DUET: Chapter Seven, Part Three

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Something is different the moment she approaches the Barracks that morning: increased security, more people, many she doesn’t know, and Americans: lots of them. She has to wear ID tag plus a second photo laminate before she’s even allowed to enter the building: as she makes it to the Lab the permanently opened main doors are very deliberately closed. However, it doesn’t stop the sounds of raised voices seeping out. M is here, Tanner flanked by a sombre Moneypenny and at least one American Ronni recognises by association with Bond: Felix Leiter. There are a number of obvious senior types plus another blonde in the room, taller and leaner than 007 and even more striking. Their eyes meet, sending her walking away at speed.

Grace is waiting at her terminal, taking her back to the unfashionable, storage-centred end of the Barracks before quietly ushering her into a side room. Hastily filled with laptop and desk, this was obviously some kind of cupboard the day before. The ex-00 agent looks both stunning and fearsome in what Ronni would guess is Westwood: her instructions enough to strike fear into Ashby’s heart.

‘I need to be in a briefing ten minutes ago, so pay attention. Mainframe is ridiculously restricted, which for now means the surveillance is off the clock. After yesterday’s incident you’re on sick leave from the Hotel until we’re out of this shit-storm. I can’t tell you what’s going on, not yet, and you’re going to have to curb your curiosity and just work at what you’re given without asking everything I know your brain is screaming at you to know. 007 is back on the books, and we’ll keep an eye on him for you. Everything that matters right now is on this Laptop. With the exception of lunch and comfort breaks, don’t come out until you’re done.’

As the door closes behind her Ronni’s hands are shaking: Bond is back on the books. He’s not signed off by anyone, psych scores still well below acceptable and yet he’s now somewhere saving face? There is only one reasonable assumption if he’s on the Roster, and if that involves the Americans, this will be messy. Her first thought is to ignore Grace’s advice and leave her post, but with the seriousness of the situation all too apparent? She follows orders. Firing up the laptop, a single document sits, waiting for attention.

Special Agent Ashby,

Some days there is no time for rules or procedures. You are our single most powerful asset, and yet M has declared that you do not have sufficient security clearance to assist in this Operation and must therefore be excluded. I disagree, and I need you to prove this to the powers that be.

Find out everything you can, and then find me.


She sits for a moment and shakes her head, before getting up, pulling away the conduit from the side of the cupboard wall and looking to see what network cables are accessible, whilst locating the by now standard issue Cat 6 cable and multi-tool from inside her handbag. All that is required is Internet access, restriction from the Mainframe never the end of the world. With what the cupboard provides, that should take less than twenty minutes to establish.

Fifteen minutes later the Laptop’s using a hole she’s punched in the Home Office’s own Intranet to access the BBC News website: whatever this crisis is, the outside world is blissfully unaware of it’s nature. Ronni thinks fast: identify the blonde you made eye contact with, because he would be relevant to the flashpoint that started this in some way, or he wouldn’t be here. The blonde would certainly need to have some hefty clearances to even stand in the Lab with M, after all. She looks around Intranet connections, searching for a possible way to access the CCTV footage, then remembers the extra laptop at Reception being used to print the second photo laminate she was issued with on arrival.

She’d bet a weeks worth of tips at the Hotel it wouldn’t be security encrypted.

Ronni smiles as she accesses the portraits and names of every person who’s entered the building since 3.25am that morning, which is when Leiter had arrived with Charlie LaCroix in tow. Without the clout of the Mainframe it will be hard to build a definitive picture of this disconcertingly attractive man, but there were always ways and means. She knows the backdoors to Interpol by heart, but the biggest problem will be the American’s almost obsessive desire to keep everybody out of their business by any means necessary. With the world as her haystack, finding the needle that this all revolved around could be virtually impossible. She needs more than just a name.

Unless, of course, the Americans aren’t being as careful as she is on social media.

She searches for LaCroix everywhere: Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and beyond as slowly but surely family members are connected to each other, building a picture of the man’s relationships. He’s the youngest of three boys, unmarried, and is not American but Canadian by birth. His parents still live in Dominion, close to the Alaskan border and it appears that up until a week ago that’s where Charlie was, because his father has posted a picture of the two of them on a fishing trip. Ronni stares at both and wonders what had transpired to take what she knows from the classification database is an extremely respected CIA agent from there to here in under a week. A quick scan of the US News shows nothing at national level that might be a precursor to an incident, and so Ronni narrows her search, and immediately strikes gold.

Over the previous seven days there are a glut of reports of demonstrations across the East and North of the US, where scheduled decommissioning of Air Force sites had led to clashes between activists and the military. One of them is close to the Alaskan border, and some rabbit holes bring Ronni to a website for the Anti Nuclear League of Northway. Clearly made by someone in their mid teens, the site is full of pictures of vehicles moving equipment across the border to Canada, conspiracy theories that the US is in fact building additional nuclear silos along the Alaskan border. Most importantly of all there are pictures: Ronni scans the pages of files before a face jumps out. This laptop has the picture augmentation software she would need already installed, because Q understood the tools required to join the dots of this puzzle. Within ten minutes Ronni places LaCroix at an Alaskan US Air Force base forty eight hours previously.

After that? There would need to be more intelligence than she currently possessed.

Ronni uses the bathroom and then craves coffee, but all she has access to at this end of the Barracks is the ancient vending machine. Approaching it she is surprised to see Leiter having trouble extracting his bottle of Coke. Without thinking there is a thump to the machine in the right place and the bottle falls. As their eyes meet, Felix’s face illuminates.

‘Special Agent Veronica Ashby, it is a pleasure to finally meet you.’

‘I’m pretty certain I shouldn’t be talking to you, Agent Leiter, so if you’ll excuse me I’ll get my water and be on my way.’

She acts the dedicated civil servant as reflex, making the default selection, and suddenly he’s closer than expected, not comfortable that this man would crush personal space, until it becomes apparent it’s under a pretext. The whisper is measured; it is clear he was waiting for Ronni all along.

‘I know what Q’s got you doing, I’m aware that our superiors are often idiots, and because we need all the help we can get right now and nobody else is sharing and caring I’m gonna give you a hand. Thanks for the Coke.’

As he walks away Ronni knows there’s a credit card slipped in her pocket, and can’t get back to the cupboard fast enough.

Turning the plastic from hand to hand, Ronni looks at her next clue and wonders what she’s been provided with. Perhaps an EMV reader is required to access the card’s inbuilt chip, or maybe it is the hologram that matters. The registered name doesn’t match anyone in the building yet the Visa number is valid, which would suggest this is legitimate currency. Something is wrong and she’s not seeing it, and so empties her handbag and starts searching for associations, attempting to prompt her brain into thinking laterally. At the bottom of her bag is one of Bond’s Universal Exports business cards: seemingly anonymous, calling the number went straight back to 007’s mobile, which in turn alerted London he was marking the location as significant. He’d given it as security when starting her undercover work, and she’d promptly forgotten all about it.

The credit card taunts, until the connection is made: the International Bank of the Americas doesn’t exist either. This payment method is a front, deception in modern form. The question is, what is it hiding and how does she access it? Would it really be as obvious as the Americans could make it?

Q’s pet project springs to mind, mired in development hell and smothered in red tape. They’d built a website, to reinforce the front that Universal Exports was genuine, which could be accessed in an emergency, allowing agents brief and unrestricted access to certain key sections of the Mainframe. Whitehall wouldn’t sanction it, especially after Silva had pretty much destroyed the Government’s security protocols overnight. But Q had maintained that the modern world demanded access to key data in an emergency, especially with the speed that information moved and evolved. He was only mimicking the lead of other intelligence gathering organisations, after all…

Firing up Google, Ronni is confident that the Americans were the start Q was attempting to follow.

The first hit blinks at her, logo plus brief details about the Private Banking organisation that ‘puts your funds in your control’, and Ronni is firing up her IP masker to ensure when they try and trace her as soon as the page is launched, there’s a chance for at least some exploration before being discovered. Hiding things in plain sight was the way forward, after all: she was evidence of that in spades. There is no idea how much access could be afforded, or even what she can do with this card: holding it in thumb and forefinger there is a moment of revelation that makes her laugh out loud at its brilliant simplicity. Under the warmth of her skin, the surface of the plastic is changing.

This card is heat sensitive.

Without a thought she lifts skirt and jams card above stockings and between thighs, gripping tightly while scrabbling for the tools she’ll now need to digest this revelation. Thirty seconds should be enough… As she retrieves the card, there is a smile that makes the fear for Bond’s safety temporarily allay. Here are the instructions needed to get more information than she’s betting Q himself will currently possess, because if Felix Leiter had to make sure this ended up in her hands and couldn’t admit it publicly? There is a great deal more at play than simply the free and frank exchange of information between nations.

Thirty minutes later, the door of the cupboard closes as Ronni emerges, laptop under arm. She is aware of all three female ex-operatives watching closely as she walks down the main corridor, confidence infectious. From start to finish in three hours.

That wasn’t bad, even by normal standards.

Veronica knows why the Barracks is full of Americans, and the better than decent chance they’ve been lying to the British since their arrival.

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DUET: Chapter Seven, Part Two

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WARNING: This passage contains adult and sexual situations.

That night, Ronni dreams she’s on the back of the Bonneville: it’s not Scott driving but Bond, waking her suddenly in a sweat.

Lying in the dark she remembers Redgrave’s warmth, breathless intimacy between them, only time she’d ever felt special or truly wanted. That’s never going to happen again, and certainly not with somebody she works with.

Aware from conversations with the trio of ex-Field Agents that all of them had succumbed over time, Grace to at least two 007’s, she finds herself wondering in the dark how these men manage to charm as they do. Is it simply a notion of power? Does the job generate excessive sexuality making a designation attractive to anyone and everyone? The latter might have some mileage: considering how the Barracks had reacted to her the previous lunchtime suggested that this would be a way forward.

The problem is that Ronni still can’t reconcile the appearance of power and control with what her body would then be forced to do. She wonders if perhaps this is because it’s been so long since she actually had sex: it might be an idea to start trying to change that and see if this was the problem. After all, she only kept her shooting skills at peak with daily practice. However, on reflection, this really shouldn’t be necessary. Other 00 designations however might think differently.

It’s 3.25am and there’s no point trying to get back to sleep: maybe it is wiser to prepare for the first day of mission work proper and have done with it. She dresses in the dark and sits on the edge of her bed, going over personal details, cover story she has to be capable of recounting as well as her own life history to ensure the undercover position is secure. Make-up is completed, longer skirt with a slit the better choice, and she’s out of the door as the sun comes up, walking ten minutes from this Hotel to the one that now employs her, bastion of British gentility that will be base of operations for the foreseeable future.

She is introduced at the early staff meeting as Julie Fisher and uses nerves as an excuse but can’t be completely hopeless at convincing because by 9.30 she’s on first name terms with everyone in the kitchen. Sam, Emilio and Marco invite her to share the remains of the morning’s leftovers; progress is made when by lunchtime she’s being asked for a drink after shift. Sam’s interest in her is immediate and intoxicating: whip thin, tattoos everywhere, he is the perfect example of the kind of man Ronni never normally crossed paths with yet found incredibly attractive. She allows herself to flirt, and is amazed when, at the end of the evening, he kisses the inside of her wrist with a delicacy that sets every nerve on fire.

Moving into staff accommodation the following week, Emilio carries her bags out of the service lift. There is brief paranoia that cases could open and the Walther could spill out, but that’s probably healthy. He’s married, kid on the way, and is perennially helpful: Ronni decides to use him as her point man. Trusted with a lot of information as his brother works on the Reception desk, this is an easy choice. It’s not hard to get the man to open up either, relationship with a heavily pregnant wife difficult because of the extra hours he’s working. Ronni is grateful for the lessons learnt, to manipulate without it being obvious: people simply end up wanting to confide what needs to be known. She ID’s a woman at breakfast at the end of her first week who the Metropolitan Police pick up the same day before lunch, wanted for multiple counts of passport fraud, and finally there is a glimmer of hope, to begin to start making a difference with the training.

Two days later, a flashpoint comes in the loading area behind the kitchens: she discovers Sam in an alcove, forcing one of the Chinese maids to fellate him, clearly under considerable duress. When he pulls a knife the training takes over and he’s unconscious before there’s a chance for resistance. The woman isn’t interested in pressing charges, already illegally working three jobs, but Emilio has Sam’s room cleared in under an hour as the police take him into custody. It transpires that the man’s part of a gang the Met has been targeting for drug distribution, and so Ronni’s again congratulated: knowing Sam’s employers will not be best pleased, she is conscious of being on guard.

Walking back to the Barracks the next afternoon, Ronni instinctively knows she is being followed. The Walther is in her room because she doesn’t want to use it, aware that all these weeks worth of hard work could be for nothing: in training there’d never been more than two guys at once and because the three shadowing aren’t going to expect resistance, that’s already an advantage. When there’s a hand on her mouth before being bundled down an alley she decides on minimal struggle, reminder that not fighting is sometimes the best way to gain an advantage. Their tattoos confirm the suspicion: Sam’s ‘friends’ have arrived to exact their version of revenge for her actions.

Only when two assailants are restraining her and the other begins to unzip his jeans comes the concession in Ronni’s mind that sex is pretty much what motivates everything, and that’s not how to operate if there’s ever an opportunity to avoid it. None of her attackers remain conscious long enough to register anything, anger at these men’s notion of punishment enough to ensure nobody comes up once she has them on the ground. When the Police vehicle arrives thirty seconds after the last one’s head has been slammed into the alleyway wall, Ronni realises her back had been covered all along.

Returned to Barracks, Frasier is the Medic on call who sits and stitches the wound on her neck: two of the three were carrying knives and Ronni hadn’t even noticed. There were Tetanus shots to have and a police report to be filed, but Q insisted she did one and not concern herself with the other. Apparently he had the whole incident on CCTV anyway. Maybe Ronni should worry every waking moment was under surveillance, but not today.

She drinks tea from Q’s mug as concession he cares, thinking about Sam’s lips on the inside of her wrist, when 007 does the genie trick in a tuxedo that’s impressive even by his standards.

‘I hear you beat up some more bad guys. That’s four now?’

‘I’m not keeping count, but clearly you are. Let me guess, you were just passing?’

‘The English National Opera is just over there, so as a matter of fact I was.’

‘Ah yes, tonight is the Royal Gala. You taking someone from the Department?’

‘I asked Moneypenny, she declined my invitation. Apparently it’s finals night for some reality TV show.’

‘She can’t record it?’

‘I think I know by now when I’m being intentionally friend-zoned, Ashby. Don’t rub it in.’

Despite herself she laughs at him, because suddenly here’s the field agent who needs cheering up, that this was ironic considering Bond’s normally the boy all the good girls want. Except here he is again, at her door, standing close enough to allow appreciation of the hint of Issey Miyaki. This isn’t his usual scent, but her favourite and suddenly Ronni feels the power in the room shift into her hands.

‘It’s a good thing for you that Q’s got your back.’

‘They were all unconscious before the Police arrived. I had it covered. What, you’re going to warn me now that undercover work is dangerous?’

Waiting for the comeback he’s frozen, staring in a manner that isn’t so much odd as surprising. His hand goes to her head, tracing scar that remains, injury sustained in the last bout of sparring that he had finally conceded had been on truly equal terms. The touch is so light, delicacy that makes her shiver at the care, understanding why body should never control your actions.

‘Everything’s dangerous, especially you.’

‘Should I take that as a compliment?’

‘Absolutely you should. You’re the most competent and accomplished field agent I’ve ever had the privilege to work with.’

‘You know, that’s the sort of opening that could be construed as an overture to something else.’

‘From anybody else, but absolutely not from me. You deserve far more respect than that.’

Now the room’s oppressive, and Ronni’s aware of a tension created that Bond is fighting to control. I know what you want: this is how it would have begun for Moneypenny and all those other women. A moment of conflict, diffused with first hand, then mouth… watching him handsomely torn, unable to cross the line. She could let him in, would be the easiest thing in the World, but then everything she stood for would be shattered, destroyed by a moment of weakness he’s fighting to contain and she has totally under control.

Well, that’s almost true.

‘I don’t know anyone else with your strength, and it frightens me.’

‘No it doesn’t. This isn’t fear. I just don’t understand why you choose to treat me differently. What’s the problem?’

‘What you want, what I could provide… it’s not my job to. You have to ask.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Trust me, it won’t be long now. Then you may end up hating everything you stand for.’

He almost runs from the room, leaving Ronni alone and empty, wondering what horrors Q has yet to make her face.

She stands hours later in the hotel room’s shower, pushing face to tile, trying to leech some of the heat from her body, but failing. Today she realised that with all the training in the world, there was a part of Veronica Ashby that wasn’t ready for the 00 designation. She could use sexuality as a weapon, and there would come a point where this was the only option, possibly to save her own life, but not now. Bond can switch gears without a thought, slip effortlessly between personas. She however, has a lot to learn. In the end she’d rather kill someone than sleep with them, and ultimately that would be bad for business.

It takes forever to get comfortable in bed, desire refusing to leave but finally sleep takes her. It is impossible to escape his influence, however hard she tries.

Bond has worked his way inside her body despite the belief he could be resisted.

She’s back in the Barracks, before the interview, and 007 is inches from her face, staring at her mouth, rendering body incapable. Suddenly his hand is on her hip, stuff of the dress being pulled up, fingers travelling down under g-string and over pubis, thumb beginning to stimulate an already swollen clitoris. The wave washes up her back, shudder of pleasure as lower body ignites, trying so hard not to break eye contact as legs begin to shake. Ronnie’s hand suddenly moves to his face and pulls them together, kissing so hard that mouth hurts…

The alarm won’t go away, insistent beeping, and Ronni can’t separate anything accurately, missing clock and instead sweeping phone off the cabinet to her right. Eventually the alarm is silenced and she lies, feeling the knot of unreleased pressure below the waist, sexuality demanding attention in a way she can’t remember for a long time… until her brain is conscious enough to grasp the problem.

It doesn’t have to be Bond: he really is a metaphor, simply the nearest convenient truth.

She’s forgotten how to enjoy herself: on this journey losing an understanding of how that equated to her own body. Crucially, Ronni’s not controlled by the same forces a male agent would be to begin with, pure biology their weakness and her overriding strength. Up until now there has been a concession, there is no need to assert power: concerned only with her task, with little thought for personal reward. That’s what sex ends up being in this game: a way to define control, means to an end, which you may as well enjoy along the way. Bond can do his job and indulge in fringe benefits without either derailing the task in hand. Ronni however has ignored one to the benefit of the other, but would need the ability trained just as much as her surveillance or small arms skills.

Looking at the clock she doesn’t have time to deal with her arousal or this revelation, already late, and has to be at the Lab in an hour. At some point she should take a trip into Soho on a pretence and do something constructive about the female frustration. If Ronni were to believe Q’s assertions the night before she really wasn’t under permanent surveillance, so finding a shop to buy a suitable item would be far easier than attempting to order anything to help her over the Internet.

Lying in the rapidly lightening room, the revelation hits of planning to purchase sex toys for field practice on government time. At least if caught doing it, she can claim it as a legitimate expense.

Ronni doesn’t stop laughing for quite some time.

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DUET: Chapter Seven, Part One

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This was not what Ronni had in mind when Q had warned her to prepare to go undercover.

The ‘uniform’ currently being fitted isn’t restrictive, but the black cotton skirt is at least two inches shorter than she’d normally wear, and there is far too much cleavage on show. She tries not to be irritated as the two middle-aged seamstresses fiddle with the waitress outfit as if she was a mannequin, but there is no way this will ever be acceptable attire, even though at the back of her mind there is perfect comprehension at the look being aimed for.

‘We are using your assets to their best advantage, Veronica. Please try not to fidget.’

It has been a week since the incident in the Sparring Ring: much had changed in the Barracks. Ronni knows she’s earned respect from everyone, even the most hardened of senior techs. Bond hasn’t mentioned their confrontation since, often wondering if she should bring it up, before remembering the golden rule. No discussing current assignments with anyone, not even senior officers. He’s either the best actor she’s ever met, or the incident is behind them. If anything, the defiance has bought them closer: he’ll greet her in the morning and at least nod when she leaves for the night. Ronni made him laugh unprompted earlier that day, but now there’s relief he’s not in the room.

‘Well, that’s an interesting look for you.’

God, how do you do this Bond?

‘Can you read minds, 007?’

‘If I could Ashby, I’d be earning my wage anywhere but here. I heard you were being fitted for your undercover work. When someone told me stockings and heels were involved I thought I’d see what you considered appropriate.’

‘You arrived to make me feel uncomfortable?’

‘You don’t need me to do that, you’ll manage perfectly well on your own. That skirt could be shorter still and you could throw in a garter, because it’ll give the guys somewhere to tuck your tips other than cleavage.’

There is a moment of something in Bond’s features, look Ronnie tries and fails to assess, even after such prolonged exposure to him. The mask instead slips effortlessly back into place and he’s gone, back to the Lab, leaving the realisation the man’s right. If the focus of this disguise, because that’s what it is, is to help her attract the interest of certain patrons at the Hotel then Bond, as usual, knows what would work. Stockings, but perhaps not with a shorter skirt… a split to let her leg and garter be accessed…

‘I think you could take this in a little bit, actually.’

Q smiles, silent acceptance, then briefest of nods in agreement as Ronni decides against the flats she’d initially planned to wear, instead picking a pair of more substantive heels. She’s also quietly reconsidering her choice of interview wear as the seamstresses wander away with the ‘finished’ outfit, even though employment at the Hotel would be secured regardless of performance. Like everything else in this exercise, it had already been planned down to the smallest detail. To play the part well, she could do a lot worse than get into character immediately.

Her ‘interview’ was set for 14.00 hours, taxi ride from outside the Barracks: working as normal until an hour before, aware of Bond in her periphery for most of the morning. The confidence she’d gained since giving Q a chance to take out Kendrick was growing, quietly nurtured with fertile self-worth. Now was the time to see if she was able to create reaction with herself as a different kind of weapon. The request for an outfit change arrives without a word, delivered by Q himself with what was assumed to be an approving nod to her station.

Alone in the communal changing rooms, preparing quietly after lunch, she waits until Bond returns from the small arms range, jacket off and rolled sleeves, strolling unaware past the open door. The emerald green jersey dress did everything right for her body, comfortably clingy across breast and waist with heels that meant she’d be eye to eye with 007 should he challenge her, even if it meant dealing with sore feet by day’s end. She’d consciously left mobile phone by her workstation, which meant an extended ‘catwalk’ in and out of the lab to retrieve it.

She’s not expecting her own arousal but it happens, lower body aware of what brain is suggesting, and it’s a shock that almost derails the plan. Closing eyes, there is a moment of panic, legs unsteady, until training kicks in. Normally she’d be swallowing fear but now it’s different, subtle redefinition of the playing field. Like it or not she understands finally that every waking moment really is a test, until the day they tell her she earned the number.

There is no focus except the desk, only interest her mobile: once secured she turns and walks out of the side office, aware that Rachel is standing just outside the doorway. Once she’d learned that all the flirting in the world by Bond wouldn’t make this ex-Field Operative the slightest bit interested, that she’d come out in an attempt to promote more agents of both sexes to embrace their gender identities, this woman’s opinion had become indispensable. She leans on her cane, eyes smiling appreciatively.

‘I see you’ve grasped the lesson that sex sells, Ashby, especially when it comes to distraction. Your dress certainly works for me.’

‘I’m getting there. I doubt I’ll ever be really comfortable in this version of the uniform, or with compliments from either sex.’

‘A wise mindset to be in, you’re far less likely to be deceived as a result.’

‘How did you cope with this part of the training?’

‘It’s not about dressing for what you think other people find attractive a lot of the time, its what makes you feel more sexual. Of course, there are disguises like the waitress outfit where there comes a measure of compromise. Always defer in that case to the people you’re attempting to deceive.’

‘You must have spent a lot of time pretending to be someone else.’

‘Indeed, and that’s why I encourage everyone to be honest with their outlooks whenever possible. I really hope your undercover work bears fruit. I for one am looking forward to doing some actual work for a change.’

At this Ronni can’t help but smile: after all, there’s a lot of people here on any given day who have little or nothing to do unless an emergency appears. If she could spice that up? So much better for everyone else.

Rachel turns and walks away, and Ronni is ready to leave. She is almost to the Barracks entrance when 007 launches his effort to derail her.

‘Special Agent Ashby.’

She has to wait, listening to the slow, measured gait as he walks up the corridor. He hasn’t pulled rank on her once the entire time she’s been here. Now he approaches, relaxed yet impeccable, different jacket and tie to the combination he’d been wearing that morning; yet there is disquiet in the demeanour. This isn’t the Bond she expected. He can’t keep eye contact, eyes to breasts and then back, finally fixating on her mouth almost in desperation, aware he has no power at all over her.

She won’t be phased by anyone, especially him.

Close enough now to taste expensive cologne, to note a shave is in order there’s no response, and yet he moves closer still. Fingers slowly brush her hand, desperately trying anything to break resolve. It won’t work. She’s immune to this. The stand-off isn’t uncomfortable, but it’s not pleasant either, as Ronni’s body subconsciously responds to his proximity. Leaning across, mouth to ear: words carefully placed, shooting straight into her brain.

‘You don’t need it, especially from me, but I will wish you good luck. Because I can.’

‘Thank you, Sir.’

She uses the word with emphasis, acknowledgement that if he’s going to invoke rank, then she will too. Only when he pulls away does something shift between them both, moment of history briefly illuminated. Bond looks an awful lot like Scott right now, Ronni grasps with a sudden stab of amazement, jacket remarkably similar to one he owned… and he knows it. 007 is gone, sudden purpose in gait before vanishing back into the main Lab. He had altered his hairstyle, gel when normally there’d be none, highlighting a parallel she’d buried, tried to forget. Knowing she’d pushed, he reacted in kind. The agent had tried to use his physical similarity to Redgrave as a means to derail confidence, and had come close to succeeding.

Only when she’s in the Taxi outside does Ronni admit to herself that the past retains an ability to destroy everything completely.

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DUET: Chapter Six, Part Five

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After lunch, the schedule is again scrubbed: Ronni is told to report back to the Sparring Ring.

She assumes it is punishment for arrogance, that Q will reinforce who’s in charge and that stepping out of line isn’t part of the training. Waiting quietly in the musky darkness of what used to be the Stables, Ronni stares at the one way glass opposite and wonders who’s decided to come and watch her being destroyed again, that this is beyond ridiculous. She needs to be in the field and not in a ring: triumphs are pointless fripperies with no value unless things change. The only point worth making has nothing to do with who’s stronger, and this is a game that won’t be played any more regardless of consequence.

Genuine anger rises for the first time in weeks, and Ronni does nothing to curb it.

As Bond appears and heads towards the ring there is a refusal to make eye contact, no means for him to engage in anything. Body language is neutral, remembering the previous day, allowing no power to be taken by any means. He had confided in her that this was something pretty much every female agent had been put through since the mid 1960’s. Bond would be presented as a benchmark, and they would have to prove their worth.

As the buzzer sounds to start the bout, Ronni simply stands and waits.

Bond makes no move; she watches the glass instead, staring at the male techs she knows will be noting the fact that there’s no fighting when there should be. Suddenly the shift comes, Bond moves but Ronni is faster. Effortlessly feigning, she’s on the ground and taking a mouthful of dirt before removing Bond’s legs from under him with an anger that consumes everything in a moment. As he lands next to her, hand is balled into a fist: she punches to his groin as hard as possible.

His cry is worse than anything heard in weeks of training, echoing around the ancient brick walls, briefly enough to silence her disquiet. Counting to ten, only when the buzzer sounds to record the win does she walk away without the need to register anything else. The pain in her knuckles forces a smile: it could have been far worse. He was wearing an abdominal guard.

Ronni’s grin turns to laughter as she understands Bond knew what was coming.

‘I still find it hard to believe it took over fifty years for anyone to punch a 007 in the balls.’

Q leans back, staring at Veronica, still in the sweats worn for the sparring match, and allows himself a moment of satisfaction; he had been right the first time they met. She was the one who’d tear down the walls and finally open the doors not simply for more women, but for diversity to finally become a real and palpable part of the Intelligence Service’s 21st Century arsenal. Ronni grasped the only way to win was to rip up the rules and start again, ironically just as the first 007 had done in the 50’s. For this alone, Q is proud of what Special Agent Ashby would now come to represent.

‘I’m staggered this was classified as formal assessment just for female agents to begin with, Q. I mean, really? Everybody failed because nobody had the balls?’

‘There have been various people who have held my designation before me. The man who had the job for the longest was, quite frankly, a remarkable and brilliant individual. I only met him once, in his last days, and it was a morning I don’t think I will ever forget. His sense of humour was both wicked and precise, and this was his in-joke that over the years became the ultimate in Old School hypocrisy. No woman would ever treat a man like that, because no man would ever hit a woman.’

‘Nobody ever tried?’

‘Grace came close. Rachel shot 007’s predecessor in a fit of pique once: to be honest I don’t blame her, under the circumstances I’d have probably done the same. Bond gets under people’s skins in different ways: the notion of male superiority is something I know many people have real issue with. Needless to say, Veronica, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with anyone in this building again. You most definitely wear the trousers now.’

He watches the woman relax, concession to the compliment, and knows that this step of training is done. They can’t teach her anything else, what she needs to learn now will come with the unpredictability of the outside world.

She’s not taken two steps outside Q’s office when Ronni’s almost lifted off her feet and pushed into the Barracks wall. Hard brick hits back of head and it is a second to reorientate, to have Bond inches from her face, responding with a burst of adrenaline from upper body that pushes him halfway across the corridor. He’s not expecting her anger, this much is obvious, and it takes a second to regroup.

‘You could have at least given me a chance!’

‘I’m sorry, you’re telling me I have to allow you to save face before I beat you?’

‘You could have considered your game plan a little better.’

‘Screw that and screw you, if you’re expecting me to help you maintain your dignity you’re a bloody coward.’

‘And you’re a fucking bitch.’

She’d expected a more sporting response, never having heard 007 swear before. The smile this produces can’t be hidden, and so she doesn’t as Bond’s face flares. He is genuinely aggrieved and the pleasure that creates is something of a surprise. However the training kicks in and it is tempered, aware of conscience pricking her reaction: something important has changed between them. However this isn’t about being right, it is the moment to win a war of words with one of the best wielders of banter in the Secret Service.

‘You find my discomfort funny?”

‘No, I find it amusing you had to wear protection.’

‘As it happens I’m not a big fan of pain.’

‘For the record, I’m not a great fan of being used as entertainment. I’m sure we’ll both cope.’

‘You’re not even going to apologise?’

‘You lost! I beat you by exactly fulfilling the requirements of the assessment. You’re asking me to apologise because I won?’

Every pair of eyes is on them, entire Barracks standing to watch the confrontation. Again Ronni waits, unwavering, refusing to give a millimetre of ground to her superior officer, staring with intent she cannot adequately gauge. It seems like forever, but finally 007 turns and walks away, still clearly in some pain. If she’d managed to do that much damage even with a support in place? Upper body strength was better than she thought.

There’s no time for games any more, and Ronni’s had enough training. If Q didn’t already know, it was time to stop pretending she could make a difference and actually let her do so in the field.

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DUET: Chapter Six, Part Four

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Despite the concussion, she is up the following morning at dawn, in the Barracks before any of the senior staff surface. Naomi is waiting at her desk, steaming latte and fresh croissant already provided, and Ronni wants to hug the woman for her thoughtfulness, and so does.

‘I must admit I was concerned for a while, that maybe they’d finally break you. I only managed a session in hand-to-hand, but a great deal has changed since my day.’

‘It was my own fault in the end. You live and learn.’

‘You know we’re all looking out for you, how much this means for everybody, and I can’t help but think that maybe that’s pressure you don’t really need. I don’t think we should be pinning our hopes on you like the Department is.’

‘In the end, I’m not doing this for anyone else other than myself. I’m still determined to get to the end, whatever else might get thrown at me. I think… having such inspiring role models here to encourage me is definitely helping. I know it sounds trite, but you women are a reminder to me that people have done this and made a difference.’

Naomi’s eyes sparkle, slight shift in body language that means the compliment has hit the target.

‘I think it’s us that ought to be inspired by you. None of us took VB. We’re all casualties of war, in our own ways.’

‘You’ve seen my file, you can read between the lines. I’d far rather be you.’

‘The other field agent’s assignment is always easier. Yes, I know that feeling. We have fresh surveillance for you from yesterday, I’ve uploaded it to your terminal. Good luck this morning.’

The woman walks away as her superior appears, engrossed on his tablet, giving neither of them more attention than is necessary. Ronni takes a bite of pastry and begins her assessment of the new material, pleased with what Naomi has found. Today is a chance to show progress in surveillance analysis: no more dummy targets to consider, only living, breathing killers. This one makes her feel distinctly uncomfortable, and the new information will be useful to prove a point. She’s still working an hour later when Bond and Q appear, deep in conversation.

She could try and lip read: it’s a decent certainty the discussion is about her and there’s enough of a headache with the responsibility of the data and its consequences without overloading herself further. They’d spent three days between them reducing her to mush, no doubt that whatever’s coming next will have a similar effect; however this time she’s not going to just soak the pressure.

If they want to push, she’ll push back. She has an ace in her pocket to play.

Eventually her teachers appear by the terminal. Bond’s in what probably passes as vintage matching everything in pale grey: Ronni wishes to look a tenth as good in anything she possessed. Q makes her wait, clearly gauging patience, before finally nodding to her his assent.

‘I think we are both ready after our regulation Service breakfast. So then, Special Agent Ashby, you have permission to impress us.’

Ronni needs no further prompting to proceed. The screen above her springs to life, details filling in above her head as accompaniment to the commentary.

‘Louis Marco Kendrick, born September 1960. Illegitimate son of a noted US Ambassador, educated in a series of private boarding schools across the United States. Instigated an affair with his nanny when he was 15: she was 33, and when the woman threatened to blackmail the family she promptly vanished, turning up dead six months later face down in the Hudson River. He was convicted of her murder and spent the next decade of his life bouncing between Juvenile Hall and East Coast Penitentiaries.’

She feels awkward in green skirt and cream blouse, focus on 007 to whom most of this should be news. Bond in turn watches her, bruise on his cheek the only visible acknowledgement to recent events. She’s had to do hair differently this morning to avoid a dressing high on her forehead, and the change is acceptable, so he’ll be staring in an attempt to phase. Ronni’s having none of it: if he wants a reaction it is time to move away from the physical. There won’t need to be much to push for a response, if he feels as bad as she does.

‘He was one of six men involved in the Hudson Jailbreak in 1980 and quietly vanished from public life. The next time he appeared was four years later, in the Soviet Union, where he was linked to the procurement of under-age girls to work in a number of brothels in Moscow.’

‘Clearly his love affair with older women was over.’

Ronni is irritated by Bond’s provocation but holds her tongue, continuing the story of a boy who became a drug dealer, gun-runner but in the end would always return to women. Tens, hundreds of innocent victims whom he exploited, degraded and murdered for pleasure at every possible opportunity.

‘We believe he’s running over a dozen brothels across Europe, using them as fronts to traffic both young women and men to the highest bidders: you’ll be pleased to know, 007 that since we began surveillance of him last week his choice of female escort has very much reverted to his boyhood tastes.’

The feed Ronni gained from Naomi’s team is accessed: illuminated on the screen in front of them, the footage shows Kendrick sitting on the veranda of his East London riverside apartment with a woman who covers every base of voluptuous with flesh to spare, seated on a bench that looks as if it’s about to give under her weight. She’s wearing virtually nothing either, and Ronni just can’t look as a result.

‘This certainly gives you something to hold onto.’

‘Is that really necessary?’

‘If it irritates you, then absolutely it’s necessary, Special Agent Ashby. Bond is here to be a provocateur. Your job is not to rise to that, head injury or not. Your personal feelings on this man’s actions are not a subject for the briefing either, unless I specifically ask for them. Which I haven’t.’

‘I’m sorry Q, some days the urge overtakes my obvious good sense and judgement.’

‘If it wasn’t Bond who made the comment, would it bother you?’

‘No, I’d just swallow it and keep my disgust and disappointment to myself.’

007 stays silent, waiting for the moment. He understands only too well what Ronni will be feeling: irritation, annoyance and disgust that a man like Kendrick can be allowed to live on their front door, with a Visa that Whitehall sanctioned. Sometimes left and right hands seemed to belong to completely different people, not simply in this Department. They’d spoken about injustice whilst being treated by the Facility Doctor the previous afternoon, except she’d not named Kendrick directly as the focus of her ire. He’d gone and done some digging as a result, subsequently pushing Q before they began this exercise to check some work she’d been doing on the quiet, using the Department’s software suite for threat assessment.

He hopes for an opportunity to force her hand, because if he can, it will be glorious.

‘So if that is the case, why do you feel the need-‘

‘Because, with respect, Q, this banter is a waste of valuable time. What we should be concentrating on is gathering sufficient evidence to pin down the centres of this guy’s trafficking operation and shutting them down. Not in the lab, but right now across Europe. I am aware of due process, but this man’s flagrancy needs to be stopped in its tracks. Whatever any of us may think, these women and men are victims, and we have an obligation to help those that can’t help themselves. If all else fails, you should give me free rein to put a bullet through his frontal lobe where he sits.’

Assassinating Kendrick in his flat had already been discussed at senior level by several people and dismissed because of the total impracticality of his location. 007 knows full well Ronni’s picked up something the modelling analysts missed. This time, the last thing he wants is to upstage her moment. All he has to do is doubt the assertion, and then stand back.

‘It can’t be done.’

‘Yes it can’.

‘He picked this location for an extremely good reason, there’s nowhere to be targeted.’

Ronni’s eyes narrow, utter confidence in the statement, and Bond knows the look. It is given with the belief of a 00 agent who’s about to suggest the impossible to get the job done.

‘Not by you, certainly. Absolutely by me.’

‘Bond is correct, Veronica. Kendrick picked this spot knowing we were unable to eliminate him even if we wanted to. There’s no decent vantage for a sniper at that level.’

‘Then you both need better intelligence, gentlemen, because I found a spot where you can.’

Ronni’s rifle scores, with small arms close behind are the one part of her training that has never wavered, even when placed under extremely trying circumstances. This was her particular skill, in the same way Bond would know when to make a jump or turn a vehicle, she gets the shot. Q’s indignation is obvious: if he’s missed this, there needs to be evidence to support it.

‘Show me!’

Ronni fires up the 3D model viewer, scenario that places Kendrick’s apartment in a position where, it does appear there is no obvious place for a sniper. Then she draws the lines, sights back to the edge of a large abandoned warehouse, on the corner of which is a precarious outcropping: tower used to haul foodstuffs up and down the side of the building. Q’s mouth actually opens and closes in disbelief before he can find a response.

‘How did the simulations miss this?’

‘Because you’d have to be insane to consider the shot to begin with.’

For the first time in a while he regrets the comment as it leaves him, until Bond senses Ronni’s regard with a smile that does things to both brain and body he’s temporarily unable to ignore.

‘Why, thank you 007, that’s the nicest thing you’ve said about me all week.’

Bond is beyond impressed, entire set-up planned pretty much alone, able to back up research in the way she’d be expected to as an active agent. He’s not surprised either, in fact is beginning to expect nothing less. Ronni should be rewarded for both persistence and foresight as a result.

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DUET: Chapter Six, Part Three

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Q was fully expecting to be interrupted eating his regulation Caesar Salad, no croutons, primed as he had been for Ronni to arrive and finally admit defeat. It appears that the point he and Bond had been trying to make may have actually registered.

‘I’m sorry, Special Agent Ashby, I’m going to need better than that if you wish me to consider cancelling the next session in the Ring.’

‘Q, I would like to respectfully concede… 007’s superiority in the field of hand to hand combat. I don’t ever believe… I will be as good as he is.’

‘I doubt you’d ever have to be. He’s the best there is, and you should always have something to aspire to.’

He uses every word with care, as has been the case increasingly in the last three weeks: knowing how to antagonise her was developing into something of an art form. Bond used his strength, Q backed it up with subtlety. They made for a potent combination.

‘With the greatest of respect, I don’t think this is ever a skill I’d aspire to be an expert in.’

Now it appears, bitterness in her voice he knows has been brewing for days, and Q feels it appropriate to put down the Civil Service cutlery. He’d wondered how long she would take being pushed as they had: Bond had expected concession after the previous afternoon’s punishment. Her stamina was impressive, as was her stubbornness. However, this was exactly what would be expected in the field, required as part of the training. Every agent’s limit was different, this much was obvious from decades of metrics. Ronni’s was particularly high regardless of how bad she was clearly feeling.

There is a question he’s wanted to ask since Bond returned from Carnagie and told him the story of their meeting, need to understand motivation, without the reasoning seeming obvious. That’s why he’d chosen Bond for this task, after all. He was, like it or not, the exact embodiment of her nemesis.

‘I’m curious, Veronica. Why do you hate 007 so much?’

Ronni doesn’t, she knows instinctively: she has come to be comfortable with the man since arriving back in London. He’s offered increasing insights into improving fighting styles, shortcuts around the department’s mainframe, even how to get an extra bottle of water every time from the Barracks vending machine. She knows he’ll default to flirting whenever the chance arises in the Lab, and if he drifts too close to her at a terminal personal space will always be re-asserted.

No, she doesn’t hate him. It’s his persona that’s the problem, and Q knows it.

‘I don’t, Q, I simply object to both him and you persistently using 007 as a metaphor.’

Bond listens with increasing fascination, no need for earpiece on this occasion as he waits quietly outside Q’s office. Ronni’s kicked him so hard in their last bout that there’ll need to be medical attention to his shoulder, but for now a dressing on the wound will suffice, because he knows if she’s grasped their game there’s a revelation coming. As she lay bleeding and battered on the ground, 007 hopes an understanding of the fundamental truth has registered. This isn’t about her, they’re just reinforcing a point.

‘Suddenly I am interested in where this is going.’

Q finally responds, staring at the woman intently: Bond notices blood dripping down her forehead, which she wipes away without thinking.

‘He’s a metaphor for what, exactly?’

‘What I will never be. He’s a unattainable benchmark. I can never reasonably be expected to match the physical abilities or robustness of a male agent, yet I am forced to aspire to them. That seems wholly unacceptable.’

‘Yet we continue to push you into confrontational situations with him, because whether you like it or not he is the benchmark. Whether you can reach that standard or not is largely irrelevant, but there has to be a system of measurement. Your problem is your arrogance, that you falsely assume where we decide to record your success.’

Bond can’t help but smile at her use of him as a metaphor for so many things: level of physical strength, ingenuity, continued inability to be taken seriously by a number of senior male Q Branch techs. He’d suggested not judging herself on his criteria but she’d countered, that was what everyone else did, and it was just wrong to accept that standard. Finally, perhaps there would be understanding what really mattered in the equation was her first, above him. Once this was apparent, a great many things would undoubtedly change for the better.

He’d had this speech himself, remembering how the current 004 had handed him his arse for the best part of a week before he got the rationale. Training methods hadn’t changed that much, the only difference was the way in which the points were presented. Q might be his junior in years, but he pretty much took the trophy for reinforcement. He watches as Ronni’s body language alters, registering the sag of exhausted shoulders, and he knows she’s understood.

Ronni wonders if she could have saved herself three days worth of suffering if Q’s point had registered sooner. Her naïvety really was a problem, but it didn’t matter. She’d not given in, lasted the required time at least twice, even if today 007 had walked all over her. It would be easy to correct Q but she won’t: arrogance was never the right adjective, but it was the one people would throw at her whenever stubbornness arose. Her parents, colleagues, ex-boyfriends. She’d blame innocence, they’d go straight for arrogance, and there was no middle ground. In the end there was no point trying to correct people, simpler to hide further away. On reflection, this was not a good idea when dealing with her employers.

However, in this case, she was beyond caring and just wanted to lie down in the Barracks cot.

‘I thought you’d be pleased my judgement isn’t as perfect as you thought it was.’

‘Special Agent Ashby, it may be time to grasp that perfection is a subjective term. As a 00 agent your primary objective is always to complete the mission assigned to you. As long as that happens, everything else is secondary’

‘If that were true, 007 would be out of a job. I know the official line, and I grasp the reality that accompanies that. I need to be the best I can be, and I am. I was naïve to believe I could second-guess you, and you have made me suffer for that. I now understand why you’ve let me take three days to reach that conclusion.’

Her head hurts, blood dripping down from her forehead becoming impossible to ignore. About to use a sleeve to staunch it, she doesn’t expect someone to place a hand there with a dressing, least of all Bond. He appears clearly in pain: sweatshirt is torn open, another blood-soaked pad failing to do the job it’s been placed for. She really did make a mess of his shoulder, and it slowed him down, but the only way to stop him for good would be to put a bullet through his crotch, but that probably wouldn’t be enough. For the purposes of this exercise a swift kick in the balls would have brought respite, but she’d never had the nerve. If Q puts them back together, that would absolutely be the opening move.

‘Great. Now you’ve finally worked it out, we’re both going to need stitches.’

As she watches him limp away, Ronni allows herself a brief moment of satisfaction.

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DUET : Chapter Six, Part Two

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TRIGGER WARNING: This passage mentions routine torture in all its forms, including rape.

Bond quietly sits, bathed in sunshine, waiting for his mission to appear.

Whitehall Gardens are glorious, spring cautiously emerging everywhere, and 007 enjoys watching the world stroll past, relishing in the realisation that winter really is over and done with. This is where he’ll run later, but for now it’s full of people on their way to work, welcome smiles and cautious conversations. The sunglasses, for a change are a necessity and not part of a disguise, coffee on the bench to his right tasting richer than it has done for some time. Everything just seems better with fair weather and no jacket, especially surveillance.

He picks Ronni up on the far side of the park, outline registered without thinking. The way she moves is committed to memory, stride matching whatever she’s listening to on the iPod: her fondness for latte made him change his regular morning order, and he’s beginning to enjoy it. Only in this job does attention to detail count as an advantage and not obsession: grateful for the opportunity to lose himself in process, he’s succumbed to Ronni completely. Eyes too dark to be jade but too light for grass, smile always genuine even when she deceives, body honed now to physical perfection. She also looks stunning in the uniform, he concludes, traversing across his line of vision on the other side of the park. Black jacket, skirt just below the knee, boots that would soon give way to shoes and stockings, hair always down and tied back. The same colours on the palette that trees and shrubs would soon wear but without her grace, hair moving as delicate branches of the still-bare trees, perfect combination of factors that made her particular whole an enjoyable brief to shadow.

Bond is all too aware of how much rides on this woman’s shoulders, Departmental hopes on what this will finally herald. He also understands that if she succeeds, which is an increasing certainty, they may never see each other again. He can’t help but feel sad at the prospect, because of everyone that has crossed his path since he shot the Section Chief in Prague, she’s who he’d just most like to hang around with at the end of a difficult day. He doesn’t love her, or crave a physical connection. This isn’t about forgetting anything, using Ronni as distraction. He just knows they are two sides of the same coin: it has been a long time since there was anything in common with anybody in this job. That’s the key, why Q pushed the pair of them into each other’s gravity. She still doesn’t fully understand the forces working here; he is more than aware of where this will end.

His charge is almost to the other gate, blissfully unaware of his presence: he can only guess at the anticipation in her stomach, mind undoubtedly full to bursting of the possibilities the next months will bring. Bond’s binned the empty coffee cup, keeping pace behind; shadowing to the Barracks. He’ll make damn sure she knows 007’s in the building as this first day of training begins. The job in the next few months is simple: be there and pick his moments, find ways to get under her skin just as he did with the questions at Millbank. He’s used to flirting with beautiful women and getting paid for it. This will be different, because he is in no position to dictate terms. This isn’t to get what he wants, it is to make sure Ronni arrives where she deserves, because this is one woman who is going to fulfil her dream, payment for what’s been lost and given up along the way.

He has a vested interest in her success, and is not about to throw that away for anything.

‘This is your desk, Special Agent Ashby. I’ll give you 30 minutes to acquaint yourself with the Mainframe and then we’ll begin with the initial orientation session.’

She hadn’t planned on her own space in the Barracks, especially not with Internet access, and the desk is an unexpected surprise. It’s more sophisticated than anything she’s had the chance to play with before, keyboard embedded into the glass surface, but Ronni doesn’t need it. As the handler walks away she’s aware of being stared at, looking up to meet the gaze of a woman at a terminal opposite she guesses is in her late 50’s, regarding with what appears as genuine warmth. The reaction is instinct, using the touchscreen terminal to capture this woman’s image, then setting the face recognition software to work.

Her office partner is Naomi Walters, same Army graduation class as Amelia Sheppard, retired from active service in 1985: there are restricted access markers on her file which means Walters is someone worth getting to know. There are two other women in the building she’s not seen before either, and there is the feeling that Q might have stacked the deck since her last visit to better balance the range of training experience the Department has to offer. A quick look at the Civil Service’s Social Activities website allows identification of both: Rachel Frasier was retired from active service in 1998 after an accident that left her walking with a stick, even more inaccessible details that leads Ronni to think that maybe she could have been close to 00 status. Bond had said it himself, nobody for twenty years had presented her potential.

That meant she could be confident that Grace Cartright-Miller was the last person who’d held the number, because attempting to even access that personnel file sends Q to her desk with a speed that is a surprise.

‘I did wonder if giving you Mainframe access would be a wise move this early in the process, especially with your predisposition to curiosity.’

‘What was her number, Q?’

‘She was 002 until 1990, and I would politely ask you not to pry any further until you’ve earned the access privileges.’

‘Did you bring them all here for a reason?’

‘I looked at our roster, and we weren’t nearly as diverse as was acceptable. You’ve clearly been a positive influence, but now please ensure you don’t have M over here reminding me at how other agent’s history is not part of your current training schedule.’

Ronni shuts down the terminal, but is determined to learn as much about these women as possible from them, without the need to access any records. First she needs to get through the initial orientation, which proves more of a challenge than she’d ever considered would be possible.

Every day is different, some nights uncertain of how she gets back to the Hotel at all. In the end Ronni gives up, sleeping on a small camp bed in the Barracks as the weather is warmer, because it’s just less painful than walking home alone. Her head hurts with the knowledge that’s packed into it, body aches and bleeds with the drills and the assault courses and everything thrown at her simultaneously. She is tortured, forced to do the same, nerves stretched to breaking point and beyond. There is Yoga and Karate and Tai Chi plus old fashioned bare knuckle fighting and it is that which finally breaks her, reducing the rational to tears of frustration and a moment of anger she knows has the potential to send her back to Carnegie, but doesn’t care.

The force with which she is able to hurl the metal chair after the combat session is undoubtedly satisfying, vital release of pressure that stops her from disintegrating completely. She’s smart enough however to pick the room with the faulty CCTV to meltdown inside: even in the depths of despair, training is good enough to kick in and protect her. Clearly something positive has come from all the abuse, and this alone gives hope that she will finally succeed.

Sitting crying in the darkness, a hand reaches out to her arm.

‘They have to hurt you like this, because there’s no better way to make you understand.’

Grace is squatting by her, still unbelievably fit for a woman in her 70’s, dark towel in one hand and water bottle in the other. Ronni knows enough now to understand this is off the record, light from the CCTV camera obviously disabled. She drinks greedily, blood wiped from cheek and skull, looking up into eyes that she knows served opposite an Old School 007. This was the woman who’d saved Bond’s life on numerous occasions, and ultimately allowed that iteration of the designation to retire with all his limbs intact. Her Bond had been the shortest serving of them all, but his tenure had straddled one of the most difficult periods of the Service’s history, and that counted for a lot. This woman had come out of retirement simply to be here; asked by Q to return, observe, and pick her moments.

‘He threatened to rape me if I didn’t give in.’

Grace’s eyes harden at Ronni’s admission, squat turning to sit, deep inhale as she considers how the latest bout of training has panned out.

‘You think this stuff doesn’t happen?’

Ronni stares in amazement, not the response she’d expected.

‘Young lady, this world you currently inhabit is often far too full of itself for everyone’s benefit. People are routinely raped regardless of sex if they don’t succumb to the demands of their jailers. You don’t believe psychological warfare isn’t as potent now as it has always been?’

‘I knew that the training was going to be harsh -‘

‘You have no idea of harsh, this is playtime. They’re treating you like china, because they know you need to make it through to the end intact, but honestly you have no clue of how brutal the reality is for a woman in the Service. In the field there are absolutely no rules, everything goes and will. The trick is never to get yourself in a position to be threatened to begin with. Either kill them or don’t give them a chance to dominate. You should have knocked your trainer out the moment he used that line, forced them pull you off him.’

‘I’m told to use myself as a weapon, but how is that possible -‘

‘You knock them out, you disable them or you kill them if they present a genuine threat to your safety. If there is no choice, sometimes…’

Then comes the sickening realisation that Grace could well speak from personal experience.

‘The Service tries to equip you for everything. It can’t prepare for the moment when you know you have nowhere else to go. That’s why you have to ensure it never happens to begin with, that you never have to relinquish control. This is the reason you always go everywhere with a gun. If you want to condemn someone? Shooting through the crotch makes a potent point.’

The older woman rises, effortless yet determined, and Ronni wishes she’d lived half the life this agent had. Still so strong, clearly without fear, she takes the almost empty bottle and towel and is gone as the CCTV springs back into life.

An hour later her logistics schedule is scrubbed, thrown back to the Barracks sparring ring. When 007 appears as her opposition, Ronni knows her weakness just changed Q’s game plan.

It takes two more days of totally brutal beatings before Ronni drags herself into Q’s office without the appointment she is required to register first: eating lunch when she arrives, staring open mouthed at the disaster area her body now resembles. Confident at least one rib could be broken, the chest pain refuses to recede whilst coccyx has been bruised from being slammed against a post at speed. Ronni gives into the certainty that whatever Q has ready to counter with won’t allow for rest, because that’s what her life has become, a continual battle. She is surprised therefore when motioned to sit, which can only be accomplished with some difficulty.

It would probably be easier if it hadn’t been Bond that had done this, pretty much destroyed her totally in hand to hand combat. Of all the people fought, he was the only one who never treated her differently, and although Ronni was grateful, this was where it ended. She might beat him eventually, but not right now. It would be enough however, especially for Q.

‘You win, I’m never going to be as good as him.’

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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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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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DUET : Chapter One, Part One

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Before you Begin:
Set in a post-‘Skyfall’ Universe, this takes a couple of liberties with the 23rd addition to the canon. Let us assume for the porpoises of this exercise that the current 007 only takes the number and the Christian name from the last fella, and that he’s the sixth person to hold that title. Knowing that, you can carry on now.


‘But of all the dead volcanoes on Earth you just happened to retch
And roll
Through mine’


Veronica Ashby’s family had thrown a lot of money at this wedding, and it showed.

A quick glance at her watch told its own story: a whisper after midnight and both bar and dance floor were packed. Ronni was one of the few people not currently glued to either, neither drinking or grooving as if lives depended on conspicuous consumption. She’d imbibed plenty of champagne and thrown enough shapes to maintain the happiness for her younger sister and new husband, dismissing with increasing frequency the comments on her being the only one of three children without a ‘secure’ future. On the journey to happy endings, in her life, it had simply become easier not to dwell. After all, this was the most content she’d been for some time.

It no longer mattered what other people saw in her, not any more. She’d finally perfected the disguise.

This whole evening had turned from inconvenience to blessing: it should provide at least a year of clear air before her mother began the disapproving phone calls, that Ronni still wasn’t seeing anyone seriously, their eldest clearly not getting any younger. At least her father wasn’t likely to give her a hard time about her staunch refusal to accept any offers from anyone who looked remotely promising from the offspring of his financial services and international banking ‘acquaintances.’ Malcolm Ashby had not spoken a word to her all day, which was probably better than the number three bridesmaid could have hoped for. Maybe he’d finally got the message that whoever he tried to set up, Ronni simply wasn’t interested. After all, once you’d slept with one investment specialist, you’d pretty much fucked them all.

Her lifestyle was never going to be conducive to a normal existence anyway.

That wasn’t stopping Russell, however, who’d been doggedly determined to score for the entire evening with little sign of flagging. He appears to her left almost by magic, two flutes of Krug in worryingly unblemished hands, slipping a little too close for comfort. Ronni considers moving but remains confident enough that there won’t be groping, at least not yet. He’ll need to be more wasted and less aware of her body language, deliberate but subtle refusal to let him into her personal space for a damn good reason.

‘Can I interest you in another glass, Veronica?’

‘Have I told you that just my parents use the full name, and normally only when I’m in trouble?’

‘Sorry, I always forget – Ronni, would you -‘

‘That’s really kind, but I think I’ve probably had enough. After all, we’ve been at this since just after lunchtime.’

‘Tell me about it, this has to be the best food and drink I’ve ever had at a Wedding. All so beautifully presented… everything’s perfect. Your family celebrates with convincing style. I think this might even be better than Alice’s.’

That was a good night, Ronni remembers with a stab of nostalgia. Everyone had assumed that her happiness that day was because she’d met someone, blissfully unaware of the truth. Finally having made the most important of work transitions, significant shift from delivery girl to analyst, World opening to her at last. That realisation resonates within her tonight: if the fates allow she’s just one step away from never having to sit behind a desk ever again. Fuck the fates, this is her choice, fully intending to grasp the future with both hands and threaten to shoot it in the head if it didn’t hand over what was required.

At times like this, absolutely the last thing she needs to be doing is telling anyone the truth.

There’d been issue over being able to be genuine with family for a time, but only until the understanding stuck, even this would make her better at the job. She doesn’t care that they don’t know, because that is no longer a part of the equation anyway. Somewhere between Alice and Emily becoming wives, destiny had been settled and accepted, at least in part.

Russell’s still talking, lubricated and blithely unaware.

‘In all that time I’ve never seen you with anybody, not a single bloke. There was a rumour in the office for a while -‘

‘That I was a lesbian, perhaps?’

‘I didn’t believe it, not for one moment, because you’re clearly far smarter than that.’

If she didn’t know it already, Russell had more than adequately confirmed not only his staggering stupidity, but a narrow-mindedness she could quite easy push off the chair and onto the expensive Axminster. However, it’s just simpler to tune him out. Frankly she’d be better off going back to the hotel room and sleeping, not simply because of the week ahead. This conversation was no longer a sensible use of her time.

‘You think you’ll ever get married, Ronni?’

‘Maybe. Would have to be someone pretty spectacular who asked.’

For a moment Ronni turns to stare at the fool, playing the lie of making him believe she’s willing with a conviction that only comes when you can deceive yourself as easily as you can anyone else. This loser genuinely believes I work for an international exports company, that I spend time when not in London travelling the world making deals for the Government. The places I go, the difference this makes: to give that up, to marry anyone would take someone unbelievable indeed. Even more so because this entire persona is a beautifully constructed conceit and if you knew what I really did, you’d probably not believe me anyway.

Women just don’t play that game.

Veronica pushes a stray lock of auburn hair behind her ear: delivering her most dazzling, distracting smile, one that best accentuates both face and eyes. She knows, at least temporarily, that Russell is believing he’s going to score, but there will be disappointment instead because in twenty minutes she will vanish like smoke and he’ll be left with nothing. She needs to be checked out by 7 am and running by nine because she’s not going to fail her Physical Assessment for a second year in a row. There is a steadfast refusal to jeopardise what is possibly the last chance at a job promotion that could really change her career prospects forever. In that respect a clock was ticking: age an issue not for motherhood, but for physical fitness.

After all, it was not every day the chance for an Active Designation was presented.

She watches him in the darkness, face rapt and eyes wide, and for the first time in her thirty-five years on the planet genuinely understands this is exactly the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter that this entire life is a lie, because she is comfortable with what it has become.

Ronni Ashby is both proud and grateful to serve on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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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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