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London, 2006

She is beyond exhausted when she finally makes her way into her flat, high above the streets of London. A day spent defending that bloody stupid man in front of various and sundry ministers who think they have the right to a piece of him (and by extension, her), when in all honesty she wouldn't mind wringing his neck with her own bare hands -- it can take it out of a person. Even Barnes and Stark hadn't been quite that infuriating, once.

The last thing she expects to see when she turns on the lights to her living room is the aforementioned arsehole playing Patience with the deck of cards Nick Fury had gifted her a decade ago, when she'd helped him plan out SHIELD's entry into the Big Boys' league. The backs are decorated with images of a certain elite strike team that operated over half a century ago, as well as their support crew. It's the only set in the world, and to see it in Bond's hands, capable though they undoubtedly are, sets her teeth on edge.

"You've got a bloody cheek," she snarls. At least she no longer has to hide just how fucking furious she is with him.

"Sorry," he says, and he so patently doesn't mean it that she barely resists taking out the gun hidden in the right pocket of her voluminous coat. Who does he think he's talking to? She's been training people to lie since before he was born.

She rips into him then, lets him see just how much he's cocked everything up. She doesn't give a shit about the dead bomber, but she does give a shit about her agency being attacked by incompetent bureaucrats who can't find their arses with both hands and a map, and would probably faint at the sight of a sniper rifle. Bond's recklessness has opened her up to this, has made her vulnerable, has threatened the agency's position. This she will not tolerate.

"And how the hell did you find out where I lived?" she finishes, tackling the other reason her palm is itching for the cool metal of her weapon.

"Same way I found out your name," he says smugly. Her hand twitches. "I thought 'M' was a randomly assigned letter; I had no idea it stood for--"

"Utter one more syllable and I'll have you killed," she cuts him off coldly. This is worse than she thought. She wonders if she might not have miscalculated alarmingly this time. She usually trusts her instincts to the exclusion of all else -- god knows they have stood her in good stead in the past. Now, for the first time, she is starting to doubt her own judgement, and that is a worse crime in Bond's ledger than any of his other bullshit.

He knows her name, and he hadn't batted an eyelid at the cards. She is quite certain that he has put two and two together, knows who she is, or rather, who she used to be. She can see it in his eyes, the desire to say something, to show off his silly little achievement in spying (she makes a mental note to have the IT support department reprimanded and handed over to Q for overhaul. And while she's at it, she might have to start looking for a... more capable Q, shall we say). It's like he wants to be praised. Well, he's got another thing coming.

Perhaps he sees something in her face that clues him in as to how close he is already skirting to leaping off the edge. Whatever the reason, Bond clearly decides that discretion is the better part of valour. Good for him. He'll live to fight another day. There is an extremely limited number of people that M will stand to hear reference her past, and Bond has not earned that privilege just yet -- the way he's going, he never will.

She sighs to herself. "I knew it was too early to promote you," she says darkly.

Oh, that packed a punch, she sees. Of course. Hit him where it hurts -- right in his ego. They are going to have to do something about that, if there should ever be a chance that he won't end up like all the other 007s before him.

She sends him packing after that, hopes she got through to him. He seems a little more aware of the way things stand, at least. Perhaps there is hope for him yet. Yes, he did hack into her computer, and she pushes replacing half the IT department to the top of her list, because that is simply unacceptable. She knows Bond's file by heart, knows a few things about the man that aren't in the file at all. He's incredibly smart, even when compared to the personnel MI6 usually attracts, and of course it's a good thing that he can hack into most mainframes and get them the intel they need. But their mainframe should be unbreachable. There's something about all this that nudges at her, something that she doesn't like, but she'll be damned if she can put her finger on it.

She pushes this away for the moment, fully aware she can't do a thing about it tonight. She gets up off the chair and heads for the bedroom, but she can't help but pause by her small coffee table, can't help but pick up that deck of cards and just hold it in her hand, shuffle it a few times. The cardboard feels familiar; the pads of her fingers find the notches in the cards that playing with them for something to do with her hands while her mind is puzzling over an issue has put in them. They are all there: here is Morita, and here is Dum Dum, and here is Howard, and here is Barnes; and here, too, is Steve, youthful face smiling sweetly up at her. It has been so, so long since she saw him last -- more than half a lifetime. She had moved on, of course she had, because he wouldn't have wanted her pining over him; and besides, she had seen too many wartime marriages fall apart to retain her youthful idealism of 'forever'. The simple truth is, she will never know. She might have been happy with Steve for the rest of her life, or she might not. She had certainly loved him enough to try for it. But he was gone, and so was most everyone else. And when she had met Geoffrey, she had let herself let go of the mountain of regrets weighing on her shoulders, let herself live in the present again, and stop mourning what had never been. She had focused on her work, on making Britain safe, on never again allowing the atrocities of a world-wide war to ravage the lives of so many. It had been enough, a life well-lived. She has no regrets now, none that she could have done anything about, at least.

Looking at Steve makes her think of Bond, how utterly opposite the two of them are, apart from the drive to keep their country safe. Yet perhaps... yes. Perhaps Bond, like that one man before him, deserves another chance to prove she was right to have handpicked him for the position.

The doors to her private lift clang again, somewhere far underneath her feet. It's purposefully loud, so that she can hear anyone coming -- just because she had moved on from the wartime years didn't mean that she had left all her hard-earned knowledge and experience behind. She is still exactly as healthily paranoid now as she was then, and it had saved her life more times than she could count.

It's only Geoffrey, though, that steps through doors sliding open, dark shadows of exhaustion bruising the skin under his eyes. They lighten when he looks up and sees her, and a smile touches his weary mouth. It never fails to make her smile in return.

"Hullo, love," he says, Yorkshire accent thick even after all these years. It had been what first made her take notice of him, the sound of her childhood. "Hard day?"

She goes to him, lifts her head for a kiss, relishes the way his warm, safe arms close around her.

"You have no idea," she grumbles. His hands rub over her shoulders, still sheathed in her coat, and he presses a kiss to her temple. She knows then that he must have seen the cards she dropped back on the table as she heard him come in, knows that he knows what she must have been thinking. No matter what she might have dreamt of once, in her youth, she knows that she is damn lucky to have this man now, so like Steve in so many ways.

"Come on," he says, steering her gently into their bedroom. "How about a nice hot shower, and then I'll see about rustling up something for us to nibble."

"That sounds heavenly," she sighs, and lets him do what he does best -- be the one person she lets take care of her.

---

London, 2008

It's late. She never used to feel the time passing, not like this. Then again, she will turn eighty-six this year. Geoffrey and her doctors have been hinting for some time that it might be prudent to start putting in failsafes for her retirement, especially after what happened last year. What they don't know, of course, is that failsafes have always existed, just in case someone gets in a lucky shot, or a hit of poison where it counts. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps it is time she step aside and let the younger crowd take over -- but there's just so much to do, especially after bloody Quantum had had such a good go of shaking things up at MI6. Her one true home had been left in ruins, and even a year later it's taking all her energy to piece it back together.

She sits back in her chair and sighs, swivels until she can look out of her floor-to-ceiling windows to where London twinkles into the night. Just the thought that she has to turn off her computer and drag her tired arse across town to their flat is utterly exhausting. She closes her eyes, just for a minute.

A low, almost imperceptible sound makes them snap open again. She reaches inside the pocket of her trousers and palms the small Beretta .22 always on her person, compact enough that it doesn't leave a noticeable bulge in her clothes. She removes the safety, cupping her other hand around the back to minimise the sound, and leaves it lying over her thigh, concealing it under her desk as she turns the chair.

Then she clicks the safety back on without bothering with stealth this time, and places it in easy reach on top of her desk. She is still undecided on whether she might not want to use it after all.

"You look disgustingly pleased with yourself," she tells Bond, who is lounging in the one comfortable chair across her office, left calf resting on top of his right knee, hands curled loosely over the armrests.

"Hello to you, too, M," he drawls. He really does look incredibly smug, a relaxed tilt to his shoulders that hasn't been there in quite some time. He looks well-fucked and languid, and she finds she can't quite begrudge him the break, not after the year he's had.

"What did you find?" she says, interested despite the number of times she has tried to distance herself, tried to see Bond as nothing but an agent she is responsible for. She has never been too good at that; now is no exception.

Bond shrugs. "Not much. I do have a lead, though I didn't have it this time three days ago, when your email came in. I ran into a... person of interest, you might say. Two of them, to be precise. Ex-Red Room if I had to guess, now gone freelance. I happened to be around when they were contacted by a new client, a Mister Braun. I think you can see where I'm going with this."

M raises her eyebrows. "I am impressed, 007. You really are the best we have at being in the right place at the right time, even if that happens to be the gutter."

Bond shrugs, and doesn't bother taking offence. "Pure luck this time, I assure you. He picked me up."

M is really so very glad that, while in many aspects time has changed things for the worse, in this at least the reverse is true. It's so refreshing to deal with an agent so open to any and all chances to get the necessary intel, regardless of gender. Not all 00s are quite so accepting.

"And am I to assume that you have the identity of the two spies?"

Bond hums. "I had encountered one of them before. Her name is Natalia Romanova, codename: Black Widow. She is easily one of the best intelligence gathering officers in the world, if not the best. The man I had never seen before. Name of James, didn't catch a surname. Codename: Winter Soldier."

M picks up the telephone. "Williams, send up to the screen in my office everything we have on Natalia Romanova, codename: Black Widow, and anything you can dig up on an ex-Red Room agent, codename: Winter Soldier."

Moments later, the screen comes alive with surveillance images and file after file of intel. Bond gets up off his chair and stalks over to it, eyes drifting over the images. He taps one, a decent if blurry headshot of a red-haired woman wearing all black, looking straight at a security camera, M assumes shortly before that camera is put out of service.

"This is Romanova," Bond says, dragging it to the top left hand corner of the screen and pinning it there. Then he dives into the partially-reconstructed, heavily pixellated images of a man with longish dark hair and black circles of what looks like a mask around his eyes. Bond keeps frowning and flicking his fingers at the screen, dismissing most of the photographs MI6 has on file, until he pauses over one, squinting.

"Can you try and clean that one up a bit?" he says over his shoulder.

"Stand by," Williams says, still on speaker phone, and the image starts clearing bit by bit. Bond hums to himself, pleased with the outcome. Apparently this is their guy. M gets up and comes closer, too. After a moment, she gives in and reaches for the glasses her ophthalmologist had forced on her at her last eye exam, slips them on and stares again. There is something nagging her about the man in the photos, something familiar yet just out of reach. Then another layer of pixelation is stripped, and she sees the outline of his face properly for the first time.

She can't hold back the shocked intake of breath her lungs demand when she sees that chin, the firm jawline she'd know anywhere. "Fuck me," she says, almost nose-to-nose with the screen now. It doesn't change a thing about the face that fills it. "Impossible."

Bond hasn't said a word, but she can feel his stare boring into the side of her face. Since the events of last year, Bond has -- perhaps surprisingly, considering his shaky start -- raced his way up the ladder of people M trusts, to take, if not the number one spot, than one still firmly rooted in the top five. He has the highest clearance possible if one isn't M herself; and, more importantly, he can be trusted with this information, especially considering what M is starting to suspect from her infrequent conversations with Nick Fury. Bond will undoubtedly need to know this one day, maybe even sooner than she thought.

She goes back to her desk, aware of Bond's impatient staring but content to ignore it for the moment. He'll find out soon enough.

"I don't think I need to tell you that as of this moment, this information is classified as eyes-only," she tells him as her fingers fly over the buttons of her phone, dialing a number only four people in the world are aware even exists.

"Indeed. It would help if I knew what exactly the information in question was," Bond says testily. She gives him a quelling look while she listens to the phone ring.

"Fury," Nick answers through the speakerphone, sounding on edge. M wonders if it's because the news received over this phone line is rarely the good kind.

"It's Carter," M says, daring Bond to comment. To his credit, he doesn't even look surprised. "Are you at your desk? I have some files I need to send to you. You may want to ask Hill and Coulson to come in. Especially the latter."

Suspicious silence on the other end of the line, before Nick says, "Now why would you be asking for Phil Coulson, Agent Carter?" It's a rhetorical question, so M doesn't bother replying. Nick hums thoughtfully. "Very well, give me five minutes. Meanwhile, send the files though. I assume they are encrypted?"

M scoffs, and even Bond cracks a smile. "What do you take me for?" she grouses, pulling out her keyboard and typing quickly.

Nick doesn't answer, and M can hear a muffled conversation on the other end, along the lines of, "My office, now."

"How've you been, Carter?" Nick asks while they wait for the files to go through and for his second and third in command to show up.

M allows herself to crack her neck, which feels stiff and creaky with the shock the night has brought. "Well enough," she answers. "You might like to know that you are on speakerphone. 007 is also present for this meeting, such as it is. He is the one who brought this information to our attention. Bond, meet Director Fury of SHIELD."

"Sir," Bond says politely. Perhaps it's this, more than anything, that had once convinced M to give this kid a shot -- his bloody perfect manners, no matter what went on. A man who can keep his composure like that is someone worth keeping an eye on.

"Agent," Nick replies. "I hear good things about you."

"Thank you, sir," Bond says, obviously pleased, though he hides it well. He'll know that Nick can't have gotten his information from anyone other than M. It's almost endearing, seeing how much weight Bond clearly places on her good opinion of him.

A door opens on the other end of the line, and Nick says, "Agents Hill and Coulson have entered the room. Agents, we are conducting a conference call with MI6 Agents Bond, a.k.a. 007, and Carter, a.k.a. M."

Polite murmurs of greeting from both sides later, there are a few clicks of computer keys before a sharply indrawn breath.

"Is that who I think it is?" Coulson says quietly, and M smiles grimly at the confirmation, unnecessary though it was.

"Indeed it is, Agent Coulson. Trust me; I know."

"Of course," Coulson defers. The official introduction was for Bond's benefit. M has known the two agents for a couple of years now, and Nick for much longer than that.

"Pardon my ignorance, but whom am I supposed to be looking at?" Bond cuts in, clearly tired of being kept in the dark.

M smiles. It's not a happy smile. "That, Bond, is Sargeant James Buchanan Barnes, of the 107th Infantry, later of the Howling Commandos covert attack squad, war hero, supposed to have died in 1943 by falling off a mountain."

Bond stares. She can see him make the connection between the man on the back of M's cards and the man on screen right now. "That would make him over eighty years old," he argues.

"Eighty-five, to be precise," M answers. "A lot of strange things happened during the war, as I'm sure you are aware, 007."

His stare looks from mistrustful to calculating. She knows that he knows the story, more of it than what's in the official files, she'd wager. He never was very good at curbing his curiosity.

"So you're telling me that the guy I--that found me in Moscow is an eighty-five-year-old war hero turned part-supersoldier," he surmises. M stifles a smirk at the neat misdirection. She can't say she blames Bond. Barnes has always been irresistible, even back then -- at least to most people; and boy, had he known it. M thinks she sees why he and Bond had hit it off.

"That's about right," Nick says, with an undercurrent of amusement that shows he didn't miss a thing from that exchange. "Suggestions?"

"We should bring him in, sir," Hill says, no-nonsense and straight to the point as always.

"He's working with Natalia Romanova," Bond clarifies, "also known as Black--"

"--Widow, we know who she is, Agent. We have had our eye on her for some time, though we didn't know that the Winter Soldier and James Barnes were one and the same. Carter?"

"I concur. Pick both of them up, debrief them, see if you can't get them working with you. Bond can liaise between MI6 and SHIELD, I gather he has a bit of history with the two of them."

"Uh-huh," Nick says, a world of innuendo in those two syllables. "Very well. Coulson, take Barton and go after them. Do whatever you have to to bring them in alive, and if possible of their own free will."

"I could come with you, if you want," Bond starts, but M cuts him off.

"No. We have a different assignment for you, 007. Although I'd be happy for Agent Coulson to use his discretion about mentioning that Bond is on board with this."

"Understood," Coulson says.

"In that case, we'll keep you posted," Nick tells them, wrapping the meeting up. M presses the end call button and leans back against her desk, feeling more alive than she has in months. She can hardly believe that she'd been so close to Bucky Barnes last year in Kazan, and hadn't even known it.

"Good work, Bond," she says, with the tiniest hint of a smile. He smirks back, the closest he has let himself to a full smile that she has seen for some time. "Now, for your next assignment."

What interesting times these are shaping up to be, M thinks as she sets out the details for 007. She can hardly wait for next month's interagency poker game.