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Palimpsest

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I.

"Your first mission," M pressed the manila folder into James' hands, and circled back to his desk. "Is rather less dramatic than the previous one, I'm afraid."

"I find that drama tends to present itself at unexpected times, sir," James opened the folder. Within it was a Polaroid photograph, snapped from a street corner in what looked like Manhattan, its focus a little off-centre, of a tall, pretty young man with a thick head of rich walnut hair, in side profile. James glanced at the name printed neatly on the dossier pinned opposite the photograph, and arched an eyebrow. The name read, simply:

Tinker.

"They recruit them young nowadays."

"It's a brave new world," M lifted a shoulder into a shrug, as he settled down in his chair. "And the CIA's new Tinker is reportedly brilliant. He's also more than qualified for field work - excellent evaluation scores. He landed in Heathrow three hours ago. According to the CIA, he's here on personal business."

"Even members of the Circus are entitled to recreational leave," James ventured, still a little puzzled. The so-called Circus was the CIA's version of the 00 Division, preferring code names rather than number designates, and to James' knowledge, they were just as deadly. "Has he been turned?"

"No, no." M steepled his long fingers together, looking thoughtful. "As far as our people can tell, he's here legitimately on a holiday."

"Then I fail to see why this is 00 business, sir."

"Tinker specialises in cyber warfare, 007. He's reportedly one of the best hackers in the world. Without the intel from his work, I doubt that our friends on the other side of the pond would have had such a running string of successes against Al-Qaeda, for example. Given the recent... problems suffered by MI6, I thought perhaps to exercise due caution."

"The CIA are traditionally our allies," James noted neutrally.

"Traditionally. Tinker's lineage, however, is the problem. His mother is Victoria Winslow."

"Ex-MI6 agent, first woman to acquire 00 status. Wetworks specialist," James recalled, after a moment's thought. "First 00 to retire rather than dying on the field, if before the designated age. Currently residing in America."

"That's what her official file reads. There were... problems," M said delicately, with the expression of a man who wasn't fully enjoying unbridled access to all state secrets, "She had a... love affair with a KGB agent, when she was a 00, during the Cold War. When MI6 found out, they ordered her to shoot him. So she did."

"And?"

"She worked as a 00 for another three months before abruptly leaving for New York, where the CIA have hidden her ever since. We think that in return, she performed the occasional contract for them, here and there."

"Why wasn't a burn notice issued?"

M shrugged. "There were... circumstances that weren't considered by MI6 at the time of the kill order. The CIA negotiated."

James made a brief mental tally of the facts, and concluded, "She was pregnant when she shot the KGB agent?"

"That's what we believe. So perhaps you might understand if I am concerned that Tinker's motives for arriving in London while MI6 is still in relative disarray are rather less innocent than the CIA would have us believe. Find Tinker and discover what his business in London is. Stick with him until he leaves."

This still didn't feel like 00 work to James, but he nodded slowly, his eyes narrowed. Orders from M were orders, even if this particular one probably still thought him too old for the Game, even despite recent evidence. Admittedly, although Silva had been terminated, his last mission had been a technical failure - the previous M hadn't survived it. Maybe he was being punished by being assigned menial work. It wasn't unusual, even with the previous M.

"Don't underestimate him because he's young. He's at least as dangerous as you are," M glanced at his terminal, then added, "Get the full debrief from Moneypenny."

"What are my parameters?" James asked politely, and when M looked at him, with a blink, he added, carefully, "Would there be a problem if Tinker has to be heavily persuaded to leave?"

"Short of conclusive evidence that Tinker has been turned, the CIA would be roundly unhappy if anything happens to him, 007. Naturally, should you find that he is overstepping the boundaries of intergovernmental friendship, then," M made a small, dismissive gesture, "Accidents happen. Even to members of the Circus. London can be a dangerous city for the unsuspecting."

Ah. Now this was more like it. James had never gone up against a member of the Circus before - he had met Bishop once, and was actually even friends with Soldier, also known as Felix Leiter - and he allowed himself a faint, thin smile, his interest finally stirring. "Understood, M."

"Good. Oh, and 007," M added, when James turned to go, "Try to exercise subtlety, where possible. This is London, not some third world country with dubious diplomatic ties. You can't go on a rampage in the middle of Trafalgar Square."

"I will try and restrain myself, sir," James noted dryly, and caught a snort from M as he padded out of the office.

Moneypenny didn't look up when James headed over to her desk, instead noting, briskly, "Tinker has rooms at the Savoy, under the name of Peter Browning. Other than that, we have no further information for you. He's very good at slipping his tails."

"That's good enough." James nodded.

"Sadly, you haven't been designated any special toys from Q-branch for this mission," Moneypenny added, with a wry grin. "M does not want anything exploding in London."

"But that excises all the fun out of a mission," James deadpanned, and Moneypenny's grin widened fractionally.

"MI6 is already under review by the Minister. Try not to get us into any more trouble, all right?"

"If M wanted subtlety, he should have used 004," James noted mildly. 004 was MI6's current and undisputed knifework specialist, after all.

"Deservedly or not," Moneypenny retorted, "You do have the largest reputation. Perhaps M thinks that you can scare this Tinker off without having to lift a finger."

"Perhaps." CIA operatives wouldn't qualify for the Circus if they could be scared easily, but it might explain M's rather odd choice in 00, for dealing with this particular issue. "Or perhaps the boy is really only here to see Buckingham Palace and take a walk through Hyde Park."

"According to the file that we have on him, Tinker doesn't like flying, 007. Whatever it was that brought him here, it has to be interesting."

II.

Tinker's photograph didn't do him any justice whatsoever - in the flesh, the CIA agent was simply beautiful, fey and slender, his eyes a gorgeous smoky green, thick, rich curls framing boyishly delicate cheeks. James wondered briefly why a Polaroid had been used - surely MI6 operatives had to have better equipment than that - even as he settled into a corner of Foxcroft & Ginger, ordering a long black, hidden by the chattering afternoon crowd.

Dressed in a fishtail parka with faux fur trim, wearing a ridiculously large pair of black glasses, hunched over his cappuccino and texting, Tinker could probably pass for a university student, fresh out of class, even though his file placed him in his late twenties. Still, at his age, Tinker was the youngest known member of the Circus, and although he didn't look dangerous in the least, James supposed that knowing how not to look dangerous was a fairly good survival trait, in field work. Personally, James hadn't ever bothered. He had his own specializations, and had never been particularly interested in pretending to be other people save where the situation absolutely called for it. Sometimes, having a reputation for destruction was useful.

The coffee was good - Monmouth - and lulled by the crowd, surrounded by sheep, James felt himself starting to get restless. London was never very good for him during downtime after a week or so, and he'd had three weeks of enforced medical leave after the relative disaster in Scotland. James had chafed at the bit, even showing up at MI6 near the end, just to lurk around the offices and trade jibes with 008, but M had steadfastly ignored him until the three weeks was over.

And now this. James had been hoping to be called to Syria, or someplace warmer, exotic, dusty and dangerous.

A movement in his peripheral vision made him instinctively press his feet flat against the ground, ready to move, then he had to tamp down sharply on his surprise as Tinker said mildly, beside him, "Excuse me, is this seat taken?"

"No." British accent, smooth and clean, straight off the BBC, most likely practiced. Tinker settled down in one of the ridiculous white stools opposite James at the square wooden table and smiled at him prettily enough, though his eyes were cool, calculating.

"Good afternoon, Commander Bond."

So much for subtlety. "Tinker."

"Enjoying the coffee?"

"It's very good." James conceded, raising his cup in a mock toast. "Enjoying London?"

"It's rather colder than I thought."

"Expecting a better reception?"

"Oh, no. I'm rather flattered, actually," Tinker noted, and although his smile softened, turned inviting, his eyes didn't change. Dangerous little thing. James found himself idly calculating how quietly he could draw his Walther from concealed carry, and rejected the idea. Too messy in a public space, and Tinker's elegant hands were clasped over the table, ostensibly unarmed.

"First time in London?"

"You could say that."

"I recommend joining a tour."

"Wouldn't that be so terribly boring for you, Commander?"

"I can live with 'boring'," James noted mildly, wondering what Tinker was getting at. Either the boy was baiting the tiger for fun, or-

"This isn't exactly your usual cup of tea, is it? Babysitting?"

"I'm known to be partial to a cup of tea now and then."

"No, you're not." Tinker carefully removed his glasses, folding them, drawing a case out from one of the pockets of his parka and tucking it away. Without the awful black frame, Tinker seemed even younger, his features softer, and judging by the unchanging focus of his stare, the glasses were clearly cosmetic. "When you're not drinking your martinis - shaken, not stirred - or scotch, you prefer coffee. Black, no milk or sugar, and as strong as it can get."

"My file must have been interesting reading."

"Someday you should write a book."

"I'll keep that in mind."

Tinker studied him thoughtfully, as though considering a judgment, then he leaned his cheek against his palm. "We can sit here and trade barbs all day," Tinker noted finally, "Or you could tell me why M's instructed such a prominent agent to follow me."

James reflected that he had tried to be careful, tailing Tinker from his hotel, vaguely thankful that a working Oyster card had been included in the items that Moneypenny had handed him, but subtlety had, as he'd tried to tell her prior, never particularly been his specialty. "I'm enjoying the coffee."

Tinker watched James for a moment longer, then he smiled again, lazy this time. "Is this about my parents? That's rather old fashioned, isn't it? Your new M's been reading one too many Cold War novels. It's not illegal to have British and Russian heritage. We can't choose our parents."

"He wasn't concerned about that."

"I've never met my father's side of the family, Commander. And as to my mother, she's happily retired. Would you like some sort of signed statement from her to that effect? In blood, perhaps, or something suitably dramatic?"

"Paris is nice at this time of year," James smiled, thin and sharp over the rim of his cup, but Tinker wasn't intimidated in the least - only amused, irritatingly enough.

"So I've heard. I've never been to the Louvre."

"Neither have I."

"Not one for galleries?"

"Not particularly." James had, on occasion, walked beautiful women through corridors filled with painted remnants from a distant past, but had only seen it as a necessary, if usually pleasant chore, a checklist against a scoreboard that eventually rewarded him with a bit of fun.

"Did it occur to you that they're trying to retire you by boring you to death?" Tinker inquired, and his conspiratorial smile was playful, now, definitely baiting the tiger, and James finished his coffee, considering his prospects. Tinker hadn't yet done anything that would warrant immediate action, and his cover had been blown. He'd have to report that once he had a chance, but somehow, James rather doubted that M was going to be surprised - or that he would be reassigned.

"I know of worse ways to die."

"I suppose you would." Tinker tilted his head again, and this time, when he spoke, his voice was clipped. "I'm not here to undermine your agency, Commander. We're content with our current arrangement with MI6, what with Langley's... recent problems with all those Generals being unable to keep their pants on around their female underlings. We're rather happy to lie low for a while. I'm here because of a personal matter."

"Family?"

"Not the way you're thinking," Tinker noted, and a touch of amusement worked its way into his tone. "Two days ago, a cousin of mine committed suicide. I'm here for the funeral, in place of my mother."

"Ah." James felt himself relax slightly. "My condolences."

"I never knew him. The funeral's tomorrow. You can come with me if you really want to, or you can lurk around the edges, whatever you like. After the funeral, I intend to stay for a few days in London, at least until I get bored of it, and then I'll be heading up to Paris or Italy. Satisfied?"

"Where's the funeral being held?"

"You're thorough. Meet me at the Savoy at eight in the morning, in the lobby. We'll go together. Scandalize all my aunts. Do you really have to follow me around all the time?"

"You say that as though it'll be a chore." James drawled, letting a touch of heat into his voice, but Tinker merely chuckled, neither repulsed nor seemingly interested.

"Well then, after this, I'll like to go to the Tate Modern - I hear there's something lovely by Kentridge on display. And then I'll be having dinner at the Savoy's grill room. Again, you can come with me, or lurk around the edges."

The day was promising to become exceptionally boring, but James held in his sigh. "It'll be my pleasure to show a colleague around the best of London."

Modern art was even lower down the scale on James' minimal ability at artistic appreciation, and he followed Tinker through the huge gallery with an air of mild condescension. Even the Kentridge exhibition was confusing, and James stared at the video installation for a long moment before giving up and studying the sheep instead. No one was particularly interesting, not even the women, and eventually, James found his attention drawn back to Tinker, who was avidly watching the second channel of the Kentridge installation, his messenger bag bumping against the jut of his hip.

Beautiful boy.

James considered alleviating his boredom by flirting later, during dinner, and possibly having a pleasant night in Tinker's bed, which would solve the problem of how to observe Tinker in person overnight - albeit probably providing the MI6 surveillance team with (un?)wanted pornography. Tinker's room was certainly bugged by now. It wasn't as though doing that would surprise anyone, what with James' reputation, and although affairs weren't encouraged, even between ostensibly allied agencies, James was technically within the parameters of this particular job, and it was only Tinker who might get burned.

Unfortunately, although Tinker was playful again during dinner, he laughed off any advances, and in the end, James supposed that Q-branch's surveillance devices were going to have to serve. "Eight in the morning?" he noted, as Tinker pressed the button to call the lifts.

"Black tie. Don't be late, Commander." Tinker smiled, and there was something wickedly impish in the curl of his plush mouth.

"James," James corrected absently, and waited until Tinker had left before walking briskly out of the Savoy, heading towards the nearby Strand Palace. He checked himself in to the room that Moneypenny had booked, and headed up. The room had already been set up - there was a laptop at the desk - and James tipped up the cover, logging in. After a moment, the feed cut into a crisp image of the surveillance cameras hidden in Tinker's room, and James poured himself some scotch from the minibar and settled down for a night of boredom.

Thankfully, Tinker went to sleep quickly, possibly due to jet lag, and the surveillance team took over when James sent them instructions. Taking the minimum amount of rest that he usually needed on a mission, James woke up after four hours, washed his face, and checked the laptop. Tinker was still sleeping, curled in the same position as James remembered when he had taken his nap.

Yawning, James stretched, wondering whether or not to catch a few more hours of sleep, then he frowned belatedly.

Tinker really was in nearly exactly the same position as James remembered.

Heart sinking, James rewound the surveillance feed, and put it on fast forward. Tinker did move, but it was in a fixed cycle that always returned to the exact start, like a video clip playing... on a loop...

Ah, hell.

The concierge looked mildly scandalised when James hurried back into the Savoy and pressed the button for Tinker's floor, but thankfully didn't comment. Impatiently, James prowled around the lift, then walked briskly over to Tinker's door, knocking. When there was no answer, James slipped one of Q-branch's all-purpose security passcards against the scanner, and let himself into the room, drawing his Walther from under his jacket.

The room was empty, save for a scrawled note left on the bed:

Thank you for the lovely day, James

James sighed. Explaining this to M was going to be a trifle embarrassing.

Chapter Text

III.

M's response to James' report that he had lost Tinker's trail had been a sigh, and a terse, "Stand by for further instructions, 007."

Somewhat annoyed, James searched the room, though it had been professionally cleaned - he had no doubt that probably even the note had no prints. Returning to the lobby, a quick question put to the concierge indicated that they hadn't seen anyone remotely matching Tinker's description exiting the building, though the Savoy was a grand and rambling old place, with multiple points of exit, and that was quite probably why Tinker had chosen it in the first place.

It struck James as odd that Tinker had played along for so long. Curiosity, perhaps - that was a common trait for spies. Or maybe he needed to while away the hours until he had to do whatever he had come to London for. James stalked out of the Savoy into the freezing cold night, huffing his breath into crinkling clouds, as he considered his next step. Somehow, he didn't think that Tinker was lying when he noted that he wasn't here for MI6.

Either Tinker had slipped his assigned babysitter for fun - which was also possible, and if James had been in Tinker's position, he would certainly have been tempted to do so - or M's paranoia was justified. Probability pointed in favour of the latter. If Tinker had wanted an exciting holiday, he could have just driven down south of the border and into Juarez: assuming that the note on the file about his dislike of flying was correct.

The phone in his pocket buzzed, and James picked up quickly. "M."

"Meet me at the Diogenes Club in half an hour." M rattled off an address, and hung up.

Intrigued now, James padded back to the Savoy, heading for the cab line. Why not simply call him back to MI6 for a debrief, if M was concerned about the security of the line? Training indicated that it was dangerous to extrapolate without further information, however, and on the way to the club, James took himself automatically through a breathing exercise until his mind was comfortably blank, glancing out of the window at darkened streets and the occasional miserable passer-by, hunched against the London chill.

The Diogenes Club looked unassuming, with a plain exterior, and could pass for any one of the myriad numbers of gentlemen's clubs that littered London like an old rash. James was partial to a couple of them, not so much for the company but for the tables of high stakes baccarat, and as much as he would be the first to admit that many such clubs were quite staunchly old-fashioned, down to draconic rules about female visitors, their usually staid interiors, woven with cigar smoke, scotch and leather, were sometimes comforting.

The bundled up doorman nodded briskly when he saw Bond, opening the door for him to step through, and inside, the Diogenes Club was oddly silent. Men sat alone in single armchairs in the large lobby, dozing or reading, even at this unholy hour, the cut of their clothes and the make of their shoes an indicator that the common denominator of the Club's residents was wealth or influence. No women. James flicked the large room, with its rich oak panelled floor, its antique Victorian furniture, its stone mantlepiece and fireplace, a quick, calculating glance, looking for M, and he tensed slightly as a thin, elderly man in a suit with a curling moustache stepped up to his side, indicating with a wave that James follow him.

They wound past more rooms, all equally silent, and ascended a stair, thick with a plush carpet the colour of old earth, and eventually came to a circular chamber adorned with understated Persian carpets and lush green landscape paintings, thick velvet curtains drawn over the windows against the cold, with a heavy oak door adorned with a brass plate that read: The Strangers' Room. The elderly staff ushered James in, and closed the door behind him.

Two armchairs had been pulled up close to the fireplace. M sat in one, facing him, glancing up as James approached. In the other chair, rising from his seat, was a tall, dagger thin man in a cunningly cut three piece suit in black and grey, a neat furl of dark hair combed over a wide skull with a prominent forehead, his lips pressed close and thin, as though in a constant state of almost clinical disapproval. Brows drew close over steely gray eyes as James found himself curtly assessed, then he seemed to pass some sort of test - the man turned back to M with a nod.

"Acceptable."

"He's one of my best agents," M said, amused, as he too, got to his feet. James narrowed his eyes, glancing at the thin man again.

"I'm aware of Commander Bond's reputation. On occasion, he's responsible for my spiking blood pressure." A politician then, James thought, then revised his opinion. No, a diplomat. Possibly tasked with diplomatic cleanup, if his words were to be believed. Very likely part of the Joint Intelligence Committee, if M deferred to him.

"James, this is..." M hesitated belatedly, and the thin man continued, "Mycroft Holmes. Pleasure." His handshake was brief and cool, with a hint of veiled strength.

"Pleasure to meet you, Mister Holmes."

"I understand that MI6 somehow managed to misplace Tinker, even with the tip-off about his flight and hotel from our end."

"A temporary setback," M noted, unruffled by Holmes' note of censure.

"Tinker will be more careful now that he knows we're watching him. He won't be caught again." Holmes pursed his thin lips, his calculating eyes going briefly distant, as though considering an array of facts. "Commander, relate to me the day that you spent with Tinker. Don't leave out anything that might be even of remote significance."

James pointedly glanced at M for instructions, and M offered him a slight, faint smile behind Holmes' back before nodding. Assuming a detached tone, James described the day, including every scrap of Tinker's dialogue, and when he was finished, Holmes sighed, and pressed a palm against the back of his armchair, as though for support. "Then my suspicions are confirmed."

"Why would he mention the funeral to 007?" M asked, looking puzzled.

"Because he knows that 007 will describe everything that he says to me, at some point. If we consider the possibility that he's working with my brother, then he's throwing a clear gauntlet, for some reason. Then again, my brother has always been fond of dramatics."

"And if he isn't?"

"Perhaps Control instructed him to give MI6 a hint. The current Control is a little... erratic." Holmes scowled slightly, even as James internalized amusement. Control, the CIA's M, the shadow figure behind the ostensible five star Generals placed as the public heads of the CIA, had always been a rather mercurial figure. Soldier had once told James that he'd never been sure whether he wanted to shoot him or follow him. "We also can't discount the possibility that Tinker is simply being young and reckless about his sense of invulnerability."

"It's time to give 007 the full debrief, don't you think?" M asked dryly, and Holmes exhaled again, with a touch more irritation.

"I was hoping to reduce the number of people aware of the true gravity of the situation, Gareth."

"Your brother's faked suicide was dramatic news. 007 would have connected the dots eventually. And I've always felt that agents performed better when they have a full grasp of the facts. Particularly the 00s."

"You haven't been M for very long," Holmes noted, though there wasn't any hint of a threat in his statement, then he straightened. "Very well. 007, what I'm about to tell you is confidential at the highest level of our government. There's a total blackout on this matter. Save for M, you are not to discuss this with a single soul. You're on your own for this mission. There will be no backup from MI6, and under no circumstances should you accept help from other agencies. We can't risk any leaks about the true nature of your mission. If you get burned in the field, you'll be cut loose. If you meet any other agents, presume that they're your competition."

Again, James glanced at M, who nodded. "Two days ago," M continued, "An amateur private detective by the name of Sherlock Holmes seemingly committed suicide by jumping off a hospital roof, within sight of a plethora of witnesses. How much do you know about Sherlock Holmes?"

"Not very." James hardly ever kept up with local news - it was usually irrelevant to his job.

"Good. Then you won't be going into this mission with any preconceived misconceptions." M said briskly. "In summary, Sherlock Holmes was a minor celebrity who became obsessed with one of London's new criminal organisations, headed by one Jim Moriarty. Moriarty had set himself up as some sort of... criminal consultant. His organisation successfully assisted and advised other, more traditional ones, and his clients included the Bratva, Al-Qaeda, and the Yakuza, regarding anything from revised drug mule routes and routines to precise military strikes on strategic targets."

"Four months ago, my predecessor recommended to the Minister that we have Moriarty terminated. MI6 was told instead that it was an internal affair, and Moriarty was being handled appropriately." M shot Holmes a sidelong glance, and Holmes sniffed. "Matters spiralled quickly out of control. Moriarty managed to cause a jailbreak at Pentonville Prison, open the vault at the Bank of England, and break into the Jewel House where the Crown Jewels are kept, all on the same day."

"Security's not quite what it used to be," James said dryly, but Holmes shot him a withering stare, and M ignored him.

"The matter eventually culminated with the apparent murder-suicide of Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes, on the rooftop of St Bartholomew's Hospital. Did you view the body?" M glanced over at Holmes.

"No. He was identified by a friend of his, Molly Hooper, a forensics expert who works at Bart's. The body was incinerated quickly - following Sherlock's Will - while I was attending to cleanup and his roommate Doctor Watson's hysteria. We understand now that he must have faked his death with her connivance." Holmes tapped his long, spidery fingers briefly against the armchair.

"So now you're up to speed on the basic facts, 007. On to more relevant matters. A day before confronting Moriarty on the rooftop of Bart's, Sherlock sent a letter via an acquaintance of his who owed him a favour to our aunt, who resides in America. Her name is Victoria Winslow. We understand that his acquaintance delivered the letter to her in Chesapeake personally."

"Tinker really is your cousin." Clever boy. Just enough truth mixed into his story to throw off James' instincts.

"That he is," Holmes looked annoyed at the interruption, "Sherlock and I have been estranged for a long time, but he possibly felt that he could trust the rest of his family where he could trust no other."

"Why write a physical letter?"

"Our aunt prefers isolation. As far as I'm aware, she would not use email, and she does not even have a phone line. Sherlock and I have met Victoria before, once. We've never met Tinker, nor would Sherlock want to reach him through CIA lines - he wouldn't have been able to do so without alerting me. Whatever was in the letter, it was urgent enough for Tinker to take immediate leave, even with the deteriorating situation in Syria, and book a flight to London."

"Sanctioned by the CIA?" James asked.

"Possibly. Probably." Holmes tapped his fingers against the armchair again. "Moriarty was in possession of an anti-security code, written by the late Alexei Simonov, a brilliant young SVR agent who passed away recently under suspicious circumstances. Polonium was probably used. As we understand it, the SVR were unaware of this code, and merely packed away all of Alexei's projects into storage under the Kremlin. Half a year ago, there was a break-in to the SVR vault, and Alexei's laptop and hard-drives were all stolen. The Bratva were suspected, but never confirmed as the culprit."

"Eventually, a rumour surfaced on the weapons black market that an anti-security code had been written, one that had the potential to unlock any electronically controlled security system in the world, from bank vaults to fortified concentration camps, missile silos, anything. Doubt was expressed, and the seller offered a demonstration."

"Pentonville, the Bank of England, and the Tower," James murmured.

"Precisely. After that, as you can imagine, interest was hot. The JIC fronted a buyer, hoping to stall for time with negotiations until we could shake down Moriarty for the code and the location of all the copies. We even delayed Moriarty's trial - he was caught in the Tower," Holmes said flatly, "But we were too late to consolidate a purchase. The code was sold to the highest bidder - the late Raoul Silva. You've seen firsthand how much damage he caused with it."

James sucked in a slow breath, his hands clenching lightly. M cut in quietly, "We've tried to preserve the story that Silva acted wholly on his own wits, even to our allies, and I think they accepted it - up until Sherlock Holmes' letter to Victoria Winslow. We believe that the CIA is now fully aware of the existence of the anti-security code. Naturally, it's in our best interests that they don't acquire it. They may be our friends, but the code is too dangerous to belong to anyone, even - or especially - the Americans."

"Understood," James said quietly. "You suspect that Sherlock knows the code?"

"I'm not certain." Holmes looked grim. "He's unlikely to be interested in its full capabilities. My brother's obsessed with Moriarty's network, with bringing it down. He's also unpredictable. I'm not certain why he faked his death, or what he would do with the code if he has it. Tinker's involvement is what concerns me most."

"Find Tinker. Find Sherlock Holmes." M instructed. "Sherlock is not to be killed, but if you have no choice, you have my permission to terminate Tinker. You have permission to incapacitate Sherlock if capture is necessitated. Your primary objective is the recovery of the anti-security code, or in alternative, to ensure that all copies of it are wiped off the earth."

IV.

"I, um, didn't catch your name, Mister...?"

"Bond. James Bond," James smiled warmly at Molly Hooper, the forensics tech and Sherlock's friend, who blushed a rosy pink beside her desk. Attractive, possibly lonely girl, James thought distantly, unused to overt male attention. Promising. "I'm sorry about the loss of your friend. It must have been so difficult for you, having to identify the body."

"Yes, it was." Hooper was a poor actress; her eyes shifted to the left when she was prevaricating. "Sorry, um, who did you say you were again?"

"I'm from the police," James said urbanely, flashing Hooper the fake badge that was a staple of the usual MI6 London kit, "I'm just here for a routine follow up."

"You're, er, you don't seem like one of the Inspector's men. I'm sure I would have noticed you before." Hooper managed a tentative smile that was more wan than flirtatious.

"I certainly would have noticed a lovely lady like you before," James returned, dialling up the charm, and Hooper blushed again, sitting up sharply. "I'll like to know if there's been anything... untoward, after the incident."

"No, no. Nothing new." Eyes shifted to the left. James made a mental note to find and check Molly's apartment. It was possible that Sherlock was hiding there, albeit unlikely, if Tinker was really involved.

"No strange visitors? New employees? We understand that Sherlock was possibly involved in something dangerous near the end."

"No." Hooper met his eyes, this time. So. No Tinker, then, at least not to Bart's, though Sherlock probably visited Hooper at least once more. James continued on a rote police script, asking about acquaintances, about Hooper's relationship with Sherlock, considering his options. Seducing Hooper eventually probably wasn't going to be difficult, especially with the girl's emotional state. But she was clearly loyal to Sherlock, and it would possibly be a waste of time, especially with James' current uncertain time frame.

Still, if just to check the effect, James closed with a gentle, "Thank you for your help, Miss Hooper. Hopefully, I'm the last of any bother from the police in this personal matter."

"No, um, I'm happy to help." Eyes to the left.

"This may be a little forward," James pressed, "But would you be free for dinner tonight? When we're both off duty?"

"It... it... it is a little forward," Hooper said faintly, "And um, if you'll excuse me, Detective, I really, really have to get back to my work."

Pity. James inclined his head with a lazy smile that made Hooper blush all over again, then he padded out of her office, noiselessly circling around to an adjoining one, to wait. When Hooper only let out a soft, shaky sound but didn't end up calling anyone, James gave it up for a bad job, and left Bart's.

Hooper's apartment failed to produce Sherlock or Tinker, and a sweep indicated that she was probably not connected to the rest of their plans; nothing seemed out of place to James' eye, nor were there any promising travel receipts or bank withdrawal statements lying about. James rather regretted the blackout for this mission - it would have been easier if he could get Moneypenny or Tanner to investigate Hooper's laptop or track Hooper's electronic paper trail. Left to himself, James was hobbled by his lack of experience with technology, and was wryly aware that M's statement - that espionage was indeed a young man's game - was growing rather true after all.

Thinking, James took himself to Sherlock Holmes' last residence, 221B Baker Street, and broke in to the house with a lockpick. It was empty, a narrow terrace house, with the landlady living on the ground floor and the upper rooms to let. Police tape still wrapped the narrow stairway, and James quietly let himself up under it, studying the thoroughly searched and trampled living room with disdain. Anything remotely useful had probably long been bagged and put into Evidence, knowing the Yard, and breaking in to the Yard was going to be irritating, without MI6 supporting a cover story or providing authorisation. A fake badge and a smile wasn't going to cut it.

Sherlock's bedroom was far more promising.

Tinker smiled lazily at him from where he was leaning against the windowsill, his arms folded over his parka. "Hello, James. Can I still call you 'James'? Or are we back to formalities?"

"I've never liked formalities," James noted warily, recovering quickly from his surprise. "We never did get to go to that funeral together."

"I had to consider my aunts' heart conditions. It might have been murder to show up on the arm of a handsome man like yourself." Tinker lifted a shoulder with a self-deprecating smile. "Not to mention my older cousin's unforgiving disposition. He's never had much of an opinion of MI6."

Tinker was aware of Mycroft's involvement, then. "He does strike me as the unforgiving sort."

"You have no idea," Tinker noted wryly. "You're extremely unsuited to this particular little game, James. I like you, so I'm warning you."

"And I like you, so I won't take offence at your 'warning'."

"I have full dispensation. I'm aware that you don't. Have you even run a mission without any sort of backup before? No one to rely on but yourself?"

"It's usually a refreshing experience," James noted mildly. "I recommend that you try it sometime." Arrogant child.

Tinker tipped his head again, amused. "Rumour has it that I can do far more damage with my laptop before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can in an entire year in the field, James. Are you sure that you want to play this game with me?"

"I'm still waiting to be impressed," James said, as deliberately as he could, "Boy."

"Then let's play for a while, James." Tinker smirked. "Try to keep up, please."

James had already drawn his gun, but Tinker wiggled out of the window - surprisingly quickly for his lanky form, and slammed it shut, shimmying down an adjoining pipe with equally surprising agility, landing neatly in the alley behind the terrace unit. He glanced up and blew a kiss when James tried the window - jammed now, possibly glued - and started away on a brisk jog.

Cursing, James glowered at the window - he'd never fit through it, even if Tinker hadn't glued it down - and put his gun away, hurrying back out of Sherlock's room and down the stairs, trying to triangulate traffic. Tinker was probably headed for Baker Street station - he wouldn't risk anonymous cabs, not in hostile territory - and if James ran for it, he could quite possibly catch the same train-

The ground floor door opened sharply just before James could reach for it, revealing a short man with tawny brown hair, his build running towards being stocky, his eyes flint hard and grim. The way he held his pistol and his poise told James that the man was definitely combat trained, possibly a soldier. Doctor Watson the roommate, James recalled, from the brief that Mycroft had supplied. Inconvenient.

"Who the devil are you?"

Chapter Text

V.

Narrow corridor, no cover, no way to backpedal up the stairs or dive without definitely getting shot. Besides, Mycroft's file on Doctor Watson had been singular reading, and James rather doubted that Mycroft would have exaggerated when describing someone as a 'crack shot'. Watson, apparently, had extensive combat experience in Afghanistan, and he was aiming a Sig Sauer P226R, recent army issue.

Clearly, rather more than a medical degree was required to be a military doctor nowadays.

James hesitated, reviewing his options, and thankfully Watson saved him from commenting immediately. "And what the hell is it with my life as it is now? Unknown numbers texting me and telling me to go to 221B with a gun? What's wrong with you people? Sherlock's dead, leave me alone!"

He should have known that the doctor's rather convenient appearance was not so convenient after all. And quite possibly, informing an armed and visibly upset ex-soldier that his friend and roommate was still alive was going to be a bad lateral move in the current environment, at least until he had calmed Watson down.

"Doctor Watson," James said carefully, "My name is James Bond. I work for the British Government."

Watson narrowed his eyes. "You work for Mycroft?"

"No." Truth had been a good choice, and apparently some of his irritation at the misconception must have leaked over, because Watson's pistol wavered. Seizing the advantage, James added, calmly, "But I've met the cold bastard, if you really want to know."

Watson eyed him suspiciously still, though James noted that the doctor's shoulders were relaxing a little. He'd read the doctor right, then. "Why are you here?"

"It's come to my employer's attention that the matter of Sherlock Holmes was not quite what it seemed. Please put the gun away, Doctor. I'm not a threat to you."

That was the wrong thing to say - Watson snorted, his guard going up again. "Right. Well, you see, I've been on a couple of tours in Afghanistan, and one of the first things we learn is how to recognise people like you. Natural killers. You're a threat to everyone. Specifically, who do you work for?"

"MI6."

"Oh, bloody hell," Watson squinted. "You're a spy? Like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible?"

James couldn't help the grimace. Personally, he tried to avoid reading or watching any sort of spy fiction whatsoever. It usually gave him a bad headache. "Not particularly. Can you put down the gun now?"

Watson hesitated for a moment longer, then he nodded cautiously and lowered the pistol, decocking it fluidly. "Okay." He exhaled. "Who texted me, then?"

"A CIA agent. He was in Sherlock's room when I came in to take a look at the premises. Thanks to your delay, he's gotten away." James checked his watch. Tinker would have had far too good a head start by now, and Baker Street station would be crowded at this time of day. Finding the boy was going to be impossible.

"CIA? Aren't you guys meant to be friends?"

"Sometimes. May I borrow your phone, Doctor?"

Wordlessly, Watson took out his phone and unlocked it, thumbed to the relevant message, then passed it over. "I tried calling it. Nobody answered."

James dialled it, lifting the phone to his ear, and after a few rings, Tinker answered, sounding amused. "Hello, James. I'm glad to see that you survived."

Bugs in 221B, James thought, trying not to look around too obviously. Tinker would have known the moment he had stepped into the house, had possibly even somehow known that he was coming, to text and summon Doctor Watson. Bugs in Hooper's apartment, perhaps. Tinker would have known that logically, 221B would be James' next stop. "Tinker."

"Try not to shoot the Doctor. I believe that Sherlock would be rather upset."

"He nearly shot me," James replied neutrally. Could he assume that...? No. Best not to extrapolate until he had solid data.

"That's not an insurmountable problem for you, or so I've heard," Tinker noted cavalierly. In the background, James could pick up the rattling, rumbling hum of a train on the move. Too late, then.

"Are you going after Sherlock?" James asked deliberately, watching the doctor tense up through his peripheral vision.

"Are you going after me, or Sherlock?" Tinker countered playfully.

"Neither." Would Tinker make the mistake of staying long enough on the line for James to pick out the announcement of the next station name? "What's your stake in all this, Tinker?"

"That's heartbreaking, that is." Tinker sighed dramatically. "But I've got to go. It's always lovely talking to you, James. Bye."

James muttered a curse under his breath as Tinker hung up, and looked over to Watson, only to find the Sig Sauer pointed in his direction again. "Weren't we over this?"

"What sort of game are you playing? 'Going after Sherlock'?"

"Take back your phone, Doctor," James said calmly, tossing the phone, and as Watson automatically reached to catch it, his gun dipping, James took two long steps forward, jamming his thumb under the trigger even as he punched Watson in the stomach, locking his fist. Watson doubled over with a gasp, and James jerked the gun free, backing off and aiming it at him. "Finished?"

"Like I said," Watson wheezed, leaning heavily against the wall, not in the least bit afraid, "People like you are bloody dangerous to everyone."

"Thank you. In my line of work, that's a compliment." James decocked the gun, and as an afterthought, removed the magazine before tossing the gun towards Watson's feet, slipping the magazine into a pocket. "Was there anything that Sherlock might have been hiding in his room, Doctor Watson?"

"No. The police have been over everything. I haven't been here for a while." Watson gestured at the police tape. "They've probably taken everything that's even remotely relevant. Sherlock's alive?"

Looks like he had wasted his time, after all, though if he had, then so had Tinker. "Faked his death. I've been told that he's obsessed with breaking down Moriarty's organisation. He probably wanted to go to ground so that he could do it by himself."

"That bloody..." Watson gulped in a breath, rubbing his eyes furiously, then after a long moment, filled with stuttering, shaky breaths, managed a shallow, "What's MI6's interest in this, then?"

"Catching up with Sherlock. Moriarty's organisation is a concern of ours. We had reason to believe that he may be involved in MI6's recent 'gas explosion'." Using a little titbit of truth wasn't going to be frowned upon, and Doctor Watson might know something useful that he didn't divulge to Mycroft or the police.

"You could have gotten involved, I don't know, maybe a week ago?"

"As far as I understand it, MI6 requested permission to terminate Moriarty four months ago, but was instructed to stand down until very recently. Holmes the elder wanted to handle the matter by himself."

"Yes, he bloody tried his best, didn't he?" Watson said, with surprising bitterness. "Arsehole. Four months ago! All right. I want to help."

"I work alone, Doctor Watson."

"Oh, for the love of God," Watson eyed him, unimpressed, as he picked up the empty Sig Sauer and tucked it away, "I'm a marksman and a qualified doctor. I won't be useless to you. Why is the CIA involved? You asked me if Sherlock was hiding something. Did he steal something from Moriarty?"

The doctor wasn't an idiot, at least. And he did have a point. "It's possible. I've been asked to ensure Sherlock is alive and dissuade him from his crusade." Not exactly a long deviation from the truth.

"Right, then." Watson straightened up his shoulders, if a little unsteadily. "I guess I'll help you search the rooms. I'll show you where he normally hides things. And if we don't find anything, I'll help you get into the Yard. Greg might still answer his phone if the call's from me."

"Greg?"

"Inspector Lestrade," Watson elaborated. "Scotland Yard? We're friends. Through Sherlock's work as a consulting detective. Sort of friends."

All right. Maybe this wasn't going to be a total loss. "Would you know where Sherlock might have gone?"

"I know he has a few bolt holes around London, but I don't know where. Sorry." Watson looked visibly unhappy. "I guess he doesn't trust me as I thought he would."

"He's probably running for his life. We'll find him." So Sherlock was most likely still in London after all. That made things easier.

They didn't find anything in the apartment that was relevant - although there was a lot that was simply bizarre or just disgusting (chimpanzee fingernails in a thimble? Really?) and James was beginning to revise his opinion about the sanity of the Holmes family tree in general just as Watson put a call to Lestrade. They'd agreed not to bring up the matter about Sherlock or MI6, just in case the police decided to try and investigate properly and hold up matters, and James eyed the bullet pockmarks arranged on the wall as Watson started talking.

"Er... Greg? This is John. Sorry, are you in the Yard right now? Sorry. Yeah. Um. Yeah, I'm fine. Look, I need a favour from you. Um, the stuff you have in Evidence. I'll like some of it back, if possible. I mean, some of it is my stuff. Sorry for the trouble... okay. Thanks, Greg. Yeah. I appreciate it."

Watson hung up, and glanced over to James. "They'll be expecting us over at the Yard. What are we looking for, exactly?"

James thought about this for a moment, "Computers. Yours too, just in case. Any storage devices. Any journals and notes."

"All right."

Inspector Lestrade was growing gently into middle age, his hair already mostly graying, though he glanced at James with a policeman's thoughtful suspicion, as if trying to place James' face from memory by instinct. Other than soldiers, ageing policemen also tended to develop an eye for trouble. Lestrade looked haggard and worn, as though he hadn't slept for days, and his clothes were rumpled and stained at the cuffs by coffee, though his polite, "And who's this then, John?" was clear and careful.

"Just an army friend I talked into helping me move some stuff to my new place," Watson said casually, and James internalized a sigh as the Inspector looked him over with a touch more suspicion than before. Dressed in gray, fitted Tom Ford and handmade Italian oxfords, with a blue Balenciaga scarf, James was fairly sure that he looked as far as possible from any popular conception of a soldier in civvies.

"...All right," Lestrade said slowly, but Watson smiled trustingly and innocently at the Inspector until the Inspector straightened up and rubbed a palm heavily over his eyes. "This way, John."

VI.

Watson had rolled his eyes when James stated his preference to book a hotel suite at the Savoy rather than return to Watson's room in Hackney to check out the recovered items from Scotland Yard, and then Watson had wasted ten minutes exploring the suite instead of concentrating. Eventually, James forced Watson to sit down at the armchair in the lounge, where, naturally, James' suspicions were confirmed: Sherlock's laptop was not only password locked, but Watson didn't know the password.

Leaving Watson to check through his own computer for anything out of place, James took the laptop to the inner drawing room and set it on the table, arranging the items they had taken out of Evidence neatly over the ground, studying them. People could be ingenious with hiding places, especially now that storage devices were getting smaller and smaller, and James settled down for a tedious evening.

He was leafing through a hand-annotated book about chemicals when he heard a knock on the door. At the couch, Watson yawned, set the laptop aside, and padded over to the door. "Who is it?"

"Room service," James heard Tinker drawl, and even as he scrambled to his feet, drawing his gun, there was a startled yelp from Watson, then a thump of a body hitting a wall, the door closing. "Really, James. The Savoy again? MI6 isn't the only agency with convenient passcards."

"I like this hotel," James noted mildly, as he flattened himself against the archway, cocking his Walther, the click loud in the silence of the suite. "Didn't you say that Sherlock would be upset if Watson was dead?"

"He's not dead, he'll just be asleep for a while." Tinker's voice was drifting closer, following the walls. James considered the layout of the entry room and possible cover. Behind the solidly built antique couch, though he'd have to risk a dive, and Tinker might be exactly as good a shot or better as his file suggested. Cross to the other side of the archway, and shoot around the corner-

A clatter through the archway made him glance sharply down - a discarded gun, Watson's Sig Sauer - and as James froze instinctively, his training recalculating probabilities, Tinker stepped around the archway, grinning his wicked little grin, hands held palms up and empty, and even as James frowned, confused, instincts resettling, Tinker stepped flush against him, curling his fingers into James' collar and pressing his lips hungrily against James' mouth.

Startled, basic training took over - James twisted, pinning Tinker up against the wall, roughly enough to knock the breath from him, but the maddening boy only laughed and leant up again, and this time the crushing kiss had just enough of an edge of teeth for James to moan. "I got bored of waiting for you to find me," Tinker purred breathlessly, in between wet, slanting kisses that only grew more savage with grasping fingers over James' shoulders and the teasing roll of Tinker's hips.

"It hasn't even been a day." James' voice was rough and uneven to his own ears, though his training held; he caught Tinker's hand as it slipped down his shirt towards his belt. "I'm not interested in your games, Tinker."

"Aren't you?" Tinker asked mockingly, as he pressed forward, against the hard curve straining against James' pants, and as he let out a slow breath, Tinker noted, with arch innocence, "I'm unarmed and at your mercy."

James scoffed - being unarmed hardly made a good field agent harmless, let alone an agent from the Circus - even as Tinker tried to push him backwards. James automatically held Tinker against the wall, frowning, and the boy smirked. "You'll have me against the wall, then?"

"I've told you, I'm not interested in your-" James paused when he felt the edge of a small blade press against his belly, even as Tinker's eyes remained absolutely unchanged, his smile still playful.

Dangerous little thing.

"I may have lied a little about being unarmed. Sorry."

"Bringing a knife to a gunfight?" James rasped. Not good odds. His pistol wasn't aimed at-

"Your Walther isn't pointed at me right now. On the other hand, I can cut you open in less than a second. Terrible way to die, I wouldn't recommend it. Drop the gun and let go of my wrist, James."

James hesitated for a moment longer, but when the blade pressed just hard enough to slice his shirt open, he dropped the gun and let go. Tinker was well-trained - there wasn't even a flicker of distraction in his eyes. "Hands behind your back, wrists together. Good." James saw a brief blur of movement, then metal cuffs bit into his wrists. "Take a few steps back. On your knees."

The knife slit up his shirt as he knelt, drawing a thin red line up to his neck, but James grit his teeth against the sting as Tinker circled around, using a second pair of cuffs to secure him to one of the brass feet of the heavy antique cabinet. "Now, don't be angry," Tinker chided, when he padded back around and saw James' glare, his wicked grin turning hungry again as he trailed his eyes up the slash of bared, marred skin. "Consider this, James. My dispensation includes permission to kill you should I ever consider that you're hampering me in my duty, and so far, you're still only mildly scratched."

"So I should be grateful?" James growled, and tried to bite when Tinker brushed a kiss over his mouth, but the boy had pulled back too quickly.

"Oh no. You see, so far, you haven't actually hampered me in any way." The knife disappeared up Tinker's sleeves, and Tinker circled over to the table, picking up Sherlock's laptop. "Thank you so very much for this."

"You didn't call Doctor Watson to 221B to delay your escape. You wanted him to meet me."

"I'm rather flattered that you thought that I was that good at arranging coincidences. I expected him at Baker Street earlier rather than later. Preferably, you wouldn't even have had to catch me there." Tinker didn't even look at the other items, as he tucked the laptop into his messenger bag. "I don't like tangling with the local police. Very messy even at the best of times. Goodbye, James. It was nice meeting you. I'll leave the keys with Watson."

Gritting his teeth, James settled down to wait in as comfortable a position as he could manage until there was a groan from the other room. "Watson."

"Whassa..." there was a rasping cough, then a groan. "I... ergh... I think I might have a mild concussion. Who the hell was that?"

"The CIA agent. There should be keys somewhere near you. Come here and get me out of these cuffs."

There was another groan, then a rustling sound, and eventually, Watson staggered into the room, looking dizzy as he knelt heavily enough to bark his ankles, fumbling at the cuffs until they clicked open. James grit his teeth, rubbing at his arms to press circulation back into them, even as Watson slumped onto his flank and rolled over onto his back with another groan.

"We're still alive?"

"He didn't want to kill us. He just wanted Sherlock's laptop."

"Ah, fuck." Watson glanced miserably at the missing space on the table. "So we're back to square one."

"Not particularly." James rolled to his feet, picking up the Walther, and kicking the Sig Sauer to Watson. As an afterthought, he palmed the magazine from his jacket and tossed it over as well. Watson was probably going to be more useful if he was armed. "Get up and log in to your laptop."

"Why?"

"I need to access a remote server." The cut had already started to scab up. "I put a tracker under that laptop. Clever thing from home. Looks just like a clear plastic sticker." Even the basic field kit had improved tremendously in the last few months. James should take long leaves of absences more often.

There was a long pause, then Watson said, incredulously, "You knew that he would come?"

"London's my home ground, Watson. I know all the safe houses, even those that the CIA isn't aware of. We could even have gone to my apartment, which is secure. Why would I go somewhere that I knew that he'd already scoped out, if I didn't want him to find us?" He was going to have to get another shirt, somewhere. The ripped fabric was going to draw too much attention otherwise; it was fine with his coat on, but it was obvious indoors, even under his suit.

"Why did you want to draw him here?"

James smiled tightly. "We can't crack that password. He can. Get up, Doctor."

Chapter Text

VII.

The signal had stopped in the CIA's Whitechapel safehouse, an apartment in an old building with a thick brick wall. If James recalled correctly, the apartment was next to a fire escape, which meant two possible points of exit. At four floors up, at least Tinker wouldn't be jumping out of any windows.

Hopefully.

"Stay here," James told Watson, pointing behind a stack of cardboard boxes marked for pickup. "If the CIA agent comes out from the fourth floor window, shoot to wound. If you miss, don't keep trying, just get out of his line of sight. Don't hesitate or he'll probably kill you. We still need him, so try not to kill him."

Watson nodded, getting into position and drawing his Sig Sauer. At least the doctor was small enough to be completely hidden behind the stack; Tinker was going to have a hard time targeting him, even with the advantage of higher ground. That was one good thing about soldiers, James felt, as he padded away to circle around the building, looking for another point of entry. No idiotic questions asked, and no hesitation about carrying out orders. If Tinker tried to leave through the fire escape, he'd regret it quickly.

Quick work with a knife jimmied open a ground floor window in a seemingly empty apartment, and James glanced at the alarm system in place for a moment before hugging the walls, sidling out to the front door and letting himself out. Adjusting his tie absently, he closed the door and explored the ground floor until he found the elevator's key switch panel. Locking the elevator with a lockpick, he headed back to the ground floor stairwell, padding up the concrete steps noiselessly.

Apartment 4-05 turned out to be directly in front of the stairwell - unsurprisingly - the CIA had always chosen its safehouses well. James studied the unassuming door, calculating the possibility that it was primed and trapped against an intruder, and tensed at a whistling sound, a tinkle of glass and a crack.

Sniper fire?

Making up his mind, James kicked the door open, Walther drawn, stepping into a long, empty room, the wallpaper peeling from age and disrepair. Pressed with his shoulders against a wall, slumped against the ground, a Smith & Wesson 686 aimed at James, Tinker blinked in surprise for a moment before tipping his head sharply at the window in silent warning.

Sniper, then. And the sniper had been lucky - Tinker had been hit, probably somewhere up on his shoulder or arm; blood had soaked through down his left sleeve, dripping over the floorboards.

James glanced at the windows - a sniper wouldn't have seen his entry, blocked by the wall. As far as the sniper was concerned, he still had only one prey.

"Who's the sniper?" James asked flatly.

"Probably someone from Moriarty," Tinker conceded, after a moment's thought, his breathing already growing laboured. "He employed a few of them. All ex-military. Opposite block. Fifth floor, three windows from the left."

"If you want to live, slide your gun to me over the floor. And the rest of your weapons."

Tinker stared at him for a moment, clearly considering his choices, then he sighed and decocked his pistol and slid it over the floor to James, followed by the small knife from within his sleeve and a larger dagger from within his navy blue coat. The agent was still going to be dangerous, but at least now Watson would probably have a fighting chance if Tinker tried anything. James tucked the gun and the knives away the best that he could, before palming his phone.

Watson picked up when James dialled his number, sounding neutral - clearly in a combat mindset. "Bond?"

"Come up the fireplace, fourth floor. You'll probably be out of sight until you enter. There's a sniper in the opposite building. You'll have to-"

"I've been under sniper fire before, Bond. I know how to handle it," Watson interrupted. "Do you need cover fire?"

"Tinker's been hit. There's usually an extensive medical kit in the bathroom. Stabilize the wound. Careful, he's unarmed, but still dangerous. I'm going to clear the nest."

James took a circuitous route around to the opposite block, careful to keep out of the probable visual arc of the fifth floor, entering the block from a back side entrance. As before, he locked the lifts before heading up the stairs, pistol drawn.

Mentally revising the probable layout of the block, James counted the number of doors until the most likely entrance to the sniper's nest, and picked the lock. Most likely not primed to explode - the sniper would be looking for a quick exit, no fumbling with explosives - though James still let out a soft breath as the door pulled open noiselessly.

Within the room, a compact man with a shell of graying hair over a slightly bulbous forehead was set up neatly by the third window, a bag open beside him, ammunition magazines and other supplies set up in a neat line to his left, his rifle settled on a bipod rest at the windowsill. A Springfield MIA Super Match autoloader - it wouldn't have been James' first choice of weapon. A professional hitman, then, but not from the top tier.

The sniper snapped around with a cry when James fired, hitting him high in the arm, then he let out a short, pained scream as James kicked him in the chest, knocking him on his back before stepping on the bullet wound.

"Thick walls. Nearly soundproof. Good nest, but you should have jammed the door," James said flatly. "Are you from Moriarty?" There was a flicker of confusion in the sniper's eyes, and James amended, "Who's in command now?" Mycroft's file had been sadly hazy on questions of hierarchy and succession.

The sniper pressed his lips tightly together, biting down on another scream as James ground his heel onto the wound, then he stepped back, aiming his gun at the door as it was kicked open. Officers in black kevlar and combat helmets swarmed in, wielding G36 rifles, helmets marked with the white aces of the SCO19s.

The bloody police. Five officers. Bad odds, in the stripped down nest with its total lack of cover.

"Drop the gun!" the officer in front barked, and reluctantly, James dropped his pistol. M would probably get really touchy if James started firing on any of the local Met, even if it was within his ambit - and besides, the chances of getting out without getting shot looked slim.

"I'm a friend of Inspector Lestrade," James began, only to find himself ignored, the officer pulling out a phone and speed dialling a number. "This is Hawk-one. Do you copy, Hawk-two?"

"Hawk-one, report."

"We've secured the nest. It's not Tiger."

A muttered "Fuck! Give me the phone," from Tinker audible from the phone made James glance at the window. Visible over in the safehouse was Doctor Watson, his hands held up above his head, while a matching team of 'SCO19s' stood within. After a moment, Tinker's voice came through more clearly. "Do you have Bulldog?"

The officer glanced briefly at James. "Affirmative."

"Secure Bulldog and the Doctor. Keep Bulldog drugged at drop off or he'll be trouble. Sorry James, thanks for the save," Tinker noted dryly, his voice still hazy with pain, "But the cavalry was already on its way. Tinker out."

VIII.

Cuffed and in the back of the fake SCO19 police van, James was calculating possible escape methods when Watson noted softly, just over the sound of the engine, "That coat that the CIA agent - Tinker - was wearing. It was Sherlock's." At James' frown, Watson added, "And there was a deerstalker hat on the ground that had rolled away from him, probably when he had been shot. That was Sherlock's too. Sort of. He hated that thing. It was one of the most widely published photographs of Sherlock - him in that hat and that coat."

Hm. This increased the possibility that Tinker was directly working with Sherlock - and it seemed that Watson had reached the same conclusion. "Why would Tinker dress up like Sherlock in an empty house to try and catch 'Tiger'? That sniper was from Moriarty's organisation, wasn't he? He was there to kill Sherlock and he thought that Tinker was Sherlock. Tinker was a decoy. He's working with Sherlock, isn't he?"

"I'm not certain." James was careful to keep his voice low as well.

"Well, it looks bloody certain to me, that agent put himself up as bait, for God's sake."

"The CIA wants what Sherlock stole. He might need Sherlock alive for now, and wants to earn his trust. You were a British soldier, Watson. You're loyal to your country still, aren't you?"

"Well, yes-"

"Then I'll tell you that the item that Sherlock might have acquired can't fall into any other governments' hands. Not even our allies. It's far more important than your friend's vendetta against Moriarty's organisation. Maybe your friend doesn't recognise that, or he doesn't care."

Watson blinked at that, then he stared down at his hands, setting his jaw, and eventually, he exhaled. "Is your life always like this?"

"Sometimes," James conceded wryly.

"Okay." Watson looked visibly conflicted. "I guess... Sherlock, he does get obsessed sometimes. And he has this... problem with his brother. Sometimes it colours his judgment. Maybe."

"I can understand that." James had roundly disliked Mycroft even after just one meeting. He couldn't imagine having to grow up with him.

"Right, then." Watson sighed. "I've got some sort of kit tied to my right ankle with bandages. It was, um, rolled up next to the medical kit. It looked important, so I hid it on me, just in case, before I went out to tend to Tinker. It's got lockpicks in it. They didn't really bother searching the doctor."

"Excellent." Probably the CIA's standard-issue compact field kit - quick thinking by Watson. With some awkward manoeuvring, by sitting on the ground with his cuffed hands feeling for the bandages, James managed to get the knots free and unravel the kit, reaching for the picks. One version out of date, as far as he could tell, with a backward glance, but still useful. "You're getting into the spirit of things."

"Yes, well, ever since meeting you, within a short span of a day or so I've been punched, knocked out, shot at by a sniper and now arrested by fake police. I thought I had better catch up," Watson noted dryly, as James used the lockpick to open his cuffs, then Watson's.

"Brace yourself. Get ready to move." James picked up the tiny smoke bomb canister, pulled the pin, shifted to the front and pushed it through the grille between himself and the CIA field agents in the front. There was a shout, coughing, then a squeal of tyres as the driver swerved, then a heavy impact that knocked James heavily against the side of the van. The standard laser tool took care of the seal and lock, and James kicked the doors open, ducking out.

Harrow Place. James started on a dead run, weaving through startled passers-by, ignoring screams and milling confusion, not bothering to look back to see if Watson was keeping up. Darting down past Gravel Lane and against Beauford House, he only slowed the moment he stepped into the crowd heading down towards Aldgate Station. Beside him, Watson drew level, only slightly out of breath and grinning with excitement.

"We'll head for a place in Knightsbridge," James decided, as he fixed his cufflinks, keeping an eye out for pursuit. "Don't talk until we get there."

Once they were in the small apartment in Knightsbridge, James sat down heavily at the desk, exhaling. He was tired; the burst of adrenaline was running out, and he hadn't eaten in a while. He was definitely growing old. Slowing down. "How badly was Tinker hurt?"

"Bullet through most of his shoulder. Missed the arteries. Lodged in his left scapula, I think. It didn't look like the sniper was using hollow-point bullets. He got lucky there."

"The sniper was also a decoy. Tinker was expecting someone called 'Tiger'. There's more than one game running. Your friend's in a great deal of danger, if there's another, better hunter out there after his blood."

"I could send Sherlock an email," John suggested doubtfully.

"No. We'll preserve his cover for now. His email might be monitored." James opened the desk drawer, taking out the laptop within it. "Tinker seemed surprised when I found him. Hopefully, he's been too distracted to figure out how it was done. How long would it take for him to get patched up?"

"It didn't look like the bullet needed to be taken out - if it isn't impinging on a nerve or nerve root, he'll probably just need a change of the dry dressing. I've already given him a shot of antibiotics. He'd lost quite a bit of blood, though. I think he'll definitely have to recover from that, at the least."

James logged in to the MI6 surveillance server, checking on the tracer - it had moved, and the marker was now hovering over another CIA safehouse - the one in Kings Cross, near the Apollo. Possibly a trap. Possibly a dead end. Still, it was the only lead they had for now. "There's usually a set of guns and equipment under the floorboards in the last room. Help me pry them up. We're going to pay Tinker another visit."

The Kings Cross safehouse was closer to the ground, within a short walk from the station, but James rather doubted that Tinker was going to be in any shape to get very far at all. No apparent posted guards, at least, though the apartment windows were shuttered off, and for the third time in the day, James found himself heading up yet another flight of steps to an uncertain door.

This one was most likely of the lot to be trapped. James glanced at the keyhole for a moment, trying to see if he could pick up any wiring at the end, then slipped the lockpick in, motioning for Watson to get ready to shoot. Watson nodded, aiming his pistol at the door, even as James frowned and realized that the door wasn't locked.

Suspicious.

Pushing the door open slowly, careful to feel for any faint pressure that would hint at a tripwire, James got the door a quarter open before Watson abruptly gaped, lowered his gun, and squeezed past.

"Watson!" James hissed, before belatedly following Watson into the room and closing the door and staring.

At the desk pushed against the wall, a thin, tall man with almost the same unruly head of curls as Tinker was frozen in the act of trying to shove Tinker away from a laptop - Sherlock Holmes, James noted, recalling the photograph in Mycroft's file. Tinker snapped a sharp glance over when they entered, one hand going for his pistol on the desk automatically.

"Good, you're both finally here," Sherlock said peevishly. "Kindly remove my cousin from my immediate presence. He needs sedatives or he'll probably aggravate his injury, and he's starting to grow irritating."

Chapter Text

IX.

"Sherlock?" Watson demanded, incredulous, then, after a moment, "And what do you mean, cousin?"

Both Sherlock and Tinker rolled their eyes, then seemed to realize that they'd had the same reaction, and glowered briefly at each other, like irritated cats, squaring off over uncertain territory. Despite himself, James shook his head slowly and holstered his gun; he probably didn't need it for now, and besides, a gunfight now was going to be dicey in the enclosed space, especially with his instructions regarding Sherlock. He couldn't risk any accidents yet.

"I was hoping to keep you out of this," Sherlock said grimly, getting off the chair and to his feet. "You've been in enough trouble because of me."

"Oh, for God's sake," Watson growled, "I've been in Afghanistan, Sherlock. Do you really think that London criminals have anything on the Taliban? Did you really think that I was the kind of person to stand aside if my friends are in trouble? I really should punch you in the face."

"Well," Sherlock scrunched up his narrow features, probably to posit a result in a hypothetical throwdown between London criminals and the Taliban, but Tinker drawled, "Sherlock, he really will punch you in the face. Just apologize. You want to, anyway, don't you?"

"Fine." Sherlock's eyes darted around the room nervously for a moment, as though unconsciously looking for an escape, then his shoulders slumped. "John. I'm... sorry?"

That didn't sound particularly sincere to James, but Watson's lips thinned for a long moment before he exhaled loudly and decocked his gun. "You're a bloody pillock."

"I'll accept that," Sherlock muttered, though he looked as though he swallowed a rat.

"What really happened?"

Sherlock sighed. "That day, I knew that Moriarty was going to force me to jump, somehow. It was the most likely scenario on a balance of probabilities. I got Molly to arrange matters such that I would most likely survive the jump, but that my survival wouldn't look obvious to anyone."

"Why?"

"Because I needed the cover. And because if I didn't jump, he was going to get his pet snipers to shoot you, Lestrade and Mrs Hudson, at the same time," Sherlock clenched his hands tightly. "I couldn't see how I could stop that, not immediately. And I couldn't allow that. The logical conclusion was that I had to jump."

"You're a bloody pillock," Watson repeated, but it wasn't with any heat this time. "Moriarty died, though. Who're we facing now?"

"Was there a second in command?" James interjected. "A sniper specialist?"

Instead of answering him, Sherlock looked over at James instead, sweeping him with as calculating a stare as his brother's, then he sniffed and turned to Tinker. "Admit it. I'm right."

"Things would be less complicated if we didn't involve them. The Commander has a really extensive reputation for mayhem," Tinker growled, tipping up the laptop and feeling around the bottom, then tipping it up further to study it.

After a few minutes, he peeled off the plastic tracker sticker and stuck it on the table. "I knew it. So that's why you were being childish and fighting me for the laptop." At Sherlock's smirk, Tinker shook his head. "Yes, yes, it was probably elementary. Fuck. I should have done a thorough check when I took your laptop."

"It's good that you didn't. We need them now. You've been injured and you need rest. Tiger's far more dangerous than Watson. Besides, if my brother," Sherlock pulled a grimace there, "Thinks that this Commander Bond can help, then he's probably not wrong. He escaped from CIA custody, didn't he? He's probably capable. Admittedly, it's obvious that he's harboring a catalogue of old injuries, alcoholism and substance abuse, but we don't have anyone else in our deck right now, Tinker. Your normal field agents won't catch him, and my brother will move against them soon, if I know him."

How had Sherlock known-

Tinker sighed, looking frustrated and pale, wavering on collapse, and on sheer impulse, James shook off his own questions for now and padded over, arching an eyebrow at Tinker when Tinker's hand automatically tightened over his pistol. He bodily picked up the boy with an arm over the small of his back and the other under his knees, ignoring the yelp of indignation and the pistol pressed under his chin, stating, "You're going to sleep, Tinker. Sedated, if necessary. Watson, check the dressing on his wound."

"I can walk," Tinker pointed out irritably, though he stopped struggling as James carried him into the bedroom and rolled him onto the single cot. Watson headed in after a few minutes, evidently after raiding the bathroom for the medical kit, and James pushed past out of the room.

Sherlock was already typing at his laptop, his expression lost in concentration, and he looked up with annoyance when James pointedly leaned a hip against the desk. "I don't need you to do anything right now."

"Bring me up to speed if you want my help. Who is 'Tiger'?"

Sherlock glowered at James, but when James only arched an eyebrow, unfazed, he sighed and pushed back from the laptop. "Colonel Sebastian Moran, son of Sir Augustus Moran, ambassador to Turkey. Educated in Eton, then Oxford. Late of Afghanistan, 1st Bangalore Pioneers. Served nearly three tours before being discharged dishonourably for the suspected murder of civilians. Combat sniper. Once second in command to Moriarty and his favourite assassin, he runs the operation now that his master's dead. He's the most dangerous man in London."

Just like his brother, James had a sense that Sherlock never bothered exaggerating. "Do you know where he operates?"

"Tinker's running a trace. It used to be from a house in Mayfair, but we've already checked the place. It's empty. Wherever it is, it's most likely still in London."

"Do you know what you stole from Moriarty?"

"I didn't steal it," Sherlock looked annoyed, "He told me part of it, via signal. He was playing this game with me, a rather psychotic one; he needed to hold my interest. At the end, he tried to convince me that there was no code all along. Probably in case I chose to sacrifice my friends and save myself; he didn't want me to tell Mycroft, I think. Moriarty didn't know that I had already sent what I had deduced from his signals to my aunt. I knew that she would show it to Tinker, and I wanted to confirm my suspicions about the code. I hoped that Tinker would be able to reach London and help before Moriarty made his move and forced my hand."

"And he arrived two days too late."

"It wasn't really a setback. I had planned for this eventuality, in any regard. I met up with Tinker while that farce of a funeral was going on, and we've been trying to get rid of Moran ever since. I needed my laptop to access my files." Sherlock smiled thinly. "Thank you for that."

So Sherlock had been the one who came up with the plan to retrieve the laptop from the Yard. James supposed that was logical. Tinker wouldn't have known about the depth of Watson's friendship with Lestrade. "Moran has the full code?"

"The last copy of it. Tinker tells me that Silva's copy self-terminated in your servers and his other computers wiped themselves. It's in offline storage, probably a small USB, kept on his person. They're going to auction it again. Preferably, we find him and take it off him before that happens."

"What would you do with the code if we get it?"

Sherlock shot him a look filled with ample disdain. "I know that Mycroft wants it, which is why you've been sent for it. I know that the CIA wants it, which is really why Tinker is here. Personally, I'll prefer that it's destroyed. In a world where no doors are safe," Sherlock noted mildly, "Anarchy tends to follow."

"And you should care?" Sherlock's file had described him as a 'high functioning sociopath', possibly amoral. James hadn't been particularly sure if it was a brother's ruthless bias.

"Of course I do. I like order. I like things being where they should be. If anarchy is commonplace, then it ceases to be interesting. And if it does, then I might as well shoot myself. Solving crime is only stimulating because crime continues to be a logical aberration; the type of crime that I consult in is only creative because of the criminal's continuous need for self-improvement in order to defeat existing restrictions. If there are no restrictions, crime would be boring."

The Holmes family tree was certainly missing most of the branches in the sanity section, James felt, but this could be useful. "Why would you work with Tinker if you're both at cross purposes?"

"I needed him."

"Do you still need him now?" Tinker was helpless for now. Incapacitating him - or terminating him - might make the rest of the mission easier. The other CIA field agents were very likely still in London, after all, waiting for further orders.

Sherlock smiled at him, thin and merciless. "Commander Bond, did my brother tell you who wrote this code?"

"An SVR agent, currently deceased."

"Wrong." Sherlock glanced back to his laptop. "Tinker did. Most of it. The SVR agent merely finished it. I suggest that you eat something. Sleep. Whatever it is, leave me alone. Talk to Tinker in the morning and get your stories straight, before we all go tiger hunting. I'm rather tired of all of you trying to kill each other instead of shooting at those who actually deserve it."

X.

The safehouse was only really meant for one, which made it cramped as sleeping quarters for four, but James had kipped down in worse, and he opted to sleep lightly on the ground in Tinker's bedroom with his Walther within reach, just in case the CIA agent tried anything during the night. A battle with Watson over sedatives seemed to have exhausted Tinker beyond his limit anyway; the boy was - seemingly anyway - sleeping the sleep of the dead.

James woke up after his habitual four hours, listening as he drew himself up from sleep. Judging from the sounds of breathing, Watson was sleeping in a chair, near the door, and Sherlock was probably sleeping slumped against the desk... and Tinker was sitting upright in bed, his laptop over his lap, a pale blue glow painting him against the plaster walls. He glanced up sharply when James sat up.

"Didn't want to wake you," Tinker murmured absently, the playfulness gone, IV drip discarded on the side table, concentrating fully on whatever he was doing. Unsettled, James rubbed a hand over his eyes - he should have woken up when Tinker had - and put it down to the long day. He left the room to relieve himself and clean up, and was still yawning when he got back to Tinker's room, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

"Sherlock told me that you wrote most of that code," James noted, after Tinker continued to ignore him. "How did the SVR get hold of it?"

Tinker eyed him thoughtfully for a long moment, as though assessing him, then he glanced back down to his laptop. "About six years ago, when I was still in the CIA's graduate programme, I managed to hack into its top clearance databases. It was just for fun. I wanted to see if they had a file on me. They had only a basic one, but they had a really, really long file on my mother. And quite an extensive one on my father. Mother never told me who he was, you know. She just said that he was someone she met briefly during her career in MI6."

"Seems that espionage is in my father's blood. The Simanov family was involved in almost every level of the KGB, and it still had a few operatives in the SVR. Oddly enough, there was no one on active field duty. Alexei Simonov was around my age, and he was just a cipher analyst. I contacted him, just because I was curious and because I could. We got to talking, then we played online chess. We did that for years: we just talked about random things - nothing to do with our work, no specifics about our lives - and played chess. Sometimes he won, sometimes I did."

"Three years ago we started writing code together. Just stuff for fun, at first. Pranks. Or little simulations. Stupid text-based games. We never met in person - too dangerous - and I never told my mother about Alexei, but we were close friends. We still never discussed anything about our work - I don't think he even knew that I was in the CIA, and he never told me that he was in the SVR. We moved on to more and more complex code. Studied viruses, password algorithms. It was just a hobby."

"Two years ago I started writing a code that was intended to bypass security systems, any system, remotely. I wanted to be considered for Tinker. I wanted to have something on hand that could blow them away, even with my existing experience. I didn't have a way to turn it into something universal, that could be accepted by any electronic system rather than operations that were running on a highly specific set of wireless protocols and systems. I never thought that it could be practical or functional."

"Was that why you gave it to Alexei?"

"I guess. I put a year into it, here and then. I was pretty proud of it. Then I made Tinker status anyway, even without having to show them the code, so I stopped working on it. I sent it to Alexei to amuse him. We talked about it here and then, but I got busy, and we started talking less and less often, then not at all. I didn't even know that he was dead," Tinker muttered, his hands curling tightly for a moment, "Until Sherlock sent me a line of my own code, and I had to come clean to the CIA. He didn't know that I had written it. Maybe sheer coincidences do happen. Though I guess I always knew, deep down, that writing something like that would come back to bite me someday. It was too dangerous, even unfinished."

"Could you complete the code by yourself if you had the time?"

"I don't know. Possibly. That's very likely the main reason why the CIA didn't issue a burn notice on me, I think." Tinker shook his head. "Originally, I think they just wanted to keep me home, and send Tailor in my place, but I told them that Sherlock would never trust Tailor, and if they wanted the code, they had to send me."

That was a definite indication that the CIA was taking this just as seriously as Mycroft. Tailor was the codename for the CIA's fixer, the agent sent in for the most difficult, messy missions, ones that would be near impossible even for other members of the Circus. James had never met the newest Tailor, but he'd read reports of his work in Somalia and in the Middle East, and the previous Tailor had just as broad a reputation as James himself.

"You got off lightly."

"I know." Tinker smiled wanly. "Control yelled at me for two hours, but that was it. He knows my mother. That probably helped too. He met her and her friends back from just before he became Control, during the Dunning scandal."

"I heard about that." The CIA's official story had been watertight, but Soldier had let slip a couple of details when he had been drinking with James in Budapest, when he had been complaining about the new and surprisingly young Control. At that point in time, James hadn't thought very much about it.

"You know, this isn't really how I thought that meeting you would go, if I ever met you," Tinker said wryly. "I've heard about you from Soldier and Bishop, and obviously everyone in the Circus knows about you. You do have quite the reputation."

"Really." Soldier had always made fun of that part of their friendship. Apparently it gave him 'bragging rights' in Langley.

"I thought that we'd be working together, like you and Soldier did in Montenegro. Somewhere exotic like that."

"London can be exotic," James noted, amused now that he recognised the very real curiosity at the core of Tinker's act, perhaps even a touch of actual, boyish infatuation. He could use that. "And even if we're at cross purposes, we're not always on company time."

"This sentiment is exactly what got my mother into trouble with MI6," Tinker observed, though he closed his laptop when James climbed up onto the bed, smiling lazily. "I once met a female Bolivian agent who said that if you were quick, then you were off duty, and if you were thorough, then you were on the job and up to something."

"Do you want me to be quick, or thorough?" James asked dryly, as Tinker pushed his laptop onto the side table, turning to wrap his arms around James' neck and pull him down, his kiss hungry and insistent as James settled between eagerly spreading thighs, working loose the first button at Tinker's throat and tugging his tie loose, mouthing down to nibble over his jugular, inciting a breathy gasp.

"Definitely thorough," Tinker purred, clever hands quickly undoing James' shirt, rubbing appreciative palms up his chest, over the planes of muscle to his shoulders, and James growled, catching Tinker's lower lip in his teeth for a moment to suck before taking his mouth again, deeper, until Tinker bucked against him with an inarticulate, back-of-the-throat sound of hunger-

"Oh for fuck's sake," Sherlock squawked from the door, and James twisted up to look automatically. The consulting detective was wheeling away, rubbing at his eyes, "I'm deleting that. Deleting!"

Confused, James frowned for a moment, but Tinker had already started to laugh, calling out, "Are you still a virgin, cousin? You're missing out on life!"

"DELETING. John, wake up. Get breakfast. Much coffee. Nicotine patches. And brain bleach. A lot of brain bleach."

"Wha...? Whassat time?"

"Maybe later," Tinker murmured regretfully, pulling back and up, though he pressed a playful kiss over James' nose, then laughed when James snorted and dragged him back down for a proper one.

Chapter Text

XI.

Tinker had traced one of Moran's snipers to an apartment in Surrey by the time Watson returned with coffee and breakfast, and James opted to hunt the small fry while they tried to zero in on bigger fish. He supposed that Watson could be more or less relied on to keep an eye on Tinker and Sherlock, especially since Tinker was injured, and for now at least there was an uneasy truce.

Besides, the directive not to trust or rely on anyone had come from Mycroft, and James didn't take orders from Mycroft. He needed Tinker and the others for now, at least until they located Moran. After that, there was possibly going to be a problem, at least where Tinker was concerned.

James called M on the secured line while he was circling the Surrey apartment, thinking over the map and layout that he had memorized from Tinker's laptop, and M sounded tired. "007. Report."

James gave M a brisk outline of the mission to date, unemotionally, including Tinker's true involvement with the code, and at the end, there was a slow breath. "Mycroft will need to be informed," M said, finally. "That's a complication."

"Terminating Tinker is still an option."

"Certainly. However, this development does mean that Control is very likely to already have a copy of the incomplete version of the code," M huffed, "But perhaps without Tinker's genius they would not have a way of completing it. I'll consult with Mycroft. For now, continue to attempt to retrieve the complete version from Moran. Stand by for further instructions regarding Tinker."

"Do I have further instructions with regards to Sherlock Holmes?"

"We've ascertained that he only knows a fragment of the code. Use his help if it will get you to Moran. If he starts impeding your mission, call me, and Mycroft will have a car sent to your location to pick him up."

"The imperative with regards to his life?"

"Your primary objective is to retrieve the code, 007. The survival of the other players in the game would be preferable but not mandatory."

"Understood." That gave him some leeway, at least. James roundly disliked babysitting normal people, let alone evidently insane ones like Sherlock Holmes.

Just like the first sniper, the Surrey apartment's resident refused to speak, and after a while James simply broke his neck, cleaned up the apartment and left, a little frustrated. Moran - or perhaps his late boss - had somehow put the fear of God into even hardened professionals like his deck of snipers, and James had a feeling that the rest of the small fish were not going to be useful.

Tinker texted him another location and a few pictures of maps - Wellington, close by - and James settled down his residual adrenaline to neutral, calculating the quickest route. It would be better to make hits on as many of the small fish as he could in a day, to leave Moran's organisation scrambling to keep up. Sometimes the best way to hunt a tiger was to smoke out its den.

He was nearly at Wellington when his phone rang. M sounded a little less tired, this time, his tone clipped and brisk. "After you complete your primary objective, terminate Tinker."

James blinked, surprised, despite himself, despite knowing, deep down, that it would come to this. To the older, colder Holmes, blood counted for nothing after all.

"007?"

"Understood, M." James replaced the phone in his suit when M hung up, and exhaled. Such a waste.

His mood remained bleak even after taking care of Wellington's nest - yet another one who wasn't willing to talk - and as he headed to the next, a room at the Langton, of all places, James hunched his shoulders against the cold, uneasy. He had befriended targets before, certainly, and he had known from the start in this particular mission that terminating Tinker was a distinct possible outcome, but it still unsettled him when faced with the certainty of it all.

James supposed that he had always assumed that he would have discretion. Oddly enough, now that the element of choice was removed, the thought of terminating Tinker - putting a bullet through that lazy, playful smile - felt even harder than before, when it was just a distant, objective possibility, an option.

For someone in his position, Tinker lacked the coldness that most spies of 00 and equivalent rank tended to cultivate; he was dangerous, certainly, and deadly, but there didn't seem to be anything closed off within him, nothing that was anything less than alive. That much was obvious to James from talking to Tinker earlier, and in a way, it was even... endearing. If it was an act, it was an unnaturally perfect one. If it wasn't, logically, Tinker wasn't going to last very long in his designation - but James had a feeling that Tinker probably had a reputation for beating the odds. There would be few other reasons why he would have made it into the Circus at all, let alone at such a young age.

Such a waste.

Briefly, and insanely, James considered calling M to ask him to reconsider, but clenched his hands quickly before he fished for his phone. James had disobeyed orders before, certainly, but only where he felt that they conflicted with his ability to complete his primary objective. He had never refused to complete the primary objective itself. Having to kill whoever he was told to kill was his basic function as a 00, after all, whether it was a dictator in a war-torn failed state or another spy. He'd thought himself long past ever being able to have regrets or second thoughts.

Maybe M was right, after all. Espionage was a young man's game, not because the old grew slow, but because they eventually grew sentimental.

He managed to pull his guard back together once he entered the stately lobby of the Langton, heading briskly to the lifts as though he was a guest. Hotels had laughable security, and either this sniper was another semi-professional, or it was a trap. Either way, James didn't particularly care. Adrenaline was shouldering aside his self-doubt and his black temper; he wanted blood and a touch of violence to resettle his mood.

The door opened easily enough with the passcard, and James stepped quietly into the room, Walther drawn, careful to check for tripwires, then he stared, startled - sitting cross-legged on the white leather couch was Tinker, typing on his laptop.

"Close the door, James," Tinker noted dryly, as James froze, and James took in a slow breath, forcing himself to recover his poise, closing the door and putting the Walther away. "How was your day?"

"Efficient. Yours?"

"We've settled all the small fish, between you and my agents," Tinker said, as James headed over to the minibar to check the scotch. "And thanks to Sherlock's files, I've managed to trace almost all the bank accounts registered to Moriarty's syndicate. A rather large number of charities are going to find themselves millions richer tomorrow morning. Properties have been put in escrow and incoming transactions have been burned or frozen."

"You've been busy." Out of habit, James checked the seal on the small bottle of scotch - some forgettable year, a Glenlivet - before pouring a shot of it into a glass, neat, and drinking it down with a jerk of his wrist. The alcohol helped, but when James poured himself another shot, he found Tinker watching him, his head tilted. "Thirsty work," James suggested belatedly, and there was a pause before Tinker sniffed and looked back to his laptop.

"Well, when I eventually debrief Control, I can't exactly go, 'I went to London, and a civilian and 007 did all the work', can I?"

Having to face Control's wrath again wasn't going to be a problem in Tinker's immediate future, James felt, as he forced himself to take his time over the second glass of scotch. "I wasn't aware that there was a competition."

"I'm young. I'm aware that I have a lot to prove," Tinker shrugged, "Last week, I sabotaged the North Korean nuclear testing exercise without even having to leave my office in Langley. Got it blamed on malfunctions, caused an unstable meltdown, corrupted the system files, all from behind my laptop. And yet, days afterwards, when that thing with Sherlock blew up in my face, Poor Man actually said outright to me that he'd always thought that I'd made Tinker because Control owed my mother a favour."

"Nobody likes Poor Man," James noted. Poor Man had a reputation for being impossible to work with, and even more impossible to work for.

"Still, he was only voicing a general sentiment. This isn't my first field assignment by any means, nor the most difficult, but it feels like it is, somehow."

Tinker had no idea. His mood growing bleak again, James asked, "What did you call me here for?"

"Well, while I was running a trace on the Cayman accounts I decided to watch some local drama serials to while away the time, and I'm afraid that Sherlock got excitable, and eventually, I decided to head out while Watson was still trying to calm him down." A faint quirk to Tinker's lips indicated that Tinker had probably turned on the serial knowing full well the reaction that his cousin would have to it, and was looking for entertainment that way. "They'll be fine. Besides, I think it's time that they're taken off the board. Sherlock's intelligent and Watson's a good shot, but this is beyond them."

"They'll object." Civilian or not, James knew that Sherlock was probably going to be extremely difficult to control.

"Mycroft can be heavy handed, but they won't be hurt. Why don't you arrange that? I've already copied Sherlock's files. We don't need their help any longer, and I think the tiger will strike soon."

James hesitated for a moment, then he nodded, putting the scotch aside and padding into the bedroom, calling M.

"007."

"Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are at the Kings Cross safehouse. Their services are no longer required."

"I'll let Mycroft know. Anything else?"

James let out a slow breath, swallowing down impulse again, and managed a neutral, "No, sir," before hanging up, and feeling his age again as he put the phone away. The touch on the small of his back made him flinch and whirl around, and Tinker laughed as he stepped quickly out of range.

"You're jumpy."

"People like us don't like to be approached from behind," James retorted, more sharply than he'd intended. He hadn't heard Tinker sneaking up on him, and his instincts were unsettled again; he felt off-balance, and he hated the feeling of disorientation.

"I would have thought that you'd be used to it," Tinker drawled, though he wasn't smiling now, tilting his head again, and impulse had James step over to pull him close for a crushingly brutal kiss, hungry, violent enough that he felt Tinker tense up for a moment before long fingers curled over his shoulders and there was a breathless purr.

This was new, too - James had never fucked any of his primary kill-targets before. Not because of any sense of propriety; he had slept with people in his kill-targets' inner circles before, just to get within range of his target, and if performing a honey trap would make his mission easier, James wouldn't have thought more of it. He just didn't happen to be the usual sort of agent for honey traps - missions like that normally went to 005.

It was an odd feeling. This was very likely the last time Tinker would take someone to bed, young and gorgeous and brilliant as he was, and that burned the violence from James, gave him urgency instead, fumbling with Tinker's tie and shirt until the boy pulled back from a sloppy kiss with a delighted laugh. "The trace is going to take a few hours at the least, James."

"So we're off duty."

Tinker pouted - adorable - even as James attacked the sleek curve of his jaw with his teeth until he tipped up his head with a gasp, tugging at James' jacket until James shrugged it off and tossed the suit over to a chair. "I said - aah - I said I wanted you to be thorough, not quick."

"That bloody parka," James muttered instead, dragging it off Tinker's slender shoulders, trying to be careful about Tinker's injury, dumping it on the chair over his suit as he pressed Tinker against the wall, making Tinker laugh again, then moan, as James placed a sucking kiss against Tinker's throat, high enough that he'd need a scarf to hide it tomorrow.

"It's a Dries van Noten," Tinker noted dryly, as James peeled off the suit jacket that Tinker wore under it.

"You look like you're swimming in it," James retorted, running his hands greedily up Tinker's slender waist, to the lean frame above it. "Don't wear it again."

"It's good for hiding equipment," Tinker rolled his eyes, leaning up for an open-mouthed kiss, eager thing, clever fingers tugging at James' belt, working it loose before trailing his fingers up James' chest, undoing the buttons as he went, his grin lazy as he kissed his way down, fluttering and soft at first until his mouth reached the first scar, the ridges from the bullet fragments, then James growled as Tinker shifted over to lave his tongue over the pitted scar tissue from the bullet wound he had received from Moneypenny.

He pressed a palm pointedly over Tinker's shoulder, and there was another laugh, but the boy went easily enough to his knees, tipping his chin up with a look of mock innocence that was so gorgeously filthy that James had to bite out a groan, resting the length of his arm against the wall as Tinker tugged down boxers and pants with a low, appreciative hum.

"You're big," Tinker curled his fingers around James, giving his stiffening flesh a tight, quick stroke.

"I'm surprised that you didn't ask the Bolivian agent about that."

There was a snort, then warm breath pressed teasingly around the swelling head of his cock, as Tinker drawled, "Yes, well, we were occupied, and I think she was too polite to draw comparisons."

"Who kisses and tells while kissing?"

"Spies gossip all the time," Tinker snuck up another quick, wicked grin, "Oral fixations."

James rolled his eyes, then his breath hitched as a wet, warm tongue slid up his cock, agile and quick, swirling over the sensitive folds of skin under the swelling tip, taking his time to lick and taste despite James curling his hand impatiently into his thick head of hair and tugging lightly. He drew his hand away when Tinker gave him a hint of teeth in warning, struggling to hold onto his self-control instead, his breathing growing shallow, then laboured, and it was only at his final, bitten-off, "Tinker," when he felt like grabbing for Tinker's hair again that the boy laughed and finally, finally, swallowed him down, Jesus-

He was too late to hold in his keening cry, as Tinker took him with wicked ease all the way down, with apparently no real effort at all, no gag reflex, fuck, laughter in a dizzyingly delicious vibration around James' cock as James' hips stuttered helplessly and he let out a garbled, strangled string of gasps. Sex wasn't usually this visceral for James, beautiful and eager and young as Tinker was; but this was more than a usual tumble, more like worship, like inscribing something final, as though Tinker was carving sense-memory against James' flesh, into his skin, just like Vesper had. Another memory-penance, for destroying yet another lovely creature whom had the poor luck to fall into James' path.

That forced him to hold his hips still where all he wanted to bury himself deep into Tinker's hot, tight throat, pushed an unsteady breath from him when he wanted to snarl and demand more, drew him off the hot coiled burn of the brink when he wanted to come. James wanted to break Tinker first, shatter him; he could give him that much.

"That's enough," James rasped, when Tinker's throat closed around the head of his cock again, sucking, God, he was so close. "Get back up here if you want me to fuck you."

Tinker drew back, though he was laughing, his voice torn and hoarse, his eyes sparkling with lust and impish merriment. "Oh James, you're so charming."

"I'll give you charming," James growled, hauling Tinker to his feet, then picking him up as Tinker wrapped his arms over James' shoulders and his long legs around his hips, taking the few long strides to the bed in a blind stumble as Tinker licked into his mouth, teeth scraping over his lip, hungry with just a touch of violence, though the boy winced when James rolled him onto the bed. "Your wound-"

"Watson redressed it before I left, I'm fine." Tinker let James peel off the rest of his clothes, and they kicked off their shoes before James pressed his palms over delicate cheekbones to slant their mouths together, slow, this time, exploring, ignoring long fingers pushing impatiently at his shoulders and scratching at his back. When he broke for breath, Tinker was watching him oddly again, and James countered by pretending to examine the bandages.

"You could ride," James decided, settling his palm over Tinker's cock, palming the wet tip until Tinker bucked with a gasp into his grip.

Tinker made a dramatic sigh, laughter in his eyes again, "And here I was hoping that you were going to fuck me into the bed."

"That's for next time. When you're better, and won't end up bleeding everywhere."

"I'm not that badly injured," Tinker protested, then, as James reached blindly for the side table, searching for condoms and lube, he added, "And we've read each others' files, all the way down to the bit about having no diseases, haven't we?"

"You're a bad influence," James drawled, fishing out the discreet tube, ignoring the packets.

"I know," Tinker retorted, unrepentant and greedy, setting his hands over James' shoulders, demanding another kiss as James slicked up his fingers and pressed one in slowly, all the way to the knuckle. Clean, almost a little loose; the point of calling James to the hotel room was obvious, then. Good boy. "Come on," Tinker urged, wiggling back shamelessly against James' hand, "I can take more."

"What happened to wanting it thorough?"

"We can be thorough about the part of this entire exercise that involves you having your cock inside me?" Tinker suggested, grinning invitingly.

"I don't think I've ever heard sex being called an exercise before," James retorted, though he obliged with two fingers, scissoring them deep until Tinker arched and squirmed, their slick cocks pressed together, the friction not nearly enough, trapped between their bellies.

"Why are you focusing on the wrong part of my statement?" Tinker rolled his hips, clenching teasingly tight, then he scowled when James ignored him, opting for a third finger instead. "James. I know what I can take. Sit up."

Amused, James obeyed, allowing Tinker another kiss, then another, as Tinker lined himself up and sank down, impatient and gritty until he reached the thick root, and reared back, panting, open-mouthed, hands curled and restless on James' shoulders as James set his palms over Tinker's hips, shaking a little from the effort of having to keep still. He wanted to force Tinker down, bury himself deep, roll them over and pound the boy into the bed. He wanted to bruise him, to break him down. He wanted to say how sorry he was that they'd had to meet each other this way.

Thankfully, Tinker sank down the rest of the way with a shaky gasp, and the bleak, gray thought fragmented back to lust, the boy chuckling as James leaned over to press another, biting kiss next to the first mark that he had made on Tinker's neck, writing the sins of the present and those of the future into lovely smooth skin with his teeth and his mouth, with the tightening grasp of his hands as Tinker's body loosened around him into a velvet glove and the boy started to move.

The roll of Tinker's hips was tentative only for a moment, then James arched an eyebrow at him in challenge and got a bared line of brilliant white teeth in response; the headboard shook against the wall as Tinker rode him roughly against the pillows, his nails drawing bloody lines down James' back, his breaths in choked whimpers and pleas cut off beside James' ears, his ragged "James" breaking into a whine as James jerked up into him and pulled his hand into a fist over Tinker's cock, working him over until he spilled with a hoarse shout.

James waited, shaking, until Tinker drew his mouth in a wet and lazy curve down his cheek to his lips, over day old stubble, lifted his hips shakily and groaned as James ground up into him, his own release raw and bittersweet.

"Thorough enough for you?" James drawled, as Tinker eyed him with amusement, then reached over to the side table, pulling out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. "I didn't think that you smoked."

"Not often." Tinker didn't even bother to get off him, as he lit up, the end of the cigarette glowing a brief cherry red between his lovely fingers, his mouth in a lazy curl of satiation wrapped around the stick. "I know that it's a bad habit."

"You should quit," James agreed, taking the cigarette from Tinker to take a drag of it himself, the nicotine calming down the last of the violence in his blood, the smoke hazy between their eyes.

"My parents both smoked," Tinker retorted, clearly unrepentant. "One of the few things that they had in common, I suppose, according to their files. Guns, cigarettes, espionage and vodka."

"It's good to have things in common."

"My father survived. That was in his file," Tinker noted abruptly, his eyes growing distant. "He got posted to the Russian embassy in Washington. I think he helped during the Dunning matter. Mother never said. She didn't want me to meet him yet. I guess I wasn't ready to yet, either. I was still trying to make Tinker. Talking to Alexei was bad enough."

"He survived?" Either there were circumstances, or-

"Mother shot him three times in the chest. I suppose it was her way of telling him that she loved him. She was more than capable of shooting him in the head instead, and she wouldn't have missed." Tinker shook his head, with a slow breath. "Field work does strange things to people."

"It isn't for everyone." James handed over the cigarette after another, slower drag.

"She gets restless at home," Tinker shrugged, though it had to be obvious that James wasn't talking about his mother, and they smoked the rest of the cigarette in a slow, warm silence, the trails of smoke thick and acrid between them.

Chapter Text

XII.

The unfinished stretch of construction in Islington was meant to be turned into apartments and a ground floor retail space, but at present, it was a warren of exposed steel fingers, stone and suspended, dusty glass panelling, marked with black tape. Construction had stalled because of recent legal problems, Tinker had told him, some sort of three-way dispute that was in itself running out of funds and steam, and so the giant stretch of steel and concrete had been temporarily abandoned. A man-made jungle of girders and cabling, perfect for tigers.

The trace that Tinker had run had led them here, and as much as James was sure that Tinker wasn't yet fully at a hundred per cent, he supposed it was easier if the boy came with him. Easier to finish the mission all at once. His blood was buzzing with constant tension, and he felt unsettled again, even stalking his main prey in its den, and this was dangerous, this distraction, possibly fatal.

He was growing old.

"The east block is clear," Tinker's voice was in a soft murmur in James' earpiece. They had split up for now, to cover more ground.

"This section's empty," James replied, studying the ground. The layer of dust on it hadn't been disturbed for some time, and the stairwells were unfinished. "It's been empty for a while."

"Try to get to the lower floors. I'll check the northwest wing."

James' night vision was good - all the 00s had good night vision - but the lower floors were challenging. Every scuff of his feet against the concrete seemed overloud, and once, when he accidentally scraped against the edge of a twisted length of steel, making a soft pinging sound with his cufflinks, he winced, gritting his teeth. Using the small lightstick in his suit that Tinker had given him was going to be murder - he'd be obvious like a beacon to any hunter in the dark - and he rather regretted not having the infrared goggles from Q-branch. It wasn't standard issue for the MI6 London kit.

He circled the level as quietly as he could until he was fairly sure that it was empty, before taking down the next set of stairs, careful of his footing. There was a leak, somewhere, or perhaps old rainwater; the stairwell smelled of stale air, old piss, and earth. The darkness looked chokingly thicker, the further he went, as though he was descending into the clutch of the earth itself, towards Hell. The things he did for Queen and Country.

Dried mud and sand was caked around old debris beneath his feet, but as James started to check the floor in a clockwise rotation, careful of his steps, he could smell the briefest hint of fresh cigar smoke, something expensive. The tiger's lair was close. Too dangerous to mention anything to Tinker, not when sound was going to echo and carry, and James let out a slow breath, calming his heartbeat, careful to keep to the deepest shadows as he followed the scent.

It occurred to him briefly that the CIA's moniker for him was going to turn out accurate after all, and the thought amused him for a moment before training put him back into neutral. James padded in between the shells of spaces that were probably meant to be shops, blinking a little when he turned a corner and found a soft circle of growing light. Heading cautiously towards it, he frowned as he eventually circled around and saw a table, a desk lamp attached to a generator. A freshly cut cigar, partially smoked, sat in an ashtray beside a book and a closed laptop. Glancing around, James cautiously lowered his gun, stepping forward, wary of tripwires or pressure plates.

"The northwest wing is clear. I'm going to the next. Seen anything yet?" Tinker's voice in his ear, so suddenly, made James start backwards on instinct, and that was probably what saved his life. A bullet whistled past his nose, embedding itself with a crack in the girder behind him, and James backpedalled hastily into the darkness, flattening himself against a wall. "007?"

"Busy," James snapped, inching quickly behind a reinforced pillar as another bullet punched through the flimsy temporary wall where his head would have been.

There was a quick breath, then, "I'm coming to your location."

"Keep sweeping the top floors," James retorted. "He can't be here alone."

"The small fish aren't important. Hold on."

James growled, about to argue, when a tinkling sound at foot level made him scramble away on instinct, head ducked low; there was a hissing sound, gas, probably. James wished a little viciously that he had a grenade, damn M and his no-explosions-in-London rule, and waited behind another girder, thinking. If Moran was as good as his reputation, then he would have dug himself in, possibly set traps in the possible routes to his nest. Trying to take down the sniper in the dark was going to be an exercise in suicide.

"Moran!" James called. "I'm only after the code. Give it to me, and we can work something out. You'll die here, otherwise. You've closed yourself in, and there'll be others coming."

There was a low, soft laugh in the dark that drifted, like a big cat's huff. With the echo, it was hard to pick out where the source was. "Do you know why the CIA calls me 'Tiger', Commander Bond?"

"Pray tell."

"Once, in the Kumaon jungle," the voice was drifting further, as though Moran was moving, "There was a man-eating tiger, terrorizing the locals. I tethered out bait for it, waited in a tree, but I only managed to wound it. It took refuge in its lair, down an old storm drain, in the dark, so I went down after it, with just a pistol and a knife. It took me a day to corner it and kill it."

"Most people have normal hobbies," James suggested, moving as well, trying to pick out any changing shadows even as he kept behind cover.

"Not people like us." There was a crack of a gunshot, small arms, and James bit down a curse as he felt an impact against his left arm, a hot burst of pain. "Did MI6 forget to advise you that I was more than just a sniper?"

He had to get to the upper levels; down here in the dark, against a hunter with superior night vision, on unfamiliar ground, he was sadly disadvantaged. Slowly, James started backing towards the exit, training blanking against the pain and shock for now. A bullet chipped dangerously close to his ankle as he scrambled up the stairwell onto the first basement floor, his eyes adjusting to the better light, backing off into the gray gloom. Moran might not be willing to follow him onto the ground floor.

Glancing at his wound, James noted that it wasn't serious - clean exit wound, nothing important nicked. Either the darkness was worse for the tiger than it had thought, or-

A rusted door near him opened in a squeal, and James caught a glimpse of a man crouched behind it before he fired on instinct. The body jerked, falling back, face caved in from the impact, and James exhaled, lowering his gun. He'd have to search the corpse-

A bullet slammed into his leg, just under his knee, throwing him off his feet, and James let out a sharp cry of pain, dragging himself quickly behind another girder, gritting his teeth. Another decoy, then. Behind him, the tiger was laughing, again with that soft, huffing sound.

"Commander Bond. I'm disappointed. Your reputation was better than this." Moran's voice was drifting again, somewhere to his left. "Old tigers usually grow more dangerous, more vicious. You've just grown slower."

Moran was playing with him, James realized. Or the shot in the dark to his arm could quite easily have been in his head. Which meant-

"When the boss told me about his plans, I tried to argue with him," Moran continued, the echo dislocating his position again. "I said we could make far more money reselling the code than playing his stupid games. And he said, what was the point of money, for people like us? Money was just a matter of keeping score, or a way to buy more guns. Instead, he proposed a game. An endgame that would give him his 'happy ending' - tch - and one that would give me the most dangerous prey in London, in a hunting ground of my choice."

So that was why the auction had been delayed, rather than launched immediately after Silva's death. James forced himself to his feet, with a grunt; digging his fingers into the cracked concrete of the pillar. His left leg wouldn't carry him far at any acceptable speed - not good odds. He could take cover in the service door with the body in it, perhaps, although it'd just be asking for a grenade. James glanced out, jerking his head quickly back as a bullet chipped into the girder, but he'd gotten a glimpse of a dark head, behind another pillar, and a flicker of movement, beyond that.

"Your boss thought highly of me," James called back instead, reloading his pistol and blind firing around the girder, and Moran let out another huff.

"Maybe too highly. Or maybe we shouldn't have left it until after your business with Silva. It's damaged you, just like age and chipped teeth damaged that old tiger." Moran sighed, as James peered around and squeezed off another shot that gouged a furrow against the side of the girder he was behind. "Not bad, that one."

"It wasn't meant to hit you, just distract you," James noted calmly, waiting, and there was an abrupt, louder crack, a rifle shot, harsh and loud in the silence, and the sound of a body slumping. Grimacing, James lowered his gun, limping around the pillar, as Tinker padded briskly out from cover, switching off the transceiver earpiece, a Marlin 336XLR rifle under his arm, Sherlock loping behind him. "Who the hell hunts tigers with just a pistol and a knife?"

"People looking to get mauled," Tinker noted dryly, looking him over pointedly and setting down the Marlin as he searched Moran's clothes. James' hand tightened on his Walther, but he waited instead, loping to a closer pillar to watch, leaning against it.

"Didn't you get picked up?" James inquired, with a glance at Sherlock, and the detective rolled his eyes.

"Surely you're intelligent enough to recognise a ruse when you see it. Someone had to distract Mycroft's thugs, to free up Tinker's field agents. We led them on a merry chase, lost them near Westminster, and circled back here to help. They're all taking care of the rest of Moran's men in the building as we speak. John decided to join in," Sherlock added, with a grimace. "I can't imagine why that would be entertaining."

"No, I suppose not." James noted wryly. There was a bit of a devil in Watson still, something that craved danger, even as he calculated his odds. If he shot Tinker now, leaving Sherlock alive might turn complicated-

"Ah, here we go." Tinker straightened up, and tossed a small silver USB stick to Sherlock. "Enjoy."

"Thank you." Sherlock pocketed the USB stick, and when James brought up his Walther, Tinker stepped into his line of fire with that infuriating, gorgeous lazy grin.

"Ah, ah. Not yet, James. Sherlock, go."

"Are you sure?"

"I said go."

Sherlock shot Tinker, then James a frozen look, something between calculation and resignation, then he darted away out of sight behind the large main pillar, coat flapping.

"Why did you do that?" James asked, confused. "Doesn't the CIA want the code?"

"Like I told you from the beginning," Tinker noted wryly, "I'm here on family business, James. I flew here to help Sherlock finish his work. If the code's wiped, that's an acceptable, but not preferable outcome where Control is concerned. Same as MI6, I believe. My main concern was taking out Moran, and the rest of Moriarty's organisation."

"It's not that simple." He'd have to catch Sherlock. Take the USB from him. Or maybe just put another call through via M to Mycroft. Let Mycroft deal with his damned family.

"No." Tinker's smile dropped. "I know that M's ordered you to kill me. What I want to know," Tinker added quietly, "Is why you haven't."

"I haven't yet. I always complete my missions," James retorted, though his gun hand felt unsteady and his wounds were starting to burn into a throbbing agony. "I'm sorry, Tinker."

"You really are, at that." Tinker mused, and this time his smile was quick and tentative. "Well. Do it."

"I... what?"

"Shoot me."

"You want me to kill you?" James asked, blankly.

"You always complete your missions, don't you?" And there was pity there, with something more, that boyish flush of infatuation, warm and rich in Tinker's gorgeous eyes. "You'll have to hurry. Sherlock might have destroyed that USB by now."

"Let him," James growled, with a touch of bitterness in his voice, tired now, more tired than he could remember, and he let out a slow breath as the inevitable settled over him, made him tighten his finger a fraction on the trigger as he dipped his gun down a few inches, aiming elsewhere. "Three shots in the chest, did you say?"

Tinker smiled, lazy again, his hands going loose at his sides. "Don't miss."

The gunshots seemed numbed around the hollow roar of blood in his head, and when Tinker collapsed, James let a long, slow breath, closed his eyes, and started to limp away. He wouldn't look back.

Once outside, James limped up an alley to the main street, pausing when a black sedan pulled up beside him, the door opening. M sat within it, eyeing him with a cool, calm curiosity. "You need the hospital."

James nodded, pulling himself into the car with a grunt, dragging the door closed. He was old enough to know his limits. "Tinker is dead."

"The code?"

"Sherlock Holmes has it."

"Then it's as good as destroyed." M sighed, pulling out a phone. "Not an optimal result, 007."

"No," James agreed, neutrally, glancing out of the window. "You were right, sir."

"In what regard?"

"This is a young man's game." The old would always grow too sentimental.

XIII.

008 had made fun of his limp, but James refused crutches or a wheelchair, and Moneypenny smiled at him when James made it up to M's floor in response to the summons. "Oh. Old dog. Still so proud."

James smiled on automatic, setting his palm against her desk and leaning over the edge a little. "Are you free for dinner, Moneypenny?"

"Not today," Moneypenny replied, in a woman's gentle way that implied not ever, though she patted his hand absently. Years ago, James thought, he would have pressed the issue anyway, stroked her gun-callused fingers, leaned in close, but now, he only pulled his hand away. "M's waiting for you."

M was seated at his desk, and opposite it, Mycroft was in one of the guest chairs, sleekly dressed as ever, a long black umbrella hooked in his elbow. Again there was that cold, careful flicker of calculation, then M waved James into the spare chair, waiting until he had settled heavily into it, his leg twinging even through the painkillers.

"M. Mister Holmes."

"Why didn't you go after my brother after you shot Tinker?" Mycroft asked briskly, and James pointedly looked over to M, who smiled wryly and lifted a shoulder.

"Mycroft's a member of the JIC, 007. Kindly answer all his questions."

"It didn't seem necessary. Nor did I think that I would be able to catch up with him, with my injuries."

"Were you aware of his intention to destroy the USB?" Mycroft growled.

"Yes. I was instructed that the destruction of the code would be an acceptable, though not optimal outcome."

"He mailed the fragments of it to my office today. Utterly unsalvageable." Mycroft's closed his eyes briefly, letting out a slow, irritated breath. "Sherlock has always been vindictive."

"He's never traded your personal secrets to a madman for political gain," James observed mildly, "With all respect. Sir."

Mycroft glowered at him. "I've never been interested in political gain, or I would have run for public office. I was following my duty to the letter, as you should have, Commander Bond."

"I was asked to ensure that the code was retrieved or destroyed, and asked to terminate Tinker." James spread his hands, a little stiffly, hampered by a throb of pain from his arm. "Both objectives were completed."

"Hn." Mycroft eyed him suspiciously for a moment, then glanced over at M. "I've never understood why your predecessor was fond of the Commander."

"He gets the job done," M noted neutrally. "The CIA's extracted their teams. Moran is dead, his organisation scattered. The code won't threaten national security again. Also, now we can go back to being friends with the Americans. An acceptable outcome, I should think."

Mycroft thought this over for a long moment, then he sighed. "I suppose so. Thank you for your assistance, Gareth. I'll make my report to the Minister later this afternoon. Commander Bond, I wish you a quick recovery."

"A pleasure to meet you again, Mister Holmes," James noted, as insincerely as he could, though Mycroft got to his feet, nodded at them both, and left the office. "He's worse than his brother."

"Don't gossip, 007," M rebuked him, though there was a faint smile as he shuffled the papers on his desk and looked to his terminal. "Mycroft Holmes holds a key position in the British Government. Some would say that he is the Government."

"Internally fractious, glutted with self-importance and bankrupt?"

M snorted. "Your love of your country is duly noted, 007."

James shrugged. "I love my country. Not its politics. Is there anything else you need from me, M?"

"How old are you this year, 007?"

"Forty-four."

"Do you know what the mandatory age of retirement for a 00 is?"

"Forty-five," James replied promptly, wondering where the conversation was going.

"This isn't a criticism," M noted idly, "But it wouldn't be dishonourable to take a desk job. You're the oldest surviving 00 still in service. Statistically, no one's survived to the full retirement age."

James smiled thinly. "Hire me or fire me, M."

"It wasn't a criticism," M repeated, his returning smile wan. "And it wasn't pity, if that's what you're thinking. Go and rest. I'll contact you when I have something else for you."

Chapter Text

XIV.

A year passed quickly. James picked up a few scars, a few more memories, cleared targets in Syria, worked through Kabul. Eventually, on his last day, he took a slow walk around MI6, feeling a little like a ghost, ignoring or barely acknowledging the greetings sent his way, then packed away the old M's bulldog, passing the small box of personal effects to an assistant to have it delivered to his apartment.

Moneypenny got up from her desk, this time, when she saw him approaching. "James. I'll miss seeing you around."

"You've left me something fairly permanent to remember you by," James noted dryly, and kept his hands to himself when she laughed and pulled her chair aside, hugging him tightly.

"Just be grateful that it doesn't show anywhere visible, old dog." She patted his arm. "There's going to be a party later."

"I've never had to attend my own funeral gathering before."

"Don't be morbid," Moneypenny rolled her eyes. "You're retiring, not dead. Don't try and run away."

"I never run from danger," James noted lightly, leaning over to kiss her forehead, then padding into M's office. M glanced up at him thoughtfully when he entered, though he didn't get up from his desk, even as James dropped his Walther onto the desk, followed by the signed paperwork.

"The offer of a desk job is still open."

"And I appreciate it," James noted, if a little insincerely, "But it isn't for me."

"Where will you go?" M asked, because as easy as it was to mistake M for just another bureaucrat, he was perceptive.

"I haven't decided," James said, though he had. "Maybe some part of the world which I haven't blown something up in at some point in time."

"Your travel options are vastly reduced, in that case," M noted, amused, and now he pushed himself to his feet, stretching out a hand over his desk. "It's been a pleasure working with you, 007."

"Likewise."

Paris close to the summer was pleasantly warm, if with rather more American tourists than James remembered, and he kept to the smaller laneways, practicing his French. There was an art to being bored and restless, even in the most beautiful city in the world, tired as he was, and the days fell into routine, sun-swept, quiet. Maybe this was why few 00s survived to the end. During the last year, when they were a step closer to a future filled with a slow death from entropy, maybe it was just easier to give in.

Savings and connections acquired him an apartment in the Latin Quarter, and for the first month he spent most of his days sitting at a cafe, smoking, drinking coffee, and watching people. After the second month, old ghosts had settled down enough before his boredom for James to take himself to the Louvre.

The massive gallery was crowded with sheep, and the scratchings and sculptures of humanity's past held no more interest to James than they had before. Still, James methodically explored a few of the vast wings, over a slow series of days, occupying the restlessness in his mind by imagining how an art theft could be carried out. Not in the day, not with so many witnesses. A bomb scare, perhaps. A distraction. One of the smaller pieces. He'd never had to steal something like a painting, before, nor anything from a place so public.

One Saturday, while James was seated at a corner cafe, having his usual long black, Doctor Watson, of all people, sat down at his table. "Bond."

"Doctor Watson." James eyed Watson curiously. The Sig Sauer was probably there, under the sports jacket, but Watson wouldn't be able to draw it without James disarming him. "Visiting Paris?"

"Kind of." Watson looked a little irritated for a moment. "I have a life, you know. Sherlock sometimes doesn't get that. He made far too much trouble when I suggested that Sarah - my girlfriend - come with me, at that."

"What does Sherlock want to tell me that he can't over a phone?"

Watson eyed him steadily, for a while, then he glanced away. "Supposing one of your missions isn't yet finished. What would you do?"

"Doctor Watson," James noted dryly, reaching for his coffee, "I'm retired. Someone else wears my 00 number now."

"All right," Watson noted, after a while. "Um. Congratulations?" When James offered him an ironic nod, Watson huffed, and glanced away. "Why did you shoot Tinker?"

"I was told to." James took another sip of coffee, and added, quietly, "If you're here to tell me that he's alive, I know that he is." James still had a high clearance code, in the year before his retirement, and he'd used it to check on the Tinker file, now and then. There hadn't been a replacement.

"I meant," Watson corrected, "Why didn't you kill him? I was the one who treated him on the scene, kept him from bleeding out until he could be moved. From what Sherlock said, Tinker should be dead. People like you don't miss."

"No," James noted deliberately, slowly. "We don't."

"Ah." The doctor smiled briefly. "Sherlock was surprised, you know. He isn't often surprised."

"He discounts a large proportion of how humanity functions."

"He usually doesn't. I guess he didn't think that you were capable of it." Watson said wryly. "I didn't. Anyway. Sherlock's back in the detective business. If you ever get too restless, maybe we could arrange something."

"I know where I can get contracts if I want work," James replied, though he inclined his head. "But thanks for the thought. Tell Sherlock I'm surprised that he bothered."

"Few people have the nerve to stand up to Mycroft," Watson shrugged. "Sherlock tries to make it a habit to ensure that those who do keep on trundling along in life. To raise his brother's blood pressure, if nothing else. Enjoy retirement, Commander Bond."

"Try not to get into too much trouble, Doctor Watson."

They shook hands over his coffee, like old friends, and Watson got up from the table, to head back into the crowds.

XV.

James sometimes imagined that he would find Tinker again in one of Paris' galleries, over across a crowd, perhaps, or sitting down beside him on a bench, in a queue, in a cafe. Tinker would smile his lazy, playful smile, and the year and more of time between them both would be behind them. It's a foolish daydream; he was retired now, far past his prime, and Tinker had probably returned to the CIA with ample warning and a lesson learned.

A year hardened people quickly, in their line of work, and there wasn't anything so much like love between them, not like Tinker's parents, more like a gray, malformed thing, reaching to touch, tentative, born of regrets and pity and curiosity, shot down all too quickly.

He took home women, some days, men, on others, and sex was as distant a mechanism as before, an exercise in mutual relief, casual and brief, and he smoked instead, now and then, remembering curling trails of ash in the dark. Sometimes his old wounds ached.

He stopped looking for Tinker in crowds, and considered moving again. Istanbul, perhaps, or Mumbai, places where the city sat ankle-deep in human strife and filth, selfish and raw with poverty and colour. He was smoking as he looked over flights to Istanbul on his laptop when there was a knock on his door, and he took another gritty drag before pulling himself to his feet and padding over, glancing through the peephole.

He couldn't quite undo the security chain and open the door quickly enough. Behind it, Tinker smiled playfully at him, wearing that ridiculous parka even though it wasn't quite cold enough yet in Paris to warrant it, his hands in his pockets. "Hello, James."

"Tinker," James was startled enough to forget himself, gaping.

"Oh, look what you've done to yourself," Tinker let himself in, wriggling past as James closed the door, feeling blank. Cool fingers pressed over the days-old stubble, to the worn shirt over his shoulders. "You're retired, not waiting for death."

"Same thing," James noted in a drawl, eyeing Tinker as he walked over to sit down back at the desk. Tinker frowned as he took in the apartment - small, and neat, almost unlived in, before he looked to the laptop, then he hooked up a chair with his foot and sat in it, hands clasped over his knees.

"I'm sorry that I didn't visit you earlier," Tinker noted earnestly.

"I didn't expect you to," James lied, covering it with another pull on the cigarette. "Compromised agents tend to be quarantined for a time. Punishment."

"No, I..." Tinker trailed off, as he fiddled with his fingers.

"You didn't quit, did you?"

"No." Tinker flashed a quick smile. "I'm still with the CIA. I didn't expect you to retire."

"It was mandatory."

"Yes, but you're 007."

"I was growing slow," James allowed, and Paris had mellowed him enough that he didn't feel any form of frustration, at that concession. "Sentimental."

"Ah," Tinker took in a soft breath, glancing away again, and the silence wound deep, choked with cigarette smoke and Tinker's slow breathing, before he added, "That day, I was fully prepared for you to kill me."

"I know." James wasn't blind.

"Control had instructed me to get rid of you, you see. He said you'd never give up on the code, that you'd follow it all the way to Langley if you had to. That you were just like the old..." Tinker hesitated, then exhaled. "I couldn't do it. I could have shot you with my Marlin, when you walked out of cover. It would have been easy."

"I know."

Tinker smiled wanly, looking up now. "I guess maybe Poor Man was right."

James sighed, reaching over to stub out his cigarette. "Come here, Tinker." As Tinker awkwardly settled over his lap, James stroked his hands up his slender back, tender, disbelieving, like a daydream, if not for the scent of smoke and a touch of sweat, a warm weight over his thighs. "We all make mistakes."

"It didn't feel like a mistake to me," Tinker noted, though he drew his arms over James' shoulders, their first kiss in over a year and more brushing and butterfly-soft.

"It would have been easier if you had taken the shot."

"You'd already lost quite a bit of blood. I don't think you would have survived it. Besides," Tinker drawled, and there was some of his usual playfulness, "007 doesn't fail his missions."

James snorted, pulling off the annoying parka and dropping it unceremoniously on the floor, dragging Tinker down for a rougher kiss, teasing the boy until he was moaning and pulling urgently at James' shirt. Somehow they made it to the bed, where James ignored impatient fingers and a wicked mouth, unhurriedly taking Tinker apart with his mouth and hands until the boy's voice broke and he was squirming on the bed, shaking and making the most delicious wounded sounds; when he finally pushed into Tinker, he welcomed the slow and hungry burn of lust that coiled tight within him and set his teeth to skin.

James reached for a cigarette automatically, afterwards, but Tinker confiscated it deftly, setting the pack aside and ignoring James' look of annoyance. "You should quit."

By way of an answer, James trailed his fingers down the jut of Tinker's hip, to sticky thighs, and asked, "How long will you be in Paris?"

"Until Control calls me home, I suppose. I don't need that much more than my laptop for a lot of my missions." Clever fingers stroked up James' arm, to his shoulder, curling over his collarbone. Outlined against the dying afternoon sun, the striated lines of scar tissue over Tinker's narrow chest, just to the left of his heart, were painfully obvious, still an unhealthy pink, fading. They'd left their mark on each other after all, despite their best efforts and their training, James supposed wryly - the only difference was that James' was visible. "Kicking me out already?"

"You haven't been to the Louvre yet, have you?"

"No." Tinker's smile was tight, his eyes luminous.

"We'll go, then. Have dinner afterwards," James decided, as he squeezed Tinker's hip lightly, his eyes half-lidded, as lips pressed up the line of his collarbone and further, to the pulse at his throat, tender; and this, within the tranquil stillness between them both, was tomorrow's timeless promise.