The fallen tree was a soft riot of green moss and yellow lichens, incipient with toadstools. James stared at it without really seeing. He took a deep breath, released it slowly. A chance to be still, and not think. Not think, without the aid of a bottle of Scotch, for once. Such a novelty. He should try it more often, he supposed.
A quiet footfall; another breathing body beside him, seated on the long flat rock; another pair of feet in the damp leaves. James did not turn his head. Jesus. Even this far into the woods there was never any peace.
The body spoke with a young man's voice, cultured, careful. 'It always makes me feel a bit melancholy. Beautiful old tree like that, ignominiously overgrown, consumed, broken down into soil...' A little sigh; James ground his teeth and with difficulty kept from rolling his eyes. 'The inevitability of time, don't you think? What do you see?'
'A bloody dead tree.' James wanted to be angry, but found instead he was only tired. Pulling up the hood of his red coat against the cold afternoon, he stood. 'Excuse me.'
'007.' The name was impossible, but it had been spoken into the hushed green air nonetheless. 'I'm your new Quartermaster.'
James sank back down onto the rock. 'You must be joking.'
'Why—because I'm not wearing a cassock?' The voice was dryly amused. At last, James turned to look at its owner; took in the thin face, the wild hair, the green eyes. He knew what he had already known from the moment the young man had sat down beside him. It was what they trained and paid him for, after all.
'Because you're a werewolf,' he answered, flatly.
The flicker of a twitch of those red, red lips. 'Oh, you are good. But my bloodline is hardly relevant.'
'Your competence is.'
This time, a sudden show of short sharp teeth. 'And by 'competence' I imagine you mean my ability to keep my … disorder … under control.' The smile had never made it to Q's eyes. 'Don't underestimate me, 007. On a professional level—or a personal one.'
'Or what? You'll bite me?' James' hand was swift to his knife but Q was, unimaginably, quicker; pinning James' hands with his own so that rock scraped grey against the bones of James' wrists.
'I wouldn't have to. You come here,' he said, gesturing with his head to indicate the trees tall around them, 'and you think you know this place, know the paths that will lead you safe to M's little gingerbread cottage in the heart of the forest. You'll make your report and then you'll go back home.' His grip tightened; James held very still. 'I live here,' Q breathed, his hair trailing across James' cheek like tree-shadow.
'Oh?' James allowed himself the bitterness. 'Then what do you need me for?'
Q relinquished his hands as suddenly as he had seized them. 'Because, every now and then, a throat needs to be cut.'
'That's beneath you, is it?'
'My talents lie elsewhere.' Q's eyes were savage in the shaft of late sunlight.
I'll wager they do, James thought to himself. Out loud, he said, 'Who else knows?'
'If she trusts you, I suppose I can. Q.'
'007.' This time when Q took his hand, offered, James could feel the pulse jumping against his fingers, brief and thrilling.
'These are for your next mission.' From an inner pocket of his coat Q produced a flat box, stark and unadorned. 'Do try and bring them back in one piece.'
James glanced inside and snapped the lid back down. 'An iron knife and a tinderbox? It's hardly Christmas, is it?'
'What did you expect, an exploding quill?' There was a definite smirk on Q's face now; he seemed to have relaxed. 'We don't really go in for that sort of thing any more.' He rose and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. The afternoon was fading fast to twilight and there was a greyness gathering on the ground. Looking down at James Q gave him a last curt nod. 'Good luck, 007. And remember—don't stray off the path.'
James felt himself grin, feral under the red hood. 'Not without you, Q. Not without you.'
But the young man had already disappeared.