EX/WHI :: Part Five

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Everything hurts, everywhere, and this is not good.

Moving from lying to sitting is an effort, but Chris is awake, desperately trying to piece together what happened to induce unconsciousness. He’s lying on the floor of the coffee shop, last piece of Apple Danish where it was dropped, before the entire World literally shifted around them –

Where’s Ami?

He’d felt heartbeat racing, body shuddering and watched as she passed out in his arms, shortly before he had done the same… except it hadn’t been via concussion or physical intervention. They’d been starved of oxygen, that he’s convinced of, but what happened before…? Staring at her prone, lifeless body, everything comes back in a rush, followed by an immediate need to check his partner’s alive. Her body should be in the recovery position at least: as hand reaches down an incredibly muscular leg comes up, forced into chest as body is launched into the air and back onto a table, which summarily disintegrates under both weight and impact.

I woke up and panicked, she’s awake thinking I was the enemy. One of us is not phased by what just happened: I need to get my shit together, because she really is very good.

‘Oh fuck I’m so, sorry, I assumed -’

‘I was a bad guy. It’s okay, at least there’s no worry you’re still incapacitated.’

‘I dunno about that, why does everything suddenly hurt so much?’

‘Well, that was my next question. You’re not alone.’

Picking himself up from the shattered wooden remains, Chris comes to help Ami to her feet. Physically she looks no different, but believable reality is not as concrete as it was when he woke up for the first time today. Turning to survey the damage they’ve just caused, air around them both moves, breeze that is anything but normal, somehow prompting the table to instantly and unnervingly reconstruct itself back to pre-impact state. Chris’ SIG is no longer in the holster either, giving nothing to point at this sorcery as reassurance, so staring will have to suffice as logic stops operating, giving brain the finger before leaving his body with disgust.

‘I have no weapon, and am officially out of my depth.’

‘Neither do I: on reflection, nothing from this point forward is likely to conform to our idea of normal. I’m happy to think for us both for a while, it’s okay.’

‘You go right ahead. I didn’t imagine the room upside down either, did I?’

‘Not if furniture’s putting itself back together, you didn’t, Mr Chambers. At least they stopped running the movie outside what I’m now thinking is probably a prison.’

There’s obvious daylight coming into the cafe, but Chambers isn’t looking out at London any more: instead an odd, white space radiates the illusion of… well, space. He needs to sit down where he stands right now, because all of this has just staggered beyond too much to cope with. Ami doesn’t stop him: instead she goes to the large, glass double doors and stares for a moment, before pulling keys to the car out of her pocket. Taking a step back, the bunch is thrown towards what used to be an exit but at the moment of impact they are flung back, over her head before landing near the toilets.

Suddenly, he’s very grateful somebody else has voluntarily offered to be a grown-up until he’s back in the game. Watching the walk back, picking up keys, standing and assessing: mentally thinking through their joint predicament is absolutely what Ami is doing, with a calmness which is immediately reassuring. Meeting his gaze without fear, there’s a decision made that is both logical and fair.

‘Yup, this is definitely a prison, and we need to know why.’



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DEFAULT :: Part Five

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Tonight’s agenda is simple: meet Christopher Richmond at the Savoy Grill, listen to his pitch, then escort to the English National Opera using discretion as to your actions.
Ronni knows what Tanner meant, that if this was Bond with a woman that might end up as an interesting diversion… except 004 had never taken advantage of such a situation. There had been occasions in the time since being given status that she could have indulged, but both men undoubtedly would have considered her easy, and it would have counted to the detriment of the final objective. Despite what 007 might think? Sex with a total stranger was, for many, a step too far.

Walking into the Hotel’s expansive, opulent lobby it occurs that the future isn’t about getting what you want, it is making sure people understand what you are. Social media and instant messaging may create the impression that the world thrives on immediacy: the true reality of emotional union undoubtedly took more time to catch up. If this were a real date, far more homework would have been conducted on this man, because otherwise she wouldn’t trust him at all. For now, Ronni anticipates a reasonably easy ride based on the details of the briefing. What is presented when the maitre’d escorts her to the pre-booked table therefore ends up as a pleasant surprise, evening suddenly far more attractive in many ways.

The man who stands and stares is both fascinating and desirable beyond initial explanation. Pale blonde, Scandinavian strength and height are all bonuses, but it is the smile that sends brain unexpectedly into defence mode. He’s also clearly confused: if expecting Bond that’s probably not as big a surprise as it should be. However, recovery is fast, maintaining eye contact the entire time.

‘You are definitely not what Whitehall had promised.’

‘Government is very good at dressing up the truth. I should now probably ask what you were expecting.’

‘Male, late forties, tuxedo.’

‘Yes, I can see why you’d feel left wanting. As it happens there is a tailor-made dinner suit, but superiors like to hold me to type.’

‘I’m imagining you’d look particularly alluring in that, probably better than me.’

‘It depends on your idea of appealing, I suppose.’

Attraction however is unmistakable, Ronni reining in desire to flirt with someone she’s not expecting to be as likeable or charismatic. The Scandinavian accent’s a bonus, making stomach flutter as he talks. Extending hand, she anticipates he’ll put it to mouth; instead it is grasped, shaken with confidence more endearing.

‘Christopher Richmond, it’s an utter pleasure.’

‘Ronni Flemmings, and I’ve been asked to extend my apologies that James -‘

‘Oh screw Bond, we’d have sat all night in silence. I think you and I will have an awful lot more to talk about. I’m also glad we’re having dinner before the performance, because it gives me a chance to impress you with what my company is hoping to provide for agents on the ground as well as your superiors.’

Richmond’s enthusiasm is infectious, Ronni at the table with more optimism than she’d ever considered could be conjured for this meeting, for that’s what this is. The man’s funny, open and honest, but something doesn’t feel right as she watches him peruse the Savoy Grill’s menu. Suddenly and without warning it is the handshake that rings alarms, adrenaline hitting like a punch; enough to make her shudder where she sits.

‘Is everything alright, Ms Flemmings?’

‘Sorry, yes, just unwinding after a particularly long day. I wonder, would you mind ordering for me whilst I quickly pop to the ladies room?’

‘Of course, you don’t have any allergies I should know about?’

‘No, I’ll eat anything, having run 15 miles today I have more than enough calories to spare.’

She stands in the bathroom moments later, staring with concern into the mirror. Aware that body’s reacting to too much alcohol and not enough sleep, there remains something unsettling about this guy that immediately has mind on the defensive. Could it be that Bond had actually poisoned outlook with the nature of their relationship that meeting anyone else would cause inevitable comparison to him? No, that was stupid and narrow minded, because nobody was going to deflect from the task in hand, that was the point. Ronni didn’t need distraction.

Yet here it was, looking almost exactly as it ought to in order to do just that.

Richmond was too perfect: not intimidated, comfortable in her presence… in fact, almost inviting the connection, challenging her. This never happened with anybody, even 007 had kept a discreet distance, with her destroying comfort zones first. This man was either the most perfect fit she’d ever met or else this was a trap. Now there is a wish to have more details, or access to the Company Intranet via phone. Ronni’s second guessing, wondering whether residual hangover’s making her self-inflate worth too much –

‘Stop it.’

Bond’s close enough to taste, and hopes she will. However much the temptation might appeal, on the other side of this pillar are many people who need to respect Flemmings, long after 007 leaves the building. She slipped out to the restaurant’s balcony, unable to stand watching any longer, desire unavoidable. Looking down to the Thames, Bond had appeared from behind; familiar pressure, before arms wrapped around her. In her ear, whisper suggested the unthinkable: back to her place, briefest of indulgences then Bond would go home. It was a Stag Night, after all. Lesser things had happened before people got married, but not on her watch.

NEVER if she was in charge.

‘You really expect me to be happy, James?’

‘I think you could at least try to maintain the illusion while I’m in the same space.’

‘This is not about having your cake and eating it, it’s not fair on Maddy. Forget for a moment that you don’t see anything wrong with what you just asked, and consider her, because I thought you possessed more respect than you obviously do.’

‘She’s not my job.’

No, she’s going to be your wife, and right now I’m not even your lover, and I’m not prepared to demean her by doing that. I’ve never been property to direct as you see fit, and you’d do well to watch yourself.’

Bond steps back, still assessing, smallest of smiles suddenly concerning. His request had been completely serious: never joking about desire, because he never did. The default was to push luck, and mostly she’d indulge. Tonight however, James was being a prick. An arrogant, drunken wanker. Ronni would not bend, registering that this was where their relationship had to end.

‘Your moral compass is unshakeable, isn’t it?’

‘I will indulge for as long as you wish if there’s nobody else in the frame. Now that’s changed -‘

‘I’m officially off limits. I’m impressed at your restraint, I genuinely am.’

‘That’s how it stays for as long as this professional relationship is viable. When you’re on the job, I have your back. The moment you’re off it?’

‘I’m no longer your problem.’

Ronni blinks, back in a moment now known to be inherently false. Her gut is sound, direction pointing not only correct, but fortified. Something about Richmond isn’t right, and until she can work out what it is? Proceed with caution. Bond protects, even in her subconscious, but a truth that comes as a surprise shakes her more. She’ll miss 007, not just because of the fringe benefits. It will be his counsel and advice that will be the biggest loss of all; nobody holds a mirror up to Ronni as well as James.

007 is still a problem, and part of the equation. This was supposed to be his detail: Richmond was expecting him and got her instead. This isn’t about a business proposition. If her mission is a fraud? Somebody is trying to get to Bond because of who he is.

Ronni’s new objective is the task of working out why.


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OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER:

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

DUET : Chapter Two, Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bond lies awake, staring at the ceiling.

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

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

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

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

VB arriving early, be ready to meet at work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is our task, not history’s.

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


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OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER:

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.