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Good Things Come in Small Packages

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Bond had felt it coming yesterday - the shift in the weather on the moors.  Up until now, the good weather had been holding up quite well, but it was inevitable that some chiller winds would blow something in.  Ever since deciding to leave MI6 before it killed him, James enjoyed the comparative peacefulness of Skyfall Lodge, but he had to admit - there were things out here that could put an end to you, too.  Just because James had retired early didn’t mean that he’d lost all of his reckless spirit, though, so now he settled his rifle over his shoulder, knowing that he was dressed warmly enough for just a quick hunting trip.  He was still reckless, yes, but he’d gotten a bit better at preparing for surprises.

A bit, at least.  

He hadn’t been prepared for just how much effort it would take to fix up Skyfall Lodge, and how much he’d enjoyed it.

He hadn’t been prepared for the cat that would adopt him out of nowhere, and who James now looked to sternly and said, “Guard the house,” knowing that there was actually a decent chance that the big, grey monster would do it.  

He hadn’t been prepared for those things, and he certainly wasn’t prepared to open his door to step outside… to find a boy barely taller than his hip waiting for him there.

The kid was scrawny, clearly small for his age with a thin look about his face of someone who didn’t eat much or enough. His dark hair was wind blown and his cheeks bright pink from the biting winds over the Scottish Moors, and his dark green coat seemed to be doing little to keep him warm, if the shivering was anything to go by. He had a backpack slung over his shoulders, and in another context, he might’ve looked like a kid ready to go to school. As it was, the hazel eyes behind black-rimmed glasses looked nervous for a second before the emotion was replaced with something resembling determination. Or sheer stubbornness.  James hadn’t been this off-balance disarming bombs, and in that moment, he’d have prefered a sniper-sight staring him down rather than a strange child.

Perhaps when James had been an agent, something more eloquent would have slid off his silver tongue, but the sad fact was that he actually hadn’t talked to anyone this week since Kincaid had come to visit and bring groceries from town.  So, instead of sensibly asking what a child was doing so far from anywhere and anything, what came out of James’ mouth was a quiet but sincere, “What the fuck?”

The kid glared at him slightly. “You shouldn’t curse in front of children,” he said, his soft voice carrying surprisingly well over the wind. “And usually custom dictates you invite guests inside before they freeze to death.”

James opened his mouth and closed it again, working his jaw for a moment around sounds that didn’t know how to become words.  At the same time, he was having a hard time computing what the kid had just said - although in all honesty, he was having a hard time computing any of this.  James kicked himself mentally, because this was the kind of hesitation that would have gotten him killed on missions. When had he gotten so off his game? “I… er…” he started by just making words, then truly picked up on the way the kid was visibly shivering and pulling his coat tighter around his slender frame, and somehow that managed to get his mouth working, “Yes.  Sure. Come in before you freeze.”

The moment James stepped back and out of the way, the kid slipped inside as if he owned the place, though he still didn’t take off his coat, bag, or shoes. He was looking around intently, but almost as if he didn’t quite trust everything around him to not vanish. He also didn’t keep his back to James, angling his body to keep the man in his field of vision.  James had to applaud the wariness, although he wasn’t sure it was entirely healthy to see in a child.

Unfortunately, the kid’s insistence on keeping an eye on James meant that he wasn’t looking in the right direction when a big lump of shadows seemingly detached itself from under the coffee table and made a run at him.  James opened his mouth to shout something, but all he got out was a warning, “Soot-!” and then suddenly James new little houseguest was being toppled over by James’ very large pet cat.

“Stop-What-you have an Attack cat?!” The kid was trying to stand up only to have the cat headbutt him and sniff any part of him she could reach. She also left a definite trail of grey, black, and white hairs all over the kid’s coat as she explored the visitor.

Belatedly closing the door, James unshouldered his rifle - it definitely didn’t look like he’d be using it today - and leaned it against the wall so that he could just rub both hands over his face.  “Sootbone,” he sighed gustily against his palms, “kindly get off the tiny interloper. He’s too small to be a threat and too big to eat, so there’s no real reason for you to be interested in him anyway.”

The cat, a long-furred, nearly dog-sized monstrosity with storm-cloud coloured fur, seemed to disagree, all four paws now on the kid’s legs and chest as she kept sniffing at him.  She flared long whiskers against his glasses, fogging them with cat-breath that James knew from experience to be highly unpleasant.

The kid coughed at the smell, though it wasn’t enough of a movement to dislodge Sootbone. He was trying to lean away or sit up, but the cat had positioned her paws to make movement incredibly uncomfortable, and breathing just a bit of a challenge. “Can you call off your cat? Or come get it?”

Briefly, James was tempted to deny the request, if only because Sootbone seemed to have more control over the situation than Bond had.  “I don’t know,” James mused out loud, even as he stepped forward to do the right thing, “It might be easier to get answers out of you this way.  I’m pretty sure that this could be considered an advanced interrogation technique.” Despite his words, James curled his hands around Sootbone’s hefty body (she was actually quite muscular beneath her fluff), lifting her.  This left him a bit at loose ends, standing over the kid with his arms full of feline.

The kid scrambled up, straightening his jacket and glasses as he did before glaring at the cat. “And now I’m covered in fur. Excellent,” he said sarcastically. He glanced around the room again, hesitation creeping into his posture. “Any other pets I should watch for?”

Sootbone was wriggling, unused to being held without reason, so James put her down, still staring at the kid like an alien beamed down into his home.  “Not unless Sootbone brought something home last night without quite killing it, no,” he answered on reflex. It had happened.

Nodding, the kid pulled his coat a little tighter, not seeming to realize he was doing it. “Could I set my things down? And sit down as well? I’ve been walking for two hours, and yours was the first place I saw. Why do you not want people to find you?” In the process of straightening up after putting down Sootbone, James just sort of froze, suddenly understanding why computers froze when given too much data to compute. “It’s rather obvious what with how far you are from the village and the nearest houses. You’re practically an island in the middle of Scotland.”

Finally, finally, James got his brain and his mouth to properly sync up, and he straightened again to just blurt out, “All right - hold it!  Who are you, and what the fu-” He cut himself off, remembering the little comment about swearing in front of children and correcting swiftly, “-What in the world are you doing out in the middle of the moors?”  

“I ran away from home, if you must know,” the kid replied. “And as for who I am… you can call me Q.” He stared up at James, meeting his gaze cooly even with his scruffy appearance and coat pulled close around him, almost like armour.  It was adorable. And also still terrifying, because this was a small child, and James was sure that he was only able to keep a pet alive because Sootbone spent most of her life looking after herself.

“You ran away from-?” James started to say back, before realizing that repeating the information wouldn’t make it any better.  He absentmindedly scooted Sootbone aside with one boot as she started edging towards Q again in a vaguely predatory fashion. Perhaps the kid was snack-sized…  Trying to logic his way through this, James started to ask where Q’s family was so that he could return him, but then noticed yet again how the boy named after a letter of the alphabet was shivering.  “Fuck, if you die of hypothermia, I’m going to get arrested, aren’t I?” he ended up saying instead.

“Language,” Q said, but it sounded like a tired reflex rather than a proper reprimand. “And perhaps I’m colder than I thought,” he added. A full body shiver went through him then, and the sound of his teeth chattering was audible in the room.

James had so many questions - how such a small child had walked for two hours, why said small child was going by the letter ‘Q,’ why the hell Q thought coming into stranger’s homes was safe - but finally he was being faced with something that made sense: Q was small, and cold weather was coming in, and he clearly needed help with warming up.  Sighing deeply and running his hands over his face one more time, James spoke again in his calmest tone yet, “Follow me. Maybe if I warm you up, you’ll start making more sense.” He turned to head towards the kitchen.

Q followed on James’ heels, and when they reached the kitchen, still warm from when James had made breakfast a few hours before, he sighed audibly and loosened his vice-like grip on his coat. “Why does Scotland have to be so bloody cold?” Q muttered to himself.

Without thinking, James shrugged out of his own coat… and then dropped it around Q’s shoulders.  It would have been more accurate to say that he just dropped it on him in general, since the material swallowed up the boy’s small frame.  While Q squeaked indignantly and sat down at the table, shrugging out of his backpack but holding it tightly in his lap, James turned to put the kettle on.  “It wouldn’t seem so cold if you had some proper fat on you,” he judged. He kept a wary eye on Soot, who had followed behind them at a greater distance, and had since jumped up onto the tabletop.  She wasn’t supposed to be there, and was likely going to use the vantage point to jump on Q if given half a chance.

“Uh… does your cat want to eat me?” Q asked, a slight tremor in his voice betraying his nervousness at staring right into the cat’s eyes. “I-I don’t think this is how cats are supposed to behave.” Without even realizing it he was curling into James’ coat as if to hide within the warmth, either to boost his own body temperature or protect himself from the prowling animal advancing towards him.

“Soot!” James called in a commanding voice usually more suited to underlings in the army, or dogs.  It actually worked fairly well on the cat this time, as she sat her fluffy rump down - although she was only about arms-length away from Q at the moment.  When James started to turn back to the kettle, she immediately reached out one paw, testing her limits until James turned back and growled at her. The paw returned and Sootbone sneezed to show her displeasure.  “She won’t eat you,” James belatedly replied, more or less sure that that was the truth. He smirked and then added with more humour, “You’re far too bony for her tastes.”

“Hey! I am not,” Q protested, though he didn’t move from the chair as that would mean Soot would definitely pounce on him. Instead, he reached into his bag and pulled out a small laptop, opening it on his lap and powering it up. “What’s the Wifi password?” he asked without looking up from the screen.

The water all set to start boiling, James turned around and blinked.  It seemed that as soon as he started to catch his footing, something else came up. At least this answer was pretty simple - there wasn’t one.  “No internet here, I’m afraid.”

What ?!” Q stared at him, eyes wide and fully shocked. “How do you cope ?”

Turning his back to the counter and folding his arms, James leaned his weight back and raised one eyebrow.  “I think that you were the one to mention, Q, that I live like a man who doesn’t want the world to find me. So it should be obvious that I wouldn’t want to be connected to the world-wide web.”

Q’s ears turned pink even beneath his mop of unruly dark hair. Taking one more look at his laptop, the boy reluctantly put it away and slouched in the chair. “Fine. I won’t put you in jeopardy that way. Okay?” The last word came out almost as a challenge, as if the kid were saying Fight me, I dare you , even though he was barely bigger than the cat currently observing him from the table.

“You wouldn’t put me in-” James started to defend, but decided that it would take too long to explain that he was retired, not a fugitive, and that he wasn’t on the run… he just didn’t like people.  He decided to just change the subject, “Okay, tell me again why a kid like you is totally comfortable walking up to the house of a complete stranger?”

“The question presupposes that I told you before, and I didn’t yet,” Q remarked, glancing at Soot before focusing his attention on James. “I can take care of myself, and I was looking for a place to stay. This was the only house for miles and was fairly well put together. It didn’t look like a serial killer’s place, and I didn’t see any graves near the house or forest. And it’s hard to get to, to drive to.”

Before James could censor himself, he was replying, “I could just be really good at hiding bodies.”  As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he closed his eyes and held his breath, counting to ten and berating himself for losing that silver tongue he used to have.  

There was a very tense silence before Q replied. “Then I suppose you wouldn’t really care that a child found your house.” He didn’t sound afraid; if anything, he actually sounded slightly amused. At least he was warming up now, and his teeth weren’t chattering anymore. “Besides. If you really didn’t want company or had objections to people dropping in, you would have turned me away.”

“I-!” James was about to defend himself (how, he wasn’t sure), but the whistling of the kettle stopped him.  It was a welcome distraction. Sighing, James thought for a moment, and finally pointed a finger at the cat, “Soot, watch this underfed curmudgeon while I make tea.  I don’t want any more trouble while my back is turned.” Sootbone, of course, just sort of stared at the gesture, but since she’d already been eyeing Q like a baby rabbit, she was keen to turn her gold-green eyes back to him again.

This time, Q met her gaze squarely and unblinking. He stared at the cat with a determined intensity that could only come from obsessive behaviour tendencies or an abundance of conflict where the only way to survive was through not showing weakness or fear. By the time James turned around, Soot had, in fact, laid down on the table and was busy cleaning herself. Q was sitting back in his chair, a triumphant ghost of a smile on his face.

Jar of honey in one hand and mug of steeping tea in another, James deadpanned, “Well, look at that - she didn’t even nibble on you.  She must have decided it wasn’t worth it to chew up a toothpick like you.” He put the mug and honey down on the table and went to fetch a spoon... and probably something stronger to drink for himself.

“I am not a toothpick,” Q muttered, glancing at James’ back before pulling both the mug and the honey jar towards himself. “It’s genetic,” he added, almost to himself as he helped himself to several very large spoonfuls of honey while he let the tea cool.

James, deciding that it was not too early for Scotch, poured himself a tumbler.  “Fantastic. I’ll look for the toothpick family to return you to,” he said, coming up to the other side of the table and taking a seat himself.  When Sootbone wafted her tail at him, he grimaced and belatedly shooed her off the table. “You realize that you’re still under the roof of a complete stranger, don’t you?” he added, raising both eyebrows at how much honey Q was putting away, “You don’t even know my name.”

Q sighed and glanced up at James. “Technically, you don’t know mine either. But I suppose it was rude of me not to ask. So, what is your name?” The last question was slightly hampered by a mouthful of honey.

Shaking his head wonderingly at this whole situation, James tapped his fingers along his glass but replied, “Bond.  James Bond.”

Taking a slow, deep breath, Q reached a hand out across the table. “Nice to meet you. I’m Q.” His expression hardened slightly. “And that’s the only name I’m gonna give.”

It was the first major flag that James had seen, indicating that there was something going on here besides a kid who’d gone gallivanting across the moors.  He sat back a bit, eyes narrowing. He still hadn’t touched his Scotch, and only rotated the glass absentmindedly even as he decided to nod and accept that.  “Fine. Alphabetical letter it is. Care to give out more details about why you’re out here instead of with your family?”

Q was suddenly very interested in his tea, and he was fidgeting now too, as if suddenly unable to sit still. “It’s better out here,” he finally said into his mug. “No one bossing me around or telling me… telling me stuff. I can be in charge of myself.”

“Ah,” James made an accepting noise, even as he brushed up on some of his little-used spy skills, reading between the lines.  He tapped one fingertip against his tumbler idly. “That makes sense. It’s definitely better out in the cold with a winter storm rolling in.  It’s hard to be bossed around when you’re stuck in a snowbank.”

“It isn’t supposed to snow for thirty-six hours. I knew I had enough time to find somewhere to stay. And I have food and water in my bag. I did actually think this through.” Q took a sip of his tea, frowned, and added two spoonfuls of honey to it before sipping again.

James happened to know that the weatherman frequently lied, but decided not to mention that he could feel the oncoming storm in his bones - it was more likely to hit in a few hours.  Bringing that up now, though, after the kid seemed too determined to prove that he’d thought ahead, seemed unnecessary. So James just lifted his glass and took a small sip instead of answering.  “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me where you came from so that I can return you before we get snowed in?” he tried.

“No!” Q looked panicked now, fear poking through his careful bravado and showing a youth more closely matched with his size. “Please, James, I don’t want to go back. Please don’t make me go back.”

Glass half-raised to a second sip, James paused, body tensing.  He lowered it and grew more watchful. It had been awhile since he’d consciously read someone’s body language, and usually he dealt with adults, but it wasn’t a skill that ever went away.  Watching Q now, he saw Q’s fingers twitching against the glass, tapping out irregular patterns. He saw the short, shallow breaths that made Q’s entire frame move beneath James’ jacket. Behind his glasses, Q’s hazel eyes were wide and almost unblinking.  With a jolt, James realized that the boy was terrified.

“Q,” James said slowly, trying to feel his way through this carefully.  He realized that at least some of this fear might be directed at him, and rightly so, “Is someone threatening you?  Or making you feel unsafe?”

Q swallowed hard and glanced at James, hesitating before slowly nodding yes.

James found himself bristling, and he put his tumbler down with the sort of infinite care that came with putting pressure on a trigger, everything exquisitely controlled.  “Someone in your family?” he pressed carefully for more information in a low, level tone.

Five seconds was all it took for Q to finally break down. “My oldest brother,” he mumbled, blinking rapidly behind his glasses and rubbing stubbornly at his eyes. Everything about his posture was tense, a child struggling very hard not to cry, to be strong. LIke a cat not wanting a predator to see it vulnerable. Suddenly, Bond felt more than a little bit bad for siccing a Sootbone on the kid, twice.  

“All right then,” James accepted that with a nod, already trying to calculate the ways in which he could possibly find Q’s oldest brother based only on the information that he had right now. He’d tracked down targets with less.  “Has he hurt you?”

Q tilted his head slightly, frowning. “I-I haven’t been beaten if that’s what you’re asking,” he said with the effort of someone determined to keep his voice steady. “But…” He sighed, staring at his mug. “He threatens me. A lot. Locky too, but he never cares. And he never listens to me. Or takes me seriously. Just because I’m not as advanced as he was at my age, that somehow makes me inferior. And today he said if I didn’t stop asking questions and being such an ignoramus that he would send me to SILVA for government testing projects.”

It was a lot to take in at once, especially with no context, although the last word (name?) rang a few distant bells.  What stuck with him most, though, oddly enough was, “How can you be less advanced for this age if you’re already using the word ‘ignoramus’?”

“Ohhhh he would hate you on principle,” Q said, though his lip twitched in a little smile. “I’m not a violin prodigy or a forensics expert like Locky, and I’m not a master of politics like Myc. Far as he’s concerned, if you don’t know politics you’re better off stupid. Or you are stupid.”

“Well, I do know politics,” James was able to offer, then frowned to himself, amending, “Or I did, anyway.”  He’d been away for quite a while, but when he’d been an active 00-agent, he’d known the politics of multiple countries - and had thrown a wrench into many of them.  

“I think Myc wants to be Prime Minister. Or more. It’s hard to tell other than he’s more ambitious than the entire British Government. He threatens all the time, and usually it’s not so bad.” Q glared at the mug, clenching his hands into fists and scowling. “I hate him.”

A lot of what Q said definitely still didn’t make any sense, but James was comforted by the fact that he had more data now.  People were easier to hunt down with more data. Canting his head to one side, he contemplated out loud, “It might be harder to become Prime Minister with a shattered kneecap.  Not impossible, but more difficult. Most everything is more difficult with a shattered kneecap.”

“What?!” Q stared at James in absolute shock. “You-You can’t just go around shattering kneecaps!”

“Why not?” James lifted his drink and took another mouthful, then indicated Q with the glass, “You go around demanding entrance into stranger’s houses in the middle of nowhere.”  

“I’m eight-years-old, and I was freezing. And I’m not opposed to the idea. Myc could use one fewer kneecap.” No longer scowling, Q now looked curiously at James, biting his lower lip. “But isn’t it wrong to hurt people? Or to wish they were hurt? Even if they are unkind?”

Bond gave that some thought as he took another slow swallow.  Or, more accurately, he gave the abysmal state of his morals a check, to see just how salvageable they were.  “Probably,” he finally admitted, but without much conviction. “Is it wrong to run away from your family and make them worry about you, even if they are unkind?” he asked back, honestly interested to see how the kid would interpret that.  

“They won’t worry about my health. Or safety. Just that I’ve managed to hurt the family’s reputation. Their ‘good name,’” Q grumbled. “Mother and Father are off on some business adventure leaving Myc in charge of Locky and me. Serves him right that I ran away. Stupid ponce won’t even notice.” Q sipped at his now lukewarm tea and hid his face in the mug even as his shoulders shook slightly.

Feeling unaccountably sad (and still not sure where the moral answer to either of their questions lay, in regards to kneecaps or running away), James set his still-mostly-full drink down and sighed.  He glanced out the window, noting the clouds rolling in. Technically, there was probably still time for him to bundle the kid into his Aston Martin and drive him into town, where the nearest landline was, but what James said instead was, “I suppose that’s for the best, since you’re going to be stuck here until the storm is through.”

Q looked up slowly at James, disbelief written in every line of surprise on his face. “Are you serious? You’re not going to take me back? Or make me tell you who my family is?” Hope began to creep into his voice now. “I can stay?” His mug was forgotten on the table as he held his breath and watched James.

“Well, it’s not like I have a choice in the matter,” James brushed it off, “Storms out here get pretty wild, and this one isn’t waiting for thirty-six hours like the weatherman told you.”  He cast Q an encouraging, crooked smile - a mere shadow of the charm he used to wield, but probably more sincere than his old tricks. “I’ll interrogate you more when things get more drivable.  It wouldn’t do for us to drive somewhere and get in a wreck, now, would it?” In reality, James could probably have driven through a blizzard, but that was need-to-know information.

Q shook his head, an eager but cautious smile on his face. “No. No that would be the height of stupidity and probably get us both killed.” He glanced out the window, noticing just how much the clouds were closing in and darkening the sky. “You do have food, right? Because I have food…” Here Q opened his backpack and pulled out several Mars Bars, a tin of salted peanuts, and an apple. “But not proper mealtime food. I only had a few moments to raid the pantry as it was.”

“Impressive,” James said, meaning it, as he leaned forward and observed Q’s items.  “I might have something better, but at least I know you wouldn’t have starved if you’d arrived here when I wasn’t home.”  

“You don’t have to patronize me,” Q said quietly, hurrying to stuff his food back in his pack. “Just give me a warm corner and I’ll stay out of your way-”

“Oh, no you don’t,” James interrupted Q, letting go of his tumbler to tap one finger imperiously on the table.  He declared, “You came in, so you have no excuse not to be treated as a guest.” Was it logic? Yes. Was it the most straightforward logic?  Probably not, but James had never been in possession of the most straightforward logic to begin with. He liked what he’d said, though, and immediately folded his arms and put on a stalwart face that said ‘ Your move, Q .’

Q froze like a rabbit hearing a twig snap, every muscle in his body tense as he looked up at James. He stared for a long moment, clearly looking for something. And then, in a single, slow exhale, he relaxed. Q even set his bag on the floor again. “You really are serious,” he murmured. “You weren’t just humouring me, were you.”

A bit flummoxed now, James tilted his head, easing up on his stubborn demeanour.  “I’m pretty sure that if I humoured you, you’d walk all over me worse than Sootbone already does,” he said honestly.

Q shook his head, twisting his hands in his lap. “Myc humours me. When he wants to-to hurt me. Locky does sometimes, but then sometimes he lets me help him track down killers. I really am good with technology. And traffic cams are easy. But Myc… it’s always so he can tell me how completely stupid I am compared to him. How much I haven’t thought through something or how I’m being an idiot. Or a child.” His voice was growing softer, and Q was curling up on himself, trying his best to be small.

It seemed that whenever Q’s words got going, they really got going, and James always ended up just sitting and listening and feeling progressively more confused.  He decided to focus on the part that made sense, and replied to just the last part by saying frankly, “I think your brother Myc is an arsehole.”

A bubble of laughter burst out of Q, and he clapped his hand over his mouth as if trying to stifle it. “He is. He may as well have his entire umbrella stuffed up his arse. He always walks stiffly and looks down at everyone.” Q reached for the honey jar and helped himself to another spoonful. “I suppose I am a little hungry.”

Taking that as a sign that Q did not, in actuality, want to be given a warm corner where he was out of the way, James hid a smirk of his own and got up from the table to head towards the fridge.  Sootbone immediately made a reappearance, and James began the usual song and dance of keeping her out of the refrigerator as he decided to hunt up what he had to cook with. He called back over his shoulder while scooting Soot backwards across the hardwood floor, “You’re not allergic to anything, are you?”

Q shook his head as he eyed the cat again. “No, not to food. And as far as I know, not to cats either. Myc won’t let us have pets in the house. Or anywhere. Too unhygienic and messy.” A fierce wind rattled the window next to the table and Q yelped, sliding out of his chair to huddle under James’ coat instead.

Pausing in his mild wrestling match with Sootbone, James looked back, noticing the reaction.  Suddenly, he saw a way to metaphorically kill two birds with one stone… “If anything, I’d argue that your Myc is more unhygienic than my Sootbone,” he said conversationally even as he closed the refrigerator, already planning something else while he talked, “Want to know why?”  

Peeking out from under the coat, Q looked up at James. “Myc unhygienic? How?”

Unbeknownst to Q (but very beknownst to Sootbone, who never missed a thing, and reminded James of M sometimes), James had taken some ham from the refrigerator.  The cat was now sitting at James’ feet and watching his closed hand with raptor-like intensity even as James stood, looked at Q, and said, “Have you ever seen your brother lick his own arse?”  James pointed down at Sootbone with his free hand. “This one does. Baths don’t get much more thorough than hers.”

Q seemed to lose complete control of himself for a full thirty seconds, howling with laughter until tears ran down his thin cheeks. “I-I can’t believe-I can’t believe you said that,” he gasped. “I’ll never be-be able to look at him-him again.” He sniffed and wiped his eyes, still giggling and grinning, even standing up and coming a little closer to Sootbone where she sat, waiting for ham. The fact that she was focused on the food helped, as she had less predatory attention to spare for the boy.

James just shrugged, pleased with himself, and said, “I’m just telling it like it is.  Your brother clearly isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, especially when it comes to animals.”  He dared to walk Q’s way a bit, Sootbone following as obedient as a dog at heel.

Q didn’t shy away; in fact, he fell into step on James’ left and followed him through into the living room. There was a large stone fireplace opposite several windows. A few squishy armchairs faced in towards the fireplace, and one of them had a lamp and a table beside it: James’ preferred seat in the room.  James took a risk and put a hand on Q’s shoulder, nudging the kid towards the end of the room’s sofa - a piece of furniture that he could keep an eye on from the kitchen.

“Can we build a fire?” Q asked excitedly, twisting under James’ hand and moving towards the log pile. “Please?”

Tightening his grip, James grunted and kept the kid in place.  “Yes, yes, I was going to,” he reassured, “but as I’d rather not light that birds-nest you call hair on fire, I think we’ll put me in charge of fire, and you in charge of this.”  James held out his other hand, still closed, hiding what was inside of it. Sootbone was sitting by his ankle, tail swishing even as she held the rest of her body in check.

“Bird’s nest?!” Q squeaked indignantly even as he bumped against the sofa. “And what this?” He tilted his head curiously, looking between James, James’ closed hand, and the very attentive cat at their feet. “You’re being cryptic.” Biting his lip, Q tentatively held out his hand.

“Sit,” James commanded first, tipping his chin towards the couch.  It was close enough to the fire that the kid would hopefully warm up a bit, especially if James dragged the afghan off the back.

Q scrambled onto the sofa and sat, back straight and head angled just so; he could have balanced books on the crown of his head with that posture. James, baffled, just cocked his head at Q and then proceeded with his plan.  By now, Sootbone was just barely holding still, but she was a patient huntress. “All right, hold out your hand,” James coaxed.

The kid obeyed, holding out his hand and nearly vibrating from the effort of holding still. His gaze was fixed on James, watching him intently and curiously.

Barely hiding a smirk, James deposited the ham (rather gross now that it had been warmed up in his fist this whole time) on Q’s palm, and immediately Sootbone was airborne, leaping as lightly as a dog-sized cat could right onto Q.  It effectively ruined all of Q’s posh posture in a heartbeat as the kid squealed and then laughed as rough tongue and sharp teeth gobbled up the ham from Q’s palm and then licked the skin completely clean. James took the distraction as an opportunity to drag the afghan down an onto the sofa’s two occupants, and while Sootbone loosed a displeased mrrr at him, she only moved so that she was on top of the afghan - but not off Q.  “If I give you more ham, do you think you can keep her out of my way while I cook us some supper?” James asked, already moving to start up the fireplace.

Q nodded eagerly, grinning as he gently stroked his hand down Soot’s fur. “I think I can definitely do that.” As Soot began purring, Q had a hard time sitting still. “She likes me,” he said, his voice hushed with something very much like awe.

James always kept the necessary supplies on hand, so the fire was already starting to crackle to life, moving from kindling to the heavier blocks of wood.  The ex-agent turned to slant blue eyes over his shoulder, taking in the way Sootbone was more or less encompassing Q’s entire lap like a melted marshmallow on a s’more.  He also noticed the way Q petted her, scratching her ears gently and then stroking down her fuzzy back to the base of her tail. Q’s expression was one of complete contentment and wonder, all the worry and fear from before gone as if it never existed. He had even stopped shivering and was curled up, relaxed, and looking more his age than he had since appearing on the doorstep. It made James’ heart warm in a way that he hadn’t felt since the moment he’d found Sootbone, far smaller and meaner, a hissing ball of messy fur in the mouth of the tunnel that still stretched out beneath Skyfall Lodge.  

“She does like you,” James said, sage and serious.  He put the grating in front of the fire and let it crackle merrily away, while he got up to go back to the kitchen.  Leaving the kid to Sootbone’s babysitting (he’d initially planned to give Q more ham to keep her there, but it seemed unnecessary now), James returned to the fridge, this time taking out a slab of beefsteak that Kincaid had been generous enough to pick up for him from the local butcher’s.  James liked eating what he could kill, but sometimes, a bit of domesticated meat hit the spot. An ear cocked for any signs of chaos behind him in the adjoining living room, he set to cooking.

“How long have you lived here?” Q asked a few minutes later as Soot stopped kneading his leg and settled down to purr very loudly in his lap. “It’s a very nice place, if a bit austere.”

“I was born here,” James said, which wasn’t a lie. As he chopped an onion and made his way on to garlic and chives, however, he felt the need to add a bit more truthfulness, “Although I was away for quite a few years, and only came back again a few years ago.”  Because of that time away, James still used a knife with almost artistic skill, and as he moved on to slicing the beef into strips against the grain, the meat parted easily for him.

Bond could feel Q’s eyes on him as he continued to chop up the ingredients. “So this really is your home,” the kid said softly. “We live just outside London. Mycroft just bought a place up here for us to holiday in. I say holiday. He’s working, Sherlock is experimenting and leaving eyeballs in the fridge, and I’m mostly being ignored.

It was only because James had been a 00-agent that his knife didn’t slip and cut him as he heard the part about the eyeballs.  He turned to eye Q, commenting with all the slow care of someone disarming a possible bomb, “You know, you’ve mostly talked about your brother Myc.  But this brother, Sherlock… is he entirely all right?”

James moved on to gathering soy sauce and sesame oil into a bowl while Q answered. “Yes. Well. He’s really destructive when he’s bored which is most of the time. And he’s fascinated with science and anatomy. He scares people though. He can take one look at a person and know their whole life story.”

Actually, that sounded right up James’ alley, although he didn’t dare admit that.  He could well understand Sherlock scaring people - because if anyone knew how good James was at reading body language, or how destructive he himself could get when bored, they’d likely never relax around him.  “He sounds more tolerable than your other brother, I suppose,” felt like a safe answer. Sugar joined the soy sauce and sesame oil in the bowl.

Anyone is more tolerable than Mycroft. He can make you feel worthless and ashamed in fewer than five words, and then he convinces you that it’s all your fault in the first place. That there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.” When James turned, caught by Q’s tone, he saw the crumpled posture, as if Q thought he could hide behind Soot and just vanish in on himself.

James was truly beginning to wonder what kind of people could mess a kid up this much.  He sighed, then - now that the meat was marinating in the sauce he’d just prepared - put everything away and washed up so that he could come back out into the living room.  “Almost sounds like I’ll have Sherlock running away to my doorstep before long,” he joked lightly as he strode towards the sofa.

Q rolled his eyes. “I doubt it. The only people he runs away to are cocaine dealers. We’ve already had to intervene twice. The second time was six months ago.” The kid glanced at James and then back at Soot again, leaning forward to rub his cheek against her head, despite the put upon mrrr from the cat.

Since Q hadn’t seemed too bothered by James so far, the blond-haired man sat down next to him - taking with him the last thing he’d pulled out of the fridge.  “Well, I don’t have cocaine,” he said, moving the plate enticingly Q’s way while keeping it out of Sootbone’s curious reach, “but Kincaid - an old friend of my who lives in the nearest town - has a wife who makes addictive fudge brownies.”  A very sizeable serving of said brownies was on the plate right now.

James had never seen someone’s eyes get as wide as Q’s did in that moment. After watching James for a moment, checking for sincerity, Q snatched two brownies off the plate and devoured them hungrily before going for a third. “These are amazing ,” the kid said a moment later, mouth full of fudgy brownie goodness.

Fully grinning now and very pleased with himself, James settled the plate and its remaining brownies down on Soot’s back.  She gave him an offended look and skimmed back her whiskers at him, but apparently Q was a cozy person, because she decided to stay where she was.  Unconsciously, James reached out to pull a long, pale-grey cat-hair from Q’s mop of hair, realizing that it would probably be an impossible task to ever get all of Sootbone off Q.

After polishing off his fifth brownie, Q slowed down. He sighed and handed the plate back to James. “Thank you, Mr. Bond,” he said softly before stifling a belch. “Oops. Sorry.”

James couldn’t help but chuckle, and it was impulse to reach out and ruffle Q’s hair.  “No apologies necessary, Q. I’m just glad you won’t starve while supper is marinating,” he said easily, even as he admitted to himself that he should have tried for a quicker recipe.

Q nodded, shifting his position on the sofa slowly so he wouldn’t dislodge Soot but so that he could snuggle up against James’ side. “You’re warm,” he mumbled against James’ shirt. “And you’re safe. And you don’t make me feel horrible.”

Blinking, startled and with one arm still in the air from petting Q’s head, James wondered just what Martha was putting on those brownies.  He exchanged a look with Soot, who snorted, as if to say, ‘ Hey, you’re the one who let him eat five of them .’  James lowered his arm slowly, letting it rest across the back of the couch, since that seemed the safest option.  “I do try my best to not make people feel horrible unless they deserve it,” he answered truthfully.

“No one in my family listens to me. Mycroft is horrible, Sherlock is… unpredictable, and Mother and Father don’t exactly know what to do with a third genius son. Other than give him an equally ugly name and then just… leave him under his brothers’ care. They don’t… I never…” Q’s face was turning pink. “They never hold me,” he finally whispered.

Ah, that made the present situation make at tad more sense at least.  Usually, when people got into Bond’s space this quickly, he suspected that they were trying to seduce him or knife him, but it seemed Q had less violent motives. James allowed his arm to ease a bit lower on the back of the sofa, pretending that he just needed to reach and pull the plate off Sootbone before she decided to dislodge it herself.  Even after moving the plate to the arm of the sofa, James let his arm stay a bit closer, not quite touching Q’s scrawny shoulders, but closer than before. “Well, names can be legally changed, at least, if you don’t like being a letter of the alphabet,” James tried to comfort.

“But the letter isn’t my name. It’s my middle initial, and I like it far better than what they saddled me with.” Q made a clear face of disgust against James’ shirt. “If-If I tell you… promise you won’t make me go back. Promise you won’t think of me like them. I’m Q. I like Q. I want to be just Q.” He clung to James’ shirt, digging his fingers into the material.

“Q, you don’t have to tell me at all ,” James clarified, looking down at the boy with beetled brows.  “I’m a stranger you just met today, remember? You don’t owe me a name that you hate.”  

Q clung to James then, hugging him tightly and snuggling close. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you, James.”

Since the last thing James had been expecting today was a child at his house, much less a child at his house hugging him, he just sort of sat there for a long moment.  Sootbone eyed him with judgmental green-gold eyes even after James mouthed at her, ‘ Do you know how many times I went to Psych for harassment?  I don’t want to be called in after I retire because I did something wrong with a kid involved! ’  Still, it didn’t seem too wrong to lower his arm enough to pat Q’s head again, since that hadn’t gone amiss before - and since he’d have just as freely patted Sootbone.  

Every last bit of tension in Q’s body left, and the kid completely relaxed against James’ side. “Sometimes,” he whispered against James’ chest, “all I want is to be held. Treated like a regular kid. Not prized as a genius. Even though I definitely am one.”

Bond tried to suppress a chortle at that last grab, but even if he cut off the sound, the jerk of his chest was probably easily felt.  “You’re officially more self-aware than most adults I know,” he observed.

“Sherlock would say that most adults are stupid. Mycroft would say all people are stupid. I’m tired of never being enough for them.”

Sighing because he didn’t seem to be getting through to Q, James just kept up the head-petting, glad that he had Sootbone as an assistant in this.  The cat continued to take up Q’s entire lap. “Seeing as we’ve already deduced the fact that Mycroft himself is a little bit stupid,” James hedged, subtly referencing their earlier discussion about the cleanliness of cats, “perhaps his isn’t an opinion you want to follow.  And Sherlock’s idea that most adults are stupid is probably at least a bit correct, but thankfully you’re not an adult, eh?”

Q looked up at James, blinking slowly and studying his face. “I’m not an adult,” Q repeated softly. “Even though they treat me as one. I really am still just a kid.”

James looked down at him, wearing the same calm ‘ Yes, it’s obvious ’ look that he usually wore when M used to shout at him about blowing up enemy hideouts.  It seemed that James was doomed to forever follow a kind of logic that the rest of the world was blind to, and it was tragic, really, because James’ way of thinking always seemed to be so much simpler.  “Exactly. And if you keep up whatever abysmal eating habits you have-” He paused his head-patting to drop his arm, which allowed him to poke Q’s ribs. “-You’ll probably stay a string bean forever, too, and never properly grow up.”

Q squealed and swatted at the arm, protesting with an indignant shouting laugh. “Am not a string bean! You’re just a mountain! And I am going to grow up. And I’m going to be the best with computers. Better than anyone before. I’m already amazing at them. After dinner, can I show you? I know you don’t have Wifi but I can set it up myself.”

“So long as you eat ,” James stressed, wondering if perhaps that was why the kid was so cold.  And if Q was so skinny, then what kind of energy was he burning off walking across the moors for two hours?  James had a tiny, five-second panic in which he wondered if Q was fizzling out like a fire that had eaten through all of its fuel, before remembering that he’d loaded the kid up with fudge brownies.  Q would live until he got more food cooked.

“Okay, fine. I promise to eat.” Q wiped at the fudge remaining around his mouth and looked up at James again. “Are you always this warm? You’re like a furnace. I’ve never met someone who felt as warm as you do.”

James just blinked at him.  These were not questions people usually asked him.  “Probably.” He wasn’t even sure that this was normal for children, so he quickly asked before Q could come up with more questions, “Are you supposed to have as much sugar as I gave you?”

“Probably not. I’m never allowed that much at home. It was really good though. Why do you not want people to find you? Did you work with people you didn’t like? I know Mycroft doesn’t like the people he works with, and Sherlock just hates absolutely everyone. I don’t think I hate everyone, but most people treat me like I’m either too young to understand or that I’m too nosy.”

It got hard to follow basically after the third sentence, with Q moving so fast, and James sort of just ended up staring again and briefly considering going back to MI6 for the first time in… longer than he could remember.  Because at least then the threats were clear, familiar, and easy to manage. Right now, his life had become very confusing. “I never said I didn’t want people to find me - you said that,” he reminded, keen enough to recall their conversations up until now, if only because he’d been trained to memorize data or die.  He couldn’t memorize enough to keep up with Q’s rapid babble beyond that, however.

“But I concluded that because you choose to live alone, and people don’t usually choose to live alone unless they’re hermits,” Q argued. “And you don’t talk about yourself a lot. You ask me a lot of questions though.”

“That last part is true,” James admitted, “But to be fair, it’s because you dropped in on me from out of nowhere.”  

Q gave a huff and settled down again, clinging tightly to James before saying, “Fine. And… I’m sorry. About that. And thank you for bringing me in.” All of which came out in a rush as if he might lose his nerve or forget completely if he didn’t thank James right then.

At least that last bit of speed-talking made sense, so James relaxed a bit, able to shrug and say truthfully, “Like I said before, Q - no apologies necessary.  Nobody’s dying, and a little excitement in my life won’t hurt me.”

“It still needed to be said. So there.”

Still wholly perplexed about this very complicated little stranger in his house, James nonetheless accepted that - he was too selfish and vain by nature to try and turn away an apology all that stubbornly anyway.  He was pretty sure the meat had marinated for long enough, though, so the ex-agent lightly tapped one of the hands on his shirt. “It also needs to be said that I have more food for you to eat, but that I need to get up and cook it first.  Getting something in you other than sugar just might be a good idea, too.”

“Can I help?” Q asked, sitting up and letting go of James’s shirt. “I’m really good at helping and following directions!”

“I’m afraid there’s not much to do at this point,” James admitted, a bit sad that he hadn’t had the kid helping earlier - but since it had been mostly chopping ingredients, he wasn’t sure how wise Q’s involvement would have been in that either.  James was still pretty fuzzy on what kind of etiquette he was supposed to have around a child in his house, but was certain that it would be bad if said child sliced off a phalange. “But if you’re warmed up, I don’t mind company in the kitchen,” he compromised, standing.  

It took Q a moment to follow, as his lap was very much occupied with a large, content cat. Q frowned, trying to gently coax the cat up without startling her too badly, and all Sootbone did was stare at him with a look that seemed to say Really ? Biting his lip now in concentration, Q wrapped Soot in the blanket and wriggled his legs up until he was standing on the sofa cushion and Sootbone was curled up half in the blanket like she owned the place.

Hopping down off the sofa, Q followed James through to the kitchen, again keeping to his left and looking around at everything with happy curiosity. “I’m definitely warmer now, thank you.”

“Fantastic, I won’t have to explain hypothermia to anyone,” James said, more than a bit relieved.  He retrieved the slices of meat from the fridge, starting up a pan with oil to fry.

Staying carefully out of the range of any possible oil splatter, Q watched James cook with complete fascination. Within moments, the smell of fried meat filled the air, and Q’s stomach audibly rumbled. “Maybe you had a point about my needing to eat,” he finally said. “Sherlock and I both tend to get so absorbed in projects that we skip meals.”

“Well, then Sherlock should be jealous that you ran away and he didn’t, because he’s clearly going to stay underfed, and you’re getting fresh bulgogi,” James declared as the first pieces of meat sizzled into the pan.

“Bulgogi?” Q was frowning in confusion at the strange word. “What’s that?”

A bit pleased with himself that he’d picked a food unknown to this self-proclaimed genius, James smiled as he got the remainder of the beef and chopped onions and garlic into the pan.  “It’s a Korean meat dish,” he explained, “Strips of beef marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar, basically. It’s probably better if I marinated it overnight, but hopefully a good thirty minutes will be enough to get the flavour.”  The oil crackled and spat, but the scent of garlic sauteed filled the kitchen, with a faintly sweet smell intermingled.

“If it tastes even half as good as it smells,” Q said with clear interest, “then I will definitely eat some. And it already smells very, very delicious.”

“Plus, if you don’t know it, then I doubt both of your brothers do,” James suggested, “So this might be some knowledge you can hang over their heads.  Along with your newfound knowledge of cat vs human hygiene.” The last James added with a smirk.

Q burst into giggles and winked at James. The kid looked so much more relaxed than he had even twenty minutes prior, and the conspiratorial grin on his face spoke volumes to his comfort around James.  Feeling like he must at least be doing something right, James finished up cooking, and brought two plates to the table. There was snow beginning to fall outside, creating a gentle world of white.

~^~

The food tasted even better than it had smelled while James was cooking, and Q eagerly and efficiently ate everything on his plate without needing to be told twice. Sated and warm, Q found himself looking between the gentle snowfall outside and James, this mysterious and down-to-earth man who had been willing to let a strange child into his home. Guilt over imposing on James’s hospitality bubbled unpleasantly in Q’s stomach, but he had needed a place to stay. Mycroft hadn’t been kidding this time; Q knew SILVA was a real group doing experiments and tests on intelligence, and he refused to be a lab rat. Anyway. Mycroft wouldn’t miss him for hours, and Sherlock probably wouldn’t care. It didn’t matter that Q was Sherlock’s favourite - if a mystery came up, everything and everyone took a backseat until it was solved.

Q sighed and stared back out the window. They wouldn’t be able to find him here. He was well hidden, and when he did finally connect his tech to his WiFi hotspot, he would make sure they couldn’t trace him. He was cleverer by far. He would hide as long as he needed to.

Something poked Q’s leg.  Hidden below view under the table, the big cat Sootbone had one paw extended, ready to prod Q’s shin again.

Across the table, James somehow still noticed, and chuckled.  “Don’t give in to her bullying. God knows she already gets more people-food than she needs,” the man said with evident fondness beneath his wry expression.

“She also has you wrapped around her paw,” Q teased. “She knows you give her H-A-M.”

Sootbone immediately mrrrrrowed and leaned her entire fluffy weight against Q’s legs and the chair, very nearly moving it.  James snorted. “She also knows how to spell, in a limited capacity,” he warned, and it was hard to tell if he was joking, although there was a glint in the pale blueness of his eyes.  

Q eyed the cat a little warily and settled for scratching her ears. “Duly noted,” he muttered. “Very clever animal. Far smarter than most.”

James still seemed to find this funny, crows-feet showing around his eyes in a way that somehow did not make him appear older.  “Sometimes you don’t have to be smart to be clever,” the man opined, and Sootbone started purred raspily right then, like she was agreeing, chin tilting to grant Q better access.  

“What do you mean?” Q asked as he continued scratching Sootbone’s neck and chin. “Don’t you need to be both?”

Sitting back in his seat, looking comfortable and at ease, the blond-haired man shook his head.  “I’m pretty sure that what your brother’s value is being smart - and by their definition, I’d leave a lot to be desired,” the man said, but with a curious lack of embarrassment over that.  Shoulders broader than Sherlock or Mycroft’s by far lifted and dropped in a relaxed shrug as James interlaced his fingers atop his stomach and the man grinned. “However, I’d argue that I’m far more clever than nearly any man alive.”

Q’s curiosity was definitely piqued, and he leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table and perch his chin on interlaced fingers. “Is that so? Why? How?”

“One question at a time, please!” James demanded, but the smile quirking up one side of his mouth softened the phrase - and, despite what he’d just requested, he went on to answer anyway, “Well, maybe ‘any man alive’ is a bit of a brag, but how about this: your brothers call themselves the pinnacle of intelligence, right?”

Q nodded, rolling his eyes. “They don’t include me in that sweeping generalization of their own intelligence, either.”

“True, but if either of them had walked out into the moors like you did, do you think they’d have made it this far?” James returned with an easy smile, then indicated himself, “And I live out here in this place.  I think that proves something about just how all-powerful their intelligence is, yes?”

“I…” Q found himself speechless, trying to wrap his head around fairly concrete proof that perhaps his brothers actually weren’t as perfect as they claimed. “It’s because intelligence isn’t the same as survival and instinct?” He asked.

“Precisely,” James nodded, his smile growing more pleased.

“And-and in the real world, being able to survive is more important than just being clever?”

I think so.”  Sootbone wandered back to her owner, and he reached out to pet her without looking, an idle gesture.  “Or, at the very least, there are two very different ways of being smart, and I find that the two tend not to intersect all that much.  Take me, for example.” James tapped his breastbone, indicating himself again with a wry smile. “I’ve survived more than most any dozen people my age, but start quizzing me on facts and trivia, and you’ll find me quite stupid.”

That made Q grin, and he leaned forward with his elbows on the table. “Like what? Do you have stories? Can I hear some?”

James grimaced, then frowned down at Sootbone when she batted at his hand.  Considering here sheer size, it was quite a swat. “Maybe we’ll save stories for the next time you turn up on my doorstep like something Sootbone dragged in,” he deflected.  

“So I can come back?” Q had spent enough time with Sherlock and Mycroft to know avoidance when he heard it, and he also knew from experience that pushing would only result in an argument.

Looking back from Sootbone’s antics, James’ eyebrows winged up, as if he’d somehow forgotten that that was exactly what he’d said.  He opened and closed his mouth a few times, and flexed his right hand as if it was empty of something - almost a nervous tick but not quite.  Then the man settled, however, sighing and shrugging, “I mean, so long as no one arrested me for kidnapping, I don’t see why not. Just don’t die out on the moors either!”

“I have no intention of dying on the moors, and I won’t let them arrest you.” Q could feel the steel in his voice, the conviction of his words. He wouldn’t let James be hurt.

The man smiled a curious little smile that looked amused, but in a quieter, harder-to-read way than before.  “That’s good to hear,” he said with all gravity and a tip of his head, an equal-to-equal sort of nod. Before Q could respond in any way, James lifted a finger and added, “That’s one more thing that I think you have that I think your brothers are discounting when they look at you.”

Q frowned at James, tilting his head in a mixture of confusion and curiosity. “My… my what? My empathy?”

“No, although perhaps empathy is a good thing,” the blond-haired man said, briefly frowning as if he hadn’t even considered that.  His expression cleared quickly, though, and one of his feet nudged Q’s shin under the table much as Sootbone had been doing. “Your determination.  There’s an old saying, I think it goes a bit like…” Bond paused, chewing his lip a moment as he cast his eyes upwards, recalling, “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”  Looking pleased with himself for remembering, James looked back down from the ceiling to catch Q’s eyes again with his sharp blue gaze.

“Persistent,” Q said quietly to himself. “I’m persistent.” He thought it over for a moment, glancing between James and Sootbone. “I suppose I am. I’m not usually easily persuaded, or persuaded at all, once I’ve made up my mind. And then I see it through. They never believe me when I say so. They write me off as a child. But I always do what I say I will.”

“A fact that you’ve hopefully made abundantly clear by running away this far.”  James gestured at his home. Outside, the wind had picked up a bit, making the world an ever-shifting picture of grey and white as the day grew later and the snow grew thicker.  “I mean, it sounds like your brother - Sherlock? - is the kind of person who fixates on things, but still, you’re the one here, not him.” His toe nudged Q’s shin again, and he repeated with emphasis, “Persistent.”  

Q could feel the blush spreading across his face and up to his ears. “Thank you, James,” he said sincerely. “He does, he fixates. But if he gets bored or stuck, he quits.” Q stared at his hands and then met James’s eye. “I never quit ,” Q whispered fiercely.

James started laughing, and while he did seem to be laughing at Q, it didn’t hold the same level of meanness that usually came with Mycroft or Sherlock’s laughter.  “I believe you,” he said with feeling.

“What’s funny?” Q glared at James, but he was feeling more anxiety over missing a joke than that he was being made fun of. Anxiety twisted in his stomach at the thought James was taunting him, but he knew that couldn’t be the case. That wasn’t who James was; of that Q was absolutely certain.

“Q, you just walked for hours without even knowing that you’d find a place to stop.  You saying that you never quit is an understatement. I’m glad you found my place if only because I have no doubt that you’d have kept walking until you hit the ocean otherwise.”

Q kicked James under the table, not hard but enough that he knew the man could feel the toe of his shoe. “I’m not that idiotic,” he said, but Q knew he was relaxing again.

The man was still grinning, and it was a playful sort of smirk that Q wasn’t used to.  Usually, smirks were mean, and pre-empted words of some sort of declaration of where Q had messed up.  This expression had an edge to it, but instead of culminating in a verbal attack, James merely responded with, “Hey, I never said that that was idiotic!  It actually sounds like something I would do - if I had siblings. And if I wanted to prove a point to them.”

“You don’t have any siblings? Any family at all?” Because for all his complaining about his family, Q couldn’t really imagine being all alone in the world. He’s always had brothers in his business and parents trying to care for him (as best they could, he had decided). The thought of being all alone made Q feel nervous and antsy, like he’d just been told that he had no home to return to.

“None,” was the surprisingly easy response.  James slouched a bit, until one of his feet nudged up against Q’s chair legs.  At some point, the man had removed his shoes, clearly knowing he wasn’t going outside for a while.  

“Aren’t you ever lonely?” Q asked, working to have his voice sound as open and gentle as he knew.

James shook his head.  “Sootbone is about enough company for me.  I’ve had enough of people to last me a lifetime.”  He finished with a grimace, something ugly darkening his eyes, although it was gone in a flash - like lightning across the belly of a cloud.  

Q knew enough about reading people to not push anymore. Accepting James’s answer as the final word, Q looked out the window instead and felt a knot in his chest relax. He was definitely not leaving the manor tonight. “I know I’ll be here tonight, and thank you again, but once Mycroft realizes I’ve vanished, he might actually start looking. But… I don’t want him to know where I am.”

Briefly, James looked conflicted, a muscle in his cheek flexing.  He spoke grudgingly a beat later, words carefully and well-chosen, “Q, you do realize that the longer you stay missing, the more desperate your brothers are going to get.  And if you have parents, too, people are going to get increasingly worried - and then, when you do turn up again, a lot of that is going to transform into anger.” James raised a hand, holding it palm-up as if offering the information out as a tangible thing, “As someone who has disappeared a lot himself, I should know.”

Hesitating only for a second, Q reached out and traced a single finger over the calluses on James’ hand. “They’ll insist on getting me tonight,” he said quietly, not looking at James. “But I know they’ll worry. Maybe part of me wanted them to worry.” He sighed and hung his head a little. “I’m guessing you want me to reach out to them, then.”

Slipping his hand - and its calluses, which on second look actually appeared to also be scars - out of reach as if they hurt him, James frowned.  “Considering the fact that I don’t even have a landline, and this storm isn’t letting up, you’ll probably get your wish,” he nonetheless admitted, taking a glance outside at the deepening dark and its flurries of snow.  “Unless one of your brothers controls the weather, or is capable of driving through a blizzard and locating a lodge in the middle of bloody nowhere, no one is making you move tonight.”

“Mycroft would figure it out,” Q muttered to himself before retrieving his bag and setting up his laptop and his portable WiFi. Within moments of checking the charge levels, he was online and sending a message to his brothers.

Mycroft, Sherlock-

Yes, I left. You shouldn’t be surprised. I’m safe and will return after the blizzard subsides. Don’t do something stupid like driving in the snow to find me. I have food and heat. I’ll be fine.

-Siger

James watched all of this from his side of the table, looking both bemused and impressed as Q brought out his tech and typed.  “I don’t even want to know, do I?” he eventually murmured.

“You’re welcome to read it over if you’d like. I don’t mind. It’s more of an ‘I’m alive don’t bother panicking’ message than anything. Though Mycroft will probably analyze it seven ways to Sunday while Sherlock tells him that he’s being a prat.” Q sighed and glanced at his email before deciding it wasn’t worth it to wait for a reply and shutting his computer. “I’m too tired to try and work on coding anyway. Probably the snow. And the exercise. And your menace of a cat.” A ghost of a smile played on Q’s lips at the last comment.

Not seeming too troubled by the message being sent - trusting Q at his word, apparently - James nodded.  He was smiling by the time Q stopped talking, though, and couldn’t seem to help himself from adding, “Or you could be having a sugar crash.”  

“I am not-“ Q started before a treacherous yawn interrupted him and completely undermined his ability to be convincing. “You’re the one who fed me brownies,” he sulked, though now he was full and warm and reluctantly sleepy. And perhaps wanted more warm cuddles in front of the fire, but he was trying to ignore that desire. He could still hear Mycroft telling him that emotions were an inconvenience and weakness, but it never meant Q didn’t have wants, that he didn’t have emotional needs that weren’t being met by his ice monster of a brother.

Reading the sleepiness clearly, James finally pulled out of his slouch, standing.  “Let’s see about putting together a place for you to sleep, shall we?” he offered, gesturing Q ahead of him.  “I usually sleep on the couch myself, so we’ll have to check and see if any of the beds are actually made up - and which one Soot has decided is hers.”

“I take it she’s the not-so-secret ruler of the house?” Q asked as he rubbed his eyes and brought his bag with him as he followed James. “And why do you sleep on the sofa instead of in a bed?”

“Habit,” was all the man answered, and then nimbly side-stepped when Sootbone tried to walk under his feet.  James barely broke stride, and soon led the way to a bedroom just down a hall off the main living space.

The room was cosy, small but not cluttered. The bed took up most of the floor space, and there was a single window looking out over the moors. Q could see nothing now outside but swirling eddies of white. He set his bag down next to the bed and did his best to stifle another yawn.

“Okay, so this might be the room that Sootbone likes,” James admitted, looking around even as the cat herself trotted in, smoke-and-soot tail lifted high.  “But it’s also the least musty, so as long as you don’t mind a roommate…?” He turned back to look down at Q questioningly.

“I don’t mind,” Q replied. “Now that I’m sure she doesn’t want to eat me, I don’t mind at all.” He smiled at James and climbed up onto the bed, followed almost immediately by Sootbone.

For a moment, it was quiet except for Sootbone’s vocal commentary on just where she and Q would have to lie down if she was to share her bed, but by the time they settled down, she seemed content.  After an awkward moment, James moved forward, broadcasting his actions as if somehow worried that Q would spook.  All the man did was help draw the blankets up, dragging another quilt from where it had been folded at the foot of the bed.  “The house tends to get a bit cold,” he explained, “although you’re much safer from frostbite in here with Soot than you were out there on the moors.”

It was already cosy under the blankets, and Sootbone, much like her human, radiated warmth. “It’s just fine,” Q said. “Thank you, James.” He took off his glasses, squinting as everything grew fuzzy, and placed them on the table. He yawned again and gave himself permission to feel sleepy as he snuggles under the blankets and the extra quilt, curling up into a ball to stay as warm as possible.

A hand gave his hair three gentle strokes - very lightly at first, so that the touch could’ve been mistaken for Sootbone’s tail swishing, but the next two pets were more sure of themselves.  James’ hand even lingered on Q’s hair at the end, and the man murmured, “It’ll turn out okay, Q. Good night.”

“Goodnight, James. You’ll be here in the morning, right?”

“Definitely,” was the unhesitant answer, and then James padded out, turning off lights but leaving the soft glow of the hallway slipping in through the cracked door.

~^~

Leaving the scrawny little mystery that was Q (trusting that Sootbone would either keep an eye on him, or lay on his face and smother him in his sleep… James would have to check on them periodically), the ex-00-agent padded back out into the living room.  Briefly, he contemplated the crackling of the fire, before heading off towards the stairway. He’d been surprisingly truthful with Q all evening, but one thing he’d not been totally up-front with was the fact that he actually did have a phone in case of emergencies.  It was a damn terrible phone and spotty as hell, and the only people’s numbers he kept on it were from his old life. He could’ve still used it to call the authorities, maybe, but it was such an old model that it was mostly just good for leaving voicemails and playing phone-tag - basically, the kind of phone calls that were totally normal for a spy, but utterly inconvenient when it came to normal communications.

Still, James wasn’t planning on calling Q in just yet.  He could always do that in the morning, once the storm had died away, and that felt more in keeping with what he’d told Q.  It seemed surprisingly important to keep his word with the kid.

Instead of calling the authorities to report a missing boy, James reached out to old contacts he hadn’t thought about in over a year.  He left a few messages, asked a few questions. He wanted to find out more about just where Q had come from, and while Q hadn’t told him much… well, as James had thought to himself before: he’d done more with less.  

With no real intentions of sleeping, James went downstairs to clean up his and Q’s supper.  He’d be checking for replies throughout the night.

~^~

For the most part, Q slept soundly, though he did wake when Sootbone decided his pillow was where she wanted to sleep, and Q had sleepily shifted around to accommodate for a frankly unreasonable amount of fur. When he finally woke and could not make it back to sleep, it was because Soot had now decided to sleep on his chest, taking advantage of Q rolling into his back.

Q stared a little cross-eyed at the offending animal and glared. “You’re a menace,” he said. Sootbone didn’t seem to take it personally; she just sneezed in his face and stepped back onto the pillow to sleep. Wiping cat spit off his skin, Q fumbled for his glasses and slipped them on. He always relaxed when the world came back into focus.

Getting up quietly, Q opened the curtains on the window, staring out at the blanket of snow covering the grounds. It must’ve been coming down all night because there was easily more than a foot on the moors. It looked absolutely beautiful, like something from an old folktale.  

Then, to make it all better, cooking scents began to emanate from the kitchen. Following his nose, Q made his way back through the main floor of the house to find James at the stove and making what looked like omelettes.

“Those smell amazing.”

Surprisingly, the man wasn’t startled at the voice behind him.  In fact, he didn’t so much as twitch, expertly flipping something goldeny.  “Good, because your only other option besides this is toast.” James looked over his shoulder at Q, raising one eyebrow, “I presume you’re okay with omelettes?”  The man was still in tough work-trousers like the day before, but in a new, black long-sleeved shirt that made him look more relaxed.

Q nodded and sat down at the table. “Very much,” he said as he watched James cook. The man was deft in every movement, everything smooth yet economical. It was elegant and made Q even more curious about James’s past. In very little time at all, two plates were being brought to the table.  “I think there’s tomato, spinach, onion, and ham in these,” James offered, sliding Q’s plate to him before adding, “because you’re still too skinny by half.”

“Hey! I’m not skinny, you’re just bulky,” Q shot back, though with a single whiff of the omelette up close, he could feel his mouth watering. He dug in hungrily, only remembering his good manners halfway through and swallowing a large bite of egg to say, “Thank you for cooking.”

James just mumbled some sort of ‘you’re welcome’ around a mouthful of food, making it clear that manners were perhaps less important here than at the Holmes residence.  

Things stayed peaceful like that until the food was nearly gone - and then suddenly there was an unholy, utterly viperine hissing from the door.  It was almost unbelievable that the noise was coming from Sootbone, who had come seemingly out of nowhere but was now poised in front of the door with her entire body arched up like a grey thundercloud.  

It wasn’t long before there was a lot of pounding on the door, followed by the unmistakable sound of Mycroft yelling through the door, “Siger!  Siger, I know you’re in there, so don’t be difficult! Sherlock is rarely useful, but you know how determined he can be when he wants to - and that includes tracking you all the bloody way across the bloody moors!”  Mycroft swearing was not a common occurrence; he was truly quite furious.

Q froze, staring at the door as his entire body tensed like a tightly wound piano wire. “He knows I hate that name,” Q muttered before the banging got louder. He shot a look at James, maybe pleading, maybe asking. Q wasn’t sure and didn’t really care right then. “I don’t want to talk to them - but I probably don’t have a choice. I… James, I’m sorry they figured out where you live.”

“I’ve told you before, Q,” the man said patiently, only now getting up, “I’m not actually in hiding or anything.  Plenty of people know where I live.” He started towards the door, but paused to reach down and drag Sootbone back.  She was still intensely ferocious - quite a guard-cat - but James didn’t seem worried about her gaping, fanged mouth or flexing claws.  Mycroft kept calling through the door in a volume that was not quite yelling, because Mycroft refused to admit that he yelled. James pushed Sootbone into a closet near the door, then, strangely enough, gestured to Q after the door was closed.  “Stand by the door.”

Q did as he was told, though why James wanted him in front of the closet, but he trusted James enough not to ask that question. Not yet, anyway. He held still and watched, waiting for James’s next instructions.

The man didn’t smile… not quite, but something in his pale blue eyes glinted.  “Now, I’m going to open the door before your brother has an aneurysm, but if he tries to swoop in here and snatch you away,” James instructed serenely, as if Mycroft wasn’t still making demands in the background, “then you just open this door.”  James’ smile was small and surprisingly frosty, a slight, cool switching of his lips. “Sootbone will then give your brother a very intimidating lesson about why he should respect cats more.”

A slow smile spread across Q’s face, and he knew it was the one most similar to Sherlock’s when his brother had a wicked plan. “I can do that,” Q whispered before shifting his weight and sliding one hand behind him to rest on the door handle. He could hear Sootbone continuing to hiss behind the door and suddenly felt very glad that she liked him.  

James, still seeming to be entirely deaf to Mycroft, finally strode back towards the main door.  For the first time, it was notable that the man seemed to be… walking differently. There was a strange and smooth sort of balance to each stride, as if he were distributing his weight differently - more evenly.  He was walking an awful lot like Sootbone, actually.

James pulled the door open, and said in a voice that was surprisingly soft and almost gentle, “Hell-o.  What brings you here, causing such a racket on my doorstep.”

“I’m looking for my brother, and my sources tell me he is-“ Mycroft turned away from James, dismissively, to see Q where he was standing by the closet. “Siger! What are you doing here ? Sherlock has been looking for you all night! What do you have to say for yourself?” Sherlock was a tall figure behind him, mostly only noticeable by the huffing sigh he released.

With each successive question, Q could feel himself fighting to shrink, to be smaller and less obtrusive. Mycroft looked huge above him, towering over him and glaring with a cold, fury. But James’s words came back to him, and Q found himself suddenly fighting the urge to smile as he imagined Mycroft as a big, bald cat.

And despite being ignored, James was also most certainly still there.  He shifted his weight - a subtle thing, but it somehow realigned his body in such a way that his musculature was more noticeable beneath his long-sleeve shirt.  He really was a powerfully built man. Behind Mycroft, still outside, Sherlock could be seen to twitch and suddenly pay fractionally more attention, which was saying something.  Likely the only reason Mycroft took any notice at all, though, was because James’ subtle motion also put him in Mycroft’s way.

“Step aside. I have no time for foolish games or whatever Siger may have told you. My brother should not have left home alone and needs to return.” Mycroft fixed Q with a cold, calculating stare that Q knew all too well. “ Now , Siger.”

“No.”

To everyone’s surprise, James folded his arms and chimed in to support Q, “Sounds like your baby brother doesn’t wish to go, Mr. Mycroft Holmes .”

Q gasped, eyes wide as he stared at the broad expanse of James’s back. He had most definitely not told James his last name the day before… and a few things clicked into place. James had to have been in intelligence, possibly even a spy, to be able to find that out.

Mycroft raised an eyebrow at James but did not move. “If you know my name, then you must know who you are dealing with. And I never ask twice - so move out of the way of my brother. Now.”

“I think I won’t,” James said, and while Mycroft often claimed that he was too calm to raise his voice in anger, Bond was the one actually succeeding at keeping his voice level.  It was actually rather eerie, because it was smooth and cool and utterly unlike the voice Q had gotten used to. That tiny, frosty smile was back, too.  “Because I do know who you are, and I think I also know some of the people in your pocket.”

Q knew the telltale signs that Mycroft was struggling to maintain his cool. There was a slight flush in his cheeks, and he had this particular sardonic smile that made it look like he was humouring you. That made it obvious he thought you were stupid. But Q found himself watching James, listening to this man who was protecting him. Everything about his voice and posture was different, but Q did not feel the slightest hint of fear. James would protect him. He knew that for certain.

“People in my pocket? You wouldn’t be so cocksure if you truly knew that.”

“Well, I also know that you’re still new at this,” James went on, tilting his head and suddenly matching Sherlock for arrogance in just that little gesture.  Behind Mycroft, Sherlock was paying more attention still. “And that there are some people that you don’t have in your pocket yet - and some powerful pieces that you might have had, but which are now…”  James paused, rolling his words in his mouth and pretending at thoughtfulness before finishing delicately, “...Out of play.”

Q had three seconds to shift his position more fully behind James before Mycroft whipped his umbrella up and levelled it at James like a sword. “You have seconds to release my brother before I arrest you for kidnapping, obstruction, and treason,” he snarled.

“Careful, Mycroft,” James said back, eyeing the umbrella thoughtfully but not moving his arms from where they’d remained at his side this whole time, “Play stupid games, you get stupid prizes.  And besides, if you were a better brother, you wouldn’t have to get me to step out of the way.” James jerked his chin slightly to indicate Q. “He wouldn’t even be here if that were the case.”

Behind Mycroft, Sherlock snorted.  He could be just heard repeating, “...Get stupid prizes indeed,” in a pleased tone.

Mycroft’s face grew steadily redder as he clearly fought to keep his temper. Q felt a little thrill of victory at the knowledge that his “perfect” brother wasn’t so perfect and was losing it in front of people. “I left because you yelled at me,” Q finally said. “You threatened me. Again. So I decided I didn’t want to be around you.”

“And I can see why,” James agreed conversationally, nodding sagely with Q’s words and folding his arms. The umbrella hadn’t unsettled him yet.  

Mycroft thumbed a button on his umbrella handle that released a sharp blade from the tip; it was mere centimetres from James’s chest. “What do you say now?”

From behind Bond, Q could see the way the muscles tightened up and down James’ back, even if the rest of him didn’t move.  Also, alarmingly, Q was the only one who could see the tiniest of knives suddenly free from Bond’s sleeve and sitting nestled, hidden, in his scarred palm.  

James leaned forward until the blade touched his shirt above his breastbone, and said something so quietly to Mycroft that Q was probably not meant to hear, “Pardon me.  What I meant to say was that that I know where Irene Adler is buried.” As Mycroft’s eyes widened, James went on, still deathly quiet, “Maybe you need to start making friends the government approves of, so that men like me don’t have to waste our time taking them out.”

After a long moment, Mycroft retracted the umbrella blade and lowered his arm. “Very well then,” he said quietly. “Will you allow us in out of the cold and we can talk about Siger like civilized individuals?”

“I don’t know,” James said, in a more normal volume.  Now it was obvious that Sherlock was trying to lean forward, clearly frustrated at not having heard everything perfectly.  James was smiling a jaunty smile as he finished, “Can we all be civilized individuals?”

With how Mycroft’s eyes narrowed, Q almost expected to hear his older brother growl. But, Mycroft simply schooled his expression into one of aloof detachment and nodded. “Of course. I’m sure even wild guns for hire can use manners on occasion.”

Q squeaked in surprise, eyes wide behind his glasses as his hand twitched against the doorknob. A hired gun? He knew that had something to do with violence, and yes James did hunt and apparently kept knives in his sleeves and maybe killed someone named Adler, but why couldn’t Mycroft just… “Why can’t you just be nice , Myc?” Q said, frustrated, before opening up the door to the closet and freeing Sootbone.

It was time for everyone - even James - to twist in surprise as an utterly hellish yowl was emitted from the dark depths of the closet.  It was a split-second warning before a very sizeable chunk of those shadows detached itself, shot past Q’s legs and right between James’, and launched itself up high enough to latch right onto Mycroft’s umbrella-arm.  

Total chaos reigned for about ten minutes, as Mycroft and Sootbone both screeched, James looked more than mildly alarmed while trying to separate the two, Sherlock actually started laughing in the background, and Q leaned against the wall with a satisfied smirk on his face. He memorized every detail of the scene to be able to reflect on it later, and he made a mental note to get an entire piece of ham for Sootbone later.

~^~

In the end, James did end up letting everyone in, although there was more sullen silence than civilized talking.  Sootbone had been convinced to let go of Mycroft, but not before the eldest Holmes boy was liberally covered in scratches - only his winter attire had saved him from worse.  To add insult to injury, no one in the entire lodge seemed to possess the compassion to help him dress his wounds. It was debatable whether Mycroft would have accepted the help, of course.  Sherlock, for his part, had stopped laughing when the cat had decided to follow him around instead - not attacking, but with a decidedly homicidal gleam in her eyes.

They were all sitting in James’ living room now.  James and Q were on the same couch again, Sherlock leaning almost comically away from the cat beside his own, separate seat.  Mycroft had also found a chair all his own, and it looked like the least comfortable of the lot. He was sitting up even straighter than usual as if, in Q’s mind, trying to project a sense of propriety and civil society, though his tantrum with Sootbone had rather undermined that power in Q’s mind.

The room was painfully quiet as they all looked at each other warily and, in Mycroft’s case, distrustingly. Q glanced up at James, seeing a brief flash of stone cold in the blue eyes as they moved from Mycroft to Q, where they softened to something more human.

“I don’t want to go back,” Q finally said, breaking the silence.

“See?  Told you,” Sherlock spoke up from where he sat.  He was in the tall, awkwardly lanky stage, but his voice had dropped to an incredibly low volume that caused it to roll across the room, above the crackling of the fire.  His words seemed directed at Mycroft even if he didn’t take his eyes off the cat.

“And as I told you before, Sherlock, Siger belongs at home and not galavanting around England unsupervised.”

“Maybe if you actually listened to me, I wouldn’t run away,” Q said quietly, staring at his hands in his lap. He could feel Mycroft’s gaze on him now, boring into him like an x-ray.

“By that definition,” Sherlock drawled, “I should be running away almost constantly.”

“The only reason you don’t is because you’ve already been to rehab twice,” Q said. He still kept most of the emotion from his voice, pretending he was one of his programs that dealt in numbers and facts. Emotions, he had learned early on, never helped when arguing with his brothers. In response to Q’s words, Sherlock’s head jerked his way with an affronted look, and James finally deigned to move - looking over at Sherlock, too, with raised brows.

Mycroft released a long-suffering sigh as if they were all children but him.  “If this were merely a case of running off down the street to get some of the rebellion out of your system, we would not be having this talk,” he explained, “I don’t think you realize the scope of what you’ve done, Siger.”  Mycroft’s eyes flicked to James, seemingly of their own accord. The blue-eyed man didn’t react, simply reclining easily and silently where he sat.

“And what exactly have I done? Because I did run away, and I found a place that doesn’t make fun of me, doesn’t torment me, and works to protect my wellbeing. Last I checked, you were the one threatening to send me off for government testing if I didn’t conform to your exact specifications of behaviour.” With every word, Q’s voice grew sharper, though it never got much louder. He was so tired of Mycroft’s “holier than thou” attitude that he could scream, but instead he turned that frustration into logic.

Mycroft’s face had gotten increasingly pinched as Q spoke, but he at least waited until Q had finished instead of interrupting him.  “Siger, I don’t know if it has escaped your notice, but your definition of ‘running away’ was to scamper whole kilometres across the Scottish moors and cosied up in the house of a-”  Mycroft cut off suddenly, looking to James. In return, James’ eyes narrowed slightly. When Mycroft went on, his words were slower, more chosen in his mouth, “-An individual unknown to you.  That’s what I mean by ‘scope,’ little brother.”

“If you’re referring to James’ skills in weaponry, you’d have to be a fool to live out here and not be a little bit dangerous. Sootbone likes me and doesn’t attack me, and James made dinner and breakfast and I ate everything on my plate. For both meals.”

“Clearly, Mummy never gave you a proper lecture on stranger-danger,” Mycroft daggered back smoothly, “if you’re willing to cosy up to anyone with food and a cat.”

“As much as I hate to agree with Mycroft, and really I do, he does have a point.  It’s a long-winded point, but still,” Sherlock said, a look on his face like his words had tasted bad.  Sootbone was moving closer to him, and Sherlock was trying to split his attention between the cat and the conversation.  

“You both act like I’m completely helpless!” Q snapped, a cold, biting fury on his face. “If he wanted to hurt me, he would have already. And if he had, I would rather that than another second under a roof where you’re in charge, Mycroft!”

“Q!”

Surprisingly, it was James who spoke up. He hadn’t raised his voice much, but it was still enough to get all of the Holmes boys to close their mouths and look at him.  Q glanced up at him, sheepish but unrepentant. “What, James?” He asked, control and patience back in his voice as if he had never slipped.

James sighed, looking at Q with a slightly sad but sympathetic expression.  “I think that what your brothers are trying to say in their own convoluted way, is that you could have died - if not at the hands of a stranger, then outside in the elements.”

Frowning, Q looked from James to Mycroft and Sherlock. “Worried? About me?” He turned back to James for confirmation. “But they never worry about me. They just try to control me.”

While Mycroft and Sherlock both exchanged looks in the background, Sherlock dragging his attention away from Sootbone finally and Mycroft shifting in his seat, James merely maintained calm eye-contact with Q and went on, “Control is a kind of worry.  It’s not the best kind, but it’s still a kind. If they really want to control you, then they’d say no to any kind of running away, period - yes?” The last word held more weight, and James’ tone changed and hardened, because he’d also said that last word right to Mycroft.  

Mycroft cleared his throat, cat-scratched hand clenching and unclenching on the handle of his umbrella.  “I believe that I am only opposed to dangerous forms of running away,” he said in a stiff but quiet tone.  

Q slowly looked to his brother again, studying his face; there was nothing there now but honesty (and perhaps a little embarrassment from being attacked by a cat). So Q nodded and looked back to James. “Okay,” he said. “But if I have to go back with them, I want to be able to come visit.”

This nearly raised an uproar again: Mycroft was clearly very opposed to this idea, and Sherlock was mostly opposed to not knowing all of the details about what was going on, both raising their voices. Sootbone was startled enough by the noise that she laid her ears back and shuffled off behind Sherlock’s couch instead of continuing to stalk him.  

James made a wincing face and muttered, “Bloody hell,” before turning back to say to Q amidst the hubbub, “Do you even live remotely near here, Q?”

“We… we live in London,” he admitted. “We only have a holiday house up here. And I’m guessing you don’t come down to London much.”

A complicated expression crossed James’ face, and he once again looked to Mycroft, who shut up but glowered at him challengingly.  “Not anymore. Not since I retired ,” James said pointedly, mostly to the eldest Holmes boy.  This, strangely enough, had Mycroft blinking in surprise and then relax notably.  

Suddenly Sherlock sat bolt upright.  Slowly but surely, an absolutely manic grin spread across his face.  “Oh, now this is rich-!” he started to declare...but then Sootbone leapt right over the back of the sofa, landing clumsily but heavily on Sherlock’s shoulder and knocking him into a sprawl across the floor.

Q burst out laughing at his brother’s sudden and inelegant landing, tears leaking from his eyes as he howled; Q even leaned against James for support until he caught his breath again. “Okay Sherlock. What did you figure out?”

James stood up abruptly.  His body language was tense, and in the moment he was suddenly imposing in a way he hadn’t even been when squaring off against Mycroft’s bladed umbrella.  He was almost standing over Sherlock, and for the briefest of seconds, Sherlock actually looked afraid.  Of course, since Sherlock had a certifiably disabled survival instinct, the look didn’t last long, but it was there, as he tried to get up off the floor.  James’ face was almost without emotion as he spoke suddenly to Mycroft, before Sherlock could regain his equilibrium enough to answer Q’s question, “I think that you should take Q home.”

“I think that is an excellent idea,” Mycroft agreed. He stood as well, and Q could see the tension in his brother’s frame. “Get your things, Siger. We’ve imposed too long on your… your ‘friend’s’ hospitality.”

“But I don’t-“

“Go, Q,” James said, although when he turned and saw whatever expression was on Q’s face, his own expression fell and softened.  With one last wary glance at Sherlock, James dropped down onto his haunches in front of Q. Mycroft tensed and lifted his umbrella slightly for some reason, but James ignored him to focus all on Q.  “You didn’t do anything wrong, Q - well, besides running away in a truly spectacular way,” James said, pulling a face at the latter half of his sentence, “But you have to go back to your family.”

Q nodded and bit his lip with a little sigh. “All right, James,” he murmured before throwing his arms around James’s shoulders and hugging him. “Thank you for letting me stay,” he whispered in James’s ear.

Behind James, both Sherlock (half out from under Sootbone but still on the floor) and Mycroft looked like they were quietly having heart-attacks.  Whatever they knew about James had their mouths hanging open a bit now, as they watched Q. James, for his part, seemed supremely startled. But after a beat his hand came to pat Q’s back, turning the hug with one arm as if afraid that two would apply too much pressure.  “No thanks necessary, Q,” he said softly, in the same easy way he’d been telling Q that no apologies were necessary either.

When James pulled back, it was only to look over his shoulder, though, adding in a slightly chagrined tone, “But you might want to help your brother out from under Sootbone.”

~^~

1 month later

~^~

Life in the Holmes household calmed down considerably in the month following Q’s “escape to the country” as Mycroft called it. There was, all told, very little fighting amongst the brothers, but Q rarely emerged from his room except for meals, and most of those saw him bringing the plate to his room and eating alone. Sherlock has flatly refused to share his information on James with Q, so Q spent most of his waking moments trying to do research and find out more on his own… with mixed results. He could find a few old news articles about Skyfall manor in Scotland and about the deaths of the adults who lived there, leaving behind their young son. Q even found records from James’s time in the navy, and everything he saw pointed towards James going into government, into intelligence. But even with his considerable hacking and coding skills, Q wasn’t sure how to approach breaking into the MI6 servers.

So he threw himself into his coding and in designing programs to cover his tracks and take down sophisticated firewalls. He was going to find out the truth that Mycroft and Sherlock were keeping from him.

Sherlock, meanwhile, went through a moody phase. This in and of itself wasn’t strange - he was in some sort of moody temperament more often than not - but this turned out to be a worse one than usual.  He regularly vacillated between racing around London to stick his nose into random crime scenes (which Mycroft of their parents invariably had to drag him out of, and apologise to the local police for the intrusion) and hiding in his room with the door locked and the sounds of screeching violin escaping.  The breaks in this pattern were usually when Mycroft decided to intrude, and then the shouting matches erupted. It was always spectacular, but never in a fun way.

Maybe everyone was so distracted by the shouting and the violin and the calls from the police saying that Sherlock was butting in again that they didn’t notice any other warnings signs.  Maybe there were no warning signs to find. All the Holmes family knew for sure was that one day, Sherlock didn’t come home. Nor the next. On the third day, there was no denying the fact that he was missing, and something was very, very wrong.  

By this point, Q had noticed his brother’s obvious absence and was growing increasingly worried by the moment. Sherlock didn’t usually stay out this long with no messages at all, and it was this concern that drew Q from his room and into Mycroft’s study. He knocked once and stepped over the threshold onto the dark rug.

He hated this room - it always felt claustrophobic and tense, much like being in Mycroft’s general vicinity. His brother was at his desk, clearly working, though he did look up when Q approached.

“Sherlock is missing,” Q said bluntly. “And before you tell me off for worrying, he hasn’t left any messages or word with me and I can’t find any trace of him. At all.”

Mycroft pursed his lips together, not answering instantly, which was at least a good sign.  He was also wearing his sourest expression, which was something of a neutral sign, because it could mean anything.  “Considering how melodramatic he’s been lately,” he finally replied staunchly, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he pulled a disappearing act and hid his own tracks, just to get some attention.  Or some space, which perhaps he actually needs.”

“This is not about your fighting with him! Sherlock is missing . He’s not on a bender, and he isn’t hiding.” Q was very close to stamping his foot in frustration. “If you won’t do anything, then I will.”

Perhaps still, even a month later, afraid of Q running off, Mycroft made an abortive twitch that in a normal human would have meant he was reaching for his youngest brother.  Mycroft didn’t do physical contact, though. He did, however, break enough to say, “Just…! Wait, Q.” He turned to face Q more fully, sighed gustily, and said grudgingly, “Let’s think this through logically.  You can’t know that he’s not hiding or otherwise getting himself into trouble.”

“But I can! I’ve been practising hacking traffic cams and all the footage from his last known location wasn’t him trying to hide!” Q flushed and bit his lip, glancing at Mycroft. “You weren’t supposed to know I can do that.”

Fortunately, Mycroft didn’t look perturbed, although he perhaps did look a little bit surprised for a second.  “When did you last see him?” Mycroft asked next.

“A few streets off of Piccadilly Circus. He looked like he was investigating something. Maybe looking for clues or a body.” Q frowned, thinking back through the footage. “He never just vanished into thin air, Myc. Even when he wants to be alone. He always leaves it so I can find him.”

“I said ‘when,’ Siger,” Mycroft corrected.  

Don’t call me that,” Q hissed. “Three days ago on the cameras. Four in person.”

Mycroft’s eyes narrowed, but he didn't argue.  For the first time, it became apparent that his more subdued nature might in fact be due to him actually being worried… but too emotionally constipated to properly show it.  “My own sources have not seen him in… a similar length of time,” he finally allowed.

“Well? Why haven’t you done more? We need to go find him!” Q stared at Mycroft, trying to understand how his brother could continue to be so cold when Sherlock was missing. “Fine. I’ll go find him myself-“

“And what can you do that you haven’t done already?” Mycroft interrupted him with a snap.  Finally, his stress began to show through the cracks. His hands weren’t fisted, but they were tense atop his knees.  

“I can swallow my pride,” Q said quietly. “And ask for help.”

That stopped Mycroft in his tracks.  He didn’t say anything, but his mouth most assuredly snapped shut and he just stared.

“In fact, I’m going to reach out to a friend of mine. Maybe I already have. He’s pretty good at digging up information, especially since I never told him my last name.”

Mycroft’s mouth opened but then his eyes narrowed and he visibly reworded whatever he’d been about to say.  “Who are you referring to? I trust you’re not just making someone up for effect.”

“I’m talking about James Bond. And I know you knew who I was talking about. You’re not as good a liar as you think you are.”

“And you don’t know as much about that man as you think you do.”

“I know enough. I trust him, Myc, and he’s going to help me find Sherlock. With or without your help.” Q stood his ground as Mycroft fixed him with a pinched sort of look. He held himself as tall as he could manage with his hands curled into fists at his sides, and his mouth was set in a firm, determined line.

Finally, Mycroft either realised Q wasn’t going to bend or else his own personal worry over Sherlock got the best of him, because he sighed and sagged a little.  “You truly do not realize how you’re using a bazooka as a fly-swatter,” he murmured to himself, “Sherlock would find this hilarious.”

“Well, since no one is willing to explain it,” Q quipped. “James should be on his way. I told him I would meet him at the National Gallery.”

~^~

James still had no idea how Q had found the means to reach him.  After all, last the kid had known, James didn’t even have a phone - although perhaps Bond had mentioned Kincaid…  He didn’t honestly remember, because the whole experience with the kid who had turned up on his doorstep had been so surreal at the time.  Still, thanks to Kincaid delivering James a remarkably determined little message (one that sounded like Q even before James was informed of where it had come from), James was now back in London for the first time in years.  He still wasn’t sure this was a good idea.

When he sat in the National Gallery and turned to see Q and the oldest brother Mycroft, James was sure this was a bad idea.  

Nonetheless, he stood up, extending a hand.  Maybe this meeting could start on better footing, even if Mycroft’s expression was full of thinly veiled distrust.  “Good evening. I was told you were missing your third Musketeer,” he said with a charming smile he hadn’t dusted off and used in ages.  

Mycroft shook his hand, but it was Q who answered.  “Sherlock has vanished, and we both are at a loss as to where he is. Mycroft wouldn’t let me come to this meeting alone. So.” Q rolled his eyes so only James could see before continuing. “I can give you his last location and the approximate time as well. I have security and traffic camera footage.”

Looking over Q’s head and meeting Mycroft’s gaze, James saw the wince there, but the eldest Holmes didn’t comment.  When James raised an eyebrow, Mycroft just pursed his lips harder. This was still better than Mycroft yelling or talking over Q, though, so James gave a subtle nod and then looked back down at the kid.  “I’ll see what I can do,” he agreed, not admitting that this was usually more than he had to work with. He sat down and looked attentive.

~^~

“Thank you, James.” Q stood, though at his full height, James sitting down was still taller. “I’m glad I’ll have a little help at least. Mycroft was going to just let Sherlock stay missing.” Q managed to not glare at his brother, but it was close. His fingers twitched and then stilled again at his sides. He was going to stay calm and in control. They would find Sherlock. Everything would be all right.

Quickly and efficiently, Q took James through everything he had found, showing him photos from the traffic cams as well as Q’s own reverse-engineered timetable of Sherlock’s whereabouts. Thankfully, neither James not Mycroft interrupted him, letting Q cover everything and hand over a copy of it all to James, bundled up neatly in a folder.  The man looked a bit stunned, but also transparently impressed as he took the folder. “Well, this is officially more than I’ve ever had to go on before,” the blond-haired man quipped.

“Is that why you retired?” Mycroft shot back, a little bit snidely.

Surprisingly, James didn’t take it badly, whatever the reference was about.  “Among other things. The retirement benefits weren’t worth it either,” he said, and Mycroft actually raised an eyebrow at that.  There was a whole conversation going on between the lines, it seemed.

Q frowned at them both, glaring especially at his brother, before meeting James’s gaze again. “You have my number,” he said, running through his memory to see if he had forgotten anything. “And if I can help, let me know. Sherlock is an idiot sometimes, but he’s family.”

James made a wincing face. “I never actually got your number from Kincaid,” he said.

Mycroft huffed and finally spoke up, “Oh, good lord.  Hand over your phone.” James raised an eyebrow at the imperious tone, but for some reason actually obeyed, and Mycroft presumably programmed in some numbers while muttering, “How you lasted in your previous line of work, I’ll never know.”

If anything, James actually looked amused at this point.  While reaching out a hand - seemingly unconsciously - to ruffle Q’s hair, the blue-eyed man said, “I thought the same thing, the first time I had to clean up your mess.”

Pausing, Mycroft put on a truly impressive glare, but at least he didn’t swing his umbrella.  “Touche,” he finally muttered. It seemed some sort of weird truce had been reached, and he handed back the mobile.

“All right, well, I suppose it’s time I earned my keep,” James said, standing.

“You’re not getting paid,” Mycroft apparently couldn’t help but snip back.  

“True, but I do recall a certain someone-” James looked down at Q, smiling in the way that barely moved his mouth but put crows-feet around his eyes.  “-Saying that if he were to go back home with his brothers, he demanded visitation rights. So there’s that.”

Q felt a rush of warmth and safety at the look and he nodded. “I did. And Mycroft, do try and actually be civil this time. It’s not like you to cause a scene.”

He’s the one more likely to cause a scene.”  Mycroft was still watching James closely.

“Well maybe if you both would explain why, I wouldn’t be so confused,” Q grumbled. “Because you clearly don’t trust him, Mycroft. And I do.”

“And here is where I tactfully take my leave,” James decided, foregoing another handshake with Mycroft as he turned to stride away - he turned back after two steps to pet Q’s head again, this time putting it into complete and utter disarray before he beat a quick retreat.  

“Hey!” Q squeaked as he tried to fix his now hopelessly messy hair, but James was already on his way out of the museum. The youngest Holmes turned towards Mycroft, noting the clear look of distrust in his eyes as James disappeared around the corner. “Why do you dislike him so much?”

For a moment, it looked like Mycroft would say something along the lines of “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” but apparently the day had drained some of the stubbornness out of him. Instead, the eldest Holmes boy sighed and replied, “Because as soft and cuddly as you insist on him being, I happen to know that Mr. Bond’s previous employers gave him a very dangerous skillset.”

“So? People can be more than one thing, Mycroft. It’s possible to be dangerous and gentle. Though you usually fall in the category of ‘peevish’ and “unbearably passive aggressive.’” Q glanced around the gallery and nodded to himself. “I suppose now we just have to wait.” Though the thought was repugnant at best to Q - he didn’t want to wait anymore. He wanted to be out there, finding his brother. Working together with James. Away from the pressure and guilt that always came with Mycroft.

For his part, Mycroft just sat down heavily on the bench James had vacated.  “His skillset also includes inveterate lying and a moral compass more busted than Sherlock’s,” he said, but mostly just sounded tired.  

“Okay… but he hasn’t lied to me. And Sootbone didn’t try and eat me, and animals are a really good judge of character. And he’s agreed to help Sherlock, hasn’t he? Why can’t someone use their skills to change? To become better?” Q looked up at his brother with open curiosity and just a little bit of worry. “People can be redeemable.”

Mycroft had closed his eyes somewhere in the middle of Q’s slew of words.  “Firstly, I’d like to point out that you can’t always tell when someone is lying to you,” he said, lifting one finger without opening his eyes.  He’d rocked his head back on his neck like a pigeon contemplating sleep. He dropped his hand to join the other, draped over his umbrella handle as he went on more grudgingly, “But considering that he’s retired, I suppose there’s the remote possibility that he’s not... entirely despicable.”

That was as close as Q was every likely to get to Mycroft accepting James. “Fine then. Let’s go. I can work on tracking James’s progress via traffic and security cameras.”

~^~

Tracking James turned out to be hellishly difficult.  The man seemed to avoid cameras like a cat avoided water, and covered ground like nobody’s business.  He may as well have been teleporting - turning up on one side of London, disappearing entirely, then reappearing in a totally unrelated and distant location.  

“How is he doing this?” Q grumbled into a lukewarm mug of earl grey tea (forgotten and left to cool fifteen minutes earlier when James had finally reappeared). “Perhaps Mycroft was right about some of those skills.”

Most of the time, if James was caught on video footage, it just showed him talking to people - all very benign.  Smiling and charming, he’d chat like he had all day, but then the smile would disappear as soon as the conversation was over.  The change was sudden and unsettling.

At one point, towards the end of the day (after nearly seven hours of Bond seemingly striking up conversations with everyone in all of London), James went off the grid for three hours, starting at just after 9 pm. Q figured at first that James was just vanishing again because he could, but after a solid hour of looking and finding nothing, Q started to feel anxiety and panic worming in his gut. Try as he might, he couldn’t find a single trace of his new friend.   At around 11:30 pm, Mycroft came into his room and noticed, offering, “He’s a grown man, Siger. It’s also late - perhaps he went to sleep.”

“No, no it’s not that. He’s been dodging cameras all day, but I could always find him again.” Q anxiously scanned his screen and tapped his finger against his desk. “He’s properly vanished, and I don’t know how. Or why.” He looked at his brother, very worried now. “You don’t think the same people who took Sherlock got James, do you?”

Unexpectedly, Mycroft’s eyes winged upwards, and then he did something very, very odd by Mycroft standards: he started laughing.  It was just a little gurgle at first, and then it became a choking noise, and before long Mycroft was doubled over with laughter so badly that he had to stagger in and sit on Q’s bed.  Finally he gathered himself enough to say, “My dear, sweet, little brother - if someone has taken Sherlock, I already pity them. But if someone has taken Sherlock and James both somehow, then the kidnappers are already in a very special place in hell.”

Q stared in absolute shock at his older brother. He could count on one hand the number of times Mycroft had genuinely laughed in Q’s lifetime, and now… it was almost unsettling. Like a wildcat eating a piece of lettuce.  “So… James is as destructive as Locky can be?”

Mycroft nearly dissolved into laughter again.  It was possible he was sleep-deprived… “I meant it when I said hiring Bond was like getting a bazooka to do the job of a fly-swatter,” he repeated instead of giving a simple yes or no.  Rubbing away moisture from his eyes, Mycroft did another thing he didn’t usually do, and slouched back on Q’s bed so he could sit with his back against the wall.

It made Q think he was seeing an actor dropping out of a role; Mycroft looked more human and far more his age than he ever had. Biting his lip in thought, Q left his desk and climbed onto the bed next to Mycroft. “You really do care. Don’t you.” He said quietly. “Even when you pretend not to.”

His eyes having drifted closed again, Mycroft slit them open to give Q an affronted glare.  “Of course I do,” he snapped with his typical peevishness. He quickly broke eye-contact, glaring at the far wall and muttering, “It’s not like Father and Mummy have the spare time to worry themselves into a tizzy, so someone must.”

“You don’t have to be a parent just because they travel. You could always try just being our brother,” Q suggested.

Mycroft gave a few rapid blinks, but before he could open his mouth to form a response, Q’s phone rang. Q grabbed it and answered, composing himself as best he could. “Hello?”

James’ voice came through immediately on the other end, “I found your brother.  He’s alive, but you and Mycroft should meet me at St. Bart’s Hospital.” While Q tried to ask what had happened that left Sherlock so injured, James just went on, “I didn’t know how secretive Mycroft wanted to keep this, so I checked him in under my name - so if you ask for James Bond, you’ll get a certain brother you’ve been missing.”

“Will you be there?” Q was already up and pulling his shoes on. “James found Sherlock,” he said to Mycroft before turning his attention back to the call. Instantly he had Mycroft leaning forward, all but pressing his own ear up against the other side of the phone - considering how rarely Mycroft impinged on personal space, this was yet another novel experience for the evening.

The man on the other end of the line made a noise of assent, “I’m sitting with him now.  I’d put him on the phone, but he’s out cold.”

Mycroft heard that last part, and immediately sputtered, “ ‘Out cold’?!  What’s going on and where-?!”

“We’re on our way,” Q interrupted before hanging up and grabbing his coat. “St. Bart’s hospital. He’s checked in under James’s name. Come on. James is there guarding him.”  

“Guarding-?  Why is he guarding him?” Mycroft sputtered back, scrambling to keep up both physically and mentally.  

Leading the way out of his room and down to the garage, Q found himself in the novel position of being the coherent and responsible brother,though his tone was far more patient than Mycroft’s ever was. “Sherlock is unconscious, and I would imagine that he isn’t completely safe yet. So James is making sure he stays safe. Now come on . I can’t drive yet.”

That at least had Mycroft hopping and stumbling his way into shoes and a jacket, and he actually forgot his umbrella entirely - but soon they were in the car, driving towards St. Bart’s.  

~^~

It had been a long day, but satisfying in a way that James hadn’t honestly felt since leaving MI6.  He was hungry, tired, and had possibly pulled something when he’d carried Sherlock out of the drug-den he’d found him in, but he felt… accomplished.  He hadn’t been on a mission in years, but this had sort of been a mission, and it had ended well. Sitting in a rickety little visitors’ chair, James looked over at Q’s older brother Sherlock, hooked up to an IV and various machines to monitor him.  The brother looked as lanky and wild as James remembered, but gaunter, and a lot younger and more fragile while he slept. When James had picked him up, he’d felt terribly breakable.

Not even thirty minutes after the phone call, Q and Mycroft at the room, stopping at the door and staring at Sherlock’s unconscious form. “Is he all right?” Q asked, approaching James. “Is he hurt?”

James got up and looked to Mycroft while gesturing to his seat, because the eldest Holmes boy looked unstable.  Maybe he actually needed that umbrella as a cane - either way, Mycroft managed to tear his eyes away from Sherlock long enough to nod and cross over to the vacated chair.  He scooted it closer to the bed before sitting, but then also looked at James, silently awaiting an answer.

“He’s a bit in a bad way, but the doctor’s say it’s nothing he can’t recover from,” James gave a report with much more promptness than he would have in MI6, keeping it straightforward as he stood by Q, hands in pockets, “He’s definitely going to need rehab of some kind, though.  When I found him, he had a lot in his system. I can take a few guesses at what he was high on, but-”

“It was probably cocaine,” Mycroft said even as he pressed his face into his hands.  He sounded angry but also exhausted.

But Q was shaking his head, frowning. “No, no he couldn’t have gone off just to get high. He wasn’t acting like he did before when he wanted a fix. This can’t be just about drugs. It can’t .”

James dared to reach a hand forward, resting it on Q’s shoulder and giving a squeeze.  He looked between both brothers, though, as he asked, “Has he done this before?” He already knew the answer - he’d seen the signs when he’d first found Sherlock, and when he’d hung around while the doctor’s treated him afterwards.

Sighing deeply, Mycroft nodded into his hands. Q’s eyes were darting between his two brothers and James, looking for something - probably answers. The kid was way too young to be having to deal with this. “But- But in the past he gave me ways to find him. Left me hints or notes or ways to track him. Because he knew I would. This time he just disappeared. He didn’t do this willingly.” Q’s voice was petulant and insistent enough that had he been younger or more frivolous a child, he might have stamped his foot.

Briefly, James considered weaving together a comforting lie… but knowing how quick Q was, the lie would either be swiftly unravelled, or would have to grow to monstrous proportions to withstand the scrutiny.  So James merely rubbed his thumb against the bony shoulder still in his grip, and replied back as calmly as he could, “There wasn’t any evidence to suggest that he was there against his will.”

It took ten seconds. Only ten, for the last shreds of hope to drain from Q’s face and leave him looking stunned and broken. He looked at Sherlock on the bed, unconscious, medicated, and then he looked back to James. “He… he just went to get high? Again?” The boy’s voice, usually confident in an almost bossy way, now truly sounded his age. He sounded young and afraid.

Feeling a bit helpless himself, especially since one glance to the left told him that Mycroft really wasn’t doing much better than his littlest brother, James made a decision to squat down.  He expected his joints to creak, but apparently all of the action of the day had loosened them, and soon he was on Q’s level, looking at his bespectacled face frankly. “Technically, we won’t know everything until your brother wakes up and you ask him yourself.  There could be more.” He didn’t think so, though; in asking around to find Sherlock, he’d learned a lot. The homeless people in the area had seemed to know the middle Holmes brother, and while it had taken a bit for them to share that information, they’d pretty much corroborated what James suspected: that this wasn’t some dramatic kidnapping, or a twisted plot, but instead a simple case of addiction rearing its head.  

Q nodded but didn’t look up, staring instead at his shoes. “Thank you, James,” he whispered. “Thank you for finding him.” When he looked up again at the ex-MI6 agent, James could see tears in Q’s eyes that the boy tried to blink away.

“Q…” James just said the smallest boy’s name sadly, then pulled him in for a hug.  Q froze for a second in the embrace before relaxing and wrapping his arms around James’s neck and hugging back tightly.  James just held him close and murmured into his hair, “Just focus on the fact that he’s back and he’s safe - that’s what you and Mycroft wanted, right?  Nothing’s been done that cannot be fixed.”

“We did. We do. He’s family, and we aren’t giving up on him or leaving him behind. Never ever.” Q buried his face in James’s shoulder and seemed to mould himself to the lines of James’s body.  

Looking over at Mycroft (who had been such a ponce when James had first met him but who now looked so utterly dejected), James wallowed in the wonderfulness of being fearlessly hugged for a few moments before giving the side of Q’s head a nudge with the side of his jaw.  “Q,” he said, deepening his voice soft and secretive, “Don’t look now, but I think your brother Mycroft, daft lump though he is, just might be susceptible to a hug right now.”

Meeting James’s gaze without pulling away too much, Q then glanced at Mycroft. He seemed to study the man for a moment before nodding at James, slipping from James’s arms, and moving towards Mycroft. Q seemed hesitant at first, maybe even unsure, but he slowly wrapped his arms around his brother’s shoulders and hugged him too. It was entirely possible (likely, even) that Mycroft had heard James’ whispers, but he still jumped as if someone had dumped Sootbone on him.  James smiled, though, still resting on his haunches, as Mycroft wrapped an arm around Q just as tentatively.

“You both need more practice at that,” James couldn’t help but tease, breaking the silence.  He jerked a thumb towards the sleeping Sherlock, adding, “Especially since I think this one will need a lot of hugs - half-decent ones, mind you.”

Mycroft’s face had softened a lot while hugging Q, but now twisted up like he’d just bitten a lemon, and Q looked back at James, meeting his gaze steadily before giving him a small, secret, grateful smile.

“And what would you know about hugging?” Mycroft sniffed.  Notably, he hadn’t let go of Q, and if anything hugged him tighter - like some sort of reflexive ‘He’s mine not yours’ gesture.  

James found himself smirking in response, lazily drawling back, “More than you.  I’d be happy to lend out my cat for practice purposes, though.” The comment was worth it to see Mycroft visibly wince and to draw a giggle out of Q.

“Go easy on him, James. He’s still really stuffy sometimes. Most of the time. Well… all the time.” Some of the tension was visibly gone from Q’s small frame as he stood within the circle of his brother’s arms and waited for Sherlock to wake up.

“I’ll go easy on him if you do,” James replied, standing again and heading towards the door.

“Wait- you’re leaving?” Even though he stayed with Mycroft, the way Q was ever so slightly leaning towards James betrayed his worry.

The ex-agent paused.  “Well… I did leave Sootbone back at the hotel, and while she’s a pretty self-sufficient cat, she’s also just about as destructive as I am when left to her own devices,” he said, shrugging.  He saw Mycroft’s mouth betray a quirk that might have been the start of a smile.

“You brought Sootbone? Does she remember me?” The kid’s eyes were bright with excitement now, nearly pushing the worry completely to the side.

“Since I didn’t know how long this would take - the details from Kincaid were pretty sketchy - I figured I couldn’t leave her home alone,” James defended himself, not wanting to admit that he’d missed London.  He ran a hand through his hair to scratch at the back of his neck as he continued, “She’s not actually a good judge of character, and hates Kincaid, so he can’t even watch Skyfall Lodge while I’m gone if she’s there.”

Mycroft made a coughing sort of noise that might have been a laugh, and muttered something down to Q that sounded an awful lot like, “What was that you said about animals being good judges of character?”  His tone was about as playful as James had ever heard it, though.

Q poked Mycroft in the side, just where his ribs must have been ever so slightly ticklish as Mycroft jumped and recoiled, allowing Q to run over to James. “Ignore him. He’s a prat. Can I come with you?”

With a chuckle, James gave Q’s forelock a little tug but replied, “No, Q, I think you need to stay here with your family.  I think I might be here in the city for a bit, though. You know, in case Sherlock makes a run for it again.”

Behind Q, Mycroft raised an eyebrow to indicate what he thought of that excuse, but he showed that he was perhaps a civil man - because he didn’t say anything.  

Q nodded, accepting the answer and seeming to decide on something else. “That gives me more time to ask about what you used to do. Since no one will tell me!” The emphasis on ‘no one’ seemed remarkably pointed towards Mycroft, and Q was already walking over to sit at Sherlock’s bedside and observe him, muttering something under his breath that might have been, “Can’t just be addiction.”

It took a beat for James to realize that he and Mycroft were both sighing and shaking their heads at Q’s mulishness - and they both noticed their synchronized reactions at once, and ended up staring at one another uncomfortably.  Ultimately, Mycroft cleared his throat. “I...uh… think that I might actually know a place that’s looking for a renter. If you tire of a hotel, and if Sherlock…” He clearly didn’t want to talk about the addiction either, and just gestured to the sleeping brother on the bed.  “..Needs finding again.”

There was a moment’s hesitation on James’ part, but then he saw Q’s expression of combined hope and interest. “You might be staying longer?” the kid asked.

Goddamn it ,’ James thought to himself as he stared at Q’s big, expressive eyes.  

Then, surprisingly, Mycroft clinched the deal: “The place I know is owned by an older woman - Hudson is her last name, I think.  Well, she and her husband own it, but he’s a vile sort. I dare say she’d appreciate someone living on one of her floors for rent, if only to hold her husband more accountable.”

James found himself perking up.  “A vile sort, you say?”

Mycroft hummed agreement and nodded, eyes never leaving James’.  “Rather like the sort you used to work around.”

“I’m retired,” James reminded, but could already feel the gears in his head started to turn in old patterns.  

“As you and Siger have both laboriously reminded me,” Mycroft rolled his eyes, but he said nothing more except to add, “I’ll send you her number.  I programmed my number into your phone.”

Q was beaming now, grinning fully at James. “You’re gonna stay ! It’ll be much easier to visit here than running off to Scotland when Mycroft isn’t looking.”

Immediately, Mycroft facepalmed and James tried to backpedal - because he was a loner , goddammit…! Mostly…? And really, Sootbone probably would love someone to play with who was also small enough to sit on and pin down when she wanted scritches…  So instead of denial, what came out of Bond’s mouth was, “So long as this new rental place is within acceptable ‘running away’ distance.”

Mycroft was talking into his hands, sounding martyred.  “It is.”

“Good. Then it’s settled.” Grinning like Sootbone with a slice of ham and clearly very pleased with himself, Q returned his attention to Sherlock.  With nothing better to do with his time, and with an unexpected peace seeming to have settled not only amidst the three Holmes, but between Mycroft and James himself, the ex-MI6 agent decided that maybe Sootbone could wait a bit longer.  He went out and got himself another chair, and the three of them settled in to wait for Sherlock to awaken.