Disclaimer: All Alex Rider characters herein are the property of Anthony Horowitz and the Penguin Group. No copyright infringement is intended.

--


The Beat of Disillusion


Prologue


Alex sat in the old wooden chair, blood dripping slowly from his broken nose down his lips and chin. His hands were bound by the duct tape, his arms resting over the back of the chair, crossed at his wrists. He looked straight at the camera, at the people behind it. He knew what he had to do and he didnít want to take any more time. He opened his mouth, a little hoarse cough escaping him.

"My name is Alex Rider. Iím fifteen years old. For the past sixteen months I have been spying for the British government against my will," his voice was steady and dead.


Part One


There were days when Alex Rider wondered how he ever got to live to see his fifteenth birthday. Jack, sensing his dark mood, didnít insist on a huge celebration. They had Alexís favourite for dinner after he came back from school and sat together through the latest comedy film. They both knew that neither of them was watching it but acknowledging it would mean acknowledging something else, too Ė Alex was broken. Finally the missions and deaths had proven to be too much for him and all the fight and spirit had left him. His friends noticed the change in him but chalked it up to him being himself. Tom kept on asking what was wrong, hinting that he knew it had something to do with Alexís "secret life of spying" until Alex snapped and told him to stay out of it. Tom hadnít asked about it since and they started drifting apart. He was going through the motion of his days mechanically, putting a fake smile on his face whenever Jack tried to get him to smile.

He finally managed to finish a full semester at school. His teachers were rather surprised at that, as was Alex himself. He started wondering whether MI6 finally left him alone. He hadnít heard from them ever since he came back from Africa. They debriefed him and that was that. Jack was starting to relax, no longer tensing whenever the phone rang or someone knocked at the door but Alex couldnít share her optimism. He knew that if they needed him, the MI6 would come back to dangle a carrot in front of him and beat him up with their stick if he refused to cooperate.

Alex sighed and ran his hand through his blond hair. It was getting too long, Jack insisted, he needed to cut it. She promised she would do that after she came back with groceries. Alex lay back on his bed and resumed staring at the ceiling. He could hear a car pass by through his open window. June was exceptionally hot this year, the air heavy and dry as Alex inhaled. He left his windows open whenever he could, hoping for a breeze. He remembered Jack saying that July would continue in the same matter; she complained about the withering yellow grass when the council forbade watering their gardens.

He tried taking in a deep breath and nearly choked on the dry air. His mind went back to Africa and he closed his eyes. He remembered not being able to catch his breath as he dangled above the crocodiles, the way his lungs contracted and expanded furiously, the way his hands were becoming slick with sweat, the strain in his arms as he tried to support his weight and hold on a little longer Ė
The door shut with a bang, startling Alex from his memories. He gulped as he listened to Jack swear at the bag that ripped, spilling all the groceries in their foyer. He dried his clammy hands on his bed sheets and hoisted himself to sit on the edge of his bed. He grabbed the T-shirt that lay draped over his chair and put it on to go downstairs.

He walked down the stairs and bent down at the end of the stairs to pick up a can of tomatoes that rolled away from Jackís spilled groceries.

She looked up, her hair plastered to her forehead, the rest sticking all over the place. She gave him a tired grin and continued picking up the vegetables.

"Thanks, sweetie. Fruit salad for dinner and ice cream for dessert?"

"Sure, sounds good."

Alex took the vegetables from her and went to put them in the kitchen. Jack brought in the rest of the bags and put them by the counter. She dropped into the chair and tried to blow her hair away from her forehead. The sweat made it stick but she didnít give up. Alex watched her huffing and puffing and knew she was doing this for his benefit. He gave a weak laugh, his finger pointing to her forehead.

"You might want to chop that off if the weather continues."

Jack made an offended face.

"No way. This hair is my signature! Speaking about that, how about I cut your hair now?"

Alex shrugged his shoulders which Jack took for a yes. She knew how to interpret each and every shrug of his shoulders and that was how he communicated with people lately. He leaned against the sink, the metal edge digging into his back, feeling cool even though his T-shirt.

Jack eyed him critically, her eyes taking in his messy hair, the crinkled black T-shirt, his favourite baggy basketball shorts and his bare feet. Her hand came to brush the hair off her forehead and she yawned widely.

"Gimmie the scissors. This weather makes me so sleepy, I think weíre due for a nap before dinner."

Alex pushed away from the sink, walked towards the drawer that held scissors. He pulled them out, the metal glinting invitingly in the sun pouring through the window. He looked at them for a second too long and turned back to face Jack, holding the scissors by the tip, handing them out to her. She took them from him carefully, her eyes telling him she noticed his preoccupation with the item. Neither of them mentioned it aloud as Alex sat down in the chair by the one that Jack has occupied just seconds before. Jack grabbed the closest cloth and put it around Alexís neck, pushing the edges into his T-shirt.

"Now stay still. You wouldnít be as dashing with only one ear."

Alex made an agreeable sound in the back of his throat, his mind going blank. He could hear the scissors snipping at the hair at the back of his head, Jackís hands steady in contrast to her teasing. She has done this many times before, always nagging Alex and Ian to get their hair cut before it started to look messy. Alex remembered his uncle laughing and replying her once that it was the Rider family trademark. He closed his eyes briefly at the memory. He opened them just as Jack moved the scissors in front of his face to trim his fringe. He tensed involuntarily, his right hand going up to grab at Jackís hand before he had the chance to think of it.

"Alex."

Alex looked at Jackís wrist in his hand, the scissors held securely in her fingers. He swallowed and couldnít tear his eyes away from the redness that started forming between where his fingers were clenched on Jackís wrist. She was looking at him steadily with sorrow and sympathy, he noted once he looked up. He thought he saw fear there as well but he dismissed that thought quickly. This was Jack, he had nothing to fear from her.

Thatís when it hit him. This was Jack. He let go of her wrist as if she had burned him. Jackís other hand came up to cup his jaw as she spoke to him softly,

"Itís okay. Let me finish trimming your hair and you can go lie down, okay?"

Alex nodded and closed his eyes. He could feel Jack looking at him for a few seconds before she started snipping at his fringe again, the sound of scissors a scratchy rhythmic sound in his ears. He concentrated on breathing evenly. This was Jack. She wouldnít hurt him. She was just cutting his hair, as she has done many times before, ever since she started taking care of him.

He heard her put the scissors down on the table. She untucked the cloth from his T-shirt and swiped at it to get rid of the hair that clung to it. She put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed briefly.

"Youíre good to go. Looking good there, Rider, if I can say so myself."

Alex nodded his thanks and got up from the chair without meeting her eyes. He was halfway through the stairs when the phone rang and Jack answered.

"Hello?"

He knew what was coming. Her silence was too long for a normal call. She looked at Alex and held the phone to him.

"Itís for you."

Part Two

Alex stood in front of the MI6 headquarters, Jack at his side. Mr. Blunt had politely requested Alexís presence for the following day and here he was. Obeying his masterís orders like a good dog.
Jack took his arm, her fingers resting on his forearm as they walked into the building. They were blasted with cold air from the air conditioning, goose bumps erupting all over Alexís skin. They were stopped by the receptionist on their way to the elevator.

"Can I help you?"

"Alex Rider to see Mr. Blunt."

The woman smiled, nodding her blond head.

"Certainly. Heís waiting for you. Why wonít your companion have a seat while you go up to meet him?"

Alex looked at Jack who nodded and let go of his arm.

"It was worth a shot. Iíll be here when you come down."

He turned around and walked towards the elevator. The door slid just as he reached out to push the button. Mrs. Jones smiled at him and gestured to the spot beside her.

"Great timing, Alex. Itís nice to see you."

He said nothing as he got in the elevator, standing beside Mrs. Jones. Even though the weather was unbearable she was wearing her usual suit. The smell of peppermints assaulted him and made him turn his face slightly to the side, hoping he wouldnít have to inhale it.

Mrs. Jones didnít mind his silence, it seemed. She was looking him over, her eyes full of concern.

"I know you donít want to do this, Alex..."

He was saved from replying by the ding of the elevator. The door slid open and he stepped out without waiting for Mrs. Jones. He moved in the direction of Bluntís office, intent on getting this over with as soon as possible. He could hear the click of Mrs. Jonesí sensible shoes as she followed him. He reached Bluntís office and pulled the door open without knocking.

Alan Blunt looked even more gray than usual. His glare was just as strong as he looked up to see who interrupted him without knocking.

"Ah, Mr. Rider. Come in, why donít you."

Alex came in and sat in one of the chairs in front of Bluntís desk. Mrs. Jones took the other one. Blunt grimaced and put away the papers he was reading.

"Take a seat, by all means."

Alex started at him, unimpressed. They needed his help this time, they could handle a little attitude, Jack had told him. The silence was stretching between the three of them. Blunt cleared his throat when it became obvious that Alex wouldnít be the first to speak.

"You look... well."

Alex snorted.

"I look like hell. What do you want?"

"We need your expertise, Alex. Thereís a situation in Cairo that we need you to take care of."

"And if I donít agree youíll send me to orphanage and deport Jack, as usual?"

Mrs. Jones shifted uncomfortably in the chair next to his. Alex was still staring at Blunt, waiting for the man to go on.

"This will be the last one, Alex," Mrs. Jones started.

"As were the five before this one," he retorted, looking at her angrily.

"Should you complete the mission successfully, we will grant you full emancipation, Alex."

He turned sharply to look at Blunt. This was something new.

"Full emancipation?"

"Yes. Along with a comfortable sum to be deposited into your bank account, to be done with as you please."

Alex raised his eyebrow, his tone clearly doubtful.

"Really, Mr. Blunt? Thatís generous of you."

Blunt inclined his head, his hands coming to rest on his table, the right palm covering the left one.

"How can I know you are telling the truth? That itís not some kind of a trick on your part?"

"We provided Miss Starbright with a visa as we promised, did we not?"

Alex nodded his head. He thought back to the conversation he had with Jack before he went to Africa. She wanted to take him and move to US to live closer to her parents. She hoped it would make their lives easier, that he would be able to be a normal schoolboy again, she said.

"We might make wrong decisions sometimes, Alex, but we deliver on our promises."

Alex laughed at Mrs. Jonesí statement.

"Like when you promise me to come and rescue me and you donít, you mean?"

She had the grace to look away from him after his pronouncement.

"Whatís the mission?"

"As I said, a situation in Cairo. There are some anti-British stirrings over there and we are afraid that terrorists might be targeting high standing British politicians. We need you to infiltrate and bring us their plans. Thatís all. No heroics, no saving the world. Simple information gathering."

"If itís simple information gathering then why wonít you send someone else?"

Now it was Bluntís turn to look away from Alexís gaze.

"Because itís Scorpia."

Alex furrowed his brows, his hands tightening painfully on the arms of the chair he sat on.

"I thought Scorpia was... disbanded?"

"Not quite. They reformed and are said to be planning something big to reassure their position in the criminal world."

"Thereís a problem with your plan. Scorpia wants to kill me. They already shot me, remember?"

Mrs. Jones stood up and went to the filing cabinet. She took out a thin file and gave it to Alex, who noticed Blunt glaring at her as she did so.

"We believe they are under new management. Zeljan Kurst has a partner and that partner is an unknown. We have our suspicions but none of them were confirmed. What they need is an ally and you can be that ally."

Alex looked through the thin file. It contained three pages, one of them with the description of the new partner.

Caucasian male in his late thirties, early fourites. Medium high, average built. Hair colour unknown. No known names or aliases. Profession : unknown. Skills: unknown. Known associates: Zeljan Kurst.

That was helpful, Alex thought. He looked through the remaining two pages, both of which were reports of sighting of the man along with Kurst in Paris and Venezuela. That was it. He was really unimpressed.

"You want to send me in dark to people who want to kill me, hoping they will believe I am rebelling against you? Thatís a weak plan, even for you."

Blunt looked like he sucked on a sour lemon drop. His nostrils flared as he responded,

"It is quite known that you dislike us. We will send the lovely Miss Starbright to the States, where you can join her after you successfully complete the mission. We will make it known she is being deported, thus leaving you without care. Social workers will be arranged to come and pick you up. You will escape from them and go looking for Scorpia. London is full of contacts, I am sure you will be able to get in touch with them. They are probably on the lookout for you as we speak."

Alex closed the file and put it on Bluntís table. He looked around the room, contemplating what he was told. He knew it was more risky Ė and stupid Ė than before. This was a suicide mission if he wouldnít be able to convince Kurst and his partner that he was honest. There were too many variables that could go wrong, Alex knew. But ever since he stepped into this office he felt like his old self. He was scheming already, contemplating what could go wrong, what could go right. He knew the promise of full emancipation was what sold him to the idea and they had to deliver on that promise, he couldnít think otherwise, even though he knew better. Besides, if the mission indeed proved to be a suicide mission, then it wasnít bad, either. Jack would mourn him but she would move on and be free. Tom and Sabrina would remember him from time to time as they started their own families. Those were all the people that would care. He knew that to the people who were in the room with him he was nothing but another pawn. His file would be moved to the filing cabinet and rest beside his fatherís and uncleís files and that would be the end of the story.

"It will take some time and some convincing but I should be able to do it. How will I contact you?"

"You wonít need to. We have someone close to Kurst, they will report back to us with your progress."

"If you have someone there then how come your file on that mysterious partner is nearly blank?"

"They arenít as close to the source as we would like. Which is where you come in."

Alex nodded his head.

"How do I contact them?"

"You donít. Donít worry; they will know to be on the lookout for you."

Alex opened his mouth to argue but Blunt beat him to it.

"No, itís for both your and our spyís protection. Donít argue with me, Alex."

He closed his mouth and turned up his lips in distaste. He stood up from the chairs and leaned over the desk.

"I want the emancipation papers, my passport and a ticket to US when you come to get me. I will be leaving right that instant."

Blunt nodded his head.

"Splendid. Mrs. Jones will show you out. Do say hello to Miss Starbright."

"When am I to meet with Smithers?"

"You wonít," Mrs. Jones gestured towards the door. "You are running away from us, remember? You canít have any gadgets on you."

Alex looked furiously from her to Blunt, his hands balling into fists.

"No support? No weapons? Are you joking me? Youíre sending me to death!"

"It is possible, yes," Blunt said in a calm tone.

"Alan!"

"But you are a patriot, Alex, arenít you? Like your uncle? He gave his life for this country gladly. I donít think he would be proud of you if you refused to do the same."

Alex didnít pay attention to Mrs. Jonesí admonition of Blunt. He was looking at the man as if he were the worst scum of the earth that needed to be crushed. He wanted to punch the smarmy git but held back. It wouldnít do him any good to take his anger on Blunt, he was too afraid to lose the emancipation papers.

"Indeed," he spat, turned around and headed for the door.

He got out, his hands itching to slam the door in his wake but he resisted. Mrs. Jones followed him and stood beside him as they waited for the elevator.

"I will make sure you will get the papers, Alex, whether youíre successful or not. I owe it to your father."

Alex ignored her again. He got into the elevator and stared at his reflection in the golden walls. He was breathing quickly, his cheeks flushed with anger. He nearly startled when he saw his eyes, they were positively thunderous. He couldnít help but think he looked alive, for the first time in many months.

He was sick.

Part Three

To say that Jack wasnít happy with the plan was an understatement. She rounded up on him as soon as they came back home. She was agitated ever since she saw him exit the elevator, his posture screaming of anger. It was the first real emotion from him in a long while and it made her worried. She tried asking him what was wrong on the way home but he wouldnít say a thing.

"Youíre walking into a trap, Alex. Itís not too late to back out. Please!"

She kept on pacing through the living room, her eyes pleading with him to stay, to say no. She was afraid for him. He was already on a brink of something terrible and she was afraid that this mission would only push him further down, further away from her reach. She might be his housekeeper, nanny, guardian, what-you-want but she always loved him as her own child. It was difficult not to. If she didnít, she wouldnít have stayed with the family so long. Her staying had also something to do with Ian, true, but mostly it was for Alex.

"Itís our only chance, Jack. The emancipation papers... Once we get to the States I can get a new identity. Iíll disappear from their radar and we can have a normal life. Isnít that what you want?"

Jack threw her hands in the air.

"You will never have a normal life, Alex! Not anymore!"

Her statement was met with silence. Jackís hand flew to her mouth, her eyes wide with panic and regret.

"Iím sorry. I didnít mean to say that. Alex, Iím sorry..."

He stood up from the couch he sat on and shook his head.

"Donít be. We both know itís true. I think I need a nap."

He left the room before she had the chance to reply. He ran up the stairs and closed the door to his room behind him. He sat on the edge of his bed, his elbows on his knees, his face hidden in his hands. He took in deep breaths, trying to clear his mind. He knew Jack didnít mean to say it. Neither of them wanted to acknowledge the fact that there was something not quite right with him and his life. They tried to pretend otherwise but now finally the truth was out . Even if he completed the mission successfully and moved to the States his life would be far from normal. Which teenager was plagued by nightmares about people who tried to kill him, about people who died for him?

Youíre a regular Harry Potter, he remembered Tom had teased him once.

He laughed hoarsely and soon his laughter changed into sobs. He started shaking, his breaths coming in gasps. He was unable to get enough air and he knew he was hyperventilating and panicking but he couldnít do anything about that. He felt Jackís arms around his as she cradled him and rocked him back and forth, talking to him. He could hear her voice but her words made no sense. He concentrated on her voice and tried committing it to his memory, just in case. Just in case.

*

He woke up to a darkened bedroom. His head hurt and he felt really thirsty. He noticed the glass of water on the bed stand and drank it in a few gulps. He closed his eyes as he remembered his breakdown earlier. Jack was right, he wasnít ready for this. He wasnít ready but that was okay either way. It was better that way. He looked at his clock and noticed it was just after ten pm. He must have been out for a while, then. He got up and went down to the living room where Jack was sitting in front of the TV, watching a re-run of a sitcom.
He cleared his throat and stood awkwardly in the doorway.

"Sit with me, Alex."

He moved obediently to sit down beside her. She didnít turn to look at him and kept her eyes looking at the TV.

"Iím scared for you. Youíve been through too much. I canít help but want to protect you even though I know I canít do a jackís ass about it."

"Jack Ė "

"No, donít interrupt me. This is the last mission, Alex. I am going to go with it. You are going to give them what they want and then you are going to join me. You have to, you hear me?"

Alex nodded and moved his hand to cover hers. She turned her palm over and covered his hand with hers, trapping it between her hands.

"This is the last resort, Alex. You have to succeed. If you donít... If you donít then I will come back for you. I donít care about Blunt and all of them. I will come back for you and take you home with me. They can do whatever they want but this is the last time you work for them."

He was taking her in. Memorizing her words, the way his hands felt as they held his hand, the little calluses she had at the base of her fingers, the way her hair stood up on her hair, the colour bright and so Jack. He wanted to remember her like this, so fierce and protective of him, so full of love for him even though he did nothing but inconvenience her.

"Itís best this way, Jack."

She started saying something but bit it back. One of her hands came to pull his head down in her lap. He followed her and lay down, one of his hands cushioned under his cheek, on Jackís thigh. She started running her hands through his hair, both of them looking at the TV and taking comfort in each otherís presence. Alex couldnít really remember his mother but as he lay with his head cradled in Jackís lap, her fingers combing his hair gently, listening to her breathing, he thought that this was what taking comfort from a mother must feel like.

Part Four

They were woken up by the doorbell. Alex was lying down with this head still in Jackís lap, neither of them having moved from their positions from last night. They must have fallen asleep at some point during the infomercials.

Jack put a hand on Alexís cheek, caressing it gently. He pulled himself off her lap and sat on the couch. She got up, ready to answer the door but hesitated for a second. She looked like she wanted to say something but then shook her head and instead bent down to kiss his forehead. After that she straightened up and moved to open the door.

Alex knew what was coming; he was preparing himself for it ever since he learned of Bluntís plan. He hoisted himself up from the couch and went to join Jack. She stood by the open door and spoke to a man and a woman. The man was wearing a police uniform and the woman was wearing a gray business suit. It was early morning, the last day of June, and the heat was picking up already.

"Miss Starbright, Iím sorry to say we have to deport you."

Jack nodded her head and moved to the side.

"Please come in. Can I at least pack my bags?"

The policeman looked surprised that she was going without a fight. The woman nodded as she entered the house.

"Of course. But please hurry up. Your plane is leaving in three hours and we still need to go through some paperwork before that."

Jack walked past him without sparing him a glance. He nodded at the policeman and the woman and want to the kitchen. He took a glass from one of the shelves and filled it with tap water. He turned around to see the policeman enter the kitchen and look at him.

"Is there anyone you can stay with, lad?"

Alex shook his head and brought the glass to his lips. He drank the water, put the glass in the sink and crossed his arms across his chest.

"Sheís my guardian. The rest of the familyís dead."

The policeman brought his hand to scratch at the back of his neck. He grimaced as he looked around the kitchen.

"Iíll have to call the social services, you know?"

"No need, I already have," the woman spoke from behind him.

She entered the kitchen and looked at Alex with sympathy.

"They should be here soon. Why wonít you go and pack an overnight bag with things you want with you?"

He nodded and moved to walk past them. He could hear them talk quietly about him as he walked up the stairs. He moved to the bathroom and grabbed his toothbrush and comb. Jackís things were already gone from the counter. He looked towards her room, seeing the open door but decided not to push it. He went into his room, hauled a backpack from under his bed and threw his toothbrush and comb in it. He went to his wardrobe and took out a few T-shirts, few pairs of shorts and jeans. He took a few pairs of clean underwear and socks from his drawer and put them in his bag. He turned to see Jack stand in his doorway, her bag on the floor.

She walked up to him and dropped something into his bag. He looked at her questioningly and she shook her head.

"Iíll get you some money from downstairs."

"You donít have to."

"I do," she said as she left her room.

He looked into his bag and saw a cell phone. It was an old moment, silver and red with a cover. He furrowed his brows and took it out, flipping the cover open. He scrolled through the phone book, noticing Jackís parentsí phone number was there. As was Smithersí.

Alex smiled to himself and put the phone back in his backpack. Smithers must have given it to Jack yesterday at the bank. Smart man.

Alex zipped his bag and left it in his room. He went downstairs where Jack was counting the money for him. The policeman had her bag in his hand, clearly impatient to go. Jack held the money out to him.

"A thousand pounds. In case of emergency. Donít spend it all on computer games, okay?"

Alex took the money from her, rolled it and put it in his pocket. It was bulging out uncomfortably. He knew Jack dipped into her savings to give him the money. It was her attempt at helping him and Alex truly appreciated it. The MI6 might not have given him any weapon but the money Jack gave him was more than enough to buy a gun on the streets, he was sure.

"We have to go. The social services are here."

There was a knock at the door and the woman went to open it. Alex looked at Jack and cleared his throat.

"So... I guess this is goodbye then?"

Jack nodded, her eyes suddenly full of tears. She walked up to Alex and enveloped him in a tight hug. His arms moved to lock around her and he hid his face in her arm, not willing to show his tears to the other people in the house. His hands clenched on her shirt and she caressed his hair. They stood like that for a few minutes until the policeman cleared his throat.

"We really have to go."

Jack nodded, still holding him. She moved so that her mouth was right by his ear as she whispered,

"Give him a call, he will help you. You can do this. I will be waiting for you. I love you, Alex."

"I love you, too," he mumbled to her as she let go of him.

She took his face in her hands and wiped the tears that escaped him. She gave him a smile and sniffed.

"Itís for the best."

He nodded and stepped away from her. He wiped at his eyes and looked around. A tired looking woman joined the policeman and deportation officer. She looked at the scene with sympathy.

"We must go as well, Alex."

He nodded as he watched Jack walk towards the door. He had to see her walk out that door, had to know that this part of his life was over, no matter what came next. Jack turned around as she crossed the door and looked at him one last time. He tried to smile for her, so she would remember him smiling. Just in case.

Jack brought her hand up and waved at him weakly. He returned the salute and watched her get into the police car. The policeman closed the door and Alex turned to look at the social worker.

"My bag is upstairs. Iíll go get it."

"Iíll go with you. Sorry, canít risk you trying to run."

Alex nodded his head and led the way upstairs. He grabbed his backpack and was ready to leave his room when he remembered something. He went back to his wardrobe and took out a light jacket. Nights in Cairo could get cold, no need to not think ahead. This time he would be prepared.

He stuffed the jacked into his bag. He took out the money Jack gave him from his pocket and put half of it in the backpack and stuffed half of it in his sock. The social worker looked at him with a smile and shook her head. Alex shrugged and moved to close his window. She stretched out her hand and gestured to the door.

"Letís go then, if you have everything."

Alex put his backpack on and walked in front of the woman. He walked down the stairs and out to the foyer. He picked up the keys from the table and walked out of the door. He waited for the social worker to follow him and he locked the door. He slid the keys into his pocket and looked at the house he grew up in for the last time.


Part Five

Escaping the social worker was ridiculously easy. Alex wondered if she was told she was supposed to let him go but then decided against it. She looked outraged as he jumped out of the car just seconds before the light turned green at the junction they were waiting at, his backpack clenched securely in his hands, and sprinted towards the path walk. He ran, pushing people to the sides, spinning around when he nearly ran into a post box. He saw an underground entrance and ran towards it. Once he was there he slowed down and tried to blend in. There was a big crowd leaving the underground and going back up and Alex followed them, hoping to lose his tail, should he have one.

He spotted a fairly crowded cafe and went in. He ordered a bagel and an iced tea and sat down with his back to the wall and his eyes on the windows. He watched people walk hurriedly past the cafe, their bodies glistening with sweat. The heat was picking up and as it neared noon it was getting worse. Alex knew he had to find somewhere to hide. He finished his bagel and sipped his tea. He put his backpack on his lap and opened it. He fished for the phone and took it out.

He was going to dial Smithersí number before he thought better of it. He opened a blank text message and started typing.

R u free 2 talk?

He sent the message and put the phone on the table. His eyes went back to scanning the crowds passing by the cafe. He gulped down the remains of his overly sweetened iced tea. He put the glass down and considers ordering another one when his phone vibrated.

Iím at work now, sweetie. Will meet you at McDonaldís near your house at 5. Love, Uncle S xoxox

Alex chuckled as he read the message. He had no idea where the nearest McDonaldís to his house was so he decided to head to an internet cafe. He got up from his seat and walked to the counter to pay for his meal and get a bottle of water.

"Do you know whereís the nearest internet cafe?"

The barista smiled apologetically as she handed him his change.

"No, sorry. But thereís a library just around the corner, you can use a computer there."

He didnít have a membership card so that was not an option for him. He decided to walk around the neighbourhood in hopes he would find an internet cafe. He exited the cafe and felt the hot air envelop him again.

It took him about five minutes of walking in the sweltering heat before he spotted an internet cafe logo. He walked into the darkened room. It had three rows of ten computers each. A young guy with dreadlocks was sitting behind the counter, big earphones on his head. He looked extremely concentrated on something on the monitor. Alex walked up to the counter and the guy pointed his finger without moving his eyes away from the screen,

"Number fifteen, mate. Fiver an hour."

Alex walked towards the computer, sat down in the creaking chair and moved the mouse to turn on the screen. He clicked the web browser icon and went to Google. He typed in his address along with McDonalds. He got a hit and clicked on the map.

He decided he might as well stay the full hour. He had everything he needed with him and it was quite possible police was waiting for him at home in case he turned up there. It was nearly one oíclock, he had four hours to kill.

He sighed and accessed the Times. He scanned the webpage, full of the usual news. A scandal involving a royal family member, few articles about the environment, a few gossip pieces about celebrities. There was an article about new evidence in a murder case linked to the Prime Minister. Alex rolled his eyes.

He decided to check his e-mail. He knew someone might be monitoring it and decided to leave the cafe as soon as he was done checking it. He might as well just spend the time in air conditioned McDonaldís, he thought. He signed in to his account and noticed a few messages from Sabrina and Tom. There was an e-mail from an account he didnít know. He clicked on it, his brows furrowed in thought.

You would do well to get away from there.

Alex stared at the message and noticed the time it was delivered. Two minutes before.

He got up quickly, threw his backpack on his back and ran out from the shop. He heard the dreadlock guy shout after him but he didnít pay it any attention. He felt the hair on his neck stand up as if someone was watching him. He tried getting lost in the crowd again but still the feeling persisted. He spotted a few cabs standing by the curb and dove into one of them. The cabbie looked at him through the rear mirror.

"Where to, lad?"

Alex thought frantically. His house was out of the question, obviously. So was Sabinaís old place and Tomís Ė he was visiting his brother in Italy anyway.

"Madame Tussauds," he told the cabbie.

"Right so."

Alex leaned back in his seat and tried to think who could have sent him that message. Was someone spying on him? Well, obviously they warned him someone was coming. The e-mail address was a generic one, starshine779. It told him nothing. He would have to ask Smithers about that. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. He realised with a start that he felt good. No longer hollow or empty or not in the moment. He felt alive. He was in his element Ė running away from an unseen enemy, dodging tails, meeting up in secret with informants. God, he was sick.

Alex was lost in his thought when the cabbie stopped the car.

"Right-o. Weíre here."

Alex shook his head and took twenty pounds from his pocket.

"Keep the change."

He got out of the cab and walked into the museum. It was filled with tourists, which was good for what he wanted. He bought a ticket and went in. He spent the next hour walking around the museum, taking pictures of tourists when they asked him. He looked at his wrist watch and noticed it was nearly half past two. He still had some time to kill so he walked around the exhibitions once more.

It was half past three and Alex had had enough of Madame Tussauds. He walked out of the museum and went to the cab stand. He got into one of them and gave the driver the address of the McDonaldís where he would be meeting Smithers. The cabbie chatted at him, clearly unbothered to have an unresponsive passenger. Once they got there Alex paid and got out of the cab. He crossed the street and sighed with relief as he entered the air conditioned space.

He walked up to the counter and ordered a BigMac with Coke and fries. He sat down at one of the tables and inhaled the food. The heat wasnít too conductive to eating but he didnít know when his next meal would come. He took his time with his burger and fries and washed them down with the ice cold Coke. He sat back in his seat and relaxed. He wondered what Cairo would bring. He tried not to think beyond that, beyond completing his mission. He didnít know how he would handle that. If he would handle that.

He spent the next forty-five minutes staring at the people in the restaurant. He was hyper aware of his surroundings so it wasnít a surprise to him when Smithers sat down in front of him and pushed an ice cream cup towards him.

"Eat, itís good."

Alex nodded and scooped a bit of ice cream on the spoon that came with it. He put it in his mouth and moaned with delight at the taste and coldness. He opened his eyes to find Smithers watching him, looking amused. He blushed and murmured an apology.

"Not at all, my boy. I understand."

Alex cleared his throat awkwardly.

"Thanks for meeting me."

"Not at all. Iím glad my phone was helpful. And it got you out of that internet cafe before they came for you."

Alex scooped another spoonful of the ice cream.

"So it was you that sent me the e-mail?"

Smithers took a sip of his Coke before he replied.

"Not directly. Ally, an assistant of mine. Sweet girl, very loyal. Told her to track your phoneís GPS and contact you if she saw any of the active agents locking on to your location."

Alex nodded his head and took another bite of his ice cream.

"Thanks for that. Saved my skin. But why would any of the agents want to locate me?"

Smithers sighed and put his Coke on the table. He leaned in closer to Alex.

"They were told to bring you to a rendezvous point and make you meet with one of the moles who would pass you on to the Scorpia."

Alex furrowed his brows.

"And that would be bad, why?"

"It wouldnít. Blunt was afraid youíd pull a runner. He didnít count on Miss Starbright giving you that much money. The agents were his insurance policy, if you will."

"Sorry, Smithers, but it doesnít make sense for you to help me escape them."

The man laughed, making those near to them look their way. Alex put on a fake grin on his face as if he was enjoying the joke.

"I like you, Alex. And Iíd rather you stay alive. I canít give you anything besides the phone but I can tell you where to go to look for Scorpia."

Alex played with his ice cream. This was weird, why was Smithers helping him? Well, that wasnít weird, but why was he helping Alex to get away from Blunt?

"I was afraid our mole would deliver you to people who would kill you. That would also compromise the position of our man. I want to see you live thorough this, Alex, so I will help you. Alan Blunt made one bad decision too many."

Alex nodded along. He remembered Bluntís parting words to him and felt the same rage he felt then. The man crossed the line one time too many.

"I just want out," it slipped from his lips before he had the chance to hold it back.
Smithers looked at him closely and nodded. Alex didnít know if he came to some decision or simply agreed with Alex.

"I can take you to someone who might help you. And who will get you a gun."

"Alright."

Smithers smiled and clapped his hands together.

"Brilliant! Now finish up your ice cream and letís go."

Part Six

Alex had to rethink the wisdom of following Smithersí advice. The man to whom Smithers took him supplied Alex with a nice Glock G21 and said he could get him in touch with Scorpia, for a price of course. Alex paid the man three hundred pounds only to be tossed over the manís shoulder and put in a trunk of a car. They have been travelling for the past three hours and Alex was uncomfortable. The trunk was roomy enough and at least he wasnít bound. But it was hot and he could feel each bump and he was thirsty. He suddenly remembered the water bottle he bought at the cafe in London and manoeuvred himself until he could reach his bag. He was panting with exertion by the time he opened the bag and took the bottle out. He opened the cap and took a sip of the lukewarm water. It spilled out from the bottle across his face and trickled down the sides of his face and neck as they hit another hard bump. Alex sighed and resigned himself to his lot.

He was surprised when the man had simply picked him up over his shoulder, but his instincts were kicking in and he had been ready to attack when he had heard Smithersí laugh. He remembered he was surprised that Smithers was still there. He told Alex not to struggle and to trust him. So Alex did. It was a bad habit of his, trusting people associated with MI6. He brought his hand to wipe at his sweaty forehead. He tried to make out the numbers on his watch. It was eleven at night which would mean they were on the road for about four hours now, Alex counted. He had no idea which direction they were going in and it was driving him insane.

He was contemplating kicking at the lights but felt the car slow down and then stop. He could hear the traffic nearby. Something clicked near his head and then there was a sound of something being poured. It seemed they stopped for a quick gas refill. The guy tapped on the trunk twice and Alex punched the lid in answer. Yeah, he was still conscious.

"Donít get out. Iíll get ya something to eat and give it to ya once weíre there. About an hour more. Got me?"

Alex punched the lid again. He thought this cooperation was rather out of character for him but then again, so was Smithersí help. There was something that didnít quite fit there but he couldnít put the pieces together.

He felt the car start again and closed his eyes. He might as well catch a few winks of sleep.

*

He woke up when the engine was turned off. He heard the driver get out of the car and walk around to the back. The trunk popped open and Alex took quick gulps of air. The man laughed at him and handed him a packed sandwich.

"Here ya go, lad. Walk around a bit, stretch ya legs. Iím afraid yer gonna have to go back to the trunk for the next few fours."

Alex got out of the trunk gingerly. He stretched his legs and back as he took in his surroundings.

"Weíre on a ferry?"

"Yeah. Donít have much time till I have to go back up so..."

Alex nodded and tore apart the sandwich packaging. He devoured the sandwich in a few bites and watched as the man smoked a cigarette.

"Iím fairly sure you canít smoke here."

The man laughed at him and threw the cigarette but on the ground, smashing it with his shoe.

"Donít tell me ya worry about that. Yer going to meet Scorpia, mate, Iíd worry about that."

The man moved back to the front of the car and took a bottle of water from the passenger seat. He came back and handed it to Alex who took it with a nod of thanks.

"Get some sleep. The ship will leave the dock in two hours or so and weíll be back on the road in about three hours after that. So thatís about five hours for ya."

"Where are we going?"

"To Scorpia," the man replied with a smirk.

Alex rolled his eyes.

"Yes, because you obviously are taking me to Cairo."

"Who said Scorpia is in Cairo? Get in, Iíve got some people to bribe."

Alex got back in, trying to find a comfortable position.

"Any hope for a pillow or something?"

The man shook his head and gestured towards Alexís backpack.

"It ainít the Ritz. You do with what you have."

Alex barely managed to put his head down on his bag when the lid of the trunk was slammed down and the lock popped again.

*

He woke up to the sound of multiple doors opening. He guessed it was time to leave the ferry. He wondered how long would it take for them to get to their destination. He was fairly sure they were going to Ireland. The distance they travelled would have made sense and the driver did have a slightly Irish accent. He chuckled as he thought back to Bluntís unreliable intel.

To his surprise they stopped after about half an hour of driving. He heard the driver get out of the car and shout something. There was an answer back and the trunk was opened. Alex blinked against the light. It was dawn and the sun was already coming up. He guessed it was around six oíclock and a glance to his watch confirmed that. He got out of the trunk, stretched his back and grabbed his backpack.

"Thanks for the ride."

"Sure thing, kid. Now come through."

Alex looked at the two story house in front of him. It was surrounded by green trees but it was still obviously within the city limits. He followed the driver and tried to memorize what he saw. Who knew when it would help him.

He was ushered in to the house and to a dining room right to the left of the entrance. A man in his late thirties was sitting in a chair reading the morning paper, untouched eggs and toast still warm in front of him on the table. He folded the newspaper and put it down on the table beside his plate. He looked up at Alex and smiled.

"Youíre just in time for breakfast. Would you like some?"

The man spoke with a British accent. It seemed a little forced, like it wasnít natural. Alex shook his head.

"No, thank you. Wouldnít mind a glass of water, though."

The man smiled and gestured towards one of the chairs.

"Please, sit down Alex. Bridget!"

A plump older woman entered the room and started speaking with the man. Alex spent the time looking at him. His hair was the same golden colour as Alexís but his eyes were dark, nearly black. It was a startling contrast and Alex felt that his eyes somehow didnít fit the manís face. It looked rather eerie, like an alienís eyes. Alex shook his head to clear his thoughts. He was fairly sure he was in the presence of the mysterious Scorpia partner.
The woman, Bridget, put a glass and a pitcher of water in front of Alex. He nodded his head at her and poured himself a glass, taking small mouthfuls of the water. He put down the glass and concentrated on the man in front of him. The man caught his eye and smiled yet again.

"Iím sorry, where are my manners. My name is Roelof Pieters. I believe we have an acquaintance in common, a Mr. Kurst?"

Alex nodded. Funny how he got more information about the mysterious man in three minutes of meeting him than the agents who were sent to spy on him could gather in weeks.

"Yes. I believe we could talk... business."

Roelof inclined his head.

"Indeed we could. But not before breakfast. You look tired, I hope your trip wasnít too stressful?"

Alex chuckled, "if you count spending the entire trip locked up in a trunk as relaxing then I guess it was quite comfortable."

Roelofís expression changed in a matter of seconds.

"That simply wonít do. Youíre our guest, Alex, and you should be treated with respect."
Alex shrugged.

"Trust me, compared to some of my previous experiences this was rather luxurious. He got me food and water, too."

"If you say so. Why donít I have someone show you up to your room so you can take a nap. I have some business to attend to, I will be back after four oíclock, we can talk then?"

"Sounds good. Any parts of the house I shouldnít enter?"

The man laughed and shook his head.

"Feel free to explore as you wish. No secret laboratories here. But I do insist on having someone look after you, if you donít mind. For your safety. Mr. Kurst isnít too happy about you coming here, you see. I wouldnít want anything to happen to you."

"I can take care of myself, Mr. Pieters."

"Please, call me Roelof. I call you Alex, after all. And yes, you can. You can actually take down a rather powerful organized crime cell as well, which is another reason why I want you looked after."

"Itís your house, Roelof, so itís your rules."

"Wonderful. Bridget! Would you mind sending my bodyguard here?"

Alex opened his mouth to argue only to be cut off.

"I insist. He is quite the best and I want you protected until we can talk, Alex. Do agree, it will take a load off my mind."

He had no other choice than to agree. He nodded his head and stood up from his chair. He bent down to pick up his backpack and heard someone enter the room.

"Now, I believe you will take good care of Alex while Iím away."

Alex straightened and looked up at the newcomer. He took in a sharp breath, his eyes widening at the sight of the tall, lithe redheaded man. But what captured Alexís attention the most were the manís eyes. Ice-cold blue irises started at Alex without a hint of emotion.

"Of course."

Alex gulped.

Yassen Gregorovich was alive.

Part Seven

Alex could feel his knees go weak at the sound of Gregorovichís voice. One of his hands fell flat of the table to keep him steady. He couldnít take his eyes off the man in front of him. He was so sure Yassen had died that day onboard of Air Force One. He was so sure, so damn sure. That surety was the only thing that helped him cope with what Yassen told him before he died.

"You..."

"Ah, it seems you know each other?" Roelof looked between the two of them with a knowing smile. "Splendid, makes it easier and less awkward. Yassen, why wonít you show Alex up to his room. I have to be off, Iím afraid. Have a nice day."

Roelof got up from the table and left the room. Yassen still hasnít moved and neither did Alex. He couldnít move, or speak. There were so many things going through his head at that moment but he couldnít voice any of them.

Finally Yassen raised his head higher and nodded it towards the door.

"Come, Alex."

By some miracle he made his limbs obey Yassen. His legs carried him towards the man and he inhaled deeply as he passed him. The smell of spice and gunpowder surrounded the man and Alex had to close his eyes. For some reason he never thought the smells would go together but they just seemed to scream Yassen. He stumbled a bit and Yassenís hand shot out to grab his elbow to steady him.

"Seems like riding in a trunk does not agree with you."

Alex nodded dumbly and let the older man lead him up the stairs and into one of the rooms. Alex counted four doors in the corridor before he was pushed inside the room that smelled like Yassen.

"You will be staying with me. You can put your bag in the wardrobe."

He did as he was told. He stood numbly in the middle of the room and took it in. There was a built in wardrobe, a desk with a chair by one of the walls, a bookcase filled with books next to it. And then there was the bed. The double bed. The only bed in the room.

Alex knew there were other things he needed to concentrate on. Like the fact that the worldís deadliest assassin was standing alive, just few feet away from him. Or like the fact that Roelof Pieters was one creepy man who was too polite to be up to anything good. Or like the fact that he was in Ireland and the only person who knew about that was Smithers who helped him get away from Bluntís men. But the only thing his mind seemed to concentrate on was the fact that he would have to share the bed with Yassen. He was never so happy to be a hormonal teenager, which could be an explanation enough, at least to himself.

"Lay down, Alex. You could use some sleep."

"Youíre alive."

Alex turned to look at Yassen fully. The man looked just like he did the last time Alex saw him. Only he wasnít as pale or covered in blood. He was still lithe, graceful, with features that were too mesmerizing for Alexís peace of mind. He was dressed in a pair of well worn jeans and a black T-shirt. He crossed his arms in front of him and smirked at Alex.

"Astounding powers of observation."

That made Alex snap. He rounded to face the man fully, his finger coming up to point at him accusingly.

"Fuck you. I nearly died because of you. Several times!"

The smirk slid off Yassenís lips. He uncrossed his arms and let them fall along his body. He stalked closer to Alex, intent on intimidating the boy.

"Watch your language when you speak to me. I do not take well to disrespect."

Alex narrowed his eyes and jabbed his finger into Yassenís chest.

"Donít tell me what to do. I listened to you once and have scars to prove that it was the wrong decision."

Yassen leaned in closer and Alex was reminded of that day on the helipad. Yassen smiled coldly, apparently having anticipated such result. Yassenís fingers came up to wrap around Alexís wrist and he squeezed it. Alex could feel the pressure on his bones but didnít try to wrench his hand away.

"Had you listened to me the first time you would not be in this situation now. You made your bed. And you shall sleep in it."

Yassen moved before Alex could react. He threw the boy on the bed, his knee centred on Alexís chest, his hands pulling Alexís arms around the headboard. He held them in one of his hands as his other hand rummaged through his bed stand. Alex started struggling, trying to throw the man off him but Yassen wouldnít budge. Alex felt something cold encircle both of his wrists and there was a click. Yassen moved his hands to Alexís shoulders and put pressure on them. His knee moved from Alexís chest to rest on his legs.

"You will do well if you listen to me now. I do not know what your game is but know this: do not trust anyone here. Especially me."

"Let me go, you bastard!"

Yassenís left hand moved from Alexís shoulder to his mouth. His hand clamped around Alexís mouth painfully, making him unable to speak.

"This is not a place for small boys. Do not trust anyone and you just might survive. Nod if you understand me."

Alex gazed up at him mutinously and nodded. Yassen still didnít remove his hand from Alexís mouth.

"You will not make any problems for me and I will not make any problem for you. Contrary to what Pieters told you, you are not a guest here. You are a prisoner. Just because your prison is fancy does not mean it is safe."

Alex furrowed his brows and looked up at Yassen questioningly.

"Yes, I see you are starting to understand it. Pieters is not a stupid man, he knows you have something he wants and he does not want Kurst to get to you before he does. That is why you will not leave my sight, got it?"

Alex nodded his head again. Yassen looked at him a few seconds longer than strictly necessary before he pushed off the bed and released Alexís mouth.

"Now sleep. We can talk later."

Alex looked as Yassen took the chair and turned it to face him. He sat down and reached out for the book that was lying on the night stand. He opened it as if nothing out of ordinary was going on.

Maybe nothing out of ordinary wasnít going on. Alex wasnít sure if it wasnít standard for Yassen to have teenagers handcuffed to his bed on a daily basis.

"I said sleep. Close your eyes and sleep. Nothing will happen."

"I know," he replied as he closed his eyes.

Alex wasnít sure if he would be able to fall asleep, not after everything that has happened in the span of the last forty-five minutes. His thoughts were still in an uproar, too much information and too many questions swirling through his mind. He took in a deep breath and got a lungful of Yassenís scent. He kept on taking deep breaths and before he knew it, he fell asleep.

*

He woke up some time later to see that Yassen seemingly hadnít moved from his position.

"What time is it?"

Alex winced at the hoarseness of his voice.

"After three. Pieters will be home soon."

Alex nodded and looked up at the head board.

"Think you can uncuff me?"

Yassen put down his book after marking the page. He took out a key from his jeans pocket and leaned over Alex, his hands stretching to open the lock on the handcuffs. They gave away with a click and Alex let his arms fall down on the bed with a sigh. He tried flexing his fingers a few times before he could feel the blood flowing back to them. This was going to ting like a bitch, he thought as he glared in Yassenís direction. He stretched on the bed and felt him right ankle bump into something on his other leg. He looked up and saw a black plastic band around his left ankle. He let his head fall back with a thud.

"Oh youíve got to be kidding me."

Yassen said nothing, just went up to the window to look out of it. Alex sat up on the edge of the bed slowly, his arms full of needles and pins.

"Whereís the bathroom?"

Yassen looked at him and turned towards the door. Alex took that as a sign to follow the older man and did so. Yassen showed him to one of the other door in the corridor, the one directly next to their room. Alex guessed the other two doors led to Pieterís and Kurstís rooms. He opened the door to the bathroom, walked in and closed the door before Yassen could even contemplate following him. He locked the door and walked up to the toilet. After relieving himself he washed his hands and looked in the cabinet above the sink. There was a small pair of scissors for cutting nails and Alex decided to give it a try. He grabbed them and propped his left food on the toilet. He put the scissors to the plastic band and tried cutting it without result.

He gave up with a frustrated sigh and put the scissors back in the cabinet. He looked at the shower longingly but decided against it for now. Pieters was playing the perfect host so Alex didnít think he would be banished to the dungeons anytime soon. And he really didnít want to test Yassenís patience.

Okay, maybe he did, he though as he leaned over the sink and rested his forehead against the mirror. But he also wanted answers and Yassen said they would talk later. Now was later enough, he decided.

He opened the door to find Yassen look at him, clearly unimpressed. Alex shrugged and walked back into their room. He sat down on the bed and looked up at Yassen.

"How did you survive?"

"A few Scorpia agents have infiltrated MI6 and managed to get me out of the hospital before they got to me."

Alex brushed his hand through his hair. Well, that was rather simple. So Yassen definitely wasnít Bluntís inside man. He furrowed his brows, no, that would be too easy. Too ridiculous. Scorpia would never let Yassen live if the MI6 ever laid their hands on him.

"Why did you send me to Venice?"

"I had hoped you would follow your fatherís footsteps."

Alex laughed bitterly.

"Oh, it seems I have. After all he was a spy for the MI6."

"No, Alex, he wasnít. He was killed by MI6."

The boy looked up at the man in front of him. Was it possible that Yassen truly didnít know what happened?

"No. I saw the recording. I saw his notes. It was Ash who killed him. He planted a bomb on the plane my parents took to France."

"Ash?"

Alex nodded.

"He and Rothman told me. Tried to kill me at the time, they didnít think I would make it through."

Yassen paled at that information. It seemed that Alex had finally found a way to unsettle the man.

"So he was playing me all along..."

Alex looked out of the window before replying.

"He tried to make MI6 agree to let him take you with him. They said no."

He kept on looking through the window. For some reason he couldnít bear to look at Yassen right now. He didnít want to know what was going on in the older manís head.

In a way, I loved him. The words came back to him even though he tried to resist them. He took in a deep breath, then another. He was on a mission here. He needed to learn who they were targeting, he needed t get the information to Blunt and then he would disappear. How he would do that, he had no idea, but he would manage. Didnít Ash say he had the luck of the devil?

"I guess you are your fatherís son, then."

"I wish people would stop comparing me to my father."

"He was a good man, Alex."

Alex inclined his head in acknowledgement.

"Yes, so Iíve been told."

He looked at his watch, it was four oíclock.

"Pieters should be back soon?"

Yassen nodded.

"We can go down and get you some food before you talk to him."

"Okay."

Alex got up from the bed and moved towards the door.

"Thank you... for telling me."

He put his hand on the knob and squeezed until his fingers turned white.

"Youíre welcome."

*

Alex and Yassen sat in the dining room, each of them with a plate of potatoes, carrots with peas and a few slices of roast beef with gravy. They ate in silence, as no topic seemed safe enough. They both looked up when they heard Pieters come into the room.

"Ah, roast beef. Bridget is quite the marvellous cook, isnít she?"

He took a seat opposite of Alex and after a minute or two Bridget appeared carrying a plat for him. He inhaled the smell and smiled.

"How was your nap, Alex?"

"Very... comfortable, thank you. How was your business?"

"Very busy."

Alex had the urge to roll his eyes but he knew it would cost him. So he nodded his head and went back to eating.

"I believe Yassen has fitted you with your... bracelet?"

Alex scowled as he looked at the Russian.

"He did, yes. He didnít explain it, though."

Roelof tutted at Yassen and took a bite of his beef.

"Such bad manners. Itís simple. You canít go further than ten meters away from him. If you do, youíll get a rather nasty shock. Hurts, I have been told."

Alexís grip on his cutlery tightened. That bastard.

"I see."

"Yes. But itís fortunate that you already know each other. Helps to avoid the awkward silence. Iím sure you two will be able to get along well."

Highly unlikely, Alex snarked inwardly as he thought back to their fight in the bedroom this morning. He glanced towards Yassen but the man was infuriatingly emotionless, as usual.

"We can retire to the living room once youíre done, Alex."

The boy looked at his plate and finished his meal. He put his cutlery on the plate and sat back.

"Thank you, that was good."

Roelof smiled and stood up.

"Indeed. Follow me, please."

Both Alex and Yassen stood up and followed Pieters. They entered a lavishly decorated room. Pieters took the only armchair in the room so Yassen and Alex were forced to share the couch.

"I believe you wanted to talk business, Alex."

The boy nodded.

"We both have our problems with MI6. How about we help each other out?"

"Mmm, do go on."

Alex took in a deep breath and hoped he was convincing enough.

"I want to sever my ties with them. I want to disappear but not before I deal them a blow or two. I believe you wanted to target them once upon a time?"

Pieters smirked.

"Indeed. Once upon a time. Why would I be interested in it now?"

Alex shrugged.

"No idea. But yet, here I am, a guest in your house. Something tells me this is not how you usually treat people who want to do business with you."

"True. You, Alex, are much more than a business associate. I believe you can help me with something. And it would, indeed, bring down the MI6 as well. What do you say?"

Alex leaned in, his elbows supported on his knees.

"That I want to know more."

"I will tell you more once Iím sure of your intentions. Is there anything you can tell me to show your good will?"

Alex grimaced and chanced a quick look at Yassen who was looking at him with an alarming intensity. This startled him and he cleared his throat.

"Um, well, I donít know that much. Just the operations I have been to and the people I have worked with."

"Then how do you plan on helping me, hm?"

Alex closed his eyes. This was a snap second decision and he knew he had to make it. He had to show Pieters that he was willing to cooperate.

"Thereís an MI6 mole in Scorpia. Not high enough to be able to know your identity but high enough to have seen you and Kurst in Paris and Venezuela."

"And how do you know that?"

Alex swallowed the lump that rose in his throat.

"I have a... friend in MI6 who is looking out for me. He kept me updated on Scorpia ever since I was shot."

"Interesting."

Alex closed his eyes and nodded.

"That is all I know. That was how I knew I had to find you or Kurst. Surely you would want some kind of revenge against the organization that brought you down."

The sudden chill in the room made him realise he chose the wrong words there. He tensed and opened his eyes to see a furious looking Roelof in front of him. He felt Yassen shift closer to him and that didnít help, either. He still didnít know if the man wanted to kill him or not.

"And why shouldnít I take my revenge on the person directly responsible for that, hmm, Alex?"

His eyes darted around the room frantically, looking for anything that could be used as a weapon. He stupidly left his Glock in his backpack. He was sure that it was confiscated by Yassen by now.

"Because that would be admitting you can be beat by a teenager. I didnít want to do what I did. I just wanted to get out. They promised me I would after that mission."

"And you still want out?"

"Yes."

Roelof was looking at him as if trying to read his soul. Alex hoped he was believable enough. Because right now, in this moment, he didnít want to get out. He wanted to stay right here, right now where he was feeling more alive than he had felt in months.

"And what made you finally look for us?"

He gulped. He didnít have to fake the emotion behind this answer.

"They deported Jack."

Roelof looked confused, so he hurried to explain.

"Jack is my legal guardian after my uncle died. The deported her yesterday. Had the social service come for me. I managed to escape and get in touch with the man who brought me here. I am done with Blunt and his manipulations."

Roelof sat back in his armchair, the chilly atmosphere mellowing out. Alex felt Yassen relax slightly next to him.

"So if I promised you a new identity and a way to go back to live with your Jack, you would be... amenable to help me out?"

Alex looked up at that. It sounded eerily similar to what Blunt had offered him. That was weird.

"Yes. Yes, I would help you then."

"And you would never try to insinuate yourself in either intelligence services nor organized crime world? You would never show up on our radar again?"

The boy nodded his agreement.

"I see. Let me think on it. I will talk to you tomorrow. Now, if you will excuse me," he said as he got up from his armchair.

Yassen and Alex watched Pieters walk away from the room. Alex turned to look at Yassen who again was emotionless. It miffed him - he wanted to do something to see a reaction register on Yassenís face.

"Letís go for a walk, Alex."

That surprised him but he got up and followed the older man out of the house. He took in a deep breath. The weather here was a little colder than in London and he could breathe freely without feeling like he was about to choke. He followed Yassen as they came up to a gate.

"Babysitting, Gregorovich?"

Alex looked to the side to see a man in his early twenties smirk at Yassen. He had a cocky attitude about him and Alex momentarily knew the man wouldnít live long. He sat on a stool by the gate, a gun tucked into his waistband.

"Indeed. This here," Yassen said, reaching back and putting his hand on Alexís shoulder to bring him forward, "is Alex Rider. The boy who single-handedly took Scorpia down not once, but twice before."

The young man laughed loudly.

"Good one, good one! As if that was true!"

The hand on Alexís shoulder tightened briefly.

"Remember that big fiasco in Indonesia? The blow up in Venice? You must have heard the rumours."

The young man nodded.

"Yes. Alex caused that. He has this pesky habit of causing trouble wherever he goes. So indeed, I am babysitting. Just in case he tried to take us down for the third time. And mark my words, he would make sure that Scorpia would not rise again."

The young man finally looked at Alex who was impassive all throughout the exchange. The lad seemed to get the message, finally, as he stood up to open the gate.

"Better you than me."

Yassen said nothing as he pushed on Alexís arm to make him move. The boy obeyed, once again, and moved forward through the gate. Yassen kept steering Alex as they walked alongside a road.

"Was that true?"

Alex looked up at Yassen questioningly.

"They deported your guardian?"

Alex nodded.

"It was for the best, I guess. She doesnít have to worry about me now."

Yassen made a sound that strangely resembled a snort. Alex ignored him.

"Kurst will be back tonight. Do not underestimate him. He does not like you too much ever since you foiled his plans."

"I am aware."

"Do not leave my sight. This is an order and you will listen, Alex," the hand Yassen still had on Alexís arms tightened painfully.

"Why should I?"

"Because, you idiot child, I am trying to keep you alive."

Alex stopped walking. They were standing in a secluded area off the main road. They were shielded from the road by a line of trees. Alex still could hear the cars in the distance.

"And what happened to not trusting you?"

Yassen smiled coldly.

"At least you remembered that. Good. Do not trust me."

"But do as you say?"

Yassen nodded.

"That makes no sense."

"It does not need to make sense."


CONTINUE READING

-