DEFAULT :: Part Four

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She’s been at her terminal for an hour after the briefing, poring over Walters’ last sweep of data via the Department mainframe when Tanner appears, impressively dapper in a three piece suit that wouldn’t look out of place on M. He had picked up a gun when the attack had happened, more capable than Ronni had grasped, but still appears slightly awkward with sidearm that all senior personnel were now obliged to wear on government property. The Barracks has yet to come down from Amber Alert instigated three weeks previously, drills and security now part of daily operations until Spectre’s threat is considered suitably minimised. The fact Will’s heading for her desk is a concern too, because Ronni’s not confident she can carry out an adult conversation until there’s been more Vanilla Latte than currently consumed.

‘How much still over the limit are you, 004?’

Ronni blinks at his honesty, grateful small talk’s being completely avoided. He’d been at the Restaurant last night, at least for a couple of hours, though they’d hardly had an opportunity to chat.

‘Good morning to you too, Will. Is it that obvious?’

‘I’d not have known had I not just left 007, who looks considerably worse for wear than you do.’

‘Well, that’s reassuring because he was at least three Jack Daniels ahead of me. You did the very sensible thing by leaving when you did with Q. Is there a problem?’

‘Last night’s none of my business, but this morning is very much the opposite. Bond’s just turned down a particularly significant security job, suggesting you were a better fit.’

‘Is this low or high profile?’

‘Extremely high indeed, which is why M asked for him to do it, but he just refused before suggesting that maybe these tasks should be offered to other people in the department and not simply at the poster boy.’

Ronni shifts, suppresses a smile: Bond hadn’t just been listening, he’d made the point to management, and anger dissipates in a manner that comes as something of a surprise. The fact he’d taken her words to heart at least meant ire had been understood, but it didn’t remove the source of the real tension. Eventually, that would need to be addressed. For now, she’d concentrate on the day job instead, trying to keep desire off the table.

‘I came all this way to drive you back to Whitehall for the briefing. You’ll need to dress for the Opera tonight, it’s hardly going to be taxing but you will need to keep your eyes open. However, there is one other matter I need to discuss first.’

Tanner places himself between office and her, sitting on the desk: in his hand is a USB drive that Ronni recognises immediately.

‘I have this information from Q, he tells me you’ve been putting data together in your spare time. I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, but can I assume this has been compiled with customary thoroughness?’

‘I could be wrong, Will. There has to be a first time, but there’s just too many co-incidences to easily ignore. I wasn’t sure, I’m still not. Please don’t be cross, I just went to the person I trust most in the Department first.’

Not wanting to be that person, it had happened regardless, the deeper Ronni had dug. As history was uncovered on Madeline Swann, the more difficult it had become to overlook holes, co-incidences in times and places, people and events. Personal feelings became impossible to reconcile: Gregory had told her that jealousy was normal, understandable when emotional affinity is tested after commitment changes. Ronni knew all the answers and the counter-objections but the niggle would not diminish. She’d just put together the data and resolved someone else could decide.

‘I’m disappointed you feel you can’t trust me.’

‘Will, I’d assumed you’d rather not get involved. How would you feel if I went and told M I thought your soon to be wife could be a sleeper agent for Spectre?’

‘I’d quite obviously consider you were jealous, because it’s apparent I’m incredibly attractive and have that effect on other women. Then I’d check the facts, and after that I’d look at my own people and berate them at length for not doing the same earlier.’

‘Will, I don’t know -‘

‘It’s okay, Ronni, I understand this dilemma more than you realise. You’ve done the right thing coming to us and not straight to 007, that I will tell you. We can talk more on the way to your meeting. I’ll get someone to make you up another coffee for the journey.’

Watching the Chief of Staff leave, Ronni wishes that she’d never been placed with Bond for her final assessment, because then none of this would ever have been an issue. However, the past was something she could never alter, however strong the desire. All that was left now was to make sure that this position was neither compromised nor damaged by somebody else failing to do their job properly.

Now that this last piece of the puzzle was passed on to the right people, 004 could move forwards.


Running back for no other reason than her Jaguar remained in the car park at home, Ronni’s happy not having to wait for a Service transport, preserving autonomy. From the grey morning, London’s afternoon is blue skies and cautious optimism, Thames shining in surprisingly warm sun. This city becomes increasingly adept at soothing her disquiet, reminder of how it has become so much more than home. This is the lover who never cheats or lies, confidant willing to find time to listen. Her flat is warm, welcoming familiarity, mess of clothes and unread mail she makes an effort to both tidy and sort before anything else is accomplished. Bond’s wedding invitation remains unopened, hidden from sight, misguided belief that ignoring the inevitability will somehow lessen pain. That’s what this is, Ronni quietly grasps in the shower, an inescapable consequence of life.

Those who we care for never remain forever.

Mission outfit is chosen on autopilot, hanging ready on the wardrobe door. Black chiffon, skimming just below the knee; heels that she can run in should the need arise. Hair and makeup can be simple yet essential because this isn’t just about making an effort, it’s the level required for a man who Whitehall want to be nice to. Then everyone forgets the bad taste of Nine Eyes, electronic duplicity from the most brilliant of Old School traitors. Instead it is time for New Money, American-born wonderkid who’s promising the moon for the right contracts and correct treatment. Ronni has no interest in these machinations, but knows that to get ahead, there will always be pawns to be played. One day there may even be no need to pretend and deceive to achieve objectives, people might simply communicate and move forward. May that time come soon, and with the minimum loss of life.

With the detective work on Ms Swann out of her hands, correctly prioritising the future should be easy.

Except it’s a lie, most obvious of untruths. Sitting upright, still wrapped in her towel, Ronni spies the necklace Bond bought her hanging on the dressing table mirror. His surprise gift on promotion, hand made in silver; implicit acknowledgement they were the same, two halves of an unbreakable whole. Yin and Yang. It was an ugly thing, genuinely surprising choice: she’d expected more, not an obvious symbol of connection, until he’d mentioned the necklace Vesper had worn, carried across the planet and finally discarded in the Kezan snow. Symbols mattered in his world, relationships fragile and fleeting. This showed permanent commitment, protecting her as important as his own life, perhaps even more so. Without her, there was no him.

Ronni has never worn it, only ever let it hang here as reminder of a relationship that does exist, stronger now than even she is prepared to admit. Because today, after you yelled at him, something changed. James is not an idiot, he cares, you know full well that’s not altering any time soon. Even when he marries this ridiculously beautiful woman you can never compete with?

You are still his missing half.

Picking up the robust silver chain, Ronni allows herself to embrace the truth, for one last night. In the morning, she’ll take off the past and put it away, before forgetting for good. That’s what 00 agents are taught to do with grief and regret, means by which they remain sane. She can apply makeup in her sleep, dress without thinking, but it is a genuine effort to place hands around neck, willing fingers to operate the clasp. His necklace sits, in the hollow of her throat, spot kissed on many occasions with a care that would send entire body into submission. It would require considerable strength to erase Bond’s intimacy from her memory, but if 004 is to finally succeed? It has to be done.

It doesn’t matter what or who is involved. The past needs to be dealt with before you move forward.


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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 One

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TWO.

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

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

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

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

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

‘May I speak freely, Sir?’

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

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

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

‘May I ask why, Sir?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your life: ended, and then created again anew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please, give me the opportunity that I crave.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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.