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She closes the door and leaves the party outside, there’s nothing to celebrate and no matter how many distinctions they give her, it won’t make the meaning of the voluntary retirement any less transparent. They wanted her out, they didn’t trust her judgement anymore, and M stands in the office that she cannot call her own anymore.

Mallory had the decency not to change anything while there was a chance she might see it. It doesn’t change the fact that he replaced her, it might not have been his choice, but it's at him she aims her anger now. Because without being M, she isn’t sure what she is anymore. This was her life, this office was her home, and as she walks she lets her fingers trail on the desk’s surface. It’s cold and familiar, and Victoria Fletcher sheds M from her bones, leaves the costume thrown over the chair and turns around.

But she isn’t ready to let go and she’s sure she never will be. She gave up so many things for Queen and country, there’re only splinters left and they cut and make her bleed.

Dark thoughts follow her around ever since Bond killed Silva, it wasn’t just the end of Tiago Rodriguez, it was hers as well and she would bet her knickers he knew it. Maybe that was the reason the life didn’t cling to him this time, he was punishing her, she betrayed him so he wanted to see the country betray her.

She’s trying not to be bitter, to take it as another part of her life, but she can’t see herself going on living. There’s nothing out there for her, she can spend time with her granddaughter, read or write, but everything fades into boredom in comparison with danger and tough decisions and playing on the edge of a cliff. She would hate it, she hates it already, and every single person who made the decision without her knows it.

A knock on the door rouses her from her thoughts. “You’re missing the cake,” Bond notes, leaning in carefully, like this office is still a place he has to be invited into. But now it’s not, now it’s just a simple reminder.

She looks at him briefly and then turns towards the glass panel. In that one look she tells him everything and he joins her, both of them gazing at the party going on below them. People are mingling, talking, laughing, no one seems to feel the funeral atmosphere created in the office above their heads, and for a moment the former M wants to feel relieved. She can’t but that doesn’t mean she can’t accept the new circumstances.

But first steps first. “Victoria Fletcher,” she turns towards him and introduces the person she’s about to become. Bond raises his eyebrows and takes the offered hand. “James Bond. I’m very pleased to meet you Mrs. Fletcher,” he says, a small smile playing his lips. Their hands stay connected a little bit longer than is usual but neither of them acknowledges it.

And just like that they’re different people, with different lives. “Nice to meet you too, Mr. Bond.” It’s Victoria talking now, M now belongs to someone else, then she turns and tries to leave the past behind. But it follows her out of the door, his footsteps echoing behind her.

.

“Bingo,” a woman yells behind her and Victoria tries to ignore the urge to kill her. She doesn’t understand the excitement they all experience, but more importantly she doesn’t understand why she let Lauren persuade her to come here. Maybe it was just because her daughter’s mother-in-law visited this place and invited her, maybe it was because she was so bored she actually started baking, and maybe she really felt lonely between the four walls in her own house.

But when she said she needed company, she meant someone who knows who she is and who understands that playing bingo and talking about soaps wasn’t her cup of coffee. Isabella’s nice, the real grandmother baking cookies and knowing which pop singer is in at the moment, Victoria knows the names of all current Prime Ministers in Europe and how to build a bomb out of glue, but pop-culture told her nothing.

“Having no luck?” Isabella leans towards her with a huge smile and Victoria tries to mirror it, tries to fit in with grandmothers and grandfathers who actually know things about their grandchildren. She feels out of place. It reminds her of her first weeks in Czechoslovakia, when she’d seen a spy in every person on the street and she had known the same was written all over her face.

“No, bingo is not really my game,” she answers with a small smile and tries to hide that she actually hasn’t been following the game at all.

Isabella pats her on the back in comfort. “Don’t worry, the luck will turn around,” she says and then something catches her attention and Victoria sighs, this really wasn’t the best idea. Maybe she could take some writing classes and try to write her memoirs. She had taken part in too many important historical events.

The luck doesn’t turn and she manages to get out of the next game by faking a headache. Once back in the car she’s able to breathe. Being able to drive herself around is one of the changes she gladly accepted. It gives her a sense of freedom that she can decide to leave London behind and just go wherever she wants. She would love to visit Scotland again, to take long walks and not to think about all those things she left behind.

Maybe she could really do that.

Someone’s waiting at the front of her house when she arrives, it’s already dark outside but she doesn’t have any trouble recognizing Bond. He’s leaning on the railing with the lapels of his coat hiding his face from the wind. When he spots her car he moves instantly and comes to open the door for her.

It’s such a familiar gesture that Victoria smiles to herself before she gets out of the car. “Ma’am,” Bond greets her and lets her pass, closing the door behind her. She locks it and waits for him to explain why he’s waiting for her. On any other night she would simply invite him in and ask about the mission, and she’s very tempted to do it now, but she knows that now she isn’t  in the service anymore she has to set new boundaries. She’s mostly sure he’s here exactly for that reason.

“Don’t tell me Mallory sent you to get me back?” she asks, not even trying to hide the sarcasm.

Bond chuckles and the sound's so unnatural to him that Victoria feels herself grow warm. And the question “why is he here” wants to make her ignore him even more, is he here to mock her?

“No, this is a social visit,” he answers and there’s warmth in his voice. Victoria remembers all the times she heard him talk like this, it was in the very wrong moments, when either one of them was dying or lost someone, it was those moments that made her realize how much they have in common. It’s easier to pretend you’re a cold-blooded killer and she wonders if she was the one who taught him this particular lesson.

She raises an eyebrow. “Really? So I suppose I should invite you in?” Victoria asks, it’s easier to let him figure out the answer because she still isn’t sure what to see in his visit. Is he here for old times’ sake? To see how a trapped rabbit would rather chew his foot off?

“That should be appropriate,” he says and winks at her. She snorts in annoyance and walks towards the door, Bond only few feet behind her. When they enter he throws his coat over the couch and goes straight for the bar. She should be more annoyed but it feels nice when someone else pours her a drink for a change.

“To the new world,” he clinks his glass against hers and somehow she knows he’s not mocking her, that this visit means something she might not expect, and she still isn’t sure if she accepts it, but she drinks her whisky and desperately tries not to imagine things that could or could not happen. It’s easier to go for more sarcasm.

“You came then to drink my whisky? How nice of you to have waited for me this time,” she notes putting the glass on the coffee table. Bond drinks his in one gulp and his glass soon joins hers, then he takes a step forward and Victoria suppresses an urge to take a step back. He’s a dangerous man, a very dangerous one indeed, and she’s still looking for the right reason for everything.

He takes a deep breath and then says: “I came to invite you to dinner.” The bomb drops and she feels relieved, too relieved, it’s just an invitation and she refuses to look further into it. Bond almost looks pained when she takes a little longer to answer and this time it’s she who chuckles, for no reason at all.

.

When Lauren asks her who she is going out with, she says a former colleague and that’s no lie, but she’s still too glad that she doesn’t have any more questions. And yes, this could be just a catching up with an old acquaintance if she doesn’t dress it up as something else. Victoria doesn’t plan on doing any of that so she simply reaches for one of her working suits, adds a little lipstick and some perfume Tanner gave her for her birthday.

Bond arrives exactly on time, it’s a first and she tries to remember what the etiquette is for these kinds of dinners. Is there anymore? And what kind of dinner is this?

“You look lovely,” he says when she opens the door already dressed, holding her bag in her hand. And she’d learnt to always take a compliment, even when it was meant only to make talk less awkward or on many occasions less dangerous, and now she simply follows him to his car and again sees herself 40 years ago on her first mission. She felt almost as unnatural as she feels now, and she hates it.

He drives them to a small French restaurant and the owner greets him at the door. “Good evening, James, got the best table for you,” he says with a wink and waves in someone to take their coats. He personally escorts them to their table where a bottle of champagne already waits for them. He leaves them alone then.

“Champagne?” Bonds asks and she nods because she feels that this evening will be unlike anything she expected. It almost seems like he’s trying to make an impression. But she can’t accept that, can’t accept him.

“To a lovely evening,” he says picking up his glass and Victoria does the same, the clink is too loud and she feels herself shiver. It’s the fear of the unknown, she knows and curses herself for accepting his invitation. Or not asking more questions and she knows she needs to fix herself, to find something to hold onto so she can deal with being useless.

“Why am I here?” she asks suddenly, her thoughts doing the same rounds over and over again until she eventually got tired of it.

He looks like he expected the question. “To have dinner and enjoy a nice evening in pleasant company?” But he’s hiding something behind the cheekiness, something’s bothering him and Victoria realizes she’d always known. Ever since she had passed him the file with his double-0 status she was able to tell when he’s hiding something from her. To many he might seem ruthless but to her, James Bond is an open book with a very distracting cover.

She leans backwards, looks at him with her mouth pursed. Her whole posture tells him she won’t eat his bullshit and after few seconds he sighs, puts his glass on the table and threads his hand through his short hair. He looks like she just caught him with his hand in a cookie jar and M resurfaces inside her with a flare. Victoria doesn’t know him as well as M does. “Why am I here, Bond?” she repeats the question, putting emphasis on his surname.

“Because too many things have changed,” he says simply, licks his lips and looks everywhere but at her. And M wants to press more, to get a proper answer out of him but she has no right, not anymore. Her power is gone, she’s just a woman now. And she understands because she’s dealing with the same things, changes are good when they’re your doing, when you decide about them, and maybe she should lean over the table, touch his hand and say she knows what he means. But instead she lets the time pass, and then asks him what he’s having because she’s starving and she won’t wait for him forever.

.

Just like that, James Bond is back in her life and at first, Victoria doesn’t even try to figure out why it feels so natural to invite him over for a cup of tea. Or to watch him make it while she looks through the papers he brought with him, but it does and she enjoys it. They talk about weather and politics and theatre, and she tries very hard not to mention him in conversations with other people.

He always comes up somehow, when Lauren invites her for a dinner and she already has plans with him, she says former colleague, sometimes she lets slip James, and her daughter has a name to tease her with. “He’s a James now,” she says during a family dinner and Victoria ignores all the looks that suddenly turn towards her.

“He’s just a friend,” she tells them then and only later realizes she meant it.

While he’s on a leave they have dinner at least twice a week, and he always drops in unannounced on most mornings and she’s getting used to it, to him. They talk about MI6 too even though they shouldn’t, he talks about Mallory with respect in his voice and she wants to hate him for that but she can’t. If he can win Bond’s respect, he definitely deserves it.

Sometimes she talks about her beginnings, about how difficult it was to get where she was, and Bond sits quietly next to her while she travels into the past with her eyes wide open, and sometimes she tears up and he holds her hand. They ignore it afterwards, pretend that it didn’t happen, but Victoria can see him feeling much more confident in her company. They’re both changing.

When he leaves for the first time, she still finds herself making a second cup of coffee and it takes her almost three days to stop doing it. She misses him, misses someone’s presence in the room with her, and she’s angry at herself for getting used to him so quickly. But it happened and she lies in bed at night hoping he’s alive. She knows they have no reason to tell her about his death and only then she finally lets herself examine their relationship.

They’re friends, she can tell that, they respect each other, care for each other. But their case is much more complicated, he saved her life, nearly died doing so, and she violated more than a few rules to get him back on active service. Their lives got intertwined when she knew a little too much about his past and he, in return, learnt some of hers. They’re too similar, considered cold by the others, while fragile inside, both are dangerous and could be ruthless, and both know how it feels to kill someone because others told them to.

And they need each other, so they can hold onto the past and the future. So the changes happening won’t change who they were too, and she realizes this at the same time she realizes he could be dead already and she might never know. She doesn’t sleep that night and lets Isabella persuade her for another bingo night that evening.

“Lauren told me you’re seeing a friend.” It’s a statement dropped casually between the first and second move, and Victoria tries to ignore it but Isabella pushes her chair closer to hers to listen for her answer.

“Yes, a former work colleague,” she says sorting her cards, her face turned away from the other woman in hope she would realize that it isn’t a topic she wants to talk about.

“Is he retired too? Or is he lucky enough they need still him?” Isabella asks and Victoria doesn’t want to be rude but she never reacted well to nosy people, but she’s family and so she at least tries.

“He’s still working.” She keeps her answer short in the hope Isabella will get the hint and stop asking but she understands, in some other world she might be the same, nosy and curious, calling her children every day and spending time at old ladies' clubs, but she made her choice too many years ago to change it now, or change herself. But she really tries to at least understand.

“Oh, so he probably won’t have time to come to Alice’s birthday party with you.” Another statement that might prove something, what, Victoria doesn’t even want to know. And she has to chuckle to herself while imagining Bond at her teenage granddaughter’s birthday. He would know how to charm everyone and maybe they’ll all forget that they expected him to be about twenty years older. But she’s still too wary about what her family knows about her career and she doesn’t want to change that.

“Probably not,” Victoria says with a sigh and a smile that she hopes mean the end of the conversation. “Maybe we can stop at the Italian restaurant you like so much on our way home. I wouldn’t mind not cooking for myself tonight.” Isabella loves that idea and the conversation is for now forgotten.

There’s a message on her answering machine when she comes. “I’m sorry I couldn’t say goodbye.” It’s all he says and Victoria smiles to herself, and ignores how her heart reacts to hearing his voice. She’s too old for that but she doesn’t wait for him after that, life is too short to spend it in waiting. Next morning she finally organizes Reginald’s things she hasn’t touched since the funeral. Later she lets herself be persuaded for a night out with Isabella and her friends, it’s theatre and dinner, and even though she knows she doesn’t fit in their world, she finally lets herself enjoy it nevertheless.

And she finally lets herself remember.

.

She’s too old for the party too, but Lauren insisted it will be for both friends and family and Alice didn’t mind. Victoria saw how very mature and clever her granddaughter was, she saw how diplomatically she made her parents do exactly as she wanted. She reminded her of herself so much and most of the days she fought off the unpleasant feeling that she could be a very good agent one day. She didn’t want that future for her.

“Hey, mum, enjoying yourself?” Lauren pulls her out of her thoughts and leans on the counter next to her. She seems perfectly happy and Victoria feels incredibly thankful for it, she missed so much of her life but everything turned out well. She knows not many people can say that.

“Very much, sweetheart, thank you for inviting me,” she says with a smile and reaches for her daughter’s hand and squeezes. They’re family but for years she had trouble attending any celebration and after a while, she was surprised that the invitations hadn't  stopped coming.

Lauren smiles back. “Of course, we wouldn’t do it without you.” She means it, Victoria knows that but there are too many things left unsaid, and it seems her daughter is ready to leave it that way. But for how long, she doesn’t know and she watches Lauren wash glasses and prepare more sandwiches, and do things she never had time to do, it comes out without her really noticing.

“I was never there for you, never gave you a real birthday party. It was a goddamn miracle if I attended it, so why do you...,” She stops herself because more ugly truths and uncertainties could be revealed, and it needs to be taken slowly. They finally have time to resolve things, finally time to talk and Victoria is afraid what it could cause.

Lauren stops, doesn’t react for three horribly long seconds, and when she speaks, Victoria knows that those words were there for a very long time. “Bill told me the same thing, that I should just stop calling and pleading but I couldn’t, you’re my mum and I love you, and when I was a child I was coming up with all these crazy excuses for why you are never here.” She laughs then, remembering, and finally faces her mother. “I used to dream that you’re a spy and that you needed to be away to keep the bad men from hurting me.”

But Victoria doesn’t laugh; she watches her daughter, stone-faced, watches as realization dawns, and then steps forwards and opens her arms. “I’ll always keep the bad men from hurting you,” she whispers and caresses her hair, like she did when she was a little girl, how she should have been doing more often. Lauren holds her and just like that, her daughter knows one of her mother’s secrets. And the M inside struggles, struggles with emotion and feeling, but Victoria shushes her.

.

It’s different after that. And she’s glad, because everything feels a little bit more honest and real, and Lauren never ever asks more questions, nor does she ask about James and when he comes back, he’s suddenly just another of her secrets.

“What do you want to tell her?” he asks her from across the table the first evening after his return. He has a new scar on his right temple and she stopped herself from touching it but it’s still there, like a big red sign. He could die and she would never know, and Victoria shakes the unease from her bones and sends him a sad smile.

“I don’t really know. I just want her to know that I wasn’t away because I hadn’t loved her enough.” It’s easy to tell him these things, it’s easy to talk to him and be in the same room without being afraid to tell something that might be wrong.

Bond’s playing with the knife, moves it from one side to another and then looks up when she speaks. “She knows that, otherwise she would tell you before. I don’t know your daughter but if she’s anything like you she knows how to speak her mind,” he says it with a smirk and she wants to throw a napkin at him, it comes halfway and it’s much easier to laugh then.

He helps her clean up, takes the plates to the kitchen and puts them into dishwasher,  while she puts the rest of the takeaway into the fridge. James Bond knows his way around her kitchen and for a moment it feels so surreal that she finds herself reaching for the scar. “Does it hurt?” she asks tracing it with her finger. It’s still hot to the touch and she imagines some very long and very sharp blade causing it.

A sharp intake of breath makes her step away, she’s hurting him. But as soon as she pulls her hand away he catches it, probably accidentally, caresses her wrist with his thumb and then finally speaks. “No, you didn’t..., it doesn’t..., it’s nothing,” he mumbles, one word more wrong than the other, and she watches his face change and her own eyes widen at the sight. He lets go of her hand then.

“I apologize, I shouldn’t have…,” She seems to be suffering with the same speech trouble and turns rather sharply, pretending that the lone plant on her kitchen window urgently needs her attention. She’s glad she doesn’t see his face now, she can imagine herself analysing every grimace he made and she refuses to do that, refuses to play this game by the old rules.

Bond doesn’t move either and for few minutes they stay like that, with her pretending she’s looking at the plant, and he doing the same and not being there, and she thinks they might do it till they finally come to a conclusion that could make them move forward without confusing everything.

“I should go,” he says suddenly, takes that one step and she can’t avoid facing him any longer. “Thank you for the dinner.”

She smiles, tries to make it look natural and fails. “You’re welcome,” she says, thinks about words like “you’ll be paying next time” and “I’ll see you tomorrow” but they don’t fit, not now because something is broken and only time could fix it. Bond nods at her words and leaves. She stays in the kitchen watching his back through the narrow hall.

.

Lauren and Isabella are talking excitedly about something but she stopped listening the moment she sat down. She couldn’t get that evening out of her head, it was just two days ago and they haven’t talked, haven’t planned a dinner or theatre, he hasn’t stopped by for a cup of tea and a bitching session about politics. Maybe he left for another mission and maybe he left forever, and it’s up to her to forget now.

“What do you think, mum?” Lauren asks suddenly and Victoria finally turns to them with a question on her face.

“Sorry?” It’s her way of saying she wasn’t really listening but instead of anger both look at her with worry. The problem is she really doesn’t deserve it. There’s nothing she could tell them because nothing really happened. The relationship between her and Bond got complicated without them noticing and maybe she just imagined it all, maybe he didn’t keep coming back because he needed it, maybe it was just a misjudged sense of duty.

Lauren looks at her strangely. “We were just talking about the summer holidays. Isabella suggested the French Coast and I think it’s a great idea, Bill’s boss was there last year and the pictures were gorgeous,” she summarizes briefly and Victoria can see Isabella already asking questions she isn’t ready to answer. A headache is slowly forming and she takes a deep breath before she decides to pass them.

“Sounds wonderful, dear, I’ll let you organize everything. I think I need to lie down for a moment,” she tries it with a sad smile, marvels at the possibility of just leaving them and disappearing into her bedroom. She feels their eyes on her back but they say nothing, instead she hears Isabella whispering, and she tries to scream in her head not to hear what she’s saying.

Lauren enters her bedroom precisely thirty seconds after her. “Is everything okay, mum?” she asks and walks slowly towards the bed. Victoria lies on her side and imagines a dark room with no air in it. She would be struggling, slowly dying but it would still mean more than this. Having Bond in her life slowed down the process, he was a welcome distraction but without him, life was catching up on her and she was starting to feel like she had nothing to live for, nothing to look forward to. Everything was pointless because she wasn’t needed anymore. Lauren didn’t need her, Alice didn’t need her either, no one did and all those years she had lost will never bring the satisfaction she expected.

The darkness creeps around her, slowly, only when Lauren touches her shoulder it disappears but just for a moment, she knows.

“Mum?” she whispers now and Victoria blinks and turns towards her voice.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, just a headache.” It’s difficult to speak more; she’s afraid what she can tell. Victoria feels vulnerable, more vulnerable than with a gun trained at her head and this time, there is no one to save her.

Lauren only looks more worried, like she understands that whatever is happening to her, it’s something that she has no power over. “Do you want me to call someone?” when she asks, she means precisely one person.

They haven’t spoken of James since the birthday party and Victoria understood that Lauren was wary to ask questions that had anything to do with her past. She waited all those years for her mother to tell her, to uncover all the secrets so they can be a real family. And Victoria feels incredibly thankful for that, forces herself up and hugs her daughter tightly.

“Everything is okay, I promise. I just need time,” she says into her hair and feels herself relaxing when Lauren caresses her back. She used to do the same when she was just a little girl. “I love you Lo.” She feels overwhelmed for a while, overwhelmed by everything she feels for her daughter.

“Love you too mum,” Lauren whispers back. And for a moment hope settles back, the darkness still lurks and Victoria knows there’s one chapter that needs to be closed before she could heal herself completely.

.

She leaves him a message. She doesn’t trust herself to speak to him yet, it might take him weeks, maybe months before he finds it and she can be prepared. But she knows what she needs to say already. A simple thank you, for everything, for trusting her when many people didn’t, for saving her life, for needing her when she needed exactly that and there’s a lovely speech prepared in her head.

He calls next day. “There’s a small exhibition at the Hyde Park, we could have coffee there,” Bond breathes into the phone and she hears hope in his voice. It makes her smile, just a little. But there’s edge to it, the same one she feels.

She agrees, drives herself there. It’s a lovely early summer day but the park isn’t crowded yet, people are still at work or in school, there’re always the ever-present tourists but no one pays her any attention as she walks towards a man sitting on a lone bench. Bond notices her immediately and she feels his eyes on her all the way up to him, and she realizes he isn’t even trying to hide his gaze.

He stands up when she approaches him, two cups already in his hands. “Thank you,” she says taking one, sits down next to him and silence washes over them. It isn’t exactly uncomfortable, it feels necessary. But Bond doesn’t seem to feel it this way for long; he’s tapping his foot on the pavement in mere minutes after they sat down and she imagines he has probably more to say than she does.

She isn’t exactly wrong.

“I’m sorry for leaving so suddenly last time.” When he speaks first Victoria isn’t surprised. “And I’m sorry for not calling and I’m sorry that I disappointed you and I’m sorry...” He only stops when she reaches out and touches his hand, his look is full of surprise and hope, and she isn’t sure what he’s hoping for.

“It wasn’t just your fault, I behaved out of ordinary and I apologize for that.” The rest of the speech gets stuck in her throat and so she ends up staring at the cup. He does the same and they both know more needs to be said but how do you start when you have no idea what the other wants to hear? How do you phrase it right?

It’s a limbo, a state where everything you say means nothing, just empty phrases, hidden feelings and Victoria closes her eyes and tries to force herself out. But it’s difficult because she herself doesn’t know what she wants from James Bond, before she thought she wanted companionship, someone from her previous life reminding her it wasn’t just a dream, but does she still want the same?

Someone answers yes in her head and when she turns towards him, she finds him staring. It’s so utterly ridiculous it makes her laugh. He laughs with her.

“Do you find my state laughable?” he asks in between and she somehow ends up holding onto his arm.

“No.” Suddenly she’s serious. “I never found you laughable, capable and reputable, yes. I never doubted you. It might seem that way on occasions but I was never afraid to put matters in your hands, I might not have agreed with your methods but I knew that in the end you’d do the right thing, and I was never wrong.” She didn’t plan on telling him this either but she felt he wanted, not needed to hear it.

She always sensed vulnerability about him, a need to be praised, to be respected, to belong. She doesn’t need to be a psychologist to understand it but not many people tried to see behind the cold exterior, she knows, people made the same mistake with her.

If she’s right, he looks touched. “Thank you,” he rasps out, touches her hand still resting on his arm. “I always felt the same about you and I still do.” And if she thinks he’s trying to say something else too, she ignores the thought. She knows she isn’t ready for that yet.

.

It feels like they patched a crack on the wall with a tape. It can seem solid but fall off without any warning and they both know it, take careful steps forward and from time to time, one backwards. They talk about the service, remember sad times, and sometimes they together visit the cemetery without names on the gravestones.

“I used to cry every time I lost an agent but after few years, it just felt like a part of the job. Like I did it because it was expected and not because I felt it, they wanted me to be ruthless and cold, and it was much easier to obey,” she speaks as they walk side by side on the street.

Sometimes too close and sometimes too far, they’re looking for the right middle. “You did what you had to do to survive, if you showed emotion they would have replaced you with a faceless bureaucrat in a heartbeat,” he speaks like he understands and Victoria watches his face, he understands and to this moment he doesn't know he does. Their lives are intertwining more and more, they’re beginning to see the things the same way the other one does. She feels on the edge of a cliff.

They stop at a crossing, mixing with other people and they could be mother and son, aunt and nephew, and for a change Victoria enjoys blending somewhere else than just in the shadows. “You didn’t think about me this way before, did you?” she asks because she knows the answer and wants him to give her the same kind of honesty.

He looks sheepishly at her and then the green man lights up and they’re walking. “I called you a bitch, didn't I?” he notes with a smirk and she knows she got what she deserves. Marvels that they could be open, that they can really talk and maybe that’s one of the good things coming out of her retirement, and maybe she can finally see it.

“Noted,” she answers with a smile. He reaches the car first, opens the passenger door for her and then they’re driving back to her house talking about takeaway and how to spend the evening. They might put on the telly and then talk ignoring whatever they decided to put on or they could actually watch it. And the more Victoria thinks about him and her, the more she realizes he’s the first real friend she had.

Friendship with fellow agents was always dangerous, it could develop into something else, and there was always envy, and the possibility of one of them dying in the arms of the other. She made that mistake in the past, more than once, and now she hopes that whenever James Bond decides to die she won’t be anywhere close to witness it.

The door is open when they return to her house and a quick look passes between them but before he could decide what to use as a weapon Victoria remembers that she gave Lauren her key. Criminals usually don’t wear pink Adidas shoes either. “Lauren, Alice,” she calls only to have her granddaughter’s head poke out of the kitchen.

Her daughter follows closely after and when she sees her surprised face she realizes that Bond is still behind her.

“Mum, I’m sorry; I didn’t know you’d have company. We brought some food and movies, and I probably should’ve called.” She’s biting her lip and Victoria isn’t sure how ready she is to mix her two lives together. Bond seems to leave the situation to her because he’s completely still behind her, she doesn’t even hear him breathing.

“That’s okay, sweetheart.” She gets the easier words out and then takes a deep breath, then two and turns to him briefly. There’s a nod only she can see but it’s careful, he’s giving her the decision. “Lauren, this is James. James, my daughter Lauren and granddaughter Alice,” and just like that her lives merge. It’s a feeling unlike any other, but she knows more could be coming soon and she waits for it.

“I’m pleased to meet you both.” Bond moves past her and shakes Lauren’s hand, waves to Alice who comes out behind her mother with a smirk that looks too much like her grandmother’s. “I think I should leave you, family time is important,” he says with a smile and Victoria can see it doesn’t work on her daughter or granddaughter; they’re both looking at him suspiciously, but they don’t seem to be as shocked as she thought they might be. Both obviously thought that her friend James was much closer to her age, but neither of them lets it show. Maybe they expected it with all those secrets she kept from them.

“No, stay, we have enough food, besides we’re the ones who came without calling first. You should stay. If anyone should be leaving it’s us.” Victoria can see her daughter means it; she’s giving her a way out of this situation. They know there’re still parts of her she still isn’t ready to share but life has a funny way of showing us things we didn’t even know we needed.

“Nonsense, nobody’s leaving. Now show me what exactly you brought with you and James? Would you make us some tea?” He nods, leads the way into the kitchen and all three of them follow. And then they’re talking, preparing plates and nobody asks any difficult questions. Most of the things are never planned, they come, surprise us, show us how strong we can be, and how easy is sometimes to handle the most difficult situations.

.

“He seems nice,” Lauren remarks over cup of tea. It’s not in a teasing or prying way but Victoria still smiles into her cup because it took her more than an hour to finally mention him. Last night was surprisingly relaxing and even though they talked about anything other than their past, James engaged in conversations with both Lauren and Alice. He was remarkably natural and Victoria realized she was still thinking about him as the ruthless murderer MI6 paid him to be.

“Mmm,” she sighs not sure where this conversation is heading. Yesterday only proved to her that she needs to let Lauren come to the questions her own way, although meeting James Bond was a much bigger leap she expected. She won’t take it back, but she won’t let her provoke her to answers she isn’t ready to give either.

“So, how long have you known him?” she asks a little too quickly and continues sipping her tea like it was someone else who just asked the question. It’s so unlike her that Victoria knows that it's not just her life is slowly changing, Lauren’s is too, just because her mother is finally really talking to her.

She thinks about it, counts years in her head, but Lauren doesn’t want a number. Her daughter wants to know why that man knows more of her secrets, why him, and maybe she has an answer now. But there’re far too many things to take into consideration before the finality sinks in. It’s difficult to think about her life this way because now it isn’t about decisions and orders and death, it’s all about her, and running away doesn’t work anymore. She wishes it would.

She smiles at her daughter then, takes one of her hands into hers. “A little too long, sweetheart,” Victoria answers and watches her face, her eyes and to her delight, she sees understanding and knows, that Lauren heard everything she had wanted to say. Thank you’s are dancing at the end of her tongue and she lets them.

Bond comes after Lauren leaves; it’s not deliberate, at least not to her knowledge. “I’m leaving tomorrow,” he says after he hangs his coat behind her door. She’s not sure what kind of reaction he expects so she offers him a drink. She has one too, tries to drown every question she would like to ask, but he’s not there to get debriefed and she gladly stops analysing why he keeps coming back.

“Lauren asked about you,” she says instead and watches a grin spread along his mouth. Something hurts close to her heart but she ignores it, she’s beyond that now.

“She’s you,” he says. “Intelligent and warm and always knows when to ask the right questions.” His voice is warm too, like he’s delighted to know all this, like by knowing Lauren, he knows her better now too. He probably does because watching her daughter’s life tells her a story of how her own might have gone if she said “no” instead of “yes”. And it wouldn’t have been a bad life and she might have been a completely different person now, but regret is unprofessional and she believes in it despite everything.

“Yes, she is.” She smiles to herself and then reaches towards the phone before sentimentality will change this evening in something unexpected. She orders food, makes him prepare plates and tea, and it’s like any other evening in the last few months and Victoria wonders if she’s the only one feeling the change. When he says goodbye she has her answer.

.

She knew writing was difficult, she wrote more reports she would ever be able to reflect on. Dozens per day, thousands in a month, and it was about how her job was useful and how her agents were risking their lives for bureaucrats sitting in leather chairs, and it was never enough. She’s able to swallow the bitterness now but writing it down brings all those memories back.

It makes her remember Alfred and her fingers shake when she types down his name. It’s not his real name, of course, but one she assigned to him because she remembers seeing his mother at the funeral, her knees buckling, her posture crumbling, and she was then a nameless face in the crowd because she wasn’t really supposed to be there. She wasn’t supposed to love him either.

“You got lost?” he had asked her the first time they met. It was in the training and she knew who he was and he knew who she was too. They were recruited the same day, on the same grounds but not together because a boy from a wealthy family wouldn’t talk to a girl who cuts her hair short and wears grey sweaters to disappear.

But they decided they should work together, that they fitted, and Victoria had hated them for that decision, hated how very small he made her feel in those first days. Then they had nearly died and the story continued very differently.

She stops typing, makes herself stand and reach for the photo album. There aren’t any pictures of Alfred in them, she burnt them, every single one, when there was a chance someone might find out about them, about stolen kisses and a baby that could never be born. She looks at the picture of her husband instead, she’s there sitting next to him and she remembers how long it had taken her to fall in love.

She’s still sitting behind her desk with the open photo album when the doorbell rings. She expects Clara and Isabella, they wanted to stop by to discuss the holidays, so she quickly puts it down and goes to the door.

“Grandma has flu and mum stayed with her. She told me to bring you these.” Alice doesn’t waste the time with greeting and just pushes the catalogues into her hands. There’s forwardness about her that Victoria always found very endearing, Alice knows how to play a good girl but she prefers not to, and they all know she could do anything she wants to.

“Thank you, Alice. Want to join me for tea?” she asks and steps away, with everything that's happening and the secrets slowly coming to the surface, Victoria didn’t really have time to talk with her about it. She could imagine her figuring out a few things on her own but if there was any confusion, she felt better clearing it away without Lauren listening to that conversation.

“Maybe a sherry?” Alice winks at her as she walks past into the living room.

“Maybe in about 5 years, missy. Now sit down and think about what I should tell your mum and grandmother about the whole holiday business,” she tells her, and walks straight to the kitchen. Their whole family were proper Brits and tea got consumed on daily basis, it was lovely to know her granddaughter inherited it as well.

When she comes back into the living room, Alice isn’t anywhere in sight. Shuffling noises from the library help her to locate her pretty quickly. She’s looking through the album when she enters. “Sorry, I can never resist a closed door,” she notes with a grin and comes closer with the book still in her hands.

“Is this grandfather?” she asks showing her the picture Victoria had looked at earlier.

She nods and Alice continues to look through it, smiling at the pictures of her mother as a baby. “How did you meet?” The last picture she looks at is their wedding photo, which probably evokes the question.

“In a hospital naturally, I needed to remove some stitches and he invited me for a coffee afterwards,” she says with a smile, much darker memories are emerging as well. It was just weeks after Alfred had died in her arms and going out with another man wasn’t on her mind at all.

“I see, so granddad was a smooth talker,” Alice notes with a smile. “It seems it worked.”

“Yes, you coming? The tea is getting cold.” She wasn’t ready for her memories to overwhelm her like this but today she had already thought about Alfred, maybe connected his fate with Bond’s in her head, and now she wants to forget that it ever occurred to her. Even being sentimental means you can get hurt, death hurts the people you leave behind, it hurts even more when you finally realize what they mean to you.

Alice follows her, closes the door and she realizes she hopes that by that she’s closing this particular topic as well. She wonders if it’s because Bond is on mission or did the memories really take such a toll on her? Victoria managed to evade them for such a long time, pretended they never happened and swore herself to never love anyone one who might die in her arms. Reginald didn’t, it was a lonely hospital bed, and she wasn’t anywhere near when he took his last breath. Guilt had found her then but secretly, she was glad.

It takes her two minutes and two sips to be back at the questioning. “What are you writing at your computer? I saw an open document.” Alice continues to sip her tea pretending that she isn’t all that interested, but Victoria had long ago learnt to read body language and it seems that her granddaughter had been collecting questions for quite a long time. She can’t really blame her.

“I’m writing my memoirs or trying to; it’s too bloody difficult,” she answers because avoiding it won’t be the best course of action, Alice is curious, much more than her mother and Victoria can’t help but admire it. She isn’t nosy, nor is she going to pass it along. She just wants to know.

Her eyes go wide and her lips move already but the question is stuck somewhere between propriety and Victoria’s willingness to answer. It takes only seconds and Alice asks with straightness that makes her grandmother even more proud, maybe she should rethink the possibility of her future.

“So you really were a spy?” It sounds like a question and if it would be written down one day, a question mark would be at the end, but it’s a statement and she doesn’t feel the need to nod because Alice almost drops her cup when no response comes back at her. “That Bond is one too, isn’t he? Is he keeping you safe?”

“No, he’s here for completely other reasons,” she says with a smile and only then realizes that she's guided the conversation into waters that aren’t exactly safer.

“And those are?” Alice asks and shuffles closer on the couch. She has a devilish glint in her eye and Victoria knows she should end this conversation right now, because that’s a question she only allowed herself to speculate about. She isn’t ready to let go of reasons why it would be a bad idea, whatever “it” might be and yes, she touched his face and he held her hand, and it could mean absolutely nothing.

But she’s a pragmatic woman too, emotions brought her grief so she ignored them, and suddenly the answer looks clear. He kept coming back because he wanted to, he gave her space when it became apparent she wasn't ready to analyse the possibility of their relationship changing. He accepted her, understood her, and wanted her family to know about him. And there were pros and cons and a whole list of reasons, but she won’t allow it to confuse her.

“Because I think, he wants to,” the pragmatic part of her answers and even though it might not be true, somehow she knows it is.

.

She doesn’t hear him knocking. He always knocks even though she has a doorbell. It’s more personal, only people who aren’t allowed inside use the bell. It’s a stupid logic but she understands. But when she isn’t downstairs, she doesn’t hear him.

So when she turns around and sees him leaning on her bedroom doorframe, she almost has a heart attack. “Sorry, I knocked,” he says apologetically. She sends him a glare.

“Next time try to sneak upon me a little more loudly, will you?” She continues to pack, only two more shirts, and then she closes the suitcase and faces him. He looks injured, there aren’t many bruises on his face but his whole posture screams pain, and she wants to ask about it but she doesn’t, not now.

Bond notices the suitcase. “Sorry, travelling somewhere?”

“French Coast, Lauren mentioned it last time you met, remember?” Lauren told her to invite him too, somewhere between her talk with Alice and now, and she thought she might have underestimated her granddaughter. It feels wrong though and she realized she underestimated her daughter instead. Both of them learnt how to read her, how to know which words she really means and what really is important. They probably knew it sooner than she did.

“Yes, I think,” he says and looks away. He looks like he might be sulking and she walks up to him and motions to the bag he’s holding in his hand. “Oh, yes, brought some dinner.”

“That could save you. Maybe we could sit down in the living room and have some telly on?” she suggests and Bonds nods already turning around and walking. She walks behind him watching his slow steps, he winces when he starts to climb down the stairs.

She can’t it help now. “What happened?” He stops and looks at her.

“Just a little run in with an Audi A4,” he’s grinning but she can see beyond that and just shakes her head. She doesn’t feel like mothering him, she doesn’t have the right and it’s too soon to express her worry. Besides he knows she worries, she has written it on her face, every single line is a near death experience. There aren’t all his, there’re far too many for that.

Sometimes she likes to think they’re her sins, the guilt she collected through the years, it just needed a way to show itself to the world. Yes, it’s age too but there are lines much deeper than those on her face which hurt much more than those that people could see.

They sit down, nibble on the food and enjoy the peace that wasn’t allowed to her for so many years. But she knows that eventually this will change too and maybe she could make the change now, to tell him that fear is both known and unknown to her and together they could figure it out. And she’s preparing words, phrases, how to tell all those things right.

Bond falls asleep before she has a chance to and she feels frustrated, wired, there’s unknown energy going through her veins and she needs to let it out, to tell him. But he’s sleeping so peacefully, his chest rising and falling in slow rhythm, and eventually she gives up and tidies up the rest of the food. Irritation is making her move and she ends up cleaning the kitchen, putting cups from one cupboard into other, and it’s all unnecessary but she needs the activity, needs to think about other things because she feels she might otherwise go crazy.

It takes her another 30 minutes to go back to the living room, he’s still sleeping peacefully but as soon as she covers him with a blanket he begins to trash around. His eyes open a little too quickly and he looks disoriented. “I didn’t want to wake you up. You can take the guest room if you want.” She motions up the stairs but he shakes his head.

“No, sorry, I didn’t plan on falling asleep,” he says and his breaths are getting heavier, it must hurt him. She remembers the pain, remembers having broken ribs and punctured lungs, and how it was difficult to take a breath. And nightmares making your eyes snap open in the middle of the night, the light was always gone and sometimes she was afraid she’d gone blind from the terror. He looks like he knows the same feeling too.

“Take a deep breath.” She keeps her voice down, tries to sound warm and calming. She rounds the couch and sits down next to him. “Slowly. Slowly,” she repeats it over and over. He’s looking straight at her and there’s something unreadable in his eyes, something like wonder and she understands. Only Alfred had known how to make her relax after a nightmare and after his death, there was no one.

His breathing slowly comes back to normal and when he puts his hands on his thighs, they’re not shaking. She takes it as a good sign.

“Better?” she asks carefully and he nods, manages a small smile and it warms her heart. She helped him, like Alfred used to help her. Maybe there really is a chance for her, them. And then she remembers the danger and worry and reaches out, slowly lifts up his shirt and uncovers ugly purple bruises.

He sucks in a breath and she looks up, looking for a sign to stop, but Bond doesn’t give her one and she touches his stomach with the ends of her fingers, trails along the biggest bruise, feels the hot swollen flesh, and imagines all the worry that will torment her daily. Is it worth it? And then she remembers how she didn’t used to worry because it was her life on the line too and it still might be, she isn’t young anymore, her heart might stop any moment, some old enemy might come back and kill her. Regret is unprofessional, she had said to Silva, but it's better not to have any.

Her hand is still resting on his stomach and she makes her decision and looks up, and he somehow knows. Maybe she wore her secrets on her face all the time and maybe only he knows them without her telling him. His hands finds her face and although they're usually rough, they feel soft, James tugs slowly and she follows, feels the muscles in his stomach flex and raises herself on her knees so he doesn’t have to bend.

The kiss starts from a weird angle and they need to move around to find the right position but the waiting makes it sweeter. And then she’s sitting on his thighs taking care not to lean on his stomach, and he’s holding her by her hips and their kisses are getting more heated. She needs too much willpower to stop but he’s hurt and needs to get better so they have time to analyse what’s happening.

“We need to stop,” Victoria whispers, her lips just a millimetre away from his.

“No,” he mumbles and pulls her back and she lets him because she'd forgotten how good it feel to let someone kiss you, to let them show you everything by the touch of their lips, slow means sensual, quick means want and passion, and she knows she wants all that but not now. She wants him whole.

“Yes,” she says and tears herself away from him. “You need to get better first. Now let me put you to bed.”

She stretches her hand to him and he takes it. There’s a new kind of grin on his face she never saw him wear before, but has a feeling she might see it much more in the future. She tugs him up the stairs, he goes willingly but she has a feeling she could have trouble persuading him that he needs to sleep in the guest room, at least tonight.

.

“Good morning, Victoria,” Isabella says cheerfully as she sits down across from her.  She smiles as a greeting and continues to sip her morning coffee. The sun is already wonderfully warming up her skin and she’s enjoying herself. It’s the first real vacation she's had in decades and at first she was afraid she'd be bored most of the time. Well, she could imagine some more excitement but the days aren’t as dull as she'd expected, and especially after last night she expects few things to change.

Lauren and Alice join them shortly afterwards. “How are you today?” she asks her mother with a glint in her eye and Victoria just continues to smile. Isabella looks suspiciously between them.

“Did something happen I don’t know about?” Instead of an answer, both Lauren and Alice look somewhere over Victoria’s shoulder. She doesn’t turn around, just continues to enjoy her coffee and waits. She has no trouble finding out when he approaches their table. If not by the look on Isabella’s face, it’s by the shadow he casts over them.

Only then she turns. “Did you have a good swim?” she asks with a smile and ignores everyone else around her. Bond finally looks a little healthier. She had pulled some strings to get him the best care and now there weren’t many remnants of the ugly purple bruises, just a very toned chest that went forever and ended in tiny black swimsuit. He looked gorgeous, and she could hear her daughter’s mother-in-law choking on her tea.

“Very relaxing,” he answers with a smile and nods to the company present before he lowers himself and kisses her passionately on the mouth. It feels like a reminder of last night when he had knocked on her hotel room door with a suitcase in his hand. She wouldn’t let him touch her before she was sure his ribs were properly healed and he flew over as soon as she agreed after consulting his physician. It was frustrating for both of them but the night seemed to make it all disappear.

Now the kiss feels like a beginning of something else and she slowly pushes him away. “You should get dressed; I’ll get you some breakfast in the meantime.” It feels strangely comfortable to have him here, to be able to touch him. She’s still afraid of too many things but she always knew how to take risks too.

“Yes, ma’am,” he answers, almost salutes, and a couple of snickers come from the other side of the table. Victoria glares their way but it’s only short-lived, the two innocent faces and one still shocked make her laugh instead.

“Don’t forget you’re taking me water-boarding later,” Alice pipes up looking straight at Bond.

“Yes, ma’am,” he repeats before disappearing with a big grin into the lobby.

“Water-boarding? Did we talk about this?” Lauren asks her daughter with a frown on her face, and while Alice uses her powers of manipulation and Lauren tries the same with parenting, Victoria finally faces Isabella.

“You know, you could’ve warned me,” Isabella says with a small smile. “Such a picture is dangerous for an older lady as me.”

Victoria just shrugs her shoulder and then they both burst into laughter, Alice soon joins them and Lauren just looks confused. The word “water-boarding” falls into the conversation a few more times, but she eventually gives up and then Bond comes back and promises many other things as well. Only later does she warn him that he’s a part of the family now, only later does he admit he’s glad about that.