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The Rabbit Hunters

Chapter Text

 

 

Part One: Bring Up the Bodies

 

M's sofa is stylish and uncomfortable.  Bond sleeps on it anyway.  He wakes up in the middle of the night, that first night, to the creak of a foot on the floor.  He's already awake enough to kill someone when he sees that it's M who's staring down at him, M whose house this is, and that would be fine if she didn't look prepared to murder him.

In spite of himself, the guilt comes.  She blames him for being too slow, too late—

Then he realises he's still wearing his shoes.

She asks him if he is being deliberately provocative.  He pretends that he is, and that he didn't just keel over fully dressed from exhaustion.  Takes off his shoes sheepishly (well, he was the one who promised).  She looks not a whit mollified.

She does not, however, complain about the empty glass of bourbon on the floor.

 




Skyfall has to be put off.  For one thing, there are too many loose ends in London; for another, they've sold the bloody place, and Bond has to wrestle with the family solicitor to get it back since he is not, in fact, dead.  Negotiations and depositions are both underway.  

In the meantime, he moves out of the Dorchester and into the larger of M's two spare rooms.  Nobody at MI6 is put on notice, though they are surely aware—but she’s been pushed out the door, and he’s on what might generously be termed “probation,” so it’s not as if anyone has the right to give a damn.  M does tell her daughter, who still lives in Hong Kong and doesn't know what to make of any of it.

Living in such close quarters, they discover something.  It's strange; Bond and M worked together for years, exasperating one another off and on, respecting one another always, needing one another more than he would care to confess.  But not talking to one another.  How very odd, now that their paths should by rights diverge (Hasn't she been forced out? Hasn't he decisions to make?), that they have found so much to talk about.
 
Of course, disgraced and in exile, they haven't any other friends, so there's that to consider.  There is no more talk of M "retiring" with full honours:  not after the Whitehall slaughter, when a homicidal maniac escaped about two hours after she'd locked him up, which came after Six exploded, which came after losing the hard drive.  Mallory makes it clear, with surprising grace, that she is lucky not to be tried as well as sacked. 

But Number 10 is desperate to keep as much of this out of the papers as possible.  Instead of trying her, they will erase her, pretend she never happened.  In this much, Silva succeeded: after decades of service, she is persona non grata. 

And Bond is…well, he is who he's always been, and that means he is not besieged with invitations.  They don't exactly feel sociable these days anyway.  They keep to themselves.

But that still does not explain why it is easy to talk to M.  Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise—she knows everything about him, she's read his file, as she should have done.  And he's read hers, as he most certainly shouldn't have done.  Still, though, there's knowing somebody, and then there's knowing somebody; it turns out they are mutually interested in the latter.

"Are Komodo dragons really carnivorous?" she asks over cards one night, their fourth night back.  "I don't believe it."

"You'd believe it if you saw one coming after you.  Why else would it be called a dragon?"

She rolls her eyes and picks up another card.  "Why's an elephant seal called an elephant? I imagined it eating plants, I suppose.  One of those things designed by Nature to look fierce just to ward off predators.  Darwinism and so on."

He grins at her and leans back on his elbow.  She's sitting on the sofa, but he's lounging on the floor at the other side of the coffee table.  And so far he's won nearly forty pounds off her.  "Darwinism,” he says.  “I was talking to Leiter about that once.  Have you heard that the Americans don't believe in evolution?"

She snorts.  "Doesn't surprise me."

"He says they're fighting not to include it in the science books.  Says that they can't come right out and say in a science class that God made the earth, so they have to put it in new language."  He raises his eyebrows at her.  "Intelligent design."

"Oh Lord!  I have heard of that, now you mention it."

"And they have to tell the pupils that there's no way to know for certain how the universe was formed."

"Well, there isn't.  Perhaps there are worse things than leaving a bit of mystery in the world."

He laughs.  "Are you religious, M?"

"Yes."  His astonishment must show.  "I take it you are not."

"There is no God."  He says it flatly, with finality, with certainty.

His tone plainly bemuses her.  "Bond, I don't care if you don't believe in God."

"I didn't say I don't believe in God.  That's implying there might be a God not to believe in.  I'm saying I believe there is no God."

"Why not?"

"I've seen plenty of evidence in my favour, and none at all in the opposite."

"Haven't you?"

"No.  Have you?"

She gives him a half-smile.  "I'm looking at it."

He feels his face get hot, and wishes more than anything that she hadn't said that.

"How else would you explain this?" she adds, and puts down her cards.  "Aces high."

He stares at the cards in shock.  But they're real.

"You owe me forty-five pounds," she says, as inscrutable as the bloody Virgin.

 


 

 

There are certain subjects they generally avoid: Vesper, the inquiry, the bloody shot.  But only one, so far, is absolutely taboo.  

A veil has been drawn over the room in Cornwall.  He’d dropped her off at St. Thomas at nine in the morning, because she refused to let him hang about and had sent him on to Mallory; he’d returned for her at two; he’d waited by the kerb outside a pharmacy while she went in and then came back out with a small paper bag; he’d taken her home, kept his mouth shut, and eventually fallen asleep on her sofa with his shoes on.  That was that.  Occasionally, provoked by a small gesture (perhaps she winces, or clenches her jaw), he will see the world through a fine red mist.  But You don’t get to have regrets about this, she’d said to him, and that door is closed.  It’s none of his business.  She keeps her own counsel.  They talk about God instead.

It can’t last, of course.

 


 

A week after her abduction, M is called into HQ.  She's not home long past the time she should be.  Finally, Bond intimidates his way through the door, through Eve, then Tanner, all the way to Mallory himself, only to learn that he's just missed M, who left fifteen minutes ago.  He's surprised she didn't call.  Something's up.

So he asks Mallory what it is.

Mallory looks as uncomfortable as he is capable of: which is to say, stoic.  "We understand and respect her desire for privacy," he says.  "If I can, I'll avoid bruiting this about, but—it might prove relevant to the investigation."

He already knows, but still has to ask:  "Bruiting what about?"

Mallory sighs.  "You said she'd been taken, and that was all.  But when we inspected the scene, we found some of her clothes."

The torn bra and stockings, Bond remembers.  Oh, hell.

"And…" Mallory doesn't clear his throat, though he looks as if he'd like to.  "Forensics uncovered emissions on the bed linens.  Silva's DNA, and hers.  Then there's the hospital visit—you understand we had to look into the records..."

Understand?  Bond breathes deeply.  Once.  Twice.  Sticks one hand into his pocket, curls the other into a fist.  "No.  I don't.  Why the hell did you have to do that?"

"It's a crime scene," Mallory says patiently.  "It's called evidence.  I know this is out of your general purview, Bond, but even MI6 must—"

"Well, the perpetrator's dead," Bond snarls.  "Who gives a damn about evidence?  Why air the dirty laundry?  And I mean that literally."

"That's the second thing," Mallory says, "that I'm not properly supposed to tell you."

He looks very grim.  Bond catches himself holding his breath.

"We've looked all over the area," Mallory says.  "There's no body."

 




It could mean any number of things, of course.  Chiefly, it could mean that Silva's men took his body with them when they decamped.  None of the other corpses were removed, but none of the other corpses had been the man in charge.

Except Silva didn't hire sentimental people.  Bond cannot afford to hope.

Having obtained all the useful information he’s privy to, he storms out of Mallory’s office without a word of thanks.  He’s calling M before the lift doors close behind him, half afraid she won’t answer for a dozen different reasons, each worse than the last.

But she does.  Fourth ring. “Bond,” she says, sounding immeasurably weary.

“Where are you?”

“Getting some fresh air.  And waiting—very foolishly—to wake up and find that this is all a bad dream.”

They don’t have time for this.  He exits the building, looking up and down the sidewalk as if he expects to find her standing by a lamppost.  “Where are you, M?”

She sounds more like herself when she snaps, “All in one piece at St. James’s park, looking at some bloody ducks.”

“Well, will you wait there, please?  I’m on my way.”

“Where the hell else am I going to go?” she shouts before she hangs up.

Bond grimaces.  M is usually cool as an icebox, but when she gets in the proper mood, all of MI6 trembles.  Or it used to do.  Now there’s only him.  

He arrives at St. James's, ready for anything except the sight of M sitting on a park bench, her cropped white hair like a beacon among subdued greys, greens, and browns.  For a moment, she looks so much like any other pensioner that his stomach lurches until he gets close enough to take in the high set of her shoulders, the lift of her chin.  He has been well trained to find relief in subtle things.

He casts about the area.  Finding no visible threats, he sits down by her on the bench.  Doesn’t say a word.

He’s not really prepared for how she breaks the ice.

"He's had his revenge," she says, not looking at him.  "He's had me. After disgracing me in front of the whole world, no less.  And now I'm through.  Pushed out."  She purses her lips.  "He's done his damage, and now I have to live with it for the duration.  He must be satisfied."

Satisfied?  Is she joking?  Silva had M in his grasp, thought her securely his, and then she got away.  It's worse than before.  To be that close and lose it all.  If Silva thought it would get M back again, he'd find a way to set the oceans ablaze.  Bond believes he understands that much about the bastard.  And it's not like M to stick her head in the sand.  He doesn't like it at all.

"That's not what it's about," he says, choosing his words carefully.  "He doesn't want you to live with it."

She snorts, picking at a piece of fluff on her coat sleeve.  "He could have killed me a dozen times and more."

"He doesn't want to kill you," Bond says.  "He wants to keep you."

He sees her black-gloved hand seize on the coat sleeve before she forces it to relax.  She doesn't look at him.  "He didn't resist when you strangled him, although he had a gun.  He let us go.  Why on earth do you suppose he did that if he wants to—"  She shakes her head and swallows.  "If he's still alive…if…"

"We'll find out for certain," Bond says.  "I will."  The question is, can he do it in time, and without MI6's resources at his disposal?  Mallory has a vested interest in finding Silva, of course.  The whole of Britain does.  But that may not be enough to welcome the black sheep back into the fold.  Or the old ewe.

She hums.  He waits.

"It's not that I think it's a fate worse than death, a la Mills and Boon," she says, squinting up into the sky, "but 007, if he reappears and we've got no way out, I want you to promise to kill me.  Swiftly."

"Why don't you have a cyanide capsule?" he asks, not to be cruel, but to be practical.

"That'd be poetic justice," she acknowledges. "Q branch are fitting me with one tomorrow.  I told Mallory I'd like it as a retirement present instead of a gold watch."

"I can't imagine why you two don't get on better."

"The national security isn't big enough for both of us."

For one moment, he's on the verge of joking about how little room she takes up.  But only a moment.  Other than voicing concern for her injuries, he has never referred to her body—its size, its shape, its age, its very existence.  She's made scathing remarks about his appearance, of course, but that's different.  For him even to hint at her physicality would be intolerable insolence.  As far as they two are concerned, M hasn't got a body.

So Bond manages a chuckle instead.  "Just so long as the actual Q doesn't put it in.  I still can't believe he's out of nursery, you'll never convince me he has a degree in dentistry."

"He's quite brilliant, you know."  She sounds proud of him.  Bond has to repress an absurd surge of jealousy.  Proud of the young genius who got MI6 hacked and let Silva out of his cage, that's what she's proud of?

"He's quite something," he says instead.

"And he fancies you."

"Oh, God," Bond groans.
   
She sounds properly sympathetic when she says, "I know.  Poor 007, it's not even as if you have to try."

All of a sudden, her voice rings out in his memory.  He's back in Bolivia, looking on the oil-drenched corpse of Strawberry Fields.  "Look how well your charm works, James.  They'll do anything for you, won't they?" M had sneered, rubbing his face in his failure as if she were reprimanding a dog who’d soiled the carpet.

Then she'd added, "How many is that now?"

She hasn't called him James since then.  He rather hopes she won't.

"I'm not 007 now, am I?" he asks.  Even he doesn't know if it's revenge.

"No, I suppose you're not at the moment.  But if you don't burn your bridges, you can be again.  You've recovered some ground from killing Sil…" Suddenly, she makes a choking noise.

"Right," Bond says, staring at the ducks floating on the pond.  He wishes he'd brought some breadcrumbs.  "Clearly I did a bang-up job at that, I'll be in Mallory's good books in no time."

"We don't know," M says, nearly whispering.  "We don't know that he's alive."

"M…"

"Or dead.  We don't know if he's alive or dead."  She takes a deep, shaking breath and clutches the collar of her coat tighter around her neck.  "It's ridiculous.  I'd say 'I need to see the body,' but I already saw it, and we still don't know.  What the hell are we meant to do about that?"

"Well, we're not going back home tonight, I'll tell you that much."

"What?"

"He said he knew where you lived.  You told me that."  Bond doesn't look at her, but he hears her breath catch.  "I'll take you somewhere else."

"A safe house?  Has Mallory—"

"Safe houses are rubbish.  Pigsties.  And he probably knows them all.  I'll book back into the Dorchester."

"Oh, God!  What'll I be, your granny?"

He smiles.  "The Duchess of Somewhere-or-other.  I'll be your loyal retainer."

She huddles in on herself for just a moment before she stiffens her spine again.  "Bond, do be serious."

"I am.  Only for a night.  Then we'll get on the move."

"On the move?"  Her eyes widen.  "Where to?"

"Where I promised you.  Scotland.  That crumbling old pile has never seen a computer.  I think it just might pick up the wireless, but not the sort Q likes playing with."

"But you said it'd been sold?"

He shrugs.  "Nobody's moved in.  I've gummed up the works pretty well by coming back to life.  We'll do all right."

Silence.  He looks at her to see she's biting her lip.  "Why are you doing this?" she asks softly.  "Don't say guilt."

Of course he won't say guilt.  Guilt is for Cornwall, and they don't talk about Cornwall.

It's for England.  For duty.  For honour.  And because there is no God; because the dead do not rise again; because he has only to do with the living, and she is the only person left in the world whom he cares for.  

"Variety," he says.  "I've heard it keeps you young."

She murmurs something he doesn't hear, and perhaps doesn't want to.  Then she says, "And what then?  How long do we stay there?  Until Mallory red tapes Silva into surrender?"

"No," Bond says.  "I think you know that won't happen."

They are sitting just close enough together that he can feel her tremble.  Her voice is steady, though, when she says, "So what are we doing?  Hiding?  Luring?"

"I don't know," he admits.  "I'm thinking it through.  Any ideas?"

"Oh, do I get to have an opinion?"

It's not flippant.  There is a sharp, bitter edge to her voice that shocks him.  He glances quickly at her.  Her lips are pinched into a thin line, and her cheeks are pale, and Christ, he's an idiot.

"It's your show," he says quietly.  "It's between you and him.  You make the calls."

"If he's alive."

"If, as you say, he's alive."

She pinches her nose.  "Let me think about it tonight."  A humourless chuckle.  "At the Dorchester."
 
"Well, the Savoy would just be overdoing it."

"And tomorrow morning, there's my dental procedure."

She's too keen on that for his liking, but he lets it go.  M's life is his to guard, but it's hers to end.  If she decides to bid farewell to this sinful earth, then she'll do it with or without a suicide pill.  The thought is unbearable and he pushes it away.  "After that, then."

"I'll think.  We'll see.  We must do something, I know.  We must act.  I am tired of reacting to this man, letting him make all the first moves."  She curls her hand into a fist and strikes her thigh with it.  "Bond, how dare he survive?  I mean, how dare he?  The absolute bloody gall of him!  When you've had the breath choked out of you, it is positively indecent to go on living!"

Now Bond is the one to remind her, "Maybe he didn't.  We still don't know.  Or, who knows?" he adds, thinking to make her laugh.  "Maybe he's alive but brain dead.  Starved of oxygen."

She snorts.  "Drooling and vegetative."

"Indeed."

"A cautionary tale of the dangers of megalomania."  She does laugh, but it sounds so tired.  "I'd say I want to go back home, but that's not an option yet, is it?"

"We can swing by long enough to get the bug-out bags.  You do have one?"

"Of course I've got one."  She sounds sheepish when she adds, "Hermès."

His grin nearly splits his face.  "Of course it is."

"Go on, laugh."  She sighs and leans forward, propping her elbows on her knees as she watches the ducks again.  "I can't quite help thinking of Reginald, you know."

"Reg…your husband?"

"Yes."  She presses her lips together.  Bond tries not to feel discomfited; he knows nothing about her marriage, or her happiness, although a couple of window-climbs into her house were enough to let him know that M slept on the left.

"Poetry.  He didn't only like Tennyson," M says.  "Nor only the Victorians."

"Oh?"

"He was partial to what was current, too.  I heard no end of Philip Larkin once upon a time.  I didn't hate Larkin, though.  I even memorised one, a short one.  It was to do with all the rabbit deaths."

Bond frowns.  "All the what?"

"Oh, it would have been before your time.  In the fifties.  Myxomatosis.  Killed nearly all the rabbits in England.  But that was the poem's title, 'Myxomatosis.'  The poet's talking to one of the dying rabbits."

"And," he prompts.

"Let me see.  All right."  She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes.  Then her voice is low, but firm and resonant as she recites:

"Caught in the centre of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by,
'What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?'
You seem to ask. I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I'm glad I can't explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait."

Then they sit together on the bench and watch the people go by.  There's nothing more to say to that, no sharp reply.  There are only two rabbits in a trap they can't see the end of.

 


 

 

An MI6 agent's bug-out bag is not the same as an ordinary survivalist's.  For most people, such a bag consists of enough things to live on for 72 hours: a first aid kit, potable water, non-perishable food, matches, and so on.  For Bond and M, a bug-out bag contains the first aid kit, but there the similarities end; the rest is all passports, false IDs, cash, and concealable weapons.  Plus, in M's case, a spare pair of comfortable shoes and a needle and thread, and in Bond's case, a radio and a small roll of duct tape.

They sit on her king-sized bed in their suite at the Dorchester, the contents of their bags spread across the counterpane.  He has booked them adjoining rooms here under false names: Edward Pettinger and his doting mum, Julie.  He has also booked them adjoining rooms at a small hotel halfway across town, as nondescript as can be, under different aliases that they have each used once before, several years ago.  Allen Shoresbury and Ellen Witt.  He wonders if Al and Ellie will make it through the night, or if soft-footed men will fall upon them and find them merely shadows in an empty room. 

"Why the shoes?" he asks.

"Edward, dear," she says, "when you are my age, and have my feet, and you find a pair of shoes that make you feel as if you're walking on clouds, you'll damn well arrange to have a set wherever you go."

She's due to get the capsule put in at ten the next morning at HQ.  Although she has refused all but local anasthaesia, they will still need to account for recovery time.  Bond predicts that he himself will spend part of those hours speaking to Mallory, the new M who will never be M, about whatever scheme they concoct.  It would be nice to have MI6's blessing—more, their help—but he knows better than to count on it.  He and M have already claimed their fair share of resources in cash, effort, and blood.

Better, easier, to disappear.

"Scotland.  Skyfall," she says.  Against his will, he remembers that goateed psychologist prodding him with his past.  Why had she wanted that?  "Say we go there.  And then what?  Just stay out of the way, I suppose, while MI6 flush him out elsewhere.  But do we go straight there?  Or would it be better to lay a false trail first, try and draw him into the open?  I suppose it all depends on what he wants.  But how to discover that?"

Bond's input is not required.  She's thinking out loud.  He's never seen this before, M arriving at an executive decision, and he watches in fascination.  It's like being let into the British Museum after hours.  He might as well be invisible while she talks to the passports, sorting through them with a puckered frown. 

"Bloody hell," she finally growls, picking up a passport—Canadian—and tossing it to the side.  "It's the waiting, Bond, it's the waiting I hate.  We can't know what's best until he shows himself, if he does, if he's alive to.  Until then all we can do is scurry for cover, and if he is dead, then he must be laughing his head off at us in the great beyond.  Hiding in a hotel for nothing."

"So what shall we do?"

She makes a moue of disgust.  "I get that capsule, and you try and trick Mallory out of whatever information he's sitting on, if he won't give it honestly."  Then she gives him a wry smile.  "Or you terrify it out of Tanner.  Lay on the guilt."

"I think I can manage that," says Bond, remembering Tanner's chalk-white face when he'd realised M had been abducted.  And now no doubt he knows she was raped, too; Bond hopes he's writhing on spikes every second of every hour.  If not, he'll provide a little help.  Christ, he'd sent two messages, and Tanner had just sat there.  It's almost enough to make Bond wonder whose side he's really on.

Best not to go down that road.  Best not to cast those sorts of aspersions on the man who was M's right hand long before she ever met Bond.  Not yet.

"We'll see how it goes," M says, packing everything back into her calf leather, hand tooled, serial-numbered emergency satchel.  He's pleased that they share a taste for the finer things.  "I can't think any more tonight.  We both need to rest up." 

"Yes, ma'am," he says, thinking that as absurd as it sounds, they might as well have a lie-in.  They're hidden away for the night with no firm plans for tomorrow but a poisoned tooth.  He remembers how Silva's went wrong.  He's sure she does too. 

He sleeps and dreams of rabbits, and a needle and thread.

Habits are hard to break.  In spite of his best intentions, Bond wakes at half-past six the next morning.  He snorts in amusement when he hears the shower running in the ensuite, and lies dozing off and on until he hears the water switch off.  Then he waits a decent interval before padding in to take his usual five-minute shower, followed by a shave and getting dressed in yesterday's suit.  Whatever they do today is going to have to involve buying new clothes.  They hadn't even lingered long enough in M's flat to open the wardrobe doors.  Which perhaps had been paranoid—they'd felt safe enough in the park—but they both know all too well how suddenly a trap can be sprung. 

When he's dressed, he heads back through the bathroom and knocks on her door.  He thinks about breakfast.  He hears the television.  "May I come in?"

"Bond!" she cries, instead of, "Yes."  He's already through the door, coiled and furious, when he sees that she's just sitting on the edge of her bed, watching television in her bathrobe.  Her hair is still wet. 

It's the morning news.  An appropriately grave announcer narrates the demise of a small hotel halfway across town, as nondescript as can be.  A bomb went off in the foyer in the wee hours of the morning.  As the survivors fled, they were met with sniper fire, picking them off from a nearby roof.  The killer, or killers, had long since escaped by the time the police arrived on the scene after a mysteriously long delay.

"Well, that answers one question," Bond says as he watches the ocean burn.

"You were wrong," she says, her voice remarkably steady.  She keeps her eyes trained on the television.  "This looks very much as if he wants to kill me, 007."

"Both of us, it seems.  And we shan't let him."

"No," she says coldly.  "Let's kill him instead."

The ice in her voice reassures him—for a moment, he'd wondered if she would want to give herself up or some similar foolishness.  But M is no fool, nor is she a martyr.  Just then, her phone rings on the nightstand.  She reaches out, picks it up, squints at it.

"Mallory," she says.  She bites her bottom lip.  Then she sets the phone on the nightstand, picks up the table lamp, and smashes it down.  The display shatters and the phone buckles, as does—presumably—the tracking device inside.

"So much for the dentist," she says.

"Mallory wouldn't turn you over to a terrorist," Bond feels obliged to point out, even as he takes his own phone out of his pocket, drops it, and crushes it beneath his heel.

"Four years ago, I learned that my personal bodyguard was a Quantum mole," she says, keeping her eyes on the nightstand.  "Mallory may well be a good sort, but not everybody is, and he hasn't yet had time to learn to tell the difference.  Let's get the hell out of here.  You said last night you've got a car."

"I certainly have.  Get dressed.  I'll settle the bill."

"The bill?" 

"Leave it to me."  He can do this sort of thing in his sleep, and the fewer complicating factors, the better.

"Fine." She takes one last look at the smoking wreckage on the television before she turns it off.  Then, finally, she looks at him.  He nearly starts.  Even after all they've both done and endured, he has never seen anything like the rage in her eyes.

"I want him," she says.  Her voice shakes.  "I want him.  As badly as he wants me."

Then Silva is already winning.  Bond just hopes he doesn't know it yet.  "So let's get him," is all he says.

 


 

The game just changed, and in theory, the world is theirs: they could attempt to face down Silva from anywhere in Europe.  M is wary of anything involving the Americans, but a wide array of options lies before them nevertheless.  Silva is almost certainly hanging about the Continent, probably still in Britain itself.  He’ll be wanting to see to all of this personally.

That’s fine.  So do they.

In the end, though, it’s still Skyfall.  It’s got to be.  Neither of them is the least bit soppy, and yet they must admit there’s a certain inevitability to it.  

They take a taxi that lets them off two blocks from Bond’s rented garage, in front of a corner shop where they pause just long enough to buy two burner phones and a prepaid plan in cash, plus two coffees.  Sipping them, bug-out bags looped over their shoulders, they walk briskly down the two blocks to the garage.

“Well, what have you got?” M asks as he unlocks the door.

“Something extremely cherished, personal, and classic.”

“Is it a car or a set of heirloom silver?”  He raises the door.  “...Oh, for heaven’s sake.”

“Drink up,” Bond says as he fondly pats the Aston Martin’s burnished hood.  “No cupholders.”

As they drive north out of London on the M6, he shows her what the Aston does have to offer: nimble handling, swift acceleration, machine guns mounted behind the headlights, and a passenger ejector seat if she gets stroppy.  The last fails entirely to impress.  

About half an hour later, the adrenaline begins to wear off and they remember they skipped breakfast.  But they don’t dare stop anywhere else, so they let their stomachs growl until they reach Wendlebury.  They pause just long enough to duck in and out of another corner mart (dead easy to avoid security cameras once you’ve got the trick of it, and they do).  Bond does not particularly enjoy meals that consist of protein bars, but any port in a storm, and he tries not to think of the Dorchester’s excellent in-dining menu.  

“Bloody awful, these things,” M says, swallowing the last bite with a grimace.  “A step above MREs, I suppose.”

“I was going to kill Silva anyway,” Bond says.  “Now I’m going to kill him worse.”  To his relief, she huffs out a laugh.  The fury in her eyes has simmered down to something controlled, not controlling, something that can be used as necessary.  “Chocolate-flavoured soya nuggets instead of Eggs Benedict in Hollandaise.”

“Truly, there is no end to our troubles.  Though I’m comforted to know the fate of England rests on your breakfast, Bond.”

“Better than the want of a horseshoe nail.”

M tuts, and then takes one of the burner phones from her bug-out bag.  “Are we well enough on our way?”

“I’d say so.”  With a feeling that he is committing blasphemy of some sort, he tosses his crumpled wrapper over the back of his seat.  

“I’ll call,” and damned if she doesn’t sound sly, the cow, “but I think you’d better do the talking.”

“I’m not very diplomatic.”

“You have your own unique approach, don’t you?  I’m putting on the speakerphone.  Just pretend it’s some girl in an exotic smoky den, or wherever you find them.”

“Anywhere I want them,” he says, just to make her scowl at him, but then a third voice intrudes into the scrap.

“Hello?” Q demands, the barest edge of a squeak lending his voice its peculiar charm.  

“Q,” Bond says.  “I need help.”

Silence.  Bond’s skin prickles.  M leans forward in her seat, frowning.  If they’ve misjudged this, misjudged Q—

There’s a click, a beep, and then Q says, “We’re on a secure channel.  007, where the hell are you?  Where’s—” He stumbles.

“M’s with me,” Bond says.  “We’re going off the grid to draw Silva out.”

“Oh really,” Q replies.  “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Silva’s speciality is the grid.  If you want him to find you—if he’s even alive, which we’ve yet to confirm...”

“He’s alive,” Bond says.  “He thought we were in the hotel that blew up.  Traced the aliases I used to make a fake book-in.  It can’t be a coincidence.”

“God,” Q says, “and the snipers—you’re heading out alone?  That's insanity.  Come back to base, let us work up a plan.”

“No,” M interrupts.  “He’s made his statement with MI6.  It’s us he wants now.”  Bond supposes he is grateful to be included.  “I won’t have any more pointless violence.”  Then she gives Bond a look that is very pointed indeed.

Smoky dens, his arse—he can’t exactly use smouldering looks and seductive body language over the phone.  But he’ll do his best.  He says, “Q?  It’s time to show me what you’re really capable of in your pyjamas.”

M’s eyes go very wide.

“What?” Q asks.

“You said you could do more damage with your computer while wearing your pyjamas than I could all day.”  Well, he'd said something like that.  Bond lets a lazy grin into his voice when he adds, “You probably thought I’d never ask you to prove it.”

“No, I didn’t.  And I’m not in my pyjamas.”

Bond and M roll their eyes simultaneously.  He can feel the frustration radiating off her: only a week ago, she would have given Q an order, and that would have been the end of it.  Now she has to rely on a former subordinate’s dubious ability to flirt his way through another former subordinate.

“Well, imagine how much more dangerous you must be in a cardigan,” Bond says.  “Come on, Q.  There’s no one else we can trust with this.”

“With what?  You haven’t even told me what you want.  And if M gets wind of...I mean, Mallory.  If he—”

Steam might actually be coming out of M’s ears.  Bond says quickly, thinking absurdly of ducks in a pond, “I need you to lay a trail of breadcrumbs.  One that’ll be impossible for anyone to follow except Silva.  Think you can do it?”

“Thought you said you were going off the grid.”

“Thought you were the second greatest computer genius in England.”

“Second—I won’t rise to that,” Q says, with dignity.  “Of course I can do it, the question is why should I?  It’s suicide for you to...”

“You’re doing it because we both need to correct a mistake,” Bond says, keeping his eyes on the road and nowhere near M.  “A rather large one—I think I can say with confidence, the largest you’ve made in your long and storied career.”

Silence.  More silence.  M herself breaks it by saying, with a clenched jaw, “Let’s just say that I would be grateful to you, Quartermaster.”

“She thinks you’re brilliant,” Bond adds on the spur of the moment.  “She told me so.”

“Double-oh—!”

“All right,” Q mutters.  “And Bond, I know quite well what you were doing, for the record.”

“If you didn’t, I wouldn’t be much good at doing it.”

“Don’t pat yourself on the back,” Q says primly.  “Luckily for M, the challenge turns me on more than you do.  We can discuss the rest later, if you’re alive and I’m interested.”

“The rest?!”

“What I can do in my pyjamas, and so on.  Where are you going?”

He’ll never forgive her for this.  “Skyfall.  My family home in Glencoe.  It’s near—”

“I know where it is.  When will you arrive?”

He frowns.  Talks with the solicitor were enough to let him know that the place still has electricity and running water, but he’d lay odds there’s nothing to eat.  Should they stop again for supplies when they’re closer?  There’s no way to know when Silva will arrive—they may very well have no time for food or sleep—but that’s the trouble with an enemy who’s so bloody unpredictable in all but a few reliable particulars.

Such as an all-consuming obsession with a woman.

No.  They won’t have to wait long once Silva learns where they are.  “If we drive all day—” He glances inquisitively at M, who nods, tight-lipped.  “— we can get there by this evening, I should think, accounting for a stop or two.”  It’s roughly eight hours from London to Glencoe. Once they’re closer, they’ll leave the M6 and start taking smaller roads.

“Right.  And when do you want him there?”

Bond is slightly amused by Q’s apparent belief that he can deliver Silva like a pizza.  Well, perhaps he can.   “Ideally, tomorrow night.”  God willing, they still have a gun room.  “I’ll contact you if the situation changes.  On another mobile, so pick up.”

“I did this time, didn’t I?”  A pause.  “And when will you be wanting me to send backup?”

“Goodbye, Quartermaster,” M says.

After another pause, Q says quietly, “Yes, ma’am.  Good luck.”  Then he disconnects.

M rounds on Bond before he can utter another word.  “That was your idea of seduction?  We might as well have tried the guilt trip from the start.”

“I have news: what works on beautiful, dangerous women in smoky dens doesn’t work in our particular situation.”

“I can see that.  Still, with your reputation...” she huffs, then stares out her window.

They’re not in heavy traffic at the moment, so he says, “M?”

When she turns towards him, he meets her with the look that has drawn women and men from every illuminated stage and darkened corner, wherever he wants them, whenever he wants them: the look that swears no desire will go unfulfilled, no yearning will remain secret, and this opportunity will never come again.  He is here, he is now, and there is nothing he cannot do.

She blinks.  “Ah,” she says.

“It doesn’t translate so well over the phone.”

“Or in the dark.”

“I have other reliable methods in the dark.”

“I’m sure.  That will do,” she says, no inflection in her voice as she turns back to her window.  He frowns, surprised, but then his face burns when he thinks of the most recent time someone must have looked at her sexually: not just someone, but a former agent, an abandoned son, her favourite, his predecessor.  He...could have handled that better.  Or not at all.

“Yes, ma’am,” is all he says.

 


 

They keep the car radio on after contacting Q, but for hours there is no news they haven't already heard: the hotel, the snipers, the outrage.  No clear motive.  No one claiming ownership of the heinous deed.  The Home Secretary gives a statement about following every lead, never negotiating with terrorists, Britain stands tall, and so on.  Bond and M are tired of listening to it, but as she says, new information could break at any second.

"Unreliable information," Bond feels obliged to point out.

"But if he steps out in the open—if he lets himself be known…" She sighs.  "He won't make it that easy, will he?"

"I should think not."

"No."  And then, just like that: "Bond, why Skyfall?"

He takes a moment to switch gears, then shrugs.  "Tactically expedient."

She says impatiently, "Yes, now it is.  But I'm talking about before.  We were going anyway, supposedly.  You said you wanted to show it to me."

Oh.  He swallows.  "I did."

"So why there, of all places?  Tell me."

"The heather's very nice this time of year."

"Be serious—I am.  If you wanted to show me, what was I meant to see?"

Yes, it is dangerously easy to talk to M; it would even be easy to say Me or Refuge or The past. All of that would be true.  But the truest thing is also the hardest to say.

"It's all I had to offer," he says.  "It's all there is."

"Bond…"

"It's all there is," he repeats, feeling strangled.

"Then I'll take it," she says, so mildly that he knows she regrets asking.  M can be cruel, but she is rarely sadistic, and having inadvertently opened a wound, she has no desire to stare into it.

Trying to return to a lighter tone, but unable to resist asking, he says, "And you?  Where would you have taken me, if you had your druthers?"  Unspoken: what does she have?  And what does he rate?

She is silent, then leans back in the seat with a sigh that doesn't quite sound exasperated.  "Well, not to Dorset."  Bond can't help smiling at that; so the files are true.  How unglamorous.  "I don't know, Bond.  I've too many places.  They all mean different things to me.  But—" She takes a deep breath.  "I wouldn't withhold any of them, if that's what you want to know.  I'd let you choose."

He had not expected anything so bare or straightforward.  He wonders if it's true.  He's not sure how to deal with it, except to say, "Berlin, then.  1960."  Her first posting.

"Oh, no.  My hair was terrible in Berlin."

"Ah.  In that case, I'm not interested."

"Well, thirty years later I cut it all off and the Wall fell, which just goes to show you.  It's why I sent Eve Moneypenny with instructions to make you shave that hideous fungus off your face.  I was hoping that alone would save the day."

He remembers Eve's smooth fingertips and laughing eyes: old dog, she'd called him, after pushing his hands away from her tits.  "Full marks for effort, then," he says, making a show of arching his eyebrows.

"You didn't sleep with her," M says baldly.  "So you needn't act otherwise, 007."

This is better, firmer ground.  "True, I sent her packing.  I wanted to get a good night's sleep."

M snorts, not fooled for a moment.  "Not that you'll listen, but a word of advice: don't ever sleep with Moneypenny.  Let her be the girl you don't get.  Every man ought to have at least one.  I understand it can actually prove quite restful."

She has a point.  Bond suspects that he would get even less rest with Eve in his life.  But he also knows that is not at all M's main concern.

She likes Eve.  And he does dreadful things to women.

"I imagine she can look out for her own best interests," he says shortly.

"Meaning you can too?  Oh, all right, if that's the thanks I get."  She glances out her window, clears her throat, and says, "Perhaps we could make a stop soon."  The back of her neck goes red.

Bond glances at his watch.  It's been three hours since they left London.  She'd refused point-blank to stop during the four-and-a-half hour drive from Cornwall, but that had been—and of course there's the coffee to consider.  "Next junction.  I can let her engine cool."

"Does 'she' have a name?" M asks, an unusually frivolous question.

"No.  'The Aston,' I suppose."  He moves one lane over.  "Are you hungry?"

"Starving," she admits.  "The next soya bar I eat will be in Hell."

He chuckles.  "We'll stop somewhere to top off the petrol, then.  Get some sandwiches." 

She's got the cash.  He fills the tank while she ducks into the service station's shop to pay for the petrol and the food, regretting slightly the admiring looks the Aston gets from passers-by.  Too conspicuous.  But he and M have spent enough time in crap cars recently.  And he's fairly sure that black Citroen had maxed out at roughly the speed of smell. 

She returns to the car with two sandwiches in plastic wrap and two bottles of water.  "Do you need something with caffeine?"

"No, but I do need the loo.  Keep an eye out."

"You're not superhuman?  I'm disappointed," she calls after him as he heads into the shop.

Story of their relationship, really.  Talking to M: surprisingly easy, except when it's like dancing on a volcano rim.

When they get going again, he says, "We'll be there by tonight.  If Q's as good as you think, we can try to get some sleep.  That's if you've no objections to taking turns for watch."

"Of course I haven't."  Bond merges back onto the M6, sandwich in one hand.  M turns the radio back on with a certain degree of reluctance.  Then she has to fiddle with the knob until the static clears and she finds a station that isn't Radio 1.  And it's only talking about the weather.

"Mary tells me that the girls listen to the most appalling music," she says after a moment.  "Lady Gaga and all the rest."

Mary is her daughter, and has two daughters of her own.  This isn't quite the room in Cornwall, but it smacks of forbidden territory nevertheless.  But—I wouldn't withhold, she'd said, and that's what this is?

His instant, ravening hunger for it shocks him.  Yes.  He wants it: banal stories of her family, their dull innocence, whatever she's willing to dole out.  All of it.

He clears his throat, choking the desperation back down into his lungs when he says, "Well, Lady Gaga met the Queen.  It was in all the papers."

"A hideous sign of the times."

Give me—give—  "How old are they?  The two girls."

There is a brief, awful silence before she says, quite calmly, "Thirteen and sixteen."

"Do you like them?"

"I hardly know them.  Don't get out to Hong Kong much these days."  She smirks.  "I do send absurdly extravagant presents, though.  I like having one up on their other gran.  She's insufferable.  Crochets."

He scoffs, "You keep a needle and thread in your bug-out bag and you object to crochet?"

"Try to crochet a flesh wound back together and let me know how it goes."

"I'll try anything once."

"That, I'd like to see."  She huffs.  "I'm an old woman, Bond, and I know it.  But I've got my limits."

She is old.  Seventy-seven.  The realisation startles him.  He doesn't have much occasion to meet the elderly in his line of work, and he generally thinks of them as a separate species: those whose vital organs have likely never encountered bullets, knives, or poisons, but who succumb instead to quieter ends.  Who develop arthritis, weakened hearts, dementia—nothing he can envision for himself, nothing he can even imagine touching M. 

And yet it's his job to protect her so that she can eventually die with problems like that, instead of from problems like his.  The world strikes him as a grotesque place.

Just then, before his musings can become even more maudlin, the weather announcer says over the radio, "I'm sorry.  We're going to interrupt our broadcast to bring you some breaking news."  She sounds on the elderly side herself, probably never done anything more serious than the shipping forecast, and her voice quivers.  "We've just had some fresh information on the Banks Hotel bombing.  We're…we're going to turn the broadcast over to our parent station in London."  She pauses and adds politely, "Thank you very much for your time."

M hisses and immediately turns the volume up.

There's a pause that seems to last forever, before a much more professional voice, still female, begins mid-sentence: "…an announcement released to the international press, quite astonishing and very cryptic.  Jonathan, have we got leave to read this on the air?  Have MI5—"

"We're checking, Melissa," a male voice replies.

"Right, while we're checking on that, I repeat, we have received a notification from a party claiming to be responsible for the bombing this morning of the Banks Hotel in Lewisham.  This group—they—I suppose I can say this, they're calling themselves 'The Motherless'…"

M makes a wordless sound of disgust while Bond rolls his eyes.  If it weren't so serious, it would just be pathetic.

"…and I repeat, they're taking responsibility for the Banks Hotel.  A group identifying themselves as 'The Motherless' has—Jonathan?  We can?  Okay.  The Motherless, and we don't yet know anything more about them besides the name, sent the following message to major media outlets worldwide just a few minutes ago.  It's very cryptic, not sure what to make of it…"

"Of bloody course it is," M spits.

"It begins with a nursery rhyme," Melissa continues.  "I'm sure many of our listeners will recognise it.  Here we go:

 

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children, she didn't know what to do.

She gave them some broth without any bread;

And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

 

"As I said, very familiar, and then the cable goes on to claim responsibility for the bombing, hinting at the possibility of future targets, but giving no specifics—I repeat, there are no specifics we can give you, and I'm being cautioned not to release the full wording.  We're waiting to hear from the Home Secretary…"

"Melissa, is it possible that this is a metaphor of some kind?  The old woman in the shoe as Great Britain herself?  Or—"

"Well, it's too early to speculate, obviously, but…"

And they have to listen to this.  They don't dare turn it off.  The next two hours are full of unbroken, pointless nattering, until Bond would give his left testicle to listen to Lady Gaga instead.  M keeps rubbing her temples with the tips of her fingers.

Two hours and ten minutes later, though, Silva decides to enliven the monotony by sending out another nursery rhyme over the airwaves.  The news readers are all aflutter.  It goes:

 

There was an old lady who swallowed a spider

That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.

She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.

I don't know why she swallowed a fly—perhaps she'll die.

 

Bond switches off the radio without a second thought.

M says, "007, we need to listen."

"No more.  Not now," he says.  "No," he adds, raising his voice just the very little bit when she seems prepared to protest. 

"All right," she says evenly, and lists slightly to the side until her head rests against her window.  "How much longer till we get there?"

"What?  Oh."  He shakes his head.  When did he become so fatigued?  When did his neck start aching?  "Three hours or so.  Do we need to stop again?"

"No.  That is, I don't, do you?"

"No."

She hums, waits, and says, "So MI6 is a shoe.  You're a spider.  One learns something new every day."

He's a spider?  It's almost enough to make him laugh.  M's been weaving webs for longer than he's been alive.  Silva's got a native talent for it, too; and Bond is the arachnid in this scenario?  "One surely does," he replies.  "Mind you, the new Six smells like a foot."

"An ignoble way to describe Churchill's legacy, Bond."

"If the shoe fits."  She groans, which he decides to take as a compliment.  "We'll switch on the radio again soon.  I can't take any more just now." 

(Perhaps she'll die.)  (No.  Let's kill him instead.)

"He'd pitch a fit if he knew we were ignoring him," M muses.  "I suppose I can derive some pleasure from that.  Do you want me to drive for a bit?"

For a moment, he does not understand her, although she spoke English.  It's as though she asked if he wanted to wear sausages on his head, or if he liked a bit of moon in his soup.  "What?"

"You look done in," she says with astonishing patience.  "Do you want to take a rest and let me drive?"

Drive the car?  Drive the car.  He is literally too appalled to speak. 

"Oh, Christ," she says, rolling her eyes.  "At least your attitude matches the year of make.  I might not drive like Moneypenny, but I can get us to Scotland on a motorway."

"That's not necessary," he says, gripping the wheel so tightly that they'd have to kill him to pry him off.

"It was only a suggestion.  When did you get the car, anyway?"

"I inherited it." 

He does not elaborate.  He supposes, given the ensuing silence, that there is no need.

Then she asks, "With guns in it?"

He barks out a laugh.  "No.  I added a few personal touches."

"I am reasonably sure I should not ask any further questions." 

"You're a wise woman, M."

More silence, and then she finally says it:

"I'm not M."

 


 

Conversation dies for a bit after that, as surely as if she snuffed out a candle.  All the natural responses (Of course you are, Of course you're not, What are you, then?) don't deserve to be spoken in this company. 

Besides, it's a dangerous thought to pursue.  If they follow it for too long, then everything might change.  If they follow that thought, then maybe they're no longer 007 and M luring Silva towards a desperate last stand.  Maybe they're just James Bond and Beatrice Masters running for their lives from Tiago Rodriguez, and neither of them could live with that.

Bond accepts that M was married, has a family, has lived a life apart, but he's not sure he can accept that now she has to go by a name.  He certainly can't accept that all of a sudden, Gareth Mallory doesn't. 

After several minutes of silence, when her breathing is soft and he scarcely breathes at all, he says, "Let's hold that thought until the war is over."

"Over?" She drums her fingertips against her knee.  "This war is never over, double-oh—" Then her breath catches, she checks herself, and chuckles without mirth.  "But I take your point."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"And there's no need to belabour it."

"All right."

"Fine."  She takes a deep breath, and he wonders if she is relieved or disappointed by the turn of the conversation.  "Tell me about where we're going.  The lay of the land, what we can use."

He has to think.  It's a little disturbing that he can case a new place in five seconds and know a strange room down to the minutest detail, but he can't recall nearly enough specifics about his family estate.  "It's not near any civilisation to speak of.  Closest village is twelve miles off.  Skyfall sits on about sixteen square miles of land.  There's the family house, and then the old chapel standing about half a mile to the west, across a pond."

"Chapel?"

"Also the family's.  It's fallen into ruin, but my parents were married there."  And buried, too.  They'd always been sentimental about that wreck of rocks.

"How old were you when they died?"

Rather than dignify that with an answer, he just looks at her.  She sighs and nods slightly: of course she knows.  He continues, "There's an underground tunnel that runs between the chapel and the house.  A priest's hole."

"You can't be serious?  You said there's a pond between.  Surely nobody tunnelled beneath the water."

"No.  The tunnel only runs partway, beneath the moor.  It ends where the pond begins."  Too close for comfort, really.  His mother had never allowed him into the tunnel when he was a boy; and yet, when she was gone, it became the only refuge he allowed himself.

He won't be telling M about that, he decides.  "Anyway, you get out of the tunnel and it's less than a quarter mile to the chapel.  Useful as a place to hide, but not much else."

"I see," she says.  "What about the grounds?"

"Moors for miles around.  No tree cover to speak of.  The ground will be frozen this time of year.  So will the pond."

"And the house?"

He hates the house.  His memories are all too vague, clouded over with claustrophobia and isolation.  "Two floors.  Five thousand square feet, perhaps.  Downstairs is the kitchen, dining room, sitting room, a lavatory.  And the gun room—we'll check that first thing.  Upstairs are four bedrooms and a maid's room, and another lavatory.  Windows face all directions.  We'll board up the ones downstairs."

"What's it all built of?"

"Stone."

"That's good.  Anything else?"

Yes, there's more, he knows there is, there must be.  "There's…oh.  The quarry.  Four miles to the south of the house."

"And?"

"That's all I can think of.  When we get there—well, we'll see."

She nods, apparently satisfied.  "Sounds as if we could do much worse."

"There's a fine line between optimism and lunacy."

She glares at him.  "A solid house, a gun room, and an underground tunnel?  I'd call that as good as we're going to get." 

He grunts.  "We'll need to make a stop before we get there.  I doubt there's any food to speak of.  Perhaps nothing to sleep on.  I don't know what's been taken away since I died."  He spares a moment to glower at her.  "At least MI6 wasn't the seller this time."

"Are you sulking about that?  I told you, you should have called.  What was I meant to do, preserve your flat as a shrine?"

At least he'd got the money from the sale, but only after badgering Accounts for it.  "Who bought it, anyway?"

"A couple from France who wanted London digs.  We swept the place, of course.  I trust you went through your effects and found nothing missing."

"Everything seemed to be in order, yes."

"Well—it wouldn't have taken long.  I understand you didn't have much."

"No.  There wasn't much point, was there?"  He'd never had guests or girls over.  And he was rarely home.  In hindsight, he is relieved; the idea of anyone, even MI6 (maybe especially MI6) going through his things and cataloguing them makes his skin crawl.  Better not to have many things.  "Did you look at any of it?"

"Yes," she says, with no trace of embarrassment.  "Your books."

Something else he doesn't have a lot of.  Books are heavy, take up space, and require commitment.  Still, the ones he does have mean something to him.  "And?"

"And what?"  She shrugs.  "They didn't tell me anything I didn't already know."

If he presses, she'll snipe about feeding his ego or vanity or something.  She'd probably like that.  But just then, some bloody idiot switches into their lane without signaling and he has to slam on the brake.  M makes a sound of protest as she lurches forward and the shoulder strap bites into her neck.  Bond swears and presses hard on the horn.

The other driver extends his hand from the window and flips them off.  Bond snarls.  M says, "Don't you dare."

"Don't I dare what?"

"Open up machine gun fire on the M6.  The policeman will never know how to write up the ticket."

And then she laughs—a rough, mischievous chortle he has never heard, so contagious that he grins before he can even think about it.  All this effort will be for nothing if they just go and get themselves killed on the motorway.  The absurdity of it starts him laughing, too.

Twenty minutes later, they can bring themselves to turn the radio on again, but there have been no new developments.  Well, it hasn't been all that long since the second nursery rhyme, really.  And, though it seems strange to think, it's been less than twenty-four hours since Silva bombed the hotel. 

"I wonder what the next target will be," she says quietly, all traces of laughter long gone. 

"Hopefully us, if Q's timing is as good as he supposes.  Silva won't waste time on other gestures when he learns where we are."

"I wish I could be sure of that.  The timing, I mean.  You're right about the rest."  She sighs.  Then she murmurs, "I told him I didn't remember him."

Bond's jaw clenches.  His guts do too. 

"It wasn't true, and yet it was," she adds, her voice low and musing, as if she's talking to herself.  "I remember quite well the man he was.  I remember Rodriguez.  I thought of him often, for a long time."

Bond doesn't know how to respond.  He waits.

She continues without encouragement.  "But Silva—that is a different man.  I don't recognise him.  I've been dealing with a complete stranger this whole time.  It's so bizarre.  Even in our line of work, I had not known that was possible, such a complete transformation of self.  When I looked at him, spoke to him—when—" She stops, and finishes, "I never once felt as if I were dealing with someone I knew."

Then she gives a small, but unmistakable shiver that, no doubt, she did not intend for him to see.  It's moments like this when he remembers that he doesn't know what happened in the Cornwall room, not really, and that in some way she's still bolted inside it.

He has to say something.  It can't be Oh, how odd.  It can't be I'm sorry, either. 

"Regret is unprofessional," he says.  "We both know it, even if he doesn't.  He made his own choices."

"I suppose so," she says.  She snorts.  "'Regret is unprofessional'.  I've said that often enough, haven't I."

"It's not a bad refrain for—"

But he can't finish, as suddenly he thinks about something he hasn't heard her say just lately:   "Bond, what took you so long?"  "You're late, 007."  "Where the hell have you been?"  None of those jabs, the ones she used to love—not since—

Nausea.  For the first time in years, since he deliberately ingested saltwater, he thinks he's going to be sick.  She'd said, You don't get to have regrets about this.  This isn't about you.  He knows that's true.  He can't fucking help it.  He had a wire around that bastard's neck, and he didn't kill him.  And so here they are.

"What's the matter now?" she asks, her voice too sharp.

He masters his stomach and keeps his eyes on the road.  "Just the usual."

She says nothing.  The news readers chatter on.  It's getting dark, and Bond switches on the headlights.  They don't speak again, and eventually he sees her head bob slightly as she dozes off.  Then she lifts it again with a little gasp, blinking rapidly. 

"Go on and get some sleep.  I'll keep listening to the radio."  He does turn the volume down, though.  "Then you can take first watch tonight."

She nods, settles down in the seat, rests her head against the window, and appears to fall asleep immediately, as if she'd only been waiting for an excuse.  It comes as a relief, the closest he can get to solitude.  The Aston is a small car, especially for the load of ghosts it's carrying along with its two passengers. 

Skyfall, dead ahead.  He'd planned to come back once before.  With Vesper.  Not to live there, more to prove a point.  He'd imagined her clearing the ghosts away, her beauty and grace lighting up the shadows.  It had been folly, of course, but if she'd lived, if things had only been what they'd seemed…

Things never are.  Still, he wonders, briefly, if Vesper had lived, if things had been what they'd seemed, if he'd left Six behind and then turned on the news one day to see the place blown up—he wonders if he would have come back. 

It doesn't matter.  He lets M sleep.  She makes the occasional soft noise, but at least she doesn't snore. 

The Aston drifts through the falling darkness.  An hour later, he leaves the M6, driving down smaller roads towards the final town with any real population before they head into the wilds.  There's an Asda.  As he turns into the car park, he thinks about letting her sleep while he goes in. 

But she wakes up when he parks the car, shaking her head and inhaling sharply.  Then she rubs her eyes and says, "Where are we?"

"Last stop before Skyfall.  Going to get some supplies.  I won't be long.  D'you want to stay in the car?"

She shakes her head and unbuckles her seatbelt, then pats her hair down.  "You won't think of everything."

"We need food.  What's not to think of?"

Twenty minutes later, he's pushing a trolley containing food, a couple of dishtowels, and two rolls of toilet paper.  In what he suspects is a triumph of self-control, she is managing not to smirk.  And then, just to pile insult onto injury, she steers him towards a small rack of clothes, Asda's concession to basic cold-weather needs: socks, gloves, fleeces, and the like.

"All right, all right," he sighs as they wait in line at the check-out, glaring down at a black fleece pullover in his size that, under other circumstances, might be inoffensive.

She looks around the store: large, brightly lit, done up in bright green but somehow colourless.  Jaunty music blares over the speakers.  "Ghastly, isn't it?" 

"Unspeakable."  He takes advantage of her distraction to scrutinize her: the harsh fluorescent lights make her look even more exhausted than she must be.  They're getting strange looks from the other shoppers, and it's easy to see why.  Their outfits are worth thousands of pounds, and look it, but they've been wearing them for two days now, and that shows too.  "We'll be there soon."  

They pay in cash and return to the car, where he loads the goods into the Aston's boot.  When he gets back into the driver's seat, he sees that she is already curled up against her door, ready to go back to sleep.  He wonders if, when she wakes up again, Asda will merely seem like a bizarre dream. 

True to his word, he keeps the radio on, as low as he can get away with, but the drive still seems eerily quiet.  It's as if, the farther he goes, the more the world falls asleep along with M.  Eventually there are no more street lights, then no houses, and then they stop passing cars going the other way.  This, too, is like his childhood: the feeling of being wholly alone in a desolate place.  It won't improve much in daylight, he knows.

The car approaches a rise that will bring them to the first view of the estate.  He slows the car and pulls over.  Then he reaches beneath his seat and pulls out a slim pair of night-vision binoculars.  Checking to make sure that M is still asleep, he steals out of the car and climbs the rise on foot, lying down on his belly after he reaches the top and surveying the land. 

It's a full moon, and the landscape is so washed with light that the night vision feature is almost superfluous.  Still, at this distance, he needs the extra help to see that no one appears to be lying in wait for them.  He's not sure how that would be possible at this point—hopefully Q won't have started laying the breadcrumbs just yet—but it's better to be safe than sorrier.  He can't help lingering a little, either, trying to get used to what lies ahead.  There's the house, the chapel, the quarry, just as he said, smaller than he remembers.

It's all there is.

He shakes his head, gets back to his feet, and returns to the car to find her getting out of it, looking both sleepy and alarmed.  "What's wrong?  Why have we stopped?" she whispers.

"Nothing," he reassures her, holding up the binoculars.  "I just stopped to get a look.  No signs of trouble yet."

"I should hope not."  She sounds groggy.  "I'd hate to think I went into an Asda for nothing.  That wasn't a dream, was it?  …Did I say something funny?"

He shakes his head again, smiling.  "Let's go.  Nearly there."

She takes a deep breath, looking towards the rise he just descended.  Then, without saying anything or even looking at him, she gets back in the car.  So does he.  Turns the key.  Away they go.

The Aston rolls down the drive towards his ancestral home, carrying them towards their fate.  Both of them, he knows, are primed for this, and they want Silva's head so badly they ache with it.  She'd told him that revenge was a road that had no end, but she was wrong.  It must stop here.

In the service of that goal, they are ready to die.  Perhaps they will; the possibility has never frightened him.  But he knows, too, that there are other roads than this.  Other worlds with far distant horizons.  And while he never prays, he does hope that Bond and M's avenging fury will let James and Beatrice walk away from this alive.

 


Continued in Part Two