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.