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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

Chapter Text

Part Two: Ruat Caelum

 

Bond parks the car on the north side of the house, hidden from the drive.  He lets M lean on his arm a little as they head to the back door so she doesn't slip on the grass, which is acquiring a fine sheen of frost in the cold night air.  "God," she says, "you're sure the heat works?"

"There is no central heating.  But the power's on.  There've always been heaters in individual rooms, we moved them about as we pleased." 

"Please tell me they're still here."

"Not sure who'd want to take them.  They're twenty years old." 

"Oh, marvellous."

The door is locked, but he's long past the days when he needed a key for anything.  When he gets it open, it swings back, and he leads her into the kitchen, guided by the light of his miniature torch.  He'd rather expected dust and cobwebs, decay, rats and mice.  From what he can see, it's mostly the furniture covered up with sheets.  It doesn't even smell as musty as it ought; somebody cleaned the place up and aired it out before putting it on the market.

"Wait here," he says, leaving her so he can do a quick sweep of the house.  Empty.  Every footstep echoes. 

The gun room seems especially empty.  Empty of guns.  He looks around the racks in dismay, denuded as they are of useful firearms, and curses under his breath. 

No help for it now.  He continues throughout the house, eventually making his way up the stairs.  As he stands in the middle of the master bedroom, looking at the four-poster bed with its mattress stripped bare, he feels an old weariness settle down on him: not physical exhaustion, but the oppressiveness of memory.  Long, grey afternoons during school holidays.  The morning chill that lasted all day.  The barking of a far-distant dog.  He'd wanted Vesper to change Skyfall; now he lays it at M's feet as it is.    

She's standing by a window, lit by the moon, when he returns to the kitchen.  She doesn't turn at his approach, but mutters, "I've been jumping at damn near every sound."

"We're the only people here."

"For miles, it looks like."  She points behind him.  "I found that and got it going."

He turns to see the space heater tucked in the corner, humming gently.  When he was last here, it was brand new, and had warmed his legs beneath the table before he'd left and never returned.

"Glad it works," he says.

She nods and draws her coat closer.  "The grand tour?"

His stomach growls.  "After supper."

The next hour is surreally domestic: he bringing in the groceries, she puttering around in the kitchen, rinsing out the kettle and making sure the refrigerator really is cold.  The kitchen is not visible from the drive, so they risk using the lights. 

They're good cooks when they choose to be.  Her kitchen in London was well stocked.  They took turns preparing meals and never talked about how they were taking turns, because then it would just have been absurd, but it passed the time.  Now he knows how she takes her evening cuppa and she knows his preference for wholemeal bread.  She toasts it in the oven with some cheese; he warms up the canned soup that neither of them will like, but both will eat. 

Halfway through his soup, he says, "Someone cleared out the gun room.  The firearms are gone."

She puts the spoon back in her bowl, her eyes widening.  "Bloody hell.  What happened to them?" 

"I've no idea.  Sold or stolen, I expect.  There were some valuable pieces.  There's only one left."

She bites her lip.  "Better than nothing, I suppose.  What sort—"

"My father's hunting rifle."  He looks at the wall over her shoulder.  "Saw it in the corner.  I'll test it tomorrow."

"And if it doesn't work?  Well, we've got the bug-out bags."  One handgun each, plus less ammunition than he'd like.  She takes a bite of toast, swallows, and says, "I've always been useless with a rifle, anyway.  The recoil's murder."

He pauses before he takes another bite of soup, feeling a pang of dread.  "How good a shot are you in general?"

"Not the best."  She gives him a level look that dares him to find fault with this.  "How deeply did you read into my file?"

"Not enough to know what you're getting at."

"When I was a field agent, my specialty was explosives.  I couldn't hit a man dead between the eyes, but I could blow him to bits well enough."  She sips her tea while he stares at her, and adds tranquilly, "You'll be amazed what can be done with things you've just got lying around."

He supposes that must be true; he can jury-rig something to pop, but explosives have never been his thing, really.  He usually doesn't have time for them.  A gun can meet an immediate threat.  Bombs require forethought.

He supposes there's a window of opportunity for that, though.  "Well, keep an eye out, and see what we've got." 

They finish, put up the dishes, and then he guides her through the house.  They only make a quick pass through the parts that face on to the drive, leery of turning on lights or flashing the torch, but it's important that she knows where everything is in case they are set on in the middle of the night.  If not, then they can do a more thorough tour in the morning.  She is very interested in the chandeliers and the entrance to the tunnel. 

By now, he's mostly interested in four hours' worth of sleep, if he can get it, before it's his turn for watch.  He puts the bug-out bags in the second-largest bedroom, one in the rear of the house, and pulls out his radio.  They turn it on and listen together: thankfully, no news of fresh havoc, or even new nursery rhymes.

A camphor blanket box yields cover for the night, even if the smell is less than pleasant.  "I'll set up in the master," M says, taking the radio and one of the blankets.  "It's got a good view of the drive and a chair by the window."

"There's a heater by the door," he says, tossing a second blanket on the mattress.

"That'll only make me go to sleep."

"You sure you can—"

"Positive.  Is everything out of the car?"

"Yes."  He sits on the edge of the bed and begins unlacing his shoes.  "You'll keep watch for four hours?"  He wants to say, Wake me if you can't do it, but suspects that will only lead to trouble.

"Four hours.  007."  He looks up from his shoes to see her regarding him with a pinched look on her face.  "Silva's death is our chief objective."

"I know that," he says.

"Well, I want to emphasise it, then.  We must accomplish that.  Whatever else might happen, you must not lose sight of that goal."

There is no accusation or recrimination in her tone; she is stating the facts of the matter.  He still feels it like a slap.

"Yes, ma'am," he says, and she leaves.

He waits a dignified two seconds before resting his elbows on his knees, and then his face in his hands.  Well.  That's a pleasant way to bid someone good-night: remind them of their terrible failure and then politely close the door behind yourself. 

You must not lose sight of that goal.  Unspoken: Again.

He's back in the room in Cornwall, Silva's body rigid beneath his own, but going limp.  The wire digging into his palms as he tugs it tight.  M watching Silva.  Bond watching M. 

A man can survive many things.  A man can be clinically dead and come back.  He should know.  Silva had just been lying there, no pulse, no breath, and Bond had taken it for granted he was dead, because if he knew one thing, it was how to kill people.

He could have snapped Silva's neck, just to be sure.

He could have taken the gun and put a bullet in his brain, just to be sure.

Neither of those things would have taken long at all.  But he had been watching M.  And Silva's breath had stopped, and his pulse was still, and Bond had thought only of escape.  It hadn't even occurred to him to snap or shoot anything.  And now—

Regret is unprofessional.  Fixing one's mistakes is not.  He will have one more chance.  It's more than most people get.

He takes off his jacket and lies down, rolling the blanket around himself and feeling a bit like a caterpillar.  He wishes he'd thought to nick the space heater from M if she's not going to use it, but he doesn't want to go out and face her again just yet.  And the bed is comfortable.  And, even though he's only been driving a car instead of shooting people and running around on rooftops, he's done in.

He sleeps.  Last night, he dreamed of rabbits.  Tonight, he dreams of running down the corridors of Whitehall, the sound of gunshots ringing all around him.  He can't remember if he's supposed to run toward or away from them.  He's looking for M.  But the corridors are empty, and though he can hear the shots, he doesn't know where they're coming from.  He can't stop running long enough to listen and figure it out.  He mustn't stop moving, or all is lost, and she'll be gone.

Someone shakes him.  He comes awake instantly, sitting up to find M bending over him, her lips a thin, urgent line, her gun in her hand.  "There's someone downstairs," she whispers.  "I think they came in through the back door."

He's got his own gun out before she finishes speaking, standing between her and the door, listening.  Sure enough, there is the creak of footsteps on the ground floor.  It sounds like only one person.    

Then there is the scrabbling of smaller feet—paws—on the floor, and the sounds of an animal's eager panting.  A bark.  "Ssh, ssh, ssh!" a man's voice hisses in agitation.  "Quiet down, you…"

He knows that voice.  He raises his gun, listens for the sound of more people; hearing none, he calls, "Kincade?  Is that you?"

Silence; then a well-remembered baritone growls out, "Who's asking?"

"James Bond," he says, in spite of M's murmur of caution.  "You alone?"

"James?  You're bloody joking.  Come down from there."

"Are.  You.  Alone?"

"Are.  You.  James?  Get down here and show yourself before I come up there with a rifle."

"Who the hell is that?" M hisses.

"Kincade.  The gamekeeper," he says.  "Wait here till I call."  Still in his stockinged feet, he puts the gun in his waistband and heads towards the stairs.  There, at the bottom, alone—except for two black Labradors—stands the figure of a man who'd taught him how to shoot.

"My God," he says.

"So it is you," Kincade replies, his eyes wide with astonishment.  Bond does not know why he is surprised to see how much Kincade has aged; perhaps it is because everything else here hasn't.  "James Bond.  I'd heard you weren't dead after all, but I didn't expect to see you here."

"It's come as a bit of a surprise to me, too."  He reaches the bottom of the stairs and holds out his hand.  "How are you?"

"Out too late in the cold.  I was taking the dogs out, and I saw the kitchen light on, and then a torch in the windows.  I waited until you put the lights out, then came up from the back and saw rather a fancy car."

"Didn't you recognise it?  It was Father's."

Kincade shrugs, looking unimpressed.  "He had a few of them, didn't he?  Never could tell one from—"

Upstairs, M clears her throat.

Ah.  "You can come down," Bond calls.

He hears her footsteps moving towards the stairs, and turns back to Kincade, who's raised his eyebrows.  "A special lady?" he asks under his breath.

"In a manner of speaking." 

M appears, and Kincade takes her in with even wider eyes.  "M, this is Kincade, the family gamekeeper," Bond repeats.  "Kincade, this is M."

"Hello, Mr. Kincade," she says, holding out her hand, manners as impeccable as if they weren't all meeting in an abandoned house in the middle of the night.

"Pleased to meet you, Emma," Kincade says, shaking her hand.  Bond knows his mind, both loyal and crafty, must be working overtime.  He glances back at Bond, keeping hold of M's hand for perhaps a touch longer than is seemly.  "What are you doing here?"

M tugs gently and Kincade releases her.  Bond replies, "Some men are coming to kill us.  We're going to kill them first."

Kincade blinks, inhales, and then lets out his breath.  "Are you, now."


 

A third person joins their watch that night, plus his dogs.  The dogs alone provide such extra vigilance that Bond goes back to sleep with shocking ease.  And when he opens his eyes again, the dawn is grey over the horizon.  Nobody woke him up so he could take his shift.

Annoyed, he puts on his shoes, and then the black Asda pullover.  His annoyance doubles when he finds no sign of M or Kincade anywhere in the house, although the two dogs wait patiently by the front door, and come to him wagging their tails when he reaches the bottom of the stairs. 

A note rests on the kitchen table: Showing Emma the grounds.  Tea in the pot, breakfast in the oven. –K.  At the bottom of the page, he's scribbled his mobile number.

How thoughtful.  Bond rubs his hands over his face, growls, and stomps back upstairs to scrub up in cold water.  It's not as if it's a bad idea.  Kincade will look out for her, of course, and knows the grounds better than Bond himself.  It's best to show her everything as soon as possible.  There's no reason to be in a bad humour about it.  It's not as if he even likes this bloody pile.

On his way back out of the lavatory, rubbing his face with a dishtowel, he passes the bedroom M used for the night after Kincade arrived.  Her Hermes bag is on the bed, and her spare pair of shoes—black trainers, practical and hideous—sits next to it.  But even as he glances at them, he pauses, because something is different about the shoes.  He sees something sticking out from beneath the left one.

He enters the room, picks up the shoe, and raises his eyebrow when he realises it's got a false bottom that's slid partway out.  He smirks; so much for the notion of her picking up an extra pair in Harrods because they're just so comfortable. 

Bond prises the false bottom open completely, careful not to tear anything, and finds within a sealed packet full of powder.  He takes it out, sniffs it, and recoils at the faint hint of garlic.  Arsenic trioxide.  In her shoe.  And then there's her obsession with the cyanide capsule.  If her specialty is building bombs, then poisons must run a close second.

He makes sure to put everything back exactly as he found it and returns to the kitchen.  His radio's sitting on the table.  He turns it on and listens to Radio 4 while he sips a mug of cooling tea and waits for M and Kincade to return.  Breakfast, still warm in the oven, is black pudding and fried bread, a Kincade specialty.  Bond wonders how it went over with M, who starts each day with tea and toast, and a poached egg if she's feeling particularly savage.

No news of Silva.  No rhymes.  No murder, so he hopes.

He's just finishing up the tea when M and Kincade return through the back door, kicking mud from their boots.  Where did she get boots?  "Morning, James," Kincade booms.

"Morning," Bond says.  "Thanks for leaving me asleep and vulnerable."

"You had the dogs," Kincade grunts, holding out a chair for M.  "Don't whinge."

"Thank you," M tells him, seating herself.  She's wearing her coat and a scarf Bond doesn't recognise.  Her cheeks are reddened from the morning chill. 

"I'm going to let the dogs run a bit," Kincade says, opening the back door again and whistling.  The Labradors bound through it, appearing excited beyond all reason.  Kincade follows.

"All right?" Bond asks M when they're alone.

"Yes.  We drove out to the quarry.  In his Volkswagen, not your girl," she adds dryly.

"Good, I'd have hated to shoot our only ally.  He mentioned dynamite last night, was there any?"

M sounds almost apologetic when she says, "He looked everywhere and couldn't find a single stick."

"Damn.  Well…I'll still go and see for myself.  There's no news, but we should start making preparations.  You been thinking about bombs?"

"I've been thinking about a lot of things.  Bombs included."  She loosens the scarf.  "It's freezing outside.  Nicer in here."

"Where'd you get that?  And the boots?"

"Kincade got them from a cupboard somewhere.  They must be at least—"  She stops.

"They're not my mother's," Bond says, taking a final bite of fried bread.  "All that's long gone."

Just when the silence threatens to become awkward, the news reader's tone becomes more urgent.  They haven't really been listening, but that alone is enough to cue M to turn up the volume. 

"—Motherless have released yet another nursery rhyme," Charlotte Green says.  "No message accompanies it, no explanation.  We've received word that MI5 are working round the clock on deciphering it, and there is speculation that perhaps MI6 are as well, though so far all indications point to this being a domestic threat."

"Home-grown, even," M mutters. 

"Something very familiar," Charlotte continues.  "Here we are: Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home.  Your house is on fire and your children will burn.

M goes pale.  Bond holds his breath.

"Not the usual end to the rhyme," Charlotte says.  "There's more, a new touch for The Motherless, a postscript in Latin.  Latin's not my background, forgive me if I butcher the pronunciation, we'll have a translation for you in a moment: Fiat justitia ruat caelum."

Bond hisses and switches the radio off again.

"Have you lost your—!" M snaps, reaching for the knob.

"No need.  He's on his way.  We have to make ready."

"Wh…are you sure?  That sounded like a threat against Six!  Trying to draw us both back to the—"

"I'm sure they've thought of that too," Bond says, rising to his feet.  "Let them look out for it.  He's coming here."

"How do you know?"

"The thing in Latin," he says.  "It's the family motto."  Her mouth parts slightly as she looks up at him; he smiles back without humour.

"Fiat justitia ruat caelum," he says, his pronunciation letter-perfect.  "Let justice be done, although the skies fall."


 

Laid out on a table, it all looks a little grim.  Two handguns, two rifles, and a hunting knife: that's what they've got to take on whatever Silva flings at them.  Bond is not given to despair, and he knows they're doing all they can, but it is not an encouraging moment. 

Tennyson returns to mind, in fact.  "The Charge of the Light Brigade," specifically.  Bond elects not to draw the comparison, and accompanies Kincade outside to test the guns. 

"What are you going to do?" he asks M as they head for the door.

She looks up at the chandeliers.  "Go back in time."

That makes two of them.  "Need help getting them down?"  She glares at him.  "Right.  Back soon."

His father's Anderson Wheeler feels heavier in his hand than any other weapon he's ever held.  The initials on the barrel mock him.  Andrew Bond: country squire, kept hounds and horses and cars, loved the bagpipes, drank good brandy, died on a godforsaken mountaintop and took his beautiful, flirtatious wife with him.  Everyone said it was an accident.

Bond the younger used to spend too much time wondering if that were true, or if murder runs in the blood.  Then he decided to stop thinking about it and use his natural gifts instead.  Now he feels a strain, not at all physical, as he hefts the rifle.

Kincade chooses this moment to ask a question that he'd pointedly avoided last night, perhaps in deference to a lady's delicate sensibilities: "So who is it we're supposed to be fighting?"

Bond sighs.  Keeping watch with them was one thing, but what Kincade proposes now is madness.  "There's no 'we' in it, Kincade.  This is not your fight."

"Try and stop me, you jumped-up little shit."  He adds, as Bond aims, "Remember what I taught you.  Don't let it pull to the left."

Bond chuckles, but as his finger touches the cool steel of the trigger, something in his chest grows just as leaden and cold.  His vision telescopes to the teacups resting on a tree branch eight yards in front of him.  Fine bone china.  He'd been forbidden to touch them as a child, but somehow it would have seemed more sacrilegious to destroy the homely things he'd actually used, even in service of this cause.

This cause.  Silva.  There are only two cups because they can't afford to waste the ammunition.  He cannot indulge himself in elaborate fantasies of revenge.  Must keep it simple.

The first shot.  That's for Ronson, for Six, for Whitehall, for Britain.

The second shot.  That's for—

(the scar on his chest, Silva's hands on his thighs, the pained catch in her breath, the bruises on her shoulders)

—everything else.

Kincade stares as the teacups shatter in the distance.  "What did you say you did for a living?"

Bond, feeling no satisfaction from target practice, says, "Didn't you ask M?" 

"She said you were in life insurance."  Bond laughs before he can help it.  "Even cagier than you, she is.  Carries herself well, though," he adds too innocently.

Bond wishes he had a third teacup.  "You haven't changed a bit."

"Olive died six years ago.  Am I meant to be a monk?"

"Oh.  Did she?  I'm sorry to hear that."

"She thought a lot of you."

"No, she didn't.  I broke her mother's soup tureen."

"I didn't say they were nice thoughts."  Kincade's breath puffs clouds into the air.  "I always hated that bloody thing."

"And I never told her that you put me up to it."  Bond tilts his head to the side.  "Some secrets ought to be kept, Kincade.  For everyone's sake."

Kincade regards him, then nods slowly.  "All right."

Bond runs a hand through his hair and sighs.  "I'm going down to the quarry."

"See if you could find what I didn't.  I could have sworn there were a couple of sticks left.  Take my car."

Ten minutes later, sorting through rubbish and rubble, Bond curses himself for a fool.  There's no dynamite here.  There's nothing here.  He's wasting time.

He returns to the house and finds Kincade sawing the barrel off his shotgun.  "Where's M?"

Kincade nods towards the dining room.  "She was just coming out of the tunnel when I got back."

M's seated at the dining room table.  Before announcing his presence, Bond watches in fascination as she neatly smashes light bulbs wrapped in cloth.  After breaking a bulb, she pushes its mount into a shotgun cartridge, leaving the foot contact exposed at the end; then each cartridge goes into a small plastic bag filled with screws and nails, with the foot contact facing out, ready to be fitted back into the chandelier.

"Do you have constructive criticism to offer, 007?" she asks without looking up.

"No, ma'am.  Kincade said you were looking at the tunnel."

"Yes."

"And?"

"I discovered that it is most definitely a tunnel." She ties off another bag and glances at him.  "Are we running out of cartridges?  I had a thought to rig some floorboards, too."

"We'll need to use them judiciously, but no, we're not exactly short."  He hefts the rifle and glances restlessly out of the windows.  Then he remembers they need to cover up the windows.  "What are you thinking about the floorboards?"

"Pick the doorways they're most likely to access," M says promptly.  "Take up a floorboard, lay a charge in the centre slat, and then stick two or three cartridges on top of it, primers down.  That way, when they step on it, the primer hits the charge and the pressure ignites the—"

"Got it," says Bond, who knows very well how a cartridge functions, but is impressed nevertheless.  "I can do that."

"And make sure you tell me and Kincade which floorboards you rigged, for Christ's sake."  She reaches for another bag.  "Guns all right?"

"Mine are fine.  Yours?" 

She gives him a sideways glance.  "Lower on ammunition than I thought."

"I've got a spare clip.  Let me get it."

"No!  You're the better shot, and you're the one who's decided to take up a post outside."  She shrugs. "I'll choose my shots carefully."

"It only has to take one," he reminds her.

"I am aware of that."  She sounds a bit embarrassed when she looks at the ceiling and says, "I got these down well enough." 

They carefully affix the plastic bags, and he raises the iron chandeliers back up to the ceiling.  That's one thing done.  Then they get out crowbars and begin to pull up the floorboards.  He gets to work planting cartridges in the doorways; she and Kincade prise up a few more boards from the corner of the dining room.  These they use to cover up the ground floor windows.  He moves the Aston from the back of the house to the front, aiming the guns towards the main entrance.

Hours have passed.  Everything seems to take an inordinate length of time, perhaps because they keep pausing to listen, and to take turns checking the drive.  Nothing.  No one.  Save for their efforts, the whole world is silent.

Bond knows what M is thinking: what if it's a trick?  Or what if Silva was just mocking them with the motto, and is attacking in London again while they rush around like headless hens in an old Scottish house?  Perhaps the silence is all there is, and nobody's coming.

No.  They've underestimated Silva from the very beginning, but Bond knows him now.  He can smell him.  He'll be here.

Eventually they've done all they can, and there's nothing for it but to wait.  Bond and Kincade take up their posts by the windows.  When it's time, Bond will head outside and wait in the car for Silva's men to wander within range of the Aston's guns. 

M sits on a sofa, looking at the floor, smaller than Bond can ever remember seeing her.  Her gun hangs loosely from her hand; her wrist looks narrow and frail.  It seems impossible that only a week ago he'd planned to bring her up here so they could get a bit of rest.  Now the shadowed house seems to leach all the life from her.

She looks up and sees him staring at her.  Her eyes narrow and flash, as if daring him to express sympathy or concern.  Instead, he says for the first time, "I read your obituary of me."

The anger disappears from her face, fades into something like anxiety.  "And?"

It's oddly endearing.  He hears his voice soften as he says, "Appalling."  It was.  If he'd ever had doubts that she was a spymaster and not a poet, they'd vanished on the instant.

She droops a little.  "Yes.  I knew you'd hate it."

He tilts his head.  "You knew I'd see it, then."  Her lips press together.  He thinks of her easy acceptance of his return, that first night in her house.  "You never thought I was dead."

"Of course I didn't."  Then she laughs, sounding astonished: "There was no body."

There wouldn't have been, he could say now.  I went over a waterfall and into a river.  I should have washed out to sea. 

"Don't talk about this now," she whispers, staring at the wall opposite her, where they have strategically placed another mirror.  "Silva's coming.  Focus on that.  There is no room for sentiment."

Kincade, Bond can't help but notice, is giving both of them a very odd look.  But before Bond can respond—to either of them—he hears it. 

The distant barking of a dog, incessant, furious, until it is suddenly silenced.

He was right.  And now it's time.


 

The waiting was the worst.  Now it's all happening quickly.  It's always like this, a firefight, a battle, and he feels his blood singing in relief.  This is what he's made for.  The ear-splitting roar of gunfire is music.

Most sports cars aren't bulletproof.  Bond congratulates himself on his foresight as he keeps pressing the trigger on the Aston's main control panel.  Then again, when you've got guns behind the headlights, you might as well think to protect yourself from enemy fire in return.  It's not rocket science.

Three men have fallen before the Aston's guns.  Two more have taken cover around the front door.  That leaves eight men unaccounted for, and he saw at least five go into the house.  The two outside are now well out of the Aston's range, so there's nothing for it but to slide out of the front seat, rifle at the ready.  The first man, overenthusiastic and indiscreet about his cover, goes down quickly enough; Bond withdraws behind the car door and reloads.  He's got to get his hands on one of their guns. 

Time to risk it all.  He rises to his feet, rounds the car door, and dispatches the second man with a single shot to the chest.  Now the way to the front door is clear.  He steps over three bodies, tossing aside the Anderson with relief—so heavy, too heavy—and taking up an HK416 in its place.  One man lies dead in a doorway, felled by a floorboard cartridge.  That's six men accounted for. 

He heads back towards the kitchen and sees two dead bodies lying across from a shattered mirror, Kincade's trap.  That's eight.  At the opposite end of the house he hears M's chandelier bombs going off. 

Then, from the kitchen, he hears rifle fire—has to be Kincade.  It's followed by the rapid fury of assault rifles, which means he didn't hit whatever he was aiming at.  Bond flies towards the noise and uses Silva's weapon against his own men.  It is certainly satisfying to see Kincade's awed expression—it's one step away from my hero—as well as the cartridges on the floor at his feet, next to two fresh corpses. 

That's ten.  Three left.

"Drop something?" Bond asks with a smirk.  Kincade huffs, but Bond's already turned on his heel, scanning the shadows.  There's no noise.  He prowls towards the dining room, smelling smoke, trying to peer through the haze.  As he approaches, he sees two bodies lying on the dining room floor, felled by the chandelier bombs.

There's one left.  He hasn't seen Silva.  It must be Silva.  And where the hell is M?

Just then, he spies her: specifically, her reflection in the mirror mounted on the dining room wall.  She has her gun raised, but she's pressed back against the opposite wall, shielded by a bookcase, with a very strange expression on her face that he has never seen before.

But it's enough to tell him that the last man is in there:  somewhere back by the window, judging from her eyeline and the angle of the mirror.  He rushes in, and it's got to be Silva, he sees the dark figure, and it's got to be Silva, and he pulls the trigger again and again, it's got to be, it's got to be—

The dark figure goes down, the assault rifle falling from its hand.  Bond exhales, not sure if he's allowed to be relieved yet.  He turns to look at M, who steps out from behind the bookcase, lowering her gun, still with the odd look on her face.

"How many are left?" she asks, her voice shaking.

"That's the lot.  Are you hurt?" he asks.

"No.  No, I—" She shakes her head, looking at the corpse with wide eyes.  "I recognised him."

"Silva?" Bond asks at once, but even as he turns the body over with his foot, he knows better.  It's a stranger's face.

"No," M says.  "He was one of the men in the ambulance."  Bond turns to stare at her, in time to see that the odd expression is turning into something more familiar.  "He brought me to the farmhouse and locked me in the room.  I recognised him.  And then I tried to move, to shoot him, and I couldn't.  He would have spotted me any moment, and I was just standing there—" She clutches at her scarf, her eyes dark with rage and shame.  "Bloody useless."

Oh, hell.  They should have anticipated this.  Now he thinks about it, some of those faces back there were familiar too, if he'd taken the time to pay attention to them.  Of course Silva would send the same men.

Bond gives the corpse a good kick in the ribs.  "No," he says.  "You were just ready for one thing and you got something else.  Now you know."

She takes a deep breath, visibly getting herself back under control.  "Yes, now I do.  But—" A new sort of alarm crosses her face.  "You said that's the lot.  And you thought this was Silva?  So…"

"So he's not here," Bond growls, as frustrated as he's ever been in his life.  "He's not here." 

He cannot believe it: cannot believe that Silva wouldn't come himself, would give the honour of killing M to thirteen hired goons with assault rifles.  It doesn't seem possible. Bond would have thought that Hell hath no fury like a madman scorned. 

"All right, Emma?" Kincade asks as he arrives in the dining room.  M nods wordlessly.  "That's all of them, isn't it?  Are we finished?"

No, they're not finished, it's never fucking finished.  Bond's trying to think of a less dramatic way of saying this when M gasps, "Listen!"

Bond listens and hears two things, neither of which is good news.  One: rock music.  Two: the blades of a helicopter.

"Boom boom boom boom," The Animals sing, "gonna shoot you right down!" 

In the distance, Silva's Merlin HC3 approaches, blaring music from mounted speakers.

"Take you in my arms, I'm in love with you—love that is true…"

"Bugger," Kincade breathes.

"Boom boom boom boom."

"Always got to make an entrance," Bond snarls.  Next to him, M stands with her mouth pressed into a thin line, but the haunted look is gone.  Silva is most definitely here.  This, at least, she is prepared for.

Well, sort of.  Bond doesn't suppose that any of them is really prepared to be attacked by an armoured helicopter.  He raises the 416.  It's on his mind to tell them to pick up a couple for themselves, but Kincade's never handled an assault rifle in his life and the recoil could seriously injure M.  The best Bond can do is say, "Go to the kitchen.  Now," before sprinting to the far side of the room and knocking through the window coverings with the butt of the gun. 

It's getting dark outside.  The rifle fire will act as a beacon, drawing the helicopter's attention towards this end of the house.  All it can do is buy time, but maybe Bond can lure Silva a little closer, get a better idea of what he's dealing with: how is the helicopter armed, how many men does it carry?

He fires, though he doesn't hope to hit much.  The helicopter swerves neatly from its head-on approach, rotates, and Bond has only seconds to duck.  At least it doesn't have rocket launchers or some other bloody thing, but the heavy machine gun mounted in the cargo bay door is deadly enough. 

Silva is apparently in the mood to show off, as the HC3 proceeds in an almost leisurely fashion to strafe the building, machine gun fire tearing through the window coverings as if they were paper.  Bond half-runs, half-crouches to the kitchen, his ears ringing, but not loudly enough to block out the music. "Shake it baby, I don't mean maybe—come on now, shake—"

Kincade and M are huddled together by a wall, but that's not going to be enough.  "Get behind the arch!" Bond shouts, and they do, taking cover beneath the heavy stone just in time.  He fires out another window, draws the helicopter back the other way again, always keeping just ahead.  He's thinking in half-second long increments, how to survive from one breath to the next.  It's not good enough. 

Soon, every window on the ground floor has been shot to bits.  The helicopter swings by for a second pass, moving more slowly, and Bond can just imagine Silva's face, watching.  Waiting for the mice to poke their whiskers out of the hole.

Then the chopper begins its descent to the ground.  The second wave of men are on their way.

Bond runs back to the kitchen, where M is covering her ears with her hands against the cacophony, and Kincade wears the look of a man who isn't getting what he signed on for. He's re-loading his Colt because he actually thinks it'll do some good.  They can't stay here.  Bond can't focus on taking down Silva and looking out for them as well.

They look up when he arrives in the doorway.  "Go to the chapel.  Use the tunnel," he says, and is almost amused by the alacrity with which Kincade obeys him, taking hold of M's arm and tugging her forward.  She does not immediately follow.

"Wait," she says, looking up at him, "Bond—what the hell are you going to—"  

"M, please," he says, holding none of his urgency back.  "I'll get him.  Just go."  He looks at Kincade, who nods, and pulls at her arm more firmly.  "I'll meet you at the chapel soon."

She accepts the lie for what it is, looking into his eyes for another silent moment before she finally lets Kincade escort her towards the tunnel, which she disappears into without another backward glance.  He supposes that's the only goodbye they get.  He will likely never see her again. 

But he doesn't have much time to get sentimental about it, because the instant Kincade shuts the false wall panel behind the pair of them, there's the helicopter to deal with.  Plus, more importantly, the passengers descending from its ramp.  Visibility is getting increasingly poor as the darkness falls, but he can make out nine men, all armed, not counting the two still flying the Merlin.

The one striding along in front seems particularly confident.  And familiar.  There's just enough light left to see that he's a blond.

"Got you," Bond breathes, crouching again and making his way towards the front door, which Silva is brazenly marching towards.  One clear shot, that's all he needs, just one clear shot.  The bastard thinks his arrogance is bulletproof, but it'll be his downfall.  Right here—point-blank—

Bond raises the gun as Silva tosses something into the air.  It lands, rolls at his feet, and he has about one second to see that it's an incendiary grenade before he throws himself out of the way.  It goes off better than any floorboard cartridge, and he only narrowly avoids being splattered all over the wall.  He's lucky he didn't drop the gun.  Behind him, the floor is already on fire. 

Just as he gets his bearings, another grenade comes soaring through the next window, and he has to move again.  There's not even time to get to his feet, he just flings himself across the floor, slamming painfully into the wall shoulder-first.  The flames are licking over the floorboards, catching hold of the sheets that still cover most of the furniture. 

Bond holds still for a moment, waiting, his shoulder throbbing from the impact.  No third grenade comes flying in.  Suddenly it goes so bright outside that he wonders if Silva's actually nuked the place in a grand suicidal gesture—but no, it's only the helicopter's floodlight going on.  Once his eyes adjust, Bond sees Silva walking past each window, looking inside.  He growls and scuttles across the floor, gun in hand.

At one window, Silva pauses and calls, "James?  Can she come out and say hello?"

He was never supposed to speak again.  Bond fires at the window without thinking whether or not it's wise.  All it earns him is another grenade, and this time it's the dining table that catches fire.  That's two areas of the house that are closed to him now.  He's being backed into a corner.

He needs a plan, here.  If he's going to kill Silva, and buy M and Kincade time to get to the chapel in one piece, he needs a plan.  Just then, his eye catches sight of the two Calor gas canisters behind mesh wiring in the pantry.

Sure, it's an option; but it's also a bit final, it would mean abandoning the house, and he's reluctant to do that.  Especially since there's no guarantee Silva would be caught in the conflagration.

Where the hell is Silva, anyway?  Even as he has the thought, Bond spies him through another window, just for a second.  He's not looking at the house or preparing to lob another grenade.  He's staring into the distance and his teeth are bared; his face contorts with rage, despair, desire.

He's looking west.  Towards the chapel.  He's spotted M.

And then he's gone before Bond can even aim properly, although he does manage to nail the man foolish enough to trail behind him.  So much for making a plan.  There will be no luring Silva inside now.  And there's only one way to chase after him without getting shot to pieces.

But even that won't count for much if he doesn't take out as many of Silva's man as he can beforehand.  Bond ducks back into the pantry and smashes open the mesh covering the gas canisters with the butt of his gun.  Then he drops the gun and hauls the canisters back through the kitchen, his arm and banged-up shoulder aching from the strain.  The helicopter is hovering near the window where he sets them down. 

Hurry, he thinks, hurry, this is taking too long, Silva's no doubt running towards M at top speed. 

The flames are spreading rapidly throughout the house, catching cloth and wood, and mortar soon enough—if left unchecked, the fire could actually bring the whole place down.  That's what he's counting on, at any rate.  He leaves the canisters and heads back towards the hidden entrance to the tunnel.  When he slides the door open, he sees that it's dark inside, and when he flips the light switch, nothing happens.

Oh, bloody brilliant.  He'll be feeling his way.  At least Kincade had a torch.  Gritting his teeth, Bond turns, pulls his Walther from his pocket, aims at the gas canisters, and fires.

He stays just long enough to see the flames flare up before he ducks down into the tunnel and tries not to trip and break his neck in the darkness.  After a minute or so, behind him, he hears the roar of an explosion and the shattering of glass, wood, and stone.  It won't be enough to bring the house down, but he'll have caught at least the bastards stupid enough to linger too close, and combined with the fire that already rages, maybe…

It seems to take an age to navigate down the tunnel.  Disoriented, making his way through absolute darkness, he finds himself hurrying forward with his free hand outstretched.  It doesn't help that the tunnel winds back and forth, and the ground is anything but even, strewn with pebbles and small rocks.  He keeps stubbing his toe and nearly slipping, and once he damn near sprains his wrist when his palm slaps too hard into an outcropping that otherwise would have broken his nose. 

Goddammit, he has to go faster, Silva's way ahead of him by now, but he can't go faster—it's not as if he can run headlong, and it won't do M any good if he splits his face apart on a stone.  Does this tunnel never end?  How long has he even been in here?  Why the hell don't the lights work?

Then, just when he's getting far too frazzled for his liking, there's a sound up ahead.  He freezes in place, bringing up his gun, as if he can see anything worth shooting at.  With his luck he'll be firing right into the wall.

There's a circuit panel at the moor end of the tunnel, but apparently the other party doesn't know that, because the lights don't come on.  Instead, Bond hears footsteps continuing down towards him.  That heavy tread isn't Kincade. 

"Come out, come out," Silva calls into the darkness, "wherever you are."

Bond holds his breath.  He hears only the footsteps of one man.  Silva is alone.  And he's coming from the moor, where…

Did he find M?  Is she already dead? 

"Ah, James," Silva says, and now his voice is much closer.  "It is you, isn't it?"

Bond raises his gun and fires two shots.  They light up the darkness just enough so that he can see Silva standing ten feet away from him, half-hidden behind a stone curve and pointing his own gun right at Bond.  Silva fires, and Bond barely ducks behind his own outcropping in time.  His ears are ringing.  Every sound echoes.

Damn it.  The tunnel's so narrow that whoever steps out first will be the proverbial fish in the barrel.  Even in this darkness it'd be impossible to miss.  He would come out firing, of course, but he knows Silva's listening just as hard as he is, and those few seconds when he'd be exposed, and Silva wouldn't, would be the end of him.

"Where is she?" Silva asks.

Bond blinks.

"Where are you, Mother?" Silva calls, and it would be a coo if not for the rough edge to his voice.  "Hiding behind your favourite son?"

Bond licks his lips and tries not to hope.  It could be a bluff.  "Why don't you come back here and find out?" he suggests, hearing the rasp in his own voice from smoke.

"Hello, James," Silva says.  Then silence, for a moment or so.  Bond holds his breath and finds himself leaning forward on the balls of his feet.  No, that would be stupid—wait for it—

"Were you surprised by my return?" Silva asks.

Of course the prick's got to gloat.  Bond says nothing, but he's not sure how much of this he's going to be able to listen to.

However, the conversation doesn't take the turn he anticipates.  "I was," Silva continues.  "I did not expect to come back.  I gave up, James.  You were there, you saw it.  But it didn't work."  Silence.  "I just keep living.  Surviving.  I die; but then my eyes open, and I am not dead, though still in Hell.  Two times now.  Such is her power over me."

Bond offers, "Third time lucky?"

"Don't joke.  Don't."  Silva's voice is low.  "You have some experience of it yourself.  You are the only one who knows.  You're the second rat."  Another pause.  "Let me save you.  Only I can do it."

"Thanks, but I'll pass."

"I have no further plans to trouble you, James.  Or anyone.  I want to rest."  His voice shakes when he adds, "I yearn to rest."

"Then maybe I should be the one to save you."  Take a step out, you mad bastard, just one step, just one sound of movement, crunching gravel—

"Ha," Silva says.  "It will not be so easy.  You know it can't be.  She must die with me, do you see?"

Well, at least it's increasingly likely that Silva's not bluffing and M isn't dead already.  "I'm afraid I don't."

"No.  You wouldn't.  That was my mistake as well—to think I could go alone.  But she will not release me."  Bond hears Silva take in a deep breath.  Then he says abruptly, as if making a confession, "I can neither live nor die without her.  So I am here to finish it."

“With a load of armed men,” Bond feels obliged to point out.  “Was that you getting up close and personal?”

“They were under orders to capture her only,” Silva snaps.  “I would never have permitted...James, I don't want to kill you.  I can even set you free.  But you must not keep her from me any longer.  Give her to me."

"I told you," Bond rasps, clutching the Walther so hard that his hand is starting to hurt.  "If you want her, you'd better come and get her."

"Let her speak, and perhaps I will.  I know she's here, she must be—I saw her on the moor, from a distance, I saw her disappear into something like a rabbit hole.  Clever, Mother, you are very clever—and then I saw the door leading underground—oh, my lady," Silva laughs, "why don't you step forward to save your boy?  Do you love him so little?  Or perhaps my own love frightens you.  Neither of us can kill it, and you have only ever trusted what you can destroy.”

Just when Bond's thinking two things—first, that M clearly tricked Silva into the tunnel, and second, that they could be here all bloody night—the lights go on. 

Then there is the sound of a slamming door at the moor end of the tunnel.  Bond's got his gun out, he's leaning out from around the outcropping, and there's the barrel of Silva's Steyr—

A percussive roar.  The ground beneath him, the walls around him, shake from an explosion somewhere back towards the house.  Bond staggers back against the wall, behind his outcropping, dropping the Walther as he shields himself from falling rocks.  Dear God—that can't have been because of the gas canisters, what—?

There's no time to think about it, because a sudden, loud series of bangs lets him know he's got more immediate problems.  Pipes run the length of the tunnel, carrying water from the pond to the house, and now they are bursting.  A frigid blast of water nails him to the wall with sheer force of pressure, and he drops to his knees to get out of the way.  His chest aches and he wonders if he cracked a rib.  Somewhere out of view, he hears Silva laughing hysterically.

Head spinning, ears ringing, he thinks about the lights that wouldn't go on, and the dynamite he couldn't find but that Kincade swore was there, and M expertly connecting rifle cartridges to electric chandeliers, and good God but the water's freezing cold and rising fast.  He staggers to his feet, looking around for his gun, but the water's already past his ankles, and so murky with mud and silt that he can't see a thing in it. 

Silva laughs again.  Bond dares to poke his head out from behind his outcropping, and sees him standing in front of one jet of water and beneath another, holding out his hands as if enjoying a summer shower.  Now that the lights are on, however temporarily, Bond can clearly see a thin, ruddy mark around his neck.  And he, too, has lost his gun.

"There!  You see?" Silva says, lowering his hands and giving Bond an enormous grin.  "Betrayal!  That's her game!  She killed you once, and now she sacrifices you again—ah, but only to destroy me."  He steps forward, water sloshing around his calves, his hair and clothes soaked through.  But he appears to feel none of the cold.  "In the end, she chooses me.  That is my victory."

Yeah, it must be a cracked rib.  Bond's shoulder also aches mercilessly.  And Silva's right.  Of course he's right.  There's no room for sentiment, she'd said, cautioning not Bond, but herself—

Silva's looking at him, and something in Bond's face makes him stop laughing.  He tilts his head back and calls over the rushing water, "Don't you want to know what it's like?"

"What?" Bond asks, regretting it that very instant, because 'it' can only mean one thing.

"How it feels, of course," Silva says.  "How it feels to hold her in your arms."  He closes his eyes for just a moment.  When he opens them again, he sounds near to tears as he adds, "The answer is…sublime.  Worth death.  I pity you for not knowing, I do pity you for that."

Bond steps out from behind the outcropping—lurches, more like—and plasters his most irritating smirk on his face.  If he's going to die here, it's not going to be from Silva goading him to death.  Maybe he can turn it around.  "Who says I don't?" he asks.

Silva raises his eyebrows.  "She did."

Bond says, "Well, that was a week ago."

Silva's mouth tightens, convulses, and something dark inside Bond sings: but then Silva gets himself back under control.  He steps forward, and so does Bond, and they wade towards one another, fists clenched.  The water is nearly to Bond's knees.  He can't help noticing the exposed lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, right at shoulder height.  That's not going to be good news for anyone in a few minutes' time.

He should be so lucky to worry about that.  He's about to go hand-to-hand with Silva, and maybe the old ways are the best, but Silva's got a good two inches on him.  Plus several more pounds, and he's not hurt.  And Bond's got this slight, but definite weight pressing painfully against his chest—

"It doesn't matter," Silva says.

—this weight—

"I will defeat you here," Silva says.  "You cannot beat me, because I cannot be killed like this, by you.  I am sorry, James."  He bends his knees, leans forward.  "I thought I might spare my fellow rat."

The weight over his heart.  Bond says, "I'd say you were more of a rabbit than a rat."

"What?"

"Oh, you'll see," Bond says.  "Just you keep quite still and wait." 

Then he yanks Kincade's hunting knife from the inside pocket of his jacket and lunges forward.  No stupid overhead blows for a double-oh agent, no extravagant slashes that waste time and energy:  he drives the point of the knife straight into Silva's belly, tugs it out, and thrusts it home again.

Silva gasps, cracks the flat of his palm hard enough against Bond's face to knock him off balance, and then kicks one of his feet from beneath him, sending him crashing down into the water right on his arse.  Then Silva sags back against the wall, eyes closed and mouth open as he gasps for air, taking in an equal measure of water and choking on it.  He presses his hand to his stomach.

"That's right," Bond says, scrambling back up to his feet, "hold your guts in," he springs forward, "I'll never beat you—"

He'd meant it as sarcasm, gallows humour, but when he hears his own, raw voice, he knows it can only be the truth.  Silva's eyes open wide, and he begins laughing again.  "No!" he gasps.  "You never will!"

What follows is no more satisfying than shooting at teacups.  Bleeding heavily from the stomach, Silva can put up only a token resistance as Bond goes to work, the opposite of efficiency and professionalism as he hacks and hacks, half-blind with water and pain and wrath.  He must look like something out of a horror film, the villain of the piece.

He doesn't care, he doesn't fucking care, this is for the bloody shot, and this is for Tanner sitting there uselessly, and this is for Six turning their backs on devotion and sacrifice, and this is for the bed sheet she was trying to cover herself with, and this is for the slamming of that door as her insurance against a second failure—this is for every broken thing—this, this, and nothing more, there isn't any more—

"It's all there is," he hears himself choke as he pulls the knife from between Silva's ribs.  "Damn you, it's all there is."  Just death, just murder, that's all.

Blood bubbles out of Silva's mouth.  The water washes it away, but he's gagging on it nevertheless.

"I've killed you," Bond shouts, not two inches from his face, "you're not coming back this time, you're done.  Understand?  You're done!"

Silva smiles, spits blood up into Bond's face, and his eyes roll back into his head.  He gives one rattling, agonised sigh, and then lies still.

Just like last time.  He's covered in stab wounds gracelessly given, and even if he's faking it, he'll bleed out in five more minutes.  The frigid water is up to Bond's hips, and he can feel himself starting to tremble uncontrollably.  He's got to get out of here.  But.  Last time he didn't—

…Last time left an extremely convenient mark all the way round Silva's neck.

The memory of what happens next will eventually blur in Bond's mind.  He has never done anything like it before.  He cannot imagine doing anything like it again.  There's killing, there's doing his job, and then there's this.  But it must be done.  Even if he never makes it out of this tunnel—an increasingly likely outcome—this thing must be done. 

It's all he can hear, even as the water rushes and rises.  It echoes through his head just like take the bloody shot did for three months on the island where he lost himself in drink. It must be done, it must be done.  His arm moves, sawing back and forth with all the strength left in it.  This is what hunting knives are for, isn't it?  Skinning, carving, butchery? 

By the time he's finished, the water is nearly to his chest.  His fingers are shaking so much that he drops the knife when he turns towards the door leading out to the moor.  Not that he expects much from the door.  She'll have bolted it, and that is a solid, thick wooden bolt.  In his current condition, he'd have as much chance against these stone walls.

He's got to try, though.  That's what she can write for his next obituary: On his second attempt, he got things mostly right.

By the time he makes it to the door, he's swimming more than walking.  The water is almost to his shoulders.  Almost to the lightbulbs and their exposed wiring.  It's practically a race to see what'll get him first, hypothermia or electrocution, now girls, no need to fight…

Here it is.  He staggers up the steps to the door, the water receding to his waist.  Puts his shoulder against it, shoves, with no hope—

—falls through to the other side, with no resistance.

It nearly finishes him anyway, since he lands face-first in the water that sloshes past him.  But there is just enough strength left in his knees.  Just enough.  He staggers up the rest of the stairs and collapses onto dry ground, nearly convulsing with cold.  Just give him a minute, though, now that he's not actually in the water anymore.  It's not below freezing outside, he's learnt to deal with things most bodies can't manage.  He can do this.  He's not going to die now, of all bloody times, when he's out of there.

Besides, there is a source of heat in the distance: he can feel it all the way over here.  He raises his head to see the night shockingly illuminated.  Behind him, Skyfall burns, casting an almost homely glow on its environs.  He can smell the smoke—fumes, fuel, wood.  He feels as if it's making its way even into his soaked clothes.

Before him, M sits perched on a large rock, all alone, with her hands folded in her lap.

She looks at him with wide eyes, her mouth pinched tight.  It isn't quite surprise.  He doesn't know what it is.  He tells himself that it wasn't personal, what she did; she had to do it; and hell, maybe now they're even for Cornwall, maybe he's done his penance, whatever she says about it.  But even that doesn't wipe away the last week of sharing her home and eating her bread, or her absolute trust that permitted him to bring her out here.  To say nothing of what called him back from the dead in the first place.

Whatever.  It's done.  He gets up on his knees, then up to his feet, and shuffles towards her, holding out his offering with one shaking arm.  Silva's head dangles from his grip by strings of wet blond hair.  "Well," Bond says, "here," and considers just dropping it into her lap. 

But her gun's already sitting in her lap.  She looks up at him, her eyes still impossibly wide, her mouth beginning to tremble.  Her whole body begins to tremble. 

Bond thinks it must be fear—of him, of his gory prize.  He curses and throws Silva's head as hard as he can back into the darkness of the moor.  She's seen it.  That has to be enough. 

"Where's Kincade?" he rasps.

"He went back to help you," she says unsteadily.  "I promised him I'd go on to the chapel.  Silva wasn't here yet, he didn't meet Silva.  I…don't think he would have been at the house yet when it blew.  But I don't know."

"Right," says Bond, who has depressingly little energy to care any more about Kincade.  He feels, once again, on the verge of collapse.  "The dynamite," he says.  "You took it from the quarry."  She nods.  "And you turned off the switch on the circuit panel at the door."  She nods again.  "You let him see you out here so he'd come."  A third nod.

 He looks at the gun in her lap and then back at the door.  She could have used the gun on Silva when he arrived at the entrance to the tunnel, could have surprised him, surely. 

 

 

"Why?" he asks.

"I had one bullet," she says, her voice so faint he has to lean in to hear her.  "Probably even I couldn't miss at this range.  But I didn't want to take the chance—and what if it didn't stop him?  I thought, just stay hidden, send him into the tunnel, and then duck in and flip the switch and blow him up, or drown him.  So I saw him go in, and I waited until he'd be far enough along.  But then the house blew.  The blast came from the inside.  It brought down the helicopter."  She clutches at the collar of her coat.  He's not sure where her scarf went.  "I knew you must have done it—and you would have escaped the house through the tunnel—so you must be in there, but—"

But Silva's death was their first priority.  And of all three of them, she was the strongest. 

"Anyway," she says, "I did it.  But.  Then I unbolted the door again.  And then I just waited here."

She should not, Bond knows, have unbolted the door.  She knows it too.

The gun rests in her lap.  She is looking up into his face, breathing too quickly, her eyes wild.  He notices that her left hand is curled tightly around something.  His own fingers cramping with cold, he touches her hand, prises her fingers open to see the packet of arsenic in her palm.

He looks at the gun again.  For if Silva had emerged from the tunnel instead of him.  Looks at the packet, still sealed.  For afterwards.

"Oh," he breathes, "Christ, M."

"Don't," she says.  "I'm not M.  Don't, don't, don't.  Thank God—" 

Her teeth chatter.  They're both shaking with cold.  This is purely a practical measure.  He seizes her waist and pulls her to him, pressing his face into her hair while she throws her arms about his neck.  The gun falls from her lap.  She slides down from the stone, he goes to his knees, and they huddle together like that in the dirt, shivering and reeking of fire.


 

It's how Kincade finds them later, nearly stumbling over the pair of them as he makes his way across the moors towards the chapel.  He's smudged with soot but seems all right, his grip on his rifle as firm as ever.  He gawps down at them: Bond soaked and smeared with blood, M's white face pressed to his shoulder. 

"All right, Kincade?" Bond croaks.

Kincade nods, eyes wide.  "Wasn't much left when I got there.  I picked off the only bugger I saw still walking around.  Never saw me coming.  What…" He gestures at the heap they make on the ground.  "What's all this, then?  Are you hurt?"

"Not much," Bond says.  "We got him.  Silva.  He's done."

M exhales deeply, but quietly against him.

"Ah."  Kincade nods again.  "Well done, then."  He glances back towards the flames of Skyfall and gives a sigh of his own.  He'd always loved the old pile more than any of the actual Bonds ever had.  Still, all he says is, "Shall we be off?"

"Volkswagen's on the other side of the chapel?"  Bond asks. 

Kincade nods.  "Not much left of the Aston, I'm afraid."

"Oh dear," M murmurs, giving a shaky laugh.  Bond has the vague idea that he ought to carry her or something, but he has to let her go before he can even stand up.  Every joint feels frozen stiff. 

Kincade's the gentleman who helps her to her feet, after which it becomes apparent that she doesn't need any carrying, thank you.  By the time they've made their slow, halting way to Kincade's car, she's mastered herself; and by the time Kincade's got them all safely back to his cottage, she's starting to look a touch chagrined.

Kincade's tatty sitting room, after the events of the past few hours, looks positively surreal.  Before anything else, Bond borrows and dials the mobile phone, and while M looks on, he says, "Q?  Now would be the perfect time to send backup."

By the time they've sorted that out, Kincade's got the kettle on.  He sends Bond into a warm shower, and when he comes out again, stinging and red-fleshed, makes him change into dry clothes.  "I'm burning this lot," he says, looking at Bond's bloodstained trousers.  "What were you trying to do, make sausages straight from the pig?"

"No," Bond says, feeling as if he'll be better prepared to quip after he's had some sleep.  "I was not trying to do that.  Lost your hunting knife, though."

Kincade's look says very clearly that he does not want to know.  "Ah well, there's more where that came from.  I've got some of Olive's old things, but most won't fit Emma.  I gave her a wool jumper, though."

"Is she all right?"

"She's very quiet."  Bond grunts.  Kincade pats him on the arm.  "I should ask, who is it that's sending backup?"

"MI6," he says, because there is zero point in prevaricating. 

Kincade raises his eyebrows.  "Well, that'll be something to see."

"They'll be here faster than you think is possible."  Bond rubs his hands over his eyes.  He almost wishes he'd waited to call until morning. 

"Let's sit down," Kincade suggests.  M's already at the dining table, cradling her teacup and wearing a green jumper that smells faintly of mothballs.  She's washed her face and hands. 

"Better?" she asks, giving Bond a hooded glance.

"Much."  He supposes that's nearly true.  Kincade's tea is stronger than it has any right to be, but it's wonderfully warm.  "You?"

"Fine."  She turns the teacup around in her hands and looks into the distance, offering nothing more.

Kincade takes his own seat.  "So what now?  I mean, after these people arrive.  What happens then?"

"We'll all have to debrief," M says, her voice as crisp and cool as if they were back in her office.  "Including you, I'm afraid, Mr. Kincade."

"Oh, really?" Kincade looks more intrigued than alarmed. 

"They'll sweep the area.  They'll clear it.  And then they'll…" M shakes her head.  "I don't know what they'll do.  Things are different now."

"Who gives a damn what they'll do," Bond says, putting his cup back on the table. 

"You don't mean that," M says, giving him a very direct look with no sentiment in it at all.  "You didn't mean it three months ago, and you don't mean it now, and you never will, so you might as well give it up."  He has no real response to that, other than to gawp stupidly at her.  "But you are right in that we'll have precious little influence on whatever decisions they'll undertake."

Kincade says, "I might as well ask, are we all going to prison?"  Bond blinks.  "Well, we did kill a lot of people.  I'm assuming, since you called MI6—but I'd sooner know as not."

"No," Bond says, "that will not be a problem." 

Kincade nods, satisfied.  "And after that?"

"After that, I hope you come back home and live a peaceful life."

"I hope so too.  But what about the two of you?"

Before Bond can say anything, M responds, "I'm going to Hong Kong."

"Really?" Kincade asks.

"I have family there."  M sips her tea again.  "A daughter and some grandchildren.  She's been after me to come over for years.  Said I should have retired long ago.  Not that she ever truly knew what I did."

"Hong Kong," Bond says, trying to feel anything other than the bottom dropping out of the world.  "Where it all began?"

M looks tired.  "Don't read too much into it." 

"No, how could I?"

"Grandchildren, eh," Kincade says.

"Yes.  I've got a daughter and two granddaughters.  I'm a widow."  M says all this as if she is reciting information from a new dossier, trying to commit it to memory so she can become someone else for the sake of a mission. 

Only it's not a mission.  It's the end.  "You shouldn't rush into this," Bond says.

"I'm done with rushing anywhere.  That's the point."  She rubs her forehead. 

"That's the point," he says.  "That's the ball of wax.  That's it?"

He hears the bitterness in his voice; it makes Kincade stand up and offer to make another pot of tea before leaving the room.  Bond wonders if his second dog survived.

"That's it," she says.  "And don't you dare ask, what about you."

"No?" His throat aches.  Smoke and cold night air.

"It's back to work for you.  If I have a single string left, I'm going to pull it; and I don't want to hear any more about it.  It's the best I can give you.  It's what you need."

"And what do you need?" he asks.

She doesn't answer for a moment.  Then she replies, "Movement."

He bows his head and understands.  They sit like that until Kincade comes back with the teapot.  He pours them all a second cup, sits down, and sighs, "There's a lot to be said for it…the peaceful life.  I like my long walks in the morning.  Coming home to my tea and fry-up."

"I shall have to get used to that," M says lightly.  "Or tea and congee, at any rate."

"What's that?  Chinese food?" Kincade asks.

"A sort of rice porridge," M explains, and she might as well be in Hong Kong already, might as well be on the moon, for all that she's sitting across the table. 

"When are you going?" Bond asks.

"I don't know.  When they'll let me.  When Mary says come."

"Have you been to China, James?" Kincade asks, in the tone of one who will no longer be surprised by anything.

"Once or twice."  Bond meets M's eye as he finishes off his tea.  "Might have occasion to go again sometime, if I'm in the mood to slip the traces."

She splutters, "If you're—double-oh—!"

For a moment, everything is the same as it ever was.  Then he hears the sound of helicopter blades heralding the arrival of MI6 to the scene, thirty-five minutes after he made the call.  He wonders who has come to greet them, or possibly take them away in irons.  There's no way to tell just yet.

What he does know is the familiar prickle of gooseflesh on his arms, the coiling of his muscles, the instant readiness for action.  Six is here.  Work is here.  Life is here.  When he realises it, it shocks him.

He looks back at M, who is watching him over the rim of her teacup with a faint smile. 


 

One month later, he's still not a double-oh.  But he's back in service, and she's getting on a plane.

She's given him her London flat.  He supposes it's poetic justice.  It'll be waiting for him when he returns from Heathrow, nearly empty but for his own meagre possessions.  Her own things are either in storage, have been sold, or were sent to Hong Kong ahead of her.  She won't actually be living with her daughter, she says, just close by.

Bond envisions sitting down on the uncomfortable sofa—something else she's leaving behind—and having a decent Scotch, or several, after he gets home.  After all, they've spent over a month now in each others' pockets.  The extra space, and the silence, will hit him for six.

He carries her bags for her, watches them bump down the conveyer belt, and then accompanies her towards the security checkpoint.  Of one accord, they step out of the flow of people.  Then they just look at each other.

It's not what he felt for Vesper—he is no longer that man—but it is no less profound or absorbing.  Perhaps it's because what he is, he owes to M.  Not in the way Silva had meant: Silva, who thought M had changed his nature, forced him into what he'd never wanted to be.  To the contrary, M has given Bond purpose, a place in the world as an agent of Six and a servant of Britain.  He wonders what he's given her.  He is not foolish enough to ask.

She reaches up and adjusts the left lapel of his overcoat.  "You'll be all right," she says.

"And so will you."

"Yes."  She sighs.  "Well.  Goodbye, 007."

He looks back in silent reproof.  She presses her lips together.

"Goodbye, James," she says.

"Goodbye, Mrs. Masters," he replies.  She gives him a truly withering glare.  He says, "Well, I do have manners."

"Yes," she says quietly.  "You also have rights."

It nearly finishes him.  He'd thought he was ready.  But there is nothing on earth that can prepare him, in this moment, to call her by her name. 

He can't imagine what his face looks like, but it's enough to prompt her to murmur, "Come now, none of that."  She touches his lapel again, pats it, lets it go.  "You know where to find me."

"Do I?" he says roughly.

"You always have.  Although if it's my daughter's house…" Her smile wobbles.  Her eyes shine.  "You'd damn well better come in through the front door.  And knock first—" Her voice breaks.

He bends down.  She raises up on her toes.  They kiss only in passing, their mouths brushing on the way to each others' cheeks, and in her ear he mutters, "Beatrice."

Then she's gone without another word, a small woman disappearing into a crowd, and the world keeps moving all around him.  Nothing will ever stop it:  not effort, or pleading, or love.


 

Quiet isn't so bad, he supposes over the Scotch.  A bit of peace and quiet.  Of course, it's going to be different this evening, when she isn't where she was just last night, and many nights before, having a sherry before turning in.  Perhaps he could go out and get drunk or laid, or both.  It had almost helped, once. 

No.  He needs work. 

Other roads.  Far distant horizons.  New possibilities.

Why not stay dead?  Mallory had asked him.  He'd never answered.  But the answer was that death—his death—was dull, a prolonged boozy mess, and life, well, Kincade had summed it up.  It's something to see.  And no matter what she thinks, he still believes that it only comes round once. 

He told her once he didn't have a plan, that he just kept moving.  He doesn't regret where he's moved to, but he'd prefer not to stay here forever.  Perhaps a plan wouldn't be a bad thing.  He could try making one up, just for laughs, see where it gets him.  See if he can have something to work towards beyond firing the next bullet. 

(He wonders what Q would say to that: Q, who had greeted him upon his return to HQ with, "Well, it's good to see you in one piece.  I think—no, on the whole, perhaps not."  And Eve had laughed and laughed.  He does like Eve.)

He finishes his Scotch.  Before he decides whether or not to pour a second, his mobile rings. 

It's Mallory.  Bond raises his eyebrows.  Mallory has, thus far, made few attempts to contact him directly.  It's not that they're on poor terms—it's more that Mallory is a busy bloke these days, and Bond isn't even a double-oh, so why should he rate a personal call?

Mallory's made it perfectly clear that Bond's walking on a tightrope.  One wrong step and he'll fall off.  Lose it all.  He'll be lucky to push paper in Newcastle.

Bond considers his options.  He imagines the disgust on her face at his delay.  Then he grins as he reaches for the phone, and answers it with, "Hello, M."

As far as he's concerned, there's no better time to ask for a promotion.

FIN.