"Life is, in fact, a battle. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting,
but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant;
wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places,
people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy.
But the world as it stands is no narrow illusion, no phantasm,
no evil dream of the night; we wake up to it, forever and ever;
and we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it."

-Henry James

For Vesper Lynd, dying was like being reborn. Only this was not the rebirth she'd experienced with James Bond, in those fevered, bright, heavenly days they'd had together, learning to love again and basking in the love he'd professed for her. No, this was foggy and heavy, with voices around her, cutting in and out, words she heard but could not understand. She felt that a great weight was on top of her, holding her back, and every movement she made was fighting against it.

Consciousness waxed and waned but was never completely present. She felt like she was underwater, at the bottom of an ocean, and every attempt to pull herself up was met with an equal and opposite force. Hands gripped at her, pulling her back to the bottom, to the dark, comfortable depths. Then she would get some strength back, she would fight and swim and kick at whatever pulled her down and she would almost break the surface before falling down again.

Finally, the forces holding her down let go, she kicked with all her might and surfaced, the fog cleared, and she woke with a start in a London hospital. She felt dreadful. Her lungs burned, her chest was bruised and sore. IVs and oxygen tubes ran over and from her body. Memory failed her as she woke, but she struggled to make sense of the situation. Small things came back; a yacht, Venice, and with an intensity that made her breath hitch and her pulse quicken, James Bond's face, all blue eyes and sandy hair, kissing her, his arms around her waist.

Breathing heavily as inexplicable guilt rushed over her at his memory, she looked around the room, pushing back the panic, hoping for an answer to her present condition. Her eyes struggled to focus, but she spotted the older woman at once, sitting in a chair at her left side, staring impassively back at her.

She'd never seen the woman's face before, but she recognized the Head of MI6 at once. She was just as James had described her; severe in appearance, stern and unyielding, but capable of acts of sympathy despite herself. And indeed, she gave Vesper such a pitying, regretful look that the younger woman felt dread creep over her at once. Then M's face became the practiced mask of austerity once again.

"You're awake," she stated, leaning slightly forward in her chair. "We weren't sure you'd pull through."

Vesper looked back down at her body and tried very hard to remember, but it was so fleeting and ephemeral. She had been here for quite some time, and had clearly survived some set of dire circumstances. Vesper found herself at a loss for words, confusion and dread and that sickening, nagging guilt still flooding over her. She turned to look at the older woman again, and she saw that her face must have betrayed her bewilderment, as sympathy once again flashed briefly over M's features.

"Do you remember what brought you here?" M asked softly, and Vesper could only shake her head. M nodded, turning for a second to look out the window next to her. She looked back at Vesper momentarily, with the air of one used to giving bad news.

"You nearly drowned," M said, and a flash of memory hit Vesper, the impossibly cold water of Venice, fighting for breath. "You were brought to the hospital, having just been resuscitated in the ambulance. There was some brain trauma; you'd been without oxygen for several minutes by the time they got to you. They weren't sure you'd regain consciousness. Cerebral hypoxia, I believe. It was touch and go for a few days, but you seemed to stabilize. Then the fever started. You developed pneumonia from the water you'd inhaled." She paused, looking into Vesper's wide eyes, "You nearly died. The bacterial strain was resistant, and they gave you several courses of antibiotics before you showed some improvement. You've been here for nearly three weeks."

Vesper looked away. Three weeks. And yet that guilt still tore at her, though its cause still remained elusive to her. She cleared her throat painfully and turned back to the older woman, again regarding Vesper coolly. She attempted to speak, finding her throat raw and her voiced atrophied from disuse, but cleared her throat again, pushing back the urge to cough.

"James?" was all she could croak out, and M seemed to be expecting it, as her flint eyes strayed from Vesper's face for a quick second before looking back at her again.

"We know they kidnapped Yusef," and at her words, a flash of a man's face came back to her, a man dark as James was light, a man she loved, was so sure she loved, until James waltzed in and—she was pulled from her thoughts as she realized M was speaking again. "— blackmailed you, and forced you to give them the money."

M's words sunk in, each stabbing the knife of guilt further into her heart, as in images and emotions the final days of her former life came back to her: the man with the eye patch, her desperate attempts to enjoy James, to revel in him so completely, in the likely probability she'd be summoned to her death.

And she had been, or would've been, and with startling clarity she remembered the men, and James's attempts to save her, and that crushing, clawing guilt when she saw his face, then underwater in the cage. After that was darkness, a darkness that she felt right now and had to look away from the woman she'd betrayed.

"Bond believes you're dead," M said matter-of-factly, and Vesper could only nod. "He flagged down an ambulance; they arrived seconds after the building collapsed and they took you. There was no room for him. He called me as soon as he could, and I called the hospital. They told me you'd been resuscitated, and I instructed them in no uncertain terms to not let him into your room and to inform him you were dead. He put up a fight, but by the time we arrived, he'd quieted down. I assured him of your death, and under the guise of transferring your body back to London for the funeral, we airlifted you here."

Vesper closed her eyes as sadness washed over her, filling her so completely it she could feel it pressing down on her. Her bones ached and her heart felt that it might break. She turned back to M, unable even to feel anger at what the woman had done.

"I discovered your alliance before he did and I knew you would be useful in helping us infiltrate their organization. I also knew that if he had any hope you were alive, he would find you, and I needed him to track down the people behind the blackmail. You may find me heartless, Miss Lynd, and I'm sorry, but you committed treason, and I needed Bond back."

Vesper could not look at M, as the woman's words had driven the final dagger of guilt into her heart. She felt broken now, wounded so painfully by the realization of what she'd done. A great weight sat on her chest.

"Now," M continued, and Vesper struggled to listen, "I had not anticipated that your illness would develop or that you would be unconscious for so long, and in that time we have managed to infiltrate this organization and find out a great deal more than I'm sure you can tell us. You may have outlived your usefulness, but that does not mean that you may not be useful again some time in the future. As well, it's possible you would be in danger from the organization if they knew you were alive. So I've set up a flat for you, and you'll be given a modest stipend until such time you feel able to work again." M shifted, her confident air slipping away.

"Now," she began again, softer this time, "Vesper Lynd is legally dead. I supervised the signing of your death certificate myself. But we've gotten you new papers, birth certificate, passport, etcetera. You'll be a citizen, with all the benefits that offers, but you may not travel out of country, and you may not contact James Bond. If the improbable happens and you cross paths, you will look the other way. If he contacts you, you will deny your former identity and you will cease communications immediately. Understood?"

Vesper nodded weakly.

"Good," M replied, standing up, "the doctors have assured me you can be discharged in the next few days." M bent to pick up a manila envelope that had been leaning against the chair leg. "This is your new identity. A car will be waiting to escort you to your new home as soon as you're discharged. I'll be in touch."

And with that, she placed the envelope on the bedside table and exited the room.

Silence filled the room and pushed down on Vesper as the sound of M's heels faded down the hall. She could hear the doctors and nurses milling about outside, and the quiet hum of the traffic on the street below. She looked down at her body, withered, bruised and alien to her beneath the thin gown.

Her eyes caught sight of a strange name on the paper bracelet encircling her wrist and with a great effort she lifted her arm and read. Where normally her name would be on the little band, that name that she had hated for so long, that name that James Bond had helped her love again, was another, this one unfamiliar as any other.

Curious now, her pulse quickening, she turned and picked up the envelope. It was sealed and her weak fingers struggled to open it, pulling at the flap ineffectually before finally tearing it open. She reached in and pulled out the familiar little book, opening it to see her own face staring back at her beneath the holographic security film. And next to her picture, the same name, her new one, above the attestation that she was, in fact, a British citizen, and her new birthdate.

It said, "WRIGHT, LAURA."