“You are completely wrong, you know.” There is lint on her skirt, and no amount of brushing will remove it. She picks at it, fingers worrying out each offending bit before smoothing the material, fingers ferreting out each wrinkle.
She doesn’t meet his eyes, just glances at him briefly, a flick over purple and green mottled flesh, a quick skittering past a shaking hand trying to hold a spoon in front of his split lips. He is far too colourful and in the wrong shades. There is something that aches in between her breaths that she cannot name when she looks at him. It’s etched along her bones and has settled deep, somewhere in between the joints on each of her fingers. It burns her lips and deadens her tongue.
She hears (doesn’t look, too painful, too painful, not yet) him set the spoon down, the tap-tap as he tries to force his hand to work the way he wants it to. It sounds like heels running across tiled floor, like distant clicking over a silent phone line.
Her hem has gotten frayed.
“What am I wrong about?”
Her teeth are sharp on her frozen tongue, angry, frenzied. She chokes on the words while tugging at loose strings, wrapping one bit of thread around and around her finger until the flesh turns red. “You’re just wrong. You don’t—you can’t.”
The thread snaps under her insistent tugging. “You are. About everything. Why would you even say that you have written me poetry? You haven’t.”
“No, you’ve written other people’s words down and given them to me, but you said it like you had written your own poetry. You gave me e. e. cummings. ”
“Mmm… I didn’t realize you felt so hateful about him.”
“You made it sound like you wrote me sonnets.”
“I could. I could write you a poem about your love affair with the hem of your skirt. ”
“There once was a girl with a wrinkled skirt.”
“I admit it could use a bit of polish. I never could tell which words were stressed or unstressed.”
“I think you’ll find some things are always stressed.” The skirt is ruined, too many wrinkles and smudges; the cloth is worn too thin in places.
He dangles his hand just off the side of the bed, knuckles knobby and white like tiny little eggs, unbroken, unlike the rest of him. Tangling his fingers in her own, he calms her picking. The sight of his hand, pale and thinly perfect, burns her. It is the only part of him the right colour, the right shape. Did he fight back? Did he for one moment try to keep himself alive or did he envision himself a martyr from the beginning? Was he to be the beautifully tragic figure covered in blood, taking each strike and blow meant for another? Did he believe he was meant to die that night?
And what does a martyr do when he actually lives through it all?
She forcibly removes her hand from his and nearly runs from the room.
Two months. She doesn’t ring him, doesn’t drop by his flat. He makes no attempt to come to the office or to contact her. She looks for signs of him: scrawled chicken-scratch critiquing news articles left on her desk, the faint wisp of his brand of cigarette, the sound of his heel drumming on the floor as he bounces his knee while reading. But there is no sign of him and each time she places her hand on her phone, she freezes, inexplicably horrified at what might come next.
She knows that he is no longer curled up in some ugly little room in hospital from the sheer amount of noise she has heard from everyone else on the subject. Sissy flits from her desk to Bel’s office, a colourful little songbird tweeting facts and figures.
“I heard him thumping about up there. It’s strangest thing. I would have thought he’d be back by now. Not to say he isn’t entitled to a little time off. Ola has popped up there a few times just to check on him. Mr. Lyon looked just dreadful when he first came home. Of course, I don’t have to tell you that, you saw him. But Ola says he looks much better now, though he is still moving slowly. I thought about bringing him something up for supper because I don’t think he has been eating much…”
Bel lets the words fall away, lets them become a wave of sound. She is not furious now, but there is a quiet terror that lingers in her spine, that forces shoulders to curve inwards, protective of something deep inside her. It seems selfish because, if anything, Freddie is a reflection of her; just as driven, just as married to the work. But there is a part of him that she cannot fathom, cannot touch. It is not darkness, but something too bright to look at, too fierce and pure in a way she is now certain that she is not.
Brave. Foolhardy. Stupid.
And somewhere in all that, there is a silent worry that, while that brightness in Freddie hasn’t been taken away, it has been dimmed, the beautiful thing within him cracked.
She doesn’t hear Sissy leave, doesn’t notice the click of her door being shut, doesn’t notice Lix until she hears the snap of a cigarette case.
“You are being a silly little girl.” Blasé, precise, matter-of-fact.
“I don’t have time.” She bites off the word ‘time’, lets the sharp ‘t’ cut through the air.
“Make the time. You know he’s barely left his room since he came home. Skinny thing is just sitting around, staring at his typewriter and occasionally muttering to himself.”
“I fail to see how that is different from what he usually does.” She slides past Lix, grabbing an armful of papers and tucks them close to her chest. Strange how these days she feels like she needs another layer of armour in order to interact with the world. “Are you coming to the meeting?”
Lix folds and unfolds her glasses, hands fidgeting as she looks out the window. “Mm…yes. Let me just finish this.” She takes one long pull from her cigarette and licks her lips. “Bel?”
“I won’t pretend that things will be perfect. You’ll hate him as often as you love him. Sometimes you won’t be able to stand the sight of him. But do us all a favour: Be young. Be foolish. No regrets, darling.” With a jerk of her wrist, Lix stubs the cigarette out before rushing out the door, leaving Bel standing with nothing but the taste of ash and smoke in her mouth.
It is far too late by the time she leaves the office. His absence is a constant in her life now. She wonders at the way he can so easily fit into her life, can be so integral to every aspect of her being, without even being aware of it. The lack of him lingers like smoke, lurking in doorways and behind desks. She expects to feel his thin fingers wrapping around her wrist every time she turns away from someone to begin working on something else, to pull her attention.
She finds him hunched on her doorstep, face obscured by his ridiculous hair. The light peeking out of the windows on the stoop casts him in gold, a tragic writer gripping ink-faded pages, making him look too close to a tired hero for her liking. He doesn’t speak until the tips of her shoes come to rest a breath away from his and then he looks at her properly, eyes searching every bit of her face. She bites her lip but refuses to look away and manages to conduct her own inventory. She isn’t sure if it hurts more now that his face is no longer swollen and distorted or not. His face mostly looks as she expects it to be, though an angry scar lingers above one brow and a tiredness pinches at the corners of his eyes. When he takes a deep breath just before speaking, his fingers shaking while holding a small bit of paper, she straightens her spine and drops her arms to her sides. She hates (loves) him in that moment.
“We--you and I-- forever caught in orbit. Paths that we tread well-worn but never together. I always following and you distant and impossible to catch.” He folds the tissue-thin paper and tucks it into his breast pocket. He sighs and waves a careless hand through the air. “You were right. I am an absolute shit poet. I have no way with the measure of prose.”
“No. It was-um-it was good.”
“Well, it isn’t e.e. cummings.”
“Few things are.”
Her laugh explodes out of her, a chuckle edged in water and surprise. “Poor Freddie. Heart of a poet but the tongue of a journalist.”
“And the brain of a fool.”
“Madman, I should think.”
“I sound a bit like Frankenstein’s creature.” He smiles, soft, tentative.
“A bit, yes.”
The silence stretches, wires in their communication taut and tangled.
“You’re angry with me,” he says.
“Yes. No.” She shakes her head. “I don’t know what I’m doing now.”
He stands, a slight hitch in his usual grace hinting at injuries that may never heal. There is a way he leans in close, she thinks, that should be stifling, but isn’t. “I kissed you.”
“You remember it?” She stares at his neck, at the bit of stubble along his jawline, where rough and smooth lines meet.
“I do.” He is close enough now that she can smell the bite of his soap, the spice of his cologne. Gently, he pulls her hand from where it hangs limply at her side and rests it on his stomach, just below his rib cage. “The first time I wasn’t expecting it. Hard, right here.” He pushes her hand against his stomach; through his shirt, she can feel the heat of his skin, the slight give to him. The hard lines that make up Freddie are not to be found in this small patch of skin. She imagines the blow that hit him there, the way the flesh gave and bruised, the way the wind jerked out of him. “The next was higher up.” A gentle tug and her hand rests against his breastbone. Even through the silk of his tie, she can feel the steady thump of him living and breathing.
“Did you try to run?”
“Yes, once. But that’s not the question you want to ask. Your interviewing skills need work. You want to know if I fought back.”
“No, I want to know why you didn’t.”
“I did. In the way that I know how.” He tugs on his ear and now he is the one that cannot make eye contact. “I’m not a soldier, Moneypenny. I would have thought you of all people would know that.”
“I do. Christ. I do. I just want you to promise me that you won’t do this again. That you won’t go running off as if your life means so little.”
“It’s not that it means so little. It means other things are so much more important.”
And there it is, laid out for her so plainly. The story will always be the most important thing in his life, much like the news will always be hers. They are in an impossible relationship with so little room for each other because they have so little room for themselves in their own lives. But she still wants it, is still desperate and hungry for it because he will be the only one who will ever understand it. Because he is the one who can take something so convoluted and make it so simple. With just a bare breath separating them, she finds herself intensely lonesome for him, as if the shortened distance between them has magnified everything, until it beats between them, a pure crystallized litany of perfect affirmation.
She chases the impossible in between breaths, pries it out with fingers under his waistcoat, and tastes it paired perfectly with cheap coffee on his tongue. They stumble, her keeping him upright when she is so used to him being the one so steady. She feels the sharp line of bones under her fingertips. When his fingers tangle in her coat, his hands shake and tug at her until she gasps and pulls him inside her building. This is the first time when she feels like she is the one leading, the one that knows what comes next. The crackle-click of his knee and the harsh inhale as he climbs the stairs causes her to gentle her grip on his coat; she slips her hand down his arm and cradles his now seemingly thin and fragile elbow.
“I think we have established that I am not made of glass, Moneypenny. Just breakable bone and skin that bruises a bit too easily.” There is weakness, hurt, and naked, weakened ego in his stance.
She says nothing, matching his shame with her own.
The door sticks and, in her haste, she slams her palm against it; the weight of Freddie against her back follows her, pinning her between him and the door. As if to make up for his apparent fragility, his hands are suddenly clever little things, tugging at her buttons and pulling up her blouse. He mouths at the back of her neck, mumbling silent words into her nape.
The door finally gives and they tumble into her darkened flat. She turns only long enough to shut the door and then, stumbling, pulls them towards her bed. They shed layers covering each of them, exposing skin and thoughts, skimming over hurt feelings and brushing past bruises. He pushes hard and insistent at her, ego and frustration colouring his actions, until her fingers tangle into the riot of his hair. They stare at one another, lips wet and swollen. He flinches at the sharp tug she gives him and then goes still as she brushes her lips once, twice, over the scar on his forehead.
“Please.” She kisses him again, fingers easing into a caress across his nape. “Please.”
He closes his eyes and nods. When he is pliant under her hands, she settles down on top of him. She follows the road of his veins, getting lost in the branches and forks, tongue tripping and seeking the madness hidden within the crook of his hip, and when she finds it there, some wild thing within her howls. He jerks underneath her; his surprise caught and tangled somewhere in a maze of laughter, hiccups, and sobs.
In between quiet gasps and whispered silences, she writes poetry on his skin; a rhyme for the gentle violin curve of his spine; a couplet about each rib and the dips in between; half-finished thoughts punctuated with sharp dashes for each new scar she finds. She tastes each line of him until he tenses under her fingers and tongue and he spills a ghazal of longing and sound into the air, punctuating it with the parenthetic arch of his back.
She leans her head against his thigh and watches his chest slowly ease its panicked race. His hand, finally steady, comes to rest on top of her head.
“Why haven’t you come back to work?”
“I should have known you wouldn’t be the type for pillow talk,” he laughs.
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“Why did it take you so long to come and ask me it?”
She kisses him on the crest of his hip before settling next to him. Pressing her chest against his side, she hides her head under his chin.
“I was angry and afraid. Embarrassed.”
“Embarrassed?” He tries to look at her, but she tucks her body in closer to him.
“You are always so certain of everything. You never doubt; you just know. You kissed me and said it was perfectly possible, as if the two of us being together was always going to be the outcome. You pursue things so honestly, so purely, and I am not that way. I don’t know how to be that way. I barely keep my head afloat most days.”
“I have doubts.”
“I should think it obvious at this point.” He rubs a fretful circle on her arm. “I was fairly certain I was going to die.”
It is her turn to flinch.
“And in that moment I saw the true measure of myself. Of other people. This world is full of such hatred. Such vileness and we keep fighting it, but it seems to matter little. We are being crushed under the boot of all the men like Cilenti and the world keeps going on, noticing nothing of what is happening past their front door.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Don’t I? What good did all of that do in the end? People died and bad men were hauled away, but more took their place.”
“Then we expose them, too.”
“And the ones that replace them?”
She sits up, a sudden anger taking her. “Yes. And the ones after that. We don’t give up. You don’t give up.”
“Sounds exhausting. And what happens the next time I am beaten black and blue and dumped somewhere?”
“I’ll be there. Just as bloody. Just as black and blue.”
He presses his lips together into a thin angry line. “No. Unacceptable.”
“No?” She laughs, incredulity painted clear on her face. “Then you better be there to stop me. I am not going to let you sit around in your flat, playing at being a ghost.”
“You don’t get to give up. Not now. Not ever. We are going to keep fighting and we will make a difference.”
“Now who is being the ridiculous romantic?”
“I don’t care. Fine, I’ll be the hopeless sap. You can be exhausted, you can be weary, but you don’t get to give up. You are Freddie Lyon and you are the heart of our show. And you... you give me courage. So, you need to be there to drive me absolutely mad, to push me and push me, and to run ahead while we both try to keep each other safe. And when one of us falls, we both do and then we pick each other back up and we do it again.” She wipes at frustrated tears, both furious at him and terrified for him. He looks at her the way Lix does when everyone has gone home for the day and all that she has to look forward to is a cigarette, a typewriter, and shot of whiskey: heartbroken and jaded. Bitter. It sits alien on his face.
“Not quite the vision of our future that I had hoped for.”
She smiles, grimness fighting with hope. “But we will still be ecstatic.”