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Pont des Coeurs

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Paris was Madeleine's idea. James had taken her to his flat in London, and it was so impersonal that Madeleine couldn't see staying there.

"I want a home," she'd said to him. "I don't have to hide anymore. I loved Paris when I was a student there."

Their flat here is stylish, but also comfortable. She can lounge on the furniture with a book for hours. They have plants that James tends. She goes to work in the mornings and comes home to James looking comfortable and handsome in the kitchen with dinner waiting for her.

She wanders the streets after work sometimes, like today. She stops in the middle of the Pont des Arts, leans against the railing to look out over the city. It should be a home for her now.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" A woman, with an accent Madeleine can't place, stops next to her and gestures out at the city. The woman leans on the railing. "I love to stand here and look at all the beauty of the city."

Madeleine looks at the woman - there's something about her that draws the eye, even apart from the way she is strikingly beautiful - and then out at the city. "Sometimes, yes," Madeleine says. "Sometimes I worry what ugliness it hides." This is the fear she doesn't speak to James. The fear that it isn't over after all. That Spectre or some other evil will come for them.

"Yes," the woman says. "That is part of it."

Madeleine looks at her sharply. Most people don't accept that idea so easily.

"Excuse me," the woman says. "I've been rude." She holds out a hand. "I'm Diana."

"Madeleine." Madeleine shakes her hand. It's rough, like James's. A woman who uses her hands, no matter what her elegant skirt, sweater, and high heels might suggest.

"What a beautiful name," Diana says. She squeezes Madeleine's hand warmly. "Do you live in Paris or are you visiting?"

"I live here," Madeleine says. "You?"

"I have lived here for many years." Diana points across the river. "I'm an antiquities curator at the Louvre." She sighs, a happy sound. "I am surrounded every day by the beauty men and women create."

There is something about her that is irresistible, that makes Madeleine want to bask in her presence. Madeleine follows an impulse of the sort she isn't used to following in her cautious life. "Would you like to come for dinner?"

Diana turns a purely joyful smile on her. "I would love to."

Madeleine texts James to let him know she's bringing company, then puts her phone away as they stroll through the Paris streets.

James comes out of the kitchen to greet them. He leans in to kiss Madeleine. She holds him there for just a moment longer; he is one of the beautiful things in the world and she knows his darkness.

James extends a hand to Diana. "Bond, James Bond."

Diana takes it. "Prince, Diana Prince." She could be mocking him, but there's only sincerity shining from her face. "It is so nice to meet you."

James raises an eyebrow at her, and at Madeleine. "Likewise. Can I offer you a glass of wine?"

"That would be wonderful." Diana accepts the glass James pours her and goes to look at the plants on the shelf in front of the window. She tilts one of the orchids up with a finger under its petals. "Look at the color on this."

Madeleine joins her and looks at the orchid she doesn't usually pay such close attention to. "James has a way with them."

Diana smiles over her shoulder at James. "I can see they are well cared for." She crouches down to look at the plants on the lower shelves.

Madeleine looks back at James, expecting him to be looking at Diana. His gaze is fixed farther up, at the plants, a pleased look on his face. He smiles when he notices Madeleine looking and returns to the kitchen to finish dinner.

They sit down to a meal of coq au vin with potatoes, a green salad, and a baguette Madeleine knows James bought today.

"This is delicious," Diana says.

James smiles a small, pleased smile that just barely crinkles his eyes. "Thank you."

"Where did you learn to cook like this? Are you a chef?"

James's smile grows a bit. "Not a chef, no. I've just picked up a few things along the way."

Madeleine sets her hand on James's arm. "It's so nice to come home to every day."

Diana smiles at both of them, and at that touch. "I can imagine."

Madeleine and Diana exchange numbers and emails at the end of the evening, and James offers to call Diana a car or walk her to the Metro.

Diana smiles with a tinge of humor Madeleine doesn't quite understand the reason for and says, "I prefer to walk. Don't worry. I can take care of myself."

After she leaves, James and Madeleine go to bed and make love with a tenderness that makes Madeleine's throat tight with joy.

*

Madeleine and Diana begin meeting for lunch. Madeleine finds it easy to say things to Diana that she finds hard to voice even to herself.

"James drinks too much," she says once.

Diana looks deeply into her, not judging, but seeming to see so much. "And you?"

Madeleine shakes her head. "No. I do other things." Like fall in love with a spy who seems no less tortured and restless for a life of peace. Like work for expensive medical clinics that cater only to the wealthy. Like lie awake at night trying not to remember what she heard but did not see when James told her to look at him as her father died on a screen.

"Life can be very hard," Diana says. "There have been times when I have wanted to give up trying to help the world." She gets a faraway look on her face, like James does sometimes, before she comes back to the conversation. "But, of course, that is not who I am."

*

Diana invites Madeleine and James to a dinner party, where they are part of an odd collection of Diana's friends: an unassuming secretary whose startling and bright paintings Diana has hanging on her wall, a singer who sings "La Vie en Rose" with aching sweetness when Diana asks him to sing for them, a woman who drips with diamonds and answers Diana's questions about her charity work with stories about the individual women and children her foundation helps, an accountant at the Louvre who hangs on Diana's every word about the importance of their latest antiquities acquisitions.

The conversation turns to first loves, with a mix of funny and sad stories.

"What about you?" Antoine, the singer, asks Diana.

Diana swirls the wine in her glass and seems to stare off into some past time. "He was a very good man, who believed deeply in his cause." She smiles softly. "He died a very long time ago." She doesn't look old enough to have loved anyone who died a very long time ago.

There are murmurs of sympathy, and the conversation turns to other topics. Later, when they have spread across Diana's flat in twos and threes, Madeleine goes to the kitchen and finds James there with Diana. Diana's eyes flick toward her and away; there is no way James can not know she's there.

"He was a spy," Diana says in answer to something James must have said before Madeleine came in.

Madeleine stays in the doorway, unwilling to interrupt.

"His cause was to save people," Diana goes on. "To make the world a safe place."

James refills his wine glass. "Do you think he could have done something else?"

Diana considers James. "I don't know. I knew him only in a difficult, dangerous time. I don't know if he could have been a chef or a banker or a shop owner if he had lived past that time."

James drains his wine glass. "I was a spy."

Diana blinks, takes a step back, and then one forward. "I would not have guessed."

James laughs, and the darkness seeps through it. "I was less subtle when I was a spy."

"Not always," Madeleine says. She wouldn't have known, at first, that he was anything other than what he appeared that first day in her office if he hadn't told her.

James inclines his head a fraction. "I don't know what I am now." He holds Madeleine's gaze as he says it. Then he extends his hand. Madeleine crosses the kitchen to hold it.

"I think," Diana suggests, "that someone who is loved is a place to start."

*

Madeleine's three o'clock cancels. She finishes up her notes from her other patients for the day. Usually when she finds herself with a free hour, she takes a walk or has a coffee. Today, she looks out the window of her office at the view of Paris. Beauty, but also darkness.

She thinks about the things that don't quite fit together in her life in Paris, about James, about what she knows about the kind of person Diana is.

Instead of leaving for a coffee or a walk, Madeleine opens her computer and types a search into her browser.

She goes for a walk after work, letting James know she'll be a bit late and wandering through the Paris streets for a few hours.

James has dinner ready when she gets home. It smells delicious, but it tastes like ashes in her mouth. She sets her fork down.

"I want to go back," Madeleine blurts out.

James sets his fork down as well. "To Austria?"

Madeleine shakes her head. "To Médecins Sans Frontières. Or something like it. I want to be out there making a difference. Helping people who desperately need it."

Something about James closes off, and he asks, the word clipped, "Alone?"

"I think I would go without you," Madeleine says; she owes him the truth, "and come back between times, but I would prefer to go with you."

James becomes readable to her again, relief for more, she thinks, than just her answer to the question. He takes her hand across the table, his familiar, callused fingers closing around hers.

"You asked me once what would happen if I stopped to think about it."

Madeleine nods; she remembers.

"This life is not for me," James says. "I may not want to always be in the shadows or on the hunt, but I need to do more than cook and tend houseplants."

Madeleine's heart pounds, and her throat swells. "We'll go, then," she manages to say.

"Yes," James says. "We'll go."

*

Diana throws them a going-away dinner party, another mix of unlikely people: an artist they've met before, a pianist they haven't, a policewoman, a sculpture curator from the Louvre, an investment banker, a girl still in her teens with a firm jaw and a voice that cracks who fairly glows when James kisses her hand and says, "It's a pleasure to meet you, mademoiselle."

They have the kind of rolling, enjoyable conversation that is a steady feature of Diana's dinner parties. It ranges from art to the business of museums to the difficulties inherent in finding women's clothing that fits.

Before she serves dessert, Diana calls them all to attention through nothing more than standing at the head of the table. She has an unmistakable presence that makes them turn to her.

"Madeleine and James are leaving us," she says. "This is their second to last night in Paris, before they go out to put their skills to use in saving people in parts of the world that are still in turmoil. There are so many things that are important in this world. Art, history, the beauty that we can create and bring out in each other. And the dedication to make this a better world, to save and better lives." She raises her glass, and the others follow suit. "To Madeleine and James."

The toast is echoed with a cheer from the other guests. Madeleine fills full to overflowing with the rightness of it all.

*

It's too hot, and Madeleine has been wearing the same clothes for too many days. She spoke today with a group of women whose children had been slaughtered, with a teenager who had been repeatedly raped, with a man so filled with despair that he stared dead-eyed at her when she tried to ask him questions.

She smiles when James enters their rooms, and leans up as he leans down to kiss her. It is sweet, and her heart feels full to bursting with the rightness of what they're doing. When James pulls back, she can see the same feeling on his face.

"I got a letter from Diana today," Madeleine tells him. She pours the photos Diana sent out of the envelope and hands them to him.

A piece of pottery, unshielded by glass, geometric designs etched into its sides. A smiling woman in front of one of those startling paintings like Diana has on her walls, this one in a gallery. The view from the Pont des Arts in late afternoon. Diana herself, smiling softly in candlelight at her dining table surrounded by friends.

"She asked if you know who you are now."

James hands the photos back to her and bends to kiss her temple. "Yes."

When Madeleine writes back to Diana, she sends photos of both of them, smiling and dusty in the hot sun, and she ends her letter with, You helped us find something we couldn't find on our own. Thank you, my friend.