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.