Had an idea. Wrote it.
He had been to many beautiful places in his career – such was the nature of work in the ever-changing world. Italy, however, might have been the most glorious, even despite his decidedly mixed feelings about the country.
He hadn't been able to enjoy the splendor of Lake Como on his first trip. His second was shaping up to be considerably more enjoyable.
If one can appreciate irony, he mused, not for the first time. He stood on a dock that jutted out into the placid waters, a bag of fresh produce in his hand as he admired the view.
The classic, rectangular buildings indicative of classical Italian design were a miasma of reds, yellows, and oranges that couldn't help but jump out of the forest they had been carved from. Ivy covered many a wall, nature's encroachment on humanity's never ending expansion. Villas that only seemed to get bigger the more he looked peppered the rolling hills that surrounded the lake. Rolling hills that steadily grew into the jagged mountains that shielded this paradise from the rest of the world.
He turned his eyes away from the foothills of the Alps to the water in front of him, admiring a small – by this part of the world's standards – motorboat that was approaching the dock. The craft cut a bloody wake through the still water as it passed him by, the laughter of a young couple drifting to his ears. He felt his lips turn upward the slightest bit at the sound, surprised in spite of himself at the reaction.
As much as his former superiors might have begged to differ, he had always been a self-aware man; the ability to separate himself from his objective had made him the best at what he did. Half monk, half hitman, he thought with the distant fondness that simpler times always evoked. Not even a year previous, the couple's happiness would have left him with nothing but bitterness. Now, though…
"Guess you can teach an old dog new tricks, after all," he murmured.
With one last glance at the lake bathing in the afternoon sun, he turned on his heel. Easy steps carried him across the smooth, concrete dock – the original wood long since replaced – the studded bottoms of his drivers not making a sound. He hooked the long strap of his grocery bag over his right shoulder as he approached a pale grey scooter, withholding a wince at the indignity of the blasted machine. His car would've been just fine even – especially – in this part of the world, but practicality and Madeleine had won out in the end.
They were attempting to maintain a low profile, apparently. Though he wasn't sure how her villa in Lake Como of all places could be considered as such, he had learned that there were some arguments he wanted no part of.
And he couldn't claim to not be enjoying himself. The ability to go about his day without the next mission waiting for him around the corner was something he never thought he'd live to experience; not again, certainly.
His second retirement was going far better than the first.
The scooter came to life with a sputtering gasp that settled into a familiar hum moments later, and he was on his way, bobbing and weaving through the afternoon traffic with aplomb. The bustling town gave way to open road minutes later, the colorful structures turning into lush hills and trees. He took the scooter to its limit of speed, savoring the warm, summer air on his face as he rode.
All too soon, he was passing gates that led to waterfront estates, each grander than the last, until he was left sitting in front of a familiar stone wall. Twin pillars twice his height framed elegantly wrought steel, but his eyes were drawn immediately to the motorbike that was propped against the wall. It was a flaming red, with the word Ducati emblazoned upon it in white print.
They weren't expecting visitors.
His mind raced, worry for his wife mingling with decades old training and instincts. His right hand dropped to his waist out of habit, finding nothing but the smooth leather of his belt. He breathed out slowly, calming himself with clinical precision – an assassin would hardly leave evidence of their presence so carelessly in sight.
And if there was an actual threat, being unarmed was hardly a hindrance for him, retired or not.
He entered the code into the keypad and watched the gates swing open soundlessly. The scooter puttered down the pebbled driveway far more loudly than he liked, but there was no second guessing his choice now.
Dismounting by the front of the massive villa he called home for the moment, he left the bag of groceries on the ground and climbed the stone steps silently. The front door opened on oiled hinges, and he slipped inside, blue eyes taking in the undisturbed interior with suspicion.
A flash of white-blonde hair darted in his periphery. "Madeleine," he called. His wife appeared in the doorway that connected the entryway to the kitchen, bare feet padding quietly on the stone floor.
"James!" she cried, rushing forward and throwing her arms around him. She sagged in palpable relief against him. He felt himself relax as he ran a hand through her hair, ever soft as it was. She pulled back and pressed her lips to his, and he could practically taste her worry as it evaporated. "You have a visitor. He said he was an old colleague," she said as she pulled back, before he had a chance to ask.
"You let him in?" he asked.
"If he wanted to kill you, I figured he wouldn't have asked to be let in," Madeleine returned, a wry tilt to her lips.
"It would make for an interesting change. He left his bike outside the gate. How long has he been here?"
"Nearly an hour." James withheld a curse.
"The one day you convince me to leave my phone behind," he said in lieu of a slur. His wife smiled, but offered no apology.
"It is good for you. Where are my vegetables?"
He blinked at the sudden change of topic, then smirked. "By the scooter. Where's our guest?"
"The terrace," she said, making her way out the door. He watched her scamper down the steps for a moment, admiring, before turning and striding down the hall. A frown found its way to his lips as he passed an antiquated suit of armor and various works of renaissance art. Though she would never say it out loud, Madeleine was worried. Which meant his visitor better have a damn good reason for disturbing their peace.
He had given his wife enough to worry about in their brief time together before his retirement. He was doing his bloody best to make it so that she never had to for the rest of her life.
He stepped out onto the terrace and into the afternoon's sunlight once more. A man of above average height faced the water, waiting for him. "That's a nice bike you left out front," James called.
The man turned, and James very nearly started at the sight of the young man facing him. Not a day over twenty-five, he wore a simple blue polo shirt and pale beige pants that hugged his athletic frame, looking ever the part of an independently wealthy young socialite. "I'm glad you like it, especially since you decided to put my car at the bottom of a river," he spoke in a smooth baritone. "Nice of you to finally come home, double-oh-seven."
Close cropped blond hair framed an angular face, and brown eyes that conveyed nothing at all dissected James with hawk-like precision.
"Rider. To what do I owe the pleasure?" he asked, maintaining his outward composure though his mind whirled.
Alex Rider, double-oh-nine, was arguably the best agent the service had ever seen. Arguably because, aside from the one mission that had resulted in James' "death," his record was similarly immaculate. Even in the depths of his mind, however, James knew full well that Rider was as close to a perfect agent as MI6 could've ever dreamed of.
He had been doing it since he was fourteen, after all.
Which begged the question of why was the man standing on his terrace?
Reflexes not having dulled from his year of inaction, he reached out and snatched a plastic, black flash drive from the air. "And this is?" he asked, all condescension.
"What remains of Spectre," Rider said, all business. As always.
"A fact I'm well aware of, Bond, seeing as I'm the one cleaning up the mess you left." And was that actual irritation coloring the ever-stoic man's tone? James would've been impressed with himself if not for the fact that a pissed off Alex Rider was a proposition that should give any sane man pause. "M sent me to deliver this as a warning to keep your wits about you."
James felt his heartrate pick up. He had gotten out, damn it. "Blofeld is in prison," he said.
"And you helped put him there."
"You expect me to believe a network of terrorists and assassins have loyalty to him?" James asked, unbelieving. "That's not the way this works." It hadn't with Quantum, and Greene had been far more approachable than Blofeld had ever let himself be – money and charisma be damned.
"Of course they're not," Rider scoffed, and the condescension dripping from his voice made James want to throttle him. "But you cut off their head. There's no easier way to make a name for yourself in their world than by tearing you down."
He took a breath, calming himself instantly. Peripherally, he heard Madeleine shuffling something in the nearest room, close enough to overhear them. James withheld a smile, remembering in a moment why he had fallen in love in the first place. With the realization, however, came a reminder of their reality, and he wasn't far enough removed from MI6 to not put together a rather obvious puzzle.
Mallory was every bit as shrewd as his predecessor, he knew, memories of Macau surfacing. "Why are you here, Rider?"
Alex Rider was no delivery boy.
Brown eyes surveyed him, every bit as unreadable as he knew his had once been. "We have an opportunity. Your presence here has drawn out the last organized elements of Spectre that we've been working to extinguish for the last year."
"And you're using us as bait," James finished for him bitingly. And wasn't that a rub considering the amount of times he'd done the same? "Unacceptable. We're leaving today."
"You'll do no such thing," Rider returned without missing a beat. "You should know the risks better than most, Bond. You're in a defensible position and they're coming to you. Not the other way around."
"I'm not putting Madeleine in danger. She's been through enough."
The younger man pinched the bridge of his nose in the greatest show of emotion James had ever seen in him. "This is why I argued against telling you at all," he muttered. "M felt your track record warranted transparency, however." Brown eyes snapped to blue and real irritation shone through. "Understand this, double-oh-seven: I cannot force you to stay here. But I also cannot guarantee your safety if you leave. And if you do, all the work we've done to end this organization, all of your wife's suffering, may well amount to nothing."
James shook his head. "Don't bother guilt-tripping me. I know the risks. A moving target is harder to hit than a stationary one." The last time he'd thought he could hold his ground, he'd lost M. And he wasn't nearly as familiar with the villa as he had been with Skyfall.
"The same applies to Spectre, but of course you don't care about that," Rider said tonelessly.
You're damn right. "I care about my wife's safety."
"Your lack of faith in my ability to protect you is, frankly, insulting, Bond."
James barked a laugh, rolling his eyes. "Don't take it personally." I barely trust myself. "They've infiltrated the highest levels of intelligence organizations before. Anyone you bring could easily be compromised."
"And if it was just me?"
Blue eyes narrowed. It made it better – there was little doubt of Rider's loyalties – but the debacle at Skyfall still loomed large. "No. You're good, but I'm not taking those odds." Not again.
"You're damn right," James bit out.
Rider cocked his head to the side, brown eyes considering. "This isn't Blofeld," he said after a moment. "They don't have a personal stake in you the way he did."
"And that makes them less dangerous?"
"To you? Yes. They just want you dead. Nothing more."
"Nothing more elaborate than death, yes. How tame." Despite his tone, it was almost refreshing to not have to contend with a maniac looking to tear down everything he had ever worked for. Death he could deal with. He'd beaten it before.
The younger man opened his mouth to respond but was beaten to it by Madeleine's melodious voice. "Do I get a say in this?" James turned to her, keeping Rider firmly in his vision, to see her leaned casually against the doorway.
She looked immaculate, as always, a pale blue top flowing into loose, white pants that billowed slightly in the afternoon breeze. A frown turned her lips into a slight pout that would look cute on her young face were it not for the condescension dripping from her eyes. Her icy eyes, always so expressive, shifted to James for a moment and they softened slightly. "What have I told you about speaking of me like I am not here, my love?"
James felt his lips turn upward in spite of himself. "What are you thinking?" he asked, not rising to the bait.
She turned to Rider, eyes going cold once more. "I do not appreciate my husband being dangled in front of assassins as a lure," she said, voice clipped. Rider, for his part, was nonplussed. "However…I will not let my life be ruled by fear as it once was."
"Madeleine, please," James appealed. "We can't stay here. Not against this."
A smile managed to break through his wife's steely veneer as she looked at him. "Your concern is always touching, but you are wrong in this, James. If we leave, our lives will become exactly what you left behind."
"Is this really what you want? Living in the shadows? Hunting? Being hunted? Always looking behind you? Always alone?"
But I'm not alone anymore, he thought. He had something to protect now. "We'd be alive."
She stepped forward gracefully, taking his hand in her two. "And it wouldn't be a life worth living. I've lived it just as surely as you have. We deserve better."
James frowned, his instincts to fight warring with his newfound desire to protect at all cost. He turned back to Rider, who was looking at the two with all the dispassion his old boss had preached. "If we stop them here, what guarantees do we have that we'll be safe? For good?"
The younger man gave him a look that conveyed just how stupid that question was – there was no such thing as safe for them – but refrained from a biting retort. "This is the last of them. Most of the organization went dark after Blofeld was taken in, melting back into other mercenary groups that couldn't care less about you. I've been tracking down the last of the organized leaders for the last year. Once they're dealt with…" he spread his hands in a gesture of openness.
"We have the chance to claim our life, James," Madeleine urged from his side. "No more running."
James sighed. He knew how much she wanted that semblance of normalcy. Being the daughter of an assassin carried almost as much weight as being an assassin yourself, but at least he had been in control of his fate. She had always been at the mercy of her father's enemies.
And now she was at the mercy of his.
"What preparations do we need to make?" he asked Rider. Madeleine squeezed his hand.
Double-oh-nine glanced back and forth between the two of them for a moment. "You don't. Simply be on your guard. As I mentioned, you needn't have been told at all."
"Thank you," Madeleine said.
"You're confident, then?" James asked.
Rider nodded. "They won't send a full tac team. Collateral damage in this part of the world would draw attention from people they'd rather not run afoul of right now."
It's also the most exposed we've been in a while. They have to take whatever opportunity they can get, James mused. Their positioning was fortuitous; defensible without the need to withstand an onslaught of mercenaries. Blind luck, he thought with the smallest of smiles that was quickly extinguished.
"You should be on your way then. I'll walk him out," he told his wife as Rider stepped past them. She gave his hand one last squeeze as he pulled away.
The former double-oh strode quickly through his wife's villa, eager for the younger man to leave. "You're thinking of Skyfall," Rider said suddenly as they reached the towering front door.
"What of it?" he asked roughly.
"I read your mission report. You had a full ops team to contend with and managed to make it out with one casualty. There's nothing more you could've done."
"And you're telling me this, why?" He had made his own peace with M's death, but he wasn't about to let the same happen to his wife.
"Because there's nothing for you to worry about. There won't be a team, and M sent me for a reason," Rider told him, stepping outside.
"And why's that?" James drawled, wanting nothing more than to be back with his wife.
"Because I'm better," the younger agent said, a smirk settling on his face. The unspoken "than you" went unsaid, the competition between field agents no stranger to James.
James stepped back as his counterpart turned to walk back up the pebbled driveway, shutting the heavy door without a word. He leaned his forehead against it for a moment, savoring the cool wood against his skin, reflecting, not for the first time, on the choices that had led him to this point.
Just as soon as he began considering them, however, did he hear the soft footfalls of Madeleine approaching him from behind. He turned to find a glass of amber liquid in his face, and fought a smile. "Macallan?"
"Balvenie," she said, smiling slightly.
Portwood. "I knew I loved you," he told her, pulling her to him with one arm and laying a kiss on her forehead. "Are you scared?"
She chuckled lightly against his chest. "I'd be a fool not to be," she whispered. "But I'm not some helpless damsel for you to protect, my love."
"Doesn't mean I won't try," he said, taking a sip of the scotch.
"I'd expect nothing less." She smiled up at him and kissed him gently before pulling away. "That man, what was his name?"
"Alex Rider. He's good."
"He scares me," she said softly. "He's everything I thought you would be. Cold. Unfeeling."
James nodded, used to being unsettled by the prolific agent. He had, after all, run missions with Ian Rider back before he had made double-oh status.
"He's so young," Madeleine was saying. "How can one so young be like that?" she asked him, aghast.
He shook his head. "You remember our conversation on the train from Tangier?" She nodded, for how could she not? "You said we always have a choice."
James turned to the window that overlooked the driveway in time to see a brief flash of red as the Ducati raced away into the hills.
So I haven't read the most recent Alex Rider books, so no idea if my characterization of him is accurate or not. Can't say I care. Hope y'all enjoyed.
More from my usual stories coming soon.