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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.’
‘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.