Five years Ariel had been in that 'research facility', five years of tests that hurt and questions that hurt even more because he was honestly telling them everything he could, but it was never ever enough to make them stop trying to get more from him.

"I speak all languages." (He didn't see the point in them asking about different specific ones after his sweeping statement. How pedantic even the cruelest mortals could be.)

"No one has told me when I was born, or why. Do you remember your own birth, sir?" (They hadn't liked it when he got cheeky, so he stopped after a while.)

"I don't know." (He said that one a lot. He wished like he had never wished anything before that this was not true, because though he did not enjoy causing pain or destruction he would do it if all this would stop.)

"I have never met anyone or thing like me, so I couldn't possibly...no please, please don't, I don't like it when you do that, what can I do to make you not do that?" (It took them two whole years to find something that could hurt him in a way they found useful, since apparently not a single one of them possessed the proper magics to make him truly their slave who would be cut to the quick by simple disapproval, much less torture. Eventually they learned certain radio frequencies caused him great discomfort on top of the pain the force field holding him perpetually subjected him to.)

"I said what can I do, not what would you like me to do?" (Days of Signal 37, his least favourite, after that retort.)

Then she had come, fought her way through, no firearms but a staff of rowan wood. Fought her way to the basement, to his cell.

"And here I was expecting a superweapon," she said, calm, though her eyes were wide as she gazed upon him.

"You would not be the first," he said timidly.

...

Ariel is busy reading the latest edition of the Encylopedia Britannica - letters Q-T, which he months later has occasion to find darkly hilarious - when Mistress returns home earlier than she usually does.

The moment the front door is safely shut he flits to her side. "M?" It takes him conscious effort to call her this, but ever since she was transferred from the Supernatural to the Secret Service she has preferred this title from all who speak to her.

She seems downcast. Worried. Regretful. Not things even he, privy to so much of her private self, is used to seeing from her. "I've not had a good day, my dear."

Taking her coat and hanging it up, even though she does not require this of him and never has, Ariel asks, "Would you like to talk about it?"

"Suffice to say that a good man is dead because of me, and many more may follow. Most likely will." Her voice is like a moor in winter.

"I'll make you some tea," Ariel says, not sure what else to say, but having learned that many humans of this land have a great fondness for the substance, Mistress included. He even finds pleasure in the hot mist that rises from it, how it feels when he makes himself corporeal enough to drink it and curl around his temporary physical form until it cools and he lets it evaporate.

"That's lovely, Ariel, and I appreciate it, but there's something greater I need from you." She sinks into an armchair, disturbing her servant by her deep weariness.

"I am at your disposal, ma'am." He crouches by her side.

"Those plans we had to integrate you into the wider world again, once you had learned enough to blend in and be effective without getting yourself into another mess like I pulled you from? It's time. I need you to come work for MI6. We'll start you out in technical support."

He takes her hand and kisses it. "Yes, ma'am. May I ask why?"

"I'm getting old and tired, darling, and I can't afford to have my total number of allies go down even by one."

"He must have been a good one." Ariel looks up, nervous that he has spoken out of turn. Not that Mistress is cruel or capricious, far from it, but he hates to cause her sorrow. Her soul is diamond-hard but diamond-brilliant, too, and he can see it shining out of her weakening but unyielding mortal shell.

She smiles sadly at him, though, and runs a hand through the hair he makes sure to be solid for the gesture to be effective. "He was."

...

Working in Technical Support is diverting and frequently fun. There's a vitality to it that Ariel, who is currently going by Arthur A. Reel because it is relatively inconspicuous and easy to remember, enjoys. For the sake of appearances he has his own modest little flat which he amuses himself by furnishing and decorating as he thinks "Arthur" would, given the backstory he and Mistress gave him. Having his own place to dwell makes no difference to his closeness with her; all she has to do is call and he is by her side.

While Ariel's ability to find Mistress and go to her is near-instantaneous, and he can travel with great speed if he employs satellite and wi-fi signals to give himself a boost, the MI6 building has been heavily magic-proofed by members of the Supernatural Service. Naturally only the very highest MI6 agents and the barely-a-handful members of the staff who have any sort of magical gifts are aware of this. But it makes Ariel's head fuzzy while he's there and forces him to take the Tube rather than fly invisibly, which taxes his ability to stay consistently flesh-and-blood, as being among the press of mortal crowds requires him to in order to not alarm them and make themselves question their own sanity.

Mistress comes up with a solution. On one of their quiet evenings together, him reading her poetry by Tennyson as she stares into the fireplace and does what augery she can without too much effort - just to stay in practice - she rises and picks a small porcelain bulldog off the mantel. "It occurs to me that if I were to put a bit of my power into this and keep it on my desk at work, enough of our connection would be there so that you could use that as a point of arrival. Should make your commute simpler."

He smiles. "You care for me well, ma'am."

...

Ariel saves over a dozen MI6 agents in the explosion that is the first sign of the consequences of that lost file for the sake of which they lost 007. But even he cannot be everywhere at once. And it is no ordinary bombing; he can tell by its very taste in the air.

"Ma'am, it was magic," he says the moment he and Mistress are alone.

"I know." How hollow she seems.

"It shouldn't have been possible! We both know how shielded that fortress was..."

Unexpectedly, Mistress gathers Ariel into her arms, and she feels too small for his liking. "Our enemy is more powerful than I am - and he has a vendetta."

He makes himself shrink a little, temporarily, so the size difference won't disturb him as much. "I won't let anything happen to you if I can help it, ma'am."

She looks at him with fondness and grief. "Oh, Ariel, you're so bright and brave but you don't understand. Any sorcerer more powerful than me could not only kill me but bind you to him, and turn you into that superweapon the Russians were bungling about trying to make you."

"I saved the token," he says after a moment, to break the terrible tension. He takes the porcelain bulldog out of his parka pocket and hands it to her. "I suggest you find someone to grant it to, should something happen to you."

She nods. "Leave me for a while. I need to be alone."

...

"Ariel!"

He arrives at Mistress' flat to find her staring out the window. "Let me preface this by saying I'm not angry, since I know for a fact that if you could have prevented it or warned me you would have. I know you well enough by now to be certain. But 007 just left. After breaking into my flat. After supposedly being dead."

"A sorcerer in his own right?"

"I never felt anything from him." She turns and looks him over. "You're in your natural form again."

"I find it more comfortable, though if you are going to be having guests, expected or unexpected, I will make it a point to look more ordinary when I first arrive to be on the safe side."

"No, it's all right. I am used to you this way, too." After some thought, though it seems it is merely the last few working-throughs of any possible caveats in a longer decision-making process, she beckons him closer. "Ariel, I have a new name and job for you, if you don't find it too upsetting. If you want badly to go free I'll let you. Do this, though, and I'll pull some strings to make sure the island you came from is forever preserved as a wildlife sanctuary. So it'll always be yours to go home to."

"Tell me first what it is."

She speaks in more detail of James Bond, and how much she owes him and how much he needs help. "If you agree, and I die without letting you go, he will be your new master."

Ariel knows exactly what position "Arthur Reel" will be promoted to if he accepts, for there is only one newly-created job opening for which the fictitious young man he plays would be remotely qualified. "I've always liked the letter Q since I learned how to read. It sounds so funny, and it stays so faithfully to U. That little tail that quirks off-kilter, as well."

"There's my darling."

...

"I've met Bond; gave him the gun and the radio. He believed all that babble about the gun being calibrated to his palm-print and so on, like you said he would." In fact, Q spent a great deal of time working up a subtle enchantment that seems like a technological marvel. He does a lot of that these days.

Mistress barely glances up from her mound of paperwork, but from business rather than any lack of regard for the newly-minted Q. "Good, good. No magic sensed from him? I was hoping you would be able to pick it up better than I could."

"I sensed nothing. But ma'am...that in itself can be a power. A defensive rather than offensive one, so unconscious and a part of his being that he himself is unaware of possessing it."

She does look up at him properly now, her eyebrows raised. "It always did seem a bit improbable how he is so flashy and ostentatious at times and yet gets so little attention."

"Indeed. If so, that does make him an excellent - how shall I put it? Heir? Of me, I mean."

"You're not property."

"No, but I am in the delicate position of requiring a guardian to reduce my risk of being trapped by someone who would consider me property."

She has known this all along, known this for years, but the thought pains her. "Go to lunch with some of your underlings, Q. It's important for people to see you eating from time to time."

"Yes, ma'am." And he reminds himself also to walk back to Q branch rather than vanishing.

...

When Silva meets Bond, he perceives several things, though some of them require physical contact to be sure of - not that an opportunity to taunt and disconcert an enemy is a burden in the least.

First, Bond has mastery over a very, very powerful elemental being. Not total mastery, but there is a latent ownership there, a coiled spring of control over something that Silva knows right away that he wants.

Second, Bond doesn't seem to know it himself. The men who recognized Silva's power, the Gift that had made him survive that cyanide capsule, had made the mistake of thinking that by teaching him how to couple his technological skills with spellcasting he could be made their puppet, their weapon. Instead the moment he learned enough to do so he slaughtered them painfully and struck out on his own. Thus Silva knows full well one can be potentially one of the greatest wizards who ever lived and not have the slightest idea of it until some crisis brings it forth.

Third, though, Bond has no sign of any such potential. None. None whatsoever. Even when Silva puts the life of a woman Bond must have at least some regard for - he being the type of man to have at least a modicum of sentimentality for the women he beds - in his hands, there is not a flicker of Art.
Most irritating.

...

How funny that Mummy was an enchantress all along, though it doesn't exactly surprise Silva.

This is not a time to dwell on that, though, because he has only a few hours in his cell before the next phase. Spells that look like hacking to the uninformed, the masses that believe computers can do absolutely anything in right hands. Augery to determine where trains will be and when, illusions to slip past Parliament security, confusion and doubt to sow wherever he needs it.

This established to his satisfaction, there is one more charm to cast. He sends out his extra-sensory perception and smiles. The creature is on a loose leash and has not been forbidden to talk to strangers - therefore, it can be forced to talk to a sufficiently persuasive stranger.

The guards think they see Silva meditating in his cell, seeing no one, speaking to no one.

What really happens is that the room's door opens and the false impression of a young man, a boy really, in boxy glasses and a ridiculous cardigan staggers his way in, as if being dragged by unseen forces. Which is probably the most accurate layman's description of what is happening.

"Please stop," says the creature, whose ID badge marks him as their new Quartermaster. Silva could clap his hands and do a dance at the sublime absurdity of it.

"Why should I?"

"Because my mistress and my master will be very angry when they find out." The thing is trembling with the strain Silva's magics are putting upon him, its voice reedy and wavering.

"I forbid you to tell them of it, just as I command you to speak to me the full and complete truth and nothing else," Silva says, with a practised flick of the wrist, causing "Q" to fall to his knees, shaking. Good. "Ah, you poor little spirit, not even given orders that would keep you safe from me! She lets all of us down..."

"Don't talk about her like that." Gritted teeth. Defiance born of loyalty. Oh, what a wonderful toy this would be.

"I would do better, child."

"I don't like serving those whose hearts are twisted as yours. And I'm no child."

Silva grins. "When she dies you will answer to whatever I call you."

"She's not the only one -"

"Ah yes, you are bound to Bond. What a lovely little pun. Let's see what good that does you."

"If you don't let me go right now a significant number of people will notice I'm missing from my desk. You won't be able to keep up an illusion on every single one of them, and maintain a hold on me, at the same time."

"Clever. If only things like you were available at Chinese markets - so much more useful than dear departed Severine. You're even as pretty." He dismisses the spirit, which immediately vanishes. Enough play, time to get back to work.

...

In over five hundred years' - possibly six or more hundred years' - existence, Ariel-that-is-now-Q has never had so many things go wrong all at once as it does over the next twelve hours.

He wants to express so many more things than he can say when Bond asks him to betray the British Government (in a way) for his and M's sake. All he does say is, "So much for my promising career in espionage," before drinking a deep draught of that comforting Earl Grey.

...

Mistress summons Q to her when she is at a petrol station near the Scottish border. She is using the ladies' while Bond refuels.

He clings to her feet, not weeping, but talking as faintly as he spoke to her when they first met. "Ma'am, ma'am, if both you and Bond die out here you know what may very well happen to me. Let me help."

"You are helping."

"Not as Q; you know that's not what I mean! Q is not enough!"

She bends down and pulls him to a standing position. "Ariel. Good Ariel. You know what happens when two sorcerers of my and Silva's level of power have a no-holds-barred direct fight. We need to go where as few people as possible will be caught in the crossfire. And I need Bond because Silva will not be able to sense him. If you were here, though, you would be like a beacon to him, so vulnerable and obvious that it would be even worse."

Ariel has never shed tears, and he doesn't think he is capable of doing it for real. But he feels lost and desolate. "I can't be kept safe by a small porcelain bulldog."

She almost laughs at this. "I'm not saying you can. Hear me now, though. If you never see me again, consider this your final order from me..."

"No!"

"Ariel."

He shrinks back from the gentle rebuke. "Sorry, ma'am. I will be obedient."

"If within seventy-two hours you do not hear from me, Bond is fully, utterly, and irrevocably - except by his direct order or by his own death - your new master. I leave it to your own discretion when and how you inform him of the arrangement. Any successor of mine will be aware of the situation, but it is only the Quartermaster that answers to MI6, and the airy sprite of that hidden island - your true self - that answers to Bond. Understood?"

He bows his head. "Yes, ma'am."

"If this turns out to be goodbye, I want you to know I couldn't have asked for a better servant. Or friend."

"Yes, ma'am." And with infinite sadness he fades away.

...

Cold iron bullets are expensive and inconvenient, but Silva knows knows they are eminently worth it. Though any sorcerer can be killed by conventional means if it happens too quickly to react to or heal from, only cold iron can inhibit any attempts to use magic to stop a slower death.

...

After M's funeral, Eve finds Arthur - well, Q now, she still needs to get used to that, just as everyone needs to get used to her being Miss Moneypenny, and Mallory as the new M - slumped in a stairwell, staring at nothing.

"I didn't think you'd be that upset," Eve says, not unkindly, just a statement of fact.

Q looks up, raising an eyebrow. "What, do you think I run on tea and equations?"

"If you don't, what do you run on?"

He ponders for a moment, hugging his too-thin knees. "I've had a lot of time to wonder about it. Wonder is definitely one of them. Longing. Doubt. Hope."

"Interesting." She gives his shoulder a squeeze. "I'm going to go fetch Bond to talk to Mallory about a new assignment. After they're done he wants to speak to you. Don't worry too much; as far as I can tell he's not angry about your part in the security breaches."

"Thanks," he says, patting the hand resting on his shoulder. "I'll be there momentarily."

As she heads back to her office, he calls for her, "Do you happen to have a porcelain dog in that box?"

"How...?"

"You're giving it to Bond."

"Yes..."

He gives the smallest of smiles. "Good."

...

Q shuts the door behind him when admitted to Mallory's office, and for good measure casts an extra level of soundproofing all around him, since like their temporary headquarters these new offices have not existed long enough to be thoroughly warded by the Supernatural Service.

Mallory looks...nervous? "Please, sit."

"Thank you, sir."

There is a long, long, longggggg silence.

Then Mallory asks, "Are you really five hundred years old?"

"At least, sir."

"Extraordinary."

"That is one way of putting it, sir."

Mallory takes a sip of water from a glass on his desk. "I took a class on Shakespeare when I was at university. We spent the last two weeks of the term on The Tempest. How much of it is true?"

"Most of it, sir. I liked Shakespeare very much and he was unhappy because he thought he had no more stories to tell. So I crept into his room every night for many nights and told him mine, in his sleep. So he'd have one more. He did change one thing that upset me a little."

"Oh?"

"It was Prospera, a woman. Not Prospero. Who was my master for a while, at that pivotal part of my existence up until that point."

"Indeed?"

"She was a lot like your predecessor, sir, which was one of the reasons I felt such - kinship, I suppose one could say, with...your predecessor."

Mallory fiddles with a pen, possibly so he doesn't have to look directly at the Quartermaster. "I was given to understand that you are in some kind of spiritually binding arrangement in which you must both care for and answer to 007."

"Yes, sir. There are good reasons for this, which if you were not informed of I am willing though not particularly enthusiastic to share."

"You don't have to at this time. We're lucky to have you at all. I realize this."

"Sir."

A deep breath, and Mallory says, "That will be all for now."

Q-that-was-once-Ariel stands, bows, and moves to exit.

But Mallory says, softly, "Wait."

"Sir?"

"At her inquiry, she quoted a very pertinent and eloquent Tennyson verse. Claimed her husband was an enthusiast."

A fresh hurt. Yet, somehow, a sweet one. "Yes."

"In my new position, I have become privy to the information that she was never in fact married at all."

"That is correct, sir."

"Did you meet Tennyson too?"

"It's possible; I met a poet around that time who fit the description." After a pause, Q-that-will-be-Q-for-her-sake-as-long-as-needed asks, "Anything else I can do for you, understanding of course that this will not always be the same as what you want me to do for you, sir?"

There is warmth in Mallory's eyes that few get to see. "Take care of yourself, too."

"Yes, sir." And he vanishes into thin air.