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Walk a Mile

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The whole situation is absurd. She'd go in herself if - well, she's above this sort of thing now, in the rarefied air of management, and besides, the government's witless PR machine has rendered her useless for covert work. And with the current Minister's squeamishness over the thought of a female agent with anything more than nominal double-0 status - as if women haven't been killing for their country just as long as men - there's no time to bring 006 or 9 from their desks in Whitehall. So she's stuck in Hong Kong watching a very specialised tailor fit 007 for a very atypical suit.

Bond himself seems unperturbed by this change to their plans, but he isn't above smirking when he catches her eye. She doesn't react, keeps her gaze clinical, assessing.

It surprises her that it works so well, in fact. No concerned observer would be fooled for more than a moment, but there's something in the confidence with which he carries himself that gives her pause. He stands, hand on out-turned hip, suit cut to hug constructed curves, wig carefully styled to soften but not hide the strong line of his jaw, just enough makeup to hide the hard-lived texture of his skin. His smirk has retreated, but it's there in his eyes as he watches her watching him. He can even walk in heels - not quickly, but with a slow, feline grace that's just this side of caricature.

But no, that's exactly the problem. The confidence that makes this tenable is the very thing that will give him away. Bond has always been the least covert of all her double-0s - he works by making himself the centre of attention, deceiving in plain sight. The figure in front of her, even if he can convince as a woman (or, more likely, if he can convince as transgender, and therefore go unsuspected as an MI6 agent in a plot pulled from the pages of cheap farce), will only attract attention. The job at hand calls for more subtlety.

"You're not here to seduce him, Bond," she says, rather more sharply than she intended, and his smirk returns.

He dips his head to look at her through pale lashes. "You think I could, though," he says, voice pitched soft, but not soft enough to hide his mockery.

"God knows the man doesn't have conventional tastes." She shakes her head. "If we had time for that, we'd have time to do it properly. This -" She taps the file on the table beside her. "This has to be done without him noticing."

The only men allowed near their target are those he's known for years. If they had time, yes, they could bring in Hawkes or Keane, or she could take a risk and send Bond, as his own charismatic self, to try to break through that wall of paranoia. They simply don't have time.

She stands, and walks over to him, stopping to look him up and down, ignoring the eyebrow he raises. In heels, he towers over her more than usual, but she ignores this, too. She slaps him, and he barely moves except to grab her arm when she brings it back for a second strike. His gaze turns calculating, not angry - he already knows she has a point to make. Clever boy, she thinks as she pulls away from him.

"You need to learn how to flinch."

He shifts his stance, lowers his gaze, and she has to bite back a laugh at the sight of James Bond attempting to look demure. "You're not a damsel in distress - you don't need to be coy. You need to be ignored."

It isn't that Bond can't go unnoticed if he chooses. He'd be dead ten times over - in the past year - if he couldn't make himself disappear. But there's a difference between choosing to be invisible and being ignored. She wonders if Bond has ever been ignored - she doubts it. He's the kind of arrogant bastard that may have been scorned and blanked, but never ignored.

She remembers being ignored, just as she remembers every step she's taken to fight it. So would Keane and Hawkes. She remembers because it still happens, even if now she has the amusing hobby of skewering anyone who makes the mistake of treating her like - like a woman. It has the side effect of making her uncharmable by the likes of Bond, who flirts as easily as he breathes, but it's never been the presumed inevitability of sexual tension that annoyed her. It's the assumption that she could be ignored without consequence - that it never crosses their minds that any way they treat her could have consequences, that whether they ignore her, or charm her, or treat her as an equal, she could do nothing about it.

"You're worth less," she says, stressing the separate words. "He'll look past you to someone he respects. A man - any man. And not simply because the only men there will be his advisers. He has women on his staff. He'll look past them, too. No matter what you've done in your life, he'll never see you."

Her voice is level. She isn't really angered by it any more. But if he questions this, she's not above slapping him again. He says nothing, waiting for her to continue.

"It isn't that you've resigned yourself to this. You don't know anything different. If a man steps in front of you, you apologise for getting in his way. If a man belittles you, you say nothing. If he mocks you, you smile at his wit."

He nods once, taking in her words and not understanding.

"You take up less space than a man half your size." She always thought it a weakness in herself, and fought herself to stop it. "Anything you hold, you hold close, as a shield." She saw it as a weakness in others, but has more sympathy now. "You drop your gaze first, if you make eye contact at all." She knows the merit of being careful, even if her own care has always been more cunning. "You stay at the edge of the crowd, but you never walk on your own."

She makes a show of it, hating herself for the ease with which her body remembers how to move. He mimics her body language, intrigued by the mechanics of it. Shaking off the old deference, she says, "It's nothing so dramatic as fear, Bond. You're just - not important."

"I understand." The look in his eyes is cautious, now, not calculating, but he doesn't understand.

If he puts a step wrong tonight, he's dead, and that, at least, she knows he understands.

~

The mission is a success, of course. She expected nothing less from Bond.

He drops the USB drive on the desk beside her. When she looks up, she expects him to smirk, as he always does when he thinks he's exceeded her expectations, but the look in his eyes is unreadable.

He's tense, and the tension strips his body language of any lingering femininity. There's a mirror above the room's fireplace, and as he turns away from her, he catches sight of himself, and freezes. He pulls off the wig, and removes the earrings with a wince, and then stands for a moment, staring at himself.

She can see him resist the urge to shake himself, shake off whatever he sees there. Instead, he turns away, and picks up his own clothes as he heads for the bathroom with a terse "Excuse me, ma'am," no flippant line to punctuate his exit.

She's already uploading the files across her secure line by the time he returns, impeccably masculine once more in white shirt and Saville Row. She expects him to makes his excuses and escape to reassert his masculinity. She knows he's halfway to bedding the embassy liaison, and their flight is not for six hours.

Instead, he sits heavily on the sofa opposite her, not looking at her. He twists something in his right hand - the earrings, she realises - and his tension seems rise with every turn of pearl and gold.

"You know I have the utmost respect -" he starts to say, his voice matter-of-fact, but he still doesn't meet her eyes, and she laughs.

"Poppycock, Bond. You're the most insubordinate agent I have, and you know it."

His tension eases, just a little, and he finally looks at her, twisting out a smile. "But not because I don't respect you."

"No? I'll make a note of that for when you next disobey my orders because you think you know better than me."

He looks away, uncharacteristically chastened, and she's almost tempted to put him out of his misery. Bond's is an old-fashioned sort of misogyny, the sort that will hold a door for a woman then pat her behind as she passes. If her memory serves, it seems to go with the designation.

"You wouldn't see me if I wasn't your superior. If I hadn't fought for this post." She's so preoccupied with keeping her own tone even that she almost misses the sudden, intense glance he shoots at her. It's gone as soon as she sees it, and he leans back with studied nonchalance.

"I can't imagine you as anything but what you are, ma'am."

She ignores the defensive strand of flirtation that enters his voice. "And could you imagine any other woman in my job?"

He starts to shake his head instinctively, before realisation hits him. Clever boy.

She stands, the files now transferred to her office in London, and starts to pack. She ignores the way he watches her as she criss-crosses the room, packing more inefficiently than she has since her university days.

"How do you stand it?"

"MI6 is not in the business of gender politics, Bond. I use it when expedient, but otherwise it's irrelevant." She hasn't been angry about it in years, has no reason to be angry now.

He catches her arm as she passes. "How do you do it?"

By having no weaknesses. "By being very good at my job. Which is something you would do well to remember." She shakes off his hand, but he stands and follows her across the room.

Bond is a weakness. She excuses his excesses by calling him her best agent, but it isn't true - he's too reckless, and she wastes too much time worrying over the collateral damage he leaves in his wake. Indulging Bond has too high a cost.

"How do you do it?"

By being careful. He isn't her best agent - she protects him because he's her favourite agent. She envies him his recklessness - in action, in words, in the sudden openness of his gaze, in the small touches with which he turns her to face him.

"By knowing which battles to fight," she says, and Bond doesn't bother to hide his smile. She glares at him, expecting him to react much as he does when she berates him for breaking international peace treaties - with a smirk and a cutting jibe. Instead, he raises a hand to her face - still holding those earrings, she realises, holding them up against her own, his fingers just barely touching her skin but sending absurd shivers through her.

James is a weakness.

She pushes him away - carefully, unhurried - and shakes her head. He holds her gaze, but doesn't demur. She cannot take this risk, and that, at least, she knows he understands.