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Two days after returning to surveillance duties at the Hotel, a summons is sent for a meeting at the Barracks outside of schedule. When she arrives to find M waiting in the main Lab, Ronni knows they cannot postpone the inevitable any longer. She fights butterflies as uniforms are switched, waitress for operative, and decides this is the day she’ll wear trousers, because on most occasions that’s more comfortable, whatever the time of year. Arriving forty seconds early, Q nods his approval at the ensemble.

‘As you are more than aware, the last two weeks have been a difficult period for the 00 designation.’

Veronica stands, constant and implacable, eyes on M as he begins what sounds like a pre-rehearsed speech. She knows Bond’s behind her, glimpse reflected in terminal glass; did he come for the show or is 007 just passing?

‘Q tells me you are at the end of your formal assessment period. There is one more assignment to complete, and assuming that’s performed to the required standard we can expect to have you to the final stage of Active Consideration by the end of this week.’

Ronni exhales, significance of the comment only too obvious. She’s done everything that’s been asked, and more. The Service needs her out of the training ground and into the game, sooner rather than later. Special Agent Ashby is ready for anything they can throw at her.

‘If that is the case, this could well be the most important week of your entire life.’

007 knows the pep talk, given from this man’s predecessor. She’d chided him on arrogance, overt enthusiasm for destruction, pushed to temper desires with common sense and remember why he was doing the job. His M was from a different time, one he’d dearly like the chance to return to, but the past was just that, everybody forced to live in the moment. This present did have its advantages, he just needed to ensure full control of circumstances first.

‘You’ve performed in an exemplary fashion, often under considerable pressure, and I have no doubt this week will be no different. Special Agent Ashby, your Country requires your services, more now than it has ever done before. We have a battle that rages on our own doorstep, and threats so many and various our resources are stretched to breaking point. Your assistance will be a valuable addition to our national security. I have no doubt you will deliver what is expected of you as a result.’

The next three days are everything to her. This is where Ronni could stand or fall, and Bond knows that his actions will ultimately determine her fate. Part of him simply wants to pass the woman for service and have done with it but Q’s brief was persuasive and damning. For them both, at this moment, there needed to be an empathy beyond where they stood. Their friendship was now without question, but it wasn’t enough, not in this job. Their remit extended well beyond the conventional and into the dangerous, indistinct, where lines blurred and the only certainty was a mission goal. Ronni needed to be assessed in the one way she could never willingly agree to, and by the one person who knew more than anyone else in the department about the power of intimacy.

He too was about to be tested, perhaps more than her. Restraint, supplicancy and detachment until he could absolutely be certain she was in total control of him.

The potential of the final assignment to return him to Active Duty is enough to briefly render Bond breathless.

M extends his hand, which Ronni shakes, and then man is gone, leaving her feeling somewhat perturbed. Q sees the concern, and is about to question before being summarily pre-empted.

‘I think he could use some work on the speeches. He reminds me of Tanner, never quite that comfortable doing the motivational stuff the metrics tell him he needs to.’

‘I think both Q and I can agree, his predecessor was undoubtedly the better orator.’

Ronni smiles despite herself, turning to acknowledge 007 and noting his attire: if the Tom Ford is back, he isn’t here to work. He’s off on ‘official’ business again, and will hate every minute. This also means their time together could finally be coming to an end. After all, there’s only so much babysitting the Service will want him involved with.

‘You have an appointment at the Parliamentary reception?’

Bond rolls his eyes and gives the look which she knows means he’s already bored at the possibility.

‘I’ll make sure I offer him some tips. However, I know what I’d rather be doing.’

As he walks out of the room there is the slightest of touches, hand to arm: watching him leave, aware of Q not moving from his spot, observing closely. Ronni waits, but the young man says nothing.

‘So, what happens next, Q?’

‘You go back to work, and I return to trying to persuade Whitehall that we need better remote field access for agents than simply a mobile phone and luck.’

‘That’s it?’

‘You seem disappointed, Veronica, one assumes after Bond’s love of theatrics were you expecting something more dramatic?’

‘I was thinking there’d be more than this, I will admit.’

‘There are many demons to face in this world, Ronni. I for one am grateful that I don’t have to do that every day. It gives me a chance to relax and reflect on what I’ve learnt.’

‘I appreciate the sentiment, Q. I also realise that my expectations in this job are in a constant state of flux.’

‘Well, it may come as a surprise to you that 90% of all field work is unbelievably mundane. You don’t get nuclear warheads every week, despite what 007 might tell you. Go back to work, Special Agent Ashby and wait. Your assignment’s already in progress.’

Q turns and leaves the Lab, with nothing more to be said.

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