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A View from the Sidelines

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They know their types, the British secret service. For almost fifty years he's seen them, these tightly-wound young men, as they stand guard or deliver messages, or occasionally burst into his bedroom in the thick of night. He knows it's not simply the training, nor the lean muscular bodies barely disguised by precisely-tailored suits. There's something damaged in all of them, some deep wound that's grown so much scar tissue over the years they seem to regard it as a benefit, a shield, an edge.

For a while, he suspected that they all came with icy blue eyes, as well. But, no, that was just M, colouring his perceptions again.

"Hello," he said to her, one day in post-war Britain.

She looked straight past him. "Oh, good, you're finished with that." And she swooped under his arm, grabbing the textbook he had been hoarding in his study carrel all afternoon, and just as swiftly disappearing. As a student, he rarely seemed baffled by anything, but M had left him blinking after her for more moments than he would care to admit. Only later would he discover the unique pleasure of watching her do the same to the spies, executives, and (occasionally) prime ministers of the world.

He wishes he could claim that she first slept with him because he was a lethal foreign operative, or at the very least so that she could rifle through his briefcase while he was asleep. But no, he's not even a poor hostage she had swept off his feet, saving him from a hail of bullets by mere seconds. They had, instead, met sedately at a conference, made a date for coffee, and then, much to his surprise, fucked in his university flat. She hadn't been a virgin, and it certainly hadn't been making love, not that first time. Tiny and sweet and razor-sharp, she'd screwed him with all the confidence of a whore, and he'd looked up at her in astonishment as she rode him hard and made him make her come.

In the morning, she'd made some despicable beverage from vodka and raw eggs, and he found a slew of corrections marked in red on his latest history paper. After that, all other prospective wives seemed somehow insignificant.

"Hello," he says to Bond, the day he finds a young man wearing a bloody shirt and a perpetual scowl in the grounds of their country house. Certainly not a mansion, it was still comfortable enough to serve as a playground for the children when they were small, and now it's a perfect spot for the grandchildren to run amok whenever they visit. And, of course, an easily-defendable spot from MI6's point of view (he tries not to consider that perspective too often).

Bond grunts. For all that MI6 has a reputation for hiring public schoolboys, the latest batch seems to be particularly inarticulate. M likes this one, though. She bought him one of those Wii things for Christmas, a sly smile on her face, and had the sales clerk wrap it up with a bow, and wrapping paper emblazoned with teddy bears and snowflakes. "He'll love it," she'd said, writing To James in a deliberately florid script. "He'll never admit it, but he will."

"She'll be back soon," he tells Bond, feeling that either asking about the gift or offering some kind of medical aid is only going to be rebuked by another grunt. A pause. "Tea?"

Bond perks up, like a puppy dimly remembering some facet of obedience training, and almost shrugs. "That would be lovely."

From what little he knows of M's business, he suspects they choose their agents based on some kind of Mr. Universe test, in which athletic and marksmanship skills are balanced out by how well the potential candidates look in evening wear. Or out of it. Bond's features have a dull, bruised look about them – he's certainly not attractive enough to turn every head in the room – but the body under the shirt seems reasonable. And far too slim for one of his shirts.

Still, Bond tucks it into his trousers, rolls up the sleeves, and says a convincing "Thank you" as he takes his tea with lemon.

None of them are very good at small talk. M, if she ever had that ability, has lost it too, over the years. Even her conversations with little Katie and Owen are about test results, and how they're doing in their junior karate classes, and whether their French is up to scratch. She'd prefer they learned Mandarin or Arabic, but he's managed to make her bite her tongue on that subject. With a bit of luck, they'll be stockbrokers and doctors, not international secret agents.

She pouts, some nights. "It's a very honourable trade," she says into her digestive biscuit. "They should know that. It isn't all Robert Ludlum movies, or that, what was his name?"

"Austin Powers," he fills in from behind The Guardian.

"Yes. It's a damn shame, to give your life for your country, and then be mocked like that."

She has an awfully thin skin for a woman who's been shot twice. But he keeps his mouth shut.

He keeps his mouth shut about a lot of things. He'd had to sign the Official Secrets Act the day he proposed, and he supposes it's become easier to accept over the years – the days and nights she's away, the times she comes home bleeding and bruised, and wound so tightly he wonders which of their vases is going to be destroyed this time. He tends to ignore the hidden computer panels in the bathroom, the guns in various convenient locations around the house, the helicopters that occasionally land in the back garden. He even ignores the sex. Mostly.

"Sports section?" he asks Bond, wielding a thick chunk of the morning paper.

Bond, despite his rugby-player physique, stares at it blankly. And then: "I'll take the financial section, if you're finished…"

"Yes, yes. Quite."

He'd wondered often in the early days if he was just her beard, part of her civilian cover story. She would go overseas and return to him, weeks later, to recover physically and emotionally from her trials. She would never tell him what had happened, although he'd found knife wounds, rope burns, and other things that disturbed him too much to examine closely. Once… once there had been a baby, scraped out of her by the second month. He hasn't ever decided whether he would have preferred knowing that it had been his.

"I want to be the one to protect you," he finds himself telling her, as they lie together in bed, her small frame easily held in his arms.

She always pats his arm. "You do protect me."

But he is old, and overweight, and even when he was young and healthy, he could have been ripped apart by a fellow like Bond in less than a minute. He's a bookworm. A fuddy-duddy old professor. Some days he wonders why M has any respect for him at all.

He eyes Bond over his newspaper. Bond certainly has respect for his wife, even in this chauvinistic job, but him? He's never done a day of manual labour in his life. Never been in a fight. He had stayed home with the children when they were small, taking them to school, writing his books during the day. He had learned to cook, to garden, and if not quite to clean, at least to employ a very good housekeeper. He'd been the wife M needed, the sort of wife Bond might end up with eventually: calm and sensible, asking no questions, and always soft and available in bed.

M returns on the stroke of noon, beautiful, composed, and not surprised in the least to find Bond sipping tea in her sitting room. "Could you excuse us?" she says, and kisses him on the cheek.

He leaves the paper, and takes the tea.

Bond is screwing his wife. Some days he almost smiles at the thought: she's a grandmother in her seventies – good for her, if she can attract a musclebound thirty-something who is no doubt hung like a stallion. If the roles were reversed, surely he would be tempted by a nubile young agent, eager to spread her legs…

He's not the first, though, and it's that fact that's stopped him from trying to confront any of them over the years, and no doubt winding up with a broken jaw for his trouble. No one he's known has ever been the first: since he met her, there have always been targets and allies and suspects in her bed. There has always been work, and the stress-relief that work entails. He doubts that Bond will be the last.

He sits in his study and opens up his latest journal article on his laptop, which has mysteriously become annotated by a series of pointed remarks. She always comes back to him, though. For fifty years, she's always come back – borne his children, even though the enforced time away from the office had vexed her, supported his career, let society see her as a bored civil servant rather than a steel-eyed watchtower of the western world. And for that, he has to allow her a plaything or two.

In the sitting room, a door closes. He can already imagine the arguments laced with humour, her breasts in Bond's hands, Bond's prick fucking into her, buttons ripped off his shirt, semen on the sofa.

He leans back in his chair, sighs, and puts on a little light music.

Yes, he thinks. They certainly know their types.