DUET : Chapter Six, Part One

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A week after Bond leaves Scotland, so does Veronica.

The helicopter ride is ridiculously enjoyable, far north all the way down to East London, and Ronni allows herself a moment of self-indulgence with the choice of musical accompaniment for the journey. The morning after their first meeting, 007 had left a parting gift that garnered a grin, despite herself. Her iPod was returned, scratches and all, with brand new set of bone conduction headphones and a note: ‘You’ve earned this back, don’t make me regret stealing it.’ She’s too scared to use it at first, no means to charge, but when the appropriate equipment arrives via internal mail the next day she takes this as a sign ownership isn’t going to get her into trouble. Two days after that a new laptop appears, Gregory cancelling the scheduled afternoon Psych assessment without explanation.

They were moving her to Stage Two ahead of schedule.

The highlight of the flight is the last five minutes, where the pilot takes her down the Thames, showing London in the glory of an early Spring afternoon. Millbank is still a shell, but scaffolding is being erected, construction apace to return the building to its former glory, and the pace of change is reassuring. Ronni’s stomach won’t settle, excitement threatening to reduce her to a wreck of nerves, and the entire trip is a reminder of what there is to look forward to. This is how things will work: already used to the international travel, exotic locations… the only difference is that you’ll be sent there to kill people and save lives. It’s no different from the Air Force, why military service is required for any 00 agent’s resume.

She’d come close to having to shoot someone only once, saved by circumstance. The reality didn’t phase her then and it doesn’t now. Metrics maintain that your first kill is the hardest, because of the inevitable guilt that results. Ronni has no qualms about lives taken if the rationale justifies the effort: what bothers her more are the innocent casualties. Those decisions where a simple yes/no analysis won’t work, consequence and possibility overwhelming a basic need to get the job done. Now she’s over-thinking and it is time to focus on the music, best way of reducing the complex to an aside. Whitehall had started pairing 00’s wherever possible as a response to the issues that Real World developments presented. Ronni thinks she’d still always prefer to work alone.

The parallels Bond had drawn inside with him are more obvious than ever before.

007 stares in the hallway mirror and knows Ronni was right: he is a model, not sure that’s the way things should be. The Paul Smith jacket still fits after a decade, one of the first items Q Branch supplied, nod to retro past that remains very much the present. This uniform worn, rules taught: all a part of the next stage of the journey that Veronica begins. Except she wasn’t scared by the potential, and sure as hell won’t make the mistakes he did, because this is a woman who’s not afraid of what the journey entails.

Suddenly, she had evolved into a role model for how the game should be played.

He’s being stared at: looking down, black and white of Scott Redgrave regards impassively, liberated from Ronni’s file whilst preparation for transport took place at Millbank. It occurs to James that Q must know by now it is missing, the same way he’d repossessed Ronni’s iPod, and that if nothing had been mentioned then no-one was going to question the decision. It was the understanding that she might not want distraction now but there would come a point when it were needed if they were as attuned as he suspected. Taking it upon himself to be the curator of her past, it could be presented with a flourish when the final reward was attained.

Bond only now acknowledges how alike the two of them look, that this might be an issue as time went on, but concludes that Ronni’s far smarter in that regard, and it’s only him that obsesses about past relationships. This woman’s doing it right, and you’re the one who’s wrong, and maybe it is high time you started learning that. His bike sits outside, ready to ride to the Heliport, to begin this part of the surveillance detail. There were far less qualified people who could do this as practice but 007 had decided he was on this assignment until he signed the woman off himself.

It might be egotistical, but making himself a part of her training was absolutely the best thing to do for them both.

After a wait of over an hour at the Docklands Heliport, a courier appears and hands an envelope to the woman who waits, delivered without a word. Inside is a Hotel keycard, postcode plus £100 in cash. Ronni turns plastic over in her hand, wondering what is expected of her, suddenly filled with the thrill that everything that transpired from this point onwards became part of the training. She wastes no time and hails a cab, asking the driver if postcode is enough to get her to a destination: the man pulls out an iPad from the driver’s side door and locates the address, and she’s being deposited outside an expensive Hotel front in Whitehall thirty minutes later with the first tickles of excitement in her stomach.

The room’s on the first floor: standing at the door there is suddenly the wish for a weapon, feeling particularly naked without anything but her hands as defence. As she pauses outside a dozen different scenarios run through her head simultaneously, quietly confident that even without bullets, she’d be able to hold her own if challenged inside. Without a second thought, the door is opened into a room that’s beyond what’s expected on the Civil Service’s current budget.

Two sizeable and elegant suitcases sit shut on the double bed: placed on the nearest is a phone, which begins ringing on cue. Checking the caller ID, Ronni laughs for the first time since she left Scotland.

‘I see you have successfully arrived at the next stage of our adventure without incident. Welcome back Veronica, I hope the frozen north was not too inhospitable.’

‘Thank you Q, I appreciate the welcome, and a great deal more beside. Would you thank 007 for me, I truly enjoyed Kylie Minogue on my way down the East Coast.’

‘Between you and me, Special Agent Ashby, I think you are being quite the positive influence on 007. I saw him taking cream in coffee yesterday, I don’t think I ever remember that happening in my tenure here.’

‘You take your stimulants where you can find them, Q. Maybe if you didn’t run half of us in a permanently dehydrated state there wouldn’t be this obsession with caffeine as a substitute.’

She runs hands over the cases, unzipping one whilst listening to instructions. The rest of the day is for herself, restricted to the Hotel room: expected to arrive at 0900 the following morning for the first day’s worth of secondary orientation at the Barracks, where the real work will begin. Q is deceptively vague but Ronni can guess that everything is about to become very brutal, and the possibilities are making her unreasonably excited.

‘You’ll want to open both cases, by the way, Moneypenny was given a very specific brief on what to buy you and I think you’ll not be disappointed by the choices.’

Ronni does as she is told and is met by a Walther PPK nestled on the top of a rather stylish Alexander McQueen jacket, and she can’t help but stop and stare. The palm print sensor on the back made this piece of equipment worth more money than most things she’d ever owned. There is a reticence to hold it, in case it isn’t real; index finger traces the length of the barrel, mind slowly filtering the possibilities.

You remember the day when you asked your father for shooting lessons. Despite the argument, he finally gave in. In fact, if it weren’t for that head start, you’d not be nearly as competent as you are now. Perhaps there is something to thank him for after all.

‘I suggest you spend some time adjusting your holster’s shoulder strap, the fit’s always problematic when one introduces breasts.’

‘I’m sorry Q, but that’s one part of my body you are not getting to adjust.’

‘Your breasts have been quite the topic of conversation in the last forty eight hours, it’s been a while since we had to factor in anything over a 32C into the equation and this has caused more than a little consternation.’

‘Why does this not surprise me in the slightest?’

She can hear him smiling on the end of the line, that is certain: this amuses far more than it normally would. Apparently the ability to fire a comeback as fast as she can a pistol is as important a skill to a 00 as shooting said weapon straight. Ronni can do one from instinct, but the other is going to need some practice. Q should be impressed that she’s found something that needs work at.

‘You have plenty of time to get organised. Room service arrives at 18.00 hours, I’ve picked some suitable things for you based on how well I know your life by now. I’d expect Bond to be playing the provocateur from the moment you wake up tomorrow. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

The line goes dead, yet Ronni can’t take her eyes off the gun. Finally she picks it up and watches the grip illuminate in a sweating palm: mechanism registers, safety is off and she’s holding a live firearm for the first time outside a range or military service in thirty-five years. Dramatically she spins, facing reflection in the mirror, ready to shoot for the heart: no games any more. Scenarios are history, she’s loaded with live ammunition.

Welcome to a completely different world.

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Everything related to James Bond (007) belongs to Eon Productions and Danjaq LLC, except the bits in here that are mine and I made up. I get how this works.

DUET : Chapter Five, Part Two

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‘You were right, 007, she turned you down.’

Sheppard looks confused and Bond suppresses a smile as Gregory closes the office door. 007 had been sceptical as to whether coming here would have the effect the facility’s director believed it would, as indeed had Gregory himself, but both had agreed that Ronni could yet again do with a shove. It had been a month, high time she was out of mourning. The older woman had obviously not yet grasped the significance of Gregory’s statement, and she sits opposite by the wood-burning fire, increasingly perplexed.

‘I’m sorry, where is Special Agent Ashby?’

Amelia Sheppard was used to getting what she wanted, and this would be the first time anyone had declined an invitation from her for some years. Bond grasps, because no-one ever turns her down, she’ll simply assume it’s personal to her and not understand the significance or subtlety of Gregory’s questioning. At least not without explanation. The irony that she’s completely misinterpreted the mindset of the only female agent she’s ever had through the Facility during her tenure is not lost on him either. So much for empathy.

‘I offered her the opportunity to meet 007 and she politely declined.’

Sheppard’s face is a picture, Bond decides, all mock indignation and amazement on his behalf, none of which is at all necessary. He’s not considered what she might think of him, and it is easy to see how she might view this very public visit. Perhaps something a little more low key was called for, that he and Gregory could arrange a less visible liaison…

‘Did she say why?’

Gregory pauses, and Bond quietly bets he’s considering not being entirely truthful with his Boss.

‘She believed that placing 007 and herself together was, in her own words, ‘asking for trouble.’

Bond has become very good at tuning people out when it suited him, and as Sheppard’s indignation turns to anger he sits politely, allowing Gregory to deal with the fallout. They won’t call Ronni back because she’s proved, at least in part, that they can’t manipulate this woman into a confrontation. He’ll wait until he’s alone with Gregory and suggest staying the night to pick his moment, because there will be one. She won’t sleep knowing what happened, stubbornness not to be used having the capacity to land her in trouble. He’s got enough of a handle on the woman by now, pouring over the assessments and metrics, understanding this is all about what she wants from the programme and not the other way around. They already own her soul.

It’s more now about how she chooses to spend her time in Purgatory.

He’s increasingly determined to meet this woman conscious, as close up as possible. He’ll be waiting, if only to see if he grasps what truly is at stake if she fails.

Ronni can’t sleep and is on her fourth circuit of the grounds, under cloudless skies for the first time since she arrived at Carnegie. The niggle remains: today was a wrong turn, perhaps she should just have been sociable and had done with the whole exercise. Mostly there’s irritation at being poked and prodded by people who don’t seem to understand what she will be regardless: the knowledge of dealing with her own frustration at an inability to move on is of secondary concern and will soon be forgotten. When the mileage is done everything hurts: now she sits in darkness in the Refectory, second bottle of water from the vending machine. One is never enough, yet they continue to ration. She found a way to break the machine as a matter of priority.

Ronni knows how to get what is required when it matters.

The rest of her day had continued without even a mention of the incident with Gregory: they’d meet again in the morning, discussing whether the performance had fit the predicted metrics. It wasn’t as if they’d send her back home any time soon, there is nothing left anywhere on Earth to call her own. She was an orphan by choice, and at this moment this decision suited the situation just fine.

‘I hear that putting the two of us together is asking for trouble.’

Bond’s the genie in a bottle, appearance pure theatre: he’s been running too, sweat stains on chest and under arms and Ronni now understands what all the fuss is about up close. He is a poster boy, blonde hair, piercing blue eyes with just the right amount of rugged charm, but this is all a front. You don’t remain the longest serving active 00 with just a skincare routine and an expensive wardrobe. He’s a mask, and a damn good one. Sitting down opposite, both facts are abundantly apparent, even in the poorly lit dining area.

‘If Q Division dragged you all the way up here just for me, they wasted your time.’

‘I happened to be to be passing. The last time I visited-’

‘Both Service and car suffered some damage, Q alluded to customary thoroughness in doing the job properly.’

‘Q’s spoken about me?’

‘He warned about believing everything I heard, and using you as a role model. I think he has a point.’

‘That’s the real reason you turned down the meeting?’

‘I objected to being made to look like a model when that’s the last thing I ever signed up for. Yet here you are, doing just that. Doesn’t it bother you?’

‘Not when I use it to hide real intent. Sheppard clearly doesn’t understand you as well as she thought. Gregory’s far better informed. I know who I’d rather believe.’

Ronni can’t help but smile, despite herself. She could imagine the pair in collusion, trying to find a way to engineer a meeting, so that Bond could see her close up. This would be just another test, like all the others, and after ten miles in only just above freezing temperatures, adrenaline is already preparing for a confrontation

‘What the Director considers motivation is a long way from my definition. I don’t think the woman has ever fully understood me since I arrived.’

‘Give Sheppard more credit, it was far harder to gain Agent status in her youth. She worked with my predecessor in the 70’s, saved lives for her Country. History helps in understanding relevance.’

‘I have no doubt she was exemplary. It doesn’t mean I have to like her.’

‘Appreciation of service given would be appropriate.’

‘You came all this way to remind me to respect my elders, Bond?’

‘When you’re out-thinking the people who are supposed to be training you, it’s time to change the game plan. I’m simply here to give you another shove.’

‘They’re making you earn your pay by shadowing me?’

‘I am by nature curious. Your motivation is something I’ve taken an interest in, since you walked into MI6 and made everyone reassess their priorities.’

He leans back in the chair, using body language well. Non threatening, open, almost inviting. Gregory has told Ronni she should talk to more people: is this what he’d meant? Perhaps Bond really was also a method of subtle intimidation to boot: she’d never have expected such a big fish to swim past this part of the pond. She was nothing special, after all. At least not yet. She won’t answer him though, and wonders at the response as a result.

‘I doubt that M would ever have sanctioned your Bereavement if a lot of people weren’t absolutely sure you’d be capable of what was being asked. The department’s under stress right now, especially after what happened in Millbank. You’re a considerable investment many people can’t afford to have fail.’

‘You sound like my late father, he always considered the best lives in terms of equity.’

‘It isn’t just effort expended, what comes from the process matters more. In this case, you’re the best chance the Department’s had for a female 00 in 20 years.’

‘And what about Eve?’

‘You won’t stop asking until you get an answer, will you?’

‘I’m also curious by nature, 007. I think that must come with the territory.’

‘Eve failed the final assessment, to kill her second target. You’d do well not remind her of that when she’s in earshot.’

‘I was kind of hoping we could be friends, but I think maybe I’ve lost my chance to find anyone to share that opportunity with.’

‘I don’t think so. Friendship isn’t about just one person trusting another, it has to work both ways. You just need to find the right place to start.’

‘Is that an offer, Bond?’

‘I don’t think you’re struggling. Gregory however is concerned you’re still not grieving. I believe all you need is time.’

‘I think if Dr Gregory wants to know what’s wrong with me, he could ask a simple question, and I might surprise him with the answer. I understand you never stop grieving when losing someone you love, that’s carried with you until the last breath. The trick is how you deal with it on the journey.’

Bond doesn’t want to like her, but he does.

He’s tried not to draw the parallels but Q pushed, red-flagging everything not yet dealt with in a non-existent personal life, because his approach to trauma is flawed and this is sound. You don’t pretend it never happened, press a button, everything returning to the way it was. You use anger and grief, loss as fuel. Propelling life forward, keeping memories of those you’ve loved alive. It maintains sanity and grants vital strength.

Veronica is a model example of how he should be dealing with loss and never has, and that’s why they’re here: he can’t remember ever being impressed by someone who understood what it was like to deliberately give your life for an ideal you desired.

‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger?’

Ronni considers his response, dishevelled and clearly exhausted: dark circles rim jade eyes, bruises and scratches on neck and arms from combat training. This beauty is unmistakeable, but that isn’t what compels: she is moved by a need he could easily damage if selfishness motivates at such a delicate point in development. What has already been sacrificed makes him shudder: there are days he still yearns for love lost. She had walked away from a perfect life, however fractured Q might convince him it was in truth.

Her motivation was far more seductive than first grasped, and Q’s warning rings constant in his head: ‘Don’t screw this up for her, 007. She has to succeed, and not simply for the reasons you might think.’ When she finally speaks, Bond grasps what it was the young man meant.

‘Or in your case, what tries to kill you. I hope my life as a 00 could be as charmed as yours.’

‘I don’t know, being dead for a while wasn’t nearly as liberating as I expected, even if the fringe benefits were considerable.’

‘I don’t think you’ll ever truly walk away from your number until they drag you from it screaming.’

‘And you know that how, exactly?’

‘Because I expect them to have to kill me before I stop doing this.’

Something happens to her at that moment, shift that Bond can register as body language adjusts, moving shoulders upwards. Ronni allows herself to believe for the first time since this engineered confrontation that she was more than capable of bettering him. James knows she’d fit the designation just as stylishly, but she’ll have to fight every step of the way, far harder than he would ever have had to, because this wasn’t her world, and would remain his for a very, very long time. Eventually, history might consider her a game changer. If she could make it to the end.

When she made it to the end, and they had to forcibly separate her from the number.

Bond’s job is done, and he should leave. However, there is a desire to share: not because of a need to impress. There is no-one to talk shop with, and there ought to be. He misses a pooled understanding of what this life entails, wants her to learn that and everything else because she’s truly is the best fit for the 00 designation the Department has seen for as long as anyone in living memory could recall.

For that fact alone, he craves friendship more than anything else.

There is silence, deliberately loaded and suddenly charged. Ronni waits, expecting this to be the moment where Bond either leaves or suggests they go shower together. When he does neither, her surprise is genuine.

‘If I told you the truth, would you believe me, or would you think this was all still part of the assessment?’

She watches him falter, mask slipping, and Ronni suddenly can’t breathe. Bond’s shift into genuine honesty is almost worryingly apparent, freedom from fear or desire. This isn’t what was expected, no overtures to what she’d been told to watch for. He’s almost scared: child-like demeanour desperate for connection, and the calm she holds shifts balance of control into her hands without a word.

‘Depends on what you’re prepared to share with me.’

‘You’re better than me, at so much of this. Your range scores are beyond remarkable. Being the best there is, that’s how this game works and you’ve already grasped the truths, ahead of the curve. You know you can do this, all that needs to happen is to convince everybody else.’

‘Including you?’

‘No. I don’t need convincing, that’s not why they bought me here. I’m supposed to try and make you fail.’

‘So you are a metaphor for my inability to believe in myself?’

‘Being a metaphor is a waste of time. Life is far more interesting when you just live it. That’s why I can’t ever walk away.’

Bond’s comment resonates, understanding of principles grasped; all that is needed now is practice. Ronni stands, leaning across the table that divides them: hand placed to his face. She needs to check he is actually solid and human: just them, alone and exposed in the semi darkness. He doesn’t break eye contact the entire time, allows deliberate destruction of the personal space between them because that’s what’s required to establish a trust. Ronni isn’t afraid of anything, not right now. She’ll never, ever be afraid of him.

Only of herself.

‘That’s the whole point, isn’t it?’

She doesn’t look back, leaving words hanging and him alone, walking away as a different person. There is confidence inside that she knew existed but couldn’t utilise; until now, and only then does it register he’s not just here to shadow progress.

Bond’s been sent to make her stronger.

007 sits in the dark, long after Ronni has left, and knows he can’t go back to Active Duty.

Not just yet.

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Everything related to James Bond (007) belongs to Eon Productions and Danjaq LLC, except the bits in here that are mine and I made up. I get how this works.

DUET : Chapter Five, Part One

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Before, she’d heard of Carnegie House only as rumour.

Ronni has run around it countless times now, concluding that God had a really bad day when he created Scotland in the Spring. Hell would undoubtedly be more welcoming: at the highest point of this building there is no sign of major town or city for miles in any direction, only hills and the possibility of mountains, were they not permanently covered by cloud. It’s bitterly cold and all there’s been is rain for the last forever, as she’s become totally immune to everything that the place can throw at her. Gun drills, assault courses, countless psych tests, more legal waivers and release documents: nothing phases any more, and all she wants to do is finish this last lap because it means being warm again. The cold hurts, in a way that she’d forgotten, ache that sits in the fillings of teeth and the marrow of bones.

Tears only fall as she runs, still mixing with the rain, undoubtedly the best means to hide fragility from ever watchful employers.

Part of her mind cannot keep from reminding what a dreadful mistake’s been made, whenever anyone else laughs or talks. There’s probably two dozen people here, of various nationalities, but everyone is steadfastly avoided, a deliberate move on Ronni’s part. When she does eat in the small public refectory and not in her room it is away and alone, out of the way, and this continued behaviour is causing some concern for Dr Gregory. He keeps pushing for socialising, but she’ll counter that in this job the last thing you want to do is fraternise with other secret agents. You look for people who don’t know who you are, because then you’re not ever going to be forced to talk shop. Gregory is yet to push her over her reticence, but Ronni knows that it’s only a matter of time.

Q’s advice still sits in her mind: reminder to be herself, to let everything else find a level around that constant.

There’s a car coming, Ronni registers, moving slowly up the gravel track. This is unusual: normally there’s the Post van, or an anonymous Supply Transit from wherever counts as civilisation this far into nowhere, but no-one visits by car. You get flown, it transpires, helipad at the back of the facility by the shooting ranges the preferred method of moving anyone in or out. Ronni shifts to one side but keeps running, catching a glimpse of silver paint as the car rumbles past, consciously taking the path away from the main building and down to the large wooded area that covers the eastern part of the estate. It sounds old, she notes almost absent-mindedly, jogging quietly under the canopy of trees, particular cadence that reminds of Scott’s bike, and suddenly there is a compulsion to stop and look back up to the front of the house.

Even if she didn’t recognise the model, that registration number is committed to memory.

BMT 216A

The car is an antique, and an expensive one at that. It’s also a very public hangover from a past Ronni knows the Service embraces only for a very select few. In this case, for one man. MI6’s poster boy, if such a thing weren’t a massive contradiction in terms. It was inevitable that at some point their paths would cross, because he’s doing the job she’s always wanted. That shouldn’t have happened for quite some time.

Making sure she’s out of sight, hidden by the trees but with a view of the front of the house, Ronni needs to know there is no mistake in this assumption. Director Sheppard appears, looking even more impeccable than normal in tweed and pearls, immaculate hair protected under a large golf umbrella held by one of the facility’s support staff, and there’s absolutely no doubt who steps out of the car in dark blue Tom Ford.

Ladies and Gentlemen, 007 has entered the building.

‘You can stop any time you like, you know.’

Marcus has been standing behind her for at least the last ten minutes, and this is her fifth target dummy, bullets all beautifully concentrated in exactly the right spots. There is no doubt this bit of the job can be completed in her sleep, but this isn’t the field, and that’s not a living breathing person. At some point there has to be an understanding that Ronni’s not quite sure she’s adequately grasped, where training stops and instinct begins. It is apparent where both sit, but getting them to exist simultaneously…

‘I can’t get warm here, I’m permanently freezing. This is a great way way of forgetting that I’m in hell.’

‘For what it’s worth, I’d ask for you to cover my back if this does end up being the afterlife and not another badly paid civil service placement.’

‘Oh, I bet it’s not that bad.’

‘You’re the one with the potential to make more money than just about everyone in the building, including Supervisor Sheppard, and I’m betting you’ll be the one with least use for it.’

She’s never actually spoken to the Range Supervisor at length before, apart from pleasantries or asking for ordinance: she’s staring at him now, knowing that he must have a family to go home to, maybe children to kiss and play with. The loss makes her ache, body tensing and mouth going dry, inevitable consequence of sacrifice. There are no tears because she’s perfected the art of hiding from strangers after a month of practice, but the stab in her chest is suddenly more painful than ever. Veronica has begun to think that this is penance, that this guilt will remain as fresh for the rest of her natural life. Perhaps she should simply embrace the fact as Dr Gregory has suggested.

‘So, does this place ever get warm at all?’

‘Needless to say, Spring is pretty much the same here as every other season, it just rains a wee bit more than Summer.’

Marcus takes the gun from hands that Ronni registers are shaking, not simply from cold and understands that her unscheduled trip, running away from what she saw at the front of the house, is being brought to conclusion. She doesn’t want to be in the main building because of what it contained.

Not what, Ronni. Who.

‘Do I get into trouble for exceeding my Range allowance?’

Marcus knows where she should be. Everyone who deals with Ronni is under strict instructions and a very tight leash from Sheppard, but people have begun to cut her a break, which is why she’s been sneaking in here under the guise of practice when what’s been craved is to not be under scrutiny. If Bond is here, they’ll have him under a pretext. Perhaps she shouldn’t assume it was her… but come on. Everything is a test, from here until they give you the 00 designation. Which they will, and that means the best there is came to laugh at the new girl.

No, you don’t get to belittle me.

‘You’ll be in more trouble if you’re not ready for your Orientation on time. Go.’

Ronni trudges back to the house, entering through the back door and drags herself up to a room she now detests, peeling off wet clothing without a thought. Standing in the shower under scalding water she wonders how her pregnant sister is doing, that perhaps considering them all dead as Gregory had suggested was the way forward. Leaving her family aside and moving on was all part of the job: understanding that by killing herself she had been reinvented anew, rising from the ashes of her old existence. She didn’t feel like a Phoenix: mind was flat, fear simply wouldn’t fade despite Gregory’s assertions that eventually it would, that it took a long time for a Bereavement victim to recover.

Only now came the understanding why everyone referred to her as a victim.

She emerges from the shower to find an outfit hanging on the back of the room’s stripped wooden door: materials that feel thick and substantive under calloused fingers. Knee length skirt, heavy blouse and fitted jacket, all in muted greens, clothing she knows that wouldn’t have looked out of place in her mother’s wardrobe if she had access to it. However, it is the Mary Janes that make her smile, despite herself. They are identical to a pair she almost lived in before this began, down to the delicate fabric bows on each heel. The grip of normality takes hold, just for a moment, and steadies as she bends down to pick one up and stare at it.

There is a small bag of make-up too, foundation and powder, enough to give the impression of effort that she knows is being suggested she takes. Whatever is about to happen there is a requirement to make effort to attend, and so she does. Bond’s presence continues to irk, this is a change to schedule that never happens at Carnegie. Thirty minutes later and mood has shifted from irritated to combative: as if on cue there is a knock. Gregory stands at the door, demeanour very much approving.

‘Well, I think I can say you passed that part of the assessment fairly conclusively. I had wondered if you’d grasp the significance of throwing a spanner in the works after a month of working to the programme.’

‘A potential 00 has to be ready for anything, adaptive at a moment’s notice. I did read the Manual.’

‘Yes, but there is a world of difference between the intake of knowledge and the application of its understanding, Ashby. Shall we go downstairs?’

There is muted laughter as Ronni follows her psychologist down the large expanse of stairway, from what she knows is Sheppard’s office, depressing acceptance that all this effort is designed to display her as the latest attempt to get a woman into active 00 service. The Facility Director’s speech from the first day of Ronni’s tenure rattles around her brain: ‘There is a simple reason why there are no female 00 Agents currently in service, and it has absolutely nothing to do with this being the remains of an Old Boys Club. If you want to change the game, you’re going to have to sacrifice everything that you are to do so.’

Ronni wishes she’d asked more about the three women that she now knows trained here before, confident Eve was one. It was the two who failed she’s more interested in learning about, but there is no access here to any Mainframe, laptop simply for training exercises. None of those agents would have taken kindly to being made to dress up either: Ronni knows that’s a lead in she can use if needed. Because she is damned if that’s going to happen now: if Sheppard wanted sacrifice, and a clear statement of intent, that’s what was going to happen.

First up however, she’s going ask Gregory for the truth and see what that gives.

If she doesn’t have to play a game, maybe this is progress.

‘Where are we going?’

Gregory stops on the stairs and turns, eyes as always immediately locked on hers, unwavering focus from a man who seems almost ageless.

‘Excuse me?’

‘I’m sorry: where are we going, Sir?’

‘You know, in the month you’ve been here I think that’s the first time you’ve actually asked me anything, Special Agent Ashby.’

She’s breathing hard, sweat forming at the small of her back, finally warm enough for the environment. Veronica wonders if pushing the point of their destination is required but Gregory is doing what he is paid to do, give the answers in his time and without any other concern.

‘I am reminded of our last one-to-one session, where you told me that there will come opportunities where I will be given a chance to use my own discretion as to the suitability of particular assessments for my needs. I feel perhaps this may be one of those occasions.’

‘But we have a very special visitor, Ashby, and Director Sheppard is giving everyone in the Facility the opportunity to meet him. I thought that considering who he is you might benefit from that experience.’

Ronni works the sentence in her mind: everything has been a test with Gregory, from the moment they first locked horns, and she guesses this is absolutely no different. Opportunity means that whatever this is may not be compulsory, at least not yet…

‘If I were to respectfully decline the Director’s invitation would it negatively impact my success in this Assessment?’

At this Gregory tries to suppress a smile but largely fails, and deep inside an indignation flares that Ronni’s not experienced for some time. You’d better not mock me. Gregory has done this more and more of late, pushing for an emotional reaction, attempting to exploit a weakness. It is never going to happen, because I am better than that, and you know it.

‘Why on Earth would you not want to meet 007?’

‘I would have been happy to do so having not been asked to dress in the manner that the Director felt was appropriate to meet her guest. I’m being judged as much on how I look as how I’ll perform. Add to that the belief that I’m sure 007 has no real desire to meet me. Being wheeled up here to lend his support to a project that up to now has pretty much been an unmitigated failure is I’m sure the last thing he’d rather be doing. I don’t think as a result this is a meeting that is suitable for either of us.’

This is nothing about anyone else and everything to do with you. This is nothing to do with bolstering, all that’s needed is time. They’re pushing to see how you’ll react to being held up beside a legend. You don’t show them you care, because this isn’t about how good he is. It is about how ready you are.

‘With respect therefore, Sir, I feel I should decline Director Sheppard’s offer: perhaps another agent would benefit from the meeting. The confidence boost on my part is unnecessary, I assure you. Plus, given Bond’s reputation with the opposite sex, I’d argue putting the two of us in the same place is just asking for trouble.’

She doesn’t break eye contact with the man, not for a second, knowing they have crossed an important threshold. Everything has been completed without question since arrival, not once has she pushed back. This however smacks of something that makes her feel uncomfortable, and knowing Bond’s modus operandi Ronni decides that drawing the most basic of conclusions won’t be unacceptable: Sheppard didn’t ask him here to paint me as an equal, she wants me to aspire to be like him, and that’s absolutely the last thing I will ever want to do.

Gregory stands, staring at her for a long time, before coming to a decision.

‘Yes, on reflection I can think of several people who would gain a lot more from this kind of experience than you would. I’m sorry to have dragged you away from scheduled Orientation, Special Agent Ashby, you may get changed and return to the gymnasium.’

As Gregory walks away, Ronni can’t help but wonder if she passed or failed the test she was given.

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DUET : Chapter Four, Part Two

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He’s not expecting her to be naked under the covers, and it phases him.

Bond uses the micro-hypodermic with unsteady hands, trying not to think, waiting for the subtle change in breathing that means the secondary drug is working correctly. He remembers this room from his journey; driven here voluntarily, no baggage to dispose of on his behalf. There is a real need for clothing because it’s just above freezing outside and frankly she needs to be covered for his sanity, but reminds himself to tell the support staff to remove it when they return her to bed. It is uncomfortable dressing the rag doll that Ronni’s now become, but if he’s going to protect on the way out of the building, this has to be done.

The agent deserves nothing less than his total respect.

As the first rays of dawn begin to push through the curtains, 007 hears the transport arriving, and scoops the woman up in his arms. He doesn’t need to be here, this could have been done by the Transition people, but the guilt that keeps building because of what has been given up to arrive here continues to taunt, drives the need to involve himself in this journey. Carrying her out the front door across to the waiting medical team he’s in Venice, moving Vesper from the wreckage of the house she died in, and he has to shut everything out, unable to look as the nurses gently strap her onto the stretcher sitting across the back seats of the helicopter. It disturbs him the number of women he’s known and never actually understood, the fact most appear to die or shut him out before he gets the chance for revelation.

Perhaps this time will be different.

‘She was naked when I drugged her,’ he tells the eldest, stern looking woman in her late fifties who gives Bond a look that he won’t hold, but knows is understood. Walking away the air moves, Medical Evac ascending into the dawn, heading almost as far north as it is possible to get. He could have taken a lift, he surmises, but doesn’t want to go home again in a hurry. The same route needs to be travelled, as he did with M, because it occurs that there are a lot of ghosts from their time together which could do with being exorcised on his own terms. He also needs to run the Aston Martin’s new engine in after they rebuilt it from the shell it had been reduced to by Silva’s helicopter gunship.

This time, the journey to Scotland is taken because he wants to.

There are birds singing outside her window, and they are becoming annoying.

Ronnie lies for a while, eyes closed, revelling in the comfort this bed affords, that feeling so safe and warm as she does is just wrong. To experience such bliss when the people that love her are in pain…

The people that love her.

There is a clock by the bed that wasn’t there before: it is 05:45. Sitting up suddenly Ronni panics: this is not the same room she went to sleep in. The new place is smaller and more homely: the bookcase has gone, in their place is a TV and laptop. She’s still naked though, which means that whoever moved her did so with such skill that she never woke: as a reflex arms are checked, searching for a hypodermic mark. If there were more drugs, she doesn’t have evidence. Perhaps it was in her food: still starving there is a look to the end of the bed, in case someone else has arrived with breakfast.

Instead of a tray, on a large wooden blanket box is a newspaper, very deliberately left opened.

Wrapping the sheet around her Veronica gets up, heart in mouth. The Telegraph’s headline covers the entire top of the broadsheet’s page three: ‘British Trade Mission’s Flight to Disaster.’ They’ve printed the picture of her as a bridesmaid at Emily’s wedding, she assumes because it will be the most recent one the family could provide. Reading the dispassionate report, body goes numb, finally the reality of what she has set in motion sinking in. She died. Greg Fisher has also gone, killed with her and two other people in the accident when their light aircraft was struck by lightning. Ronni wonders if he’s here too, somewhere in this house, reading the same newspaper.

He’s more of an Observer guy, she muses for distraction, staring at the picture of herself looking out that is blurry enough for no-one to really recognise. The date at the top right corner stops all thoughts in their tracks. Today is Monday 4th: I’ve really been asleep since Saturday night?

This pushes her to the TV: met with a selection of domestic channels and major satellite news networks, it is indeed Monday. Veronica’s discomfort makes her itch, that three days have passed since being drugged, probably twice. This could all be an elaborate deception to unsettle, but it seems an awful lot of work just for one person. She needs to have a clear head and so waking up properly would help. The palatial bath has been replaced by a far more conventional shower: standing under almost freezing water moments later, trying not to think about anything but what could be ahead.

This routine comes from habit, locking worry away, leaving it for another moment. Sitting on the bed, dressed in blue jogging bottoms and t-shirt, the clock ticks over to 6.30: there is a knock almost on cue, and Ronni is ready.

‘Come in.’

The woman who enters is also dressed in blue, tailored trousers and jacket, same electronic tag attached to the breast pocket as was standard at Millbank. She’s immaculate, hair and makeup perfect and clearly expensive, with an air of immediate authority. Ronni stands without thinking, and the woman smiles before waving her hand and shaking her head.

‘It’s fine, Special Agent Ashby, we have no need for ceremony this early in the morning.’

She added the Special there just for you.

Ronni allows the thrill to surface, understanding progress, that this is as close as she’s likely to get to a celebratory pat on the back. There’s also the inevitable air of being assessed, that this woman’s seniority isn’t just marked by age. Her boss is clearly ready for business, and pulls out a tag for Ronni to attach to the bottom of the t-shirt.

‘We have a lot to do, but I’m afraid that none of it is particularly pleasant. Sadly in these days of compliance plus Health and Safety it seems to be a lot of paperwork and fuss before anything interesting happens, but considering the investment you can see we’ve already made in your future, I’m sure you’ll not have a problem with some formalities.’

Ronni glances at the paper, suddenly conscious of what had already been put in motion to get her this far. This is Stage One proper of Active Designation: life of assessments, increased training and the certainty you’ll be expected to end a life. If you can do it twice without crumbling under pressure, the carrot at the end of the stick is a fat and juicy one indeed, reward placing you amongst a discreet pile of very select individuals.

The awarding of the 00 prefix was never, ever to be taken lightly.  

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DUET : Chapter Four, Part One

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She dreams of Scott, arms around waist on the Triumph Bonneville that had belonged to his father. It is the day they rode to London for the first time, just the two of them: sitting by the river, eating chips and planning their future. The calm inside Ronni is beautiful, whole body warm and safe, as he reaches over to embrace, two jeaned pairs of legs dangling over the Embankment. July is brilliant, bright and welcoming, calm within her brief yet glorious. Then the ache begins, somewhere below the breastbone, pain terrible and undiminished. She’s standing, looking at his gravestone, trying to understand why life was so fucking unfair. 

After that the black is all she craves, until memory of what has happened since wakes her.

Everything transpires for a reason, Scott had said, like that November day they’d met on Platform 4, when he’d shielded her in the rain. She remembers the night he asked what she’d wanted to be after exams were done: the only person trusted enough to share true heart’s desire. ‘I think you’d make a wonderful spy, no-one would know what you really were until it was all too late.’ Ronni supposed at first she had done this for him, because of the belief in her ability. After a while the understanding coalesced it wasn’t death that motivated, instead the notion of what she’d only ever felt comfortable talking about with him in the room, being able to make a difference in the most unexpected of fashions.

Finally consciousness wins its battle and Ronni is aware of being awake, that the world is moving oddly outside the darkness: perhaps it might be an idea if she worked out where this was. Only when opening eyes is there discomfort, and disorientation. The ceiling is high, immaculately plastered, moving strangely as she stares at it.

Ronni has absolutely no idea where here is.

Whatever they drugged her with has left brain odd and unfocussed: sitting up carefully, taking in the large Victorian-build surroundings sparsely furnished and deliberately anonymous. She appears to be restricted to what is a palatial bedroom by her standards and an en suite with the biggest cast iron bath she’s ever seen. Discovering a fridge tucked behind the bathroom door there’s no need to further test the bounds of captivity. Provided with a selection of drinks but no food, Ronni knows she won’t want to eat until whatever was placed in the bottle clears her system completely. That came from a scenario ‘played’ with Eve during what she assumes was the previous day: just how much else might have been prepared for without direct knowledge was yet to be determined.

She needs to drink until the taste of water makes her ill, then stay awake at all costs.

Ronni’s also learnt her first important lesson on this journey: you don’t trust anyone, regardless of who they are. Everyone is potentially the enemy. Next time someone offers you something when thirsty, think twice.

There’s no television to watch, but a very decently appointed bookshelf that runs across one wall. Choices stretch from Chaucer to Dan Brown, with pretty much ever major literary landmark in-between, so she decides on a Hemingway collection and tries to get brain to stop wandering. She’s aware of falling asleep a couple of times, before drinking: sharpness slowly returns on the fourth choice of focus and the same in bottled water, lucidity finally a constant. Looking up it is now dark outside, and Ronni wishes she had something to anchor her to a timeline. As if by magic there is a knock at the door and a small woman with cropped dark hair appears with a tray, leaving it at the foot of the bed before departing without a word.

Dinner is impressive, albeit small: chicken wrapped in bacon and stuffed with asparagus, steaming boiled potatoes with butter and spinach. Ronni doesn’t appreciate how hungry she is until it’s finished and left wanting more, but there is no other movement from the door or indeed anywhere else, and only then does she grasp being in the same clothes from the day before. An exploration into the large wardrobe at the far end of the room finds a selection of decent underwear and the same anonymous blue sweats she’d find when training, and it is time to test out the bath. There is even a bottle of unlabelled yet exotic salts: sinking into perfumed water five minutes later she allows herself to consider how the transition will work.

If this is Saturday, then my family will think I’m finally on the way to Mumbai. The plan is for her to take a small plane to the north of the country: that is when it will happen, some accident will be engineered and her life will be lost, probably in a fire so the body that is returned will be beyond physical recognition. There’s been no preparation for this either, no-one had spoken about what happens afterwards, assumption that is being covered somewhere along the line.

Ronni’s glad there is minimal baggage, that friends she had could be counted on one finger. Lissa was the closest thing she had to a confidante, but never got the faintest inkling of what Veronica was. Their relationship was very occasional spa trips and the odd Friday night and mostly stories about her life in PR and the new guy who she’d seemed increasingly interested in. Mark would show his true colours in the next few days: was he the man who’d nurse her through grief or buckle under the strain?

Fatigue hits Ronni almost as soon as she returns to bed: noting that dinner things have gone, books returned to their places, and there is no doubt that whatever she does from this point onwards will be closely monitored. She’s too tired however to care about clothing and slips naked into bed, last thoughts before unconsciousness about her youngest sister, missed far more than she’d previously considered.

It is too late: regret is a luxury she no longer can afford to indulge.

All she has now is herself.

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DUET : Chapter Three, Part Two

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By lunchtime, Ronni is beyond exhausted.

Elizabeth’s questions were incredibly thorough, increasingly personal whilst remaining mentally painful. Passwords for the internet and websites on her Macintosh, telephone numbers for friends, even what she’d had for breakfast that morning. The last time she’d had sex had caused some discomfort because she wasn’t sure and had to guess. The day of her last period. The number of contraceptive tablets she’d taken. Pretty much everything that she could remember in the last week, who she’d spoken to, and where she’d been. Nothing was sacred, especially the past, but she made a decent job of being honest whilst refusing to allow those events to be picked apart. Every tiny detail was recorded with efficiency and a smile, and in the end they’d find nothing to suggest she wasn’t perfectly capable.

Once Elizabeth had done, a pretty comprehensive medical was conducted in a small room with a female doctor who seemed impossibly young and very keen to check that everything physical was in decent shape. Instructed to change and run on a treadmill, she’d returned from small block of showers to discover only regulation blue sweats to dress in: only then had it hit her why. After that, there’d been an awkward forty minutes with a Civil Service lawyer. They’d determinedly presented at least half a dozen chances to change her mind: but each time, will remained unwavering.

This choice was made.

The anonymous white space with a single door commands one of the best views of the River she’s ever seen, as Ronni tries not to dwell on what must be done to escape the room and head to her future. As Big Ben strikes 1pm, Moneypenny appears, old fashioned manilla folder in her hand, and invites Ronni to sit opposite her at the small table in the centre of the room.

‘It may come as a surprise to you but we still have your original personnel file from when you were recruited at University. I thought you might like to take a look at it.’

‘Is this part of the assessment?’

Veronica has to ask because everything has become really hard to process, as the past she thought was controlled suddenly sits and taunts on the melamine surface. The history she cannot change, that remains in judgement of current choices.

‘This is the last day you’ll be Veronica Ashby. You’ll be called that name in the process of your training, but when you leave this building the person in this file ceases to exist. I was never given the chance to say goodbye. I think you deserve better.’

‘I didn’t think you liked me.’

‘I have you at a disadvantage: I know everything, as will everyone else in the months that follow, but you’ll be alone. You won’t know who to trust, and that the only reliable barometer you have ultimately is yourself. Of everyone who’s come this far I can tell you this, you are the best equipped to succeed. Take it from someone who knows.’

The combatant is gone, replaced instead by someone who Ronni thinks looks on her now with understanding, quiet moment of revelation. Take it from someone who knows. Q had been quizzed about the women who’d negotiated the process before her and he’d faltered, hesitated briefly, scrabbled to hide behind what Ronni knows now was a lie. What if that untruth was Moneypenny? There is nothing to lose, desire to know suddenly overriding the common sense to stay silent.

‘Why did you step away, Eve?’

‘Because I’m not as curious as you, and I had too much to lose. He’s right, you know. You are very much alike’

There is a glimpse upwards, security camera recording everything, and Ronni knows the woman is rattled, but not by her. Eve can’t make eye contact either and leaves, further disquiet in her wake.

With nothing else as distraction, this history is all she has: opening it to be presented with a picture of Scott on page one and not her? The hole in her chest is desperate and gaping, fear and panic in equal measure, hands shifted under the table and away from the camera, trying to stop herself from losing control. Slowly, all too painfully she brings herself back before closing the file, hands rested on top. His loss doesn’t go away: if she’s going to survive it really does have to be buried deep, until her mind can cope with everything.

Scott Redgrave died a long time ago, and so did the girl he loved.

Inside this folder is the story of a woman who has been praised for whatever she does, considered in the highest terms for discretion and professionalism. With Eve’s pointed stab on her arrival there is the understanding why Q had started referring to her as Mary Sue: unprecedented skill, good graces, inevitably saving the day with her intelligence and ability… she was often just too good. Even when she did screw up there was a determination to turn the situation on it’s head and more often than not to her advantage. ‘No-one has the right to be this perfect,’ Q’d pronounced during her last round of psych tests. ‘You’re going to make the other Marty Sues look bad, and that just won’t do.’

Despite herself, the folder is re-opened, every page scanned: searching for faults, all too aware of what she’s bad at. Male relationships, routine, being frustrated by other’s casual sexism, responding quickly in particularly high-pressure situations. Pages are sorted, putting compliments away and focussing on the things that she’d fallen short at, not wanting to remember herself doing as well as Q claimed. Looking up the light is fading and time is running out: she has no idea of who this person is any more, but it does not matter.

I am going to be a spy until it kills me.

Only then does she again register not being alone in the room. Q stands, staring with genuine concern, closing the door behind him.

‘There is nothing wrong with being good, Veronica.’

‘I didn’t understand what you meant by a Mary Sue, I had to go and look it up. I’ve only ever done my best. That’s all I have. Then when Moneypenny tried to unhinge me with a comment on just that? I get everything’s a test until my designation is confirmed. I know what all this ends up being. I’m not nearly as good as you think I am. I know what I’m lacking.’

‘I am perfectly aware what it is you require, the chance to shine and blossom into what you have craved for so long. Trust me, you are almost there.’

‘I understand all of this is a test from this moment until I hang up my gun. You have trained me brilliantly, and I know there’s still so much to learn. I swear I will not stop being this person until my last breath. There is always room for improvement, and I will do just that.’

‘I shouldn’t have let you hear what I said that day about perfection, I was being flippant and it was unfair. This business has never been for the faint hearted, and yours is particularly strong, despite what you might feel right now. I’m sorry I belittled you, and your confidence in front of Moneypenny tells me your curiosity won’t ever be assuaged by a lie. The truth is coming.’

Q waits, before coming over to the folder, gently taking the empty carcass from the table before re-arranging the pages back into their correct order. He briefly glances up at the corner of the room and there is a nod, slightest of acknowledgements to someone outside the room, and Ronni grasps what he’s doing. He’s turning the cameras off. His gaze then returns to her, whole body language visibly relaxing.

‘Do you know how many people have taken Bereavement since 1980? Seven. Less than ten have made the complete break: most come to this job with their hearts already hardened, grief and loss almost their entire existence. No-one said this would be easy. Many would consider this level of sacrifice as insane, especially from someone with such an apparently stable personal life. Of course, you and I know differently. I’ve been your biggest advocate in all of this Veronica and let me assure you that whatever happens, that is not going to change.’

‘Thank you, Q. Moneypenny said I’d be alone, but I think she’s reckoned without your desire to see me succeed.’

‘Needless to say, two other people have been instrumental in convincing the powers that be that you were more than capable of fulfilling the task ahead of you. Tanner’s report was particularly glowing. You should take a chance to thank him when you can. As to your other supporter? In time, I suspect he will thank you for taking the number and holding it with a confidence he’ll do well to respect. I believe that you’re capable of even more than you’ve achieved so far. Now just ensure you don’t lose your focus. Be yourself, Ronni, the one that wished it wasn’t just Scott who understood. You are capable of so much if you do.’

The use of his name, by Q of all people, stops the breath in her lungs. He put the photograph in the file as a reminder, and as he hands the small black and white to her now there is a moment of true connection. He wants to allow me to remember, but knows ultimately I must forget.

You’re good, you really are. But I’m better.

‘Nobody knows about that picture except me. Sometimes, a memory really does matter. Keep him safe Ronni, and make him proud.’

‘It’s okay Q. The past belongs in my heart, I don’t need to do this for him any more. This is my journey both to start and finish.’

As she returns the picture to the file Q smiles, quietly nodding assent: above them a red glow reappears in the room’s corner, and Ronni knows she just passed her final test. Both history and assessor are gone, timed to perfection as Big Ben sounds five. It takes until the quarter chime before the door opens again and Eve re-appears, bottle of water in hand. Ronni tries her best to not look desperate, but is fairly certain she fails.

‘I am so sorry, I’ve suddenly remembered we’ve not fed you at all today, you must be starving. You’re probably thirsty too…’

Ronni tries not to snatch when offered but knows she is dehydrated, opening the lid and drinking greedily: she looks to Eve who nods, taking this as permission to finish the half litre bottle in one hit. The room swims, and Ronnie only grasps something is wrong when Eve catches her as she slips off the chair and onto the floor. There was a very good reason they never fed her, that sedatives would work faster on an empty stomach: she’s lying on the floor, desperately trying to stay awake and failing.

The last thing remembered as she passes out are three pairs of feet.

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DUET : Chapter Three, Part One

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He’s hidden by the pillar plus a bank of servers, but the desk has an unimpeded view of her for the first time: Bond knows there are worse ways to spend a morning as Ronni is cross examined by the department’s best psychological analyst. Elizabeth Sharpe can also see him if required but as yet has no reason to communicate. The transmitter in his ear allows complete access to the conversation across the room: he is beginning to enjoy his time as eavesdropper whilst here as Q’s expert on all things 00. M’s argument in a planning meeting the previous day was compelling: if this woman was aiming for the designation, they needed someone to vet her with an intimate knowledge of what that job entailed. Eve had been offered the opportunity but had politely declined.

Until something major came up Bond was off the books: this was infinitely preferable to being wheeled out as part of the new man’s PR push. There is carte blanche to ask what he wants, to see if buttons can be pushed now she’s walked in the front door of MI6 and declared the intention. Q and the department’s Psychologist have until 5pm to make the final decision: even if she has said yes, they can scupper this if they decide the woman’s unable to handle pressure, and he’s been brought here to cause trouble. He loves the role of provocateur, one he’ll always rise to if given the chance.

Gregory returns from M’s office to settle at his side, nodding briefly to Elizabeth who barely registers his presence but knows to be alert.

‘So, how are we doing?’ the older man asks, looking at the distinct lack of notes on Bond’s pad.

‘Veronica is steadfastly refusing to be drawn. She’s doing what’s asked, but that’s not the point. I assume the new guy’s not happy at being dragged up here at the crack of dawn?’

‘As M said, he only has himself to blame. You can see for yourself, tell this woman what to do and that’s how it works. She simply took him at his word.’

‘I don’t think the 00 designation should cover the ability to blindly follow orders, in fact I’d say the skill is to do the exact opposite and still end up with the same end result.’

‘Only in your case, 007. I should remind you that this department does not often use you as a benchmark.’

‘But in this case I’m here to make a point. Veronica was phased by Moneypenny’s swipe at her perfection, but it was only brief. We need something to make her squirm.’

‘Agreed, a push is what this now requires. Sharpe, go straight to the Personals after this one, please.’

Elizabeth automatically acknowledges the command, locating a folder to her left, effortlessly looking as if she is shuffling papers: instead pulling out a list Gregory has prepared to spice up the line of questioning. This is an uncompromising selection: the day of Ronni’s last period, whether she’s using contraception, and Bond sees his first opportunity to strike as Ashby’s discomfort becomes more pronounced.

‘Ask her when she last had sex.’

The senior psychologist stares disapprovingly but makes no objection, and Sharpe does as instructed.

‘This is relevant how, exactly?’ Ronni sounds perturbed and body language immediately changes, a fact both men pick up on immediately. Alert turns rapidly to defensive. Sharpe plays the role of apologetic messenger who’s hoping not to be shot to perfection.

‘I’m sorry, someone somewhere clearly thinks this is important.’

Bond can taste bitterness, discomfort across the room, because that’s what it is: he knows she doesn’t remember. There’s an attempt to deflect the question by telling Elizabeth about the family friend who tried to pick her up at her sister’s wedding a few weeks previously. February is a ridiculous month to be standing outside in pink chiffon, that maybe if her sister’s boyfriend could hold up his end of the birth control responsibilities he wouldn’t be forced into marrying a nice Catholic girl’s sister he’d got pregnant following a contraception misunderstanding. Bond begins to grasp just how much will be sacrificed to get what she wants, and understands Ronni’s not quite aware of the consequences for herself.

She’ll grasp that reality soon enough.

‘It takes two to tango,’ Gregory observes to no-one in particular, making notes as Ronni is pressed. A hand goes to her face, eyes closing; Bond can smell sweat and embarrassment, watches reconciliation to the inevitable as the only answer she has is presented. He needs to know if Veronica can hide everything if pushed, and all they have here is the truth.

‘You know, I have no idea, but it’s been well over a year. If you’re going to follow this up with when was the last time I masturbated, then that was about the same time, because if I am right that night was pretty woeful all round.’

There is also a little too much anger, Bond concludes, and he is briefly chastised for asking. Expecting an outright lie, he would have picked a date that didn’t make him look too desperate or that involved a woman who ultimately died. Death. The possibility of the moment hits with force, 007 scrabbling for a question to frame it within.

‘Ask her casually if she’s ever considered getting married. Make it sound like you’re going off your script.’

At this Gregory sits forward in his chair, nodding approval to Bond’s suggestion. Elizabeth changes the subject, moving the conversation to her own wedding, about how she’d met her boyfriend at college, and Bond knows exactly why Sharpe is always Q’s number one choice for this task. The shroud wraps itself silently around Ronni, back quietly straightening, that she could almost be relaxing when instead this is withdrawal. The woman vanishes inside, smile appearing genuine but ultimately false, as she nods along with Elizabeth’s story.

‘You’ve never been in love?’ the analyst pronounces, looking genuinely surprised at the woman opposite.

‘There’s really no time for those kind of sentiments in my part of the job.’

Ronni laughs and turns her head away looking out over the river, and Bond knows where she’s going; the place where the past can be handled on her terms and not disturbed. This is where nothing hurts any more, even though the pain is as fresh as it has always been. Gregory leans back, Bond registering a smile from the older man as he does.

‘M was right, 007, your peculiar insight is particularly useful. I’m impressed.’

‘Save it for if Ronni really is capable of everything you’re going to ask of her. Some days, even I can’t do it, as you’ve correctly pointed out.’

She’s better than he is, pain exquisitely masked and buried deeper, and 007 doesn’t want to be that person but knows he has to, because if she isn’t capable now they’ll break her when the next stage comes. Suddenly this woman needs to succeed, limits pushed until they snap, Bond briefly breathless at the speed of her transformation.

‘Ask her again, Sharpe. Push her.’

At Bond’s behest both men lean forward, waiting for an answer. Gregory nods his assent, firing up the dormant terminal to his left as Elizabeth picks her moment before pressing the point.

‘Surely there’s been someone that you’ve thought you might have a future with?’

The transformation is complete: Bond understands that this woman can deceive, without breaking stride. Nervous and uncertain has vanished, coated in a veneer of invulnerability, but there will be work to do. If challenged however, she is more than capable of lying with impunity.

‘No, there’s never been anyone special.’

Bond is convinced she’d deceive a polygraph, even from across the room, and watches as Gregory checks just that: the speech is already running through Q’s electronic equivalent, and the result is damning. 99% certainty answer is truthful. There’s not a hint of stress in her voice or entire body. That’s what the job demands, and she’s nailed it.

‘Carry on, Sharpe.’

Gregory takes out his earpiece and stands, expecting Bond to do the same. He remains, lost briefly in thoughts that are no-one else’s but his, before waving the department’s psychologist away.

I promised Q I’d  stay to the end of this session, and I will.

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DUET : Chapter Two, Part Three

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Ronni walks to work, street lights illuminating a dark and heavy day, another cold morning in prospect. The banks of the Thames are more crowded than she’s expecting, yet despite the weather there remains an undoubted optimism surrounding the people passed. For the first time since she’s begun this journey there is the desire to imagine herself already a 00: looking at faces, trying to work out what the other people do for a living: delivery driver, office worker, postman, City executive… how many of you are a spy?

She suppresses a smile: dressed like a secretary, or perhaps a simple office worker, but all of this is the most glorious of fronts. She is the Trojan Horse, secret hidden inside normality, challenge to the Old School hypocrisy, free spirit about to be caged and tamed for a job that she’d craved with almost obsessive need since the first time she understood what a spy really was. Walking across Westminster Bridge, as darkness shifts to dawn over a London skyline it would be impossible to grow tired of appreciating, Ronni is briefly at peace with herself for the first time in many, many years.

The only doubt comes when standing at the doors to Millbank, staring at what remains defiant and unbroken after Silva’s destructive rampage. The past calls, understanding that after this point she never comes back out the same: for a moment everything sways, shifting light before the sun finally breaks over her last day alive.

‘Don’t dwell on the past, Veronica. The future is always more desirable.’

She doesn’t expect Q in her head, but his parting words at lunch that fateful November Thursday slip back as a reminder. He knows you can be a 00.

Soon, so will everybody else.

Signing in at the front desk moments later Veronica spies Tanner, talking to an unknown woman. The older man smiles with an expression that strikes as odd, because he never does that to anyone, least of all her. In the journey through the tunnel of metal and explosive detectors her ex-Boss waits patiently on the other side: Ronni wonders what to say as explanation. The only reason she ever comes to this building is to meet him or her liaison, and that is always at their behest. If arriving here unannounced…

He will know I’m taking VB, and that’s why I’m here.

‘Good morning Ronni.’

‘It looks like it will indeed be just that, Sir.’

‘I think you can dispense with the title: new guy uses my surname, you can make your own choice.’

‘Well in that case William, I think I may need your help.’

He blushes at the use of full Christian name, that she’s subconsciously slipped into the mode used when on the back foot: using pretence to garner an answer instead of just asking outright.

‘The new guy lives where now, exactly?’

‘I think I can help you with that.’

The woman who Tanner was speaking to has appeared at his arm: stunning in a royal blue ensemble that Ronni’d never ever dare try to pull off, dark skin glowing even under the harsh strip lights of the building. She’d never seen this person before, which is odd, because someone this striking would be hard to miss especially in the white, male orientated world she was used to…

‘Good morning, I’m Eve, and I happen to work on the same floor as the new guy. If you’d like to follow me, I think he’ll arrive about the same time we do.’

Ronni does as she’s told, maintaining discreet distance, suddenly uncomfortable as the two of them walk away from the main bank of lifts and around a corner to a separate small alcove with two solid fire doors. She’d passed this place countless times on the way to the Ladies bathroom and thought nothing of it, and watches in amazement as Eve places her thumb on the end of one of the fire door’s metal opening struts. There is the faintest of clicks and the door swings open as the pair move into to a grey concrete room, in which sits a spacious single lift, already open and waiting.

Eve pulls a key from her pocket and opens a small panel on which she again has to place her thumb. There are only three buttons to press: this floor, up and down. Ronni decides to break the silence with a stab of deductive reasoning. If Q were designing a lift simply to do the job…

‘Up is the day job, down for extreme emergencies?’

‘You’re very perceptive, and yes there is a bunker which is only ever used in times of war. The problem is, of course, that conventional definitions just don’t seem to apply to much any more.’

‘I don’t think anyone expected the war on terror to hit this close to home.’

‘Did you ever meet the previous M?’

‘I’m sorry, I have no idea who you’re talking about.’

It’s a reflex now, and Eve blinks, slighted of tilts of the head. As Ronni has no idea of her status or clearance, the same rules always apply. Never talk about active assignments with anyone.

‘I know who you are, and why you’re here, and I find myself quietly amazed. That you would give up so much in a heartbeat, that you are so perfect a front and yet so complex a depth. Tell me, Ronni, has there ever been any doubt?’

The woman phases her, unsettling in both calm and poise, and Ronni has to think fast. To not know who this was, never meeting her at any point until now could mean one of two things: she was new, or this was someone very important indeed. The exchange with Tanner settles her mind: they knew each other well, which means this is a Field Agent she’s speaking to. In turn that demands that the response was not something that should leave anything open for discussion.


The appraisal is odd, strangely disconcerting before Eve turns back to the lift panel.

‘I’ve said we need more buttons, but Q maintains that less is more.’

The panel suddenly illuminates as the lift hums: Eve places her thumb on ‘up’, and uncomfortable seconds pass before the doors finally close. Ronni stands, listening to the clicks the lift makes as it rises, before the doors part to reveal an open plan office space that takes her breath away. Even at 7am the place hums, people at work at desks beneath huge glass terminals that act as monitors, technology sophisticated enough for Ronni to stop and stare in disbelief. Although only partially constructed, Q Division’s fingerprints are everywhere: looking across the space she locks gazes with the man himself, standing at a terminal in disarray, two other technicians quietly arguing at its open side.

The look he gives her is enough to make Veronica think she really has done the right thing.

‘There are two lifts: this one is for employees only, and there’s the ‘official’ one for dignitaries that’s a lot less technology and far more old school. We’re still remodelling after the explosion as you can see, but work is progressing well enough. For a while we were in Whitehall but the PM wasn’t happy with the potential security issues, so we’re moving ourselves back here in stages.’

Eve travels through the space with clear familiarity while Ronni follows behind, trying really hard to not get distracted but briefly obsessing on the notion of this floor’s position in the scheme of things. She’d bet you couldn’t travel here conventionally, and needs to confirm the theory.

‘This floor isn’t accessible except using those two lifts, correct? So you can lock everything up in plain sight?’

‘There are three floors this could be, if truth be told. I’m informed that’s just the right amount of smoke and mirrors one can present between the truth and the illusion, for people to stop considering the possibility they’re being deceived.’

‘You even sound like Q when you quote him. What do you think of all this?’

Aware of growing tension between her and a woman Ronni thinks she’d like to know better, there is the desire to proffer an olive branch, even if that action might be unnecessary. Eve stops and stares again, no softening in her demeanour.

‘I decided to stop thinking for a while, just to toe the company line. I’m still not sure what I feel about a lot of things, if I’m honest. You’re really not what I expected. Maybe you are just too perfect.’

The phrase hits hard, between breastbone and stomach, and Ronni scrabbles to maintain composure. This woman knows her very well indeed, and is clearly part of Orientation, and that means the rules change again. This time there will be no response, simply silence, and the understanding that Eve was not to be trifled with. This was a woman who was defensive and combative, and as a result should be kept at distance.

Finally she turns, heading towards an area of bare concrete and scaffolding, beyond which is a wall, completely out of place against the high tech veneer behind them, solid wood panelling stretching from one side of the building to the other. Ronni understands as she catches up about the move from Whitehall being partially cosmetic. There are no thumbprint scanners, just a large brass handle, and as the door they approach opens Eve almost walks straight into M, face full of thunder, dressed for winter morning with both coat and hat.

‘Dear God, Moneypenny, what is so bloody important that you call me over from the House of Lords this -‘

Most of the anger drains from M’s face when he sees Ronni behind her, to be replaced by what she’s pretty certain is surprise. Of all the people who know me: Q, Tanner, even the woman who I’ll now bet used to be a Field Agent but is now your PA, you’re the only one who thought I’d walk away.

‘Agent Ashby. What an unexpected pleasure!’

Veronica smiles, understanding the significance of the compliment.

‘Good Morning, Sir. If you want to berate anyone it should be me and not Moneypenny, I’m the one who’s responsible for bringing you here.’

M continues to stare, a genuine smile forming, and Ronni knows it is now or never.

‘You said I needed to inform you personally if I wished to be considered for Voluntary Bereavement. I wanted to confirm my interest to proceed well before the deadline.’

Eve has vanished, and suddenly it is just the two of them: M ushers her into the reception outside his office, which is anything but state of the art: she is stepping back in time to the 1940’s. As the door closes behind them the noise of the office vanishes, and all Ronni can hear is the quiet clicking of a grandfather clock to her left. Fear grips her heart, but she steadfastly ignores it.

No turning back, not now.

‘So, to make sure we are absolutely clear, you wish to move forward to the next stage of Active Designation?’

A camera above them is recording this exchange, probably several. Somewhere in that room behind her Q will be hearing this too: knowing this time she was serious,understanding exactly what the Country was asking of her. The last time she tried, they knew she wasn’t ready and didn’t push, and that is exactly what has happened.

‘Yes, sir. I’d like to be considered as soon as possible.’

M is taking off his coat as Eve reappears, who takes it without a word, confirming Ronni’s suspicion. Why would a field agent take demotion to a desk job? There’s no time for anything other than polite silence, however, as M is suddenly all business.

‘Moneypenny, we’ll need the legal people up here, assuming of course any of them are actually in the building at 7.15.’

‘I am sure that I can find someone with sufficient seniority to process the paperwork. I’ve also ensured the rest of the Orientation team have been alerted that the timetable’s been shifted forward. I think a bit of surprise is good for everyone once in a while.’

The first chance she gets, Ronni is determined to find out as much about Eve as possible. First however, is the more pressing issue of getting these people to accept that she’s still worthy, and that will mean making her feel as uncomfortable as M’s PA managed with a single sentence. Moneypenny was good, flawless in her execution, and clearly used to dealing with awkward agents. Now she is professionalism personified, talking to a blonde woman summoned from Q’s playground who is then brought over for introduction.

‘Ronni, this is Elizabeth Sharpe, she’s going to take you before we get the last of the legal waivers signed to go over some details we’re missing on your Personnel folder. Don’t worry about having to be at Horseguards this morning, they’ll be told you’ve had a change of plans and you’ll be packing for Heathrow a little early. Have you done as instructed and have your bags ready?’

There are two suitcases in the hallway of my flat with passport and iPod on top. I locked the door and walked away, just as you requested I’d have to. There are no personal items on me at all right now: jewellery, pictures, even my handbag is at home. I followed every instruction to the letter. It never actually occurred to me that when I said yes, that would be it.

No, you did not make the wrong choice. This life is done.

‘Exactly as instructed.’

Eve’s smile is a lie, everything is the enemy and from now on, she trusts nobody with anything. Ronni’s on the back foot, and it’s how she works best.

Whatever the department wants to throw at her from now on, she’s ready for them.

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DUET : Chapter Two, Part Two

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Ronni can’t sleep any more, so sits and watches early morning over the Thames.

When she accepts VB in an hour’s time, this view will vanish too: that is probably the greatest loss she’ll suffer. Her flat, vista across the cheap end of Docklands and everything in it will be lost forever, entire life replaced at the Taxpayer’s expense. Every material comfort sacrificed, existence erased, accepting the change she knows in her heart will be instigated. Lists in her head have been written and ticked off, arguments debated until her brain screamed, knowing that every path led to the same truth, feelings remaining steadfastly unchanged.

For as long as she can remember, she’s wanted to be the person standing just beyond her grasp.

If that meant she had to give up everything, then so be it. Cross-legged on the lone sofa, hardly worn and seldom used, this is the moment to be grateful that there are no pictures in the flat, deliberate removal of every frame of reference for many years. She’d not owned a proper camera since University, only evidence she even existed to her family was in pictures of her sibling’s joy. Mum would ask where she was on business trips and so she’d use the phone to send landscapes from places visited, never anything to tie a particular location to the job. That was this lie, and her conscience remained comfortable with the truths it provided.

When Ronni left University and enlisted in the Air Force, it was under a pretence. The Intelligence Service had recruited her at the end of her second year: anonymous advert in the Telegraph’s jobs section followed by two days in a nondescript building in West London where codes were decrypted, mental agility tested before running on a treadmill until her legs stopped working. At the end, sitting in a small grey room with a woman who could easily have been her mother, the message was simple. Veronica Ashby had a chance to change the world for the better. It took a month to grasp that her Air Force placement was only part of a far more complicated story. Only when the two men arrived at her shared home with a briefcase full of legal waivers did reality register: she had fallen into a far more complicated world than even the Civil Service itself had outlined.

The joy at having found her calling however simply superseded everything else from that point forward.

After a year of training, fast track to RAF Officer status and beyond, Ronni accepted that looks were just as significant as brains in her selection process. Anonymous might work for some operatives, yes, but not her. No-one said as much outright either, but when asked to carry a small box to the American Embassy in the volatile days of post Soviet Moscow, it was because a smile and the accent would pass through security unhindered. It helped that she’d picked Russian and Mandarin to learn as secondary languages after French and Spanish, brilliant mind backed up by an implicit understanding of each task in hand. Communication was the key to everything, and doing it better than anyone else had never been a problem.

Her father’s insistence that the tongues of the largest races would always place you at a financial advantage was the only piece of advice ever taken seriously, but not because of Malcolm Ashby’s assertion. Dad gave up completely when it became clear that money was the last of her concerns, dressing and acting on her terms and no-one else’s. He’d issued an ultimatum when she announced to family of future intent: this was a wholly unsuitable job for a woman, and if she continued with this destructive path, there would be no financial assistance from the Ashby coffers ever again. There was no need for help then, never asked for at any point since. Ronni earns more money now than both of her sisters combined, a fact Mum would continue to press whenever possible.

Her father was a misogynist dinosaur, and that was never likely to change.

Ashby spent the decade after Fast Track running across the planet, hotspot to flashpoint, delivering equipment hidden in Diplomatic Bags, until the day when she was called to Millbank, to meet William Tanner, first genuine clash with a world that had up to then only existed in rumour and whispers. He’d looked more uncomfortable than her back then, and ever since there’d been a suffering to the man, as if he couldn’t quite reconcile the seriousness of the position, that at any moment it could be snatched away from an uncertain grasp. Ronni was genuinely pleased when the previous M had poached him, but disappointed his replacement didn’t share as much humanity. Tanner was a man who had consistently treated her with more respect than anyone else she’d met outside of Q Division, the only real place where femininity wasn’t considered a joke or a hindrance.

There is a craving for music to accompany this last trip from the flat, but Ronni knows that is just one of many luxuries that must be sacrificed in order for her soul to finally be saved. This is a religion, mantras and prayers, years of meditation and devotion to a goal that finally, blissfully is within her sight. She might be going straight to Hell for her troubles, penance more than willingly shouldered until the day she died. Working for your Country was all well and good: knowing you would die for it without a thought changed the outlook for everything.

If she needs to be at Millbank for 7am, then it is time to leave.

The cold hits hard as the front door shuts, dropping keys through the letterbox as instructed. The Orientation people can enter her flat without them, after all, but doing what she’s told is all part of this process, and that means a dance which can be performed whilst asleep if required. All that is needed now is resolve not to waver, courage to travel without changing her mind.

Those qualities are second nature, without thought. All that drives her now is the future.

Bond lies awake, staring at the ceiling.

Sleep patterns are permanently shot but at least this time he made it to bed, beginning to grasp that when Q suggested he find something to do away from espionage to aid relaxation, the boy had a point. The laptop’s faint glow on the desk across the hallway still illuminates the room, where he’d been mindlessly losing himself down Internet rabbit-holes before completely detaching from reality. That’s how he functioned: pressure and release, inextricable then inertia and it wasn’t healthy. James resented the extra time with Gregory in the previous week until it was apparent that the most senior Psychologist the Department had wasn’t trying to make a point with anything, he just reflected back what 007 had become.

Sleep refuses to co-operate because he’s never tired when not in the Field.

The mobile suddenly chirps into life on the bedroom dresser; single, uncomplicated tone, and Bond is immediately grateful. Unexpected communication would mean not only diversion but excitement. There was only one person who ever sent him texts, and if he’d got one, time to not be in bed.

The message brings a smile to his face for the first time in several days:

VB arriving early, be ready to meet at work.

Adrenaline hits with a surprise that turns smile to grin: she’s moving before the deadline. Moneypenny will be up, called in well before normal start time, inconveniencing her and Mallory plus disrupting both schedules. William Tanner too will be forced to extricate himself from twin six year old girls and demanding wife before being urged into Millbank because the girl taking Voluntary Bereavement decided everybody gets to understand just how serious she is. Q is already there, calling the team into action, having placed Ronni on 24 hour surveillance since she she asked to die so flagrantly in her post-assessment debriefing.

M may have doubted Ronni’s sincerity, but the more Bond has learnt about the woman, the greater his desire has become to understand the motivation. He’d spent time the previous evening researching sisters, Facebook stalking and Old Girls Network websites providing a surprising amount of detail on the younger siblings but nothing on the eldest. Veronica had done a staggeringly good job of ceasing to exist virtually anywhere: the only photo he could find online is of her looking uncomfortable at the back of a shot from a History trip to the Great Battlefields in Belgium when she was 16, virtually unrecognisable from the woman he’s now shadowing.

Bond knows just how difficult this is to achieve in the Digital Age, and he’s impressed despite the desire to dismiss the perfection presented. Everything that has been asked of Veronica has been achieved, with room to spare, and still nobody takes the woman seriously, because that isn’t what matters. It is a disparity that has nothing to do with ability, or indeed perception. It is a fear of what she represents to some, a dismissal of this role being either acceptable or possible to the same standard he is judged on. Normally, Bond would not think about principles because that’s how he’s remained alive for so long, but now he is unsettled by circumstance. Vesper was as strong as she is, confident and unfazed by what he was. She gave her life to save him, confident Veronica would do nothing less. This isn’t Q drawing parallels any more either. There are demons he is yet fully to address and defeat, and needs to exorcise if there is any desire to remain sane.

007 can shower for his Country, clean and prepared in less time than it would take most people to get to the bathroom. The suit chosen is one of his favourites, waistcoat a considered concession to his own desires, hangover from immediate predecessor. He stops and stares in the mirror: allowed to remain lightly bearded since coming off duty, the look works well. However, it’s not part of the uniform, and if he’s going to do the job Q requires, it will have to go. There isn’t time now, because his target will be on her way and he needs to be in the office before she is.

The laptop seductively blinks from his modest office and Bond goes to flip up the screen, Q conveniently sending secure satellite footage of Ronni’s journey via Company Intranet. He’s less than five minutes walk from Millbank at this flat, ultimate perk of the senior 00 agent, desirable piece of London property that’s worth six figures simply by location. He’d been surprised MI6 had given it back to him after they sold it to a senior civil servant following his ‘death’ at Moneypenny’s hands. Skyfall had meant a change to many things, not simply how the organisation worked in the public eye. The first 007 had lived here in the 50’s, and it was to remain a part of his ‘uniform’ just as the Aston Martin had become, even though by his own admission Bond preferred travelling around London by motorbike.

Ronni is on the Embankment, walking towards Big Ben: Tanner’s coming out of the Tube at Westminster and Eve is already on the Bridge, Millbank directly ahead. Bond needs no further prompting, has keys and phone in his hand as the Laptop shuts down, is outside the flat on instinct, before he shivers and notices the cold. He’d not normally bother in London but something stops him, returning to locate the coat worn for PR appearances. Pulling out her business card from the inside pocket, carried for years and now battered and dog-eared, Bond stares saddened before putting it on the hallway table. Vesper’s name is faded: he never challenged her after the first night it was presented on the train to Montenegro, whether his lover really had hated parents for what they’d called her. The past, as Gregory had told him the day before, is not what should control our actions.

That is our task, not history’s.

He puts chronology away where it belongs, leaving the past to address the future.

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DUET : Chapter Two, Part One

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The interview room is small and impersonal, and M appears decidedly uncomfortable sitting in it.

A laptop is the man’s current focus, which he has been staring at for some time, lost in thoughts Ronni knows better than to interrupt. She waits quietly, hair tied neatly in a ponytail, pale grey trouser suit not keeping body quite warm enough. There is a sense that something is wrong, they’re still here and not back in M’s office: her scores are impeccable, so there’s going to be something else that’s not been factored into the equation. The question now becomes whether they will tell her exactly what it is or, as was the case last time, she’ll simply be sent away.

Finally M shifts focus from the screen, considered appraisal and Ronni is reminded oddly of her father. It could almost be disapproval in his demeanour, but because of what?

‘Agent Ashby, these are probably the best results I’ve seen from an assessment exercise in some time. You are to be congratulated not simply for your improvement on last year’s scores but for a clear determination to be noticed as a candidate for Active Designation.’

The compliment is a sweetener, bolstering for disappointment. Ronni knows that if she wants this man to look past the numbers, she’ll need to show her strength in a one to one situation.

‘May I speak freely, Sir?’

‘You certainly don’t need to ask me for permission, Ashby.’

‘My scores were good last year, but that wasn’t enough, and I suspect by the amount of time you’ve spent trying to find a way to open this conversation tactfully you’re not seeing the results as the problem you have with me.’

‘Your perception serves you well, which should not be as much of a surprise as it is. You are a genuine asset Ashby, and I will admit that your enthusiasm to join this programme… well, at least to me it creates a quandary.’

‘May I ask why, Sir?’

‘You’re the oldest of three children, correct?’

The question is unexpected, leaving Ronni briefly scrabbling for a response.

‘Yes, Sir… I have two younger sisters. Both are married, with one pregnant. Can I ask why this is relevant?’

M’s expression shifts, impossible to read for what she’d guess is good reason. Mallory is the modern face of the Service, yet being touted as a way back to the more traditional values that made MI6 the envy of intelligence agencies worldwide. She is also well aware he has to treat her as an equal: the Civil Service has obligations that stretch far beyond the Old Boys Network of the past. However, there are still echoes of those days that remain seemingly impossible to erase…

‘Veronica, your family is clearly an important part of your life. I find myself wondering just how much you would be prepared to sacrifice in order to be placed on Active Designation as a result.’

‘With respect, sir, my family are a part of my life I would have no trouble detaching from.’

‘That’s quite an easy thing to say, but I can assure you that the reality is considerably more challenging.’

She’d never even made it to M’s office last time, it had been a woman in a suit who she couldn’t name who smiled almost sadly and relayed that there were ‘elements of this resume that required work before reapplication would be considered.’ She’d always assumed it was her physical fitness that had been in question. Now she grasps that’s the least of her problems, and understands what is being asked. Q had reinforced the point when she’d pressed him at lunch months previously, but suddenly the words need to issue from this man’s mouth.

‘Your discretion and professionalism are without question. I am well aware that absolutely no-one in your family has ever been considered as a security risk. However, Active Designation is not a world where normal rules apply, even more so should you fulfil the supplementary entrance requirements to proceed. Our best applicants are at an advantage already over you, one that would not be easy to match in your present circumstances.’

He won’t say the phrase, Ronni grasps, suppressing a smile that suddenly seems out of place considering the serious nature of the context: never having to think about the possibility in front of a potential boss before, she’d have no trouble in doing so now. The initial reaction isn’t so hard to swallow. No more weddings. An end to Christmases at home, being an Aunt to any potential nieces or nephews. Goodbye to phone calls or surprise food parcels.

No more family life ever again with her genetic parents or offspring.

Voluntary Bereavement. She’d heard the term first as a joke, in a briefing, from a Field Agent who she knows now was probably a 00, calling it ‘the best way to simplify your life.’ She grasped the irony of that statement when Q confirmed it was a mandatory requirement to proceed with her career, but never dwelt on the consequences because that’s how she’d survived until now. A simpler existence, new start. The most terrible of prices to pay.

Your life: ended, and then created again anew.

M’s discomfort remains apparent, but he continues regardless with what Ronni can’t help but feel is a pre-prepared speech for her benefit.

‘I cannot fault these scores, Ashby, they’re practically perfect. You’ve done everything that the Department has asked of you, and more, but the final reality of the journey to 00 status requires a sacrifice, that proves ultimately that you are indeed the right woman for the task. Some may consider it barbaric, but almost 60 years of metrics have proven that this method delivers the type of individual capable of surviving the rigours this position presents.’

‘Q Branch have provided me with all the requirements I’d need to fulfil in order to proceed, Sir. I am well aware of what is being asked of me.’

‘Despite what the politically correct lobby may think, there are a number of very good reasons why we have so few female applicants that have ever been placed into Active Designation. Those in secure families, with commitments and ties… we understand that this is often simply asking too much. Unless we introduce compulsory conscription to the equation, that’s not likely to change.’

‘You are of course intimating that I’d have to accept Voluntary Bereavement to proceed?’

M’s eyes widen at Ronni’s casual use of the term, correct nerve both located and hit first time. It’s really easy to understand why so many would fall at this last hurdle. Easier still to grasp why the service appealed to those with the minimum amount of personal baggage. Ronni had never fitted the profiles since Grammar School, yet here she was, ready to move forward.

She refuses to break eye contact with the older man and watches his expression alter, soften in her appraisal. I just asked you to kill me so I can take this job. I’m completely serious. Sitting here, in front of the person who would be her ultimate superior officer, the choice seems deceptively simple, but she can’t be seen to be making such a quantum shift without reasoned reflection.

Please, give me the opportunity that I crave.

‘I couldn’t possibly comment, Ms Ashby, suffice it to say I’d personally need to believe you’d considered all the options available to you before we process your application further.’

‘Theoretically, how long would I have to come to a decision to ensure I’ll be included in this cycle?’

M’s face finally breaks, slightest hint of a smile on thin lips. He must know she would be an absolute boon to the Service at 00, but still Ronni sees it: he cannot believe she’d give up her life to do so. They needed women without commitments or the desire to begin families. He didn’t like to be the sexist, but someone had to do it, something his predecessor had taught him was an inconvenient truth in the modern world. If Ronni voluntarily accepted this life, he’d be amazed. She’d make that an emotion he’d not only feel, but regret he ever considered to begin with.

‘I’d need to be told personally within forty-eight hours. In my office, in Millbank. I want proof that you’re genuinely serious. I’ll leave it up to you to decide how that is delivered.’

The man rises suddenly, and Ronni can’t be sure but thinks that maybe he’s been rattled, just a touch, by her intentions. As he leaves, she can’t help the smile she knows Q will be watching on a screen somewhere, as he always does.

The boss refuses to believe I’ll do this. We’ll have to fix that as a matter of priority.

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Everything related to James Bond (007) belongs to Eon Productions and Danjaq LLC, except the bits in here that are mine and I made up. I get how this works.
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