It’s several weeks later and Bond is sitting in a terminal in Cairo when he discovers he can’t connect to Q. He taps at the earpiece a few times, but gets no response. It is the same with his mobile. After fifteen minutes of radio silence, he gives it up as a bad job and calls Eve, because if anyone knows what’s going on, it’s her.
“Eve,” Bond says, when she answers.
“Bond,” she replies. Her voice is somewhat strained.
“What’s happened?” Bond asks, and when she doesn’t answer right away, he asks: “Is this line secure?”
“The line is secure,” she confirmed. “There’s been trouble in the Middle East.”
“When is there not trouble in the Middle East?”
“We’ve lost three agents.”
Bond is silent.
“MIA?” he asks.
“Confirmed dead,” Eve replies. “The bastards made sure to record it.”
“Have we been compromised?” Bond asks.
“Negative,” she says, then sighs. “But it’s a nightmare. Mallory is working to get this covered up before the press gets hold of it.”
Bond makes a noncommittal sound. He wants to ask about Q, but knows he shouldn’t, so he lets her talk for a bit before ringing off. He stares at the mobile in his hands. Three agents dead. The Middle East. Most likely a small op, probably monitored by Q-Branch or its subdivision TSS. It would have gotten to Q by now, if he had not been directly involved, and that means that he is most likely working with Mallory and other department heads on the issue.
Trying not to worry, Bond pockets the phone and waits for boarding to begin.
When he sees Q hours later, it’s not the man who has been waiting for him at the gate these past few months. This Q is pale and hollow-eyed and his lips are pinched in a way that tells Bond the situation is worse than he thought.
“Q,” Bond says, but Q looks right through him.
“I killed three people today,” Q tells him. Bond’s throat tightens at the flatness of his voice, the unblinking stare, and he wants to touch Q but doesn’t know if he should. Q makes the decision for him and leans forward until his forehead presses against Bond’s chest. “I made a mistake and I killed three good people.”
Bond drops his bag and puts both arms round Q.
The other man is almost as tall as him, but in that moment, he feels very small. It’s not right Bond thinks. He is but a shadow of the man Bond met in the National Gallery, who Bond had considered too young and naive and optimistic; someone who had probably never seen anyone die before, had most likely never been the cause of it. And then, M, Silva, hundreds of other innocents, now, their own people.
Bond wonders just how much more Q can take before the light is gone from his eyes.
Bond keeps his arm round Q as they make their way toward the garage from baggage claim. Q walks beside him in a daze with which Bond is all-too familiar, knowing intimately the numbness that can be overwhelming after a particularly difficult assignment. Despite his first hand knowledge, Bond does not know what to do, because he is well aware that everyone deals with it differently. For Bond, sometimes it is drink, other times, sex, but there are also the times when he can’t do anything but sit and stare and wish for sleep that won’t come. Or sleep and fall prey to the nightmares. He gently squeezes Q’s shoulder, but the other man makes no recognition of it.
When they arrive at the garage, Bond fishes around in the pockets of Q’s anorak until he finds the keys. He honks the car horn a few times to find it, and discovers the blue compact wedged in a spot that is designated for motorbikes. Bond unlocks the door and helps Q into the passenger seat, then walks round to the driver’s side. Once he is behind the wheel, Bond sees that the console ashtray is filled with cigarette butts; the car is saturated with the scent of smoke and tobacco.
“Q…” Bond says.
Beside him, Q is mute, his expression vacant.
On the journey, Bond tries several times to get Q to respond to him, but he can’t coax a peep out of the other man, let alone his address. With no other recourse, Bond makes for his flat, parks the small vehicle round the block from his building, and then leads Q by the hand. It’s drizzling, so Bond pulls up the hood of Q’s parka so he doesn’t get wet; Q doesn’t seem to notice, but the hand in his offers a small squeeze that Bond takes as recognition.
When they arrive upstairs, Bond removes his jacket, then Q’s, and hangs both damp garments up to dry. Q allows Bond to take his bag and shoes, permits him to lead on toward the bedroom, where he sits on the end of the bed. Bond can’t help but think he looks like a lost child.
“Do you want a shower?” Bond asks, but Q is focussed on some point on the wall and doesn’t answer. Bond uses the silence to search his wardrobe for something that Q can wear. He finds a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of track bottoms that might fit and puts them on the bed next to Q. The other man is still staring at a place beyond Bond’s left elbow. He’s not blinking, just staring like he can’t look away, like everything will fall apart if he does. It reminds Bond of that night with Vesper, when all her logic and intelligence and life gave way to numbness in the face of death. But where Vesper had never been tainted by such a thing, Q has. He’s pushed buttons that have killed people before--bad people, innocent people--but never their people, their agents, the ones that Q will stay on the line for, even when he’s off the clock, because he cares too much. Before he can think of what he’s doing, Bond touches Q’s hair, lets his fingers smooth down the side of his cheek. His skin is soft and warm. Q leans into his hand and closes his eyes.
“I can’t feel anything,” Q says.
“It’s the shock,” Bond replies. “It will wear off soon.”
Q opens his eyes and looks at Bond. There is so much vulnerability in his expression that Bond almost forgets how to breathe.
“And when it goes away?” Q asks.
“You’ll feel everything,” Bond says.
Q drops his gaze to his lap, but he raises his hand to cover Bond’s before he can pull away. He presses his cheek against Bond’s palm, like Bond’s touch is the only thing keeping him there. Bond remembers a similar night when he had been on the cusp of disappearing, when the only thing preventing that were the hands on him, the press of lips to his forehead, the warm body next to his.
It is then that Bond knows what Q needs.
Bond is more gentle than he has ever been in his life, even more so than the last time he dismantled a landmine, than all the times he had been faced with bombs that had pressure-sensitive triggers. He keeps his touch as soft as he begins to disrobe Q. The buttons of his shirt part and the fabric falls away from his slight shoulders, his sharp collarbones. Q has a neck as long and pale as a swan’s, and Bond wants but doesn’t take. Instead, he helps Q into the oversized shirt and has him lie back in bed. When Bond goes for the flies of his trousers, Q raises himself up and tries to kiss him, but his eyes are still far away, removing all possibility of consent. Despite his own selfish desires, Bond pulls back.
“You don’t want to,” Bond says.
“I do,” Q replies.
“I know, but not right now,” Bond tells him, and Q turns his face away. He lets Bond take his glasses and put them on the bedside, then allows Bond to get him into track bottoms and cover him up with the blankets. Bond touches his hair and Q closes his eyes again.
“I just don’t want to be alone,” Q says.
“You’re not alone,” Bond promises, sitting on the edge of the bed. Q shivers under the blankets, under his hand, until Bond kicks off his shoes, removes his belt and braces, and gets under the duvet with him. Immediately, Q slides close to him so that they are touching stomach-to-stomach, hip-to-hip. Then he curls up against him and rests his head on Bond’s shoulder. His cheek is fever warm against Bond’s skin. Bond moves his arm round Q, encompassing him until he can feel every breath, every flutter of his eyelashes. He smells like salt and rain and cigarettes.
Bond feels very protective in that moment, because for the first time their roles are reversed. Q is the one Bond has come to in moments like these because Q is always the one in control, who acts as Bond’s anchor, who stays on the comms even after he’s gone home, who always takes care of Bond and never asks anything in return, who looks at Bond with longing but never acts on his desire. Q might be his truest friend in all the world and yet, it’s not enough, not like this. Bond hates himself for wanting him--for wanting more of him--after Q has already give him so much, but even more so because he knows that he has a track record of breaking beautiful things. I would destroy you Bond thinks, and it hurts because he knows that Q would willingly give himself up to that fate, even knowing it would undoubtedly end in heartbreak.
“Does it get easier?” Q asks.
It is then that Bond sees the depths of Q’s selflessness; while Bond is thinking about Q, Q is thinking about those agents. He is probably seeing their deaths behind his eyes, hearing their screams in the quiet room, and Bond is ashamed of himself.
“No,” he says honestly, because if he knows one thing, it is that Q does not deserve a lie.
But the moment the single word leaves his lips, something damp and hot bleeds through the fabric of Bond’s shirt, and Q’s breath is nothing short of trembling when he says:
“I didn’t think so.”
When Bond wakes the next morning, Q is still in bed with him. His cheeks are tearstained and flushed sickly with fever, his lashes long and dark against the pink hue. He looks exhausted, even asleep, and Bond doesn’t have the heart to rouse him. But the moment Bond shifts and the bed moves, Q’s eyes open. For a moment, there is nothing behind them, just a dark, endless green. And then awareness comes, followed by pain, and Q closes his eyes with a sharp intake of breath. When he opens them again, his expression is guarded, and Bond feels like he is lying next to a stranger.
“Q,” Bond says and the other man turns away from him. A moment later, he is up and out of bed, glasses on, gathering up his clothes from where Bond had left them the previous evening.
“I shouldn’t have stayed,” Q says, as he disappears into the bathroom.
Bond gets up and puts on his dressing gown, listening to the sound of the tap turning on, then off in the ensuite. Q emerges a few moments later, dressed in yesterday’s wrinkled clothes. He scrubbed his face, but he still looks unwell.
“You don’t have to go,” Bond tells him.
“I do,” Q says, and hurriedly pushes past him out of the bedroom. Bond follows him to the door, where Q is shrugging into his coat. He’s so small and tired that Bond wants nothing more than to take him back to the safe confines of his sheets, but it’s inappropriate. Instead, he says:
“Don’t blame yourself, Q.”
Q puts his back to Bond and aggressively pulls the strap of his satchel over his shoulder.
“It’s my fault,” he answers.
“We know the risks,” Bond says. “All agents do.”
“But it’s my job to minimise those risks,” Q answers.
“There’s only so much you can do. You’re not God,” Bond says.
“They trusted me,” Q snaps, and his voice breaks a bit at the end. “And now they’re dead.” He shoves his feet viciously into his shoes. Then he stands in front of the door and stares at it for a long time without speaking. There are no words, just their breaths and heavy silence and Q looking at the door like he wants to leave but doesn’t know how.
“Three agents dead and all I can keep thinking is what if it was you,” Q says, voice heavy with guilt and pain.
“It’d be a relief. For everyone,” Bond replies, before he can stop himself, because it’s true, and everyone else but Q can see that.
The moment the words leave his lips, Bond knows that it shouldn’t surprise him that Q is angry, so angry that he turns and comes at him to lay a blow across his face. What does surprise him is the force of it, because Q is so slight that one wouldn’t think he had it in him to make a Double-Oh stagger. Bond looks at the other man, cheek burning where he had been struck; Q’s expression is twisted into something so anguished and infuriated and heartbroken that it steals Bond’s breath away.
“If that’s how you feel, then don’t you dare show your goddamn face in my department ever again,” Q says, his tone as harsh as acid, as his ultimatum. He doesn’t give Bond a chance to reply and storms out of the flat in a rage, slamming the door behind him. Something in Bond’s mind tells him that he should go after Q, but a more logical part of him says to wait. He’s never seen Q like this before, but he can tell that there will be no reasoning with him at this juncture.
So Bond is left standing there, alone in his dressing gown, feet bare and cold on the hardwood floor. He rubs at his cheek, where the stinging flesh his hot beneath his palm. It’s a bit fucked up, but Bond can’t keep himself from smiling.
He doesn’t think anyone has ever cared about him so much.
Q is brimming with anger; Bond can feel it the moment he steps inside the branch three days later. It crackles in the air like electricity, threatening anyone who comes near. But Bond’s never been one for self-preservation. He goes right up to Q and puts the offering at his right elbow. It’s a cup of Earl Grey, just the way Q likes it. Q pointedly does not look it, or in his direction, just as the minions are pointedly making an effort to not be obvious in their spectatorship.
“I’m sorry,” Bond says, quietly enough for only Q to hear.
“No, you’re not,” Q replies, staring straight ahead at his computer. “You meant exactly what you said.”
“I did,” Bond answers, “but I can still be sorry for that.”
Q types something and then deletes it, jabbing at the backspace key with more force than necessary.
“You think your life is meaningless,” Q says. His hands stop. He looks at Bond with impossibly green eyes. “You’re wrong.”
“Am I?” Bond asks. He realises then that he’s drawn closer to Q, much closer than professionally appropriate.
“You are,” Q says, and his hard expression softens marginally. “Which is why you should leave the thinking to the professionals.”
Bond smirks and Q almost smiles, but doesn’t.
Bond doesn’t know where they stand after everything.
Q still gives him equipment and stays on the comms and sometimes, they play Scrabble together when time allows. And Q still picks him up from the airport and brings him food, but they don’t talk much. Q always stares straight through the windscreen and answers Bond in monosyllables. Their rides are as quiet as they always have been, but now there is something strained in the silence. Bond feels it--the uncomfortable chafe of the unspoken things--and he desperately wants to soothe it in any way he can.
“Q,” Bond says, one night, when they are just pulling up outside of his building. His back his bruised from falling out the back of a truck and rolling down a ravine, but otherwise, he is in one piece and ready to have this conversation. Beside him, Q is stoic and wordless, like stone, like marble. But then Q moves, and his lips part for the first time in a half an hour.
“Bond,” Q replies, not looking at him as he shifts into park.
Bond reaches out and puts his hand on top of Q’s. The other man grips the gear stick tightly beneath his palm.
“You’re angry,” Bond says.
“No,” Q answers, and his hand trembles. Bond caresses it with his thumb.
“Q,” Bond says again.
“Don’t,” Q tells him, but doesn’t try to pull his hand away. Bond takes it gently in his, bringing it to his mouth so that he can kiss the backs of Q’s fingers.
“I really am sorry,” Bond murmurs against his knuckles.
Q turns to him and Bond holds his breath, because the other man is looking at him like he hasn’t looked at him in weeks, touching him like he hasn’t in twice as long. The tips of his fingers touch Bond’s chin, smooth over the stubbled line of his jaw to his right ear, and the brush of Q’s warm skin is electrifying. Bond wants, and when he looks at Q, he sees that same desire reflected in his dark eyes. But then Q swallows and turns away. He takes his hand with him, putting it just out of Bond’s reach on the steering wheel.
“It’s late. You should go,” Q says.
With those few words, Bond understands where they stand. Even if the attraction is mutual, even if they could be so good together, there is nothing Bond can do but respect Q’s choice to not let it go on any further, to remain friends. As much as the regret feels like acid in his throat, Bond accepts it with a mute nod.
And he goes.
Two weeks later, things go tits up in Mumbai and Bond gets the life nearly beaten out of him by the henchmen of the man he was sent to kill. When they’re through, Bond has more broken bones than whole ones and he tastes blood and vomit in his mouth, which is caked with sand. They don’t kill him, but instead, throw him in a box in the ground and then shovel dirt on top of him.
So this is it Bond thinks, as he struggles to breathe through the pain of his injuries, through the thinning supply of air in his makeshift coffin.
“Q…” he says, even though he knows his communicator is lost and crushed to bits above him somewhere. He doesn’t know why, but he says it again and coughs until his vision tips and starts to go black at the edges. Bond wants to say so many things, but he can’t. It wouldn’t matter anyway.
When Bond opens his eyes again, he doesn’t see darkness or smell the dry earth. Instead, he there is the dim glow of hospital lights and the harsh scent of plastic and sterile cleaner. And there’s something else beneath it, something subtle and out of place, but pleasant. It takes Bond entirely too long to recognise it as mint.
With great difficulty, Bond manages to turn his head. He knows the room: Medical at MI6 in London. Home, which is definitely better than dead. The fact that his body doesn’t hurt tells him that he is injured enough to warrant strong pain medication. He should probably be worried about that, but Bond is entirely too focussed on the figure in the chair beside his bed. It is Q, slumped in the seat at an angle that looks uncomfortable. His eyes are closed and his chest rises and falls evenly with sleep. There is a blanket half-draped across him, most likely the work of a night nurse.
Bond watches Q for a long time, drinking in the sight of him greedily, something he does not feel ashamed of after believing he might never see the other man again. He doesn’t know if it’s the light or the drugs or something else, but Bond is almost overwhelmed by the perfection of Q’s lips, the curve of his lashes, the rounded tips of his pale fingers. Selfishly, Bond wonders if things would be different if they did not work for Six, if the something between them could be nurtured; it might mean something more than just looking and wanting but never having. Bond sighs, a weak exhale of air that aggravates his dry throat and makes him cough weakly. Immediately, Q is awake, pouring water generously into a small glass, which he presses to Bond’s lips. Bond drinks without any pretense of politeness. It is only when he drinks his fill that he leans back, and Q does too, setting the cup on the bedside. When Q looks at him, Bond sees that his green eyes are bright, the waterlines red, and Bond knows then that he’s been crying.
“You look like shit,” Q tells him, his voice rough with sleep.
“You look gorgeous,” Bond replies.
Q smiles, but it’s pained, and Bond doesn’t know if it’s him or the drugs, but he would give anything to make that hurt go away. Q hesitates a moment, then leans his head down on the bed and puts his hand over Bond’s. Through the haze of painkiller, Bond feels his warmth, the gentle brush of lips over his knuckles.
“I thought you were dead,” Q says, so quietly that Bond almost doesn’t hear him.
“You know me. Too stubborn to die,” Bond replies, and his tongue feels thick, like he’s trying to speak from underwater.
“You’re an idiot,” Q replies, but there’s no heat to it.
Bond looks at the ceiling and then closes his eyes. He falls back asleep with Q’s damp cheek against his palm.
Bond is in Medical for almost three weeks.
Q does not leave his side.
Bond’s had worse, but he’s still miserable.
He has dozens of lacerations and contusions, a broken nose, several sprained ribs, a fractured wrist, and two shattered fingers on his right hand. His head is sore, like a bruise, and when Bond complains, Q tells him that he is recovering from a concussion and that he’s more than fortunate that it didn’t hemorrhage in his sleep.
“You say fortunate,” Bond grumbles, at the end of his first week. He and Q are playing Scrabble on a traditional board on Bond’s hospital bed tray. It’s the first time that Bond has been able to sit upright on his own, and while it takes him some time to arrange letters on the board because of the cast on his arm, Q is nothing but patient.
“Yes, fortunate,” Q replies, as he straightens one of Bond’s crooked consonants. Bond does not argue.
“Don’t you have work to do?” Bond asks.
“Do you want me gone?” Q asks.
“No,” Bond says.
Q lays out the word stubborn and Bond wants to laugh at the jab, but he can only smile because of his bound ribs. It hurts his face and his healing broken nose, but it’s a smile, nonetheless.
And Q manages to smile too.
The nurses torment Bond.
He wants a shower to wash away the sweat and grit and bits of dried blood still caked in his hair, but they force embarrassing sponge baths on him instead. It’s only when the stitches come out that he will be allowed to have a real bath, and the knowledge that it will be almost another week makes him surly toward anyone and everyone who comes to visit. Moneypenny stopped coming by after he’d snapped at her once, and Tanner only visited twice, for a grand total of about five minutes before he had to dash off somewhere else.
The only constant is Q.
Q is there when Bond wakes up and when he falls asleep. Sometimes, they will be in mid-conversation and Bond will nod off. He’ll feel guilty about it when he comes to, but Q never brings it up, just resumes their conversation where they paused. Bond is grateful for it, so much that even as Medical weans him off pain medication, he can’t be angry with Q, who holds his hand when the agony becomes too much and feeds him ice chips when he’s hurting too badly to do much else but lie there and wish for oblivion. He’s like an angel that way, always sitting vigil, never saying more than what needs to be said, his warm hand acting as anchor and safe harbour. Bond wonders if he leaves, because he never see him go, but Q’s clothes are different every day and his hair has been damp on a few occasions so Bond speculates he must. Though when, Bond cannot say, because more than once, Bond has woken in the middle of the night and found Q at his bedside, typing away quietly on his laptop.
“Do you ever go home?” Bond asks one night. Q’s face is blue in the reflection of his screen, the glare in his glasses bright in the otherwise dark room. He stops typing.
“Sometimes,” Q replies.
“You should sleep,” Bond says.
“I’m alright,” Q answers.
“Q,” he says.
“Bond,” is his reply.
“Why don’t you ever call me James?” Bond asks.
There is silence for a long time, so soothing that Bond feels his eyes falling shut of their own volition. It is only when he is on the edge of sleep that Bond swears he hears Q’s voice, quiet and remorseful in the dark.
“Because you’re not mine.”
In the middle of his second week, the nurses take to forcing Bond up and out of bed to walk about. It hurts his ribs and the bruises on his back, and whenever he puts his right foot out, it pulls at the stitches in his thigh painfully. He hates doing the lap around Medical, clinging to his IV stand in his thin cloth gown. It’s degrading and he feels weaker than a newborn child, but Bond hates it most because Q is there to bear witness to it. The other man doesn’t talk or look at Bond like he’s anything less, but it’s still the worst sort of punishment when Q has to slow his pace once, twice, just so Bond can keep up. He wishes Q would say something, but he never does. He just puts his hand on Bond’s elbow when things get shaky and helps him back into bed when it’s over.
Bond wonders if he does this out of guilt or something else entirely.
“It’s my fault,” Q says, when Bond asks.
“I don’t recall you beating me within an inch of my life and burying me alive,” Bond replies, and Q grits his teeth and looks away.
“I sent you there,” Q says.
“It’s your job,” Bond answers.
“No, it’s my job to bring you home,” Q replies, and shakes his head, “in one piece.”
“You brought me home,” Bond says, and reaches for Q’s hand. “You always do.”
Q doesn’t move for the longest time, then he moves his hand, twines their fingers together, and sighs.
“I just worry about the day I don’t.”
They take his stitches out on a Wednesday and schedule him for release on Thursday.
“I’ll need a ride,” Bond says on Wednesday evening, after the night nurse has left. Q looks up from his tablet with tired eyes and doesn’t smile.
“Okay,” he says.
Bond reaches for his hand, and Q lets him have it.
Bond is released in the afternoon, but it isn’t until evening that he gets home. The entire process from Medical to his flat is an ordeal, one characterised by a shameful wheelchair ride to the parking garage, pouring rain, and endless waiting. Bond has a difficult time managing the stairs up to his building, and both he and Q get soaked on the journey, Q even more so because he leaves Bond with the umbrella as he dashes back to the idling car to park it round the block. When he meets Bond inside, he’s drenched and panting, cheeks red from the cold and exertion, hair clinging to his forehead with moisture. Bond doesn’t think he’s ever seen someone so beautiful, and he’s overwhelmed with the desire to kiss Q, but doesn’t.
Instead, he leans on Q and has the other man help him to the lift and into his flat. He’s been away so long that the place smells stale with disuse.
“You’re soaked,” Q says.
“I’m not the only one,” Bond answers.
“You should have a bath,” Q replies, as if Bond had not spoken, and Bond does not argue.
Q leads him into the bathroom and has him sit down on the toilet lid as he fills the bathtub. The small space fills with the roar of the taps, but it’s nothing quite like Q’s expression when he turns to Bond and begins to undress him. There’s something painfully loud and sad and self-deprecating in his gaze, made all the more stark by the darkness under his eyes.
Bond feels a lump in his throat that makes it hard to breathe, because he’s thinking of the way Q cried for him and would not leave his side. It makes Bond remember how desperately he wanted to kiss Q in the dark interior of the car, the corner of the airport lift, in the corridor downstairs; how much he still wants to kiss Q now. That’s when he knows one night will never be enough, could never be enough, because Bond recognises this feeling--this terrifying, beautiful feeling--and thinks he might actually be in love.
“Bond?” Q asks. Bond looks at him, at his own hands touching Q’s cheeks. There are water stains on his glasses. Behind them, Q’s eyes are dark and deep enough to drown him. Q moves his hands to Bond’s and gently pulls them away. The cool brush of his fingertips over Bond’s cold skin makes gooseflesh rise on his arms; he shivers when a droplet of water falls from Q’s wet hair onto his wrist.
“You should change,” Bond says, voice low. Q stops for just a moment to glance down at himself.
“I’ll be alright,” he says.
“You’ll catch a cold,” Bond tells him.
Q’s expression closes off as he finishes with Bond’s shirt, his belt, his socks. He takes the soaked garments and puts them into a neat pile onto the floor. Then he shuts off the water and helps Bond up. Without any pretense, Q divests him of his trousers and pants, gets him into the tub, and eases him down to sit in the warm bath. It should be embarrassing, but Bond surprisingly feels no shame, much like the last time Q did something similar for him. He wonders at it, at this intimacy between them that has nothing to do with sex. He wonders if Q feels it too.
After the initial sting of the water on his still-healing wounds, the warmth of the bath becomes soothing. The heat of it lulls him into a quiet place in his mind and Bond can’t help but lean back and close his eyes. Next to him, Q shifts and sits down on the bathmat. Bond turns to look at him.
“At least dry your hair,” Bond says, and Q huffs as he gets up to grab towels from the linen closet. He puts one over his head and the rest on the edge of the sink. Then he sits down again and begins rubbing at his hair vigorously. When he’s through, it’s sticking up everywhere and looks a mess, but it’s endearing all the same.
“There,” Q tells him, and drops the towel over his shoulders. He then reaches back and grabs a flannel off the top of the stack.
“You’re still going to catch a cold,” Bond replies, and Q doesn’t say anything, just dips the flannel into the water so that it’s saturated. Then he leans forward and grabs the bar of soap from the dish and lathers up the cloth. There are three nicotine patches on his arm.
“Gave up smoking?” Bond asks.
“For a bit,” Q replies, and gently begins working at the side of Bond’s neck with the flannel. His touch is soft, but his gaze determined.
“You don’t have to,” Bond says.
“You’re still covered in blood,” Q says, and his voice breaks just slightly. Bond looks down at himself in the water, at the black and blue bruises and the puffy, healing ridges where the stitches had been. The blood is everywhere but those tended to areas: caked under his nails, worn hard into the creases of his knees and knuckles. There are dried streaks on his legs where the sponge baths did not quite manage their task, and even when Bond rubs at it with his fingers, it doesn’t wash away.
“I’ve got it,” Q tells him, and makes him lean back once he’s finished with Bond’s shoulders and ribs. The water turns dirty, tinged copper brown as Q washes him with careful, attentive motions.
“Why do you do it?” Bond asks, when the silence becomes too unbearable.
“Do what?” Q asks.
“Everything,” Bond says, suddenly tired. Bond closes his eyes and sighs. Q stops, lets the flannel rest on Bond’s knee.
“I want to,” he says.
“Why?” Bond asks, and opens his eyes to look at Q pleadingly, because he has to know, he just has to. Q regards him for a long while, his eyes dark and tired and as sad as the night he mourned three dead agents, but had been thinking what if it was you.
“I worry about you,” Q says.
“Because I’m an asset?” Bond asks, and the word feels heavy and wrong and poisoned on his tongue.
“No,” Q says, looking away. “It’s because I care about you.”
Bond is silent in the wake of that revelation. Q focusses on the corner of the bath, pointedly the furthest direction from Bond’s face as he continues.
“I just...I see...how they treat you...the other agents… you’re nothing but things to them. You’re not people, you’re numbers and it’s just…” Q stops and breathes like it hurts. “You don’t deserve it, Bond. You, of all people...you don’t deserve it.”
“So it’s pity, then?” Bond asks.
Q laughs, a broken little thing that pulls on Bond’s heartstrings.
“You really are an idiot,” he says, and turns his head. His eyes are still dark and green and slightly damp, but there’s something in that moment that steals away Bond’s already-limited supply of breath. There haven’t been many people who have looked at him that way before, and the few that have are now dead. But Q is very much alive and he is looking at Bond in that way that says so much without saying anything at all. And when his fingertips trace along Bond’s temple to his jaw, Bond swears his world stops because he finally, truly understands.
“Oh,” Bond says.
Q withdraws his hand and takes up the flannel to wring it out.
“So that’s why I’ll always come when you call,” Q says, his voice all business again. “And I’ll come when you don’t. I’ll always be here.”
Bond stares into the water and wishes he would have understood this long ago, at the start of things, because he feels so stupid and wretched for what he’s done; because it’s suddenly perfectly clear that it’s never been lust for Q, not like it’s been for Bond. It’s been love. It’s been pure, unadulterated love all along. It makes Bond want to weep, because all those times he looked at Q--because he was curious, because he was hurting and lonely and needed someone warm in his bed--he had been looking but not seeing. Q had been telling him all along how he felt, with his eyes, always wanting, but never asking, always pulling away when Bond came too close. And why?
Because Q knew that Bond didn’t love him in return. Not like that.
“Don’t,” Q interrupts Bond before he can continue. “You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to apologise. Just be quiet.”
“No,” Q says, and Bond cannot see his face, because the other man has a gentle hand on the back of his neck, forcing him forward so that his head is bowed. “I don’t think I can hear whatever it is you want to say right now. So just be quiet.”
Bond closes his mouth. Warm water cascades onto him, wetting his hair, and then there is the cool lather of shampoo and the heat of Q’s hands massaging lightly at his tender scalp. Bond keeps his head down and let’s Q scrub at him, until all the dirt and blood and sweat is gone and there is nothing but clean, pink skin left behind and a hundred thousand unspoken words on his tongue.
“Will you stay?” Bond asks, once he’s finally in his own bed. His body is heavy with tiredness and he wants nothing more than to sleep, but Bond also knows that if he lets Q walk away now, there might never be another chance.
“I’ll come to check on you tomorrow,” Q says. His clothes are wet;. Bond notices that he won’t sit on the edge of the bed because of them. Or maybe it’s something else entirely.
“But I want you to stay,” Bond says.
“Well you can’t always get what you want,” Q tells him, and smiles just a bit, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.
“Please,” Bond says, because he’s desperate, because he wants Q to understand, but he doesn’t know how.
“I’ll stay until you fall asleep,” Q promises, as he pulls up the duvet.
“Stay until I wake up,” Bond implores, reaching for Q’s hand. It’s cold in his, still slightly damp, but Bond holds on, because he can’t let go, not now. He looks at Q in the half-light and hopes that his eyes can say what his mouth cannot.
Q kneels down next to the bed, until he’s just a shape in the dark beside Bond.
“I don’t think I can. Not this time,” Q says. His fingers are trembling like leaves of grass, like they had been the night in the car when Q had said he wasn’t angry, when he had told Bond without words that they could be nothing more than they were. Bond kisses them in the same manner as that evening, and holds them to his lips.
“Why not?” Bond asks, and Q squeezes his hand.
“Because,” Q says, “I’m not ready to have my heart broken by you.”
The silence falls between them in the dark, to where they are nothing but breath and the single point of warmth where their hands meet. Bond knows that he should say something--anything--but the words are nothing but empty promises, and they die on his tongue.
So when Q pulls away, Bond does the least selfish thing he can.
He lets Q go.
Despite what Q said, he does not come to see Bond, and so he spends the next week recovering alone at home. Someone comes by and drops groceries and other necessities at his doorstep every other day, but by the time Bond gets up and hobbles to the door, the person is already gone.
When Bond can walk without tiring too easily, he calls a car to take him to Six, where he pointedly avoids Medical and goes to see Eve. She is waiting for him when he arrives in her office, and she pours him a cup of coffee before sitting down at her desk.
“It’s nice to see you up and about,” Eve tells him. “After everything.”
“After everything,” Bond scoffs into his coffee.
“You could have died, you know,” Eve says, as if he didn’t know.
“Says the woman who shot me off a moving train,” Bond replies.
“You will never let me live that down, will you?” she asks, round a smile.
“Never. And you should be proud of it. Not many people have the honour of saying that they killed me,” Bond says.
“So sure of yourself,” Eve replies with a smirk, that fades just a bit as she puts her coffee down. “But it is good to see you. We might never have found you, you know.”
“How did you all find me?” Bond asks.
“We didn’t find you,” Eve says. “Q did.”
Bond’s hand shakes slightly, and he puts the coffee down before he spills.
“Oh,” he says, trying for nonchalant.
“Yes,” she replies. “He’s in a bit of trouble for sending in an extraction team without proper protocol, not to mention putting an unauthorised tracker on you, but I think the Board will forgive him, especially since you have a bad habit.”
“Going off the grid.”
Bond looks out the window
“What kind of tracker?” he asks.
“It was in your earpiece. If it was destroyed, it was programmed to send out a burst signal with its last coordinates. Q sent in the team completely blind; he didn’t even wait for ground reconnaissance to clear the area. Luckily, your target had already moved on, so they were in no danger,” she explains, leaning back in her seat. “Despite how reckless it was, he made the right decision. If they would have gotten to you even a few minutes later, you’d probably be dead.”
“And Q?” he asks, voice tight.
“Wrecked. I’ve never seen him like that. He relinquished control to R after they’d found you, but I didn’t see him until after they brought you to Medical a few days later. Still in the same clothes, pale as a ghost… he wouldn’t leave your side, you know,” Eve says, and there’s something in her voice when she adds: “I think he loves you.”
“You sound disapproving.”
“Because, I don’t think you know how to love.”
Bond looks at her and her dark eyes are amber in the afternoon light.
“It’s nothing personal,” Eve tells him with a smile that, surprisingly, is anything but contrary. “I just think a lot of things have happened and you don’t know how to love anymore. I think that you’ll hurt him and that’s just not fair.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Bond says.
They are quiet for a while, until the steam fades from their coffee and the shadows move on the wall. Just as he has the past week, Bond is thinking about Q’s lips and eyes and the feel of him, his warmth, the light brush of his fingertips, his kindness in an unkind world. He knows that he’s too broken and old to accomplish much, but he wants Q like he wants air, and he might have forgotten how to love, but he thinks that’s something.
When he leaves Eve’s office, he goes in search of Q. He finds the other man in his office, looking haggard and tired and somehow breathtaking. Bond hesitates in the doorway, but then limps in. Q shifts his focus from the computer to him, and under the weight of his green gaze, Bond wants to tell him everything--that he’s sorry, that he finally understands, that he might be the closest thing to in love as he possibly can be--but all Bond can say is:
“I’d like to take you to dinner.”
Q blinks, but doesn’t say anything, just makes a motion with his hand for Bond to close the door. Bond does so, and when he turns around, Q is standing beside his desk instead of behind it, and it’s very easy for Bond to walk the three steps to him, and it would be so easy to kiss him if Q would let him. But Q’s wearing enough armour in his expression that Bond stands just shy of touching him, knowing that this will not be a battle easily won.
The best things in life weren’t, after all.
“You don’t want to take me out to dinner,” he says clearly, with all his consonants and vowels so perfectly clipped that he nearly cuts Bond with them. “You think you do, but you don’t.”
“How do you know?” Bond asks.
“Because I know,” Q answers. “I know you.”
“No you don’t,” Bond says.
Q leans a hip against his desk and takes up a defensive stance.
“I know you feel guilty,” Q replies. “It’s my fault. You were looking for a friend, and I wanted something more. It was selfish of me to take advantage. I’m sorry.”
“I do feel guilty, but for different reasons,” Bond says, and steps closer, pausing just a breath away, where he can feel the warmth of Q’s body without laying a hand on him. “You were trying to tell me all along, but I was just too blind to see it.”
“I’m sorry,” Q says again, and straightens his spine and looks at Bond without wavering. It takes a strong sort of person to do that and if Bond was not in love, he would be now. “But I meant what I said. My personal feelings aside, I will always be here.”
“What if I want those personal feelings?” Bond asks, and means it.
Q looks at him, searches his face, and something cracks at the edges of his facade.
“You never did before,” Q says carefully, and it is then that Bond realises that someone has hurt him before, so his caution is nothing but warranted. It is the only defence mechanism he can employ to protect himself at this juncture, and Bond knows that what he says now will make all the difference.
“I didn’t know what I wanted,” Bond answers honestly.
“And now?” Q asks. Bond touches his cheek and Q’s breath stutters and stops, plunging them into a quiet that is so vast and deep that Bond swears he can hear their heartbeats.
“I want to take you to dinner,” Bond says.
“And after?” Q asks.
He’s still guarded, but hopeful, and Bond hesitates for only a moment, because maybe Eve is right when she said that he will just hurt Q in the end. Bond knows it’s entirely too possible because he’s selfish and reckless and nearly twice Q’s age and just that alone should make him walk away. But Q is there for him when no one else is, who stays on the line even after a mission is over because you might need me, who Bond trusts when he thought he would never trust anyone ever again. And he might not know Q’s real name or anything about his past or the small things, like his favourite colour, favourite song, but Bond wants to know more than anything.
“I’d like to kiss you,” Bond admits. Q smiles coyly, and Bond would be a liar if he said he didn’t think it lovely.
“You don’t have to wait,” Q tells him and closes the last sliver of space between them.
Q’s lips are warmer than Bond imagined, soft and sweet like mint, his tongue pleasantly bitter, a blend of tea and cigarettes. Bond loses himself in the taste of Q--that taste he had been chasing for months now--the perfect mould of their bodies, the beautiful tremble of Q’s skin beneath his hand. When they eventually part, Bond can’t say how much time has passed, but Q looks pleasantly dazed and Bond feels heady with the flavour of him on his lips.
“I think I’d like to do that again,” Bond says and Q’s smile chases away any lingering doubt about love in his mind.
“I think we can arrange something.”
They don’t have sex that night or the night after, or in the weeks that follow. Bond senses that the thing between them is still fragile, as breakable as his own healing bones, so he moves slowly, tentatively, and Q does the same.
It’s uncharted territory for the both of them, it seems, because they aren’t just friends, but they aren’t quite lovers either. They have yet to do more than kiss, even though Bond’s laid beside Q more nights than not. He thought it would be unbearable to endure, but surprisingly the warmth of Q beside him and the featherlight flutter of his lashes is enough. Waking up to Q next to him, propped up against the headboard with the morning crossword across his lap is enough. Knowing that at any time, Bond can reach for Q’s hand and he will not pull away is more than enough.
Bond’s not a romantic by any means, but when they do finally fall together, it’s nothing short of perfect. It’s perfect in the stinging crescent cuts of Q’s fingernails along his spine and the bruising grip of smooth, trembling thighs round Bond’s hips and the sweet, gentle keen the man makes when he comes. But the most intimate part of it all is that Bond is one of the very few who knows Q’s name, his true name.
After, when he whispers it in Q’s ear in the dark, the other man smiles brightly enough to light the room. The sight of it sends Bond’s heart skipping three beats and he’s two parts happy, one part terrified, because he never thought he’d feel this alive again, this in love again.
When morning comes, Bond awakens slowly to the gentle rustle of paper. He’s pleasantly sore--different from how he’s felt after his first few rounds of physical therapy--and the bed beside him is warm and weighted and when he opens his eyes, Q is next to him. He has the Times laid out in front of him and is chewing a mint while staring intently at that morning’s crossword, pen poised in his hand. It is much like the image Bond had conjured long ago, of Q in bed, bare-footed with his crossword puzzle. But in this reality, they are together instead of apart and Q is not wearing ridiculous pyjamas, but sporting only one of Bond’s button ups. It’s so big on him that he’s rolled up the sleeves to his elbows, and it’s endearing the point that Bond can’t help but smile.
“12 across, eleven letters. Second letter m, last letter e with the clue: undying, everlasting; also a purple-red pigment,” Q says.
“Good morning to you, too,” Bond says, scooting closer so that he can press his forehead against Q’s side. He smells like mint and sex. It’s intoxicating, even more so because Bond knows that he is the only one who will experience Q like this: still soft with sleep, touchable in a way that he rarely is in public. This Q is all for Bond, only for Bond. “How long have you been awake?”
“For a while,” Q replies. Bond slides his hand up under Q’s shirt, tickling along his ribs until the pen and paper are abandoned at the foot of the bed and Q is on top of him. They become a tangle of lips and tongue and limbs, a beautiful mess that sets every nerve alight in Bond’s body, so much so that his skin is electric and tingling by the time they part for air. It is then, when Bond looks up into Q’s eyes, when he is watching the black chase away the green at the edges, that it comes to him.
“The word. I think it’s amaranthine.”
Q sits up and reaches for the crossword and pen, which he uses to fill the letters into the respective boxes. When he’s done, he looks down at Bond with a smile that says he loves him more than anything in the world and it makes Bond’s heart stop.
“Never stop surprising me,” Q says.
Bond’s laugh is swallowed by a kiss, and when Q finally releases him, he makes the most honest promise he can:
“I’ll do my very best.”
Surprisingly, the injuries do not force him into retirement, but back out into the field once he’s able. Bond’s too much of an asset to let go when he can still walk, so Mallory hands him a file and sends him on his way. It’s just a recon mission--nothing too difficult--but Bond’s sore by the end of it, and he wants nothing more than a hot shower and a good meal and his soft, soft bed.
Q is at the gate when he arrives in London. He’s doing that expectant, half-hopeful little motion that Bond has seen so many times before from parents and friends and family members looking for their traveler among a sea of faces. But no one has ever done that for Bond before, so he’s not quite ready when Q’s eyes meet his and something tight in his chest unfurls slightly with relief. The corner of Q’s mouth turns up a bit and he raises his hand far above to crowd to wave at him, as if Bond could not see him, as if Bond might overlook that gaze that sought him and only him.
He may not be able to do this job much longer, but the prospect of retirement is not so bleak, because if he lives--and for once, he hopes he lives--he knows he won’t be alone. In the meantime, Q will be the guiding voice in his ear, the person who stays up late because Bond might need him, the one who will always bring him home. And Bond will still take planes and trains all over the world, and he’ll still shoot things because he has to, because he’s good at it. But he’ll start drinking less and stop seducing entirely, because even though Q would never judge him for these things, Bond wants to, for him, more than anything. And it might take some difficult months, but in return, Q gives up cigarettes and his bad habit of abusing nicotine patches. They’re not perfect by any means, and as unlikely a pair as any, but Bond couldn’t care less.
Because when Q’s arms are around him, he’s finally home.