Bond noticed the coughing, of course. As time wore on, it became impossible not to; Q’s breath wheezed faintly, his cardiovascular health was non-existent, all of it underpinned by constant coughing.
“James, I’m fine,” he said, quite flippantly. “Really. It’s nothing. I’ve got myself a nasty infection, I’ve always been prone to this sort of thing. Couple of weeks, I’ll be fine.”
A couple of weeks passed with a notable lack of change. “I’m worried about you,” Bond admitted, as they curled together in bed, Q suddenly twisting to one side and coughing violently, the motions racking his body, leaving him breathless and dizzy.
“Acute bronchitis,” Q self-diagnosed. “Rapid onset, painful as hell, does go away again. I’ll talk to Medical, see if I can get something to suppress the coughing, alright?”
To be honest, Q would have given Medical his soul for a decent suppressant. He was getting very tired of the coughing; it was exhausting, and unbelievably distracting while he was trying to work. He was already having to delegate mission handling to R and other subordinates; he couldn’t cope with too much prolonged speech without a coughing fit.
He couldn’t confess to being that worried. He had been a sickly child, asthma and coughs plaguing him constantly; this was annoying, and certainly severe, but nothing that new. Bond was far more concerned; Q just went to Medical the next day, asked for cough suppressants for recurrent acute bronchitis.
The doctors agreed with Q’s diagnosis, found him antibiotics, an inhaler for the coughing fits, and advised him to try steam inhalation to loosen the build-up of phlegm. Q thanked them with a slight dip of his head, before heading back to Q-branch, taking the lift given that the stairs left him horribly out of breath.
Bond vanished on a two-week mission shortly afterwards. Q continued work, annoyed to find that the cough just wasn’t shifting, his branch beginning to openly fret in a way Q construed as condescending.
The rumours hit Bond the moment he entered HQ; he found Q in his office, looking oddly thin, still coughing. “Q, go to Medical,” Bond told him sharply. Q smiled sideways at him.
“You worry too much,” he said quietly, without the bite Bond had come to expect from him. He started coughing again; Bond moved to his side, watching as Q’s body jerked, and Bond caught sight of bright red.
“Q, that is blood,” Bond stated, trying exceptionally hard to not panic. “You’re coughing up blood.”
“Yes, Bond, of that I’m aware,” Q wheezed back, eyes closed, trying to restore his balance as his body fell out of order. He leaned awkwardly over his desk, limbs feeling heavy, everything blurring in a way that was growing familiar. “I went to Medical a few days ago.”
“What did they say?” Bond asked sharply, as his lover tried to pick himself up properly, propping himself on the desk to focus his cloudy eyes on James.
Both of them knew Q was lying, I’m fine, but neither pressed the point.
M’s expression didn’t change.
“I would appreciate if you did not mention anything to 007,” Q said quietly; M was unbelievably silent, clearly struggling with what in the world he could say. This was not a conversation he had ever expected to have.
Q’s hair fell in his eyes; he brushed it back with spindly fingers, his movements more deliberate than normal, as though he needed a little more concentration to aim correctly.
“He will find out,” M pointed out; Q nodded. Of course he would, but Q didn’t want to have that conversation just yet. He didn’t want to have that conversation at all, if he was quite honest, and M knew it was hardly his place to make the call. “Alright. I’m assuming R would be your first choice as replacement?”
“If possible,” Q agreed. “I’ll begin delegating tasks out to the branch. The precise forecast is uncertain, but I would estimate maybe a handful of weeks before I’m unable to continue as Quartermaster.”
“Understood. Come back tomorrow, I’ll have spoken to R by then, and we can organise what will happen in the coming weeks. Our medical team do not specialise in these matters, but there are still options through MI6…”
“Thank you,” Q interjected. He already knew what he wanted; he was in the process of preparing himself, would be more than ready when the time came. MI6 resources would certainly be of help; they were notoriously excellent at caring for retired agents.
“Q?” M said, as Q stood to leave. “Take care of yourself.”
A perverse sentiment, but appreciated nonetheless. Q half-nodded, smile dying before it properly formed, slipping out of M’s doorway like the shadow he was already becoming.
“Q, what in the hell is going on?!” Bond snarled at him, shutting Q’s office door sharply. Q was getting angularly thinner by the day, constantly exhausted, blood speckling his palm when he coughed.
“James, please,” Q pleaded; he was too tired to keep arguing about this. He didn’t want to talk about it, he couldn’t keep talking about it, he just wanted Bond to let it go, and they’d talk about it when there was no other choice.
Bond, however, was adamant that there was no choice. That they would discuss this now, so Bond could finally understand why Q was falling away from him with every passing second.
“Q, I know you’re lying to me, and I’m bored of it,” Bond snapped at him. “I can see, I know you’re not telling me something about this, and I’m getting scared now.”
Q’s heart stopped for a moment; Bond never confessed to fear. The man was stoic to a slightly frightening extreme, under usual circumstances. Q gently manoeuvred his body into a more comfortable position, Bond standing a few feet away, looking livid and honestly, horribly frightened.
“I’m dying,” Q confessed softly, and Bond’s entire world shattered.
Stage four, non-small cell cancer. Inoperable. Terminal.
Tunnel vision. Everything squeezed into the thinnest of frames, Q’s face, nothing else, nothing else mattered. No pain. Emptiness. Nothing. Nothing at all.
“It’s started metastasising to my oesophagus,” Q explained, his voice calm, soft. “I have no more than a few months, if we’re fortunate. There's no point in chemotherapy or the like, it'll only be unpleasant, and merely prolong the inevitable. I’ve spoken to M, R is preparing to take over as Quartermaster…”
“I couldn’t give a fuck about your job,” Bond said harshly; Q’s heart broke slightly at the faint hitch of breath. Otherwise, Bond looked entirely stoic about it, which was both welcome and painful to see.
Q didn’t reply. He looked at his hands in silence, knotting and unknotting his fingers again, suddenly taken by another coughing fit; he gasped for breath, body twisting into itself.
Bond’s hands were warm, carefully helping him up again, thumb brushing specks from around his mouth. Q glanced up through a thick blur, glasses skewed, collapsing into Bond’s arms and letting himself cry. He hadn’t had the chance to yet. Q had attempted to be unerringly, stupidly strong since seeing Medical over a week ago.
Bond wrapped arms around Q as he cried, the crying exacerbating the coughing, Q’s slim body buckling against him as he modulated his own breathing, fingers pinching hard on the bridge of his nose in the somewhat pointless hope of pretending he wasn’t crying.
Q retired from MI6 in a blaze of glory, monitoring a series of brilliant missions, deciding to leave while on a high rather than waiting until he was no longer able to do his job perfectly. The fatigue bordered on overwhelming; working was just a little out of reach by the time he left.
He refused to go to hospital. MI6 found hospice care that visited his flat every other day, helping him set up to die in his own time, at home; they had done exhaustive tests, had a fair idea of what would happen, in what order.
M took Bond off active duty, and the pair prepared for the inevitable.
Q started to need oxygen therapy a few days later, when he found himself unable to breathe. Bond panicked, called in MI6 help who arrived, stabilised Q, left again with pitying glances towards Bond. He avoided homicide for the sake of his partner, who remained curled on his side, trying to keep his ribcage unobstructed.
He left his hand open, fingers curling towards the palm, inviting Bond’s to link through with his. “I’m so sorry,” Q managed hoarsely, crying expressionlessly into the pillow. “James…”
“Shh,” Bond soothed, kissing Q gently, brushing away the tears. “I’m here.”
Bond had watched people die before. He’d seen people bleed out, grasping at life for all they were worth. The more sudden deaths, the expression caught immortally. Burning, hearing the screaming, the mounting silence. Drowning, watching the fight, the sudden inhale that marks the end.
He had never needed to watch the gradual decline, the slow loss. The wheezing starting to rattle slightly, the thinness turning from gaunt to skeletal, the voice becoming hoarse, becoming too faint.
Never had he needed to watch anybody die like this.
Q continued working on his laptop whenever he was strong enough; he couldn’t bear to lose that. The fatigue mounted daily, leaving him dictating splintered lines of code as the days slid by and he stopped being able to talk properly.
He could taste blood.
The pain was carefully moderated, which was what mattered. Q didn’t want to spend his last days in pain. Bond slid into the bed next to him, held him when Q cried, mopped him up when required, loved him quite entirely in the short time they had left.
Q brought up an image of a Turner masterpiece on his laptop, in slow typed motions, and Bond’s brain stalled at though someone had stabbed him through the back of the neck.
“What do you see?” Q rasped, almost inaudibly, smiling at their old joke, one that seemed from an eternity ago now.
It was all wrong. The tugboat was not supposed to expire.
Bond kissed Q’s head, buried his face in Q’s hair so nobody could see his expression, so nobody could tell – not even Q – how much it hurt.
Bond had seen so many people die, in so many ways. Never this slowly, and never somebody he would have given so much to save.
They do not keep saying that they love one another. It is patently obvious.
“I’m sorry,” Q murmured again, eyes almost closed, that perfect green-grey obscured. “I had hoped to outlive you, you know. This isn’t fair.”
No, it is not.
“Things never work as we expect,” Bond replied obscurely, staring at the ceiling as Q – body exhausted even if his mind wasn’t – passed out in his arms.
Q can’t swallow, and talking is hard.
It won’t be very long now.
Bond wakes, and Q is asleep, breathing irregularly against him, his heartbeat faint. “Q?” Bond asks quietly, his own throat closing. “Q.”
He is still alive, but Bond knows the heaviness of a sleep that won’t lift. Q is lying across his chest, ephemeral body light and delicate, arms wound about Bond’s torso as though Bond will help him cling to life, somehow.
Q is going.
Bond listens to the gentle wheeze of Q’s breath, whispers nothings. It is believed that hearing is the last sense to leave, so Bond speaks for every second Q has left, telling him everything, telling him stories and fractured poems and words, until his throat hurts, letting whatever is left of Q know he is still there.
The wheezing stops halfway through an anecdote about Constantinople, a mission a lifetime ago, and Bond keeps talking to an empty room, fingers seeking Q's wrist as confirmation, the story pausing as his own breath hitches, continuing again after a moment. He keeps talking until his voice gives out completely.
He cradles a limp body, kisses Q’s closed eyelids, swears he tastes salt.
Eventually, he moves. He slides out from beneath Q’s dead weight, covers him, the last protection Bond can give him. He presses a final kiss to the slightly discoloured lips, and shuts the door behind him when he leaves.
He calls the medical team, informs them in a level voice, lets them in when they knock a half-hour later. He sits on the sofa as the team comes in, speak to him in hushed voices, remove Q’s body while Bond stares at a blank TV screen and hallucinates paintings, unable, unwilling to watch.
Motionless, he lets the pain blind him, waits for the wave to ebb. It always ebbs eventually. It is merely a case of not drowning in the interim.
“Bond, why are you here?”
“I was rather hoping you’d have a mission for me,” Bond returned flatly, quite perfectly constructed, as Bond has always been.
M watches Bond for a moment, as he did Q, when the other had sat in his office with that same measured calm, and made it evident that he was to be listened to, and trusted to make his own decisions. Q lives in Bond’s expression.
“An assignment in Istanbul,” M says after a moment; there is a flicker of something in Bond’s eyes, a deeply sublimated thanks. “Report to Q-branch for your equipment, and we’ll have on a flight this afternoon.”
“Thank you,” he said, half-nodding, smile not quite reaching his eyes, slipping out of M’s doorway.
For Queen and Country.