For a time, it’s all blinking lights and chirps, uncomfortable plastic chairs, food in steam trays with thick plastic covers, the smell of reheated grease. Q forgets to shower or change his clothes. When he does, it’s still at the hospital, and he buries everything but the trousers deep in the bin and covers them with paper towels. He doesn’t want the laundry and he doesn’t want the memories. He’s two days into the second set of clothes when Bond wakes up.
He talks to M. “If you let me keep the security clearance, I can still work on contract. Designs.”
It isn’t really a negotiation. If M says no, Q still has funds, and talent like his will always out regardless of circumstances—there are independent operations across the globe that would take him on his own terms and schedule.
Besides, they both know that with or without clearance, Q could find his way back into the system if he wanted to. If he were inclined to turn against his country, it wouldn’t be able to stand against him. A saner government would have shot him in the head long ago. England hired him. So Q’s continued service is a matter of loyalty, just like everything else.
M says, “My wife had breast cancer, you know.”
Q inclines his head. There’s nothing about any of them that he doesn’t know, not really. Sarah Mallory, dead at thirty-seven, and the two years she struggled tooth-and-nail with the disease eating her alive from the inside-out were the two years Mallory spent sitting on the sidelines of his career. Q wonders if he ever held her hand so hard he left bruises. He did that with Bond. This is different, though—their case is different, and he says so.
“Bond’s not dying.”
“I know,” M says, and he approves Q’s request for contract work at his continued security level with a quick scribble of his pen. “That’s why you’re a better man than I am.”
(When Q told him that he was leaving, Tanner nodded. He looked somewhere over Q’s shoulder. “I’m only saying this because it needs saying, but—five years isn’t so long, as far as relationships go. No one would think any less of you if you didn’t stay with him.”
Five years is longer than Q’s parents were married, but his mother still told him, dismissively, that what he had with Bond wouldn’t last, because his lot never made their love stories go on very long. If Bond were a woman, Q would have to be an utter shit to think of leaving, and everyone would think less of him for it.
He doesn’t say that, though, because Tanner, like everyone else, has mostly been kind over the years, or else too busy to care about what other people got up to on their own time. Besides, at four in the morning, when the night is empty enough that Q can hear the faucet dripping in the neighboring flat, he’s thought it himself: Five years isn’t such a long time. Not compared to the rest of your life.)
The rest of his life is what he has to give, though, so he gives it.
I would think less of me.
He says, as he opens the door, “I set all the lights on dimmer switches. And it should be quiet.” He tried to rent out the below-stairs and upstairs flats as well as their own and when that fell through, he paid through the nose for soundproofing insulation packed into every hollow in-between that would take it. The silence it leaves them with makes Q feel like he’s been buried alive in cotton batting, but the tension eases out of Bond’s face for the first time in days as he steps into the tomb Q’s made of their world, so he thinks he can get used to the thick, trapped quality of their newfound quietness.
Bond says, “Thank you,” and Q nods, as if it doesn’t matter much one way or the other, as if he never thought about doing anything else.
Bond pours himself into it with a single-minded intensity that’s more terrifying than it is flattering, as if the scattered shards of his attention will be insufficient to deal with the complexities of Q in front of him if he doesn’t turn himself to burning like sunlight through a magnifying glass. He approaches each encounter like an obstacle to be overcome, each kiss a challenge in which he needs to prove that he’s the same as before. Once, frustrated, Q says, “If you would just relax,” and Bond stiffens, every muscle in his body limned suddenly against his skin.
Q pulls away. “If I can’t even talk to you, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
“I can’t talk,” Bond says, and horrific as it is, it’s true in its way. His words are a slurry, rocky consonants ground down into the same soup as the vowels, and although Q can always understand him—and hates it down to his bones when other people, however well-intentioned, show in their eyes that they can’t—it took days, and was like a bubble popping in his ears. “You know. I can’t think.”
“You can think.” He’s a fool to try to make this argument, as if he can understand at all what it’s like to be in Bond’s head right now, all concentration down to busted rubble and nearly all bridges between short- and long-term memory washed away. He keeps on anyway, because he has to, he’s the self-assigned relief to the disaster inside Bond’s skull. “Anyway, this isn’t a matter of thinking. You’re trying too hard.”
“It’s all I have left,” Bond says. “You are.” He runs his hands down Q’s thighs and kneels between them, his mouth hot, and Q closes his eyes, because this is much simpler than talking or thinking, until it crosses his mind that Bond no longer comes without strings attached, because there’s gratitude between them now as much as there’s love, and he comes with his fingers digging into the back of Bond’s neck, thinking that no, no, he won’t let that be true.
Bond says television gives him a headache, but sometimes Q finds him at it anyway, usually when Q’s been tucked away for the morning in this room of unapologetically bright computer screens. Bond’s eyes are always a little glassy and his hands are always buried knuckle-deep into one of the sofa cushions. Q kisses him to make his mouth soften, at least, and he says, “You don’t have to do that.”
“I can’t make sense of it.”
“Most people can’t make sense of it,” Q says. He examines the cupboards. “Order in tonight?”
“I used to understand,” Bond says, and his voice is so soft it’s like it isn’t there at all. He isn’t talking to Q. He’s remembering a dream he had once, one that he wrote down somewhere, but the paper has been folded so long the creases have worn it into cloth and the rain has streaked the ink and set the letters crooked and elongated past their marks, and it’s Bond’s dream of himself, Bond’s old life with its edges and lights and clearheaded painlessness.
Q sets down the pizzeria menu by the wineglasses on the counter. His vision is blurry. He doesn’t think there’s anything he can say.
It would be easier, he thinks, and not for the first time, if Bond couldn’t remember, or if he were dim-witted now instead of just disorganized, his mind like a toddler’s floor covered in toys that get moved without ever getting picked up or put away. Everything that was, is, it just doesn’t slot into the right places anymore. It would be easier if there were nothing there at all.
But Bond remembers that there used to be cubbyholes for things, or that the assignment of sensation to memory used to be both obvious and automatic, and so he’s in hell, really, and Q’s takeout pizza is far from what he needs. It’s just what he has.
(“You can't think he’d do the same for you,” Q’s mother says. She isn’t trying to hurt him. By her standards, she’s trying to help him, trying to make him see that it’s a fool’s errand to spend his life shackled to Bond as Bond is now. It’s not the sex that makes her uncomfortable, it’s the way, she says, he’s stumbled into obligation through it, which isn’t what he was supposed to, which was supposed to be the benefit of being the way he is. “He likes women too, doesn’t he? Let him find a woman. Someone martyrly. That’s not you.”
Q asks her not to phone him again, tells her he won’t answer if she does, and he hangs up before he realizes he didn’t get to tell her that yes, he does think Bond would do the same for him, actually.
He doesn’t tell her that he found a set of wedding rings in a box shoved into the dustiest back-corner of the closet; he doesn’t say that whatever else Bond is or has been, he’s never been the sort to love only to the halfway point. He almost rings her back for that, but it’s late, and Bond’s inflicting telly on himself again. He has better things to do.)
One day, over breakfast, Bond says, “You should leave me.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Q says crisply. He says everything crisply these days, as if he can starch his words and iron them, fold them with stiff hospital corners, and in so doing, counteract the sluggishness and sloppiness of Bond’s own speech. In his worse moments, he does it on purpose, shaking out brisk syllables; in his better moments, he hates himself the second it’s done. Right now, he’s somewhere in between.
Bond flinches, and Q thinks of apologizing for the stupid, but he refuses to on general principles, because Bond wasn’t stupid before the injury and he’s not stupid after it, either, and he knows that Bond knows what he meant.
He bites into toast. Takes more marmalade. It takes Bond longer to compose whatever it is he wants to say, even if it turns out to just be, “Why not?”
“Because you’d bloody well top yourself the second I was gone,” Q says.
“I could do that anyway.”
“You won’t.” There are few enough things in the world that Q is certain of, but this is one. “Because you know I’d never forgive you for it.”
“I mean,” Bond says, his eyes on the steam rising off his teacup, “you’d do it yourself. If it were you.”
If he had the migraines, if he had the confusion, if he couldn’t watch the news, if he couldn’t work, if he couldn’t straighten the lines of type on the pages of books long enough to read them, if it took him long and dragging moments to clear his way through the brambles to what was supposed to come out of his mouth, if sex were the proving ground that he were still himself, if he were the one taken care of instead of the one taking care—if there are few things in the world Q is certain of, he’s as certain that Bond is right about this as he is that Bond wants to do the same, waits for the excuse for it. As certain as he is that they love each other, despite the shittiness of their situation; as certain as he is that love is only barely enough to save them. He takes a bite of egg.
“You’re not me,” he says finally.
“You mean because you’d have lost more,” Bond says, and he isn’t trying to be a prick—it’s clear from his eyes that he really thinks that, that the blow that made his world both flatter and more jagged was sad for him but would be a tragedy for Q, just because Q’s life has always been so much more locked inside his own head.
“I mean because I’m not as good as you,” Q says. “Because you won’t do it while I’m here, and I would. I would do that to you. If I were desperate.”
People act sometimes like he’s a saint for staying; no one ever acts like Bond is. But if their situation turned like a wheel and left Q in his place, he would have done it long ago. He would have left a note saying that he couldn’t live this way and he wouldn’t have thought too much about it. Bond knew, after all, how to bury the people that he loved. There’s a difference in their degrees of selfishness, Q thinks, and he lets the egg yolk dry on the plates and the tines of their forks as he tries to prove that his love for Bond means something all the same, even if he knows the limits to it. There are limits to everything. He’s certain of that, too.
“I’m not desperate,” Bond says a few days later. He pronounces it carefully, each letter rigidly straight in his mouth, as if in imitation of Q’s voice.
“Good,” Q says. He flicks the polishing rag over the countertop and then abandons it. They ought to get a housekeeper in; they both like things clean but neither one of them enjoys scrubbing, though Bond has what amounts to almost a fetish for dishwashing. “Desperation’s boring, anyhow.” There’s a fleck of dried something-or-other there that he scrapes at with his fingernail.
Bond steals the rag from his hand and does it himself and there it is, spot there, spot gone, in seconds.
“Is that supposed to impress me?” He knows at once that it’s a shitty thing to say, if only because Bond used to impress him on a daily or hourly basis, if only because what Bond did five years ago in Paris, with the box of dried pasta and the ballpoint pen, made Q breathe, “Fuck me, that’s hot” into the microphone, and that was how they ended up together—of such inauspicious beginnings are dynasties born, etc. Lately Bond impresses him in far more mundane ways. He’s still alive. He’s still himself. He’s still there.
But Bond says, “Actually, yes,” and he wraps the cloth almost idly around his hand and Q looks at him. It’s the first time in months that he’s seemed so comfortable in his own skin. He smiles at Q and quirks his eyebrows upwards and something in Q eases, becomes less desperate. And incredibly turned-on; impressed.
He thinks that he understands. Bond is Bond. He can live with being fucked-up in the head but he can’t live with being a burden. He can be anything but that.
So when Q told him how it would have been if their positions had been reversed, Bond didn’t hear that Q was selfish or not, at least, very brave, very capable of handling change.
Whatever Q had said, Bond had bitten into the sweet flesh around the bitter core of that apple, and what he knows now is that Q loves him and can’t stand to lose him, that each day he stays is a better day, a day in which he is, to wit, impressive. That’s the truth, too. It’s just that it’s a lover’s truth. Q, who sees himself more clearly, thinks that he knows better.
Things in bed improve. Gratitude that goes both ways is no different than mutual appreciation, and Q is exquisitely grateful that Bond doesn’t ever say, You love me less than I love you, because it would kill him, and anyway, it isn’t exactly true. It’s just a matter of differing pressure points.
He says to Bond, “I can’t stand losing things, you know.”
Bond kisses his jawline. “I know. Don’t worry.”
Bond has a history of loss—his parents, Vesper, his home, M, his life (almost) several times over—and Q has a history of dodging it. Bond is one of the things he intends to keep. Between the two of them, they can probably work out some sort of reasonable loss-gain balance, or so Q likes to think.
Bond gives up on telly altogether, but he buys newspapers. “Those are going out-of-print,” Q says, shoving them out of this place at the table almost gingerly, disliking the inky smudges they leave on his hands. “Everyone reads things online these days.” But Bond hates the glare of the screen, and when Q tries to present him with a Kindle and e-ink, he looks at it with such subliminal disgust that Q finally takes it away. So they become the only couple on their block who gets newspapers delivered, and Q knows that Bond’s getting better at putting the stories together the night he comes to bed grinning, and transfers newsprint from his fingertips to Q’s skin. So Q grows not to mind the papers, after all, though he draws a line at leaving the old ones stacked in the corner.
“They’ll put us on Hoarders,” he says. “No more than a week’s backup. This, 007, is what’s called a compromise.” Or a reasonable loss-gain balance. Bond keeps his newspapers, Q loses—or tries to lose—his fear of silverfish.
Though it isn’t all better, all the time. There are still times when Bond’s tongue tangles itself into a knot and the speech delay makes someone, if they’re out, roll their eyes. It happens in a restaurant once and Q balls up a napkin in his fist to keep from hitting their smug twat of a waiter.
The punching bag that they bought new six months ago is now well worked-over and beaten into pliability. Bond’s supposed to have trouble managing his anger now, but he manages his lack of management, and Q knows why—he knows that he’s a constant reminder of what could be broken if Bond loses his temper. He doesn’t ask questions. When Bond’s knuckles are split and bleeding, he bandages them.
Still, Bond’s memory improves, and so does his sense of connections. It becomes a game of sometimes-always, as Q thinks of it, in that Bond will sometimes still use Q’s soap in the shower instead of his own (though at least once this was intentional—he could tell by the smirk), or sometimes scorch the kettle, or sometimes fail to solve the puzzles he picks up from the doctor. And then sometimes no one would ever know there was anything ever wrong with him. But there will always be a sometimes, there will always be a faltering moment, when it’s clear he’s forgotten what they were talking about, when he stares at a shirt as if he can’t remember how to fold it—and then it will come back to him. Slowly. Eventually.
But if there will always be a sometimes, the sometimes is only sometimes what Q thinks of when he looks at Bond, and on the timeline of their lives, that sometimes begins to fall to never.
Honestly, he spends more time thinking about the silverfish issue than anything else.
It’s their ten-year. Q is not in the habit of paying attention to anniversaries, but ten years has weight to it and seems to matter, so he buys champagne and, feeling a bit silly about it, roses. Bond is sentimental enough that he’ll like them, though he won’t want to admit it, and Q’s looking forward to a whole evening of watching Bond surreptitiously appreciate flowers. He opens their door and smells dinner—something with chicken—and he comes into the kitchen bearing his gifts.
Bond’s back’s to him, and he has a light grip on a long-handled spoon, and there’s one of their cleaner dishrags tucked into the waist of his trousers. A joke about how well Bond has taken to retirement comes to Q’s lips, because honestly, who would have thought to have James Bond in their kitchen cooking dinner, stirring some sort of sauce? The inevitability of time, Q thinks, and for a second something catches in his throat, because it occurs to him that what one does with time isn’t inevitable at all, and he almost went another way and didn’t have this, didn’t have Bond, let alone for ten years. Five years wasn’t such a long time and ten years is nothing, Q wants more time, is greedy for it.
He puts the roses and the champagne down on the table.
“I’m home,” he says, and it’s both the most necessary and the most unnecessary thing he’s ever said, because he was only gone about twenty minutes, and anyway, Bond’s certainly heard him by now. But he wants to say it: I’m home.