He smiles once, briefly, before the bullet slams home.

Then he shifts into his normal clean-up routine – surgeon's gloves slipped from his pocket to steady hands, body pushed irreverently to one side. Ammonia on the cheap linoleum floor, just in case – god, how he hates shabby motels that boast inadequately equipped kitchens in garishly colored ads. He pictures them, printed on flimsy paper and posted on the walls of a dinky roadside diner with a grimace of distaste. Because it's all about class, and style, and he has both in ample measure.

He pauses, head cocked to one side as he considers. It's not something he normally does, true, but today he has the time. He nods minutely to an unseen audience and plucks the vacuum and feather duster off the cleaning cart the dead man used as his cover.

He hums Beethoven to himself in his head, discordant over the roar of the machine and odd over the quiet of the duster, but he doesn't mind. Not today – he's floating on clouds today, walking on water since he woke up at 4:00 am in a quaint, surprisingly quiet hotel on the far side of town.

An imperceptible crease forms in his forehead as he eyes a tiny bloodstain on the lapel of his suit. Not from the blood – he doesn't mind getting dirty, so long as it achieves his goals – but from the less-than- flawless execution. Sapphire blue eyes cease to focus on the mark, and he decides that he's not as callous as they think. No, he's not a grandiose egotist; he knows better than most the value lives have. Knows better than those who tell him he doesn't and doesn't mind admitting so, even if one of those tiresome voices should belong to a certain striking brunette whose secrets he's all too privy to.

He won't contemplate the value, because he also knows that exploring the laws of behavior, while more comfortable than worldwide travel, is just as headache-inducing, and with less result. Besides, today's the last day.

He glances back at the man lying on the pockmarked plastic with his arms folded across his chest and pennies on his eyes. He nods once in farewell and leaves the way he came.

He fidgets impatiently in the elevator, anxious to get it over with. The others, they'd murmur and gossip about his uncharacteristic lack of self-control. Today, as like all other days, they're ignorant and he lacks the interest and motivation to educate them.

The doors slide open and he's gone before his mind registers that he can leave now. Just another significant little thing that Sloane should have noticed, but, as usual, didn't.

He brushes past the worker bees milling at their cubicles, not interested in watching their frightened or hostile reactions. It's all so petty, and he's a man with a purpose, and it's right at the end of the hall, waiting in a contemporary-style glass office.

He slides inside the clear door, hand slipping off the iron handle as if burned. He rids himself of the folder in a similar manner, releasing his tight grip as soon as the older man touches it. He folds his arms and waits, chewing on his bottom lip.

The rat-faced bastard flips through the papers inside, beady eyes scanning the photos and information with an absurdly idiotic look, and suddenly he can't keep the laughter inside.

Sloane looks up inquisitively as he bends slightly, snickers breaking through his weakened façade. "Yes? Is there something I should know?"

He pulls the assassin's mask over his face briefly to maintain the appearance of decorum, although he knows it's ruined by the corners of his mouth, twitched up into an unsteady grin. Fuck this – the older man is being mocked, and for once, he's not interested in keeping Sloane in the dark. Five more minutes, perhaps six, and he's gone.

The folder slides to the surface of the glass desk with a whisper of paper on paper and a sigh. The hideous orange-tinted glasses are removed, and he's faced with a look. An odd mix of misguided patriotism, expectancy, courtesy, and insolence, but he deciphered Sloane's gazes tedious months ago.

"Today is a momentous day, Mr. Sark," Sloane begins, and he can barely resist the urge to roll his eyes. Of all the days for this egotistical bullshit, today is such a special day, and yet the man can't help but try and ruin it.

"I hardly thought Irina would be comfortable placing her most trusted operative in my organization, even though we're old friends," the other man continues. He tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to stifle a groan, annoyed at the old man's insistence upon meaningless formality and his own juvenile reactions. Doesn't the man realize that he can see through anything – everything the bastard's said so far is a lie, designed to comfort himself and the twenty-three-year-old expert assassin waiting impatiently to be done with it.

"But you've done very well, Mr. Sark, and I'm glad she did," Sloane finishes, and he blinks, surprised at how well he ignored the other.

"Yes, so am I," he replies quickly, moving to accept the offered handshake, inwardly grimacing and promising himself that he'll wash his hands twice, with strong-scented soap, as soon as he's aboard Irina's private jet. "My plane leaves in two hours, so I'm afraid..."

Sloane waves him off, the last officious gesture the bastard will ever make in his direction. "Good luck, Mr. Sark."

He leaves the office even more quickly than he entered it, slipping like butter out of the organization. He groans to himself at the old man's farewell words, wanting to rebuke him for his misdirected courtesy. No, no, you foolish old relic, luck has nothing to do with it. It's all ambition and talent and drive, and if you were a better man when you were younger you might know that in the twilight of your life, which, rapidly approaching as it is, can't possibly be coming fast enough...

His train of thought breaks off abruptly as something slides into his hand with a crackling noise. He stares at a high ponytail and a retreating back, slightly bemused, before recognizing it and smirking at her svelte figure. Not that he's that perverted, of course, but he does so enjoy keeping her on her toes... even when she can't see.

His smirk widens as he raises the lightly crumpled blue sticky note to eye level. Fifteen minutes from now at the park it is, then.

She's leaning against a bench, facing him as he approaches. Coincidence, perhaps? Or have they been similar all along? He likes to think it's the latter, though he's not entirely sure why.

He eyes her clothing appreciatively. The low-slung jeans and white tank top are a far cry from the unimaginative dress suits she opts to wear most days in the office, and he finds himself thinking that he rather likes the change. He tells her so.

Her dark eyes blaze at him. "I wouldn't have noticed," she retorts caustically. He smirks in reply. He doesn't mind that she can tell he likes staring at her.

"I assume you wanted to talk to me?" he says after a brief pause.

She shoves her hands in her pockets and chews her lip. He notes that she's not meeting his eyes. "Are you – are you leaving?"

He rolls his eyes, disliking the action but enjoying her irritated reaction more. "No, Miss Bristow, I simply thought that a change of air would do my case of acute tuberculosis some good," the crisp British accent says acidly.

The tense, uncomfortable tilt to her shoulders and neck tell him that she's bothered, and not just by his habitual insults. Suddenly, he's curious about why he's here, and wants to know what's weighing her down. So much, that he's willing to stop baiting her.

"Are you going to work for my mother?"

She's so quiet that he almost asks her to repeat herself before he catches the words. Ah, so that's it, he thinks.

"Presumably. Unless you have a job you'd like to offer me?"

The angry look she throws him has so much confusion and muted grief underneath that he repents of his cruelty, which, by now, is completely homogenous with the rest of his engineered character.

"I might take a quick breather before I rejoin her organization, but I don't think it'll be long before I see her. But of course, you already know that I wasn't really working for the good guys anyway." Sloane would kill him had he heard that last but Sloane, thank god, isn't in charge anymore. "Would you like me to pass on a message?"

That last offer was made more out of courtesy than anything else, and so he's mildly surprised when she accepts.

"Would you?" The smile that flashes across her face is so brilliant that he honestly believes his heart stops – until it starts beating again.

"Tell her – I got her message. And...I understand."

His brief nod is enough for her.

"It was – nice, working with you," she says quickly. "I mean, you were a real asshole and truly dislikable and –"He laughs, and she grins, pleased at making someone happy, even if it's him. "You're the best operative I've ever worked with, and," her voice drops, and so do her eyes, "I really hope that you make something out of life."

He understands that she's giving him a sales pitch, asking him to use his powers for good and not evil, and it's so ridiculous he wants to laugh but not at her, never at her. You can laugh at someone you work with, but not someone you've killed with, after all. So he simply replies, "Likewise," quietly, takes the hand she offers him and doesn't pull away with thoughts of how he'll wash it afterward.

He watches the warm Californian sun cast shadows and highlights, alternately, on her glossy hair, and walks away in the opposite direction.

One week and two days later, he's standing in an ornate apartment in Prauge, watching Irina's face carefully as he relays her daughter's message.

Her elegant features smile, and unlike Sloane, he can't decipher the emotions in her approval. She's an utter enigma, and therefore to him, very worthy of study. He's only mostly one, though confident that that'll change in time.

"And that's all she said?" she queries in her lightly accented voice.

He hesitates before replying. "No, but the rest is hardly necessary."

"I see." He's both convinced and uncertain that she does, at the same time. God, the ability of this woman to manipulate the senses and mind – his head wants to reel in sheer admiration, but he won't let it spin as much as it'd like. Because after class and style is control, and his life is all about that, too.

She rises from her seat on the couch, stretching like a cat as she stands. "Good work, Sark," she tells him with a grin of out-and-out approval.

His smile widens into a look approaching sheer happiness, a genuine smile that he hasn't worn since he got the paycheck from his first assassination job seven years ago. He can tell by how she walks away without another word that's all the praise she'll offer for his impatient suffering under Sloane, and somehow it's all he needs.

Sydney's parting words spring to mind, along with her hesitant smile and tentative offer of redemption, and he shakes his head minutely. Attractive as her pitch was, he knows something she doesn't.

He's back where he belongs – with Mother Russia.