Bond doesn’t often think back to the explosion that shook MI6 and brought him back from his self-imposed exile in the land of the dead. The chain of events it had started is now complete, the final link being M’s death, and he’s put it behind him. Turned over a new leaf, that sort of thing.
Or is in the process of turning over that leaf anyway. He’s back in top shape, fully back to active duty, with his tests actually passed this time. He’s done mourning M, he thinks, but just so, and while he doesn’t feel a pull of loyalty towards Mallory, he can grudgingly admit he’s getting used to him. As to his loyalty, it smoothly and naturally has gravitated towards Q and stayed in his orbit. Bond is content with that, with Q being the person he’s most loyal to.
They’ve got something. He’s not entirely sure what it is, but about half of his scarce belongings are currently squirreled away in Q’s flat, and the sleepovers have certainly got more frequent over the past two months or so. Bond still wouldn’t outright say they live together, he’s still got one foot out the door, for Q’s benefit as much as his own - neither one of them is well versed in long-term relationships and commitments. They’d started shagging not that long after the events of Skyfall; it was casual at first, Q smirking and looking at Bond from under his lashes before pulling him into his office, allowing Bond to take him to a hotel bed on a mission, or taking Bond into his own bed in his cluttered, homely flat. Q turned out to be a frankly phenomenal shag, wild and unabashed in bed, but also an entertaining and genuinely pleasant company. He’s witty and certainly matches Bond jab for jab, but Bond had been briefly surprised at how easily their conversations flow and how broadly they span. He’d realised he genuinely looks forward to time spent in Q’s company, discussing all sorts of things from work to literature to trifling personal anecdotes.
So really, he has few reasons to think about the explosion. Every now and then, when seeing the new terrorist explosion du jour on telly he’ll remember looking at the screen in that bar in Turkey and seeing the MI6 building in smoke and flames, but that’s about it. He has no reason to think about it. Until a mission sends Q out to Libya with him.
Q is not a fan of going out in the field. And there are reasons for that, thank you very much. He can’t stand flying for one thing, and for another while he’s a very good shot (he’s got the highest score of anyone at MI6 - he’s the one designing and testing all those weapons, after all), he has a sneaking suspicion he’s absolutely shite at not getting shot. Add to that the technological limitations of not having all of his Branch at his fingertips, and joining a 00 agent out in the field is basically a much unwanted work outing for group activities spiced up with an unpleasantly high chance of injury and/or death.
Mallory was wise to assign Bond to this particular mission requiring Q’s presence on site, but that doesn’t mean Q is completely mollified. He much more preferred his and Bond’s shared mission in Croatia which included yachting about crystalline waters and shagging breathless in a five star hotel room.
The gloomy underground tunnels in the middle of a Libyan nowhere are quite a step down. But human traffickers and terrorists do sometimes nest in stereotypically villainous places, and there is an allegedly sophisticated computer network buried somewhere in the bowels of this place that requires Q’s skills to be accessed and drained of (hopefully compromising) data. So Q follows James, meandering through a dimly lit maze commandeered by their targets for some nefarious purposes, and that’s when it happens.
An explosion, muffled by distance but no less reverberating, the deep sound rushing through the tunnels, and Q can hear it coming, he can see James’s wild, sharp eyes; James collides with him, pushes him into an alcove, and then everything around them roars and trembles. The ceiling splits with an immense crash, chunks of concrete and bricks dropping around, walls shaking, impact after impact after impact ricocheting into Q’s ankles, shins, spine as the ground quakes, bombarded with rubble.
He’s screaming, he realises at some point, arms thrown over his head on instinct more than training, but he can’t hear his own voice or even feel the vibrations in his throat because the cascade of stone and noise wipes out everything else. James is holding him tight, and bricks are falling, and it goes on forever, a thunder that keeps exploding in on itself.
And then it slowly ebbs, layers of noise falling away as fewer and fewer pieces drop on the ground, and after an eternity it stops.
Q opens his eyes, breathing after what feels like hours inside a tornado. He can feel James moving, a few chips of brick and concrete falling off their clothes and rattling onto the ground as they rise. The electric light flickers, anaemic and dimmed but persistent. Two tunnels ahead of them are collapsed, chunks of rubble litter the ground. Sand hisses in between the cracks in piled up bricks and concrete. Q coughs, dust flying into his lungs. His ears are ringing.
“Alright?” James’ voice is like something that got dragged over gravel, and Q coughs again.
“Yes,” he croaks out. “You?”
“Fine. R? R!” James presses the comm in his ear, trying to activate it.
Q’s heart is hammering in his chest. Something swims inside his brain, something that lurks, unpleasant, just under the surface...
“They must have detonated an explosive, an emergency strategy,” James says, and that’s it.
Q’s mind swims again and he can’t breathe, because he can still hear the explosion - that other one, back in London, back in MI6, where everyone was supposed to be safe, but then everything was ripped open with a blast of fire and shrapnel; floors and ceilings torn through, Q-Branch shaking and filled with a deafening explosion splitting living people into pieces, crumbling walls and incinerating equipment.
Scorching heat and sharp, choking smoke, air shimmering above the flames. Frantic search for safety. He couldn’t see anything, ears ringing, and he was so scared that his chest hurt-
A crackle of static in his ear, and the terrible illusion shatters - there’s no smoke, no flames, no screams. Except for the stuttering, distorted urgency of R in his ear.
“-ir? Sir! Quar- a- -ster! 007!”
Instincts flood his system, taking over, making everything else fall away. He taps his ear, breathing instantly easier, head cleared. He’s the Quartermaster.
“R, this is Q. 007 and I are good. Do you copy?”
“Yes, sir,” R’s voice is crackly with static and sharp with nerves, but she’s holding herself together. “We’re- we’re working on it.”
“Good, now what the fuck was that?” Q growls. James looks equal parts relieved and high-strung, his alertness fuelled by adrenaline.
“They’ve detonated some of their explosives, it was part of a security protocol, but it didn’t all go according to plan, I think. We’re-”
“Q,” Tanner’s voice cuts in. “Q, 007, it seems there’s-”
“What the bloody hell are the French doing in there!” Mallory’s roar is distinctive and furious, even in the background of Q-Branch scrambling all over itself in urgency.
“The French?” Bond growls. “What are they doing?”
“They had their own operation going on in the region,” R rushes to explain, as much to Q and James over the comms as to Mallory and Tanner in person. “They must have been after the same target as us. They didn’t know about you two being there.”
“Get me the DGSE,” Mallory rages. “Get them on the phone, tell them I’ve got two operatives down there, one of them painfully irreplaceable!”
James scowls, and Q’s chest stings. He knows the cold MI6 facts make Mallory’s words true from the mathematical point of view, but that doesn’t make them right. To Q no agent is replaceable, least of all James.
“Yes, sir,” that’s Eve in the background, a little muffled and quick.
More chaotic noises of Q-Branch skidding through a crisis while James investigates the one exit that isn’t blocked by slabs of unstable debris.
“We can get through there,” he tells Q. Q nods.
“R, get the DGSE to stand the fuck down. The mission is buggered, but I’d like both myself and 007 to get out of here alive and preferably in one piece,” his voice is tight with anger, but at least it helps - almost completely - to keep the trembling out of it.
“On it, sir!”
Q ends the call and closes his eyes, squeezes them shut until he can see funny spots dancing against blackness. Something groans and rumbles distantly in the damaged structure over their heads; there’s rubble all around and everything is fucking unstable, and he can hear people screaming because MI6 was blown up from the inside, and that’s impossible, impossible, impossible...! But no, he isn’t there, he is not there, he’s not choking on black smoke and the sight of two dead bodies by a gaping hole in the floor of Q-Branch, he’s not, he’s in fucking Libya, so he should focus...
“Q!” something drops on his shoulder and he jerks backwards, eyes flying open, air rushing into his lungs and he pays for it with a cough, because the dust still hasn’t settled.
It’s James, hand suspended mid-air where he reached out to touch Q, his eyes sharp with surprise and worry creeping in, and Q clenches his teeth again, a hot flare of irritation bursting in his chest.
“Alright?” it’s drawled and steady, but Q can hear the undertone of genuine concern.
“I’m fine,” his voice isn’t as steady as it was with R. James frowns.
“No, you’re not,” he says flatly, clearly reconnoitring how to approach this new situation, and for some reason it sets off a twinge of ire and spite in Q.
“No, I’m bloody well not, but give me a fucking moment, yes?”
If not for the fact that he’s 007, James would have startled – Q can see it in his eyes. He blinks and becomes very, very still, because that’s the 00 training in him, and Q thinks he will actually have a moment (twenty seconds, he will give himself twenty seconds) to get himself together, but James, of course, goes against his orders, as always.
“Q, you’ll get out of here alive and well, I promise,” he tries, and Q should probably appreciate that, but he’s too furious with his own weakness.
“I know, I’ve done it once before, without you,” he snaps.
And oh, now James gets it; Q can see the realisation dawn on him, flood his face, part his lips. With a sigh, Q closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose, knocking his glasses askew. He takes a breath and releases it, concentrates on his heartbeat. It’s fine, there’s no smoke and no fire here. It’s not the same. He opens his eyes, readjusts his glasses; a precise and careful gesture.
James still looks spooked, uneasy. Hesitant. It’s not becoming. It almost makes Q more angry. And he knows that impulse isn’t fair. James blinks, blue eyes raw.
“I didn’t think-”
“No, you didn’t,” Q cuts him off, perhaps too harsh, but the dust is tearing at his throat and the tremors in his bones make him feel despicably weak. He wants them gone. He’s stronger than to allow this.
Someone screams inside his head - it’s R, but back then she was simply a tech called Shakti; now she has the title of his second in command and a burn scar all over her right leg. For a split second, he can smell human flesh burning. He will never not recognise that smell, never not know what it is.
“You never do,” he spits out, because being cruel feels like not being feeble right now, and James is the only one here to take it. Q hates himself for it, and that helps his bones feel a little less brittle. A little less breakable and prone in the face of tonnes of rubble piled around.
James looks hurt and on the verge of self-loathing. Fury and panic clash inside Q’s brain, inside his chest, drench every breath, and he clenches his teeth. He’s still shaking. He can smell dust and explosives, he can hear brewing chaos somewhere in the distance, and it feels like trying to slice a knife through something slippery. He wants to cleanly separate the present from that incident in the past, but he can still hear the horrified cries of his co-workers, and he can’t quite escape from that half-caved in room of flames, rubble, and smoke.
Everything had been absolute, pure bedlam, frantic with the impossibility of it all. Q had swayed, head weighed down with shock and legs not quite catching up with his brain, and he stumbled his way to the Branch, a white, piercing panic forcing him forward because equipment and people. (It should have been the other way around, and in his weaker moments he wonders what that makes of him.) He had never seen anything more terrifying than the gaping hole ripped through the area, three storeys high, the ceiling and the floor caved in, filled with fire and acidic, thick black smoke.
“Q,” James touches him, and Q opens his eyes and nods. He’s alright. He had been alright, all this time, never one for much PTSD.
There’s rubble all around, two of the three exits blocked completely, and he can hear faint sounds of frantic activity in his ear, but it’s different than the deluge of screaming turmoil back then. He’s here, in collapsed tunnels in Libya, and he needs to focus or he’ll get killed by the fleeing terrorists or the fucking French. The Englishman in him thinks the latter would be infinitely worse.
“Right,” he says in a clean, clipped tone, presses the comm link in his ear. “R, we’re getting out of here. Mission failed, courtesy of the fucking DGSE. Do you copy?”
“Sir, we’re still trying to contact them, perhaps you should stay in place.”
“We should move,” Bond cuts in. “At least that way we’re a moving target, if we stay put who knows when we get out of here.”
“Agreed. R, proceed with the extraction team. We’re heading out.”
“Copy that, sir,” with a click, the connection goes mute.
James is almost fully 007 again, drawing a handgun from his holster and holding it out for Q to take; Q does, movements easy and practised as he cocks it and allows it to slide easy in his grip.
“Stay behind me at all times,” James says, eyes sharp and all the more stark blue against the dust smudged all over his face and sifted into his short hair. “Can you cover our backs?” there’s a lot of hesitation in it, and Q’s first instinct is to frown in mild reprimand.
Because James knows how skilled Q is with a gun, has seen him practise and hit targets flawlessly (and promptly shagged him in a supplies cupboard right outside the shooting range, eyes bright with urgent arousal while Q smirked). On the other hand, Q’s certainty is fleeing unpleasantly fast - it’s one thing to shoot at a range and another entirely in the field, in a blaze of bullets and chaos of three rival operations gone awry at the same time, where people pull the trigger first and ask questions later.
Q once again has a distinct feeling he’s shite at not getting shot.
So he follows James, clenching his teeth and doing his best to steel his nerves when distant echoes of gunfire ricochet off the tunnel walls in the flickering half-lights as the terrorists and the DGSE sort each other out; every few steps they have to stand still and listen to roughly make out where the shots are coming from.
James leads the way, gun pointed ahead and ready to fire ruthlessly at the first sign of human presence, whoever it may turn out to be. He looks back at Q over his shoulder entirely too often, and Q wants to reassure him, but he isn’t sure how well he can manage that with wild hair and what he now feels must be a dust-caked dribble of blood from his forehead, down his nose. There’s concern in James’ eyes, and Q is part angry and part appreciative. The conflict of those two emotions is most vexing.
“It’s not trauma,” he climbs over a crooked slab and carefully follows James’ steps down an unstable pile. “I haven’t really got PTSD from it, I’m not going into flashbacks. It just... reminded me a little too vividly,” he accepts James’ helping hand to smooth over his earlier harsh words at least a little. James holds his hand a little longer than strictly necessary.
“Understandable,” is all he says; it’s curt and genuine, and Q is grateful for it.
The vexation ebbs away, mostly. Razor-sharp adrenaline and quickened breath remain, every single nerve in Q’s body lit up with alertness. Now the silence is broken only by their own footsteps and dust hissing in between the chunks of rubble. It’s even worse than distant noises, because silent danger is all that much more difficult to spot.
A rattle of machine gunfire explodes so close that Q’s entire flesh stings with alarm, and James stops abruptly, backing up into Q and pushing him up against the wall, James’ body covering his own, and Q’s earwig comes to life with a crackle and a flurry of voices.
“Q?” it’s R coming through on the comms. “Q, we’ve contacted the DGSE but they’re having trouble reaching their operatives.”
“We can see that,” Q mutters, quiet so as not to give away their position, and then there’s more clatter and shouting, then more shots fired and someone running, coming closer and closer-
A figure rounds the corner and James fells his target with a brutally fast shot to the head - it’s one of the terrorists, but the hard set of James’ jaw tells Q that had it been one of the DGSE the shot would have come all the same instead of taking chances. (The thrill Q feels at James’ display of lethal talent is probably entirely wrong – but Q had never exactly scored well with the Psych department.)
“Stay here,” James mutters, clipped, when more noises follow. “I’m not leaving your sight,” he adds, a quick reassurance, and he ghosts across the tunnel and glues himself to the opposite wall.
Pounding footsteps of someone running, a double-tap shot from a semi-automatic, incoherent voices, more running. The echo plays tricks on Q, but James is perfectly still, until he lunges, lightning quick, round the corner and fires off his own shots before sliding back, once again shielded while a corpse thumps on the ground somewhere. A beat; James assesses the echoes and the distance of combat. He’s 007, sleek and lethal and one with the shadows and brutally efficient, and seeing it in person is even more captivating than watching it through grainy CCTV feeds.
And then James nods, reaches out a hand, and Q hurries across the distance between them, his hand sliding into James’.
They wind their way through the tunnels, navigating as best they can with R’s occasional help over the comms as she works with the map they have, listening to them report on collapsed tunnels and blocked exits. Q can see James persistently homing in on west, where they’re supposed to get out. It takes a while, but at last they climb out through a hole, crawling towards daylight over unstable rubble and loose debris, just as R reaches them with the information that DGSE at last managed to contact their people and tell them there are two British operatives in this mess.
The mission is miserably failed, but Q honestly couldn’t give less of a fuck as he clambers out, squinting into the harsh desert sun, dust caking his face and falling from his hair into his eyes and his heart still pounding from the adrenaline. James is right there, also completely covered with grime and relentlessly on high alert as they head to meet up with the extraction team just arriving on site.
The guilt creeps up on him slowly, like the ache of exhaustion setting into his bones. In the car, Q swallows and reaches out to hold James’ hand, because this isn’t the time or the place, but he still needs to do something-
James squeezes his hand, and Q finally allows himself to unwind.
“I didn’t really mean it,” Q says later - much later - in the quiet darkness of their bedroom, when they’re at last allowed to go home and rest. “I’m sorry,” and even in spite of a day of chaos and fight and adrenaline and travelled distance, Bond knows instantly what words Q is referring to.
He hums contemplatively and tries to be smooth about it despite the cool sting in his chest.
“But you were probably right anyway,” he says, an easy drawl as he rubs a circle on Q’s arm with his thumb where it’s slipped intimately under the sleeve of Q’s pyjama t-shirt. They’re showered and changed, facing each other in bed under the covers, and coming down from the last remnants of the whirlwind of blood and paperwork before they can sleep. The most and least perfect time to tie up loose ends.
Q sighs, lips pressed together in mild, benign frustration, a kind gleam in his eyes. Without his glasses he looks more harmless - but it’s not just the lack of glasses. It’s the comforting darkness of their bedroom, the spill of his dark curls across the softness of their pillows, the safety of their bed. The quietness of a moment that is just between the two of them, that nobody else will ever see.
“No,” the word is softly spoken but immensely self-assured. “You do think. About others. Just...” Q hesitates, presses his lips together again, gathering his thoughts.
Bond offers a crooked half-smile and a helpful reply.
“Just not enough.”
Q blinks; serious, considering. Honest.
“Yes,” he finally says. “Sometimes not enough. Sometimes you forget some things aren’t just yours,” M’s death - it had taken Bond months of knowing Q to realise that it had possibly been just as hard on him as it had been on Bond. “But you never promised you would think more often,” it’s cold and fair. Bond swallows it, as he well should.
“I’m sorry,” he says after a long while. It’s a little cracked and a little reluctant, and probably not worth a lot, but he hasn’t got anything better. But it’s honest too.
And perhaps the thought had always been there, somewhere, in his subconscious, and he never considered it because it was too much to think of Q there, in the middle of it, plunged into the chaos of flames and rubble and death. And the sheer coincidences that kept him alive.
I could have lost you before I knew you.
The thought is cold and nauseating, and Bond grips Q tighter, holding him closer.
Q smiles, a little brittle and unhappy, and kisses him. It’s done, it’s alright. Neither of them is very good at talking about feelings and vulnerabilities, but Q’s small kiss speaks volumes: It’s alright. Bond holds him close, buries his nose in the dark, wild hair, inhales deeply, lets his eyes close. Something unwinds inside him and lets go as Q’s arm slides round Bond’s waist.
“Is it too late to promise?” Bond tries for levity, but only halfway. His heart beats a little faster before he feels Q smile into his neck, a puff of warm breath tickling his skin.
“No, never,” he can hear the smile in Q’s voice.
“Then I do.”
“Mm. I’ll hold you to it.”
“I was rather hoping you would,” it’s cheeky for the first tentative suggestion of a long-term thing. They’ve never discussed it, and probably won’t for a while yet. But it still feels good to make that first step.
Q hums, noncommittal but no less acknowledging for it, his thumb warm when it brushes over Bond’s skin just under the vest top he’ll sleep in tonight. Lips quirked in a hint of a playful smile and eyes soft with approaching sleep - with safety, with trust, with ease - Q leans in and nuzzles into a slow kiss.
Despite everything, Bond sleeps better and easier than he ever had after a mission.