him better. “I appreciate that babysitting a teenaged Uni student can’t possibly be the way an SIS agent would choose to spend his day.”
“I go where I am bid, Miss,” Bond replied seriously because it was true. Z’s forehead wrinkled at what she though was yet another dismissal. His hulking presence at the other end of the room had been a distraction for her all afternoon, but she’d tried to be polite. Insufferable man. Only the echo of Eustace’s oft repeated phrase, “Z, be nice,” kept her from unleashing a stinging quip in response. It likely wouldn’t have made an impact on the oaf anyway. Instead, she accepted his words with a nod and turned to gather her own things.
“That being said,” Bond continued, “while I didn’t think it initially possible, I enjoyed the day.” Z turned to face him, surprise clear in eyes that had grown wide behind her glasses. And it was then he noted another beguiling oddity: a large ‘freckle’ of pure gold amidst the hazel, positioned just to the left of the pupil of her right eye.
“You have a singular mind, Z, and I owe you an apology for thinking you anything but what you are.” Bond took one of her hands – finely boned and long-fingered; elegant in a way that belied the rest of her awkwardness – in his and lightly pressed his lips to the top, grinning at the blush that spread across her cheeks. “I look forward to escorting the Quartermaster to speak with you again.”
“Tone down the charm, Bond,” Boothroyd commented drily from the hallway. “She’s only fifteen.”
“Yes, sir,” Bond said with a final wink for Z. Turning smartly on his heel, Bond spoke into his radio. “We’re moving Callahan; two minutes to your location.”
“Goodbye, my dear. We’ll talk soon,” the Major said with a nod before striding off down the hallway to the lift, Bond at his heels.
As she watched the metal doors slide closed behind the agent and her mentor, Z managed to suppress an overly girlish sigh of infatuation, but nonetheless wondered just how long she could get away without washing her hand.