shell game (ˈSHel ˌɡām/): a game involving sleight of hand, in which three inverted cups or nutshells are moved about, and contestants must spot which is the one with a pea or other object underneath.
alternatively: a deceptive and evasive action or ploy, especially a political one.
M was dying. She had pressed her bundled-up jacket to the stab wound in her abdomen on reflex alone; it did little good stopping her from bleeding out when what was killing her was a perforated stomach lining. Gut wounds were a slow, miserable way to go, and she had exhausted all of her options besides suffering every bitter moment of it.
At least Silva—Tiago—Silva lay dead at her feet.
The fucking safe house had been compromised from the start, M would bet her last breaths on it. The whole affair had been a fucking disaster, too much panic in the bureaucratic red-tape bound upper echelon of the British government—chickens with their heads cut off, every one. Too much—she coughed sharply on pain caught in her throat and for one hysterical moment thought she might vomit at the shockwaves of agony that sent through her, torn-open gut be damned—too much at stake beyond her own life, head of MI6 set aside entirely.
With so much more than M herself on the line, no one, not even her own damned people, had trusted her to make the right call.
Emotionally compromised, they said
Too personally involved in the case, they claimed.
Fuck her personally involved emotions, she hadn’t had a luxury like that since she stepped into the role of M and shed her own name like a snake’s skin, weakness that it was. Tiago had been a mistake she made early and Silva had been the devil come for his due, but her desire to handle it her way had nothing to do with covering her ass and everything to do with protecting MI6 and her agents.
Not necessarily in that order, but that was a sentiment for Olivia to keep well hidden from view and inappropriate for M to hold at all and if she was going to die in this shithole of a compromised safe house she was going to die as the fucking head of MI6 and not some woman.
Even if, thanks to the powerful concealing glamour on her and the safe house alike, MI6 would not find their precious head until she was already stiff and cold.
Another protection she’d bet her last breaths had been compromised with the start, considering how well it had fucking worked— which was to say not at fucking all for the wrong people and all too well on the right ones.
The right ones, for whom it had been deemed too risky not for M or themselves or anyone actually relevant but for MI6 and England and Queen and Country to be anywhere near the Silva debacle, who nonetheless would have been fucking right for the job because they were her agents, the heart and blood of MI6 even if the politicians had fucking forgotten what that meant—
M was dying and nearly incandescent with rage at the sheer idiocy and ineptitude of the whole situation. She coughed again, curling around her bloodied jacket and moaning against the sensation of being stabbed all over again, truly a gift that kept on giving, and blacked out for a moment.
When M came to, it was with a curiously clear surprise that she was not dead, and not nearly enough surprise at the—she blinked hard a few times—at the raven perched on Silva’s dead face, one talon digging rhythmically into his eye. It looked up when the eye was a bloodied, pulped ruin and cawed loudly, sounding suspiciously like it was laughing.
“Took your bloody sweet time getting here,” Olivia ground out. The bottom of her lungs felt too close, breath barely making it to the end of her words. She glared at the raven and its antics, shooting for unimpressed but landing a bit short. Seeing Silva’s corpse desecrated was a special kind of pleasure.
“You are dying.” The raven stated, hopping off Silva’s ruined face and onto her shin.
Feeling this was a bit too obvious to dignify with a response, M leveled a flat stare at the bird.
It ruffled its feathers, cawing laughter again, callous in its humour—but, as it was not wrong about her inevitable death, it didn’t seem to matter much. Too little, too late for it to be here, after all. She wondered if the glamour hiding her from MI6 had worked on the raven as well, or if it had actually taken its sweet time, lacking her strictly mortal sense of urgency.
“Olivia, olive-branch, I will not save you but I will grant your dying wish, if you have one,” it crooned her name, long fallen out of use and hidden away, dipping its head to rub its beak in her blood, sounding at last familiar and fond and she was smiling despite herself, despite her oncoming death.
“Won’t save me, you old rat-bastard?” M shook her head, moving her hand away from the open wound in her abdomen in silent offering. It was the way of things, after all, and life’s blood was deeply sacred. She had lost a great deal in her life, but not that. Never that. “Can’t, you mean, even you can’t argue with death.”
“You are the last of you line,” the raven sounded a bit odd—nearly apologetic, though Olivia noted that did not stop it from dipping its beak more deeply into her blood and body-turned-offering. There were tiny pinpricks of light like stars in its eyes that seemed to beat along with her own sluggish pulse, growing in intensity as her own faded.
She blinked slowly, not precisely following, not precisely unaware of what it meant, cryptic thing that it was. She had no children, too bound up with first military service and then MI6, with some awfully shady interludes, and no relatives she knew of—orphans really did make the best recruits in her line of work—but had maybe not really thought it through in these terms before. So much of her life had been sacrificed to something greater, she hadn’t considered the older sacrifices that might have taken precedent even while keeping what little of her family tradition she could remember.
“You’re still here,” was what she ended up responding with, not entirely certain what she meant by that, though the raven cawed laughter at her again so it must have understood.
“Even last, even dying, I hold with those who belong to me,” it told her haughtily, beak dripping with blood and held high in the air.
Olivia huffed out a sorry excuse for a laugh, lifting her hand to scratch its feathered chest lightly. “We have that in common,” she said, thinking of MI6 and what was hidden within it.
The raven ruffled its feathers out so that her fingers slipped into the downy underlayer and bit at her knuckles fondly. “Olivia, olive-branch, what do you think belonging to me means? Even last, even dying, you hold with those who belong to you.” It placed unusual weight on those who belong to you and M had already been thinking of her agents scattered throughout the world and about to be left adrift in the wake of her death, anchorless, and now the raven was all but naming them.
Tricky bastard to her end, when she had thought them all past saving as soon as she had been past saving. It was how these things worked, after all, one of the reasons she was here against her will in the first place. M, head of MI6 and hand that held the leash of the deadliest beings in the world, with no heir, no protégé able to do what she had been doing for decades.
Tricky bastard, offering not to save her life but giving her the chance to cash in on an entire bloodline’s divine favour all at once if she could just—focus enough on what it was saying, had been saying this whole time.
Death and rage returned to combine into a single moment of stunning clarity in Olivia’s mind, a star like those that had near taken over the raven’s once-dark eyes. She leaned forward with labored panting, hands white-knuckled against the wall, hissing bloodied breath out between bared teeth.
“Protect my fucking agents.”
When MI6 broke the glamour hiding the safe-turned-slaughterhouse, M was dead, both of Silva’s eyes had been plucked out, and a murder of ravens circled deafeningly overhead, their raucous calls sounding like laughter and accusation both.