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

Isle de la Picaterre

The tiny island twelve miles south-west of Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, was called Isle de la Picaterre. Before the English Civil War, it had been turned into a sea fortress that occupied the entire island. A few untameable cliffs, a landing jetty and one piece of white, sandy beach aside, the stone walls of the fort seemed to rise up out of the sea itself.

Fort Picaterre advertised itself as a weekend retreat for company outings and group holidays. It was booked out for years in advance. In fact, none of the recreation officers or personnel secretaries who'd called to book a holiday on Picaterre had ever succeeded.

This was because the Isle de la Picaterre belonged to Scorpia, and Scorpia wasn't keen on visitors. Founded in the late 1990s by rouge members of secret services unhappy with the post-cold war world, Scorpia had decided to put its skills at the disposal of the highest bidder. Sabotage. Corruption. Intelligence. Assassination: those were the main fields of operation from which the crime syndicate took its name. If they weren't spoken of in the same sentence with the Mafia, Yakuza or Triads, it was because compared to Scorpia, these were strictly small fry.

Fort Picaterre was one of their several bases. Not a training centre like Malagosto in the Adriatic Sea outside Venice, but a retreat and meeting place. Malagosto was where Scorpia trained its assassins; on Picaterre, it met its customers and occasionally hosted the planning conferences of its Executive Board.

The man who stood in the main conference room of Fort Picaterre was called Arsène de St Helier, but most only knew him as the Accountant. He had come to Scorpia in the early 1990s from the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, the French Secret Service.

The St Heliers had served France's army and secret services for generations. Indeed, there had been a General de St Helier who'd fought for Napoleon in Spain. As a young man fresh from national service and university, Arsène de St Helier had followed the example of his father – a fighter pilot in the Free French Forces during the Second World War and later colonel in the French Air Force – and his grandfather, serving the Deuxième Bureau in the First War.

Starting out in the Secret Service, he had made a quick career in counter-espionage. Rumours claimed that he'd turned more enemy agents in his few years at the top of the counter-espionage department than any of his predecessors. After the Cold War ended, he'd been promoted to lead the Financial Crimes Department, and he'd brought with him in-depth knowledge of money laundering, and the international banking system when he defected to join Scorpia. Now, the Accountant was balancing the books for Scorpia, and made sure that the considerable sums of money coming into the organisation were profitably invested.

From there, St Helier had gone to found ASH Connexa, an investment consultancy firm that quickly rose to the top of the business. St Helier was an expert with money, and an inside knowledge into the semi-legal activities of his wealthier clients gave him complete freedom. He knew about high-risk investments in the British and American housing bubble and avoided them. He knew who traded in toxic assets and exploited them. Tipped off by informers, he repositioned both ASH Connexa's and Scorpia's shares and made a killing from the serial collapse of banks. In one or two cases, he had an active hand in a crash and reaped millions in short trading. Unlike many of his colleagues at Scorpia, he excelled at pulling strings and trading information in the background and left the crude necessities of violence to others.

Now, the Accountant, in a sharp Armani suit and thin-rimmed L'Evenre glasses, stood in the main meeting room of Fort Picaterre. He was a slender man of medium height, with dark brown hair and cool grey eyes. The fashionable eye frames were just an affectation.

The entire front wall of the room was taken up by a window, allowing a panoramic view of the sea. The morning tide was coming in, whipping up spray against the walls of the castle, encroaching ever higher.

Gulls danced on the wind over the cliffs, and occasionally a particularly large specimen exploded in a puff of feathers and blood when they were unlucky enough to trigger the defence canons of the castle. There were two automatic double-barrelled Hephaestus M2 Autocannons installed on opposing towers. A close-meshed web of radar controls enveloped the island and half a mile of surrounding sea. Any unauthorised boat or helicopter would be cut to pieces by a hail of bullets. Scorpia valued its privacy.

The Accountant was watching the view with his hands folded behind his back. Behind him, right inside the leather-padded entrance door, a second man was waiting. He had close-cropped blond hair and the body of a dancer, wearing black slacks and a white shirt under a brown leather jacket. His name was Yassen Gregorovich, and until recently, he'd been Scorpia's top assassin. Then, things had happened.

The Accountant turned.

"Yassen. Rumours of your demise were quite exaggerated, I gather," he said softly in French. "It's good to see you alive, although I wish it could be under less serious circumstances."

"How serious?" Gregorovich asked, dispensing with any formalities.

"Your reliability has been called into question," the Accountant said. "As has your loyalty to Scorpia. Of course it didn't help that your last mission ended in an utter shambles and you went underground rather than returning to us immediately."

"I had been shot in the chest," the assassin commented, "and detained by MI6, who were quite eager to interview me. It took a little more time than usual to escape."

"But you did," the Accountant stated. "You were free for several weeks, and yet you did not report back. And you're a hard man to find, Yassen. We heard of your escape from a mole within MI6 immediately after it happened. They managed to keep your capture quiet after the Damian Cray affair, but really freaked when you got away."

"Klaus is quite skilled at tracking," Yassen admitted. "Though I expected Nile to find me first."

The Accountant went quiet for a moment. "Nile is dead," he said at last.

The Russian's eyes widened. "How?" The Frenchman searched for an emotion beyond mere surprise in the assassins face, but came up empty. Nile had been Gregorovich's best student.

"Alex Rider killed him."

If Gregorovich was surprised, he didn't show it. "I couldn't help thinking that someone within Scorpia had given Damian Cray the impression that it would be permissible to shoot me." His eyes hardened in a way that would have silenced most men. The Accountant didn't even blink.

"I don’t' think anyone was thinking he'd be able to shoot you," the Accountant pointed out. Then his voice softened. "Cray was certainly not one of the world's most rational souls, even if he wrote some good tunes. Still, he shouldn't have been able to get a draw on you. What went wrong out there, Yassen?"

The assassin stared out the window, his eyes following the zigzag path of a gull through red laser lines. "I was tired and distracted and it clouded my judgement. I also–" here he lifted his head to look straight into Saint Helier's eyes, "–expected an order of elimination when I informed Scorpia about the extent of Cray's plans."

The Accountant exhaled and his lip curled. "So did I, but the Board's vote went against it. They asked for some crude financial costings, then decided that the profits to be made from a multiple nuclear blow against the major drug networks and production sites worldwide would leave Scorpia in the position to rebuild the entire worldwide drug trade under its own command, with rocketing profits to be made in a world driven to desperation by atomic fallout. The cost of shifting essential operations and personnel to areas not targeted by the bombs more than tripled the advance paid by Cray, and all for nothing – it was an unmitigated financial disaster. As a consequence, the Board is rather unhappy with you."

"How unhappy?" the assassin asked without emotion.

"There have been calls for your elimination," the Accountant admitted. "Kroll never liked you. As for the Australian… he has always supported you, but the Cray affair was his operation. He might not be quite as outspoken in your defence as he'd usually be. You're lucky, however. Major Yu has left us and won't be able to force an outright vote against you."

"Left?" Yassen inquired.

"With terminal effect, yes," said the Accountant dryly. Then he shook his head. "Oh, sit down, Yassen. There is no use in stoicism at this point."

After a moment's pause, the assassin went over to one of the leather-upholstered conference chairs in front of the window and sat. The Frenchman followed suit.

"The Board received a rather sharply worded complaint about you from Cray just a few days before Air Force One crashed in London – that you were unreliable, unprofessional, and obsessed with the Rider boy to the point of allowing him to escape in Saint-Pierre and Amsterdam."

Gregorovich's face turned to stone, and the Accountant held up his hand.

"I know what John Rider meant to you, Yassen. I understand that you'd have wanted to spare his son. Few on the Board would have blamed you for it. But things have happened while you were gone. He has come to us in Venice, claiming you'd sent him, and professed to join us. We sent him to Malagosto. On his first mission, he betrayed us to MI6, wrecking a highly sophisticated and costly operation and causing the death of Julia Rothman."

If Yassen was surprised, his face didn't show it. Only a muscle twitched in his cheek.

"A few months later, he was involved in yet another operation for the Australian Secret Service that cost the life of Major Yu."

"It wasn't just John's son," Yassen Gregorovich said, and for a moment the cold mask slipped to reveal exhaustion underneath. "I have been thinking about retiring for a while now, even before becoming the guest of MI6. Perhaps this is the right time."

"I don't think so," the Accountant said. "Scorpia demands that you prove your loyalty. If you try to leave now, it will look like treason. You know what happens to traitors. Even I won't be able to protect you." Gregorovich's hand went to his shoulder, where the tailored shirt showed no hint of the shoulder holster that was there. The Accountant ignored the gesture.

"I advise you to tread quietly," he said. "Prove yourself, complete two or three more assignments after that. Then, I promise you, I will make sure you can retire without causing a stir."

Yassen looked at the huge window, at the swaying waves, the soaring sea gulls. He did not object.

Outside the panorama windows, a sea gull met its fiery death by bullet and plunged down to sea, leaving a trail of white feathers to sink in its wake.


Alex Rider was content with the world. He was sitting on a warm stone wall with the spring sun shining on his face. Before him spread the Bay of Bonifacio, the oldest harbour of Corsica, and the bright walls and colours of the old town leading down to the harbour. He adjusted the fit of his Max Calibar sunglasses, a gift from Jack before he'd left on vacation. With the May weather sunny but still cooler than during the summer season, the quaint streets weren't as yet full of tourists, and nicer for it, Alex thought.

He leant his chin on his propped-up knee and searched for Sabina. He caught sight of her bubble-gum pink shorts at one of the ice cream stands. She'd been hell-bent on getting the refreshments without relying on Alex's excellent grasp of French, and Alex suspected that Edward and Liz Pleasure had chosen a French-speaking holiday destination to give their only child a head-start on her GCSEs.

He also suspected that they kept inviting him out of a mixture of gratitude and pity. Gratitude because he'd saved Edward Pleasure and Sabina from certain death twice now; pity... well, they knew his parents and uncle were dead, and whatever Sabina had told them about his 'work' for MI5 – if anything – he felt that they were trying to help him by taking him away ever so often. While he felt a little guilty for exploiting their generosity, he'd still jumped at the chance to see Corsica during the summer half-term break. It would give Jack the chance to go and see friends in Paris, and Alex to escape a miserably wet spring in London. And he missed the regular trips abroad that Ian Rider had taken him on, even if the Pleasures' family holidays were by far less adventurous than Ian's. But Ian Rider had trained him to become a spy. Sabina's parents just wanted to make him happy.

Today, they had taken a boat trip through amazing rocks and blue-green waters of the Lavezzi Archipelago in the morning, and now Edward and Liz Pleasure had gone up to the castle to visit the little museum in the Bastion de L'Entendard. Sabina hadn't been excited by the prospect, and so she and Alex decided to stroll through the town on their own, having ice cream and looking at shops until they'd all meet again for an early dinner in one of the tiny restaurants along the harbour before taking the ferry for a trip over to Sardinia in the morning.

Alex watched Sabina's flirtatious negotiating of ice cream scoops with the attractive and deeply tanned young vendor who couldn't be more than a handful of years older than her, when someone cleared his throat next to him.

"Excuse me, are you Mr Rider?"

Alex turned and slid off the stone wall. It was a young man who had spoken to him, only a few years older than Alex himself, who could have been a brother of the ice cream seller that Sabina was chatting to. Dark hair, a southern tan, with battered jeans and no shirt. He'd spoken French with the barest touch of a Middle Eastern accent, but used the English form of address with Alex's name. Around the neck, he wore a pair of hi-tech binoculars. Not the type for a bird-watcher, Alex thought.

"I beg your pardon?" Alex replied politely, also in French.

"Mr Rider?" the young man repeated.

Cautiously, Alex nodded.

The boy took off the binoculars, and handed them to Alex. "Would you please take a look?"

Alex took the binoculars, and the young man pointed upwards. "Can you see the crenels above the Restaurant and Hotel du Mar? Now go upwards and right, to the corner house." Alex did as bidden. "Aim for the top windows with the flower boxes. Go to the far left." Alex slid the binoculars towards the spray of red flowers, and the colours practically jumped out at him across the distance.

For a second he frowned, then paused. The window at the far left was pushed up a little, and something black and metallic and half-buried in red flowers aimed down at the square. It was the barrel of a sniper's rifle. Alex couldn't suppress a gasp. In confusion, he stared at the barrel, then back at the young man.

"The rifle is trained at your little girlfriend's head, Mr Rider," the other explained." If you come with me in the next two minutes without making a scene, the sniper will simply walk away. If you don't, she will die."

Alex's heart thumped. "Accompany you where?" he hissed softly. "Who are you? What is this about?"

Dark eyes stared back at him. "Does it really matter?"

Alex's eyes searched Sabina. She held one ice-cream cone and waved at him, smiling, while the vendor prepared the other.

"What guarantee do I have that you won't shoot Sabina after all?" he asked.

"We have no interest in Miss Pleasure. You, however, Mr Rider... we think you do."

Alex exhaled. There was no way of warning Sabina, or reaching the sniper, ensconced as he was far above. He couldn't risk her safety.

"Where do I go," he asked.

"Follow me." The young man held out his hand and Alex handed back the binoculars.

He started towards the end of the square, where a cobblestone road wound down towards the harbour. Alex fell into step behind him. The sun beat down on him, and the back of his loose white shirt stuck to his skin. At the same time, cold prickled down his spine.

From far behind, he heard Sabina cry, "Alex?", but he didn't dare turn around. His guide sped up his steps and Alex hurried after him through several narrow side streets until they were out of sight.

They reached the harbour after a few short minutes, and Alex was relieved not to hear a shot behind him.

His kidnapper led him to one of the jetties where a handsome white motor yacht with red and orange racing stripes was moored. The name, in flowing letters across the side, was Delphyne.

The young man waved Alex to step onto the deck, and Alex obeyed. He had to take two steps down to reach the bridge, and when his companion nodded, he opened the door and climbed inside.

The bridge was as new as the entire boat, beechwood and white, and at the controls sat a man that looked familiar in a way that had Alex confused for a second. Then the chair swivelled around and the man stood, and recognition hit him like a fist. Short brown hair, icy grey eyes... the man's name was Klaus and he was a German mercenary Alex had met him at Scorpia's training centre on Malagosto outside Venice.

For some reason, he hadn't quite expected that Scorpia would reach for him again. Mrs Jones had assured him there had been a deal struck with MI6 that would keep Scorpia off his back.

"Welcome, traitor," Klaus said in English, his accent almost unnoticeable.

Before Alex could say or do anything, the mercenary's fist shot out and caught him square on the chin. The back of Alex's head hit the wall, and he slumped into darkness.

He didn't notice when his captors pressed a cloth with a sharp-smelling liquid over his face to ensure his unconsciousness would last, nor when they handcuffed him to a berth in the back of the cabin.

The yacht moved slowly away from the pier and out of the harbour, and took for the open sea.


Alex woke in the near-dark, with a thumping ache in his head, a tongue that felt foul and swollen, and absolutely no recollection where he was, or where he'd come from. He was terribly thirsty and was lying on something hard but springy – a mattress of sorts.

When he tried to sit up, something was digging into the skin of his wrists and ankle and held him back. He'd been chained up too often to mistake the sensation. Dread crept through him as he lay still and sorted through his fuzzy thoughts. He'd been on holiday, visiting Bonifacio with the Pleasures, and... Sabina! Scorpia!

For some incomprehensible reason, Klaus and his accomplices had abducted and drugged him, and now they were keeping him prisoner.

Voices nearby made Alex realised what had woken him. He pulled at the cuffs around his wrists, but they didn't loosen. A second later, a light-flooded rectangle opened ahead of him. The sudden brightness stabbed into his skull, stirring up a pounding headache.

Footsteps came towards him, and above his head, a single naked light bulb flickered to life. The flare caused another burst of pain that made Alex's eyes water. Through a blurry film, Alex recognised Klaus, and his chin smarted in remembrance. As he had on the ship, the German wore linen trousers, a muscle shirt and a matching white linen jacket.

He reached under the jacket and produced a pistol from his shoulder holster. Alex felt his stomach clench as it was aimed at him.

"I will unchain you now," the mercenary rasped. "If you make one wrong move, I'll shoot you." His mouth twisted. "Not to kill – we still have plans for you. But a shattered elbow or knee won't matter much."

Alex said nothing. Even if he could think of a snappy comeback, his throat was dry as sandpaper. When Klaus leaned over him, he realised that both his arms were shackled to metal rings in the floor. He rubbed his wrists once they came free, and sat up at last. His back ached – he must have been lying on the thin mattress for a long time.

The mercenary didn't touch the single cuff around his right ankle, Alex noted with a pang. Quickly, his eyes ran around his prison. It was entirely made of stone, and looked old – a smallish barrack with a single, small barred window in the wall right next to the door, far out of his reach. The grey-striped mattress in the middle of the room and the overhead bulb were the only furnishings.

It was hot, and Alex could still smell salt in the air and hear the roar of the sea cresting against the shore outside. A quick glance revealed that he was still wearing his cut-off jeans and trainers, but his shirt and sunglasses were gone. Even the leather thong he'd worn around his neck and the purse and tube of sun screen in his back pocket had disappeared. His cheeks reddened; someone must have searched him quite thoroughly while he'd been drugged out of his mind.

At last, Klaus stepped back to the wall, the muzzle of his pistol trained at Alex. It was then that Alex realised the German hadn't been alone. Two men stepped into the small room behind him, and Alex blinked at them through burning eyes. Alex climbed to his feet.

The man in front looked about fifty years old, dressed in a light white suit that the heat hadn't managed to touch at all, with fashionable glasses and haircut. Alex had never seen him before. The other... Alex's head turned, and his jaw dropped.

That one, he had seen before. Had seen die right in front of him, kneeling beside his twisted body in the wreck of Air Force One. Yassen Gregorovich had sent him to Scorpia with his last words.

Alex shook his head and stumbled backwards a step. "You're..."

"Not quite dead, Mr Rider, as you can see." It was the other man who spoke, with the softest lilt of a French accent.

Alex stared at Yassen, too shocked to speak. The assassin looked at him, his face distant and hooded. There were some strained lines around his mouth and eyes that Alex hadn't noticed before. Obviously, death had taken its toll.

He forced himself to look at the second man, who carried himself as if he was calling the shots.

"Why..." 'Why have you brought me here' was what he wanted to say, but all his vocal cords managed was a hoarse croak. His entire throat felt as if it was lined with coarse sandpaper. He coughed.

Without a word, Yassen reached for the shoulder bag he carried, and pulled out a bottle of Evian. Alex took it without quite meeting the assassin's eyes. He unscrewed the top, noting that the seal looked un-tampered with, and took a deep, greedy gulp. The water was warm, but it washed down the disgusting film of the drug and soothed his throat a little. He drank down half the bottle in one go, realising how thirsty he was only when he had to struggle to remove it from his lips. He wondered how long he'd been drugged and unconscious to be so dehydrated.

"Better?" the Frenchman asked.

Alex purposefully took another hearty sip and put the bottle down next to him. He nodded.

"Very well, Mr Rider... My name is Arsène de St Helier. I am the financial head of Scorpia's Executive Board." A quirk lifted the Frenchman's lips. "Which is why I am generally referred to as 'The Accountant'." He paused as if to give Alex time to process the nickname. "I'd like to welcome you to Isle de la Picaterre."

"I was told MI6 and Scorpia had come to an agreement?" Alex croaked. "That if you left me alone, they'd not make public that you were beaten – three times – by a 14-year-old boy?"

He expected a blow, and Klaus stepped forward as if on cue. But the Frenchman just smiled and held up his hand, indicating for the mercenary to leave with the slightest inclination of his head. Grim-faced, the German retreated.

"There have been negotiations," the Frenchman admitted. "And sometimes it's useful to pretend to a position of weakness to throw one's opponents off the track. But the reason you are here..." St Helier steepled his fingers, exposing onyx cufflinks and a golden Cosmograph Daytona Rolex watch.

"You see, for once, this isn't about you, Alex Rider. You have not been brought here primarily because you've been a thorn in Scorpia's side on several memorable occasions. You have been brought here simply to die. At Yassen Gregorovich's hands."

Alex's eyes flicked to Yassen's steely eyes. He could read no emotion in them at all.

"Why?" he rasped.

"Because his loyalty has been called into question, Alex – may I call you Alex? You're still so young, after all." Alex glared; he had no time for the Frenchman's mock politeness. "You see, Alex, the Board believes that Operation Eagle Strike failed because Mr Gregorovich here developed some sort of... affection for you that caused him to disregard his duties." St Helier's face turned extremely saturnine. "However, due to his long-standing and dedicated service to our organisation, and because we understand that, although a traitor, you are John Rider's son, the decision was taken to give him a chance to redeem himself." A knife-thin smile flashed across the Frenchman's face. "Yassen has been entrusted with you punishment and execution, Alex. Once he has disposed of you, he will be accepted back into Scorpia without any further queries."

The words hit Alex like a blow to the chest. He'd just been kidnapped in an insane ploy for revenge, and using Yassen to do it... even as fear gnawed at his insides, it was almost drowned out by revulsion.

"Is there anything you would like to say, Alex?" the Frenchman asked very softly.

"Just that you're disgusting?" Alex shot back.

"As spirited as I've been told to expect." St Helier gave him a mock bow and took a step back. "I'll leave you to make your farewells," he announced. He shared a look with Yassen that Alex couldn't decipher at all. "Don't stay too long, Yassen."

He turned and ducked out of the door that Klaus obligingly opened for him from outside.

"I am sorry, little Alex," Yassen said when they were alone. "I don't hold a grudge over Air Force One." A wry smile touched his lips, then slid away. "I have only myself to blame, after all."

"How did you survive?" Alex managed to force out after a pause. "I was sure you'd died."

"Is it important now?" Yassen asked.

Alex pressed his lips together. Yassen's face on the floor of the presidential plane flashed before his inner eye, close to death. Your father... he saved my life. In a way, I loved him. I love you too, Alex. You are so very much like him

"I won't make that mistake again, Alex." Yassen said, a touch of regret in his voice.

He took Alex's chin between thumb and index finger in a curiously gentle grip and looked straight into his eyes.

"You will be punished for your treason against Scorpia," Yassen announced. "Then, you will die."

Despite the heat, Alex felt a shudder run over him. He'd heard death threats before, more than most people twice his age, he thought, but this wasn't a threat. It was just a statement of fact.

Yassen hesitated for a moment, as if to give Alex an opportunity to respond, standing so close to him that their lips almost touched. When only silence was forthcoming, he released Alex's face and knocked on the door. A moment later, a chain rattled outside. Yassen stepped into the glaring sunlight outside without looking back.


Alex waited for a long moment, ears pricked for any noise, but after the key turned again in the hole, there was only silence. Then he sat down on the mattress, staring at the wall opposite the door. He wrapped his arms around himself and realised they were covered in gooseflesh.

There was no point in hoping for a rescue. Even if Sabina's parents had alerted the French authorities immediately, it would take hours, at best, before the disappearance of one British teenage boy on Corsica might trigger the alerts of MI6 back in London. And if the Accountant had told the truth, he was already several hundred miles away from Bonifacio.

Yassen's departure had seemed at least momentarily final. If they wanted to make him suffer, what better way to soften him up than by locking him into his prison to ponder his fate? Still, he had to force himself not to make a move yet. He was obviously in a Scorpia stronghold, if his free-standing stone prison meant anything. There were Klaus and Yassen and the Frenchman to consider, and of course there would be guards. Waiting until nightfall was the only sensible thing to do.

The knowledge did nothing to prevent his heart from hammering at the thought that any minute, someone might walk in to torture him or finish him off for good. His mouth was dry with fear and heat. He took a modest sip from the half-empty bottle, then screwed it shut and settled down to wait.

He must have actually managed to snatch a few minutes of restless sleep, because when he woke, no sunlight was flooding through the barred window by the door. He sat upright, took another healthy sip that finished the bottle, and pulled off his left trainer. Waking to find his Nike Vapor Max TR trainers still on his feet had helped to keep utter panic at bay. Scorpia's men had gone through his clothes, taking his shirt and removing even the few coins he'd carried loosely in his jeans pockets. But they'd left him the shoes.

The trainers had been Smithers' gift for Alex's 15th birthday, coming in a standard gift-wrapped shoebox. A card had explained the hidden extras before self-destructing in a shower of colourful sparkles. They weren't just loaded with surprises – they were so comfortable as well that they'd been Alex's first choice to take on holiday. Now, he grabbed the shoe and pressed down hard on the blue logo with both thumbs. After an instant, invisible hinges pushed the bottom of the sole away from the uppers.

Between the upper and bottom part of the sole, Alex pulled out a flat, firm leather etui. Opening it, it revealed a selection of carbon-fibre lock picks, chosen explicitly to avoid showing up on airport or hand-held metal detectors. The left trainer held a collapsible blowgun and a set of darts. Alex settled down cross-legged and pulled his right foot up into his lap, exposing the lock of the shackle. It took five minutes and two different lock picks before he heard the gratifying click. Quickly, he pulled the shackle off and returned the picks to their sheath. With one shoe off, he darted over to the door, pausing only for a quick glimpse out of the small barred window.

It looked out into a darkening courtyard. Sand still gleamed bright on cobblestones despite the encroaching dusk. Twin batteries of floodlights swept across the yard in 30 second intervals. Alex swallowed and ducked below the window, pressing himself against the door. The keyhole was large and old-fashioned, with a thin metal cover. He pushed it aside with one finger, and shook the biggest of his lock picks into his palm. He could only hope that there was no guard standing right outside who might hear the scrapes through the door.

Luck was with him. The lock was even simpler to pick than the shackle's. After a short moment, Alex returned the lock pick to its pouch, and fiddled the pouch back into the sole of his trainer. It was one of the beauties of Smithers' gift that removing the gadgets didn't ruin the shoes – he could just slide them back into place, and walk off.

Before pulling the door open, Alex crouched down and took off his right trainer as well, He extracted the blowpipe, unfolded it and inserted the first of the three tranquiliser darts that came with it. The pouch with the other two darts went into the back pocket of his shorts. At last, he snapped the sole shut before pulling the shoe back on. Finally, he emptied the water bottle Yassen had left to fortify himself for his escape. He waited until the searchlights had passed once more, then slid the door open.

A quick glimpse around the courtyard showed that he was indeed standing inside a historical fortress. The three round, massive corner towers connected by crenelated battlements alone made that much evident. The sound of crashing waves was even louder outside. The small prison barrack that had confined him didn't sit squat in the middle of the courtyard, but a little set off to one side. Behind it, the entire west wall and half the north one were taken up by a series of former military barracks. A shadowy whipping post rose up in front of them. The stonework and battlements made Alex think of the late middle ages. In accordance with what St Helier had said, everything pointed to one of the historical sea fortresses England had surrounded its Channel possessions with in the Civil War. Mr Kydd at Brookland had had quite a passion for pointing them out on the map.

The two autocannons atop the east and west tower, however, weren't medieval but state of the art military technology. Quite obviously, Scorpia wasn't prepared to take any chances with hostile planes or ships. Even Malagosto hadn't been equipped with anything like that.

The searchlights had rounded the prison barrack and came back towards him. Pressing his back against the rough stone wall, Alex quickly ducked away from them. When he reached the side with door again after rounding the little hut ahead of the lights, he froze and shot back around the corner. From a small stuccoed archway that yawned in the middle of the north wall, two men were emerging. It barely took the identical semi-automatics over their shoulders to identify them as Scorpia guards. So St Helier didn't just rely on walls and cannons. Of course there would be troops.

Alex flattened himself against the wall. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the beams swinging around the other end of the barrack, flooding the castle wall with light and creeping inevitably closer. His heart hammered. He had to make a run for it. He couldn't outrun the floodlights - he could only hope to reach the doorway the guards had come through before they reached him. Whoever was operating the controls would surely see him otherwise.

However, the two guards didn't seem to be in a hurry. They strolled across the yard, conversing in quiet voices. There was no way they would reach the gateway to the main building before the floodlights exposed Alex. If he made his break, and they heard him, or saw him moving, he would barely have time to feel the bullets slamming into his back.

He waited until the very last moment, giving the guards as much time to cross as possible, until the floodlight was almost upon him. Then he sprinted towards the small archway, trying to be light on his feet. Every scrunch of his soles on the sand-covered courtyard echoed in his ears. As much as he wanted to look over his shoulder, he forced himself not to. He just ran.

With the floodlights hard at his heels, Alex half-collapsed into the archway, pressing himself against the stone. Like the outer walls, the arch was two metres thick, and hid him from the oncoming light. When he peered back into the courtyard, the guards had already vanished into the main building. As soon as his breath had slowed down to normal, he peered outside the archway. His face fell when he realized that St Helier had spoken the truth. He was trapped on an island. As far as he could see, nothing but water surrounded the castle. It sat atop a ring of steep cliffs, lapped at by a few gentle waves. From Alex's hiding place in the archway, stone steps framed by a waist-high wall led down to a natural sandy bay that served as a harbour. Apart from the Delphyne, the sleek motor yacht that had brought Alex to the island, he counted two motor boats and behind them an elegant, fragile sailing boat. A single path, half overgrown with bushes, wound its way from the bay up the cliff underneath the castle walls. While the presence of motor boats indicated that the island wasn't too far distant from the mainland, it was a daunting prospect to escape from.

There weren't many options either. One volley from the autocannons would cut a motor boat in half, and sink the Delphyne before it could get half a mile out of the harbour. Still, the boats were the only way he might escape. Perhaps he could hide on the yacht and it would sail out before anyone found out he had escape. It was a slim hope, but the best he had.

He ducked down the flights of stairs leading down to the harbour. Floodlights were sweeping over the beach and out onto sea as well, and a line of halogen lamps illuminated the small harbour itself. They made the sand and the boats gleamed as if bathed in daylight. Alex swallowed dryly. He could see no more guards patrolling the waterfront, but if Scorpia had any surveillance cameras there, they would inevitably catch sight of him if he went down directly.

Longingly, his eyes slid along the sleek flank of the Delphyne. Two red life buoys gleamed alongside her white bulk like the eyes of a sea monster. Alex's heart missed a beat when the implication hit him. Without doubt, that pattern would repeat on the yacht's other side, averted from the beach! Here was a way of getting on board that didn't involve braving the light-flooded foreshore.

After a last deep breath, he left the cover of the stairwell and sprinted to the right. A few feet of sand, and he'd reached the stone wall of the cliff that rose up to the castle above. About three hundred metres ahead, a man-high granite boulder rising out of the water marked the end of the beach.

Alex crept along the cliff, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible until he reached the boulder and the water's edge. For a second, he hesitated, then decided to keep his trainers on. He didn't want to be barefoot and vulnerable for the rest of his flight, and the lock picks might come handy again. He folded the blow gun he'd been holding on to around its dart and slid it into the back pocket of his cut-off jeans. Then he waded into the sea. Water filled his shoes with a wet slurp, awkwardly heavy as he pushed himself off. The ocean was warm, though, paying tribute to a long, hot day.

He swam out, letting himself sink underneath the surface whenever one of the floodlights that spread out across the water passed over him. The salt burned in his eyes as he looked up and saw the light flow past. Once it had gone, he surfaced. With swift crawl strokes, he rounded the Delphyne, approaching it from the side that was averted from the shore.

As he had hoped, her other flank repeated the pattern of white hull and red, eye-shaped life buoys fastened to their mountings with ornamental gilded rope. Alex wouldn't have been able to pull them down. But then he didn't want to. He just wanted a handhold to climb aboard without being seen.

It took him three attempts to shoot up out of the water and grab hold of the buoy with his wet trainers dragging him down. Then he had it and pulled himself up, feet scrabbling for purchase against the hull. Sheer adrenaline helped him to scramble for a foothold on the mounting that secured the buoy in place. He clung to the rope that suspended it from the railing with one hand, balancing precariously. Another upward lunge, and he had grabbed hold of the railing itself. From there, pulling himself over the metal bars and aboard was straightforward.

For a moment he just collapsed in a gasping wet heap on the deck. A few emergency lamps scattered along the hull illuminated the yacht, but no one seemed to have seen him climb aboard. Despite the thumping of his heart, he took a moment to pull off his sodden trainers and empty them of sea water before putting them on again.

Then he rounded the side of the cabin until he reached the few steps down that led down to the entrance. Only a few feet above rose the bullet-proof glass pane of the cockpit, transparent from the inside only. Quietly, Alex ducked down the stairs. As he'd expected, the door was locked. He went into a crouch, again preparing to slide off his left Nike.

"Going somewhere, Rider?"

Alex whipped around so fast he almost stumbled backwards into the door.

Klaus stood on deck with his legs slightly apart, looking down at Alex with a superior expression. He wore jeans and a shirt open at the neck; the black shoulder holster with a handgun contrasted sharply with the white shirt. Alex's heart hammered. The German didn't draw the gun, however. Instead, he shifted into a moto dachi karate forward stance. The fingers of his right hand moved in a subtle little challenge. Come on!

Alex bit the inside of his lip. He was at a disadvantage with his back to the door. He'd have to get up the stairs and past the German to have a level playing field. And even then, Klaus had the advantage of intensive training for as long as Alex had been alive, some of it with the Afghan Taliban, and with Scorpia. Still, it was preferable to going up against the gun.

Alex launched himself up the stairs, ducking down low and trying to swerve to the left and up onto the deck where he would be out of Klaus's reach for a second. He'd reached the top step when the mercenary's foot shot out and caught his shoulder. It felt like being kicked by a horse. Alex was flung back and let out a cry when his back slammed into the hardwood stairwell. He had enough presence of mind to roll himself up before he could bang face-first into the door. Feeling bruised all over, he clambered back onto his feet.

This time, Klaus's expression was distinctly smug. He stepped forward, blocking off Alex's escape route altogether.

"I'm almost glad you got away and ended up here," he drawled. "I'm glad for the chance to pay you back. Do you know why, Rider?"

Alex pressed his lips together and said nothing. He knew he'd betrayed Scorpia, never mind that Julia Rothman had intended for him to perish along with all the other young victims of Operation Invisible Sword. It would make no difference to the mercenary.

"After you betrayed us, Oliver d'Arc looked to one of those who'd trained with you to conduct your execution. He chose Amanda, because she was closest to you." Alex remembered her, one of the two women among his fellow trainees at Malagosto. A former soldier with the Israel Defence Forces, she was tall and dark-haired, with a quick smile. At Malagosto, she had spent a bit of time with Alex as if mothering the youngest of the group.

"She went to London to execute you," Klaus continued, his voice very cold now. "But she missed. You were still alive. D'Arc thought that she'd spared you on purpose."

Reflexively, Alex's hand went to the bullet scar on his chest, almost above his heart. He'd stepped off the pavement onto the road just when the shot fell. If he hadn't taken that tiny step, he would have died.

"Two days later, she was sent to assassinate an Afghan drug baron," the German said bitterly. "It should have been my assignment – I knew the territory, and the language. She didn't. It was a suicide mission. She never returned."

Something heavy settled in Alex's stomach. He'd liked Amanda. And she had meant to kill him – he'd been incredibly lucky to survive that shot.

"She didn't miss," he rasped, uncomfortably aware that he was trying to defend the woman who had nearly killed him.

"I know that," Klaus snarled. "But she's still dead. Because of you. For that alone, you deserve to suffer."

He moved so quickly that he was right in front of Alex before Alex could make a move and grabbed him around the throat. Alex wheezed and reached for his wrist, only to remember what had been drilled into him by both the SAS and Scorpia: don't try to break a stranglehold – strike back.

He brought his knee up, aiming for Klaus's groin, and the mercenary only manage to twist away in time. Alex's knee struck the top of his thigh instead. Still, the German lurched forward a little, allowing Alex to aim a karate chop to the veins at the inside of his wrist. The grip loosened, and Alex managed to tear himself away, at the price of deep scratches at the side of his neck. He elbowed the mercenary out of the way and raced up the stairs.

Out of the corner of his eye, Alex saw Klaus's hand go to his holster even as he scrambled to steady himself. Alex suppressed the instinct of racing straight for the gangplank. It would expose his back, and he couldn't outrun a bullet. Instead, he swerved around the side of the cabin and skidded to a halt. Back pressed against the wood, he fished for the folded blowgun in the back pocket of his shorts. It was still there, and unfolded to full size without problems. Alex could only hope that the single dart he'd put inside had survived its exposure to salt water during the swim. It was his only chance.

When Klaus stormed around the corner, Alex stepped away from the cabin, blowgun already at his mouth. He blew sharply just as realisation dawned in the mercenary's eyes. The German threw himself aside, propelled by instincts honed in years of training.

Even Scorpia-honed speed wasn't enough, however. The dart missed his throat which Alex had aimed for, but embedded itself like a furious wasp in his the side of his cheek. The German roared and grabbed it, pistol forgotten for a moment. Alex used the chance to strike out with a karate kick from the hip that sent the mercenary tumbling into the cabin wall. He didn't hang around to admire his success – he raced for the gangplank to put as much space between himself and Klaus as he possibly could. If he could find cover before Klaus regained his bearings…

He had reached the beach when a voice behind him barked, "Rider!"

Alex wheeled around. Klaus stood in the middle of the gangplank, his gun aimed at Alex's face. He was swaying slightly from the tranquilizer shot, but had obviously managed to pull out the dart before enough of the drug had entered his system. Alex stumbled two steps back, and Klaus fired.

The bullet hissed past Alex in a hot rush that brushed his cheek and snipped off a lock of hair. Alex froze. An ugly grin twisted the mercenary's face that told him Klaus had missed on purpose.

"Did that catch your attention, Rider?" he sneered.

Alex stared into the yawning opening of the pistol. He could feel the frantic staccato of his pulse thrumming through him. The gun rose an inch until it aimed directly between his eyes. Klaus was going to fire and there was nothing Alex could do to stop him. He wondered if he would have time to feel the hot lead of the bullet slicing into his brain. The world stopped.

"Hold fire!"

Klaus's head snapped up and a scowl settled over his features. Alex turned too, but more slowly. He knew Yassen Gregorovich's voice.

The assassin stood in front of the stone archway atop the stairs that Alex had fled the fortress from. The floodlights illuminated his outline and close-cropped blond hair. More lights swerved towards the beach, centring on Alex and Klaus. Frantically, Alex cast his eyes around for an escape.

On both sides, the small bay was bordered by cliffs and the sea. Klaus cut off any access to the boats, while Yassen blocked entry to the castle. At last, Alex's eyes were drawn to the overgrown path leading up to the cliffs, then running along underneath the castle walls. The entire slope, too, was bathed in light.

Without thinking, Alex threw himself around and raced for the path, driven by flight instinct only. Behind him, he could hear Klaus roar, but Alex ignored him, trusting that Yassen's presence would protect him against a bullet in the back. He didn't dare to look back to see whether Yassen or Klaus were coming after him.

The pathway would have been a challenge even to mountain goats. It wound its way up among flat, hardy bushes that covered the entire steep slope above the bay. Their roots, brown and gnarled, grew on and around the path, providing trip wires for every step. To become this overgrown, it had to have been neglected for months. Alex raced up as fast as the treacherous underground allowed. His sodden trainers rubbed the thin skin of his feet. He kept himself ducked down for fear of gunfire, but no further bullets rushed past him.

It took him less than ten minutes to reach the top of the cliff, although he stumbled and nearly skidded down the steep slope a couple of times when his feet snagged at a root. The run left him panting, a sign that he hadn't completely recovered from being drugged yet.

When he reached the top, however, he almost cried out with disappointment. The path wasn't leading around the fortress and towards the other side of the island, as he'd hoped. Instead, it ended in a little natural platform, covered with sand and roots, outside a door into the north-east tower. The tower occupied the last bit of rocky outcrop; directly beneath it, more cliffs fell down directly into the ocean, with a few stones rising precariously up from the seabed below to discourage any diver.

The child inside Alex wanted to scream and beat its fists against the door. He didn't have the time to consider it, however. Without a sound, the door opened outward on smooth hinges and Yassen Gregorovich stepped out.

Alex instinctively backed away. Something gnarled moved under the sole of his trainer and he slipped with a yelp. Suddenly, there was only air beneath his back and he fell. He had the presence of mind to throw himself forward and reach towards the cliff for something, anything, that could break his fall. His fingers scratched across stone, then touched a handful of roots. He clung on with every bit of strength he possessed, and the weight of his own body drove the air out of his lungs.

Although his arm muscles were screaming, he forced himself to hold on and look up. Amazingly, he had only fallen a few inches, and was hanging on to the bushes that grew from the roots covering the footpath.

He gripped the roots harder, feeling wood and hardened leaves digging into his skin, and started to pull himself up. Three pulls had brought his head level with the path, when something snapped. Alex slipped back two inches before the roots he'd been clinging to tangled in others, who were still holding on firmly to the cliff. But he didn't dare to move – anything might tear them loose altogether, and he would fall.

Just then, Yassen's face appeared over the cliff, looking down at Alex clinging desperately to the roots. There was no disguising the helpless plea that was written in Alex's eyes. Yassen was his only hope. Then the assassin's face vanished from the edge, and hope shattered.

A wave of pure despair crashed over Alex, His fingers were turning slippery with sweat and blood, and his arm muscles knotted and burned from carrying his entire weight. He couldn't hold on much longer! In a minute, perhaps two, he'd slip and fall. This close to the coast, even if he hit the water, it would be shallow and he'd break his bones or dash out his brains on the seabed. More likely, his body would shatter on the scattered boulders beneath. For a second, his mind was thrown back to the memory of dangling over a crocodile pit at Desmond McCain's mercy, and the primeval terror he'd felt then. There were no crocodiles now, but the fear of death was the same.

Just then, Yassen reappeared above him, and Alex's relief was so great that his eyes spilled over. The assassin was carefully knotting a rope that must be secured somewhere in the tower around his waist. Thus prepared, he went to his knees and leaned forward.

In a breath-taking déjà vu of the first time they'd met, Yassen reached down to Alex. This time, Alex didn't hesitate. Like a drowning sailor a buoy, he grasped Yassen's hand with his left, the right one still clenched in the roots. He felt Yassen's fingers circle his wrist in a mutual hold, offering salvation. For an inexplicable moment, however, the assassin hesitated to pull him to safety.

"Is this what you want, Alex?" When Alex just stared up at him in confusion, Yassen added, "Scorpia has condemned you to a painful death." His face in the outline of the floodlights was very calm. "If you let go here, now, it will be over very quickly."

The first emotion that rushed up in Alex was a flare of anger. How could Yassen ask him that? He knew Alex. He'd never seen him give up! Then he remembered who was expected to bring about his demise and swallowed. If Yassen considered Alex's death on the cliffs the better option for both of them…

After another second, he shook his head with determination and tightened his grip on Yassen's hand. He'd been caught in more death traps than most adult spies, and so far, he'd escaped them all. He wouldn't give up this time, either!

Yassen acknowledged his decision with a thoughtful nod and clasped his other hand around Alex's as well, securing his hold. "The choice is yours, little Alex," he said.

A heartbeat later, Alex felt himself being pulled up and dragged over the side of the path, where he collapsed against the castle wall. His legs were like butter.

He was too drained, physically and mentally, to put up any resistance when Yassen dragged him through the small door, through the tower, and back into the courtyard. The door to the barrack that had been Alex's prison was still ajar the way he had left it after his escape. Yassen shoved him inside and flung him down on the mattress he had been chained to before.

The Russian picked up the discarded ankle chain and let it run to his fingers, probing the shackle. Shaking his head wryly, he pushed Alex onto his back. The assassin closed the handcuffs first around Alex's left, then his right wrist. They shut with two final snaps, leaving Alex with outspread arms on the mattress without even the energy to glare.

Somehow, he couldn’t quite muster the effort to struggle against Yassen's hands. Perhaps because they'd held, and preserved, Alex's life just a few minutes ago. Yassen's touch felt comforting, even though he was returning and chaining Alex to his prison, with no promise but a painful death.

The assassin ran pale blue eyes over Alex's body, counting the various scratches and abrasions from where he'd fallen and scrambled to hang on to the cliff, the dull red bruise just above his hip left by Klaus's kick, the nail marks on his neck where he'd torn himself out of the mercenary's grip. When he seemed satisfied that none of them required attention, he took hold of Alex's chin again and wiped a bit of half-dried blood off his split lip with his thumb.

"You may have made the wrong choice, little Alex," he said softly and stood.

He went, but not before slipping Alex's Nikes off his feet and slinging them over his shoulder by the laces. After the key turned in the door, Alex heard the heavy rattle of a chain barring it from outside. This time, Yassen was leaving nothing to chance.


It was the very same rattle of the chain that roused Alex from the exhausted sleep that had hit him like a brick as soon as he'd been alone. His eyes snapped open. The dull white of early morning air before the sun rose came in through the little window.

His heart started to hammer in his chest. Were they coming to kill him? Executions at dawn had a long military tradition, and this was a military fortress after all. He tensed, pulling instinctively at his handcuffs, only to realise that there was nothing he could do. He could only wait for what was about to happen to him.

When the door opened, however, it wasn't Yassen or Klaus or some of the guards who entered. Instead, it was the Frenchman, St Helier, again all the businessman in a light Miu Miu summer suit, polished Armani leather loafers and thin-rimmed French glasses. For a moment, Alex struggled as to whether he should pretend to be asleep, but then he decided against it. His eyes met the Frenchman's straight on.

St Helier studied him from inside the door, as thoroughly as Yassen had done the night before, and yet this scrutiny made the tiny hairs stand up on Alex's arms. The Frenchman struck him as too polished to carry out a death sentence with his own hands, but he'd learned the hard way never to underestimate Scorpia.

"I wanted to speak with you about Yassen," St Helier said.

It was not, to say the least, what Alex had expected to hear, what with all the inside secrets about MI6 Scorpia might think he was harbouring. He hid his surprise, however.

"I saw what happened yesterday," the Accountant went on when no response was forthcoming. "On the cliff."

"You did?" Alex asked without emotion.

"There isn't much on this island that I do not see," the Accountant replied. "Scorpia's surveillance equipment is superb. We do quite a few business conferences with outside organisations here."

Yes, Alex was certain that spying on potential rivals would give Scorpia an advantage.

"What about Yassen?" he cut to the topic brusquely.

"He cares about you," the Accountant said. "You're John Rider's son. His best friend's child." The Frenchman took a few steps forward, until he stood next to Alex's stomach, looking down at him. "That's why he ruined Operation Eagle Strike. That's why he's here. It's why both of you are here. The Executive Board has stopped trusting him."

"It's not true," Alex protested. "Yassen didn't betray Scorpia. Damian Cray just really didn't like him. He was a madman." Alex felt the familiar surge of rage boil up inside him. "He planned to detonate 25 nuclear missiles all over the world." He raised his eyes until they could meet the Frenchman's behind the fashionable glasses. "He was completely crazy."

The Accountant shrugged. "It wasn't my project, and I didn't vote in its favour. For Scorpia, however, the projected gains in influence and money were expected to pay off. That's the only thing I am concerned with."

Alex had to swallow down his fury before it choked him; he knew moral outrage would mean nothing with these men.

"I note, though, that you are quite eager to protect Yassen?" the Frenchman commented. Alex felt his cheeks warm and said nothing. "He killed your uncle, did he not? Ian Rider? Who raised you, after your parents' death?"

Again, Alex stayed silent, trying not to gnaw at his lip. He'd asked himself the same questions before, ever since the first time he'd run into Yassen on the top of Sayle's Tower. Yassen had saved his life – did that make up for taking Ian's? And he'd kept saving Alex, or giving him odd fighting chances, right up until tonight. On some level, he feared he had forgiven Yassen Gregorovich when he'd pulled him to safety on the tower a year ago. He'd had the chance to take revenge, he'd had the assassin helpless at gunpoint – but he hadn't been able to pull the trigger.

"I think you care about him," the Accountant confirmed, "as much as he cares about you." He turned and walked over to the tiny window, staring outside. "It is unfortunate that you seem to have bonded this way."

"We haven't bonded," Alex shot back mutinously.

"Unfortunate for Yassen, above all else," the Accountant continued without paying attention to Alex's protest. "Very few of those who have encounter the wrath of the Executive Board ever survived the experience." He turned around, his back to the window. "They are giving Yassen a chance because he's the best at what he does. And because he has friends."

"Friends?" Alex echoed in confusion.

"He matters to me too, Alex. Some 18 years ago, when he came out of the UDSSR and found Scorpia, I took him under my wing. We became… friends of sorts, perhaps. A bit more than that, for a few years." Blood shot into Alex's face at the implication.

"You were lovers?" he blurted out.

He had never imagined Yassen with a girlfriend – women didn't seem to exist in the Russian's world, unless they were assassins, or international criminal masterminds like Julia Rothman. He had never thought about him with men either, but… it seemed a little less alien, perhaps.

The Accountant laughed softly. "It is easy to forget that you are still a child, Alex. What a romantic notion. There are no lovers in our world – lovers make you as vulnerable as anyone you get close to. As your friend Gregorovich is finding out now."

Alex frowned. "He's not my friend. And why are you telling me this?" His fists clenched in frustration, rattling the handcuffs. "What do you want from me?"

"I want Yassen to live." The hairs at the back of Alex's neck rose. "I think you have the power to make him betray us once again, and then I'll have to kill you both. I want you not to try."

"If you care about Yassen as you claim – then just let us go," Alex cried out.

A thin smile curved the Frenchman's lips. "I can't do that, Alex. The Executive Board may look like a collective, but in truth it's a snake pit. There is nothing Scorpia likes more than pitting themselves against each other, testing their power. My connection to Yassen is known among my colleagues. This is not just his test – it is mine, too." He tapped a manicured fingernail against his lips, contemplating Alex carefully.

"As you will probably know, Scorpia has taken quite a few knocks recently, Alex. But sometimes, retreating into reorganisation isn't a bad thing. It flushes out one's enemies, and exposes internal weaknesses. It can allow you to emerge stronger, while your opponents underestimate you." The Accountant cocked his head. "Shall I tell you why this concerns Yassen?"

Alex nodded silently. Finding out more about the internal workings of Scorpia might be useful. It also postponed the necessity to think about the Frenchman's earlier words for a moment.

"Thanks to your activities, the Board has shrunken to seven members," St Helier took up his narrative. "Most of them are old men, survivors of the early days of the Cold War. Still coloured by ideological divisions that have lost all meaning in the 21st century. I want to see a revival of Scorpia, but with some fresh faces and input and talents."

Alex could feel his mouth fall open. "Yassen?" he gasped. "You want Yassen to become a member of Scorpia's Executive?"

"Someone who'd be loyal to me would not hurt," St Helier confirmed wryly. "And Yassen's reputation is not one to be underestimated. It might be advantageous for us to have someone like him on the Board."

"And you think he'd throw all of that away, for me?" Alex whispered. His mouth was suddenly very dry.

The Accountant shook his head. "He doesn't know about any of this. The only one I have spoken to about it – apart from you – is an Australian colleague who agrees with the general direction I want Scorpia to take." He paused for a moment. "Yassen dreams of retirement, of a little fortress of his own somewhere in Russia, perhaps. But there is no leaving Scorpia. Our oldest board member found out about this the hard way not so long ago. Yassen, however, is proud man," St Helier said. "He values his independence above everything else – even above his loyalty to us. I can't deny that I'm afraid that he will throw away everything he has so as not to compromise himself."

Knowing Yassen – or what little he knew of Yassen – Alex was inclined to agree. He had certainly never been one to toe his employers' line – not on Sayle Tower, and definitely not with Damian Cray either.

"I don't hate you, Alex Rider," St Helier said, and for some strange reason, Alex was inclined to believe him. "I didn't have much love for those colleagues of mine whose deaths you caused. Even though your exploits did Scorpia – and myself, as shareholder – considerable financial damage. I know this isn't fair to ask of a young man, even an exceptional one as you. But I do. There is no saving yourself – all you might do is drag Yassen down to share your fate." He looked Alex straight in the eyes. "I ask you not to."

Alex stared back, speechless. "How?" He ground out at last. "Even if I wanted to, how could I stop him?"

The Accountant removed his glasses and twirled them between slender fingers. "You are your father's son. There is one thing that we both know, and Yassen Gregorovich does not, that might make him look at you in a different light," he pointed out softly.

Eyes widening, Alex exhaled. "He doesn't know? He still doesn’t know that my father was an MI6 agent?"

"No," St Helier confirmed. "It is not something Scorpia likes to advertise. Do you think it would change his mind about you?"

It might, Alex admitted to himself. When he thought he was dying aboard Air Force One, Yassen had told him he'd loved John Rider, and Alex too. If he only saw Alex filtered through his father's memory, he would be angry. At both of them.

Angry enough to kill in cold blood? Alex wondered. But then, how much did it take for an assassin?

"Why aren't you telling him, then?" he challenged the Accountant.

"I'm not sure whether he would believe me." The Frenchman sighed and put his glasses back on. " He knows I want him to do this. He will believe you." St Helier looked down the bridge of his nose at Alex. "Think about it, Alex Rider," he said.

After another moment of pregnant silence, he turned away and walked over to the door.

This time, after he was left alone, Alex didn't manage to get back to sleep for a long time.


He must have managed after all, however, because when he opened his eyes, morning was already giving way to heat, and his hair was plastered to his skull in damp tangles. Alex twisted his shoulders as much as the shackles allowed to get some of the kinks out of his back. Against his will, the previous night's conversation with the Frenchman started to prey on his mind again.

Had the Accountant just messed with his mind, or did he, Alex, really have as much of a hold on Yassen Gregorovich? Somehow, Alex couldn't imagine he did, but then, Yassen had saved his life more than once. But he'd also explicitly said that this time, it was either him or Alex, and that he'd save himself...

The door opened, and Alex jumped. His mouth went dry when he found himself face to face with the object of his thoughts. Walking over to Alex, his face stony and unreadable, Yassen seemed to lack some of his usual grace. He didn't speak. Instead, he unshackled Alex's ankle, then his hands, giving him time enough to sit up and stretch his back and rub his numb wrists.

"Is this-" Alex croaked.

"Not yet," the assassin said. He pulled Alex to his feet and pushed him around to bind his wrists behind his back.

Yes, Alex remembered. He was to be punished before he'd be killed. An icy shudder ran through him. Despite the heat, his hands and feet grew cold.

Yassen tested his bonds, then turned towards the door where two guards were waiting at a respectful distance. Before the Russian could call them, Alex whispered, low and urgent, "Wait!"

He didn’t quite like the calculating look that slipped into the assassin's eyes – as if Alex was somehow falling short on his expectations.

Without allowing himself time to think, Alex blurted out, "My father – he didn't work for Scorpia. He was an MI6 infiltrator." And then, when no muscle twitched in Yassen's face at all, "He wasn't your friend! He betrayed you."

He didn't see the assassin move. He only felt the back of Yassen's hand snap across his face, throwing him into the wall. His head was ringing, and he could taste blood in his mouth.

Alex straightened his back as the Russian walked to the door. Somehow, he couldn't help but feel that he'd just thrown away the last chance of getting Yassen to help him.

The pair of guards grabbed his arms and marched him outside. The sudden flood of sunlight made Alex stumble. He could barely make out where he was being dragged. Only when he saw the whipping post rise up in front of him did he dig in his heels and struggle against the grip of his captors. Surely they couldn't, couldn't...!

"Quite appropriate, don't you think?"

Alex's head snapped up. The Accountant had stepped out from the tower entrance, escorted by two Scorpia agents, Klaus, and the young man who'd helped to abduct Alex in Bonifacio.

"The British Empire insisted on punishing its delinquent soldiers this way for far longer than any major European power," the Frenchman pointed out. "Since you have been a traitor and deserter to Scorpia, Alex Rider, I have to agree with Mr Gregorovich that this does indeed constitute an appropriate punishment."

"You're sick!" Alex croaked. He felt panic rush through him and kicked out at the shin of one of his guards, only to receive a cuff over the head.

Behind the post, a small tribune had been raised, covered against the glare of the sun with a striped white-and-green awning. A half-circle of comfortable chairs was arranged underneath in the shade, and a serving table with drinks waited behind them. It reminded Alex of how dry his own mouth was.

When he was dragged closer, his eyes fell on a wooden rack that stood beside the post, and he nearly swallowed his tongue. It carried an assortment of whipping instruments, from a gleaming black leather cat o'nine tails to a metal-studded whip so heavy it looked as if someone could break a limb with it if applied hard enough. Alex had to look away; for a moment, it felt as if only water was running in his legs. If the guards hadn't held him, he was sure he would have fallen.

Then he was being thrown forward against the whipping post, its wood ancient and smooth against his chest. A second bar of wood crossed the post at chest-height, then rose up on both sides like the arms of a cross. The bars had shackles on them, and the guards bound Alex's wrists to them with a final click. The position left him standing upright with a bit of stretch to his toes; evidently, the post had been designed for a man, not for a teenager.

The Accountant and his staff were taking their seats on the tribune, being served colourful fruit drinks by one of the guards who had exchanged the MP over his shoulder for a white handkerchief. They would have a perfect view of his face.

Alex saw Klaus refuse a drink with a shake of his head, then the mercenary headed over to him.

"Enjoy your punishment, Rider," he snarled. "You deserve a traitor's death – painful, and humiliating."

Alex would have liked to spit at the German to express his contempt, but his mouth was too dry.

"You might want to step back, Klaus," he heard Yassen's voice behind him, and instantly, gooseflesh broke out all over Alex's back. The assassin stepped up beside the rack, calmly slipping on a pair of black fingerless leather gloves as he contemplated the whips.

"I would take this task off your hands," the German said, his accent just a tad more pronounced than usual. Alex froze at the thought.

"I know you would," Yassen agreed calmly. "But I don't think your self-control is quite up to the task, Klaus."

The Russian's eyes wandered over the rack. At last, he selected a short, tightly braided whip and let it whistle once through the air. Alex flinched at the sound, producing a titter of laughter from the onlookers. His face went hot, and he bit his lip.

Yassen walked up right behind him, and a second later, Alex felt his hands around his hips, sliding loose the button of his cut-off jeans and pulling down the zipper.

"Don't!" he shrilled under his breath.

"Be quiet, Alex." With a deft pull, the Russian slid off Alex's boxers and shorts, leaving his buttocks bare and vulnerable. Face glowing, Alex pressed himself against the whipping post to hide his groin.

The first blow whistled across Alex's back without giving him time to prepare. It drew a soft cough from his lungs. He'd known it would hurt; however, he hadn't expected the line of pure fire that raced across his skin from hip to shoulder. A second followed, straight over his buttocks; Alex gasped. The pain was worse than he'd expected, the blows coming much harder and faster than he was prepared for. The fourth blow, artfully cutting across the first three, wrung a cry from his throat.

He'd hoped he'd be able to stay silent. He'd somehow thought that his survival training with the SAS might have strengthened his ability to withstand torture. Now, he understood that it hadn't. Yassen seemed to know exactly how to target and measure his blows to hit Alex just that strategic bit harder than he expected.

Once the Russian's whip had broken through Alex's defences, Yassen managed to draw a noise from him with every blow. A dull moan when the tip of the whip gauged the flesh of Alex's buttock; a sharp cry when it whistled across a shoulder blade, a garbled whimper when it snapped over Alex's hips.

Even as he cried out, he saw the cool eyes of the Accountant studying his expression through the fashionable frames. The Frenchman's tongue touched his lip in sickening appreciation, and Alex looked away.

The pain made Alex squirm against the wooden post, trying to evade the whip but always failing. Sweat was darkening his fringe, burning in his eyes and turning the observant, whispering onlookers on the tribune into blurred shadows. He struggled against his bonds, tearing at the cuts that already marred his shoulders, helplessly trying to escape the blows that fell like rain on his back and buttocks and thighs. Instead of water, however, they scorched his skin like splashes of acid, dousing him in screaming agony.

He didn't quite know what he was screaming; whether he was crying out his rage, or pleading with Yassen to stop, or just giving an inarticulate voice to the pain that rocked him. His throat was becoming raw and hoarse, and his eyes spilled over, sending a wet film of tears down his cheeks and over the wood. His nose clogged up and he felt tears or snot run down and drip onto the sand.

After what felt like hours, exhaustion and heat took their toll. Alex hung against the whipping post like a rag doll, too drained to move under the whip or try to shield his genitals or pained face from view.

At first, Alex barely even noticed that the blows had stopped. He saw Yassen reach for the rack, and flinched so badly that it sent another snap of pain across his shoulder blades. Instead of selecting a different whip, however, Yassen grabbed Alex's chin and lifted up his face, exposing the tear-stained mask of pain he'd wrought. He nodded.

"Take him back to his prison," he commented calmly, then let Alex's head fall down and walked over to take a fruit drink from the Frenchman's hand, sipping thoughtfully.

Alex cried out again when he was torn away from the whipping post without much care for his bleeding cuts and welts. The guards grabbed him by the wrists and dragged him across the sand to the prison barrack. The sudden shadow brought no cool, but felt like a pleasant exhale across Alex's back nonetheless.

He was thrown onto his stomach on the mattress, and someone stepped forward to re-fasten the shackle around his ankle. Alex's brain felt hot and strange as he lay on his stomach, lurching close to unconsciousness. He drifted for a few minutes, until more footsteps came into the little building and towards him.

"That wasn't so bad," Klaus's hateful voice commented, pressing the side of his boot against the whip marks on Alex's hip. Too shattered to even cry out, fresh tears of pain leaked from Alex's eyes. "He's barely even bleeding."

The mercenary's contempt cut into Alex like another scourging. His back felt as if it had been torn to shreds, and all these men saw was an over-sensitive, sobbing child. Not a spy, not an equal – a kid, easily broken in the adult world.

"You might want to return to Dr Three's Psychology of Pain," Yassen replied in the tone of a teacher critiquing a none-too-bright student. "I want him alert for his execution – resentful, full of fighting spirit, clinging to the hope of giving us the slip at the last minute. I could have cut his back to strips, and broken him physically," the Russian lectured while cleaning the cuts on Alex's buttocks with a series of antiseptic wipes. They stung beyond endurance, and Alex arched against his touch, trying to crawl away.

"Calm, you!" Yassen admonished, holding Alex down by the scruff of his neck with his left while completing the procedure with the right. "But incapacitating injuries would take him beyond hope," he continued his lecture. "Death would come as a release. This way, fear and hope can still work on him."

The words just wrung another sob out of Alex. His mind felt as raw as his back.

"You would know, wouldn't you, Yassen," Klaus said, with only the slightest touch of a sneer in his words. "You were the Doctor's favourite student, after all."

Without another comment, Yassen followed up the cleaning with a cooling salve slathered across Alex's back. The cold hurt as much as the whip, and Alex just helplessly twitched under the assassin's cruel fingers. A different sort of frantic heat ran through him when Yassen touched the bare skin of his hips and buttocks. He buried his face against the mattress.

Klaus snorted audibly. "You're just coddling him now," he objected.

There was a moment of silence. When Yassen spoke, his voice was so cold that Alex shuddered physically. "You know the procedure for taking a mission from another Scorpia operative, Klaus. Would you like to challenge me?"

Klaus hesitated, and Alex felt the tension hum between the two men. Then Klaus shook his head and his footsteps retreated, far heavier than Yassen's would have been.

A moment later, the rim of a cup was pressed to Alex's lips. He was so desperately thirsty that he gulped down the first few mouthfuls of fluid without even noticing how bitter it was. It soothed his throat, raw from screaming. Even when he realised it was a drug, he continued to swallow. Part of him wanted to stay awake, because unconsciousness would make him even more helpless than he was now; but a larger part just wanted to escape the pain.

He emptied the beaker and felt numbness crawl up his knees and thighs until it enveloped his back, soothing the burns out of existence. Then it touched the back of Alex's brain, and he passed out.


He woke a long time later when someone was insistently shaking him awake by the shoulder. Alex moaned through cracked lips. His tongue felt like a leathery something stuck to the roof of his mouth. He was being rolled onto his side, and flinched when the lash marks on his hip touched the mattress. Then cool plastic brushed his lips and he inhaled a mouthful of water before managing to press both hands around the water bottle and suck down the contents like a life saver.

"You slept for over 24 hours. How are you feeling?"

Alex wasn't surprised to hear Yassen's voice.

"Better," he replied softly. It was true, he realised with a touch of surprise. His back still burned, but it was a bearable ache, not the overwhelming agony he'd felt before. Whatever salves Yassen had used on him, they had done their job.

Fear grabbed him on the tail of his thought. "Is it now?" he blurted out.

"Not yet," Yassen replied. "Tomorrow at dawn. You still have the night."

Alex's gasp of relief came out more like a sob. Dusk was creeping in through the little window, and the thought of lying here, having an entire night to look forward to fretting about death was the most horrible thing he could imagine.

Yassen stepped behind him, pushing him half onto his stomach to study his back. "You're healing very well."

"It'll make no difference!" Bitterness spilled out in Alex's tone. He felt his eyes burn, hating himself for the weakness.

"No, it will not." Yassen confirmed just as gravely.

Alex wanted to recoil from this stern man who offered nothing but an unmitigated death sentence, but instead, he leaned forward across the mattress. Almost as if on its own volition, his hand slid over and cupped Yassen's wrist. He couldn't look up at the assassin. His heart beat painfully fast. Slowly, he brought Yassen's wrist up to his lips and laid his mouth openly against the pulse point there.

Yassen's skin tasted warm and salty and surprisingly human under Alex's tongue.

"This is a very bad idea," the Russian murmured, almost inaudible.

Alex's head whipped round like a snake's; he bared his teeth in a soundless expression of rage.

"I'm not asking for mercy!" he growled, but the words died under Yassen's heated glare. Yassen grabbed a handful of hair at the back of his neck and pulled his head back just a little while he looked at Alex's angry face. There was something glinting deep down in his eyes that made Alex's stomach tickle. Then Yassen pulled him close, sinking into a crouch on the mattress, and closed his mouth over Alex's, snarl and all.

The speed with which Alex relaxed under the kiss would have embarrassed him in any other situation. Yassen kissed harshly, all hard press of lips and insistent tongue, and Alex found that the easiest way to deal with it was just to go along. It saved him from having to think about what the heck he was doing, too.

Yassen's grip on his hair loosened, and one of his hands snaked around Alex's neck, mapping the skin over his collarbone, the hollow of his throat. Alex bit his lip. It felt... good. For some reason, his instinct-driven brain associated Yassen's hands with safety. This was the man who'd stripped and whipped him until he'd been a crying, broken thing, and yet he relaxed under his touch.

The hands wandered lower, tracing Alex's chest. A fingernail caught his left nipple, and made it tighten almost painfully. Alex gasped, and bit his lip in embarrassment.

Yassen paused, smiled, and did it again, his eyes never once leaving Alex's face. Alex heard his own breath rasping in his throat. The assassin stroked his chest, then his belly, and Alex felt a shudder run through him when Yassen's finger brushed his navel.

The sparse, silky trail of blond hairs below it hadn't been there a year before, and Yassen's fingers toyed with them on their way south in a way that made Alex's skin crawl all over, half with the sheer sensation of it, half with expectation. His face, he knew, had to be burning, and he was glad of the shadows.

Yassen didn't tease or delay when he reached Alex's cock, which had hardened quite a bit during the assassin's exploration of his body, and was nervously curving up as if asking to be touched. Instead, he closed his hand around it, firm and rough, and Alex nearly came off the mattress he was reclining on. He could feel his erection swell, cradled in Yassen's palm.

Of course he'd touched himself before, had even imagined Sabina touching him there the few times they kissed. But this wasn't his own hand or embarrassed imagination. This was real and harsh and then Yassen's thumb grazed over the head of his cock, tracing the slit with his nail, and a desperate sound of need spilled from Alex's lips that made his ears burn in shame. His hips snapped forward, burying himself deeper in Yassen's palm.

"Please!" he gasped.

Yassen didn't answer. Instead, he kneaded the length of Alex's cock, tormenting the head with his fingertips, until hot, heavy heat pooled in Alex's balls, and he couldn't stop himself from moving against the assassin in restless, helpless jerks.

It took an embarrassingly short time until the pressure boiled over; Alex's entire body stiffened, and he felt his cock jump and spill into the tight confines of Yassen's fist. Alex groaned with relief, going limp and letting his forehead sink onto the assassin's shoulder. Somehow, he felt too exhausted and boneless with release to move. He didn't quite fancy looking at Yassen either.

Instead of wiping his soiled fingers on the mattress as Alex would have done, Yassen lifted Alex's chin off his shoulder with his thumb, and touched his wet palm to Alex's lips. The smell of his own come hit Alex's nostrils, and he scrunched up his nose. The thought of tasting himself seemed weird and depraved and wrong, but if Yassen wanted him to, who'd got him off after all…

He stuck his tongue out and ran it over the pads of Yassen's fingers, tasting his come in a warm mix of bland and sour and not-so-terrible-after-all. Yassen let out a soft, satisfied sound that quite reconciled Alex with his task and leaned forward to kiss him again, sharing Alex's taste from his tongue. Warmth fluttered through Alex's stomach even though he'd only just come.

"What... what about you?" he breathed after Yassen freed his mouth, knowing how stupid and desperate he sounded.

He felt Yassen's laugh rumble against his chest. "Everything I might want to do to you would probably hurt, little Alex." There was a provocative purr in the assassin's tone that made Alex think of a prowling cat.

"I don't care," he whispered. It was a lie, of course. His stomach was knotting in apprehension. But he'd never been good at ignoring challenges, especially Yassen's, and although it had got darker outside, it was still too early. A bit of pain seemed like a small price, if it meant not being left to wait for death on his own.

"Don't you?" Yassen mused, leaning in very close. In the dim light, his eyes were quite dark for a change.

Then he drew back and rose to his feet, and Alex wondered whether he had made a mistake somehow. But Yassen only straightened and slid his jacket off his shoulders, then undid the remaining buttons of his shirt at a leisurely pace – not hurrying, not slowly, just as evenly as he probably had fastened them in the morning. It wasn't remotely calculated to be seductive, and yet it made butterflies flutter inside Alex's stomach.

Yassen peeled off his belt, jeans and pants and added them to the discarded pile of clothes on the foot end of the mattress. He wasn't fully hard, Alex diagnosed after a side peek out of the corner of his eyes. Not as eager as Alex had been after the first touch – but not wholly disinterested either. It was a strangely satisfactory sight.

The assassin crooked a finger, indicating for Alex to rise to his knees, then put a hand on his shoulder to stop him from getting up any further. "That's good," he murmured once Alex was kneeling on the side of the mattress. "Now move forward a little."

Alex obeyed, shuffling forward on the mattress until he felt Yassen kneel down behind him. The shackle around his ankle caught at the chain until the assassin pulled it free. Yassen touched his shoulders, thumbs lightly tracing the fading whip marks there. It stung a little, but wasn't quite the reason why Alex shuddered. Yassen's lips brushed the back of his neck, and he shivered again, harder this time. His hands opened and closed nervously at his sides, until Yassen caught his wrists from behind.

"Now these would look good tied behind your back," he mused. "But that would be a bit awkward in this position." He shifted his grip and brushed his knuckles against Alex's limp cock, and Alex felt it twitch with interest. "And definitely no touching yourself," Yassen decreed. Alex's face started to burn again.

The assassin's larger hands cupped Alex's and placed them flat on the insides of his thighs. "Yes, this will work quite nicely," he said. "Though you could use them to spread your legs a bit wider for me." Alex's cock twitched again, without being touched this time. "Can you do that?" Yassen breathed.

Alex obeyed, shivering with arousal, until his thighs formed a wide-open v and his heels touched underneath him. His mouth felt very dry, although his palms were sweaty on the soft skin of his thighs.

"I'm not going to fuck you," Yassen said, and Alex experienced a twin flash of relief and anger. "Neither of us is prepared for that, I think." He placed a sharp bite on Alex's collarbone that made Alex squeak. "But that doesn't mean I won't have my way with you, little Alex." The hairs on Alex's arms rose. He felt as if Yassen was already doing more to him than he could handle with his voice alone.

Alex threw his head back, eyes wide open, and froze when he saw the shadowy outline of a human figure against the sliver of moonlight creeping in from the window. He thought he caught a flash of glasses.

Yassen's hand reaching for his neck distracted him. He felt his head being pulled around at an awkward angle until the assassin's mouth closed over his. It was a brutal kiss, full of teeth digging into his bottom lip, and insistent tongue that would lick away the blood and challenge Alex's own. Maybe he'd only had a hallucination?

Then Yassen leaned away from him and reached backward to pick up his discarded jacket. He rummaged through the inside pockets, and came up with a folded black silk tie. He licked the corner of Alex's mouth, then released the grip on his head and shook out the tie. Alex barely had time to prepare himself before the black silk came up in front of his face and closed over his eyes. He squirmed nervously until he felt Yassen move up against him, his cock a heavy presence against Alex's buttocks. The assassin knotted the tie behind his head, and Alex felt the soft ends whisper down his bare back. The sensation made him shiver.

He couldn't help but take it as a message. The mere fact that Yassen saw fit to close off his vision was proof that they weren't alone, and that he didn't want Alex to react to the presence of an onlooker. The thought of being put on display, naked and blindfolded with spread thighs, made his skin crawl. On the other hand, the blindfold and Yassen's warm body at his back made it easier to ignore anything else. Wrapped inside Yassen's arms and smell and presence, he could pretend they were alone.

He felt Yassen's eyes on him despite the tie over his eyes, more intense than if he could have seen them.

"Very nice," the Russian murmured, his accent stronger than usual. He stroked Alex's lips with his fingers, and Alex used the opportunity to brush them with his tongue.

Alex felt Yassen settle down close behind him, kneeling down to spoon him from behind. Large hands cupped his buttocks, lightly enough to not further bruise the still-inflamed skin there, but not quite so careful as not to sting. Alex gasped when a thumb followed one of the more prominent welts. He knew his skin had to burn hot against Yassen's palms. The assassin lifted his arse a little, and Alex took the cue, rising a bit higher on his knees.

When Yassen's thumb traced the crack between his buttocks and the opening there, Alex's breath stopped in a moment of sheer panic. His heart hammered in his chest like a small woodland creature ringed by predators.

"Child," Yassen chided against his shoulder blades, and indignation calmed the panic a little. He brushed Alex's hole again, very lightly, only just grazing the puckered skin until the tickly touch made Alex squirm and tremble deep inside.

Then Yassen shifted again, and his thumb stopped moving against Alex, replaced by something much larger, slicker, and very hot against Alex's sensitised skin.

"Calm!" Yassen hissed before Alex could freeze again. He reached around Alex's chest, pinching a nipple on the way, then rubbed the heel of his palm against the hairs at Alex's groin, not quite touching his cock, but close enough to make it rise to attention. At the same time, Yassen's erection, slickened with something that Alex didn't quite want to identify as possibly saliva, took the place of Yassen's thumb, rubbing over Alex's hole in a maddening rhythm. Never aggressive, never moving to penetrate, only sliding back and forth and creating a friction that made Alex shake. His thighs trembled under his hands, his shoulders felt cramped, and he was eerily aware of his spine as if it had been outlined by a hot flush inside him.

Somehow, involuntarily, Alex bent forward a little to give Yassen's cock more room to move against him. Longer than Yassen's thumb, it slid across Alex's hole, and over the sensitive skin behind, until the head, sticky and warm, brushed the back of Alex's balls. He whimpered the first time it happened; the sensation was so intense it almost felt like pain, slithering through him and into his cock until he thought he would come from it right away. He felt a drop of fluid flow from the head, and run down over his hot flesh.

Yassen repeated the movement as soon as he realised what it did to Alex. He slid his cock over Alex's hole and perineum to his balls, hard and slick with precome while his free hand stroked Alex's chest and belly, ever so often pinching his nipples and grazing the bottom of his cock for a fleeting, cruel moment. Alex could hear him breathe now, rough and raspy, and something inside Alex mourned the blindfold that made it impossible for him to see the assassin's face when he was not in control, and undone by Alex's body, of all things.

The thought scattered when Yassen's rhythm sped up, sending a surge of need deep inside him. For a moment, Alex wished the man would bury himself inside him instead of teasing him with friction because it would relieve the need inside him. He squirmed, desperate for more, only to find Yassen's nails close around and brutally twist a nipple. Another trickle of precome spilled from Alex's painfully hard cock, and he nearly came when Yassen emphasised his hissed "No!" with a warning bite to Alex's ear lobe.

His entire body was hot as if he was about to burst out of his skin; his undercarriage prickled with need, his groin and arse burned, and he knew he'd go mad if the pressure didn't give soon.

Then Yassen pushed forward once more, both hands gripping Alex's hips so hard he knew there would be finger-shaped bruises. Hot fluid spilled over Alex's balls, almost as warm as the need boiling inside them. Alex cried out and felt his own cock spurt, at last. Warm come spilled on his knee and the mattress, and he slumped forward, nails digging into his thighs, almost blanking out with the force of release. Yassen's arms closed around him for a moment with crushing force, and only when the grip loosened Alex realised how badly he was trembling. As soon as Yassen let go of him, he collapsed onto his side, winded beyond words.

Caught in an exhausted, blissful haze, Alex only wanted to curl up and sleep, preferably pressed up against Yassen's body. The Russian's hand on his shoulder holding him back made him grumble under his breath, until a light slap on the head shut him up. He felt the touch of a familiar soft, wet cloth, wiping away the sweat from his body and the come off his groin. It was nice and cool, and when Yassen finished his cleaning and put a plastic cup with an equally familiar, bitter fluid to his lips, Alex swallowed without protest. The drug had made him forget before. Whatever it was, it was exactly what he needed.

He blinked like a myopic owl when Yassen slid the blindfold off his eyes. He'd almost forgotten he was wearing it, and it made little difference in the darkness. Reflexively, his eyes flitted to the window. He could see nothing and no one at all.

Then he was allowed to lie down, curled up on his side to protect his back, although Yassen pushed him over onto the side of the mattress Alex had not christened with his come. Half-asleep, Alex grabbed Yassen's wrist to pull him down beside him. To his surprise, the assassin didn't resist. Instead, he settled down, a warm, solid presence, until Alex's face almost touched his chest and Yassen had to feel him breathing. He slung an arm around Alex's hip, his hand coming to rest on Alex's buttock. And although Alex could feel its weight on the deep welt there, he just let his mouth curve into a smile and fell asleep.