A/N: Thank you for your support. This is the last of this story and I don't expect that there should be more. RL is strangely exhausting at the moment, so any and all encouragement is doubly welcome. Signing out,
Morning announced itself with an invasion of busybodies into Stark's workshop. Q had seen the plans Stark had drawn for people-proofing this place, and he could read in the tension of Stark's demeanour that they would be implemented very, very soon.
The man was already stretching the limits of his hospitability by not kicking them out.
Banner and Selvig made themselves comfortable on a mattress by the door and quietly watched.
A while later Stark seemed to have completely forgotten their presence.
Q had never before built a robot purely of science, without the slightest bit of magic. He was enjoying himself. He was especially interested in its sensory perception, although that might have been a side-effect of his yesterday's debate with the man who housed the beast.
The body of the future bot was half-standing, half-strung up on top of a table-like structure hastily cobbled together from scrap material. Usually Stark would have done the construction more hands-on, as he had explained, but this was supposed to be a joint effort between them, so they had to come up with a different modus operandi. They were standing vis-à-vis, working four-handed or alternating their additions, based on how much space was needed.
"Miss Potts will be arriving in thirty-one seconds," the central AI informed them.
Stark grimaced and set down the tin solder.
Q reached for a tangle of cables, selected one and unbraided the end.
"Resistance?" Stark asked just as Potts entered.
The AI displayed a series of calculations on the nearest screen.
Stark grumbled. "Go through all available materials, J, and give me numbers I'll like."
"Really, Bruce?" Potts asked under her breath.
Banner craned his neck to look up at her. "It's like Jenga, only they're building it instead of taking it apart, and it's going to be a robot rather than a tower."
"It's fascinating to watch," Selvig added. "They have completely different styles – different ways of thinking, I suppose-"
"I'll take your word on it, Doctor." Potts sighed. "JARVIS, how long have they been at it?"
"Four hours and twenty-eight minutes, Miss Potts."
"Let me guess: without a break."
Stark met Q's eyes over their unfinished creation and squared his shoulders, like a child caught doing something it was most definitely not supposed to be doing. Q gained the distinct impression that this was yet another thing that could be said about committed relationships, but he kept it private.
Let Stark lie in the bed he had made for himself.
"Indeed," the machine confirmed.
Q straightened. "I have to go, anyway. Work to do."
"I'll finish here," Stark assured him. "It's just the other limb and the casing now."
"The program?" Q inquired.
"It's a cyberdate." Stark grinned at him and offered his hand.
Q shook it and made a tactical retreat. He was almost out of earshot when Potts began presenting her guilt trip. He made a detour for Gugnir, and once he held it in his hand, he surveyed the empty corridor and requested information on Bond's whereabouts.
"Agent Bond is breakfasting in the kitchen, Mr Smith," the AI replied. "Mr Odinson and Dr Foster are present as well."
The kitchen was, much to Q's surprise, clean. Apparently, Stark paid sneaky staff, who had managed to come in at an unreasonable hour and remove every last trace of last night's… soiree. It had been too mellow an occasion to call it a party.
"Double-oh-seven," Q said tartly in lieu of a 'good morning.' He had not chosen the tone intentionally; apparently the shadow of last night's confrontation was still very dark upon them.
"Q," the man returned, with the exact same expression and in the exact same voice as he had spoken at the gallery, upon their first meeting. An icy hand gripped Q's heart, and he automatically accepted the cup Bond handed him.
It contained tea, and embodied an apology as clear as Bond could make it.
Q took a sip. It was hot and bitter.
"Brother!" Thor rumbled, tearing himself away from his lover and walking over to rummage in the drawers. "And Bond, my brother's shield brother! A most fortuitous morn!"
"I wouldn't go that far," Q muttered dryly. He and Bond still had a way to go before they could call themselves that, if they ever even got so far. He wouldn't put a wager on it.
Thor returned to the table, proffering a tiny knife. "I hope this shall suffice, my Jane! I would be happy to cut your fruit for you, but I shall never doubt your prowess."
"Mhmmm…" Foster concurred, obviously only partially awake, and pulled Thor down by his absurdly Midgardian undershirt so she could kiss him.
"Dr Foster is obviously a dog person," Q shared under his breath, watching the interaction.
"That did look like obedience training, didn't it?" Bond agreed.
Q set down the cup. It was empty. When had that happened?
Bond looked away, understanding that the rift between them had not yet been bridged to the point that he could resume acting as if he had never let his guard down enough to show Q his distrust. "London?"
"Yes," Q agreed and extended his hand.
They materialised in Marylebone, in Q's flat. He needed a change of clothes, and Bond could damn well do whatever he wanted. It was not as though he hadn't known where Q lived, anyway.
Q ripped his hand away as soon as he could without risking that he would scatter Bond over several planes of existence. "You can make your way home, double-oh-seven? I am not overestimating you by assuming that?" Without waiting for a response, he shut the door of his bedroom behind himself.
When he came out ten minutes later, Bond was still standing in his living room, staring blankly through the unadorned wall.
"I haven't ceased being an alien god in the past twelve hours," Q informed the man, once again showing more emotion than he necessarily wanted to. He tried to mitigate it with a grin – being a god was a viable source of pride.
"I hate that smile," Bond said.
Q quirked an eyebrow. "What smile?"
"That one," Bond looked at his lips. "That smile on your face that looks like you are half-expecting everyone to strike you."
Q felt that very smile stretching his mouth. No one had pegged him that well since the woman he used to call 'mother.' He despised anyone having that much power over him; worse yet, someone who had already used similar knowledge to hurt him, and someone against whom Q could not sufficiently defend himself. He recalled with sharp pain how hard it had been to strike out at Thor's soft spots, and Thor had used to off-handedly bully him without realising it. For decades.
Bond raised his hand, palm-open, to touch him.
Q hastily stepped away.
Bond flinched, as if it were him who had been struck. However, he really was not the type of man that would back down after a single blow, so he came forward, crowding Q up against an empty bookcase. "I am not going to sodding hit you, Q. God, even if I tried, I know nine double-ohs who'd kill me for it, and they would succeed." He thought about it for a moment. "If they worked together. And they would, because they think you're the best thing that's happened to this agency since cell phones."
Q huffed through gritted teeth. "I have taken a hit from Mjölnir before, double-oh-seven. If Thor's not even trying, that much force can level a city block. Your fists don't scare me. Neither do your knives or the guns you keep stealing from the armoury."
"But you are… nervous," Bond pointed out.
Q did not bother trying to deny it.
Bond had the eyes of a beast that would never crawl off to die quietly. It would live on forever or be ripped into shreds and feasted upon by the new apex predator. The eyes seared.
Q rarely genuinely desired something, and never dealt well with being denied.
"I have work to do. As you have pointed out, there are nine double-ohs who need me." He didn't give Bond a chance to argue and kicked him out of the flat, without even resorting to magic. If the agent straggled after him all the way to MI-6 like a stray dog he had once taken home and fed dinner scraps… well, that was Bond's problem.
"Are you busy?" Winters asked from the threshold to Q's personal office.
"Having a three-way," Q replied absently, too preoccupied with coding. It was a unique experience to cooperate this way. Usually his program was his own, or alternatively he was fighting against an enemy. This time, however, he and Stark were pooling their code and Stark's AI was combing through it after them and flagging problems.
Winters could have done striptease on the desk and he wouldn't have noticed.
"I'm sorry I asked," the woman said wryly and stepped inside to deposit a stack of forms on top of another stack of forms. "It's past twelve."
"Can I get you anything? Tea? Sandwich?" she inquired, and her voice was so dreary that Q for a moment looked away from the screen.
He held her eyes and shook his head.
Winters nodded and took her leave. That, Q suspected, was the end of that. Her last-ditch effort had been repealed like all previous attempts, and she was finally accepting it. With a little luck, next time she might latch on someone more available.
- Have you fallen asleep? – Stark asked.
- No. – Q replied and moved to go back to typing, only to realise that he had lost the thread. Stark was doing just fine without him. He went back and started reviewing the flagged points, editing typos here and there and leaving notes on a few stickier points.
- You're not home. –
- No. –
- Wow, don't overwhelm me with that torrent of eloquence, – Stark retorted. – Why aren't you home? Is the Magnificent Seven stalking you? –
- Bond is deployed, – Q informed the man, even though it technically constituted treason.
- You brooding? Why the fuck aren't you over here? –
Q rolled his eyes. – I am on call. – Double-oh-eight was on a mission that looked like it might become red-hot any minute now. It had been looking that way for four hours. Q's nerves were strung taut.
- You can be on call from here, – Stark offered. – Instantaneous travel. –
Q considered it.
The door to his office flew open and a technician fell through it. "Lost contact with double-oh-eight, sir!"
Q hastily typed: – g2g – and logged off.
Q's phone rang in the afternoon and woke him up.
"Tell me one thing," Stark spoke without preamble, "did I somehow mysteriously piss you off? Because it happens, believe you me, it happens more than you would think. Or I would think. Which is exactly the issue."
Q smiled. "No. I really had an emergency, which was the reason why I was on call in the first place."
"Your Agent?" Stark inquired gingerly.
"One of mine. Not the one you mean." Q rolled over on the sofa straight onto something hard-edged that stuck its corner just next to his hipbone. "Ow." It was a book. What was it doing on his sofa?
"They tell me he's going to make it."
"Yes, I agree," Q said with palpable irony.
"Bitch, bitch, bitch."
"You called me for a reason," Q reminded the man before he got so tangled in his own hedging that he would give up on his objective.
"Yeah. Remember Fitz and Simmons? Cute kids, sharp as tacks, too bad they're on Fury's payroll, 'cause I would employ them in a snap?"
Q did remember them. "Dr Selvig's fans."
Stark laughed. "That's nothing compared to the science hard-on they've got for Bruce. And Brucie kinda mentioned your ocular inquiry to them and guess what?" He paused, giving Q the time to guess, which Q wasn't going to use. Audibly pouting, he provided: "They've got a working prototype for you."
Q was stunned. He had only approached the man that housed the beast because… well, out of curiosity and morbid fascination, after his rational mind overpowered his primal fear of the abomination. The man had himself mostly under control and Q had his magic, so the danger to him was negligible. And Dr Banner was indisputably a genius himself, and a third-millennium Renaissance man. Q knew that Stark had been right in alluding that he was missing out.
He had not expected Banner to go to such lengths for him.
Perhaps this was all Stark's doing, and the man was trying to disguise it, but Stark had never been timid about admitting to his accomplishments, be they scientific or charitable, or both.
"You still there, el-e-dee?"
"Present and shiny," Q quipped, climbing off his sofa, fortunately without sustaining any further injuries. His bruise was already gone anyway.
"Nope." Plus, if anything necessitating his attention happened, he carried at least two phones on his person, one of which was a Starkphone that – credit where credit was due – had coverage globe-over.
"See you on the Helicarrier in twenty, then."
Fitz and Simmons met Q in a laboratory that they shared, tripped while introducing one another in a somewhat embarrassing routine, and in a unison that might actually have been spontaneous, but which Q believed was rehearsed asked:
"Are you really a god?"
"Are you really an alien?"
Q adjusted his glasses and glanced to the side at Stark.
"Aren't they cute?" Stark exclaimed. "I wanted them, but Pepper said it would be my responsibility to feed and walk them every day and I couldn't pay other people to do it for me."
Fitz and Simmons redirected their gazes from Q to Stark, and then looked at each other.
"So," Simmons said, "Dr Banner gave me all these notes and I tried to go with it, but then it didn't work, so I had to improvise a bit and tell him I'm sorry because-"
"What she's trying to say," Fitz cut in, "is that Dr Banner's like the best gamma physicist there is-"
"The best," Simmons echoed, "but he's only like, above average in medicine." She cringed, as though it was a sacrilege to admit such a thing about one of her idols.
"So we had to improvise," Fitz spurred her on, and went over to a metal cabinet. He unlocked it and from the inside pulled out a box, which he set on the counter.
"We've seen similar stuff before, but there's always the difficulty with integration, like you have the human body and then you have the tech, and you've gotta have an interface and pray it's not gonna take you over Matrix-style."
"So, only simple programming, non-editable," Fitz simplified.
"That means we've gotta get it right on the first try. Who's our vic?" Simmons paused and then amended: "I mean, our test subject?" She smiled widely, showing two rows of unnaturally white teeth.
Q turned to Stark and nodded. They were cute.
He left for Trevelyan, deciding that they might just as well do the operation immediately.
"Status?" Q inquired.
There was a tiny little window in the corner of his screen displaying the security camera feed from the operating room, but he couldn't see any details. There was no point to watching more closely – he wouldn't have been able to help with the procedure.
"You know, for missing half his face, this guy is kinda handsome," Simmons cooed, patting the unconscious double-oh agent on the surviving patch of buzz-cut.
Q continued programming without a hitch. Perhaps he was becoming inundated to the pair.
"He's beeping like a metronome," Fitz assured him proudly. "He's got a fantastic heart, I kid you not."
"Just don't try to get your hands on it," Q warned the boy.
"I wouldn't, sir," Fitz assured him. "Only, we've got this release form for when a person dies, so they can donate their body to research…" He looked into the camera hopefully.
"Ask Trevelyan when he wakes up," Q retorted.
Stark, standing two yards to his right, sniggered. The occupants of the Helicarrier Bridge had initially covertly observed them, but after the first few shivers of revulsion tried not to listen.
"Duuude…" Fitz exclaimed.
"Yep!" Simmons agreed happily. "Extraocular muscles. Mostly gone. This is art!"
Stark suppressed a chuckle, fingers dancing over his virtual keyboard.
"That is not funny," Hill informed him quietly.
Stark snorted. "I'm in! Hey, Pookie, say hi to Munchkin!"
- Hi, Munchkin, – Q typed, greeting the robot he and Stark had cobbled together. He forgot to be annoyed by being called 'Pookie.' He preferred 'L-E-D' or even the trivial 'Johnny-boy,' but Stark had somehow worn him down through sheer grittiness of personality.
"Hi, Munchkin!" Fitz and Simmons echoed, although they couldn't have any idea about what was actually going on up here on the Bridge.
Q pressed enter. "There goes the Chinese member of the WSC," he said faux-mournfully.
Fury and Hill did not dignify his report with a response.
"Damn, we're good," Stark praised them in the absence of praise from an external source.
"What now?" Q asked. "South Africa? Colombia?"
"Colombia," Stark decided. "Oh yeah! This is the life, baby!"
Hill shuddered. Fury, standing next to her, looked down at her and scowled. That was, scowled more intensely than his default expression.
"It's just… sir, are we promoting this unholy alliance?"
Fury snorted. "I want to give them a venue to go a little crazy. That way they won't do this shit out of our sight."
Q and Stark, both still typing, shared a lightning fast glance. Oh well, what SHIELD didn't know wouldn't hurt them. If the two of them took over Midgard quietly, no one had to notice.
"Hey, Agent," Stark said out of blue. "How's it hanging?"
"Mr Stark," Coulson said professionally, crossing the Bridge from the stairs to Fury's rostrum. "Director, these are for you." He handed over a couple of folders and remained rooted to the spot, mesmerised by one of Fury's screens. "Is that Munchkin?"
"Possibly," Stark allowed.
Coulson took a deep breath and released it in a very controlled fashion.
"What is it?" Fury asked under his breath, although far from quietly enough to remain unheard by Q.
"They built that one night because they couldn't sleep," Coulson explained with fond exasperation.
"You're the Terror Twins' handler-"
"No," Coulson shot Fury down. With wicked satisfaction, he stated: "Smith is not an Avenger."
"Bullshit," Stark whispered, and shut off his program. "It'll take Munchkin a while to get back and recharge. Celebratory lunch at the Tower with whomever we can hunt down?" His eyes were boring through Coulson.
Q did not mind. Certainly, the Stark Tower was one of his favourite places on this planet. Still, he had obligations, so before he erased the traces of his presence from the terminal, he asked: "How's Trevelyan?"
"Alive and close to symmetrical again," Simmons reported cheerfully.
"Don't let him die. I'll be back for him."
Foster, Lewis and Selvig were off on an expedition, so Thor was practically beside himself with excitement when Q came in the door. It took a while to calm him down enough to make him pass for an integrated member of society – a while which Stark, Potts and Coulson used well, judging by the shortness of breath and widened pupils Q noticed while Potts touched up her make-up.
"American Idol? Really, Thor?" Stark asked dubiously, glaring at the TV Thor had been watching prior to Q's entrance.
"Friend Clint suggested this contest of talent and perseverance," Thor replied. "I regret that the time has passed and I cannot offer my support to the brave candidates anymore."
Q eyed him contemplatively. "You know, if you like the music, you can listen to it sung by actual musicians, and without the annoying bits in between the songs." Q had once been exposed to roughly fifteen minutes of the show (by Moneypenny). He hoped never to repeat the experience.
"That would be praiseworthy indeed!" Thor proclaimed, and asked 'his friend JARVIS' to turn off the TV for him. That was good thinking: Thor's close relationship with electricity was probably a murder on all manner of appliances.
"So," Stark clapped his hands. "What are we in the mood for? Fast food? Ethnic? Stars – how many?"
"I have twenty minutes left of my lunch break, Tony," Potts tried to curb his enthusiasm.
"You can be late," Stark assured her.
"In that case," Potts allowed, "I have thirty-five minutes."
"Speed-eating is unhealthy, Pep. You're going to give yourself an ulcer-"
"Says the man who eats while working, motor oil and all."
Engaged in an argument, they let themselves be led by Coulson toward the lift. Q and Thor followed them, and Q for the first time experienced that even Stark Tower lifts could become crowded, especially when one was accompanied by Thor.
"Business level twenty-three, please, JARVIS," Coulson requested.
"As you wish, Agent Coulson," the AI replied, and the lift moved.
"Seriously?" Stark whined. "That's where all the paper-pushers eat. I can afford better."
"Shawarma," Potts reminded him.
"You just want to humanize me for the PR," the man complained, but he pulled her closer and, judging by the offended look Coulson cast at him, attempted to do the same thing with him.
Business level twenty-three, Q found out, was a floor-wide eatery available to all those employed within the Stark Tower. He was not certain of the capacity, but since it was early, the place was less than half-full.
On the other hand, once the presence of two Avengers (one of whom was Anthony Stark) and three affiliates was noticed, there was suddenly as much noise as if the hall was bursting at the seams. Stark ignored the uproar with aplomb gained from a lifetime of experience and Thor seemed to enjoy it, and the two of them created enough of a shield. No one dared approach them anyway, and Stark steered them toward the back corner, where a table for six waited to be commandeered by them.
"What is on the menu?" Coulson asked.
Stark waved his hand. "We can have whatever the Hell we want. I own this place. I pay these people's wages. That entitles me to putting them out."
"Incorrigible," Potts sighed, but then a waitress was there and they all pretended that they weren't in the midst of a debate on whether she was supposed to come to them to take their orders or if they should have gone and stood in the line like everyone else.
"What do you want, big guy?" Stark asked Thor.
"I will have the same fare as my brother chooses!" Thor boomed, causing the waitress to jump and nearly sprain her ankle, since she wasn't too stable on her high heels.
"Crêpes," Q decided.
"Crêpes?" Stark repeated. "Seriously?!"
Q set his elbows on the plastic tabletop and laced his fingers together. "Do you have a problem with that?"
Stark raised both hands palms-out. "I just expected something more along the lines of… wild boar." He gestured wildly to illustrate just how wild the boar should have been. "Or at least a goose."
"I grew up eating boars and geese," Q assured him, supported by Thor's eager nods. "But crêpes? There is not a single one to be had in the whole of Asgard, and never has been. There were no strawberries, no whipped cream, no chocolate."
"Damn it, now I want crêpes, too," Stark announced plaintively. He turned to the waitress. "But with blueberries."
Potts decided that ordering a relatively simple food was a reasonable compromise between acting like the retinue of a multibillionaire and integrating with the plebeians. "For me, too – with blueberries, please."
"I suppose I am outvoted," Coulson said and sighed.
Potts scoffed. "You've got thirty-two sweet teeth, Phil, so stop fronting."
Coulson bestowed half a smile upon her. "Fine."
Seeing as that was sorted, Thor beamed at the four people around the table and the waitress, and exclaimed: "I will be most delighted to taste these crêpes in your company!"
"Trevelyan?" Q inquired, perching on an ottoman in the rec room and munching on peanuts.
"Twenty-ten, or I'll return my diploma," Simmons assured him, and then frowned. "Well, one of them, anyway."
"Is it true about Agent Coulson?" Fitz asked eagerly.
"What about Agent Coulson?" Sitwell chipped in, ghosting into the room and aiming straight for the water dispenser.
"He's dating," Fitz shared with the class.
Q looked at the boy, tilted his head to the side and shrugged. "You should have asked him while he was still free if you were interested."
Fitz went ashen and then crimson in the face, spluttered and dissolved into a coughing fit. "No… I … no… I'd never… I'm sure he… but…"
Simmons watched him suffer for a while, and then took pity on him. "There's like, this line they tell you when you're a junior agent, about how you're not allowed to fraternize. And then," she lowered her voice, "a senior agent takes you to the side and they tell you that people do it anyway, because there's no other option. Like it's impossible to date anyone outside. Like we're all… I dunno…"
"Doomed to life of perpetual unattachedness!" Fitz supplied woefully. "But if Agent Coulson can do it-"
"That means nothing," Sitwell assured him. "We suspect that Coulson's more or less omnipotent, so he can do pretty much anything."
Fitz' and Simmons' faces fell.
"On top of that," Sitwell continued blithely, although now that he was watching, Q detected a spark of humour in his eyes, "the pool's fairly sure that Coulson's dating an Avenger, so that just goes right on to the sphere of legend and has no influence on us, normal people."
Simmons handed him a paper tissue and with equal parts tentativeness and eagerness asked: "Agent Coulson and the Black Widow?" Her expression was hungry for scandal, and Q wished he could throw Winters at her just so she would chill the Hel out.
"Sentence structure," a new voice chided her. Romanov descended from the ceiling.
Simmons yelped and plastered herself against the wall in vain effort to become one with it.
"You're missing a constituent," Romanov informed her.
"I- I- I didn't mean it!" Simmons stammered.
Romanov shrugged. "If you say so. For the record, no. Just thinking of going there is courting a swift death you'll never see coming." She managed to say this in such a funereal voice that even Q had to work hard to keep a straight face.
Fitz, however, was scowling contemplatively. "Is he dating the Hulk then?"
Q choked on nothing.
Sitwell, on the other hand, choked on his water and sprayed it, having just enough self-preservation instinct to turn away from Romanov.
Romanov herself spun on her heel, solemnly mimed zipping her lips, and sat down next to Q. She was recreationally evil and got on with Bond, and Q decided he liked her, too.
He offered her a peanut.
The acoustics of the penthouse were abominable, but Q liked the jazz.
"Green." Stark grinned, poking Banner's side.
"Gamma," the Doctor returned, exasperatedly, and drank.
"Delta," Q said and without waiting for a reaction gulped down a bit of his cocktail – it was too trivial a response to give anyone pause. He absolutely was not going to say anything that could be a source of discontent to the monster that sat less than a yard away from him. Even if he were to lose, that was a better alternative than rousing that creature.
"Vega," Stark jumped in, eliciting eye-rolls and causing Q to take another sip from his disgusting mixture of vodka and carcinogenic materials.
"Singularity," Banner continued.
"What are they doing now?" Barton asked, bemused.
Potts turned a page of her magazine. "Playing a word-association drinking game for geniuses."
Romanov stretched out on the sofa. "Bozhe, spasi menya. Virginia, tell me there's some of that Stoli left."
"Phil's taken custody of the bottles, so there should be."
"Never thought I'd see the day," Barton said quietly.
"Me neither," Romanov agreed. "It's a good day."
"Chronicles," Stark said, causing Q to sip again.
Q promptly retorted with: "Kalevala."
Banner saved him from another sip by being unexpectedly well-read.
"Tolkien," Banner tried.
Q mentally thanked Winters.
Under the expectant looks of Q and Banner, Stark took another swallow. "I'm not sure I like this game anymore."
Q glanced at the time on his phone and decided that he might as well take the cue. "I'll be going."
Stark tapped his knee. "Pity it didn't work out."
"Do I look like the type to give up after the first setback, Iron Man?" Q scoffed and cast a spell that tied the man's shoelaces together. It was juvenile of him, certainly, but Stark had asked for it. "I have contingencies."
The contingencies were summarily scrapped, because a blink later Q opened his eyes to discover Bond lazily sprawled on his sofa, thumbing through the book that had bruised Q after infiltrating his living room. At least Q finally knew how the bloody thing even got there.
It raised a whole host of other questions.
"Made yourself right at home, have you," Q sniped. Too late it occurred to him that if he had just ignored the agent, he could have gotten away with pretending that he hadn't noticed the hulking form in the middle of his living room. Whatever – Q never was prone to crying, much less over spilt milk.
"You were gone," Bond complained.
There were scuff marks on the hardwood floor near the bedroom door. Q's runes remained, unsurprisingly, intact. He kept Gugnir in there, so naturally the chamber was far better defended than to allow anyone to traipse in.
"Did you need someone to tie your shoelaces, double-oh-seven?" Q mocked. He could do it. The spell was already on the tip of his tongue.
Bond's brow furrowed. "You were with Stark."
"Can you smell his cologne, or did you just guess based on my positive mood?" Q retorted with as much bite as he could muster.
Implying that he was sleeping with Stark shouldn't have worked – Bond was better than that at reading people, and there was absolutely nothing carnal happening between Q and Stark, with no regrets on either side. Bond had seen them together. He should have known.
Except that, apparently, even the cavalier double-oh-seven was subject to irrational jealousy.
Q mentally congratulated himself on getting even that much of a reaction from the man. It was yet another step closer to his goal.
Bond lumbered to his feet with the elegance of a lame rhinoceros. "Why don't you just stay there if you like it so much better? You have no loyalty to this country-"
The only reason why Q glued the man's mouth shut rather than punched him in the windpipe was that he disagreed with physical abuse within partnership on principle, and he still harboured hope. It was a small, shrivelled, battered thing, but it was not dead yet.
There was the telltale itch in his eyes, and he knew that they had briefly turned their natural red.
"Go, double-oh-seven. Go; get the Hel out of here." He pointed at the door and remained motionless until Bond complied.
Then he flopped down onto the sofa, willfully ignored the fact that a spot of it had been warmed by the body he had just exiled, and re-summoned the mild drunkenness he would have accrued from his visit to the Stark Tower had he been human. Sleep came soon.
"Absolutely not!" Q barked. It felt like a defeat when he had to raise his voice, but apparently that was necessary to impart upon this herd of simpletons the measure of idiocy they were about to commit.
Mallory had the gall to fold his hands together and look at Q as if he were an errant toddler.
"The double-ohs specialise in this," Tanner informed him as if, oh Norns, Q weren't perfectly aware of that.
Q leant back against a chest of drawers, almost displacing a plant, and glared around Moneypenny's office at the impromptu committee. He had to wonder if this was Winters' revenge – if she had helped plan it to soothe her hurt feelings because Q was not interested in her. If so, then she had once again proven herself a capable purveyor of mischief and he was somewhat proud. And annoyed – which in turn made him yet prouder.
"They do," Moneypenny agreed with a faraway look in her eyes.
Q pursed his lips. "Who here is from Intentions?"
A young woman whom he vaguely recognised from the mess-hall brainstorming session raised her hand.
"Explain to the bigwigs why I have a problem with this. Or, rather, who would have a problem if they went through with this."
"Oh… uhm…" She took a deep breath and pointedly looked straight ahead rather than anywhere near Mallory, Tanner or the weasel-faced head of Legal. "Theo dormiens nunquam… that is, we are contemplating an indirect attack on a subject with confirmed superhuman powers. And while we think we know what he, personally, can do – and I would still not be so sure about that – he's got friends. With superhuman powers. And not just the Avengers Initiative."
Q tilted his head to the side in lieu of a 'thank you,' and glared at Mallory. "If you harm a hair on Foster's head, Thor will call his cohorts and burn London down around your ears. And if you actually manage to hurt her, it might just be the end of the British monarchy altogether."
"It's an unprecedented imbalance of power," the Intentions envoy added, tapping her lips with one ring-adorned finger. "We're going to need whole new protocols for this."
Q felt it was about the highest time to shut down this insanity. "I am responsible for rational allocation of assets, and I will not permit using the double-ohs against the Avengers, much less against the combined force of the Avengers and the Æsir." The double-ohs were his, and he was not going to let them be senselessly slaughtered just because Mallory and Tanner thought that Q had too much influence over them and it would be prudent to have them tragically killed in action while defending their fatherland from an extraterrestrial threat.
The plan was logical, but it hinged on Q not ripping it apart in front of witnesses. And if Mallory thought that Q wasn't willing to go toe to toe with him, he had another thing coming.
It was far more likely that the new M wanted Q to fight him – and to do so with magic. MI-6 was still doing recon on the superpowered individuals, and for all his protests about not being an Avenger, Q certainly fit into the Midgardian category of 'superpowered.' This, too, was a good plan in theory.
They just somehow missed the fact that Q had grown up in the midst of court intrigue and didn't actually need magic to get his way. For whatever reason, Bond must not have reported that Q hadn't been able to access his magic prior to the Pottersville fiasco.
"You are not indispensable, Quartermaster," Mallory warned him.
Several men and women around the room shifted, surprised by the directness. The one from Intentions scratched her temple with the back of her mechanical pencil, and then jotted down a note into her pocket-sized diary.
Q quirked his lips. "Let us not pretend that you haven't terminated my employment only because you believe you may find a way to control me." Or at the very, very least, and with absolutely no grace, at least to monitor him. "All the skill in the Realms would not convince you to allow me to retain my job."
"You fulfill none of the prerequisites of potential employees of this agency," said a tall, thin man, presumably from HR.
"And yet I do your job better than you," Q retorted, and then shrugged, because if saving all of them and their entire way of life was not enough to impart this lesson, then nothing would be. "But what do I know? I'm just an Æsir expat. It's not like I have options."
Q might or might not have left one of his constructs on the SHIELD Helicarrier last time he had dropped by. He was not saying either way. If, incidentally, he came into possession of some sensitive information… well, he was in the counterespionage business, wasn't he? That sort of thing was expected of him.
He walked out of the room backwards through the chest of drawers and the wall, simply because he could. It came with the added benefit of giving them a cause to think once more on whether they wanted to provoke him into becoming their enemy. They had no defenses against him.
He walked into the Q Branch through the door, but it took him less than a second to figure out that he might as well have taken the shortcut. A lot of these people did not belong into the IT centre: the digerati were squeezed in between inventors and engineers, and interspersed among them, sticking out like sore thumbs despite their efforts at camouflage, were three double-ohs.
Double-oh-eight was even costumed in a white lab coat, perhaps under the mistaken impression that it hid his bandages.
Trevelyan, too, lurked there, wearing the mask Fitz and Simmons had fashioned for him to keep the contents of his skull together until he was healed and the technology integrated.
They were all, collectively, watching him as if he was about to call lightning down from the sky.
"I wouldn't mind a little one-on-one with the Black Widow," double-oh-eight said facetiously, breaking the silence.
Hurtfew came forwards and handed Q his mug full of steaming Earl Grey. "If you defect to SHIELD, take me with you," she implored.
A moment later the occupants of the room started cajoling over one another, demanding that Q not leave them behind to be stepped on by an irate Norse god.
Q narrowed his eyes. He was going to have to monitor the servers more closely, and every employee he would catch hacking the security feeds would be made example of. Perhaps moving targets for accuracy testing? Or antidote research?
The mortals' governments did keep saying that it was inhumane to test poisons on animals. Who was Q to argue against the opinion of the society?
Besides, if they wanted to be hackers, they should be good enough not to get caught.
"Just biding your time," Bond said softly, turning up by Q's side once the clamour dissolved into intermingled arguments on how to optimally deal with M.
Lab rats and IT nerds plotted the take-over of the British Intelligence Service, and Q was grimly certain that the other two double-ohs were pouring oil onto the fire of mutiny.
Bond rotated his bad shoulder and grimaced when it made an awful cracking sound. "Why should you hurry? You will be here long after all of us will be dead. You and Stark are taking over the world."
Damn the man, Q thought furiously. Just when he should have made acted meek and apologetic, he forced his way through Q's walls by being observant, intuitive and too damn irritating to disregard.
"To whatever end?" Q asked, projecting indifference. "To set ourselves up as benevolent dictators? I thought it was infamous all over the MI-6 how much I hate paperwork." He fiddled with his phone. It became visibly pointless within a few moments, and he switched to the Starkphone. Stark's AI had noticed that Q was receiving sitreps on the double-ohs in real time and – after a brief conversation about privacy and classification – started sending him updates on the Avengers and other members of the pseudo-family. Q was certain that the idea had not come from Stark – it was the machine's initiative. In the weeks past they had spent a lot of time working together, and Q was actually beginning to think of it as a separate entity.
There were three of them: Q, Stark and the AI.
"But you want to rule Earth," Bond protested, as if that was a given.
Q did not particularly desire to rule, but he felt responsibility, and that responsibility demanded that he give his best protection and guidance to his people. It would have been more fitting to say that he had an obligation to rule Earth.
What Bond had failed to notice was that, for all intents and purposes, Q already did. Well, he shared the reign with Stark and his AI, but they were both limited in their initiative and understanding of the realities of absolutistic reign, which basically just left Q with less of the odious bureaucratic duties.
The racket in the open office space gradually quieted as the original enthusiasm gave way to rational thinking. Q understood enough of human mentality to know that just being what they considered supernatural did not automatically give him sway over them. The Q Branch had lately started behaving somewhat like a sect, but definitely not to the point that all these people would up and abandon their lives on Q's say so.
That would have been creepy.
On the other hand, they were already so accustomed to looking to him for guidance that their loyalty to him was growing stronger than their loyalty to their Queen and country.
"You are made to be ruled," Q observed, looking around himself at his first, half-formed court. He was certain that Bond followed his eyes; surely he saw the same thing Q saw? "In the end, you will always kneel."
Bond made a humming sound, leant closer – too close for any illusion of propriety to survive – and whispered: "That is still not the most unusual seduction strategy I've had used on me."
The Helicarrier was not SHIELD's Headquarters, Q was sure. If nothing else, it was too vulnerable to serve as Headquarters. It, however, seemed to be Nick Fury's home and thus a hub of activity.
Stark had it virtually staked out, of course.
Q had it staked out magically.
He did not keep watch twenty-four hours a day – that was hardly feasible – but his spell alerted him whenever something especially interesting or entertaining was going on. Since at the moment Q was procrastinating on essential paperwork – the sort of paperwork that made it through Moneypenny and Winters and Hurtfew and still absolutely needed to be done for the continuous functioning of the Q Branch – Q gladly delved into the construct's consciousness.
He assumed he was in Fury's living space, although aside from a bed lost under stacks of flotsam (files, writing and eating utensils, used plastic and paper cups, newspapers, books and pieces of technology, weapons and discarded clothing) and a sagging hammock that Fury presumably used in its stead, on the assumption that Fury did sleep at all, it looked just like an office. The Director himself was ensconced in a black leather armchair to make up for his lack of black leather cloak, looking surprisingly civil in only a black turtleneck, black trousers and black army boots kicked up on top of his desk.
Q agreed with Stark that Fury was his own caricature, but he also agreed with Coulson, who pointedly did not spread around his belief that Fury did it on purpose.
Coulson, incidentally, entered a moment later without any verbal invitation and with ease that suggested he was a regular visitor to these quarters.
"Tell me the bad news first," Fury prompted him.
"And what second?" Coulson inquired sardonically.
"I knew it." Fury closed his eye.
Coulson half-sat, half-leant on the edge of the desk and twisted his torso to face the SHIELD Director. "He's not an enemy." He traced the edge of his tie with the fingers and inclined his head to one side, then to the other. "Well. It depends."
"On?" Fury did look then.
"What we're fighting against," Coulson replied. "He will protect this planet and its people – he already did that – but he might just decide to take it over one day if he gets bored with espionage or if someone dares him or… I don't know. He and Stark are practically having a competition in childishness. What he does, it's all harmless, at worst annoying. He is personable, amusing, reasonably friendly. He seems to genuinely care about Thor."
Aside from the last statement, Q was content with the assessment. Coulson had done a good work for one of his youth (relative youth, Q reminded himself; time on Midgard was measured differently, as the mortals were so short-lived). He was confused, because Q's motivations did not seem plausible to him.
Plausible was boring. One needed the perspective of a couple of centuries under their belt to properly appreciate inanity.
"What of his magic?" Fury asked.
Coulson shook his head. "What he's shown so far are parlor tricks. We haven't seen a serious spell from him since New Mexico. Like it's all just a game to him."
Bravo, Q mused. Coulson had a phenomenal talent for observation, and his reasoning ability was just as extraordinary.
The agent only missed experience. Fury proved as much when he replied: "It might well be."
Both men fell quiet, contemplating the ramifications of having a bored 'demigod' entertaining himself on their turf. They probably imagined someone akin to Stark, but with less of a conscience and more whimsicality.
A minute or so later, Fury let his feet down onto the floor and spoke: "About Stark-"
"No, sir," Coulson cut him off. He stepped away from the desk and remained standing freely, not quite assuming a battle-ready stance, but visibly bracing himself for the impending clash. "If I cross that line once, I'll cross it again, and that would just defeat everything I've been working for."
Fury set his hands onto the desk and leaned forwards to more closely survey his agent – and apparently a friend, for a given value of friendship. "You want me to pull you out?"
"At this point…" Coulson looked down, but a moment later he recovered and faced his boss head-on. "I expect you to cut me loose when it comes down to it."
Fury hunched and sank back into the armchair. "Stark, then."
An emotion broke through Coulson's mask of unflappability: a mixture of anger and amazement, and he gestured with his hands, expressing stark bafflement. "The only thing more infuriating than his ego is the fact that it's completely justified."
Fury groaned and covered his face with his hand. "Never tell me."
Coulson's cringe limited itself to his facial muscles. For a man who specialised in keeping his face straight, his expressions were unexpectedly eloquent.
Choosing to take Fury's statement as dismissal, he turned away to leave.
The agent stopped and glanced back.
Fury touched the tips of his fingers to what once might have been his hairline. "Thanks for the heads-up."
The purge of the World Security Council continued with such viciousness that Q was honestly surprised the organisation hadn't just disbanded so that its members could run for the hills.
Q kept close tabs on all of them that had been identified and were yet living. That was how he knew that double-oh-seven had been dispatched sometime in the past twelve hours, and no one had told him. A part of his mind was coming up with several schemes for negative reinforcement when Tanner and the familiar woman from Intentions stepped into the main office.
On the screen Bond made his way around a hotel. He seemed to have lost his jacket and gained a pair of admirers who claimed to be twins but probably weren't even related… no, they weren't – according to the databases both had undergone plastic surgeries to make it appear so, and one had legally changed her name to complete the illusion. Bond had his hands full with them. Literally.
Q determined with sufficient likelihood that they were not spies or assassins, merely prostitutes, and briefly gave his attention to Tanner's companion.
She wordlessly handed over a folder.
Q carried it to his private office, mildly disconcerted that both she and Tanner followed him; when the Chief of Staff closed the door, Q knew he wouldn't like what he was about to learn.
He only needed to glance at the first few pages to form an idea of what was going on. "Bodyguard duty? Tanner, this is MI-5 purview, and even if it wasn't, you have dozens of agents on your roster. Denied."
Tanner crossed his arms. "It was not a question, Quartermaster."
Q gritted his teeth. Tanner was lucky that he wasn't dealing with Thor, because at this point Thor would have smashed him head-first into the nearest wall. Or into the grille that covered the floor. That would have made for an interesting scar.
The Intentions damsel took a couple of steps backwards to get out of his reach – a gesture rather than feasible defence, as she must have known.
"Let me guess," Q spoke in a quiet, mocking tone, "members of the World Security Council start dropping dead, and Mrs Nottingham begins to worry about her personal safety." He brushed nonexistent lint off of the lapel of his jacket. "Funny how she wasn't worried when she wanted to annihilate New York."
Tanner let his hands down, not as a sign of confidence or approachability, but to be able to reach for his sidearm, should it become prudent. "You are blinded by your monomania, Quartermaster. There are other considerations-"
"Yes, there are," Q cut him off. "Whenever you feel like recalling that we still work for the same organisation, toward the same goal, I will be prepared to discuss the use of my agents with you." And discuss he would, at length, concentrating on who had the authority to send his agents into field without consulting him. Without even informing him, until after the fact. There would be visual demonstrations. Perhaps physical demonstrations, too, if Bond came to harm over the course of this poppycock of a mission.
Tanner stared at Q like he was expecting Q to turn him into an amphibian. It was the same problem over and over again – with Moneypenny, with Bond, and now with M's office. Any day now Q would be called before the Queen. They would, he suspected, offer him Knighthood in return for some inconveniently limiting oaths.
Tanner was, aside from his other motivations, vetting Q to make sure that it was safe to allow him into the royal family's presence. After all, Q had already attacked one royal family.
"Are we working toward the same goal?" Tanner picked up the hint Q had so bluntly offered.
"Hmm…" Q decided not to prevaricate on this issue. It would be more trouble than fun in the long run. "Mostly. I will alert you when there is a conflict of interest." He reconsidered, took the folder out of Tanner's hand, deftly evaded the man and returned to the main office where he could establish a connection to his agent with a mere flip of a switch. "Double-oh-seven, I've just received the file on your mission. Ignore the crap about the cover story and treat it like a hit."
Tanner, who came out behind him, rolled his eyes but did not protest. Obviously, the bodyguard scheme had been included solely as politics.
On the other end of the line Bond chuckled. "I will bring you back a rose."
Q scoffed at the gratuitous Beauty and the Beast reference. If this was the result of taking Bond to an Avengers' chill-out (as coined by Stark), Q would reconsider next time. "Just try and bring back your equipment."
"I'm statistically due a mission that won't go to shit," Bond replied, letting Q know he had ditched the prostitutes and was on his own, in transit. "I might just bring back everything this time."
Q melted a little, charmed. "You might just be my favourite killing machine in this world."
Bond laughed out loud, and showed off his newfound knowledge of Norse mythology: "You are my doomsday device of choice."
The woman from Intentions choked and scrambled for her notebook to make a record of the momentous occasion when two MI-6 agents made two truly morbid jokes in a row.
Tanner groaned. "Please… please, for the love of my sanity… stop flirting!"
Q took the hush that fell all over the room as a hint that his minions were also disconcerted. Nonetheless, it was better that they know about this potential entanglement in advance, rather than ex post. At least this way there would be no injured sensibilities and betrayed confidences.
Since Bond didn't need anyone to hold his hand for a task this basic, Q turned off the microphone again and retorted: "Do not infringe upon my fundamental civil rights. The Charter frowns upon that sort of thing."
Tanner might or might not have been mentally showing Q a very vulgar gesture as he took his quick yet dignified exit.
"You never stood a chance," the Intentions woman whispered to Winters.
Winters looked at the screen, where Bond was casually walking along the corridor of a mansion, and mused for a few moments. Then she nodded to herself and said: "This is just a temporary setback. Bond will get himself killed on a mission soon enough, and then my time will come!"
The other woman shook her head, sympathetic and exasperated at the same time. "Can you sound more like a stereotypical soap opera villain?"
"Of course I can. But most days it's not worth the effort."
When Q concentrated, he saw in Winters' mind a cool acceptance, with a bit of glee on top of it for the situation Q and Bond had found themselves in. it was as though she had wanted to see him humanised, and it did not matter that much in the end that it was not her doing the humanising. She would not willfully see Bond – or any other agent – harmed, much less deliberately orchestrate such an event.
Q was unaccountably reassured.
Q decided to attend the funeral of the last of the permanent members of the World Security Council.
The institution had survived, but the powers behind it had been warned that they were not untouchable, and that the Avengers and MI-6 were watching them. And they were watching – there could be no doubt about that when Q was accompanied to the funeral by the Black Widow on his arm. A good dozen men from the opposite side of the crowd kept throwing nervous glances their way all through the lowering of the coffin.
Stark had sent a congratulatory text message, because the late Mrs Nottingham had been solely Bond's achievement, and Bond was Q's.
That assumption was confirmed when Q returned home after the funeral and found his agent loitering around the living room, book abandoned and a take-out dinner for two set up on the table in the kitchen.
Q hung up his coat and decided that he might just keep the suit on for the time being.
"So…" Bond opened, drying his hands on a dish towel. He left the cloth on the counter and turned to face Q, chin high and expression determined. "So you're a god."
"In a matter of speaking," Q admitted, glad that Bond was over his freak-out and yet a little concerned about the lengths the man was going to make that known.
Bond smirked. "I've never had a god."
Q laughed, pressing a palm to his shaking belly. The man truly was hilarious. "You'll have to try harder than that, double-oh-seven."
"You're encouraging me."
"I'm curious to see how far you would take it-"
"I'm not Stark," Bond cut him off, mostly challenging but also with uncharacteristic self-consciousness.
"More's the pity," Q retorted. He did not think there was room in Stark's bed for him, and he was rather too selfish to accept not being his lover's sole focus, but Bond didn't need to know that.
"Stark sees the world through a lens of zeroes and ones – through money and laws of physics at best. Have you ever seen how people live, Q?" Bond inquired.
Q, intrigued by the prospect, shook his head.
"I'll take you. I've got enough leave accumulated to…"
Retire, would have been the expected end of the sentence, but Q realised with sharpness that itched in the vicinity of his heart that there would be no retirement for Bond – that the mortal would run and run until that one lucky bullet got him.
That was what made him walk over and press his forehead to the man's temple. He was the one who accepted the lost existences into his arms, the granter of fool's hopes (perhaps even his own), the player of tricks, the indeliberate destroyer of worlds.
"Stark doesn't need you," Bond concluded acutely, wrapping an arm around Q's torso. "He's got all the crazy inside him already – he needs two of the most down-to-earth people to keep him from floating away to pixie land."
"He's so much fun…" Q admitted. He had never met his equal – only gods to look down on him and mortals to look up to him. In Stark he saw kin, a twin separated millennia ago from him, a presence he had been missing and yet not missing at all. He was determined, for his own sake, to curse the man with immortality.
Perhaps, if he had an apple left over, he would give that to Bond. Bond was… the arms that enveloped him, the strength that he could lean on, the joke in the face of death on the other end of the phone line. He was what Q had found worthwhile in the ephemeral mortals of Midgard.
"I'd like to keep you," he confessed.
Bond shrugged. "My life belongs to the Union Jack. I've sold my soul long ago. Nothing you can do about it-"
"-but occasionally take you home," Q filled in. A mental calculation informed him that, statistically, Bond had a good seven years in him still, before age and medical complications would slow him down too much for him to survive in the field. Seven years were like the blink of an eye to an immortal.
Funny, how being a god meant little in the greater scheme of things. Sentiment was still inadvisable.
Q was reminded of the myth of Apollo and Hyacinthus. He wasn't going to kill Bond through negligence, that was certain, but otherwise he could see the parallel.
Could he live with tricking Bond into unwanted immortality? Of course he could. But could he trick Bond? The thought hadn't occurred to him and, to be truthful, he wasn't sure.
He thought of Stark and Coulson, both so naively certain that they had the better of one another, and both hopelessly tangled in the emotion that tied them together. He thought of Potts, who had been born under a lucky star, and needed but impetuousness to become one of the most influential women in the world. He thought of Fury, of his two-dimensional rendition of the four-dimensional world, and in the end he thought about families and the inevitability of death accepted by children.
He came to the conclusion that a child's love was different from an adult's love, and therefore it was not a failing of his that made him think of the Allfather with affection. He was but a creature, too, created with all the instincts of a breathing babe and left to fend for itself in the ice. The Allfather had been merciful. More merciful than could have been expected of him, truly.
"What…" Bond pulled him closer. "What's wrong?"
"What isn't?" Q replied.
"You saved the world," Bond said.
Q didn't feel like it. He had worked to stop the WSC's choice to deploy a nuclear weapon; he had bodily protected Coulson, following some instinct he hadn't been aware that he had; he had collaborated on assassinating the would-be mass-murderers, but he was no hero in this fight. That designation was freely distributed amongst the newly established Avengers.
"You saved me," Bond added, grimacing as if it physically hurt him.
Q shook his head.
"You did," Bond assured him. A tremor came through his body, so easy to feel against Q's skin, a reminder of how much mind-control was worse than death. Bond would have known.
There was only one question on Q's mind, but he could not ask it, because that would have defeated the whole point. He had wanted Bond to come to him, to be acknowledged by this one human being that acknowledged only those who were useful to him, and only on a temporary basis. The Allfather's punishment had thus fucked Q over quite thoroughly.
"I have come home with you," Bond assured him, and stood solid while Q became putty in his arms.