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The latest version of CP

The latest version of CP

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  • 1. ~Close Protection, of a Sort~ Chapter One: In From the Cold...Or Not It began with a telephone call. This was not unusual in the least. Every time MI6 needed their conscripted superspy, they rang him asking him to come into the ‘bank’ that served as their cover. It was almost a ritual of sorts. Actually, Alex thought it was rather careless that MI6 always contacted him in the same way, with the same instructions. In the intelligence world, habit was deadly. That’s how you got killed. For a group of the best espionage personnel in the world, he would’ve thought they’d known better. But perhaps they thought that there was no danger in someone being able to predict exactly how MI6 would contact him; perhaps they thought their personnel could handle it if there was any danger. In any case, every call was the same, just a change in date and time. This call was no exception. It came on a Wednesday at the beginning of January. Alex had just come home from school. Outside, it was a gloriously sunny day, despite it being the middle of winter, and Alex had every intention of enjoying it. He had been labouring arduously the past few weeks to catch up all of his school work that he had missed because of his involvement with MI6. He had come home expecting to have a full night of work, like always, but upon checking his agenda realized that he had finished everything. For the first time in months, there was actually nothing he needed to be doing. He went into the kitchen with a huge grin on his face. “Guess what, Jack?” he asked his housekeeper and close friend, who was busy looking at cookbooks. Jack smiled when she saw him. “Well, I’m glad you’re happy today. What’s up?” “I’m all caught up!” Alex told her proudly. He laughed as she grinned in surprised delight. “Alex, that’s great! You’re finally getting your life back!” she exclaimed. “I know,” he replied happily. “I actually feel normal for the first time in months!” Alex knew he was probably excessively excited over this, but he couldn’t help it. It was just so nice to not have the pressure of all that work hanging over him, especially with his approaching GCSEs. “Now, this calls for a celebration,” Jack said enthusiastically. “I was trying to decide what to make for dinner,” she gestured hopelessly at the cookbook on her lap, “but you should choose. What are you in the mood for?”
  • 2. Alex, knowing full well that Jack really didn’t want to cook, suggested, “Pizza, maybe? From that little café place?” Jack grinned. “You know me too well, Mr. Rider. Pizza it is. When do you want to eat?” Alex shrugged. “I’m not really all that hungry - lunch was actually decent for once. Maybe in an hour or two?” Jack nodded. “Excellent.” Alex flopped down into a chair next to her. “You know, I really have no idea what to do with myself now that I have no work left,” he mused wonderingly. “I feel almost guilty, like I should be doing something, you know?” Jack looked at him with raised eyebrows. “Actually? I don’t. Most of us enjoy free time when get it, not complain about it,” she teased. Alex sighed dramatically. “What can I say about you lazy Americans? Must be your upbringing. We Brits can’t just be comfortable doing nothing. We like some action, some drama!” “And that is why we are sane and y’all are not,” Jack said sagely. There was a moment of silence before Alex’s face contorted. “Did you seriously ‘y’all’?” Jack nodded solemnly and stared at him for a moment. Then she started to giggle and she started chucking and it wasn’t long before they both were gasping for air with tears streaming down their faces. They had just begun to calm down when the sound of a telephone ringing could be heard from the living room. “I’ll get it,” Alex said through his giggles, walking into the other room. Taking a deep breath in an attempt to calm himself, he picked up the phone. “Hello?” “Mr. Rider? We need you to come in and meet with us. There’s been a problem with your account.” Alex froze in shock. He recognized the voice immediately. It was the cold, emotionless voice of an MI6 employee. He hadn’t been contacted in nearly 2 weeks and he’d hoped that this time they would just leave him alone. It seemed not. “Hello?” the voice on the other end asked. “Are you there?” Alex mentally shook himself out of his stupor. “Fine. When?” It was not as if he would get a choice.
  • 3. “Today at 5:00. We’ll send a car.” “I’ll take the tube,” he said bluntly and hung up. He stood there for a moment, still reeling. MI6 wanted him again. No doubt they had some new assignment that no one could do but him. He’d thought he’d made it clear after his last escapade that he wasn’t interested in working for them. Not that he really thought they would listen, but a glimmer of hope had existed. Now that was gone. He was angry. He had just started to fit back into normal life and rebuild his shattered self. Now, he was going back into the field, probably to his death. Oh, he’d protest of course, but they’d force him into it like they always did. His stint at normalcy was over. He walked slowly back into the kitchen. Jack wouldn’t like this at all. “Hey, Alex. What do you think we should do tonight after pizza?” Jack asked, facing away and cheerily oblivious to the new development. “I don’t think there’s going to be pizza,” he said quietly. Jack spun to face him. “What?” she asked confusedly. “What’s wrong?” “MI6 called. I have to go in.” The words spilled numbly out of his mouth. He watched as Jack’s expression changed to one of horror. “No! They can’t do this to you Alex!” she exclaimed hotly. He sighed sadly, resigned to his fate. “Yes, they can. I don’t have a choice.” He smiled bitterly. “I guess they found I was caught up and decided it was time for me to leave again.” He regretted that sarcasm when he saw the heartbroken look Jack was giving him. “It’s ok, Jack,” he said more quietly. “I’ll get through this one and then we’ll figure something out. But I better go.” He turned and walked out the door, just barely hearing her faint whisper. “Don’t let them do this to you.” A short while later, Alex was sitting in an office in the Royal and General Bank, or rather MI6’s Special Ops HQ. Across from him sat a very grey man and a woman with dark hair: Alan Blunt and Mrs. Jones. He had been shown in. Mrs. Jones had greeted him and asked how he was. He didn’t even pretend he wanted to be there. Blunt didn’t bother with such pleasantries and simply told him to sit down. With no other preliminary, Mrs. Jones began.. “Alex, we want to send you for more training,” Mrs. Jones announced.
  • 4. “I thought I made it clear I wasn’t interested,” Alex said. He should have known better than to believe they would leave him alone. “Yes, well, a situation has arisen,” Mrs. Jones told him a tad bit uncomfortably. “Right,” he answered dully. He was an idiot. He had actually believed that MI6 might let him alone after all the emotional trauma with Ash and his parents. Or at least give him a break. But Alex realized that hope had been in vain. MI6 would never be done with him. Mrs. Jones hesitated, looking a little unsure how to continue. Alan Blunt took over. Speaking in a cold voice, devoid of all emotion, he asked Alex, “You are aware that we arranged for Scorpia to leave you alone, after the incident with the sniper?” Alex nodded his ascent. Blunt went on, “Well, I’m afraid that after the loss of both Julia Rothman and Major Yu, the organization has come under new management. They’ve announced any agreements made since the end of Invisible Sword are void.” Alex was curious as to what this had to do with him needing more training, but he was beginning to get a bad feeling. Mrs. Jones sighed. “The thing is Alex, it seems as if the new leaders are bent on doing a little ‘spring cleaning,’ you could say. They want to tie up loose ends, and all.” Make that a very bad feeling. “I’m one of those loose ends, aren’t I?” Alex guessed with trepidation. He didn’t need an answer. He knew he was right. He suddenly felt very cold. A nod of Blunt’s head confirmed his worst fears. “Well, you did manage to dispense with two of their executive board members, ruin multiple major operations, and kill one of their top assassins, as well as betraying them to us,” the man reasoned. “Quite frankly, you’re an embarrassment they cannot afford as they attempt to salvage what’s left of their reputation as a leading organization.” “They want to kill me,” he realized heavily. Somehow, it didn’t surprise him. He’d had a hard time believing they were just going to leave him alone in the first place. Scorpia never forgets, Scorpia never forgives. He had seen this day coming from the moment he told Blunt information after being brought in when he tried to kill Mrs. Jones. “Unfortunately yes, Alex,” Mrs. Jones affirmed, looking at him sadly. “We’ve picked up a significant amount of chatter suggesting you are a target.” She sighed and rubbed her eyes. Alex noticed that she looked tired, and almost defeated, somehow. “We hoped that we would be able to negotiate, as we did before, but Scorpia is not interested in anything we’ve offered. You’ve embarrassed them, and your age only makes it worse. As of now, they’ll settle for nothing but your death.”
  • 5. Alex took a minute to consider this. He’s thought that after the events on Dragon Nine that he might have a chance to get out of this world, at least for a bit. But, he reasoned bitterly, it seemed he should have known better. It was strange, really. He would have thought he’d feel more fear or anger or something contemplating his seemingly imminent death. Instead he just felt … numb. “So Scorpia’s out to kill me.” It was a statement that fell on the room like a pebble dropping into water. There was no emotion in his voice. “And you want to send me to train? So I can protect myself, or something?” “Partially,” Blunt answered. “We need to keep you in a secure location for the time being. Eventually we can convince Scorpia to leave you alone…” Alex snorted at this. Look what happened last time. “…We can. It’s all a matter of proper leverage. But it will take time. We need you out of the way for now. And seeing as you’re going to have to spend however long it takes up to negotiate under close protection anyway, you might as well do something useful.” He picked up the folder on his desk and browsed through it for a minute before continuing. “We’re sending you back to the SAS camp in Wales. You’ll resume training where you left off.” SAS camp! Alex thought furiously. They couldn’t do this to him! Well, apparently they could, but it was just wrong! Seeing Alex’s face, Mrs. Jones attempted to soothe him. “Alex, this is for your protection. You’ll be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by some of the most highly skilled men in the world. There’s hardly a safer place.” Alex snorted, unconvinced. In his past experience of SAS training, those ‘highly skilled men’ were more likely to kill him, accidentally or otherwise, than protect them. “Great, just great. More school I’ll miss,” Alex commented dryly. “I don’t suppose you realize my GCSEs are next year?” he asked, glaring at the pair of adults before him. It was a rhetorical question, but Mrs. Jones answered anyway. “Actually Alex, we are concerned. We’re working on setting you up with tutors now.” Alex felt a little relieved at this. It seemed that it was in MI6’s interest to keep him doing well in school, at least for the present. Mrs. Jones surveyed him for a moment. “In addition we’ve been talking to our psychologists. They’re very concerned about your mental and emotional state. They fear you’re disconnecting from your peers and becoming isolated. We’re very concerned about your state, Alex. We can’t afford to loose one of our best assets.” Alex was a little surprised at that. They’d never showed an interest in his well being before. There’d been a mention of a psychologist once, but he’d said no and they hadn’t pushed it. But, it seemed that the Scorpia affair had changed things considerably.
  • 6. “We think we’ve found a solution,” Mrs. Jones announced. Alex merely raised his eyebrows as a signal to continue. It wasn’t as if he had a choice, so he might as well hear them out. Blunt picked up the explanation. “Were you aware of the recent government resolve to strengthen interest in the armed forces? No? Well, you see, due to a declining enlistment rate, the government has announced a new program in which students experience the military through their school. It’s a brilliant manoeuvre by the conservatives.” “And?” Alex asked. “I hardly doubt you brought that up just to discuss the political prowess involved.” “Of course not. What is important is that a school was selected to provide a test group. And so, your class has been chosen to participate. Your homeroom will be accompanying you to your training with the SAS.” Alex was stunned for a moment. “You’re kidding right?” Alex asked, disbelief evident in his voice. “Sending a class of schoolchildren to train with the SAS?” He laughed. “That’s insane.” He looked at their severe faces and sighed. “You’re serious,” he said grimly. “The thing is,” Mrs. Jones said quietly, “we’ve been monitoring communications for weeks, and we’ve been hearing things that, well frankly, they’re disturbing. There’s a worrisome number of rumours that we’ve intercepted indicating that Scorpia plans not on targeting just you, but your school as well. We’ve learned they’re targeting your class to make a bigger statement - that though Invisible Sword failed, they are again strong and can kill children.” Alex suddenly felt sick. Innocent children were being put in the line of fire because of him. Not only had he not managed to escape this world, but he was dragging others into it too. His own life was one thing, but the lives of his friends and peers? That was something else entirely. His stomach twisted violently as he thought of Tom on the receiving end of an assassin’s gun. “They’ll be targeted because of who I am,” Alex whispered in horror. His tone hardened. “Because of who you’ve made me become.” “No Alex. You went to Scorpia entirely on your own,” Blunt said coldly. “We had neither knowledge of nor involvement in your little adventure in Venice. Neither did we assign you to the incident surrounding Gregorovich sending you to them. In fact, if you had followed orders, you’d have never met him on your first assignment. You should have pulled out. And your most recent adventure with the ASIS was entirely voluntary on your part, I believe. So I’m afraid you got yourself into this position with Scorpia.” “Because of you!” Alex cried, enraged. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d never have gotten tangled up in any of this! I never wanted to be involved. I still don’t. So you know what, Blunt? You can stuff your training, because I won’t be needing it. Because I quit. I’m
  • 7. done.” Alex held up his hands. “I’m done with all of this.” He stood up, eyes hard, and moved to walk out. “Really, Alex?” Blunt’s voice stopped him. “Because you might find that your bank account has dried up. We’ll have to sell the house, of course. A shame. And immigration will be most interested to hear about Ms. Starbright. She’s clearly no longer a student. She’ll be deported at once.” He smiled humourlessly. “And with no one to take you in, I suppose you’ll have to go to an institution.” Alex glared at him murderously. Threats. And so the blackmail began again. Well fine, they could do what they wanted; he’d had enough. He again turned to walk out, but again Blunt’s voice stopped him. “But the thing is,” Blunt continued, “all that is immaterial. Because, like it or not, you’re part of this world now. You’re one of us.” Again that smile devoid of life. “Let’s pretend that you do leave and that you never see us again and by some miracle you avoid Scorpia. What would you’re life be like, hmm?” He leaned forward. “How are you getting on with your friends? They’re growing a bit distant, aren’t they? You don’t really fit in anymore.” Alex glared and shook his head rebelliously. But the words stirred some inner knowledge and Blunt caught the glimmer of doubt in his brown eyes that told him to continue. “You’ve seen things, Alex, that they will never understand. You’re just too mature. Chemistry tests and girlfriends seem to pale in comparison to the plots of insane billionaires, don’t they? Now that you know the secrets behind the world, how will you live with not knowing what’s going on anymore? Because let me tell you Alex, that kind of knowledge does not just go away. How will you feel when an emergency comes up? How will you live with yourself, knowing that maybe you could have stopped it and saved innocent lives, but now you’ll never know? You have the instinct to protect; you’ve proven over and over that you will sacrifice yourself for others, just like your father. You’d never forgive yourself for the people who are sure to die, like your classmates will if you dismiss Scorpia. That kind of guilt must be…interesting.” Alex looked into Blunt’s cold, unwavering eyes. They were manipulating him, he knew. But somehow he also knew that Blunt was right. “Because Alex, you can never just go back to how you were before.” He paused. “Perhaps we are to blame for bringing you into this. It is regrettable, but I’m afraid you’re here now and past damage cannot be undone. This is where you are. And you know it. You know deep down you could never give this up. It’s addictive isn’t it?” “There is no going back. You will never be satisfied. You’d be permanently restless, anxious, always on guard against nothing - for the rest of your life, Alex, the entire rest of your life. Do you really want that? Alex, by your will or not(i), you are in this world. And once you’re in, you can never get out.” There was silence in the room as Alex thought it over. He could walk out the door right now. But something stopped him. Blunt’s words had chilled him and he knew why. It
  • 8. was because Blunt had just voiced the many feelings Alex had tried so hard to ignore. And from that came the terrible truth of the situation: Blunt was right. “Damn you!” Alex hissed. Then he sighed in defeat. The anger drained out of him and acceptance came. He walked back over to the chair and collapsed into it. “Fine. What do you want me to do?” Alex asked numbly. He was so empty and hollow it scared him. “Just go along with what we talked about,” Mrs. Jones said gently. “Get the training. It’ll help protect you and your classmates. We’ll worry about when and how you’ll use it later. For now we’ll focus on keeping you alive.” Alex nodded. He felt totally drained, like he had just signed his own death warrant. Well, in a way he supposed he had. But what choice had he? Blunt was right. He’d know for a while now that he’d never be able to return to normal life. He’d hoped he would, sure, but deep down he’d known. And in any case, he couldn’t abandon his classmates. It was because of him that they were in danger. He owed them. He wouldn’t let them down. Alex took the tube home. Wearily he explained what MI6 wanted to Jack over dinner. She was none too pleased. “When is this going to stop?” she demanded. Alex didn’t know what to say. She had looked ready to continue berating him, but realized he was practically falling asleep at the table. She’d sent him to bed with a sigh. Tired as he was, he could not fall asleep. Instead, he laid awake, thinking of all that had been said. He’d quite possibly determined the general direction of the rest of his life. It was strange how Blunt knew exactly what he was feeling. The man was excellent at reading people. He supposed it was why the he was so good at his job. Alex’s thoughts turned towards the “mission.” Twenty odd school children training with the SAS…ridiculous. And the men would be less than happy, if his last visit was any indication. And he had been only one kid; they were talking 20 times that. Yes, he decided, it was going to be hell. And to make matters worse, Alex was going to be undercover the whole time. None of his peers could suspect anything. That was certainly going to be a challenge as he already knew how the camp worked and had done the training exercises over and over. A lot of what he’d learned had been drilled into him until it was subconscious. It was going to take a lot of work and constant vigilance(ii) to pretend he knew nothing. When he’d pointed this out to the two MI6 executives, Blunt had only told him that it would be a ‘good exercise’ in ‘staying in character.’ Alex sighed. It was going to be worse than hell. How could he get closer to people to whom he was consistently forced to lie?
  • 9. In the early hours of the morning, Alex fell into a restless half-sleep. His dreams were filled with images of being trapped with no way out.
  • 10. ~Close Protection, of a Sort~ Chapter Two: A Little Two Much Rockstar “Did you hear, Alex?” Tom Harris, Alex’s best friend bounded up to him in the schoolyard. “Our homeroom is going to be training with the SAS! I can’t believe we were selected!” Alex grinned. “Hey Tom,” he greeted his friend with much less enthusiasm. His lack of sleep had not improved his energy levels. “Isn’t it going to be great?” Tom asked excitedly. “Of course,” he lowered his voice, “you’ve trained with them before right?” Tom was the only person besides Jack who knew about Alex’s other life. “Yeah,” Alex replied. “What are they like?” Tom asked eagerly. Alex thought for a minute. What could he tell Tom? The words ‘evil’, ‘sadistic’, and ‘brutal’ came to mind, but he didn’t feel like crushing his friend’s ignorance just yet. Let him be excited for a while. “They’re tough,” he decided on finally. “Right,” Tom nodded his head solemnly. Then he broke into a huge grin. “This is going to be so cool!” It was official: his entire class was insane. And not just a bit nutty with a few screws up in their heads loose, but totally, completely insane - so far off the deep end it wasn’t even funny, Alex thought with slight awe. It seemed Tom was not the only one to be caught up in the whirlwind of SAS madness. All day the students had chattered excitedly, gossiping and talking about getting their “letters” that had informed them of the trip. This seemed to be the most exciting thing to happen at Brookland since Alex had taken care of the school bullies behind the bike shed a few years back. Rumours floated around about the reason that Brookland was chosen, ranging from somewhat logical (“Our school has good test results and fitness levels”) to the completely absurd (“The aliens were somehow controlling the government”). When Alex had heard one about how the government was “recruiting them to a private army of assassins by brainwashing them and turning them to the dark side,” he had to laugh. Of course, given that Alex was in their class, it really wasn’t that ridiculous, not that the boy making it up knew that of course.
  • 11. And so the whole of Brookland was alight with the news. For Alex, it couldn’t have been worse. As far as he was concerned, anyone actually wanting to go to the SAS was bloody insane, and those that were excited were so far over the rainbow there was no hope of return. It was like his schoolmates expected this trip to be fun or something. Alex knew better. His own experience with the SAS training had been a far cry from the adventurous escape from school his class was expecting. He had faced primitive conditions, sleep deprivation, few amenities, and intense physical and psychological torture as he was screamed at, bullied, pushed, and tripped through “walks” through mountains, the infamous Killing House, the nightmarish assault course, self defence with men twice his size, and ‘fun’ night manoeuvre, all in the unceasing Welsh rain. And that was just the orthodox training methods. On top of that, Alex was unceremoniously dumped in a unit of men nearly twice his age who were less-than-pleased to be stuck with a fourteen year old boy, and alternated between making his life hell and ignoring him completely. No, Alex was not exactly looking forward to his return to the Brecon Beacons, and his classmates’ enthusiasm was only making it worse. Tom had been going on about it all day, utterly missing his friend’s discomfort. And Alex’s other friends, who he wasn’t as close to as Tom, were just as excited, and, since they knew nothing about MI6, he was obliged to dredge up his most enthusiastic “Woos” so as to not arouse suspicion. He didn’t need to give them any reasons to be wary of him. As much as he didn’t want to acknowledge Blunt’s remarks from the previous day, they were truer than he was comfortable admitting. His many absences were taking a toll on his friendships. He had heard rumours going around about him being involved with drugs and gangs. While his friends would never go so far as to accuse him of those things, he could tell they didn’t buy his sick excuses. When he’d first come back, they’d been cautious of him. They had just started to trust him again and he couldn’t bear to loose that trust. He supposed this mission did have one benefit: SAS training was nothing if not bonding. If Alex and Wolf (his old team leader) could come to a truce-like agreement (albeit a tentative, unspoken, and very, very twisted one), anything was possible. And Alex supposed he had to excuse his classmates. They didn’t know what to expect. He almost wished he was as naïve as they were. And so he tried to be excited and to talk with his friends. But by last period, any tolerance Alex might have had for the ignorance of his classmates was gone. His patience was worn thin and he just wanted to scream in frustration. The constant whispering and note passing was giving him a headache. He didn’t think he could take any more girls worrying about whether there would be proper hygiene
  • 12. facilities or boys boasting about how they were going to break records and be better than the actual SAS troopers. The most reasonable response he had heard all day was the more lazy kids in his class worrying about keeping up. At least they were thinking somewhat rationally. When the bell finally rang, it was an immense relief to Alex. Finally he could go home and just chill for one of the last times for a long while. He wasn’t expecting any at training. The SAS didn’t believe in free time. Hurriedly calling goodbye to his friends, he moved quickly to his bike and set off towards his house. He immediately felt better as he flew down the road, the wind against his face. He loved his bike and the sense of freedom he got from riding fast. It was so liberating. Alex rode home and went immediately upstairs. If he finished his homework, he’d have time to relax for a while before bed. He opened his history textbook and looked at the first question: Describe the Gunpowder Plot and its greater significance. He knew this and began to write. But though he tried valiantly to concentrate, guilty thoughts kept crowding his mind. He felt bad about being so annoyed with his friends. After all, it’s not like they had any idea what to expect. They were just acting like normal teenagers. He was not. It was like he was behind a glass pane. The realities of their world didn’t touch him. He just looked on as they went through the highs and lows of adolescence. The glass kept him alone. He was so empty without life. He desperately wished he could break that glass and just feel. And he felt bad because he was to blame for the situation his class was in. None of this was their fault; it was his and MI6’s. He couldn’t let anything happen to them. His friends did not deserve to be targeted by a ruthless criminal organization. He would keep them safe. Alex fell asleep over his textbook. The next few days progressed much the same. It was still like everyone had drunk a little too much Rockstar(i). Alex was beginning to settle in more to the whole school routine. He talked to his friends, played football, and did homework. On Tuesday, Tom asked him to go to the movies with a group of people. On impulse, Alex agreed. As the time approached, Alex got more and more nervous. This was the first out of school thing he had done with his friends in nearly a year. He was apprehensive about fitting in – Blunt’s comment was still stinging. Calling a good bye to Jack, Alex left his house and walked to the cinema. As he was about to get to the there, Alex almost turned back. What if he did something stupid? What could he talk about with normal teenagers? What if they didn’t like him anymore? But then Tom saw him and waved him over and Alex had no choice but to join him, giving
  • 13. him a weak smile. Tom, noticing this, grabbed his arm and whispered in his ear, “Relax Alex! We’re your friends. This is going to be fun.” Alex swallowed and nodded. Tom cuffed him gently on the head. “You dolt. It’ll be fine. Now come on, the others are inside.” They walked inside and Tom steered him over to a group of waiting teenagers. There were two boys and a girl. The girl caught sight of him first. “Alex!” she cried and promptly hugged him. Caught by surprise, Alex tentatively hugged her back after a moment. She stepped back, saying with a smile, “Tom said he wasn’t sure if you were coming. I’m so glad you did! We missed having you around.” Alex smiled back. This was Emma, a girl he had known for years. The boys came over too. One with short blonde hair clasped his hand warmly saying, “Hey mate! We were wondering if you ceased to exist outside of school or something.” That was Nick, a general prankster. The other, a tall dark boy, shook hands with Alex. “I’m glad you’re back,” he said quietly. Josh was the serious one of the group. Alex wasn’t quite sure how to respond to all of this. He hadn’t been expecting such a warm welcome. “Did you guys get the tickets?” Tom asked with a wink at Alex, saving him from having to answer. “Actually, I got the tickets,” Emma said with a mock sniff. “These two are totally useless.” She linked her arm through Alex’s and dragged him off, saying “Now Alex, have you heard about…” Two hours later, the five teenagers walked out of the movie theatre laughing. “Oh my god, it’s the…DEEP FREEZE!” Tom parodied. They all laughed. The movie “The Day After Tomorrow” had been a little over the top. “Seriously though, I think that was one of the worst movies I have ever seen,” Alex said. “Yeah,” Josh agreed. “That’s right up there with the archaic movies my mom made me watch last weekend.” “Hey, I thought the part where they were stuck in the library was very dramatic!” Emma argued. The four guys turned to stare at her. She looked back at them with a straight face. Then her lip quivered and she doubled over giggling. “Your faces!” she gasped. “You wanna go grab something to eat?” Nick asked after they calmed down again. “Sure,” said Alex. Emma nodded, and Tom and Josh agreed as well. “Where d’you want to go?” Alex asked. “How about that pizza place?” Nick suggested.
  • 14. “Sounds good,” said Josh. They set off walking. Half way there, Nick stopped walking abruptly. They turned to look at him quizzically. “Oh no,” he said. “Guys…RUN GUYS RUN! THE WOLVES ARE COMING!” he yelled in mock terror. The others collapsed laughing, gasping for air. “I think I’m going to pee my pants,” Josh moaned. “Thanks for sharing.” Alex laughed. “I really wanted to know that.” Everyone just laughed harder at this. A while later they made it to the pizza place and sat down. They ordered and then talked about random things. Alex sat back and let the conversation wash over him. He was comfortable here. It had been surprisingly easy to fit back into his old group. Tom noticing his expression, grinned and gave him a thumbs up. Alex realised that Tom had set everything up for him to feel at ease. Feeling a rush of gratitude towards him, Alex mouthed “Thank you.” Tom just waved him off and returned to the conversation of the others about whether ninjas or pirates were cooler. It wasn’t until after they had finished eating that the question Alex had been dreading came up. “So Alex,” Nick asked casually. “Where have you been?” “I’ve been sick,” Alex replied, feeling guilty for having to lie to his friends. They stared at him incredulously. “Um, mate,” Nick said, “You do realise that no one believes you, right?” “I really was!” Alex insisted, feeling horrible. “Fine. Don’t tell us,” Nick said. “I am telling you. I was really stressed out after Ian…died and the doctors said it lowered my immune system,” Alex explained, trying to be as convincing as possible, while inwardly being sickened by having to lie. “Alex,” Emma said, “we’re your friends. Don’t you trust us?” she asked, looking a little hurt. “I do trust you!” Alex exclaimed. “I…” he floundered, looking desperately at Tom. “Look,” Tom cut in. “Just let him alone. He was sick. I know.”
  • 15. The others looked like they were going to protest, but, to Alex’s surprise, Josh stopped them. “I’m sure if Alex isn’t telling us something he has a good reason,” he said quietly, looking eyes with Alex. “He’s never lied to us before.” Emma and Nick agreed reluctantly. “Sorry mate,” Nick said sheepishly. “It’s just, we’re your friends and all – we care, you know?” “Yeah, s’alright,” Alex responded, feeling horrible. There was a mellow silence for a minute, before Tom interjected, saying brightly, “Who wants dessert?” Laying in bed that night, Alex looked up at the ceiling, realising how lucky he was to have such good friends. As much as SAS training was going to be hell, he felt somehow comforted that, for once, he was not doing this alone. He missed his friends; he hadn’t realised how much before. Emma: the happy-go-lucky tomboy until you messed with her friends; Nick: the smart-ass prankster who was actually really intelligent; Josh: strong and steady, he said little, but perceived so much and was always deeply loyal; and Tom: Tom, his best friend who was always there, no matter what. For the first time in weeks, Alex fell asleep with a smile. The days passed pretty normally after that. Until Friday, that it. That’s when Scorpia made their hit. Alex had been sitting in maths dully recording the statements of proof for congruent triangles when armed Special Forces in full body armour stormed the room. Alex had frozen at the sight of figures swathed in black. He watched in shock and horror, finding it too unreal that that world had invaded his school. It wasn’t until a white-faced Tom had dragged him onto the floor that Alex realized the men were yelling “Get down, get down!” The team quickly secured the room, covering the windows and door. From the noise outside, it appeared units were doing the same through out the building. Alex noted that one man came over discreetly to stand next to him. They waited nearly an hour before the school was cleared and the threat was declared neutralised. The students were sent home, their questions deflected with the universal response “An explanation will be coming as soon as we have one.” As they left, there were a lot of excited exchanges of rumours. It seemed that a threat was welcomed as a way to get out of class. In the chaos, Alex had been discreetly removed from the crowd and taken to a car by a SF man. He was driven directly to Liverpool Street. Only a short while later he found himself sitting in Mrs. Jones’s office as everything was explained.
  • 16. It seemed that Scorpia had taken their first hit on Alex and his class. Luckily, MI6 had intercepted their plans and had activated the many SF teams around the area. They had been able to neutralize the threat before it had reached the school, but had decided to secure the building just in case. With Scorpia, anything was to be expected. Digesting this, Alex realised he was rather surprised that it had taken Scorpia this long to act. He would have expected their retaliation to be far swifter. But even this attack bothered him. There had been no back-up plan and the whole thing seemed to be far too simple and rather sloppy. It was almost as if Scorpia has no intention of success. But that made no sense – why waste money and people in an attempt, as well as loose whatever element of surprise they had? “Scorpia didn’t want this to succeed. Why?” Alex asked. Blunt looked at him for a moment. “We don’t know that. Perhaps this new leadership is ineffective.” Alex knew immediately that they didn’t believe that at all. They were, as usual, keeping something important from him. But before he could question them further, Mrs. Jones cut in. “Alex, there’s one more thing. I’m afraid these attacks have complicated things.” She sighed then continued. ”Our cousins across the river at 5 have gotten involved, as this was a terrorist attack in Britain. The government has been informed.” “And?” Alex prompted. She sighed again. “Understand that we don’t agree with this at all, but I’m afraid we were given no choice. The government of the day has decided that the students in your class should be informed of the attacks on them and the true purpose of sending them to the Beacons.” Alex was shocked. Why would it be a good thing to scare his class mates and create panic? “Why would anyone want to do that?” he asked, confused. “Because they’re bloody politicians,” Blunt growled. Alex looked at him in surprise. Blunt never showed emotions. “They think that this could help them push a new defence bill through parliament. They care more about their little careers than the safety of this nation.” He took out a bottle and poured himself a drink. “We told them that this was stupid, that it’d play right into Scorpia’s hand to give this more publicity. Even 5 agreed with us, which never happens. But of course they didn’t listen when they saw an opportunity to play their little games,” he said vehemently. ii “We have no choice in this matter. So on Monday, we along with other officials will be at your school to explain this to your class,” Mrs. Jones told Alex. “You will, of course, be
  • 17. kept out of this. It really shouldn’t change much, except perhaps motivate your classmates some.” Alex nodded. “Can I go home now?” he asked. She looked at him a little sympathetically. “Not quite yet,” she said gently. “We need to make sure that your house is secure. You’ll just have to hang out here for a bit. Perhaps you’d like to visit Mr. Smithers?” she suggested. Alex smiled. Smithers was perhaps his only friend in MI6. No matter how down he was, a visit with Smithers would be sure to cheer him up. “That would be nice,” he replied. Mrs. Jones nodded. “Just go out to the waiting room. We’ll send someone up to take you down.” Alex stood, nodded to Blunt and Mrs. Jones and went outside to wait. Alex waited and waited and waited, but no one came. It had been nearly an hour and the formal chair he was sitting in – straight wooden back with a pathetic cushion for all its elegance – was becoming quite uncomfortable. He wondered if Mrs. Jones hadn’t made the call. He supposed this could be some sort of test. But that didn’t make sense – what was the purpose? No, more likely Smithers got distracted and forgot to send someone. He stood up to stretch and his phone fell on the ground. He bent down to retrieve it and was about to put it back into his pocket when a thought hit him: he’d never called Jack! She’d be worried sick when he never came home. Quickly he dialled her number. “Hello?” her voice answered, tense and worried. “Jack?” he said. “Alex!” she screamed. “Oh my God, are you ok? Is everything alright? I saw on the news that your school was attacked. You’re not hurt are you? I was so worried!” “I’m fine, Jack,” Alex said tiredly. “Nothing actually made it as far as our school.” “Thank god,” she said simply, clearly relieved. “Where are you now?” “I’m at headquarters,” he replied. “They want me to stay here until they’re sure it’s safe.” “Alright. Do you know when you’re coming home?” she asked, exhausted after hours of worry. “They said it shouldn’t be too long,” he said unsure. “Ok. Well, stay safe,” she said. “Call me if anything changes.”
  • 18. “I will,” he promised. “Bye.” He hung up and stood there for a moment undecided. No one still had come for him. He could wait some more… He glanced around the deserted waiting room. The only person was a secretary at the far end bent over her desk, engrossed in typing furiously on her computer. His mind made up, he turned and walked off. He vaguely remembered the way to Smithers’ office. And he supposed if he got too lost, he could always ask directions. Besides, after everything MI6 had put him through, he deserved to have a look around the place. As he walked through the labyrinth of white hallways, Alex glanced curiously at the people he passed. There were many, seeing as it was only 3:00 on a week day. Alex was interested to know the sort of people who usually worked for MI6. Most of the younger people cast him curious looks. They were obviously unsure what to make of a 14 year old boy roaming MI6. The older ones hid it better; only a slight tensing around their eyes gave them away. And then there were a few who upon seeing his face turned white as if they had seen a ghost. At first Alex didn’t understand why and tried to ignore it. But then as he passed by one such person, he heard the whispered words “John Rider.” Then he realised. These were people who had known his father. Everyone always said how closely he resembled his dad. For these people, it was like they had seen a ghost, seeing John Rider’s son walk down the hall. Realising this, Alex lifted his chin. He was proud to be his father’s son. Still, he was grateful when he reached a less populated stretch of hallway. If he remembered right, Smithers’ office was somewhere around here. That was when he spotted the rather rotund man hurrying towards him. When the man caught sight of Alex, he grinned hugely. “Alex, old chap!” he exclaimed. “Terribly sorry about the wait. I’m afraid I got caught up in testing. Quite a useful little bugger, it is. But you seem to have made it down here alright!” Alex smiled. “Don’t worry about it Mr. Smithers. What are you testing?” “Come see, come see!” Smithers waved excitedly for him to follow. “You might be very interested in some of it. I developed a whole line of useful things for you – you never know when some of it might come in handy.” Alex followed the man into an elevator concealed behind an ordinary looking door. “Right this way,” Smithers directed as he led Alex into a futuristic-looking laboratory. It was quite large, filled with workbenches and cabinets, littered with gadgetry and raw materials. There were several other people there, working on various projects. Smithers led Alex over to an area. “Have a seat,” he said.
  • 19. Alex looked around and seeing no chairs, hauled himself up onto a workbench. “I hope I’m not interrupting your work or anything,” he apologised. “Mrs. Jones just suggested this because she didn’t have anything for me to do.” “Nonsense, dear boy,” Smithers assured him warmly, waving away his apology. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to you in far too long. Besides, while you’re here, we’ll just have you check a few things for us. Now, how have you been? I hear you’ve gone back to school.” “Yeah,” Alex said. “It’s been really nice, this whole normalcy thing. Kind of like a much needed vacation.” Smithers nodded, wrestling with a device in the workbench. “Normalcy does have its benefits,” he agreed. “Are you getting out of this world, then? After this whole Scorpia business is dealt with?” “No,” Alex said quietly. Smithers looked up at him intently. “At least, I don’t think so. Blunt will never just let me go. And I don’t think I can just walk away from all of this.” Smithers nodded slowly. “It’s a shame, really, that you had to be dragged into all of this. I worry about you, old boy. But I suppose you’re right. Most people find it very hard to get out of all of this.” He fiddled with a screwdriver, doing something to the device. “Perhaps you could come to some sort of agreement with the higher-ups. Like you could only work once every two months or so. Or something like that.” Alex thought that over. “You think they would go for that?” he asked disbelievingly. Smithers chuckled. “Alex old boy, do you really think they’d pass up an opportunity to have their top agent work for them consentingly?” Alex frowned at this. “I doubt I’m their top agent.” “Oh, you’re certainly up there,” Smithers replied, distracted by a particularly difficult screw. Alex sighed. “You know, I don’t really mind the missions so much, apart from the whole family history and near death things. I just really miss my friends. I hate having to lie all the time to everyone.” He was revealing more to Smithers than he had to anyone else, but he inexplicably knew that he could trust the man. And Smithers was the one person in MI6 who actually seemed to care about Alex. Smithers nodded at him sympathetically. “I know old chap, I know. But I’m sure they’d understand. After all, it’d be dangerous for them if they found out. But take a look at this; it’ll cheer you up.” He took a device off the workbench and handed it to Alex. “What is it?” Alex asked curiously. It looked to be an iPhone.
  • 20. “Why, it’s an iPhone!” Smithers exclaimed mischievously. “Every teenager’s dream.” Alex gave him a reproving look. “Yes, but what does it do?” Smithers laughed, a jolly chortle. “You mean, besides everything an iPhone normally does? Well, it does it a lot faster for one thing. Any signal incoming or outgoing is secure and it gets reception everywhere, and I mean everywhere.” “And?” Alex prompted, know that would not be all the phone would do. “Demanding aren’t you?” Smithers asked. “There is of course a highly developed contacting system. Speed dial 1 and you get a direct line to Alan Blunt’s office. Speed dial 2 and you get a direct line to me. We also put a few more useful things in,” he said with a wink. “You might be interested in the games section, the Minesweeper game in particular. Use it to locate bugs. The Superman game is also quite useful – an X- ray/Listening device, like that gameboy I gave you. A bit more powerful though. It works the same way, plug in the headphones and place it against any surface. Now, a camera is a standard feature, so be just improved the resolution a bit. If there’s anything you need to send us ever, just text it.” “That’s cool,” Alex said impressed. Smithers smiled. “Yes, but there’s one more feature. Do you remember the phone I gave you before?” Alex nodded. “Well, there’s a similar drugged needle reaction, just a fair bit stronger. Call 9999 and it fires out the top right,” he indicated the spot. “You also get 5 shots, instant reload of course.” “Wow Smithers,” Alex enthused. “You’ve really outdone yourself.” “Thank you, dear boy,” Smithers replied fondly. “Now, I want you to keep it. You’re up against Scorpia, so you never know when it might come in handy.” “Thank you,” Alex said quietly. Smithers was the one person he could truly count on to do right by him. “Don’t mention it,” Smithers said jovially and returned to whatever it was that he was working on. “So Alex,” he said conversationally after a moment, “I hear you’re going to train with the SAS.” Alex nodded. “Yeah. I think Blunt and Mrs. Jones are insane for having a class of 14- year-olds go. It’s not exactly summer camp and the men aren’t going to like it at all.” “Yes, it does seem rather ludicrous,” Smithers agreed, “but they have to keep them safe somewhere I suppose. And they really want you to train.”
  • 21. Alex made a face and Smithers laughed. “Come now, old boy. It can’t be all that bad!” “It was last time,” Alex said miserably. “I didn’t want to be there and they didn’t want me there. The worst was my unit.” “Really?” Smithers asked. “That Ben Daniels said they gave you a bit of a hard time in training.” “Yeah,” Alex replied. “But Ben and the others just ignored me mostly. Wolf was the only one who really went after me.” He sighed. “I think he was just insulted that his unit got stuck with me. But at the end if training I helped him out and then I saw him again at Point Blanc and he took bullets for me, so I think we’re ok now.” Smithers nodded. “Sounds like it. How did you help him out?” he asked curiously. Alex grinned. “I kicked him out of a plane.” Smithers laughed. “How noble of you,” he teased. There was a pause for a moment as he wrestled with the device before him. “Blasted LEDs,” he muttered. “Don’t…ever… work!” With a groan he set the device aside and turned to Alex. “You know, I wouldn’t worry to much about training. I believe Ben’s going to be there.” “Really?” Alex asked, interested. “Ben’ll be there?” Smithers nodded, a twinkle in his eye. “I really like Ben,” Alex confessed. “During training he was all cold and everything, but in Asia he was really nice. You were right about him watching out for me. He saved my life many times and even got shot for me and all. I felt bad I didn’t visit him when he was in hospital, but MI6 wanted to get me back to London as soon as possible,” Alex said regretfully. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it. He was just in here the other day, you know. He always stops in to say hello. He seemed quite pleased to find out you’ll be joining him in the Beacons.” “He knows?” Alex queried. “Yes. He was just worried about this whole Scorpia business, as was I.” He looked at Alex intently. “He cares quite a lot about you, you know. He’ll look out for you.” Alex wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. “He’s kind of like an older brother. That’s what it was like last time, anyway,” he remarked slowly. “But why is he in training anyway? I thought he left the SAS.”
  • 22. “It’s to recover from his injury I suppose,” Smithers mused, “although I heard something about him rejoining his old unit. There’s a rumour that the SAS and MI6 are in talks about forming some kind of joint task force.” Alex laughed. “Smithers, you are worse than the girls in my school about gossip.” “Whatever, old chap, as I believe you teenagers say,” Smithers retorted. “Now come over here. I want you to tell me what you think about…” A while later, Mrs. Jones came to tell Alex that he could go home. He left after thanking Smithers profusely, feeling significantly better about life in general. Smithers had that effect. He was dead tired though, and went home and straight to bed, pausing only to assure Jack that he was indeed fine. He slept soundly and woke up late the next morning, glad that it was a Saturday. The whole weekend Jack pampered him. She made his favourite food, rented his favourite movies, and took him wherever he wanted to go. Knowing in advance that he was leaving for an assignment was a novelty, and Jack was adamant that she planned to make the next few days perfect. Neither of them wanted to broach the subject of the fast approaching Tuesday when he would be leaving. Monday morning dawned bright and early. Alex woke up groaning as his alarm went off. Blindly slapping at his clock, he rolled out of bed and got in the shower. Standing under the spray helped to wake him up some. He and Jack had been up late watching movies the night before. He realised it was probably irresponsible, but he just didn’t care. He wanted to make the most of last few days before he left. He got out of the shower and quickly towelled off, throwing on clothes. He made his way downstairs to the kitchen where Jack was making breakfast. “Morning sleepyhead,” she greeted him brightly. “I made eggs.” He smiled and said, “Thanks Jack.” He paused then added, “for…everything.” “Don’t worry about it,” she replied easily. “But you better hurry – you’re running late!” Seeing she was right, Alex ate quickly and ran out the door calling a hasty goodbye. Jumping on his bike, he pedalled quickly to his school. As he raced inside, he briefly noted the guards posted around the building. They must be MI6’s security plan, he decided. He slid into his seat in homeroom just before the bell rang. His teacher sent him a reproving look, to which he just grinned sheepishly. Homeroom was the one class he, Tom, Emma, Nick, and Josh all had together. This meant they were all going to the SAS camp.
  • 23. The teacher had just started attendance when the loudspeaker crackled to life. Will all homerooms please report to the auditorium for an assembly. The students in his class jumped up, talking excitedly. “I wonder what this is about?” Emma asked as they poured out into the hall. “Probably about what happened on Friday,” Tom speculated. Alex agreed. Mrs Jones had said they were coming to explain things. As they walked into the auditorium, Alex caught sight of two of the figures on the stage: Mrs. Jones and Alan Blunt. Seeing them, Alex felt somehow violated by their presence in his school. They weren’t part of this world and he needed to stay safely in his ‘spy’ world, not his real world. Alex sat down with his class and observed the other figures. There was an older man sitting down talking to a younger man, who Alex didn’t recognise. However, the older man seemed somehow familiar. Alex tried to remember where he had seen him before. Then it clicked: the COBRA meeting. These men must be MI5. The principal began speaking first. Alex zoned out as he talked about why they were there and welcomed the guests. The older man Alex had noticed before got up to speak. “Good morning. I am Harry Pearce, Director of the Security Service,” he began. “I would first like to assure you that every precaution has been taken to secure you. You will have noticed the guards that have been posted. Every effort is being made to keep you out of danger. Now, the attack on Friday was an attempt mad by the international criminal organization Scorpia. The intent behind this attack is unknown, as is the reason. However, intelligence has suggested that the homeroom 9B was specifically targeted.” A flurry of whispers exploded at this. Tom turned to Alex and asked quietly, “because of you?” Alex nodded regretfully. Tom reached out and squeezed his shoulder, knowing how awful Alex was feeling. Mr. Pearce continued, “And now I’d like to turn you over to my esteemed colleague from the Secret Intelligence Service, Mrs. Jones.” Mrs. Jones rose and walked over to the podium. “Thank you Mr. Pearce.” “We at the SIS have had extensive dealings with Scorpia. While not to be trifled with, Scorpia is not an ideological group. Rather, their mission is monetary gain. Therefore, they will be amenable to compensation. We have already opened negotiations and I assure you, we will resolve this as quickly as possible. Until then, you need not worry. You have the finest protection. Thank you.” She returned to her seat.
  • 24. The principal came forward again to make some closing remarks, which Alex ignored. He ended with “You are dismissed. Homeroom 9B, please stay behind and move up front.” The other students got up to leave as Alex and his class moved forward. As soon as the last students were gone, Mrs. Jones stood up and began to talk again. “Now, I’m sure you’re all aware that your class leaves tomorrow for training with the SAS. While you are there, you will be under the protection of the finest Special Forces in the world. In addition, you will be receiving training on dealing with potential attacks.” She paused and looked around the room. “You will not tell anyone where you are going. If anyone asks, say we are moving you to a secure location, nothing more. You make think this is a game. Take this not seriously and you will die. Tell someone and you will die. Scorpia does not mess around. They have every intention of killing you and they have the means to if they find you. Don’t help them.” She gave a stern look to emphasis this. “Now, you may return to class. Alex Rider, please stay behind.” The students got up to leave giving Alex curious looks. Emma asked quietly, “What do they want?” Alex shrugged. “I don’t know.” Tom gave him a meaningful look and left. As the last of the students and staff filed out, he walked up to the stage, “I hope you have a good excuse for this,” he said bluntly. “Of course Alex,” Mrs. Jones frowned. “Alex, this is Mr. Pearce as you heard and Adam Carter, the Head of the Counter-Terrorism Section of MI5.” She indicated the younger man. Alex shook hands with them both. “A pleasure, Agent Rider,” Carter said. “We’d like you to know that your security is our top priority right now. We’re doing all we can to protect you.” Alex nodded. “Thank you.” The MI5 men left. Mrs. Jones turned to Alex. “Now, while you’re at the camp, we want you to train. Obviously you need to be doing alternate exercises from the rest of your class without raising suspicions. Therefore, we’ll say that due to your illnesses, you are in a delicate state and must do less strenuous work.” Alex nodded. This made sense. Perhaps it would even lend credence to his sick excuses.
  • 25. Mrs. Jones added, “You can tell your classmates that was what we wished to discuss. Good luck Alex.” He turned and left going back to class. The teacher didn’t question him as he returned and sat down. Nick, sitting across from him, poked him. “Hey Alex, what did they want?” Emma, Josh and Tom all leaned in to hear his answer. “They were just worried about me training because I’ve been sick so much. I guess they’re going to have me doing easier stuff or something,” he whispered back. Emma, Josh, and Nick all seemed to accept that, but Tom shot him a covert look that said he was having none of it. Alex mouthed that he would tell him later. “So what did you think of that Jones woman?” Emma asked. “She was seriously creeping me out with all of her ‘you will die’ remarks.” “Yeah,” Nick added. “Like, we know we’re in deep shit. There’s like Special Forces dudes making us cower on the floor for hours! But seriously, how dangerous can a group of crack pots be?” Alex laughed to himself. If only they knew.
  • 26. ~Close Protection, of a Sort~ Chapter Three: Welcome to Hell The next day found Alex on a bus with twenty eight other teenagers. Luckily, and because they’d only been given one chaperone, it allowed them plenty of space to spread out. Alex was sitting with Tom in the very back which Nick and Tom had managed to grab first. As a result, the group had control over the bus’ most highly coveted seats. Emma sat in front of Alex, sprawled out with her ear phones in. She said she was catching up on sleep, so her friends left her alone. Nick, sitting across from Alex, was engaged in a very intense discussion with Tom about the Iranian embassy siege and the SAS tactics used to diffuse the situation. Alex didn’t really want to join in. It was clear the other two boys were in complete awe of the SAS, something Alex just couldn’t appreciate. It wasn’t that he didn’t think they were skilled – no one knew better then him exactly how tough their training was and how effective their ops were. Rather, he had spent far too much time in close quarters getting to actually know them to be able to hero worship them. In any case, he knew far too much about the SAS (he had trained with them and taken part in a live op, after all) it would have been awkward to make sure he didn’t appear too knowledgeable on the subject. That knowledge frustrated Alex. It was this kind of thing that really upset him: that his spying got in the way of his being able to act normally. Even when he was relaxing with his close friends, he had to be alert and on guard against any slips, so instead of talking, he sat back and just let the conversation wash over him. As he did so, his thoughts turned to K unit. He wondered what they had been up to over the past months. He had gotten that card from Wolf postmarked Iraq, but he wondered what the others had been doing. He didn’t really know much about the operational life of an SAS member. Hell, he didn’t even know if the men were still in a unit together. At the very least, they’d have to have a replacement for Ben. With that, his thoughts turned towards the man. Ben was going to be at the camp. He wondered if K-unit was going to be there as well. Alex didn’t think that an SAS unit would probably return to training often. But then, Smithers had said Ben was probably going to be joining his old unit, and when it came to gossip, Smithers’ information was surpassed by no one. Alex hoped K-unit wouldn’t be there. They’d never really got on with him and putting up with that on top of making sure he didn’t out himself would be too much. Even after they had both saved each other, the relationship between Alex and Wolf was a tense one. But then again, Alex and Ben hadn’t gotten on until after seeing each other again, so maybe that was how it would be with the others. Alex’s thoughts were interrupted by Tom saying “Hey Alex, do you mind if Josh and I trade seats, since you two are being such loners?” It was said with a grin, to assure Alex he was just joking.
  • 27. “Go ahead,” Alex said. Tom quickly switched with Josh and he and Nick soon returned to their conversation. Josh turned to Alex. “So how you holding up?” “I’m alright, ”Alex said. “ You?” “Ok,” Josh sighed. “I don’t think we’re ever going to get there. I think we got the worst bus the school has.” He made a face. Alex laughed. It was true about getting there - they’d been driving for hours. “This bus is certainly a piece of work,” he agreed. It certainly seemed that Brookland had seen fit to requisition one of their most run down buses for the trip, as became clear as the class bounced down the road in the dilapidated old thing. It made sense that they didn’t want to break one of their precious new models on the highly unkempt Welsh country back roads. Alex noticed the book lying on Josh’s lap. “Wachta reading?” he asked with casual interest. Josh’s eyes lit up. Alex remembered that he loved talking about books. “Well it’s called L’étranger in its original version, but this is an English translation called The Stranger. It’s by Albert Camus and it’s really interesting because it’s all about how the universe is indifferent and how life is utterly meaningless.” Alex raised his brows. “That sounds really depressing.” Josh laughed. “Yeah, but that’s existentialism for you.” “Whatever that is,” Alex laughed. “I’ll explain later,” Josh said wearily, clearly used to having to educate his less cultured fellows. “I really want to finish it, because right now the protagonist is set to be executed for murder.” “Well, I’ll let you get back to it,” Alex said. Josh began reading, leaving Alex to return to his thoughts. He rested his head against the window and thought of the rapidly approaching camp. He really didn’t want to be going there. Last time was hell and this time promised to be even worse as at least before he didn’t have to worry about his cover. It was odd really how in this ‘assignment’ of sorts, his ‘real’ identity was his cover. It reminded him of his escapades with the Drevin family. He fervently hoped that this situation would turn out much better. He prayed that for once, his cover would not get blown. That was another strange thing. When Alex had first started to work for MI6, he had desperately wanted to be able to tell everyone, especially his friends, what was going on. Now, he wasn’t so sure. The change had started for him after he had told Sabina and she hadn’t believed him. That had hurt more than he was willing to admit. Still, he had told
  • 28. Tom after that. No, really it was with Scorpia. That’s when things had gotten so deeply personal. Before, spying was just something Alex did after being coerced into it. After, the experience had changed him so profoundly… well he was only just getting his sense of identity back. He had, after all, turned to the dark side and come back. He had learned the truth about his father. He had nearly died… The whole world of espionage had suddenly become real in a way it hadn’t been before. Not that he ever took it lightly before - no, it was more the comprehension of what espionage could do to you, especially with seeing the way it destroyed lives. He thought of his mother, with her simple, lonely wedding and her death far too soon after. He thought of Ash who intelligence work had corrupted and hurt so much that he’d killed his best friend. He thought of Yassen, who though he was an assassin had felt such loyalty toward a dead man to get killed himself rather than harming that man’s son. And then he thought of his father, John Rider; a noble man willing to sacrifice his life for his country and for his people. John Rider, his dad, who was now dead at the bottom of the ocean. It all came down to one simple fact: espionage just got you and those around you killed. He didn’t want his friends to get mixed up in it. But there was another reason for not telling them: it was something that his peers just couldn’t understand. To know you were going to die, and to accept that for the sake of others… it was beyond their comprehension. No matter what he told them, they’d never truly understand. To them, he’d be a superhero with a cool job. The reality of being scared, helpless, and utterly alone as you looked down a barrel of a gun just didn’t exist for them. He hoped it never would; it was an awful sort of knowledge. But because of that, it was better for them not to know. He didn’t want to be a hero. He needed them to treat him normally. When he returned from a mission bruised, battered, and broken inside, he needed the steady comfort of normalcy. It was his safety net, the thing that kept him sane. For them to know would mean having his two worlds touch. And he knew he couldn’t handle that. For his sanity, he needed to keep the two parts separate. And now he was going into a situation where is would be ever so easy for them to meet. His identity was far from safe when training with the SAS. There were so many dangers associated with this venture, it was ludicrous. He hoped the men of the SAS had been briefed that he was undercover. What if someone recognized him and did something stupid like calling him ‘Cub’ or acting like they’d known him before? He would be compromised in an instant. All it took was one slip and it was all over. And his classmates were bound to notice if he was always doing separate work. His friends were not going to accept sick excuses so easily. Chances were, sooner or later, someone would stumble in on something and the whole operation would come crashing down. His only comfort was that Ben was going to be there. He at least would watch Alex’s back. And there was no need to worry about him compromising Alex’s cover – the man
  • 29. worked for MI6 after all. If he didn’t know how to be covert, there was no hope for the world. And Ben was someone who Alex could trust, and god only knew there were precious few of those. Somewhat reassured by this, Alex shifted in an attempt to get warmer. The bus was a drafty old thing. The trip was taking forever. Alex was really starting to get uncomfortable. He was glad that the last time he’d been brought here he’d been out cold and not had to sit through the tortuous journey. The kids in the rest of the bus were starting to get more and more unruly. The MI6 appointed chaperone was not even attempting to keep them under control. He looked totally annoyed with having to be there. Bored, Alex tuned back into the conversation Tom and Nick were having. It seemed they had moved on to general awe of the SAS. He distinctly overheard Tom say “They’re so good! I can’t wait to meet them!” Privately, Alex thought that his classmates, including Tom, were in for a rude awakening when they reached the camp. The SAS did not play nice and was certainly not going to welcome the addition of 29 school children. Alex felt bad for the rest of his peers in a way; they had no idea what they were getting into when their parents signed those forms. When the bus finally came to a stop, the entire class had stood up, pushing and shoving to be the first ones off. Peering through one of the windows, Alex could tell that they had not reached the training camp, and was wondering what was going on. His pulse sped up as he realized that this could very well be an attack. But the man chaperoning seemed completely unconcerned, acting as if he expected this to happen. Then a man in military fatigues climbed on to the bus. “RIGHT, GET OFF THE BUS!” the man yelled with no other preliminary. The teenagers scrambled off in the most disorderly fashion possible, while Alex had kept to the back to avoid getting trampled. Once outside, Alex went to stand by his friends and looked around, realizing that they were on the grounds of the manor where he had been brought close to a year ago. His classmates pointed excitedly at the building, obviously thinking that was going to be their accommodations for the next fortnight. Alex snorted at their ignorance. The manor was only for the leading Mi6 personnel who came to oversee training. ‘And for teenagers those same personnel had tranquilized and were planning on blackmailing into being spies’ Alex added with black humor. The SAS man had surveyed the babbling mass of children before him for several minutes with obvious disdain. Alex noted that he had never met this man before. He was standing with three other men who Alex assumed were his unit. He was probably the leader. Faced with a mass of unruly children who showed no signs of giving him their attention, the man finally snapped. “SHUT UP!”
  • 30. The voice cut through the chatter. Alex watched as his classmates jumped and turned to face the man. They looked almost shocked, as if they were never yelled at before. “That’s better,” the man said in a quieter, but still deadly voice. “Now, we’ve still got a few miles to go before we get to base. We’ll be taking jeeps.” Noticing the confused glances some of the kids were shooting at the manor, the man smiled evilly. “You didn’t think you were staying here did you?” He let out a short bark of laughter at the thought. Several kids flinched at the sound. “Oh no, I assure you, where you’re going is far more…earthy.” Then his face turned angry again. “Get on the jeeps! Keep your mouths shut and your hands to yourself.” Still in shock, the kids hurried to obey. Alex sighed. This was only the beginning. A few hours later, Alex stood in the center of the camp. Their guide unit had abandoned them to find their superiors. The class was milling about and the noise level was beginning to rise again. The students whispered excitedly to each other, commenting on the rough buildings and on what to expect. Alex stood with Tom and co. He zoned out of the conversation, preferring instead to look around. Straining to see through the dismal drizzle that seemed to be a permanent fixture of the location, he saw a group of tents on the outskirts of the camp. Looking curiously, he wondered what they were for – they hadn’t been there on his last visit. He supposed they could be for some sort of exercise – there was always some sort of training going on. “…don’t you, Alex?” Alex was startled out of his thoughts by his name. “Huh?” he said, realizing that Tom had asked him a question. “I was asking whether you thought this rain would clear up soon,” Tom replied. He made a face. “This won’t be any fun if we get wet the whole time.” Alex severely doubted that there would be any fun to be had, rain or no. But not wanting to crush his best friend, he replied, “Yeah, it’ll probably clear up.” What he omitted from that statement was that it would probably clear up for few hours before starting right up again. Wet was a state inherent to the area. Tom, satisfied, turned back to the others and Alex fell back into his own thoughts. A short while later, a figure emerged from the mess and strode towards the gaggle of teenagers. Alex squinted at him through what was now a steady rain. With every step the man took, the feeling of dread at the pit of Alex’s stomach increased. Perhaps it was the way he walked, or perhaps it was the way he held himself, but there was something decidedly familiar man, the sort of something that comes from seeing him day and night for two weeks, through exhaustion, hunger, and pain. Eventually, the man reached the group. The teens, unaware, continued their chatter aimlessly. It could now be seen that he was an extremely fit black man, who had a
  • 31. decidedly dangerous air about him. Of course, Alex could have already told anyone this. This man was his old training officer, a sergeant he had known only as Sir and who had made his life hell for two weeks. Great, just great, Alex thought. Someone at MI6 must have been having fun getting his group assigned to this man. “Attention!” The word cut through the chatter like a knife through butter. The class jumped for the second time that day. Alex nearly stood at attention. It had been so ingrained into his body to listen to that voice. Just barely he caught himself. It would be too suspicious if he was the only one to respond correctly. The other students quieted down, turning to face the man. The sergeant stood frowning at them for a good while. Alex could see him growing more and more angry with the crowd of fidgeting adolescents in front of him. He must have been less than pleased to learn he was to be training more 14 year olds. He had been thoroughly unhappy with having to train Alex the last time. Alex wondered if the man had been briefed to expect him. Very subtly the sergeant was searching the crowd. Alex doubted anyone but him had noticed, but then he was trained for such things. When he finally got to Alex, he locked eyes with him. Alex noted there was no surprise in the gaze, just a weary sort of acceptance. Yes, the man had known about him. As if the emphasize this, the sergeant gave the tiniest of nods. Alex twitched his lips in a slight smile in acknowledgment. The Sergeant looked to the rest of the group and began to speak. “Listen up. This is an SAS training camp. You’re here because the government has decided that you should be trained. This isn’t a summer camp. This isn’t daycare. This is real.” He paused for a moment. “You’re here along side soldiers. If they talk, you listen. If they tell you to do something, you do it. Don’t expect to be welcomed. They don’t want you here. I don’t want you here.” He glared at the crowd, as if it was their fault. “Selection is going on right now and I need to focus on the real attendees of this camp. I don’t have time to baby-sit you lot. Stay out of the way. See those tents over there? Stay away from them. That’s where the new recruits are. Don’t interfere with them, ever.” Well, at least that answered Alex’s question of what the tents were for. “There’s to be no messing about here, no disobedience. This isn’t a game. Because of why you’re here, I can’t bin you. I can make your life a living hell. Do you understand me?” There was no reply. The man flew into a rage. “When I ask you a question, you answer ‘yes sir’!” “Now, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?” There was a chorus of ‘yes sirs’.
  • 32. The sergeant nodded. “Better. “The mess hall is there and the bathrooms are there.” He coldly indicated the relevant buildings. “Normally girls aren’t allowed in the SAS. Temporary bathrooms have been erected over there. But other then that, you’ll have to deal.” The scowl became even more pronounced. Alex wondered if the man just didn’t like the so called ‘fairer sex’ or if it was the change in rules that was pissing him off. “You’ll be staying in the barracks, off to your left, divided up into boys and girls. These huts are for real members of the SAS.” This was new to Alex. The last time he’d been here, he had stayed in one of the huts alongside K-unit. “Because I don’t have time to baby-sit you, I’ve divided you up under 4 veteran units. Each unit will be responsible for 2 groups of 4 students. Your groups are posted on the side of the barracks. You’ll be coded by color. You’ll find out your unit later. Any questions?” There was silence. Then timidly one girl raised her hand. Alex noticed it was Charlotte Hale, one of the smartest girls in his year. The sergeant barked gruffly, “What?” “Um sir,” she stammered. “There’s 29 of us, so won’t someone be by himself if we’re in four person groups?” The sergeant glared. “Yes. Who is Alex Rider?” The class turned to stare at Alex, whispering heatedly. Alex said quietly but clearly, “I am.” The man looked directly at him, face giving away nothing. “Right. We’ve been notified that you are still recovering from an illness. You’re to train separately so as to not strain you too much.” It was said in a slightly patronizing tone. Alex didn’t rise to the bait, simply nodding his understanding. He had been expecting nothing less. The sergeant returned to addressing the whole group. “You have just enough time to find your groups and change before dinner. Pick up your kit and go to your barrack.” He surveyed the crowd in front of him and smiled thinly. “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to hell.” The crowd turned and began to mill off over to where kit was being distributed. “Rider, stay behind so we can discuss your special needs.” Alex had been expecting this and moved towards the sergeant. Josh and Emma gave him sympathetic smiles before walking off. Nick squeezed his shoulder awkwardly. “Sorry, mate.” Tom sent him a significant look that clearly said he didn’t believe a word of the sergeant’s excuse. Alex had never gotten an opportunity to tell him about MI6’s master plan. He knew he was going to have a lot of explaining to do soon. As the last of the students left, the sergeant turned to him. “Cub,” he nodded gruffly. “I was told to expect you.”
  • 33. Not sure how to act or what to say, Alex settled on a nod. The sergeant sighed. “I didn’t expect you to be back here so soon.” “Neither did I sir,” Alex said dryly, “but they had other ideas.” There was no need to clarify who ‘they’ was – both man and boy were far too clear. The sergeant shook his head. “I’ll never understand you Special Ops types. I don’t suppose you could have left the annoying school children behind.” He sighed again before switching attitudes to survey Alex critically. “I’ve been told to have you trained.” Alex nodded. That was the whole point of coming to the camp. “There are a few specific things they’ve requested you do, but mostly you’ll just be training as an SAS soldier,” the Sergeant explained. “Have you done any training with MI6 since you left here?” Alex thought for a moment. He had worked with Scorpia and trained on Malagosto, but he’d rather not share that. He still was avoiding thinking about the circumstances of that. So he shrugged uncomfortably. “Not really,” he hedged. The Sergeant was on him in an instant, shouting “What do you mean, not really? Answer the question and address me as Sir!” Alex was suddenly reminded of why he had intensely disliked the man. “No sir,” he replied grudgingly. After all, he hadn’t been training for MI6. The man nodded and continued as if nothing had happened. “Right. You’re in shape?” Alex nodded. “Relatively, sir. I’ve been out of the field for a few weeks, but I’ve been playing football.” “Good,” the Sergeant answered. “Your unit will be training you separate from the others, with your ‘illness’ as an excuse. For group activities, you’ll just have to maintain your cover.” Alex nodded his understanding. “Yes sir.” “Dismissed,” the Sergeant barked. Alex walked away over to pick up his kit and then made his way to the barracks, following the direction he had seen his classmates going in earlier. The barracks were built behind a screen of woodland, which is why Alex had never noticed them before. He didn’t even bother looking at the list since he knew he was by himself, instead moving to the barracks labeled ‘Boys’.
  • 34. Inside was utter chaos. Boys were everywhere, shouting and laughing, with their stuff sprawled out across the room. Alex spotted Tom, who waved him over to a far corner where he was standing with Nick and Josh. “Hey, Alex,” Tom said. “We saved you a bunk.” Alex grinned his thanks and set his stuff on the bed. He turned back towards his friends who were standing there, watching him expectantly. “What?” he asked. “How’d it go?” Nick asked impatiently. Alex shrugged. “Alright. He basically said that I’d be training separately doing less strenuous stuff since they don’t want me to relapse or anything. Pretty much what I told you guys yesterday.” He ignored the look of disbelief Tom was sending him. That could wait for later. Nick looked at him sympathetically. “That sucks, mate” “Yeah. It’ll be okay,” Alex said. “At least you’ll be doing easier stuff,” Josh said encouragingly. Alex nodded. If only they knew what he was really going to be doing. Nick shuddered, as usual making a joke when things got awkward, “I wouldn’t want to be by myself with those SAS guys. Seriously, what is their problem? Alex laughed. “I think they’re just jealous because we’ve actually been near civilization recently. So what groups are you in?” “You didn’t look?” Tom asked. “Nah,” Alex replied. “I forgot.” “Oh, well, we’re all together, with Emma. Lucky, huh?” Tom said. “Yeah,” Alex said. Privately he thought that it was very possible that the groups were anything but random. Like Alan Blunt once said, where others saw coincidence, he saw conspiracy. It was a good motto for any one doing spy work. “We’d better change into uniform before someone comes in and yells at us,” Alex said. Agreeing, they moved to their bunks to do so. Having had far too much practice, Alex quickly and effortlessly slipped into the camouflage. Turning around, he saw that his friends, along with the rest of the class, were having a lot more trouble.
  • 35. Nick, partly through trying to fasten the uniform, stopped and stared when he saw Alex. “How’d you do that?” he asked disbelievingly. Josh, hearing him, turned to look at him also. Crap. He’d forgotten about being inconspicuous and unknowledgeable. Stupid, stupid, stupid! They hadn’t even been there a day and he’d slipped up already. He thought frantically for an excuse. Tom once again came to his rescue. “Haha, Alex. You remembered from that time you were an army man for Halloween?” Alex laughed nervously along with him. “Yeah, amazing isn’t it?” Nick seemed to buy that. Josh however gave him a piercing look, as if to say he knew Alex wasn’t telling them everything, but dropped it and Alex relaxed. Crisis adverted. But he was going to have to be more careful in the future. He couldn’t afford to completely miss something that basic. And Josh was already suspicious. “Hey Alex,” Josh asked, “Do you think you could help the rest of us?” “Sure,” Alex replied. The damage was already done, so it wasn’t like he could pretend he didn’t know how. Twenty minutes later Alex had managed to help the rest of the class into the uniforms. It seemed MI6 had learned a few things since Alex had been there last and the uniforms were actually closer to the size of a teenager. They didn’t fit perfectly, but at least they weren’t nearly as uncomfortable as his old one, and for that Alex was grateful. He had just finished that task when the door banged open and the Sergeant walked in. Noting the general chaos, he whistled sharply and the class quieted. “That kind of disorder is never to happen again!” he yelled. “Do you understand?” There was a general chorus of “Yes, sir.” He nodded, as if pacified. “Now it’s time to meet your leaders.” He gave them a wolfish grin, which most disconcertingly seemed to be directed right at Alex. Then he turned and walked out briskly. Alex followed along behind with his class. He was having very bad feelings about who those leaders would be. Now that it came to it, he was very nervous to find out if he would have to be working with K-unit again. He wasn’t disappointed. There, standing along with three other units, was K-unit in all of their glory: Wolf, Snake, Eagle, and, of course, Ben, or Fox. All 4 men were scowling furiously. Apparently they didn’t appreciate being tasked with baby-sitting. Wolf looked as formidable as ever, Snake was wearing a very disapproving sort of glare, and Eagle just seemed pissed off. Alex was glad to see Ben looking much better than when he’d last seen him. His arm appeared to be healing fine. Ben looked up to meet his gaze and winked, before returning his face to its stony glare.
  • 36. The Sergeant began talking. “This is N-unit, J-unit, D-unit, and K-unit. They’ll be training you while you’re here. From now until you leave, consider them God(i).” He glared at each one to make sure this was clear. “Now, your units. You already know your colors.” At this Tom leaned over. “Seeing as you didn’t bother to look,” he ribbed gently, “you’re black and we’re white.” Alex shot him a smile in thanks. The sergeant continued, “Once you’ve been called, go along with your unit. They’ll address you and then dismiss you to dinner.” He began calling off the groups. “Groups Red and Orange, with N-unit,” the students in this group left, following the men of N- unit. “Groups Yellow and Green, with J-unit, groups blue and violet, with D-unit, and groups white and black, with K-unit.” Alex inwardly groaned. Someone at MI6 was taking great care to make his life as hellish as possible. He was going to be under K-unit, with his friends - bloody brilliant. Alex followed behind Tom, Emma, Nick and Josh as they moved over to stand in front of K-unit. Alex stuck to the back – he wanted to delay the wonderful reunion bound to take place as long as possible. It didn’t work though, and eventually the group of friends reached the unit and stopped. For a moment, no one acknowledged them. Alex took the opportunity to surreptitiously observe his old team up close. K-unit looked as intimidating as they had when he’d first met them. Even Nick and Tom, who had before been so enthusiastic, seemed to be cowed by the stony faced men. Eagle, glaring into the ground, didn’t even seem to notice their approach. Ben looked stoically pissed-off, though Alex could see in his eyes that he didn’t really mind the whole situation. Snake and Wolf were observing Alex’s friends one by one. All too soon, Wolf locked eyes with him. To Alex’s surprise, shock flashed across the man’s face as he recognized Alex ever so quickly before his features settled into an even fiercer glare than before, if that was possible. Wolf ever so subtly nudged Snake, who also looked over. Snake’s reaction was also shock, though less obvious than his teammate’s – a flash in his eyes and a stiffening of his body. Eagle, sensing something was happening, looked up at his teammates and followed their gazes to Alex. His reaction was much the same as Wolf’s, a flash of surprise. By now Alex was thoroughly confused. It was like they hadn’t known he was coming… but Ben had known for sure. Why didn’t the others know? Alex looked over at Ben in confusion. It was then that he realized the man was avidly drinking in his teammates’ reactions with a wicked glint in his eyes. Ben had obviously decided to have a bit of fun with his mates. Inwardly Alex sighed. At least the others had been sensible enough not to blow his cover. Glancing at his friends, he was glad to see that they were too intimidated by the SAS men to have noticed the covert exchange going
  • 37. on around them. While such occurrences were glaringly obvious to Alex, his peers were utterly oblivious. Or so it seemed. Wolf, seemingly recovered from his surprise, addressed them curtly, glaring ferociously. “Right, so we’re K-unit, your…leaders. That’s Fox, Eagle, Snake,” he indicated each man, “and I’m Wolf. I’m the unit commander, so I’m in charge.” The statement was almost unnecessary; Wolf exuded command. No matter how bad relations were between Alex and Wolf, Alex had understood from the beginning that Wolf was a natural leader and a damn good one at that. “You’re to obey us at all times,” Wolf continued. “I don’t want any messing about or any problems. I’m not here to be nice; I’m here to keep you alive. No idiotic, immature behavior or you will face the consequences. Understood?” Alex’s friends nodded fervently. Fox at this point took up the lecture. “Now, tell us your name and your age,” he said in a more relaxed tone than Wolf’s. He nodded at Tom to start. “Tom Harris, um, 14” Tom said nervously. Fox moved on to Josh. “Josh Evans, 15” Josh said, quietly but clearly. “Emma White, 14” “Nick Hall, 15” Lastly, Fox looked to Alex. Alex noted that the rest of K-unit looked over to him intently waiting for his answer. He realized, with some amusement, that no one but Ben, and maybe Wolf, knew his name. “Alex Rider, 14” he said clearly. Snake, Wolf, and Eagle all started in surprise. Inwardly Alex laughed. Apparently they never really knew his age. Recovering, Wolf continued, “Right. Training starts tomorrow. We’ll be assessing you then. You four are a group and you’ll be working together. Rider, we’ve been told that you’re sick.” Only Alex caught the sarcasm in the man’s voice. “We’ll be training you separately, but don’t think that we’ll go any easier.” His eyes bore into Alex. “Snake here is the unit medic. Tell him if you get yourself seriously injured. I don’t mean if you get a boo boo and want to run crying to mommy. But if you really get hurt, don’t be stupid and say nothing.” “It’s dinner time now. You’ll get more instructions later. Dismissed.” They had begun moving towards the mess hall, when Ben called out, “Rider, stay back. We need to discuss your health.”
  • 38. Alex turned, waving goodbye to his friends, to walk back to where K-unit was standing. Eagle stared at him in visible disbelief. Snake appeared to be surveying him critically. Wolf was glaring at him furiously. They waited until the others were out of earshot, then Wolf began. “Cub, what the hell are you doing here?” he asked, his voice low and dangerous. Alex stared at him for a moment, unsure of what to say. It was apparent that no one but Ben had known he was coming. “Well?” Wolf prodded, temper flaring. Alex settled on telling the simple truth. “I’m here with my class, because Scorpia wants me dead and is threatening them too. I thought you knew, but…” He turned to look at Ben and saw the wicked grin on the man’s face. “Ben,” Alex said slowly, ignoring the second bout of shock that flashed across the men’s’ faces at his use of Fox’s name, “Why didn’t you tell them?”
  • 39. ~Close Protection, of a Sort~ Chapter Four: Angry Wolf “Ben, why didn’t you tell them?” Ben grinned, “Oh, it was so much more fun this way.” The rest of K-unit was looking between Alex and Ben in shock, in Eagle’s case the openmouthed variety. Wolf’s shock however was quickly changing into suspicion and the traditional accompanying anger. “What didn’t he tell us?” he asked Alex angrily. Alex hesitated for a moment. He didn’t really want to get Ben into trouble right after seeing him again, but he kind of deserved it and they were going to find out anyway. “That I was coming.” He explained reluctantly. Wolf rounded on Ben. “You knew about him,” a vague gesture in Alex’s direction was made, “and you failed to tell us why?” Wolf growled. Ben looked sheepish. “Because I forgot?” he supplied tentatively. This was apparently the wrong thing to say. “Because you forgot? Now you’re gonna lie? What are you, a goddamn teenager? I guess I just didn’t realize you were that immature, Ben!” Wolf yelled. Ben looked ready to protest and Snake had opened his mouth to step in, but it seemed like the name had brought Eagle out of his bout of shock. Interrupting the current conversation as if it had never happened, he turned to Alex. “How’d you know his name?” he demanded. “Wh…what?” Alex asked, caught off guard by the sudden change in conversation. “You called Fox, Ben,” Eagle explained impatiently. “How’d you know it?” Wolf turned to glare at Alex too. “Yes, that’s a good question. How the hell do you know that, Cub?” “I…” Alex began, glancing at Ben. He didn’t want to get the man into any more trouble and he had no idea what K-unit already knew.
  • 40. Ben saw the look and understood. He took over. “Alex was with me on my last mission,” he explained as the others turned to him. “You know the one where I got shot? I was protecting him when it happened. I told him my name when I first met up with him, though,” he turned to Alex, “you’d better call me Fox while we’re here. We don’t want to be overheard.” Alex nodded, mentally noting it. Wolf looked none too pleased by that piece of information. “More things you conveniently forgot to tell us?” he asked, his voice low and dangerous. “Oh stop glaring at me,” Fox said, sounding a little annoyed by his teammate’s animosity. “It’s not like I was trying to keep that from you. It just never came up. You just got here; I never had a chance to explain about the mission.” Wolf still looked ready to explode, but Snake stepped in. “It’s true, Wolf. Fox told me when I went down to him. He wasn’t withholding it.” “Yeah, c’mon Wolf. We’ve only been here, what, 24 hours?” Eagle supplied. Wolf nodded in acknowledgment, but still turned to Fox, apparently still mad about the earlier prank. “Fine, but that still doesn’t excuse you from not briefing us on Cub’s arrival.” He said, glaring. “That was idiotic and childish! We’re a team. We don’t keep secrets!” he yelled, his voice rising. Fox sighed. “Look Wolf, I’m sorry ok? I was just messing around because I haven’t seen you in a really long time. It’s not that serious.” This seemed to appease Wolf somewhat, but he still was determined to make his point. “It is serious when you don’t tell your team things. You know that,” he insisted. “Besides, what if we blew Cub’s cover?” At this, Fox laughed. “Aw, Wolf, I have more faith in you guys than that.” Wolf rolled his eyes heavenward, in what Alex assumed was irritation with the idiots of the world and took a deep breath. “We’ll discuss this later,” he told Fox icily. “Now would someone mind explaining what the hell he,” he gestured vaguely in Alex’s direction, “is doing here?” Fox shrugged. “Well he already pretty much told you. Scorpia’s pissed at him so they’re targeting him and his class. They’ve threatened to kill them, so MI6 arranged to have them sent here. Even Scorpia would be hard pressed to pull anything off here, not that they won’t try. There’s already been an attack I believe.” Alex was well aware of the 3 pairs of eyes that swiveled to stare at him. Eagle broke the silence first, saying, “Bloody hell, Cub. What’d you do to make them that angry?”
  • 41. Inwardly, Alex pondered exactly what had made Scorpia so angry. His traitor father who successfully double crossed them? His own double crossing? Maybe it was his decimation of two of their major operations, or the death of their prized assassin, or the death of two of their board members, or perhaps it was him surviving their attempt to get even. Not feeling particularly inclined to share any of these reasons with K-unit, Alex just shrugged. “It’s complicated.” he mumbled. Eagle raised an eyebrow and looked ready to push the issue, but Fox cut him off. “I’m pretty sure it’s a long story, so you can torture him for information later.” he told Eagle knowingly. “Anyway, MI6 decided that this was a perfect opportunity for Alex here to get some training. That’s where we come in. Apparently, last time was a bit too brief for their tastes. They want a bit more specialized, in-depth approach. I have files for you back at the ranch with the details.” Wolf was looking murderous again. “So, basically, we’re babysitting a bunch of school kids because Cub here was stupid enough to piss off a major criminal organization and the Firm thought they’d take advantage?” Fox shrugged and nodded. “Pretty much, yeah.” Alex frowned. “It wasn’t all my fault,” he protested, feeling Wolf’s summary was more than a bit unfair. Scorpia had a vendetta against him since he was born, after all - and he was sent to them. “I couldn’t help a lot of it.” Snake frowned. “What do you mean?” he frowned. Alex, realizing he had just stupidly opened himself up for questioning, shifted uncomfortably. “Just that it’s, uh, kind of a family thing I guess. And that I didn’t actually know what Scorpia was when I went looking for them…” When he saw the team’s eyes widen, he realized his mistake. “You went looking for them?!” Eagle asked incredulously. “Well…”Alex said awkwardly, cursing his stupidity. “You’re right Cub. I was wrong,” Wolf said, voice deceptively calm. “You weren’t stupid. You’re a fucking imbecile!” The last part was yelled. Alex flinched. “Wolf, don’t,” Fox said. “It really wasn’t his fault.” “He goes looking for Scorpia and you’re telling me it’s not his fault?” Wolf yelled. “Now we’re stuck dealing with this mess,” he glared menacingly at Fox, “Which you forgot to
  • 42. mention, and now we find out that you two are buddies. Well that’s fucking perfect – you two idiots go well together!” There was a moment of silence. Alex was fairly thrown by Wolf’s reaction. He hadn’t expected the man to be pleased to see him, but Wolf was practically imploding. He had a sneaking suspicion that there was more going on than just his arrival. “Wolf -” Snake began awkwardly. Wolf held up a hand to stop him. “Just tell me that he is not the reason that we got saddled with this sorry excuse for an assignment,” he growled dangerously. Fox shrugged helplessly with a despairing half smile. “He probably is. They’d want to keep the people who know about him to an absolute minimum, I’d guess.” Wolf closed his eyes and drew in a deep, shuddering breath. He let it out slowly. He turned to Alex. “Look Cub, go. Just… go. Eat dinner or whatever.” His voice was tight and clipped, his temper apparently firmly reigned in. “We’ll talk to you when we get this sorted out.” He directed a glare at Fox, who just grinned sheepishly. Wolf sighed in frustration, and then, with one last glower in Fox’s direction, stormed off, presumably to K-unit’s hut. Fox watched for a moment shaking his head, before following Wolf. The other three stared at the two retreating backs for a long minute, snapping out of it at the sound of a door being slammed in the distance. Immediately, Eagle broke the silence, cheerfully announcing, “Well, that went well.” Alex looked at him incredulously. “What?” Eagle exclaimed in fake surprise. “There were no casualties.” He turned to Snake. “Now, I say we give them 15 minutes and then go in to clean up the carnage.” Alex glanced worriedly in the direction Fox and Wolf had taken. He had just seen Fox and now he had stupidly gotten the other man into trouble with quite possibly the most irritable man in the SAS. Brilliant. He should have just kept his mouth shut. “I hope I haven’t gotten Fox into too much trouble. I guess my arrival really screwed up your unit.” he said apologetically. Snake turned to him, eyes unreadable. “It’s not your fault. It really has very little to do with you.” “Yeah,” Eagle agreed. “Thing’s have just been going downhill for Wolf since Fox got seconded to MI6. He needed to blow off some steam.” Seeing Alex’s questioning look, he continued, “Well, Wolf was pretty unhappy that his team got messed up. Then we got informed that you were in hospital with appendicitis.” Alex was surprised by this. So apparently they didn’t know he’d been shot. Well, that was fine by him. “Wolf hates it when anything or anyone messes with his unit. And you’re kind of like the little one in
  • 43. our team, so he was none too pleased. Then we get the news that Ben’s been shot and of course Wolf was like a ticking time bomb then. Nobody went within 10 feet of him for days. Then things in Iraq went south. Way south.” Both Eagle and Snake’s faces darkened at that and it was clear no one was going to elaborate. “And then we get this assignment. It’s not exactly his dream job.” Alex nodded. “Wolf didn’t seem too happy to see me,” he agreed sourly. Snake looked at him. “It’s not really you personally,” he said perceptively, “It’s more so the whole taking care of children aspect.” “It’s true,” Eagle affirmed. “Wolf plus kids can be universally expected to equal disaster. He just doesn’t get on well with them.” Alex smiled. It was certainly true of their relationship, to say the least. “So Wolf’s been waiting to explode for a while now,” Eagle concluded. “All of this just finally pushed him over the edge.” Snake, seeing Alex’s worry, quickly reassured him. “Don’t worry about Wolf. He’ll cool off – it’s not really you he’s mad at. And Fox’ll be fine. He’s the best at calming Wolf down. He usually can do it in minutes.” “Yeah, but this time its Fox that Wolf’s angry with instead of me. It’ll probably take longer,” Eagle said bluntly, sounding completely unsupportive. “Thanks for your help,” Snake said sarcastically to Eagle. “But really Cub, Wolf never stays mad at Fox for long.” He turned to Eagle. “I’m going to go see if we can get this sorted out.” He strode off in the direction the other two had gone. “And there goes Snake to restore peace and harmony to the unit,” Eagle said happily. Alex just looked at him strangely. “What?” Eagle exclaimed. “Stop looking at me funny! Why do people always do that? Snake is always the one to settle the conflict. He hates when people in our team are mad at each other, almost as much as he hates it when any of us get hurt.” He shuddered, in memory. “Then Snake gets downright scary, scarier than Wolf even. When the news that Fox got shot came, he was pissed as hell and enough of a bastard that he managed to get permission from HQ and our OC (i) to fly down to take over Fox’s medical treatment, and let me tell you that’s no easy feat. I felt bad for the doctors,” he confided. “He probably bit their heads off, especially when he first got there.” “Really?” Alex asked. “He doesn’t seem like the type to get all riled up.”
  • 44. “Oh, he is when it comes to his mates getting injured. He turns from his usual calm educated self, into an icy-eyed Scottish wild man who takes pleasure in terrorizing hospital staff.” Alex considered this. Snake didn’t really seem that bad. Then he remembered his previous sojourn with the SAS. That Snake could fit the picture Eagle was painting. “You know Cub, you’d better go to dinner if you want to eat,” Eagle said cheerfully. Alex looked at his watch and swore, realizing that he was indeed missing dinner. He ran off towards the mess, leaving Eagle chuckling behind him. Inside the rough wooden building were rows of steel tables. His class was seated to one side, while SAS men were spread out throughout the rest of the room. Alex grabbed a tray, quickly got his food, and then made his way over to his classmates. Nick looked up and saw him coming and waved him over. Alex slid into a seat across from Tom. “So?” Nick said, leaning in conspiratorially. “What happened?” Alex saw that the rest of the boys sitting near them were listening for his answer, interested and hesitated. Then in reply to the question, Alex answered carefully, “They just wanted to ask me some questions about my medical history. I think they’re trying to figure out what to do with me.” He started eating, making a face at the unappetizing stew that served as dinner. “So what are you going to be doing?” Emma asked. “Have they told you yet?” Alex shrugged. “Not really. Just less physically strenuous stuff I guess.” He made a face. “I don’t know why they’re so concerned. I’m fine.” Nick laughed. “They probably don’t want to be liable or something if you collapse.” Alex agreed. Tom nodded and rolled his eyes. “God forbid if precious Alex should get hurt. I mean, Jack might sue!” There was a level to the sarcasm that only Alex picked up. Tom knew that MI6 had never really given a damn about whether he got hurt or not. Alex flashed him a quick smile. “It can’t be too bad Alex,” Emma comforted teasingly. “You get to spend extra alone time with those hot SAS guys!” The boys around her stared at her in horror. “What?” she asked. “Even you guys have to admit they are fit.” She sighed and continued dreamily, “They have that chiseled physique, that powerful, sexy attitude… ” The boys were practically gagging by then and Emma shot them an annoyed look causing them to laugh. “Well, now that you’ve scarred Alex for life,” Nick said breezily when they calmed down. “Seriously though mate, I feel for you.”
  • 45. “Why would you feel bad for him?” a boy further down the table sneered. “Rider gets all the soft options while we actually have to work. Not that I’m surprised by that, Rider.” Alex and Nick turned to look at the boy. It was Tyler Briggs, Alex realized with a mental sigh. They had never gotten on. Alex was better than him at football, for which Tyler could never forgive him. When Alex was missing school, Tyler had gotten his spot on the team, but the coach had just given Alex his spot back. Tyler’s animosity had been unmatched in the week since. “Yeah, I feel bad for him,” Nick responded with exaggerated obviousness. “He has to spend time with large, tough SAS guys who are in serious need of an attitude adjustment. Who would want that?” “You would be intimidated by them Hall,” Tyler said contemptuously. “But I’m sure Rider doesn’t mind the attention.” Alex surveyed the other boy coolly. “I didn’t ask for this, you know,” he said evenly, hoping to ward off any other potential repeats of this. He was very aware that the rest of the class was watching the exchange. “I can’t help that I’ve been sick and that the SAS is concerned for some reason.” “Riiight,” Tyler drew the word out. “I forgot. You’ve been sick.” “Leave him alone,” Emma said quietly, but fiercely. “It’s none of your business.” “Oh look, Rider – your bitch is talking,” Tyler taunted. Nick and Tom started to rise. “Leave her out of it,” Nick warned dangerously. “And here comes the rest of your posse. Can’t even fight your own battles, Rider? Oh that’s right, you’re sickly,” Tyler sneered. Alex refused to let the idiotic boy get a rise out of him. “Back off, Briggs,” Tom threatened. “Or what, Harris?” Tyler jeered. “Oh grow up,” Alex said coolly. Tyler’s tough act was not intimidating him in the least. He had faced much worse than this pathetic child. “You would know about that, wouldn’t you Rider? I bet your gang friends make you feel real mature.” “If you really think he’s in a gang, why would you pick a fight with him?” Josh asked condescendingly.
  • 46. “You think I’m not tough enough to fight him?” Tyler asked, clearly longing for a go and just needing an excuse. “No, but I hoped you were smarter,” Josh sighed. It was looking like there was going to be an all out brawl, but then another boy spoke up. “Come on Ty,” he said. “We have better things to do than waste time with them.” Tyler wavered. He didn’t want to look like he actually cared about making Rider’s life miserable but he was just getting going. Finally he gave a last sneer and turned back to his friends. The boy, Andy Manning Alex noted, gave Alex’s group a quick nod before following Tyler. Nick and Tom slowly returned to their seats. Sending frequent glares back at Tyler. “Andy always was a decent bloke,” Nick said to ease the tension. “Yeah,” Alex agreed. Andy was a leader in their school. An easygoing kind of guy, he was very popular. He and Alex had never been tight, but they got on well enough. “So Alex,” Nick said. “How does it feel to have a ‘posse’?” The other 4 stared at him for a long minute. Then Emma started to giggle and soon they were all laughing hopelessly. Tension relief was a wonderful thing. Once they calmed down, the charged atmosphere had diffused. “Don’t worry about jerks like Tyler,” Emma told Alex comfortingly. “The rest of us don’t blame you.” Alex smiled his thanks. “Thanks for sticking up for me.” Josh shrugged. “What are friends for -” “- besides crashing your parties, embarrassing you, and stealing your stuff?” Nick cut in. Alex laughed along with his friends, and then went back to his food. He wasn’t really all that tempted to eat it, but forced himself to, knowing that he would need it once training started. He looked up to find Tom staring pointedly at him. After looking around to make sure that no one was watching, Tom mouthed ‘What’s going on?’ and Alex knew that he owed Tom an explanation. The time had come, but he couldn’t exactly tell him in the middle of the mess. Holding Tom’s gaze, Alex asked “Does anyone remember where the toilet is?” Tom, catching his meaning, replied quickly, “Yeah, c’mon, I’ll show you.”
  • 47. Both boys stood up to leave, depositing their used trays on the way out. Once clear of the mess, Tom turned to Alex. “So what’s going -” but Alex held a finger to his lips and motioned for Tom to follow him. He led him behind a nearby building. After checking to make sure no one was around, he nodded to Tom. Tom practically exploded. “What’s going on? You haven’t told me anything and I’d be an idiot to believe that we’re being told the truth.” Alex sighed. “Well, the part about Scorpia targeting our class was true enough. What they didn’t say was that it was because of me. Scorpia’s the organization that shot me, remember? Well, apparently they’ve decided the vendetta still stands and they want me dead.” Tom gasped. “Oh my God Alex. So, that’s really why we’re here?” Alex nodded. “They figure we’re pretty safe here.” Tom paused for a minute, absorbing this information. “So then what’s all this about your health? I’m sure that’s a lie, and no way are you going to be doing easier stuff.” “Of course I’m not,” Alex affirmed. “MI6 has decided that this is a prime opportunity to have me get more training. Last time was a little rushed, so they’re going to exploit this as much as they can.” He sighed. “I can’t say I’m looking forward to it.” Tom gripped his arm sympathetically. “I’m sure it’ll be alright. After all, you’re the best right? They wouldn’t do anything too bad to you.” Alex laughed. “Oh, they would. Especially considering who our ‘teachers’ are.” Tom frowned, confused. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Remember I was here before? Well, I got placed in a unit to train. That would be K- unit.” Tom’s eyes widened. “You know them?” he asked incredulously. “Unfortunately, yeah,” Alex replied. “But…that’s good right?” Tom frowned. “Tom, we didn’t exactly get on,” Alex explained. “Oh,” Tom said a little put out. “So they’re pretty nasty?”
  • 48. Alex shrugged. “Well, Fox is ok. I worked with him before and he was actually pretty nice to me. And Snake and Eagle seem alright, when they’re not in tough-guy mode. I guess its just Wolf really. We’ve never gotten on.” Tom nodded. “So he’s the jerk?” “Yeah, well, he tried to get me binned last time – thrown out,” Alex clarified seeing Tom’s confusion. “But then I sort of helped him and then we were on a mission and he saved my life… so I thought we were ok. And he did send me a card when I got shot, so it seemed like he cared. But he did not seem too pleased to see me today. He’s pissed as hell about having to ‘baby-sit a bunch of school kids’ as he put it.” “And now you have to spend one on one time with him. No wonder you seem down.” Tom said, beginning to understand. Alex sighed. “Hopefully I can just pretty much stay out of his way.” They stood there in companionable silence for a moment, each mulling over their own thoughts. “We’d better get go back before the others start to wonder,” Alex said. Tom agreed and they moved off to return to their friends. As dinner was coming to a close, the training sergeant came over to address them. “Breakfast tomorrow is at 0600 hours. Be on time or you don’t eat. You’ll be spending the day being tested so that your leaders will have some idea of where you’re at, pitiful as that may be. You have the rest of the night to get accustomed to the area. I suggest you get some sleep – you’ll need it.” A hint of a wolfish grin flashed on his face, then he dismissed them. Alex got up with his friends to walk back to the barracks. As he was heading out the door, he passed Fox. The man caught Alex’s gaze and deliberately brushed past him. As Fox moved, Alex felt something being pressed into his hand. Alex just kept walking, but couldn’t help the small smile that crept onto his face. It was so very James Bond– esque, the whole brush pass. Fox must have been enjoying it greatly. They rest of his classmates were gathering in the boys barracks. It wasn’t too late so no one felt motivated to go to bed. They’d just have to amuse themselves for a while. Alex’s group moved over to where the boy’s bunks were. Alex pretended to rummage through his stuff while surreptitiously looking at the note Fox had slipped him.
  • 49. Cub – meet at hut after kiddies go to bed Alex sighed. Wonderful. He got to go see K-unit again and he had to sneak out to do so. And he always did love less sleep. Deciding not to worry about that for the moment, Alex turned back to his friends. Nick pulled out a pack of cards with a flourish. “Anyone want to play ‘the Game’?” One hour, 3 ‘have a nice day’s, 5 ‘failure to play in a reasonable amount of time’s and 17 ‘point of order’s later, people were starting to think about going to bed(ii). Emma left with a yawn to go sleep, with the other girls. Alex was amused that it was only 9:00 and his class was already trashed. It probably was the really long bus ride, but still. He pretended to get ready for bed, changing into a t-shirt and boxers, but left his uniform out where he could easily slip into it later. Changing was a process in itself. Alex didn’t want anyone to see his scars – that would lead to too many questions, so he changed quickly, facing the wall. He got into bed and pulled up the lone blanket after calling good night to his friends. Then the long wait started. He didn’t want to sleep, because there was no way he could set an alarm without waking the others. Instead, he was forced to just lie there, thinking. So they had finally arrived at the camp. At least the suspense was over now – K-unit was there with Wolf as bad-tempered as ever although, Alex was a little hurt by Wolf’s attitude. He hadn’t expected the man to be friendly, but he’d been under the impression that they’d reached a mutual understanding after Point Blanc. Wolf had sent him that card after all, even if he had thought Alex had appendicitis at the time. But today Wolf had been as bad as he’d been when Alex first met him. It did sound like the man had been having a bad time lately, though and Alex wondered briefly what had happened in Iraq – both Eagle and Snake had seemed upset about it so obviously it was something bad. He wondered if it had something to do with K-unit getting sent to help with his training. Alex waited an hour before getting up. Carefully, he slid out of bed. He slipped on his uniform and laced up his boots swiftly and silently. He was thankful his friends had picked out a bottom bunk for him. It made this so much easier. Padding to the rear door silently, coincidentally located right next to his bunk (for which Alex again thanked his friends’ unintentional choices or maybe Tom’s instincts), he opened it, careful to make no noise, and slipped out into the night. He jogged over to K-unit’s hut, wanting to get the meeting over as quickly as possible so he could just go to bed.
  • 50. Entering, Alex felt a weird sense of déjà vu. Ironically, K-unit had the same hut as last time. Inside, Snake, Fox, and Eagle were lounging on their bunks much as they had been the last time. Wolf though was no where to be seen. Snake looked up as he walked in. “Cub,” he greeted with a nod. Alex nodded back. The others looked round at him. Fox sat up, grinning. “Glad to see you got my note.” Alex’s lips quirked, “Did you have fun?” he asked dryly. “Loads,” Fox replied laughing. “Is everyone really asleep?” Eagle asked. “It’s only ten. I thought we were going to have to wait until at least 1 or 2, you being teenagers and all.” Alex shrugged. “I guess they’re just tired from the bus ride.” Eagle shook his head mournfully. “Oh, what adolescence has become - an insult to the generations before.” He lamented. “So, um, was there a reason you wanted me here?” Alex asked, shifting his weight uncomfortably. “What, you mean you don’t just want to hang out with people as awesome as us?” Eagle asked him with mock-hurt. “Oh, lay off,” Fox said, throwing a pillow at Eagle. Snake just rolled his eyes at them, and actually answered Alex’s question. “We’re waiting for Wolf. He had to report to the Sergeant – no one expected you to get here this fast.” Alex nodded and stood there awkwardly.
  • 51. ~Close Protection, of a Sort~ Chapter Five: So It Begins Snake just rolled his eyes at them, and actually answered Alex’s question. “We’re waiting for Wolf. He had to report to the Sergeant – no one expected you to get here this fast.” Alex nodded and stood there awkwardly. There was an awkward silence. Alex stared at the floor, unsure of what to do. He felt the other’s eyes on him. He got the sense that the others didn’t really know what to do with him. It was a highly uncomfortable position for him to be in as the silence stretched on and on, and he hoped Wolf would hurry up and get there. “So,” Fox said finally. “Why don't you sit down?” “Ok,” Alex said. “Um, where?” he asked not seeing any available seating, save for the men's bunks and he wasn't about to sit on those uninvited. “Sit here with me,” Fox said, pushing his body upright and moving over so there was space. Alex moved to sit the edge of Fox’s bunk, a bit stiffly. Snake picked up the book he had set down when Alex walked in and quickly immersed himself in it, and Eagle became distracted by whatever it was that he was doing on his bunk. Fox just leaned back against the wall, and watched Alex. “So,” Fox said. “How've you been doing since I saw you last?” “Uh,” Alex said, swallowing, “Well, I'd say considerably better.” He couldn't help but let an ironic overtone creep into his voice. The last time Fox had seen him, they were on an oil rig getting shot at while Fox was preparing to charge the control room. Fox, who seemed to realize this, smiled slightly. “Ok, bad question. How about: what have you been up to since then?” Alex shrugged. “Just... normal life, I guess,” he said. “School, and football, and hanging out with my friends.” “Right,” Fox said nodding. This was a supremely awkward conversation. Fox was obviously trying to be friendly, but it was just really weird. The last time they'd met, they'd been on a mission where Fox had been shot for Alex and now they were in a room with two people who Alex didn't
  • 52. really know and was not on the best of terms with. It was hard to hold a conversation while being steadily observed. Alex could feel Eagle's eyes on him. He had a feeling Snake was watching him too, but at least the medic was being more subtle about it. “So how are you doing?” Alex asked Fox. “After all, you are the one who got shot.” Fox grinned. “I'm fine. The bullets missed anything vital and it's healing well.” Alex nodded. “That's good.” He paused awkwardly for a moment, not quite sure how to say this, but feeling obligated to. “Thank you for, you know, that. I'm sorry I didn't come see you when you were in hospital. MI6 was pretty keen to get me back on British soil.” “S'okay,” Fox said easily. “I was just doing my job. And I'd rather you got to a secure location, instead of hanging around just to visit me. Well, a more secure location, considering who we're dealing with.” Alex grimly nodded his agreement. Both of them frowned at the mention of Scorpia and Alex's suspicion that Snake was listening in was confirmed as Snake shifted uneasily on his bunk. Alex felt the same. It was an unwelcome reminder that even as they sat in the SAS camp, Scorpia was undoubtedly searching for Alex and his class and preparing another attack. Alex didn't believe MI6 when they said that Scorpia couldn't get to them here. “So,” Fox said, shaking his head as if to clear it. “I take it you knew I was here? You didn’t look at all surprised to see me - ruined half my fun.” He grinned. Alex smiled. “I think you had too much fun anyway,” he retorted. “But don’t blame me, blame Smithers.” Fox’s grin widened. “Smithers told you? I should have known. Devious fellow, that one.” “Who's Smithers?” Eagle asked from across the room where he was lying on his bed fiddling with a pocket knife. “Gadget guy for MI6,” Fox explained. “He's nowhere near as serious as the other scientists and likes to have the odd joke now and again.” He gave Eagle an appraising look. “You'd get on well with him.” Eagle raised a brow. “You'd be perfect for each other - you could go off and talk about technological toys.” Fox clarified. Eagle grinned. “You'll have to introduce me.” Fox nodded. “Definitely.” He turned back to Alex. “So Cub, when did you see Smithers anyway?”
  • 53. “After the attempt on my school, I was taken to the bank. They briefed (i) me on the new developments, and then I had to hang out there while they ‘secured my house’ or whatever. So I went to see Smithers since he is the coolest person in MI6.” “What about me?” Fox asked affronted, but unable to hide a smile. Alex just shook his head. “Face it, Fox. Smithers is cooler than you could ever hope to be.” “That’s the last time I get shot for you!” Fox said laughing. “I certainly hope so,” Alex said blandly. Alex caught a flash of orange out of the corner of his eye. He turned to look at Eagle and stared. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Juggling,” Eagle said, as if it explained everything. He was indeed juggling with... ”Are those oranges?”(ii) Alex asked somewhere between amused and disturbed. “Yep,” Eagle replied cheerfully, concentrating on what he was doing. “You'd better not have stolen those from the kitchen again,” Snake said warningly, looking over. “I am not doing group punishment duty like last time.” “I didn’t steal those, I commandeered them!” Eagle said grinning.(iii) “Besides, the kitchen staff are happy to share with the proper incentive.” He continued to juggle. Alex had settled on amusement. “Why are you juggling oranges?” he asked curiously. Eagle shrugged, never breaking. “I like oranges,” he said. “And juggling is relaxing.” “Right,” Alex said. The door banged open and Wolf stomped in. Alex eyed him warily, suddenly alert. Wolf stopped short at the sight of Eagle. “What are you-” he began, amending defeatedly, “never mind, I don't want to know.” Eagle just grinned. “Aww, Wolf, was the Sergeant mean to you?” Wolf didn't answer, just glared at Eagle. But even Alex could tell that it was half-hearted at best. Wolf looked... well, exhausted really. The man walked over to Fox's bunk and noticed Alex.
  • 54. “Cub,” he acknowledged gruffly. “Wolf,” Alex returned evenly. He observed the man carefully. It seemed that whatever mood he'd been in earlier had passed. Now he just looked tired. Wolf moved past Alex to hand a stack of folders to Fox. “Files on the brats,” he explained, curt as ever. “The sergeant says not to break them.” There was a hint of a wolfish grin on his face. Fox flipped through them and pulled out a few folders, holding them out to Snake. “Med reps,” he said already scanning the files. Snake put down his book and took the folders and began reading. Eagle came over to look over Fox's shoulder, sitting next to Alex. “Right, Cub,” Wolf said brusquely, turning to Alex. “You know we’re going to be training you, separately from the others?” he asked. Alex nodded. Wolf looked him over critically. “How fit are you?” he asked. Alex shrugged. “Fairly?” he ventured, not sure what kind of answer to give. However, seeing Wolf’s unimpressed expression, he quickly added, “I mean, I haven’t been on an assignment or in training for a while, but I’ve been playing football and I keep myself pretty fit.” It had been a habit learned from Ian. His uncle had always stressed the importance of personal health. “Fine,” Wolf said. “We’ll find out exactly tomorrow.” He turned to Snake. “Snake?” he asked. Snake set down the folder he was reading and sat up. “I’ve read your medical file, but it’s rather lacking. I know about the appendicitis you had a few months back, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Is there anything else I should know?” he asked Alex. Alex debated telling them about the bullet wound. It didn’t affect him any more and he really didn’t want to talk about the circumstances of it. “No,” he said after an unnoticeable pause. Fox looked up sharply at him, frowning. Alex suddenly wondered if Fox knew about that incident. The man did work for MI6 after all. He prayed that he wouldn’t say anything. Fox, still frowning, slowly went back to reading the file. Alex relaxed, letting out the breath he didn’t realize he had been holding. “Good,” Snake said, nodding to Wolf. “Fox?” Wolf asked.
  • 55. Fox looked back up at Alex. “You’ll use your cover of ‘illness’ as a reason to train separately. We’ll back you up on that,” he told Alex. “We’ll have you work with others from time to time, just to make it less suspicious. You’ll just have to keep your cover then. It’ll probably be mostly with our other group, white. Is there anyone in that that we should be concerned about finding out about you?” he asked. He was still giving Alex a curious look. Damn. Alex couldn’t help but smile a little at that. “Well, yes and no.” “Cub,” Wolf growled warningly. “Talk straight. I don’t have the patience for this.” “Well, ironically your other ‘students’ are my closest friends. So they aren’t going to be trying to find fault with me out of spite, but they’re more likely to call bullshit if they think something's off.” “So we should be careful around them, but you’re ok for them to work with?” Snake summarized. “Yeah,” Alex said. “Fine. We’ll see you in the morning, Cub.” Wolf said. It was a dismissal if Alex had ever heard one. Alex turned to walk out. “Night, night,” Eagle called grinning wickedly. Alex didn’t even dignify that with a response, just kept walking. “Hey, Cub, wait up! I’ll walk with you. I’ve gotta pick up some stuff,” Fox called, getting up and following Alex out. “Come on,” he said, setting off with Alex walking beside him. After they’d gotten a ways away from the hut, Fox reached out and grabbed Alex’s elbow, pulling him to an abrupt stop. “Why’d you lie and not tell them about your bullet wound?” he demanded abruptly. Mentally, Alex sighed. He’d been half expecting this. “How’d you know, if the others don’t?” he asked, playing for time. Fox rolled his eyes. “Cub, it’s pretty damn hard to hide from MI6 employees when it happened on the doorstep of headquarters. At least four officers directly witnessed it, not to mention security and office personnel. And that place is like a sieve.”
  • 56. “Oh,” Alex said, considering this. “Why didn’t you tell the others?” Fox sighed. “I’m not about to out you without at least talking to you first. And stop trying to change the subject.” Busted. “Look, MI6 didn’t tell them,” Alex said carefully. “And it’s classified, meaning I’m not supposed to talk about it. And it looks like MI6 didn’t actually even tell you.” “Yes they did,” Fox interrupted, “in Bangkok when I was watching over you. Mrs. Jones told me that you had a history with them and that they’d shot you.” Alex shrugged. “So, they probably figure that you know, so there’s no need to tell the others.” “Yes there is Cub,” Fox argued. “I’m not a trained medic, Snake is. This is the information he needs to properly supervise you. What if a complication develops or something?” Alex shrugged. “Then you can tell him then. I’ve been on two assignments since I was shot and I was fine. It’s hardly likely anything new is going to come up now.” Seeing Fox’s unconvinced look, Alex said, “Look, there’s reasons my past with Scorpia is classified. I can’t just go around telling people. And besides,” his face closed down, “it’s personal.” Fox studied his face thoughtfully for a long moment. Then, finally, he nodded. “Alright, I won’t tell them. Yet.” He stressed. “I’m not comfortable with lying to them, and I don’t like Snake not knowing. You need to tell him at least.” “Thanks,” Alex said. “I will, eventually. I just…I can’t talk about it right now.” Fox nodded. “Fine. Now, let’s go. You need to sleep.” They walked along in companionable silence for a bit. Then abruptly Alex turned to Fox. “How much do you know?” Fox frowned. “About what? You? Or this Scorpia thing?” Alex considered. “Both,” he decided. “Well,” Fox said. “Not much. You’re really highly classified, you know that?” He thought for a minute. “I know your basic facts – where you live, how old you are, that you have a housekeeper who looks after you. I know you lived with your uncle, who was a spy, and MI6 brought you in after he was killed…by Gregorovich, wasn’t it?” Alex nodded, hiding a grimace. He didn’t like to think about Yassen. It was too confusing.
  • 57. “I know you’ve been on 7 assignments, vaguely who you investigated each time, and that you were successful. And that’s pretty much it.” “About Scorpia, I know even less. Most of it is just quietly circulating rumours, really. I heard your dad was an agent, possibly the best we’ve ever had, and that he got inside Scorpia. Getting out was messy and they killed him and your mum. Then you did a mission or something with them, and you beat them. So they retaliated with a sniper, but you managed to survive. And of course, I know about Major Yu and the assignment we last worked together on. And now they want to kill you again.” Alex nodded. He wasn’t sure if he was disappointed or relieved. In a way he wished Fox had known the full story. At least someone would know, and he’d know that Fox wouldn’t hate him because of it. On the other hand, he was glad because he trusted, and if he was being honest, admired the man. He wanted to keep Fox on his side, and he didn’t think the man would take too kindly to the fact that he’s turned traitor and tried to kill Mrs. Jones. Before long, they’d arrived near the barracks. Fox turned to him. “Night, Cub.” “Night,” Alex replied, turning to walk into the building. As silently as possible, he opened the door and closed it behind him. He crept the short distance to his bed and stripped off his uniform. He was just slipping into bed when he heard, “Alex? What are you doing?”(iv) Alex looked over to see Nick in the bunk across from him looking at him blearily confused. Quickly, he thought of an excuse. “I had to use the loo.” He lied carefully. “Oh, right,” Nick said yawning. He rolled over and within seconds was back asleep. Alex nearly sighed in relief. He slipped into bed. Hopefully Nick would have forgotten the whole thing by the morning. Closing his eyes, Alex let the blackness take him quickly. The next morning came all too early. Alex was woken up by the sound of the barracks door slamming open. “Rise and shine kiddies! It’s time for fun!” yelled a voice. Alex blearily opened his eyes to an overly enthusiastic Eagle. “Aren’t you just excited to go for a run?” the man asked grinning evilly before he cheerfully and loudly left the building. Alex groaned and rolled out of bed, automatically slipping into his uniform. The other boys around him were doing the same, just more slowly. Some though it seemed had
  • 58. fallen back asleep. Tom was one of them. Alex got up and peered into the top bunk where Tom had fallen back asleep. “Tom!” Alex whispered. Tom just squeezed the pillow tighter around his head and mumbled incoherently. “Tom!” Alex tried again, roughly shaking his friend. This time it worked. Tom cracked an eye opened and moaned irritably, “What?” “Get up!” Alex hissed. “You do not want to be late.” Tom grumbled, but thankfully complied. Alex went back to his preparations stuffing his feet into his boots and lacing them up. Looking around he realized he was by far the first one ready. Not wanting to be overly conspicuous, he sat back on his bed and pretended to adjust his uniform. Finally after what seemed like an eternity to Alex, the first boys were ready to go. He, however, decided to wait for his friends, seeing as that would be the most inconspicuous choice. “Let’s go!” he urged impatiently. “C’mon, hurry up!” Nick looked up blearily from where he was attempting to tie his boots. “Come on, Alex! It’s five f-ing thirty in the morning!” Tom’s intelligible mumble was presumably agreement. Josh, who had just finished, eyed Alex. “Why are you in such a rush anyway?” he asked quizzically. Alex raised a brow. “I’d rather not piss off the big, highly trained SAS members who are going to be running our lives… but that’s just me.” “Point!” Nick conceded, straightening up. “Now, let’s go. I second Alex - no pissing off large, scary men.” The four trooped outside. It was still dark, the sun not even beginning to rise. The only light came from lanterns set up around the central area towards which the mass of school children were stumbling. In the shadowy light cast by the lanterns, Alex made out the figures of the sixteen so- called leaders. K-unit stood in the middle, looking as bad-tempered as they had appeared the day before in front of the teens. It seemed to be their default game face. Wolf in particular was looking pissy. Whatever tired sort of complacency had come over him the night before was gone, and he stood there, arms folded, looking as tough as ever. None of the men spoke, leaving that to the chattering class. They were waiting for the rest of his class to show up, Alex presumed, looking around and noticing not everyone was there yet. He took the time to look over the other men. He hadn't had time to properly do
  • 59. so the day before. He didn't recognize the men standing to the left of K-unit, N-unit he remembered from yesterday, but some of the others looked rather familiar. The well-built man standing at Wolf's shoulder... Tiger, Alex vaguely recalled. He led... D-unit. Then yes, there were the three others: Shark, Cobra, and Lynx. They had been at the camp at the same time as Alex, and had gone on the parachute jump as had the other four men. Alex thought they might be J-unit led by... Cheetah, the thin, wiry man standing near Eagle. Alex was rather impressed that he had remembered them all. He had very little to do with them before, rarely working with anyone besides K-unit. But, he supposed, he had heard others talking to them in the mess and around camp. Not to mention, he always had a good memory - one of the things that made him a good spy. The men's frowns were becoming more and more annoyed as the minutes ticked past. Finally, Wolf turned to Eagle and growled something too low for Alex to hear. Eagle nodded then walked off towards the barracks. As he passed, Alex noticed a glint of wicked amusement in the man's eyes. He immediately felt sorry for those stragglers still getting ready. Minutes later Eagle returned, shepherding the last of Alex's classmates towards the group. They looked frightened as they practically ran towards the others. Alex wondered what Eagle had done – he had a very self-satisfied sort of look. Alex was spitefully pleased to see that Briggs was one of those late. It was childish he knew, but after yesterday he couldn't help but get a twisted sort of satisfaction at knowing the other boy was getting some of what he deserved. Eagle returned to stand with the men and Wolf stepped forward. He was clearly in charge among the leaders (command practically exuded from his persona), which Alex wondered at. K-unit had no more seniority than D or J unit and N-unit looked older. Alex realized that he knew very little about the operational side of K-unit. Wolf waited for the class to quiet down before he began. “That was disgusting!” He yelled, “When you're told to get up, you get your sorry asses out here as fast as humanly possible!” He surveyed the faces in front of him to make sure what he was saying was being properly received. Apparently satisfied by their cowed expressions, he continued on. “Now, you're going to go for a run. Consider it the start of your assessments today. Try you're best – I'm sure that will be pitifully bad enough without you mucking around.” He looked at his watch. “We were going to have you back in time for breakfast, but you can thank your classmates if you're not. Now, move!” The class slowly took off running, led by Wolf. The other leaders spread out through the group, urging on the class. Only Eagle remained at the site.
  • 60. Alex wasn't sure what to do and the class began to leave. Just as he was about to ask, Eagle called out to him and so Alex headed over to him. They waited until the rest of the group had left the area. “You're going to be running a different route with me,” Eagle told Alex, all business. “It's longer and harder, but it shouldn't be a problem for you.” Alex nodded his understanding, and they took off. It was a route that Alex remembered from his earlier days. It twisted up through the forest, over hills, and along a ridge. Alex to his pleasure was able to keep up with Eagle, evenly matching his pace. During his previous training, it was something he had never been able to do, due in large part to his relative shortness. Alex had grown over the 10 months since he had last been there. He was still considerably shorter than Eagle, but the extra few inches gave him all he needed. He was fast and agile, something which had always helped him in his assignments. In his business, being able to move quickly and precisely was more valuable than brawn, though both had their uses. The route was a tiring one, and thirty minutes later, Alex arrived back in camp, sweaty, but pleased. “Not bad, Cub,” Eagle approved as they both stretched Alex gave him a small smile. “Thanks,” he acknowledged. Eagle looked at his watch. “It's only 6:15. The others probably won't be back for a while.” Alex nodded. He looked to Eagle, who just looked back at him. After a pause, Eagle sighed. “Well, I have no idea what to do. We did that run pretty fast, so I guess we have some time to kill.” They stood there for a few more minutes, neither sure what to do. Finally, Eagle took the initiative. “Fancy breakfast?” he asked Alex. “I doubt the others will be back in time, so we'd better not wait for them.” “Sure.” Alex replied shrugging. “Right, um, let's go,” Eagle said awkwardly, and walked off, Alex following.
  • 61. They got to the mess and got their food. There were a few other men in there eating. Alex sat down at an empty table, fully expecting Eagle to go sit with the others. To his surprise, the man set down his tray across from him. An uncomfortable silence descended on the table as they began eating. Alex wasn't sure what to say, or even if he should say anything. Being around any of the SAS men was uncomfortable, except for maybe Fox. He just didn't know where he stood with them, and it made him rather... anxious. Snake and Eagle were the worst. Wolf, well, Wolf had never liked him. They'd come to some sort of agreement, a truce of sorts. Alex wasn't expecting much from that direction. But Snake and Eagle... at times they seemed almost friendly and nice. But that was strictly juxtaposed with how they'd treated him at camp: cold, harsh, and hostile. And then there were the times like now, where they'd ignore him completely. Except that Eagle had sat with him, which seemed like a kind thing to do. It was like Alex kept catching glimpses of their off-duty personalities when they were just being normal. It was unbalancing to say the least. Alex watched Eagle covertly as they ate. Eagle seemed to not care at all for the breakfast and kept making faces at it, which Alex had to hide a smile at. Alex finished eating and stood, moving to take his dishes to the kitchen staff. Eagle followed. After he'd dropped off his stuff, Alex looked to Eagle. The man jerked his head in the direction of the door and Alex followed him out. Eagle looked around and sighed, then leaned back against the building. “We have to wait for the others,” he told Alex. Alex nodded. “What are you going to have us do?” He asked after a pause. Eagle shrugged. “Us instructors are going to be assessing your classmates to see where they stand, ability-wise. You're getting assessed too, but in different things.” Alex nodded, considering. Eventually the first members of his class came into view. They looked tired and worn. Tom and Nick were both in the first group, which made sense because they were both in training for football. More of the class appeared, along with the SAS leaders. The students gathered in the clearing in front of where Alex and Eagle were standing. Each group of incoming runners looked more and more tired than the group before. Finally the last few appeared, herded along by Fox. These were the really out of shape kids. They were gasping for air by the time they came to a halt. Alex felt rather bad for them – they were done for and the real fun hadn't even begun. Alex watched as Wolf ordered them to meet up with their instructors. It looked like the others would be missing breakfast after all.
  • 62. Alex followed Eagle to the rest of K-unit. Alex gave his friends a half-smile. Tom raised his brows, asking how it went. Alex shrugged, silently indicating it was all right. “You lot,” Wolf directed gruffly, indicating Alex's friends, “Are going with these men.” He indicated the rest of K-unit. “Rider, you're coming with me.” Inwardly, Alex groaned. Wonderful. More time with Wolf. “First tests are endurance and fitness-based.” He nodded at his team-mates who led the others off. He then turned to Alex. “Cub,” he said, and turned, motioning Alex to follow. Wolf brought Alex to a clearing that had ample space, but was screened from view. “Right,” Wolf said as preliminary. He then ordered Alex to run. He directed Alex through seemingly endless sets of jogging, sprints, push-ups, crunches, and other exercises. Alex was silently thanking his football coach for all the endurance they had done. It had helped him maintain his fitness since his last 'adventure'. Wolf kept him moving, alternating intensities and durations. After nearly an hour and a half of this, Alex started to tire. It just kept going on and on. He winced as Wolf shouted him into another round of push- ups. His chest was beginning to ache from the strain. The bullet wound was twinging painfully, and Alex's arms hurt bad. But he set his face and grimly continued on. He was not going to give in so easily. Wolf ordered him back to running. Alex's legs were burning and his breath was coming in gasps. But he pushed himself. He was not going to give Wolf the satisfaction of stopping. Wolf called for him to switch to crunches. He dropped and started. Each one got harder, his abdominals screaming their complaints. He stubbornly kept on, but he was losing ground. Each one was slower than the last and Alex didn't know how long he could keep going. He body was begging him to stop, to end it. Finally he couldn't do it any more. He fell back on the ground hard, gasping. He couldn't sit up. He fully expected Wolf to be on him screaming for him to get up, but to his surprise the man was just standing there watching him with an impassive look on his face, like he'd been expecting this. Alex suddenly realized that that was probably the whole point to the exercise – to see how long he could go. Wolf walked to where Alex was lying and offered him a hand. Alex, surprised, stared at it for a moment before taking it. Wolf hauled him to his feet. “Walk so your muscles don't seize up,” he advised gruffly(v). Alex looked at him, again surprised, and for a brief second their eyes met and locked. Alex read grudging respect and maybe even a little concern. Then Wolf stepped back, and the moment broke. His eyes returned to their default unreadable state, and Alex almost wondered if he had
  • 63. imagined it. Still, he took Wolf's advice, walking around the area. He winced as his muscles complained quite vocally. He was going to be so sore the next morning. Wolf nodded to Alex. “Come on,” he said, turning and walking off. Alex followed and they wound up at the firing range. Seeing this, Alex began to get a bit nervous. He had a bad feeling about this. “You were pulled out of weapons training last time,” Wolf said. “Have you had any experience with firearms?” Alex thought about this. He really didn't feel like sharing that Scorpia had trained him, but if he lied and said no, it would become apparent very quickly when he started shooting. “Some,” he said cautiously. Wolf gave him a piercing look. He slowly nodded and said, “Right.” He held out to Alex a handgun. “Strip it down and reassemble it,” he ordered, nodding at the weapon. Alex knelt on the ground and disassembled the gun. Though he had practice doing it extremely quickly, Alex kept himself to a moderate pace, double checking everything he did. He hadn't done anything of the sort in a while, and now was not the time to make mistakes. He didn't fumble much at all though. It was not something he was likely to ever forget. Within minutes he had had taken the gun apart and put it back together. He stood and looked at Wolf for further instructions. Wolf was giving him a piercing look. “Some experience?” he asked wryly. Alex just shrugged. He wasn't going to make apologies. “Right,” Wolf said, looking at him thoughtfully. “Here,” He handed Alex a clip of ammunition. “Fire one round at that target,” he instructed, “and the other at that one.” He pointed at a target farther away. Alex thought briefly about pretending to be a novice at shooting, but decided against it. It was a skill that could save his life one day, and it'd be stupid not to take advantage of the extra training. Besides, he wasn't sure how convincing an act he could pull off being a novice. He had a knack for it, from the beginning anyway. Instead, he just nodded and moved to the starting point. As he inserted the ammunition into the gun, he heard voices come around the corner. It was Snake and Eagle. Bloody brilliant. More people to watch this. He had a distinctive feeling that after Wolf saw what he could do, all hell would break loose.
  • 64. “Fox's busy with the others, so we thought we'd come see how Cub's doing with shooting practice,” Eagle said grinning. Wolf grunted in reply and then nodded. “Go ahead.” He commanded Alex. Alex sighed. Here we go, he thought. It was eerily similar to his training with Scorpia, having others stand around watching him fire. He felt the unease rise up, but quickly pushed it away. He needed to focus for this to work. He disengaged the safety and took a breath to calm himself. He and the gun were one. Alex raised the gun and without even seeming to aim, emptied the round into the first target. Not even pausing he discarded that clip, reloaded and brought the gun up to fire at the second target. As he ran out of ammunition, he slowly lowered the gun to his side and turned to face the others. They were looking at him with a mixture of shock and disbelief. “Shit,” Eagle said finally. “That was... ” he trailed off into silence. “Some experience?” Wolf asked Alex, with more than a little sarcasm. As before, Alex just shrugged. “Did you see that? He didn't aim at all and he… he didn't even have a laser guide or… or anything. He just... ” It seemed that Eagle was in too much shock to form complete thoughts. “Where the hell did you learn to shoot like that?” Wolf growled. “It sure as hell wasn't MI6, it said so in your file.” Alex shrugged for the umpteenth time. Seeing Wolf's face darken at this, he decided he'd better say something. “I was taught by... some people.” “Who?” Eagle demanded. Alex shuffled a little. Should he tell them? “Cub,” Wolf growled dangerously. “It's classified,” he said, irritated. “What?” Wolf snapped. “Who trained me is classified information,” Alex said more clearly.
  • 65. Seeing Wolf opening his mouth, no doubt to ask more questions, he decided to end it. “Look, I can't talk about it. It's classified.” Seeing Eagle's mutinous glare, he continued, “There are reasons why it's classified.” And even more reasons why I won't tell you, Alex silently added. Wolf sighed. He glared at Alex in frustration. Then he nodded. “Fine,” Eagle opened his mouth, likely to protest, but Wolf shot him a glare that quickly silenced him. Alex was a little surprised at how easy Wolf caved. But it really wasn't that outrageous, he supposed. Wolf was a stickler for the rules, and breaking the Official Secrets Act was certainly breaking the rules. “So,” Alex said. “Safe to say you can shoot?” Snake asked. Alex nodded. “I.. they only really taught me instinctive firing. I wasn't there for that long... ” Wolf nodded. “Right.” His voice was a little strained. “What can you shoot with?” “Well, hand guns, and sniper rifles. They... I've fired pretty much everything, but I didn't really train on anything else.” They stared at him. “What exactly were they training you for?” Eagle asked, brows raised. Alex just folded his arms and stared back at them stubbornly. He was not going to tell them anything more. “Is that classified too?” Wolf added, tone slightly sarcastic. Alex just nodded. “I think maybe that's enough weapons practice for today,” Snake said. Wolf nodded. He was still staring at Alex. “Right, well, Cub, you go with Eagle and Snake.” He walked off. Alex turned to Eagle and Snake. They set off motioning him to follow. They led him to the assault course, where Fox was sending his friends through. Alex couldn't help but glare at the glorified obstacle course. It had made his life hell for the weeks he was there before.
  • 66. Snake turned to Alex. “They should be done soon, then we'll have you go.” Alex nodded his understanding, and turned to watch his friends. They weren't doing that poorly, considering. Tom and Nick were both nearly as athletic as Alex had been, pre-MI6. Emma and Josh weren't too bad, but it was definitely hard for them. They were doing pretty well working together, Alex supposed, as they had no training, but that was to be expected – they were close friends after all. They just weren't used to this sort of thing, the extreme physical demands placed on them or the pressure of Fox bullying them through. Alex winced as he watched them struggle to scale a wall, swing down to the ground, and crawl through a series of nets. Finally, they emerged on the other side, covered in mud and weary. Alex saw Fox talk to them briefly, then send them off at a tired jog towards Alex and the others, following behind. “Right, you lot are going with these two,” Fox said indicating Snake and Eagle. “Rider, you and I are going to stay and have some fun.” As Nick moved past him, he made eye contact. “Good luck mate,” he said, clearly sympathetic, although whether it was about Alex being left to Fox, or to the assault course was unclear. Tom muttered, “I can't believe you do this all the time,” as he passed. Alex's lips quirked at that, if only he knew... Fox waited until the others were out of sight before nodding to him. “What did you do to them?” Alex asked, nodding in the direction his friends had gone. Fox just grinned. “You ready to reacquaint yourself with our dear old friend?” he asked. Alex nodded, moving to the start. “What was your final time, last time you were here?” Fox called. “17 minutes.” Alex replied. Fox nodded. “Let's see if all those MI6 assignments paid off,” he said, producing a stop watch. Alex nodded and prepared himself, waiting for Fox's signal. “Stand by, stand by, GO!” Fox yelled. (vi)
  • 67. Alex took off running. He leapt over a series of ropes, then climbed a net. Going as fast as possible, he ducked, shimmied, jumped, climbed, crawled, and ran through the rest of the course. He arrived at the other end where Fox was waiting out of breath. Alex walked around, cooling down. Quickly his breathing returned to normal and his heart rate slowed. “16:55,” Fox read off the stopwatch. “Did you ever cut it close!” Alex shrugged. “I try,” he retorted. “Seriously though, that was good, especially since you haven't done it in quite a while. You seemed to have some trouble on that wall,” Fox observed. Alex made a face. “We never got on,” he muttered. Fox, catching it, grinned. “Oh don't worry,” he said wickedly. “You'll have plenty more opportunities to get better acquainted with her.” “Wonderful,” Alex said unenthusiastically. “Careful now,” Fox teased. “No backtalk or I'll have to put you on KP(vii).” Alex just looked at him. Fox laughed and looked at his watch. “It's nearly time for lunch. You might as well head over there now.” Alex looked at him, brow raised. “Lunch?” he asked. There had been no 'lunch' during his previous sojourn with the SAS: there was breakfast and there was dinner, when they were out on some kind of exercise. If you were lucky there was some mid-day food comprised of rations in the field. “Yeah,” Fox said. “Apparently since you're kids we have to feed you semi-regularly.” Alex nodded. “I trust you know the way?” Fox teased. Alex just rolled his eyes and set off toward the mess.
  • 68. ~Close Protection, of a Sort~ Chapter Six: The End of a Day Alex walked into the mess. Going inside, he saw he was one of the last of his classmates to arrive. Only one or two of the student groups hadn't come in yet. Alex got into line to be served, then went and sat with his friends. They looked exhausted, Alex saw, as he set down his tray and slid in next to Emma. She looked up at him and gave him a tired smile. "How'd it go?" she asked. Alex shrugged. "Alright." He quickly directed the conversation away from himself. "What did you guys do?" "Well, they really tested our fitness. A lot. They made us run drills for forever." She made a face. "I hate endurance stuff. Then they had us do the assault course." "That thing is suicidal!" Nick said fervently. "How the hell are you supposed to go that fast?" "That man, Fox, said that the SAS men do it everyday, sometimes run it continuously," Josh put in. "Well, I hope they don't make us do that," Tom grumbled. He looked over at Alex. "I don't know how anyone could do it." Alex gave him a small smile, understanding the hidden subtext. "Lots of practice I'd guess," he put in, subtly answering Tom. Tom raised a brow, and Alex gave a small shrug in reply. "So, what did you do, Alex?" Josh asked. Alex shrugged. “Same kind of stuff as you. They said it was just easier.” Josh frowned. “They had you run the assault course, when they're so worried about you?” he asked, a tad bit incredulous. Alex rapidly calculated his response. “Nah,” he said. “They just had me look at it. Said that if they think I'm doing ok in a few days they'll 'let' me do it.” “Act weak,” Nick advised. “Then you won't actually have to do anything.” He grinned. “You can just laze while the rest of us collapse from exhaustion.”
  • 69. Alex sighed. “Yeah, but then I'll go insane from boredom. I'm not that weak. I'm practically fine now, but they treat me like I'm dying.” “Aww, poor Alex,” Emma teased. “He's bored.” Alex rolled his eyes as the others laughed. “You try being treated like an invalid. I've actually been one for quite long enough, thanks. Besides, our 'leaders' are not too happy at having to cater to my 'illness'.” Tom clapped him on the shoulder, as he rose to take care of his tray. “Well, I'm sure if you do well enough, they'll let you try harder stuff,” he said, with an ever so light layer of sarcasm. Alex grinned at him. “Wonderful,” he replied, equally sarcastic. After lunch, the SAS men directed the teenagers outside to round them up for their next exercise. Alex and his friends went over to where K-unit was conversing. The men continued their whispered conversation for a moment, before turning to face their charges. Wolf stepped forward, the others flanking him. Alex couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at the presentation. It looked like something out of a bad American western movie. It seemed he wasn't the only one having similar thoughts as Nick nudged him and Tom, muttering, ”Nice posse.” Alex bit back a snort and saw Tom bite his lip. It really did look like one... Wolf scowled at the three of them, and Alex just sent him his best innocent face. With a last glare Wolf turned to address them all. “You lot are going with Snake and Eagle,” he said, gesturing to Alex friends. “Rider, stay here.” Snake led the other four away as Alex turned to Wolf for his instructions. Wolf however nodded to Fox, and left. Fox turned to Alex. “You all are doing survival and medical training now,” he told Alex quietly, as there were still others around. “Unless there's some reason why you can't, now would be a good time to go with the others.” Alex shrugged. “It's fine.”
  • 70. Fox nodded. “Right, well they're going to the clearing down by the river...I'd better take you though.” Alex looked at him questioningly. “Well, you wouldn't know your way around, would you?” the man reasoned. Alex nodded, and followed him mutely. “So,” Fox said, turning to talk over his shoulder as they walked. “I hear you gave the others a bit of a surprise at the ranges today.” Alex shrugged noncommittally. What did Fox want? “You don't seem too bothered,” he observed. Fox shrugged. “Can't say I am. People have a habit of picking things up in this business.” They walked on in silence for a moment. “Aren't you going to ask me how I learned?” Alex asked, curious. Fox shrugged. “Why bother? If you were going to tell me, you would have already.” He sighed. “I know you didn't learn it here, and I'm fairly certain it wasn't MI6's doing, which means it was from a more questionable source.” Alex tensed, but was rather confused. Fox didn't even seem to care... Fox sighed again. “Look, doing the job we do, there's a lot of questionable stuff we get involved in. That's just the way it is. And unless it becomes a problem, there's no reason for me to know.” Alex nodded. Fox really was a reasonable guy. Fox dropped Alex off at the clearing as Snake was just beginning. Snake acknowledged him with a nod and a neutral “Rider.” Alex returned the nod, and went to stand with his friends. Snake went back to addressing the group. “Right, Eagle and I are going to be assessing your survival and medical skills today. You have a series of tasks you need to complete as a group. We'll be watching you and assessing what we'll need to cover in subsequent sessions.” He turned towards his comrade. “Eagle?” he prompted. The other man stepped forward, holding a Bergen. “Right, this is your kit.” He indicated the bag. “You can use whatever's in here to help with the tasks.” He handed the bag to
  • 71. Tom, who happened to be standing closest to him. “So, the first thing you need to do is build and successfully light a fire.” They waited expectantly for further instructions. He stared back at them blankly. As no one moved, he raised his brows. “Well? Go!” he commanded. At this they started, and moved off a few paces to huddle as a group as the two men melted into the brush. “Right, so, fire,” Nick said. “Who knows how to build a fire?” “I think maybe my dad's said some stuff when we've gone camping,” Emma said with a frown. “But it's always my brother's job, so I never really pay attention...” Alex was torn for a moment. How much should he reveal he knew? Obviously they couldn't find out the true breadth of his knowledge, but should he pretend to be a complete novice? That seemed like an unnecessary over complication. Ian had always said that the best lies were the simplest ones. And surely there were ways some kids learned basic survival skills, so it wasn't that far fetched for him to have a bit of rudimentary knowledge. His friends could really use the help. So he'd pretend to have some skills. Now he just needed an excuse...what would be an explanation his friends would believe? In the end, it was Tom who provided the explanation for him. As if sensing Alex's indecision, he spoke up. “Hey, Alex – didn't you go to that wilderness survival camp that one time?” he asked, sending Alex a pleading look, practically begging him to help them out. Well, there was a perfect excuse. “Yeah, that one summer,” he agreed. He frowned as if trying to remember. “We need to…gather some wood, as dry as possible. You start with little twigs and stuff as kindling, then you need some sticks and then a few logs. Oh, and pine needles are good kindling too…I think,” he said, adding a hint of uncertainty into his voice at the end. The others nodded, but no one moved, waiting for the others to go first. Finally Nick raised a brow. “So...shall we scavenge?” The others grinned and nodded moving off into the nearby woods. “Let's stick together,” Josh advised. “Less chance of anyone getting lost.” They agreed, and began looking for wood. Tom stayed next to Alex and bent down next to him to pick up a stick. “Sorry about putting you on the spot like that,” he whispered, “but without you, we'd have been completely screwed.”
  • 72. Alex gave him a small smile. “It's fine,” he whispered back reassuringly. “And for the record, that was a nice excuse, on the spot like that.” “Really?” Tom asked, loving the compliment. “Really,” Alex confirmed. Tom grinned and got up to look around more. “I've found a ton of good kindling stuff,” Emma called after a bit. “Drop it off in the middle of the clearing,” Alex advised her. She complied and they all returned to searching. After a short while, they had collected quite a decent-sized pile of wood. Mercifully, it hadn't rained yet that day, so the wood was relatively dry. “That's probably good, don't you think?” Nick asked Alex. Alex nodded, inwardly cringing at how they were starting to defer to him. He'd hoped to stay low profile. “So,” Nick said leadingly as they stood around the pile. “What now?” Emma turned to grin at Josh. “I'm surprised you don't know everything about this,” she teased. “Usually, you're like a walking, talking encyclopedia.” He shrugged, blushing faintly. “I've read about it,” he admitted, “but someone who's actually done it is going to be loads better.” He nodded at Alex. “Well, what do you remember?” Alex asked, trying to shift some of the spotlight onto the other boy. “It's been a while since I've done it, and maybe it'll help me remember more.” “Ok, well, I remember you don't want to suffocate the fire, so you don't want to just make a big pile. You have to let oxygen get to the bottom...” He bit his lip in thought. “You want to start slow with kindling and smaller pieces of wood, lighting the kindling first, then gradually build up to the other stuff. Right?” Alex nodded, fairly impressed his friend remember all of that just from reading, but then again, that was Josh. “Yeah, that's pretty much what I remember,” he affirmed. “So, let's do this.” He knelt down and began to construct the fire. Since it'd been a while since he had built one, and also since he was trying to maintain the illusion he'd learnt it a long time ago, he worked slowly, acting like he was really thinking about each step. He deliberately did a few things less than perfect, so that combined with his genuine mistakes from being out
  • 73. of practice, insured that it wouldn't be a suspiciously stellar fire. Still Alex was fairly sure it would light ok. As he worked, he talked out loud as if thinking it through. This helped his cover, but really he was doing it so his friends could start picking up on what to do. He knew from experience the SAS was not particularly patient or repetitive, and he wanted to help his friends out by giving them a head start. He made sure though to ask Josh for confirmation a few time, thus transferring some of his authority. Being a leader would put too much attention on him, and he'd be much more likely to slip up. Finally a few minutes later, the basic fire structure had been constructed.. “So know we need to light it,” Alex said. The five teens looked at each other blankly. Nick groaned. “If we have to rub sticks together, I swear I will find the nearest cliff and jump off it,” he moaned. Alex agreed with the sentiment, but couldn't help but comment, “You know, just shooting yourself would be so much easier. There's got to be guns all over the camp, what with the SAS running the place.” Nick shook his head. “Far less dramatic,” he said in a long-suffering tone. “You people just fail to appreciate drama!” he exclaimed. “Well, obviously,” Emma replied. “Why do you think I'm friends with mostly boys?” Josh rolled his eyes. “I don't think there's cause for suicidal jumps quite yet. We should check the bag to see if there's anything helpful in it before locating the nearest cliff.” “Lead on, fair friend!” Nick exclaimed in a Shakespearean voice. “You see, that there was the beauty of drama!” Josh just gave a sigh that truly was long-suffering, walking over to take over to take the Bergen from Tom. Putting it on the ground, he began to pull things out. Alex and Tom bent down to help as well, while Emma and Nick resumed their conversation on drama. The bag contained quite a lot of stuff: rope, a lightweight tarp, a compass, a flashlight, a pocket knife (which Alex raised his eyebrows at, surprised they'd give one to a group of kids), glucose and water purification tablets, and finally... “Matches!” Josh exclaimed as pulled it out of the bag.
  • 74. Alex grinned. He'd been starting to worry that Snake and Eagle had been feeling particularly sadistic and hadn't given them anything to use. “Oi! Slackers!” Tom called to Nick and Emma as Alex and Josh moved towards the prepared firewood. “We found it – Remember, we were trying to accomplish something?” Nick and Emma stopped and turned to look at them, Emma giving a sheepish grin. “Sorry, got a bit carried away there with the whole girls and drama issue.” Nick just tried to look innocent. Needless to say, it failed miserably. Josh handed Alex the matches, saying, “You do the honors.” Alex bent down and tried to light the pine needles. It caught on the second match. Gently he blew on it, carefully trying to add a few small sticks. It was a tentative business, very touch and go, and for a minute Alex thought they were going to lose it completely, but it managed to pull through and soon they had a crackling blaze. They congratulated each other, then stood and watched it for a few seconds, before Nick said cheerfully, “Well...what now?” As if hearing his words (and they probably were listening in), Eagle and Snake materialized, Eagle carrying a bucket of water. “Not bad,” Eagle commented, before dousing the fire with water. Nick gave an affronted squeak. “What?” Eagle asked, turning to him grinning evilly. “You want to start a forest fire?” Nick shook his head, intimidated by the SAS man. “Thought so,” Eagle said. “Now, the next task is to construct a shelter.” Alex frowned. “What kind of shelter?” he asked. Eagle shrugged, grinning broadly, deliberately unhelpful. “Any type,” he replied vaguely, before he and Snake once again disappeared. Alex sighed in frustration. “So helpful,” he muttered. Tom caught it and grinned. “So,” Emma began. “What do we do?” she asked, looking expectantly between Alex and Josh. “Well, there're loads of different kinds of shelters, some easier and faster than others,” Alex replied, looking at Josh.
  • 75. Josh nodded slowly. “Well, we have that tarp...” “And the rope,” Alex reminded him, an idea forming in his mind. Josh nodded, catching on. “It would be the easiest.” “And the fastest,” Alex agreed. “Right. Let's do it,” Josh decided. “What are we doing?” Nick stage-whispered to Emma and Tom. Emma shrugged. “I don't know, but the whole Danny and Rusty (i) thing is kinda freaking me out...though it was pretty awesome...” Alex decided this would be a good moment to explain. “We're building a shelter, a really easy one,” he clarified. “Riiiiiiiiight,” Nick drawled. “So what do we do?” Tom asked, ever-focused. “We need rocks,” Josh said. “Not really big ones, just ones heavy enough to hold down a tarp,” Alex added. Tom, Emma, and Nick went to go look (though in Nick's case there was a lot more fooling around than actual looking going on). Meanwhile, Alex and Josh were busy constructing the shelter. Taking the rope, they stretched it between two trees that were fairly close together, tying it securely. They then took the tarp and pulled it over the rope. Just as they finished that, the others returned laden with rocks. “We come bearing gifts!” Nick exclaimed, humming the tune of 'We Three Kings'. Alex raised a brow, looking at him funny. “You are strange,” he commented.(ii) Nick grinned. “And that's why you love me.” “Where do you want these?” Tom interrupted, nodding at the stones he and Emma were carrying. “Oh, just divide them into two piles on either side,” Alex told him distractedly, still giving Nick strange looks. Shaking his head, Alex moved to help Josh stretch the tarp to the ground at an angle. “Now pile the stones on the bottom all along...that's it,” he
  • 76. instructed Tom and Emma. They moved to the other side and did the same, then stepped back to admire their work. “Alright, two for two!” Nick exclaimed. “No thanks to you,” Tom laughed. “Ah, but without me, this would be so much more boring,” Nick replied. Shortly after, their two instructors re-emerged, giving the shelter a pass and detailing the next task. The exercise continued with Snake and Eagle setting a task, and 'Grey Group' (as they had taken to calling themselves, a mix between Alex's title of Black Group and the other four's White Group) completing it, with a little prompting from Alex. The tasks varied greatly, ranging from demonstrating survival skills to basic medical know-how. Alex thought it went surprisingly well, considering he was the only one with any real experience, and he was holding back. But as Nick said at one point, they worked well together as a group. “We all have our roles,” he explained. Alex decided he would bite. “Which are?” he asked, interested despite himself. “Well, Josh here is the idea person, who has lots of book knowledge and cranial capacity. You, Alex, add the practical know-how and problem solving skills, and provide some direction. Tom is the supply man, and the general laborer. And I provide personality and charm, and keep things interesting,” Nick said sagely, with a surprising degree of insight “What about me?” Emma asked, knowing he wanted her to. “You, my dear, are here so we don't get sued for gender discrimination,” Nick said, grinning. Justifiably outraged, Emma smacked him upside the head. As things progressed, the others began to defer more and more to Alex, certainly more than he would've liked. But, he supposed, it was inevitable to a certain degree. He and Josh were the only two who had any idea what to do for most of it, and out of the two of them, Alex was clearly the leader.
  • 77. There were however a few surprises in talent. Emma had a pretty good understanding of medical matters (she later admitted she was a medical show junkie) and most surprisingly, Nick turned out to be amazing at navigating via map and compass. “My grandfather is an orienteering nut, and he taught me the beautiful 'art' as soon as I could walk,” he explained. “I've been doing it literally since I was born.” That's not to say there were no mishaps. While most things Alex could nudge in the right direction, some knowledge would just be too difficult to explain away. Such a case occurred during an evasion task: they were told to get from RV A to RV B, while doing their best to avoid enemy recce. Once Alex had translated this for them, claiming a working knowledge of Bravo Two Zero,(iii) they had set off, following Emma's good suggestion of sticking to the cover of woodland – a technique picked up from her copious movie watching marathons. However while following a ridge, they missed the whole concept of making themselves less easy to spot, erroneously walking smack on top of the ridge and close together, creating a dense silhouette easily seen by any hostiles that happened to be watching the area. Alex was forced to just go along with it, as it would have been difficult to explain his extensive knowledge on evading enemy surveillance. His explanation for knowing SAS lingo had been a flimsy enough excuse, albeit a necessary one. On the whole though, Alex thought they did quite well. He was proud of his friends for working together and pulling through, though this course just reaffirmed more than ever that he was far from an ordinary teen. At the end, Snake and Eagle gave them a brief critique of their performance. Though they refrained from really complimenting the group, Alex could tell they were rather impressed that the teenagers had managed it. Eagle, he knew, was particularly impressed with how Alex had handled the situation, seen from the grins he was giving him. As Snake and Eagle were finishing up, Wolf and Fox turned up. Fox led the other four off to 'have some fun', while Alex was told to stay. As the others left, Eagle turned to clap Alex on the shoulder. “Well done, Cub,” he said. “You didn't slip on your cover at all.” Snake rolled his eyes. “Eagle, he works for MI6. It'd be sad if he slipped up that easy.” “Yeah, but still,” Eagle argued. “It's hard to not to mess up around your friends.” He grinned suddenly. “And can I just say, Cub, that you have some very interesting friends.” “Tell me about it,” Alex groaned.
  • 78. “That Nick kid in particular. A guy after my own heart,” he said mock-dramatically, clasping his hand over his heart. “You don't have a heart,” Wolf said grouchily, ignoring Eagle’s mock indignation, instead turning to look at Alex levelly for a moment. “Go report to the Killing House for combat assessment. We'll meet you there, in Red one three,” he ordered. Alex nodded and left. As the building loomed before him, Alex couldn't help but feel a vague sense of unease. His previous experience with the Killing House had been less than pleasant, to say the least. This is where Wolf had tripped him, in an attempt to get Alex binned. Seeing the building again, there was something quite foreboding about it. Alex entered the building and went to the room Wolf had directed. In the SAS, a building's sides were coded based on color. Red 1-3 told him to go to the front of the building, the 1 indicated the first floor, and the 3 told him which room. Alex stood in the room waiting for Wolf. He looked around, getting a little impatient as the moments ticked by. He went to a window and looked out at the ground. Where were they? Suddenly he saw the shadows on the wall next to him moving. He heard the rush of air of the blow coming towards him and without even thinking, he stepped aside and swung around to face his attacker, immediately driving a fist towards their stomach. It was blocked, as if the person had been expecting him to do just that. Alex looked up at the person and to his surprise found Wolf staring back at him. Wolf, not giving him time to recover, quickly attacked again, driving a punch toward Alex's chest, following with one to his stomach. Alex automatically twisted away from the first and blocked the second, but his mind was struggling to come to terms with this new development. What the hell was Wolf doing? Randomly attacking was low for even him...He couldn't still be holding a grudge... Wolf was closing in on him, the punches coming faster. Distracted as he was, Alex narrowly escaped one to his shoulder. However, Wolf still managed to clip him in the arm and Alex winced in pain. Finally giving up any pretense of understanding, Alex shouted, “What the fuck?!” Wolf didn't even pause, merely grunting, “Combat assessment,” before directing a kick at Alex's thigh. Alex dodged the kick. So this was another test?
  • 79. Alex aimed a roundhouse kick at Wolf. It landed, but Wolf didn't even flinch, merely bringing his fist around towards Alex's ribs. Alex darted out of the way, but wasn't quite fast enough to completely miss the following strike, though he was able to twist away so it hit his shoulder instead of his neck. Wincing, he was thankful that neither of them was hitting very hard, this being practice. Wolf especially was holding back, otherwise, the blow would have hurt a lot worse. He aimed a kick at Wolf, dodging the following jab. Wolf swore as the kick connected and returned to attacking Alex with multiple punches, coming in fast and hard. Alex was occupied dodging the blows, when a punch came towards his ribs from the opposite direction. Not seeing it until too late, Alex managed to twist at the last second, narrowly missing the hit, but bringing himself right into Wolf's fist. He winced as it made contact with his side, hissing in pain and backing up to give him a few seconds to recover and assess this new development. Snake had seemingly been the owner of the punch. That was all he had time to see before they were on him, Wolf attacking with a hard punch towards his ribcage. Alex dodged that, feeling a slight prickling of unease. He was fighting two larger, better-trained men. He saw Snake's foot coming towards him in a leg sweep, but was unable to counter it, occupied as he was blocking Wolf's jab. He felt his legs being swept from under him, and knowing that he was going down, immediately released Wolf's arm, allowing him to drop and roll, surging back up to deliver a back kick. He heard an expletive as his foot made contact with something soft, probably a stomach. Quickly, he followed it with a reverse knife-strike, aiming for the head he knew was likely to be leaning forward. He was not disappointed as he heard an even worse curse as his hand hit flesh. He whirled around, bringing his hands up to guard against the inevitable blows. He wasn't disappointed. While Wolf was still recovering, Snake was quick to move in to attack him. Alex barely avoided Snake's onslaught. The man was much faster than Wolf, but at least he didn't hit quite as hard. He struck out with his fist, but Snake reached out and grabbed it, effectively stopping the blow. Not wanting to give Snake the opportunity to throw him, Alex quickly lashed out with his foot at the man's knee, causing him to stumble and loosen his grip, where Alex was able to twist away.
  • 80. Wolf had recovered, coming into attack Alex anew. He directed a kick towards Alex's stomach, which Alex was able to dodge. Alex retaliated and then drove his elbow towards Snake in the same motion. Snake countered and attacked Alex fast and hard, bearing down on him. Alex failed to see Snake's punch coming towards his stomach. It hit him full force, causing him to double over in pain. From there, it was easy for Wolf to throw him to the ground. He hit the ground hard on his back. Vulnerably lying there looking up, he saw the hard- faced men closing in on him. A dull sort of terror gathered in the pit of his stomach. Suddenly he saw not the two men of K-unit, but rather the twisted face of Conrad leering down at him. He felt the panic of being seconds from death on the conveyor belt. Blindly he lashed out, desperate to escape. He heard a cry and again he was looking up at Wolf. Snake had stumbled backwards and was clutching his stomach, apparently the one Alex had hit. Barely pausing to register this, Alex took the opportunity to surge to his feet. He backed away shakily. What the hell just happened? Snake recovered quickly, and the two were on him once more. The fast dance of hits, blocks, and twists continued, Alex attempting to hold his own, though outmatched. He was constantly kept twisting, turning, dodging blow after blow. Suddenly a kick hit him from behind. He spun and lashed out with his elbow, hitting Eagle. Quickly, he reverse knife handed Snake and back round-housed Wolf. All three men were on him momentarily, dealing out blow after blow. Alex swore as he dodged them. The fight was now three against one, and the odds were severely against him. He twisted away from a punch from Wolf, instead getting caught in the face by a right hook from Snake. The force of the blow snapped his head around. Alex looked up and saw Sunthorn's freakish face. He was in the Muay Thai ring. The crowd's jeers were a dull roar in his ears. Alex dodged the Thai man's dangerously quick attack, desperately defending himself. A blow to his shoulder snapped him back into the present. K-unit was bearing down on him. It had happened again! What the fuck was happening to him? The three men attacked quickly, and cohesively. Alex was barely avoiding the blows.
  • 81. He felt fear rise up, threatening to overwhelm him. He never lost control. No matter what, he always kept his head. It was how he survived. Now… Wolf swung a punch towards his shoulder, while Eagle lashed out with a kick. Alex blocked and twisted. Forcefully, he pushed the panic down. He needed to concentrate on the fight, if he had any chance of holding his own. He maneuvered himself so his back was to the wall, trying to secure as much cover as he could get. Snake kicked out and Alex blocked, striking out at him, and then twisting to hit Eagle, following through with a kick at Wolf. Wolf dodged, instead lashing out at Alex. The blows rained down faster and faster. Alex was barely keeping up with them. Just as soon as he was able to beat back one man, the other two were on him. The edge of a hand scythed down, hitting Alex. He saw Nile, closing in to make the kill. Panicking, he struck out in a brutal uppercut, desperate to protect himself. There was a yelp as his hand made contact. Alex saw Wolf in front of him clutching his chin. Snake and Eagle attacked him. Alex, breathing hard, narrowly avoiding the blows and returned them, the lingering terror causing him to lash out with more force. The men countered, unconsciously hitting harder in response to Alex's more brutal hits. Alex meanwhile, was struggling to get a hold on himself. He couldn't focus, couldn't stay in control of his mind. The panic was there again, stronger and more insistent. Snake threw a fist towards his head, missing by less than an inch. Alex kicked out at him, while trying to block a strike from Eagle. A fist slammed into Alex's cheek, but in his adrenaline-fueled state, it barely even registered. Instead, he just delivered a vicious kick to Wolf's ribs. He was being slowly, but surely driven back, becoming more and more desperate with every inch of ground lost. Finally, they forced him into a corner. Alex felt his back brush the walls. He was trapped. They closed in on him. He struggled to overcome his panic and find a way out of the situation, but his mind refused to cooperate. He couldn't breath. Panic overwhelmed him. He didn't know what was happening to him. Kaspar's ghastly face loomed in front of him, hatred in his eyes, inches from Alex's face. He felt the hands on his neck, the dizziness, the approaching unconsciousness.
  • 82. Blindly, driven by real terror, Alex lashed out brutally, driving the side of his hand towards Kaspar's windpipe. His hand hit something and there was a cry. Alex couldn't see, couldn't breathe. Dimly, he was aware of Snake and Wolf backing away, shouting at him to calm down. Wolf and Snake turned quickly towards Eagle, who was on the ground clutching his throat. Snake knelt beside him, checking him over. Wolf looked down worriedly at his comrade. “What the fuck, Cub!?” he shouted angrily. Alex vaguely registered his name and Wolf yelling. He couldn't think. He was shaking, slowly sliding down the wall. Images flashed in front of him. He couldn’t breathe. He felt like he was going to die. Not getting an answer, Wolf yelled “Cub!” swinging around, ready to murder the kid. He stopped taken aback when he saw Alex's small framed huddled at the base of the corner, shaking. “Cub?” he said again, this time more urgent and worried. Hearing the change in his teammate’s tone of voice, Snake looked over at Alex. Seeing him, he swore. “Shit.” He got up from beside the recovering Eagle to go over and crouch in front of Alex. Placing his hands on Alex's shoulders, he attempted to soothe the boy. “Alex, it's okay. Look at me.” Alex looked up at him, the terror and fear all too easy to read. “Calm down, Alex. You're safe. It's okay. Breathe. It's gonna be ok.” Slowly, the words penetrated Alex's mind. The calming voice helped, and he began to slow down his breathing. Eventually, he looked up to see Snake's concerned face in front of him. Snake sat back. “You ok, now?” he asked. Alex swallowed, then nodded. Snake reached down and helped him to his feet then gave him a final, reassuring nod, before getting up to go back over to Eagle. Alex stood there shakily, avoiding everyone’s eyes, while trying to get a hold of himself and figure out what the hell had just happened. He had totally lost control, and in front of K-unit, no less. Worse, he’d hurt someone. He looked guiltily over to where Eagle sat against the wall massaging his throat. Eagle looked up to meet Alex’s eyes. “Jesus Cub,” he exclaimed hoarsely. “Did you have to hit so hard?” Alex looked at his feet, feeling a flush rising to his face. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, embarrassed.
  • 83. “It’s fine,” Eagle said, looking rather bemused. “Just...holy shit Cub.” Alex didn’t reply, just looked awkwardly at his boots. There was a highly uncomfortable silence for a long moment as the three men stared questioningly at Alex, and Alex studiously avoided their stares. It seemed no one really knew what to say. Finally, Wolf took the initiative, falling back on his usual method of blunt leadership, and demanded, “What happened?” “Nothing,” Alex muttered, embarrassment, frustration, and confusing combining to make him irate. Eagle and Snake stared at him, incredulous, while Wolf turned a disapproving glare on him. “I’d say viciously lashing out during a training fight then sinking to the ground shaking uncontrollably rules out the possibility that ‘nothing happened’,” Snake said, tone stoically even. Alex just shrugged, staring determinedly at the ground. It was bad enough that K-unit was there to witness his surprising loss of control. He was certainly not going to make it worse y sharing any more details about the embarrassing event. What would they think of him if they knew a basic practice fight caused him to mentally implode? Besides, it wasn’t like he really understood what happened, himself... “Cub, stop the heroic idiocy,” Wolf snapped impatiently, mistakenly identifying the source of Alex’s reluctance as misplaced heroism. “Heroes get killed. And worse, they get those around them killed. When you’re in the field and something happens, you don’t mess around covering it up. You tell your teammates immediately, none of this stoic crap,” he reprimanded sharply. Alex returned the glare in kind. “I don’t think that’ll be much of a problem seeing, how I almost exclusively work alone,” he said, offended by Wolf’s lecture. Wolf looked slightly taken aback, but stubbornly asked, “You never have teammates?” Alex shrugged. “I have twice. The first were a pair from the CIA. They got killed at the beginning of the mission – skewered underwater. The other one, an Australian, turned out to be working for Scorpia, and ended up betraying me,” Alex said, the remembrance of Ash leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. All three men looked even more taken aback at this. But Wolf, being the stubborn arse he was, refused to back down. “What about backup?” he demanded.
  • 84. Now it was Alex’s turn to look at Wolf incredulously. “Backup?” he questioned, morbidly amused. “You think I get back up? I’m lucky to get something to protect myself with.” Wolf frowned. “You had us at Point Blanc,” he reminded Alex, the others watching with interest. “Alright, fine, on rare occasions I get backup. Of course, they rarely manage to actually help,” Alex said sarcastically. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Wolf growled, perceiving an insult to his team. Alex sighed. “Well, look at Point Blanc…not that it’s your fault, but MI6 ignored my distress call and didn’t send you in when I sent it. If I hadn’t escaped when I did, I’d have been dissected alive. Even with Fox in Australia, he couldn’t help me until I’d already escaped the transplant lab!” Frustration with both the current situation and with his career made him reveal more than he normally would. Wolf stared, his face going through a variety of emotions. “Dissected?! Transplant lab?!” he asked in a strangled voice, clearly asking Alex to tell him otherwise. “Yea,” Alex answered shortly. He didn’t really want to talk about it. Damnit, why did he have to open his mouth again? From the looks he was getting, he doubted the men were going to be inclined to drop the issues. As if reading his mind, Eagle overcame his apparent shock, to yell “What?” Face hardening, he demanded, “Explain!” Alex sighed. He really didn’t want to get into it, and he doubted running his mouth after signing the Official Secrets Act would be a good idea. But it was clear not answering was not a viable option, either. He decided to explain the situation, but to keep it minimal, just give them the absolute necessary details. After all, information was power and these men already had far too much power over him for his liking. “I was caught and they realized I was a spy, so they were going to use me as an experiment for their biology class as a dissection,” Alex succinctly explained. “The other time, I was captured, and my opponents decided instead of just killing me, they might as well make a profit out of me.” Eagle raised a brow. “That’s it?” he asked quizzically. “You’re so...nonchalant about it.” Alex shrugged. “That’s what happened. I escaped, and obviously they didn’t succeed in either case. I have bigger problems to deal with, now, thanks.” “I suppose that sort of thing happens often,” Eagle said sarcastically.
  • 85. Alex shrugged again. “Yeah.” There was a pause of thrown silence as the men stared at Alex, nonplussed. Then Snake spoke up for the first time. “No wonder you had a panic attack.” Alex looked at him questioningly. What was he talking about? “Earlier,” Snake clarified. “I think that’s what happened to you. I don’t suppose you have a history?” At this Eagle rolled his eyes, apparently recovered enough from shock to be sarcastic again. “Yes, because MI6 would definitely use someone who had panic attacks every time he got in a fight,” he drawled. Snake ignored him, instead just looking to Alex. “No,” Alex said slowly. “I’ve never had a panic attack before.” Snake frowned. “Do you have any idea what the trigger was?” he asked, quickly switching into medic mode. “Not the fight itself, probably…” Alex paused as if in thought. And the truth was, he was thinking, just not about what the trigger was. He had a pretty damn good idea that it was the flashbacks. He had felt his control slipping away, and he had panicked. To someone use to having control over himself, loosing it was terrifying. No, the real question was what to tell Snake. The man was there watching expectantly. On one hand, Alex felt he should level with him. Snake was a trained medical officer, and Alex wasn’t sure how to deal with this on his own. Having flashbacks was almost certainly not a healthy thing. But something stopped him. He didn’t really want to tell these men – who he, albeit grudgingly, respected – that he was mentally unstable. What would they think of him? Moreover, this was personal. He didn’t really want to tell anyone. And though he might respect K-unit, he simply didn’t trust them. But he had to tell them something…. “I just…when you backed me into the corner, it reminded me of a different fight. Let’s just say that fight wasn’t combat assessment,” he said, rather sarcastically. There, he answered the question and he hadn’t lied. Snake gave him a long, piercing look, under which Alex shifted uncomfortably. Then he nodded pensively, and Alex internally relaxed. “Right, well-” he began.
  • 86. The door opened and in walked Fox. “Hello,” he said brightly, grinning at them all. Turning to Wolf, he said, “I let the kiddies go to clean up.” Wolf nodded, then turned to Alex. “The brats are showering before dinner,” Wolf told him. “You can go join them now, if you want.” Alex hesitated briefly, and Fox saw it. “What?” he asked. Alex just said, “I'd rather not shower with them.” Wolf frowned. “Why not?” “I...well, it's just, I have a few scars left over from missions. I'd rather not have someone see them and started asking questions,” Alex explained carefully. At this Snake frowned. “Scars?” he asked. “Maybe I should check you over myself...” “No!” Alex said quickly. They looked at him strangely. “I mean, they're fine, just from some cuts and stuff. I got burned a few months ago, and it's healed, but you can just see it a little bit.” Snake was still frowning, but he nodded. “Well, maybe you can wait a bit, then shower after the others have left. Just say we kept you longer or something. Besides, it’ll take you a bit to walk over there.” Fox nodded, adding, “They only have 7 minutes to shower anyway. And Tiger’s in charge, so those’ll be some quick showers.” Both Eagle and Snake nodded appreciatively, as if this explained everything. Alex shook his head and decided not to ask. Instead, he said, “Right. I’ll just go then.” Rather quickly he walked from the room, wanting to get out before anyone could ask him any more questions. Once safely outside, he stopped. Wearily he leaned back against the wall closing his eyes, allowing himself to collapse with exhaustion following, tension release. Well, that had gone well. Not. He snorted, wondering whether it was possible for that to have gone any more abysmally than it had.
  • 87. Not only had he managed to have his first mental breakdown, but he had done so in front of K-unit, the last people he'd want to see it. Worse, he had let his emotions control him and had said far more than he ought to have. He moaned, frustrated with himself, lightly banging his head back against the wall, wincing at the slight pain. Now the K-unit was going to have all sorts of difficult, unwanted questions – questions which never would have been an issue had he retained one modicum of intelligence and kept his mouth shut. With his luck, they'd probably start digging around in places where they were most unwelcome. He sighed in irritation. Well, there was nothing he could do about it now. He'd just have to be more careful in the future. He sighed again and pushed himself off the wall. With a renewed resolve to keep his mouth firmly shut, he walked off slowly to the showers. Close to thirty minutes later, he stepped out of the shower. He dried off quickly, not wanting to linger on the off chance someone might happen to wander in. He was just stepping into his fatigue pants when he happened to glance up at the bathroom's lone mirror. He abruptly went still, staring at his reflection. He was a mess, freshly formed bruises from the recent fight layering on top of faded ones from his last assignment, mixing with his many scars in various states of healing. He looked pathetic, just 14 with his body already marred. He felt disgust settle deep in his stomach looking at his battered reflection. This is what his 'job' had done to him. Less than a year ago he had been just like any of his friends, a few scrapes here and there. Now, he couldn't even take off his shirt with out the stares, and the whispers – of concern, sympathy, and revulsion. This is what MI6 had done to him. They had taken him, forced him into this living hell by threatening to take away the only person he had left. He had done what they wanted, and this is what he got in return – a collection of scars, and a life that was just a series of continuous lies. In time, the bruises would fade, and most of the scars would heal. But Alex knew that he would never really be healed again. He'd lived too long with pain. Without it, he wouldn't know who he was any more. (iv) Blunt had been right when he had said that Alex would never be able to walk away. And that's what made this all the worse. Not only had MI6 taken control of his body, but they had also corrupted his mind. The scars he had on his body were not his only scars, or even his biggest problems. Today had shown that.
  • 88. His hands gripped the sink in anger, in frustration, and in a repressed grief that threatened to overwhelm him. Slowly he raised his head to look his reflection in the eyes. His face looked old and tired, hardened and sharpened by life. His eyes stared back at him, haunted, filled with memories of things no child should have ever seen. He knew, now, what Jack meant when she said his work had make him look older. This was what working for MI6 was about – it was about being hurt and alone, and looking in the mirror and hating what you saw. And he did. Shakily, Alex forced himself to look away, swallowing back his emotions. He finished putting on his uniform slowly, deliberately. He turned and left, never once glancing back at the mirror. Alex was just about to walk into the mess when Fox stopped him. Hearing the called “Rider,” Alex turned around to face him. Fox led him away a short distance (out of hearing range of anyone coming out of the mess), then turned to scrutinize Alex. Alex grew uncomfortable under the unwavering inspection. “Yes?” he asked, more than a little apprehensive. “What're you going to say about that bruise?” Fox asked. Alex frowned. “What bruise?” he asked, confused. “That beauty there,” Fox said, reaching out a finger and gently pressing on the side of Alex's cheek. Alex winced. “Ah, that bruise.” Now it was Fox's turn to frown. “You didn't realize you were hurt?” he asked, sounding concerned. Alex shrugged. “I guess I just... forgot.” Fox's frown deepened, but he seemed to decide to let go whatever it was that was bothering him. Instead, he looked at Alex expectantly. “So? What are you going to tell your friends happened?” “Well, I'll just say, uh...” Alex trailed off, thinking of an excuse that was at least half- ways decent. Fox raised a brow. “What, the great Alex Rider can't come up with a simple deception?” he teased gently. “My, my, how did you survive this long?”
  • 89. Alex sent him an annoyed look, responding tartly, “Most of my assignments don't include successfully bullshitting my closest friends.” Just my real life, he added mentally. Fox sent him a mock-reproving look. “Now, now, Cub, a good spy should always be able to lie his way out of anything.” Alex sighed, frustrated. “Look, if it's so easy, you come up with something! I'm sorry I don't like lying to the few friends I have left!” “Woah,” Fox said holding up his hands to appease him. “Easy. I'm just messing with you.” “I noticed,” Alex muttered darkly. Fox ignored the interruption. “You know, you could always stick to something easy, like you tripped and hit something.” “I…tripped?” Alex repeated, disbelieving. “Yeah...and you hit a door. No wait – better yet, a door knob,” Fox said cheerfully, totally missing the problem. “I tripped and hit a door knob?” Alex said a bit derisively. “Well that's a bit, I don't know…lame.” Fox rolled his eyes. “Cub, you're an invalid, not an action hero.” Alex frowned, unconvinced. “Yeah, you think they'll actually believe that?” Fox shrugged. “If you deliver it right,” he said, cocking his head to the side in thought. “Make it seem like you're embarrassed and beating yourself up over it, and say it in a not completely serious way. After all, it'd be bloody hilarious if you did do that.” He paused for a moment, grinning at Alex's scowl. “See, the door knob adds a nice touch, cause it's specific enough to make it more realistic, without over complicating the lie.” “Wow,” Alex said after a moment's pause. “That was actually semi-impressive.” Fox grinned and executed a bow with an exaggerated flourish. “I'm glad all that MI6 training came in handy after all.” Alex snorted. “You had to be trained by MI6 to come up with that?” he scoffed. Fox looked affronted. “Hey, at least I came up with something, unlike a certain underage super-spy. Besides, where did you pick up your awesome spy skills?” Alex suddenly turned serious. “My uncle,” he said quietly.
  • 90. “Oh,” Fox said softly, clearly regretting bringing it up. “Yeah,“ Alex said. “So...” he continued trying to ease a bit of the tension that had appeared. Fox suddenly looked a bit awkward. “Listen, Cub, the others told me what happened during the combat session.” Alex inwardly cringed. Why the hell did this have to come up now? “I was just wondering what happened?” Fox asked cautiously, no doubt seeing Alex's face darken. Alex sighed, faced with another dilemma: what to tell Fox. He trusted Fox more than the others, but he really, really did not want to talk about it. Fox's good opinion meant a lot to him. But it was more than that. Deep down, he didn't want to talk about it because he was afraid that something was very wrong with him. He decided that going on the offensive was his best option for the moment. “Why do you want to know?” he asked, guarded. Fox sighed. “Look, Cub: I've seen you fight before, in Bangkok, and I know you've done all those things for MI6. There's no way you panic every time you get in a fight, and I'm sure all of the fights on your assignments are way more stressful and terrifying than the one today – I know the one in Bangkok was. So for you to have a panic attack in a practice fight – something's definitely not right. And I've rather been elected to be the one to keep an eye on you, since I'm the only one who knows you at all, really.” “Oh,” Alex said. A sudden thought occurred to him. “Did the others put you up to this?” he demanded. It didn't really bother him – he just wanted to stall for time. Fox grinned ruefully. “Wolf and Eagle wanted me to talk to you,” he admitted. “For the record though, Snake thought we should leave you alone until you actually wanted to talk about it, since until then you'd probably just give up shit.” “Smart man, Snake,” Alex muttered. Fox ignored that. “But I'm not asking because of them. I’m asking because if something's going on that could affect you and your training, I need to know.” He finished and waited for Alex's response. Alex was caught up in his mental deliberations. Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to tell just Fox.
  • 91. Sometimes, it felt nice to confide in people, and he did trust the man. He could always extract a promise from him similar to the bullet wound one…his mind was made up. “It wasn't the actual fight,” he said. Fox started. “What?” “What set me off – it wasn't the actual fight,” Alex clarified. “What did then?” Fox asked confused. Alex swallowed nervously. This was the hard part. “I kept...having these flashbacks to other fights – real ones, I mean. Like a blow would remind me of another scenario and then suddenly it'd be like I was there again. I kept going in and out of the real fight. Some of the flashbacks, well, they were pretty bad.” Fox frowned, and reached out to touch Alex's arm reassuringly. “So the bad memories caused you to panic?” he asked. “Well, no, not really,” Alex said, frustrated. How the hell was he supposed to explain this. “It was...well, I just, I kept losing control. I never lose control, ever, no matter what. That's how I make it out of all those sticky situations. I don't panic and I don't stop thinking.” He swallowed again. Now came the hard part…harder, anyhow. “But with the flashbacks, I kept going in and out. I couldn't stay focused, and I was barely holding out. The others were closing in on me, and I couldn't even keep a hold of my mind. I guess I just...panicked.” Alex looked at the ground, not really wanting to see Fox's reaction. “I see,” Alex heard the man say. It didn't sound disgusted or incredulous, just concerned. Slowly Alex looked up at him. Fox was frowning and appeared to be thinking. “Why do you think it started happening?” he asked, after a moment. Alex sighed. “I don't know,” he said honestly. “The whole was just off for me. I'm not used to not fighting for real, and to practice fight, it was just odd. I think maybe the part of my mind that's used to dealing with the typical life or death situations was trying to convince the rest of me that the fight was for real. I don't know...” Fox's frown deepened. “Cub, that...doesn't sound healthy,” he said slowly. “Maybe you should see someone who knows about mental issues.” “No!” Alex replied, immediately and forcefully.
  • 92. “Cub,” Fox began warningly. “Look, I just want to try to deal with this by myself first,” Alex interrupted. “It might've just been a weird, one-time thing. Please don't tell anyone?” Fox sighed loudly. “Alex, I'm not comfortable keeping things from my unit. And anyways, you know that something's wrong and that you really should get help.” Alex looked away. He did know. “Look, Cub, I've been meaning to talk about to you about your bullet wound anyway. I'm really not comfortable not telling Snake. What if something does happen?” Fox said. Seeing Alex's hurt look, he continued. “I know it's hard for you to tell people these kind of things, and I know that you don't really trust them, but I don't want to just keep lying to them either. I've had to do that enough while working for MI6. And this isn't good for you – you need help. So I've decided, I'm going to give you a deadline by which you have to tell Snake about the bullet wound, and about this.” Alex glared. So Fox was going back on his promise? He sighed. He couldn't really blame him, though. He had good points, and it really was unfair to Fox to ask him to lie to men who were as close to him as brothers. Not that he was happy about this, mind you, but rather, he was resigned. “How long?” he finally asked. “A week,” Fox said. “Two!” Alex said determinedly. Fox glared at him, then sighed. “Fine. Two weeks, but you'd better tell him by then, or else I will.” Alex nodded. With any luck he'd be out of here by then, and the issue would be a moot point. Fox sighed again. “Alright. You'd better go to dinner now, before you miss all of it.” Alex nodded and turned to walk off back towards the mess. Well, that was just another wonderful encounter to add to the day. Sighing in resignation, he walked on. As was becoming commonplace, Alex was the last to get to dinner. He grabbed his food and plopped down next to his friends. They greeted him, though it was much more subdued than before. It appeared the exhaustion of SAS training was setting in.
  • 93. Emma, across from him, frowned. “What happened?” she asked, reaching up to touch her own cheek. Alex put on his best scowl. “I tripped,” he grumbled. “What?” Nick asked, looking slightly more alive. “You tripped? How'd you get the bruise on your face?” Alex sighed. “Well, I happened to be walking towards a door at the time, see.” “So?” Tom prompted, looking like he was enjoying the story, though the amused look he sent Alex said that he was buying none of it. “Well, I kinda...hit the door knob on the way down,” he explained. His four friends looked at him in silence for a moment. Then they burst out laughing. “You tripped and hit your face on a doorknob?” Emma gasped out between giggles. “That takes skill.” Nick shook is head. “That, my friend, qualifies as 'epic fail',” he laughed. “Thanks a lot,” he said sarcastically, though he couldn't help but smile. “Some mates you are…” “You know, that's almost as good as the time Mr. Taylor broke his leg falling up the stairs,” Josh commented, chuckling. Alex sent him an 'oh thanks' look, to which his friend just grinned. “Wow,” Tom said, as they began to calm down again. “That really is quite spectacular.” “And by spectacular, he means special. And I don't mean unique,” Nick added. Alex rolled his eyes. “Right, so if we're all done laughing at Alex's pain now,” he said mock-crossly. “Well, what else do we have to laugh at in this hellish camp?” Nick asked, switching to a more morbid state. “Seriously, it was terrible. Are they trying to kill us or what?” “I'm sure if they were trying to kill you, you'd already be dead,” Alex said, not all together too comforting. “I think they're just prolonging it because they're sadistic,” Tom groaned.
  • 94. Alex couldn't really argue with that. He'd wondered himself for quite awhile at the questionable tendencies of the Regiment. As Alex had gotten there quite late, every one else was finished at this point. He ate hurriedly, then took his tray up. Almost as soon as he was reseated, the sergeant came in to address them. “Right, listen up. I was told you all received a packet of work from your school before you left to come here.” There were a few murmurs of agreement. “After dinner every day, you'll have a block of time in here to work on it. If you don't know something, ask one of your little friends. It's expected that when you return to school it will be completed, so I suggest you take this seriously. Units will rotate monitoring it, D-unit starts today. Is that clear?” There was a chorus of “Yes Sir”s and the Sergeant turned and stormed out, leaving silence in his wake. Outside, they could hear him yelling at the selection candidates he had momentarily abandoned there. D-unit walked to the front of the room. Their leader, Tiger, stepped forward to talk. “You have five minutes to get your materials and be back here,” he ordered. “Go.” There was the sound of scraping benches as the students stood and rushed out to do as they were bid. Everyone was exhausted, and no one wanted to cross Tiger, who just had a foreboding look about him. Alex went with the crowd to the barracks and quickly located the stuff he needed, returning with his friends to the mess. “Brilliant,” Nick grumbled. “Not only do we have to be physically abused, but now we have to do school work too.” When they arrived back in the mess, all the men except for D-unit had cleared out. Alex and his friends staked out a corner, and set themselves up. Quickly, Alex flipped the pile of work. Mentally he groaned. There was so much to do. Sighing, he picked up the first packet of maths work. Most unhappily, he set to work, as students around him did the same. A while later, he looked up. He was actually quite surprised at his classmate's actions. Most of them were actually working. Of course, not everyone was, but even those who weren't were being relatively quiet about it. He looked around at his peers, and the answer became readily apparent. They were absolutely exhausted. No one had the energy to fool around. Reluctantly, he returned back to his own work, starting in on a bit of English. He made a face. Poetry should go to hell.
  • 95. A few hours later, Tiger stood up and announced that the study period was over and that they were to return to their barracks. “I recommend you sleep,” the man said, “but I really don't give a shit what you do. Just know that tiredness will not be tolerated tomorrow.” The threat was not wasted on the students, and wearily they rose to head off to bed. Back in the barracks, Alex changed into his nightwear, and slipped into bed, calling out a good night. He really was tired and his bruises and fatigued muscles were really beginning to hurt. He was glad to be finally able to sleep. Not having the energy for doing much thinking, he closed his eyes and almost immediately fell asleep. (i) If you don't understand, go read some fics about Danny and Rusty in the Ocean's 11 section. (ii) If this doesn't sound familiar, I highly recommend finding the MTV Movie Awards' spoof of the Matrix is amazing :D (iii) A book about the SAS, by Andy McNab. I haven't actually read it. I got Immediate Action instead, because that has their training in it. (iv) This is almost a direct quote from Ender's Game. Something about it just seemed profoundly true. And I so call dibs on writing a story about Alex reading Ender's Game.
  • 96. Chapter 7: On Conversations Overheard He was following a fox through the forest. There was smoke and cries and everything was burning, burning. The animal was ever ahead of him, leading him, just a phantom glimpse of its tail, but he knew – he knew that he should follow it, that it was helping him. He followed faithfully along, twisting and turning through the red haze and ash that seemed to surround him, suffocate him, until suddenly he lost sight of the creature all together. Alone, he scanned the clearing, feeling the beginnings of panic set in when his guide was nowhere to be found. He was lost and abandoned amidst a blaze that seemed to be closing in on him. He called out but no answer came. Despair and exhaustion overcame him and he sank to his knees, sensing the fires closing in, smelling the scent of burning wood and flesh, feeling the oppressive heat on all sides, the taste of acrid smoke thick in his mouth. The flames kept getting closer and closer. His eyes watered from the smoke and his breath came in choking gasps. The fire was almost upon him now, lapping at the edge of the clearing. He opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out. His lungs were empty. He couldn't breathe. He tried to move, tried to escape, but found he was frozen completely helpless. Desperately, he managed to look up... and saw the fox. Its fur gleamed red in the light of the ever approaching blaze that was so close now, its snout fixed in a cunning smirk and its eyes - its bright blue eyes - staring straight at him, the hard, frigid depths boring into his own. He felt rage consume him as he stared at his betrayer, and in a final act of defiance, lifted his chin with the last of his strength. Then he fell back onto the ground, everything went white and... Alex shot up in bed his heart racing. He gasped, sweating heavily, trying to bring himself under control, his eyes darting around the dark room disoriented. Slowly, he began to calm down. It was a nightmare, just a nightmare. His pulse was settling back to its normal, even pace and he felt the panic begin to recede as he took deep, slow breaths. Just a stupid nightmare. He lay back, clammy and sweaty, wanting to go back to sleep, but the adrenaline rush and the lingering unease was making sleep suddenly impossible as he lay there, gazing at the ceiling. His thoughts kept returning to the dream, which he couldn't quite remember. There had been a fire, and a fox or something. He shook his head. He was having nightmares about woodland creatures. God what next? He suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to move. Blindly, he fumbled on the floor for his
  • 97. boots and stepped into them, grabbing the jacket of his uniform. Moving quietly but quickly, he left the barracks much the same as he had the night before, stumbling out into the camp. The freezing night air was a shock, waking him up. Alex shivered, pulling on the jacket and hugging himself. Damn, it was cold. Walking aimlessly around the camp, he tried to remember his nightmare, but couldn't. It was odd that he was getting them again. He'd had them pretty regularly after returning from Australia, but with time they had gradually gone away. Maybe it was because he was here, involved with MI6 again. The pain from the cold had become less insistent now, dulling to an undercurrent. He found himself standing outside of the abandoned barn across the camp. He'd once been held there with the rest of K-unit during a training exercise. He leaned against the cold wall of the shed, remembering. It had been the only time he'd felt at least somewhat a part of the team - the only time he’d really been a part of the group, helping them escape. Of course, it figured that it’d be when he was saving all their asses. Wolf had even been civil to him...well, at least for a day. Then they’d gotten the dressing down of a lifetime for injuring the interrogators and for attempting to escape. The four men were given a warning – you only got one. The next time you fucked up, you got binned – one of the reasons Wolf’s hesitation on the plane was so career-threatening. Afterwards, Wolf especially had been twice as nasty as before. Now there was gratitude. Alex sighed and pushed himself off the wall. Some things never changed – though admittedly, compared to his last visit, Wolf was being downright friendly. He walked back towards the barracks, stuffing his hands in his pockets to warm them, and choose a more direct route through the main camp this time, which incidentally brought him right past K-unit’s hut. Idly, he noticed the light was still on and he could hear the murmur of voices, though it was too low to make out the words. Shrugging, he walked past where the door was. It was partially open and the voices were louder now, though still indistinct. Then all of a sudden he heard his name, in the way it’s possible to hear to hear your name and nothing else. He paused, uncertain for a moment, before his curiosity overcame his common sense and he moved stealthily to the door. “...said that he lasted for nearly three hours before stopping. That’s pretty impressive,” Snake’s voice came from inside. “Well, he does work for MI6,” another voice came, more than a little condescending.
  • 98. That was Eagle. Alex rolled his eyes. Eagle really needed to meet the MI6 employees he dealt with normally. Blunt wasn’t exactly the fittest bloke around – not to mention Smithers. Fox seemed to agree. “Hey now, working for MI6 doesn’t necessarily make you fit. There’s more desk jobs and lab work than anything else. Even most of the field agents don’t have to be in top shape. Very few people are actually involved in the real heroics. Though, Alex would be one of them. I guess you’d keep fit too if your assignments included Thai boxing to the death and kayaking down rivers chased by machine gu...crap.” He ended rather abruptly. “Wait, what?” Eagle asked. “Er, nothing?” Fox replied, sounding a bit wary. “Look, just forget I said anything.” Alex watched him cross to the bed and sit. “Fox,” Eagle whined. “You can’t just stop now! What aren’t you telling us?” “Classified,” Fox said, slightly regretful. “But Fox,” Eagle pleaded, “How else do you expect us to find out anything about Cub? You’ve seen his file. There’s nothing!” Alex tensed. File? They had his file? It was an uncomfortable thought, to say the least. He had no idea what it said, and having these people having access to potentially sensitive information, especially when he didn’t know what said information was... Information was power, a lesson he had learned from Ian. Never tell anyone anything that’s not absolutely necessary. Especially people who you didn’t trust. Plus, just thinking about Wolf looking through his file.... Fox was talking again “...reason I can’t say anything. If it’s not in the file, then you’re not supposed to know it.” “What is it with you withholding information?” Eagle demanded. “You wouldn’t even tell us what Cub said about earlier today! That wasn’t classified.” The word had a bitterly mocking tone, and Alex saw Fox tense. “Are you a part of this team or not?” Fox’s voice came back quiet but forceful. “You will not make me feel bad about that. I already explained this to you. You have no idea what it’s like for him - he has so few people he can rely on! I’m not going to betray him like that, just because you’re curious. He deserves better than that.” Alex was a bit taken aback. Fox had stood up to his unit for him?
  • 99. “I don’t see why he wouldn’t just tell us anyway! What’s so bad that he doesn’t want us to know?” Eagle asked. “I wouldn’t take it personally,” Fox answered offhand, leaning back and relaxing once more. “I doubt he truly trusts anyone. You can’t, really, when you do what he does. I never realised how lucky we were to be SAS. We have our units, and the regiment, and teammates, and people who wouldn’t dream of leaving you behind. They have no one. It’s every man for himself. Your own side can turn on you at any time. People you thought were friends betray you at the drop of a hat, or rather, when it becomes in their best interest to do so.” Alex agreed silently. Damn straight. Look at Ash. His own fucking godfather was willing to sell his life to Scorpia. “You can see why he might not feel particularly inclined to tell you all his secrets,” Fox continued wryly. No shit. “And besides, I doubt he trusts you of all people.” “Well, why not?” Eagle demanded. “What’s he have against us? He doesn’t even really know us!” “Well, we made sure of that last time, didn’t we?” Snake said, his voice cooler and sharper than the others, tinged with a bit of sarcasm at the moment. Alex spared a thought to wonder where Wolf was, but was drawn back in to hear Eagle’s reply. “I suppose...but he trusts you!” Eagle exclaimed. “Saving his life a few times tends to do that. Fosters a rapport and all,” Fox said lightly, before sitting up and turning serious. “Look, I don’t know exactly why he trusts me this much – god knows, I wouldn’t if I was him – but he is, and there’s no way I’m screwing with that. I – we owe him, all of us who had a hand in this hell he lives in, all of us who he’s saved again and again.” “Fine,” Eagle huffed. “I accept your misplaced sense of guilt towards Cub-” “It’s not guilt! Well, not really. I just ... I like him. You would too, if you got to know him. He’s funny, and he’s smart, and he’s brave. And I feel responsible for him on some level. I care about him. He’s like...a little brother, I guess,” Fox tried to explain. Alex was touched. Fox seemed so honest. He couldn’t hold back a smile. So siblings it was then. Eagle however, was less than impressed. “Whatever,” he said, waving a hand
  • 100. dismissively. “I accept your little issue with keeping his secret. However, this file business: we all know that the uber-classification system is just bureaucratic bullshit! There’s nothing in the file. We’re supposed to be training him, and we don’t even have information on his physical health or past experience or anything! We have his name, age, and eye colour. And I can’t even try to hack into MI6’s databases, because they can only be accessed from the building, and we’re stuck out here in the middle of fucking nowhere! It’s ridiculous!” Alex saw Fox fold his arms, and looked ready to protest, but Snake cut in. “I hate to say it, but Eagle is right-” “Woah, you’re agreeing with me? Now this is a monumental occasion! Shall we erect a shrine, right here, in honour of hell freezing over?” Eagle exclaimed instantly, shifting his focus. Fox rolled his eyes. “Oh grow up Eagle,” Snake said witheringly. “Anyways, I’m not blaming you, Fox. I understand you can’t tell us classified information. Eagle, you need to leave him alone. You know better than that.” “I knew you agreeing with me was too good to be true,” Eagle muttered petulantly and Alex stifled a laugh. Snake continued as if he hadn’t heard. “But the MI6 officers running Alex have seriously mixed up priorities. He has a breakdown from hand-to-hand combat, and I have no information on his psychiatric evals, nothing on his past mental health, not even anything about his past assignments and what they entailed. I don’t even have any records on physical injuries and such. How the hell do they expect me to do my job as his medic?” He sighed, and Alex could imagine he was frowning. “Look, I know you have a connection with him and that you don’t want to hurt him, but his health has to come first. If there’s something I need to know to ensure his well being, I expect you’ll inform me.” It was not phrased as a question, but Fox answered. “Of course,” he said, nodding once, decisively. Snake nodded in acknowledgement. “But that still doesn’t change MI6’s responsibility.” Alex saw Fox frown. “I know,” the man stated grimly. “Believe me I know. There’s a lot of mixed-up things about the way they treat Alex.” Alex raised a brow. He had to agree, but he wondered what Fox was talking about. He’d said he didn’t know many details, but Alex had to wonder... He watched Fox stand up and start pacing
  • 101. “There’s something wrong when international security rests in the hands of a 14 year old, again and again. Don’t get me wrong, Alex is brilliant at what he does. But it’s seriously fucked up for them to use him at all,” Fox continued. “They don’t seem at all concerned with his safety – it’s disturbing, really. And I found out from Smithers they don’t pay him, or give him support services, or anything!” He paused turning to face the others. “They not only use him, they abuse him?” Eagle asked wryly, the tone far grimmer than Alex had become used to. “Exactly,” Fox nodded. Eagle frowned. “Why don’t you do something then?” Fox laughed, a harsh, barking sound, and Alex jumped, startled. “What something do you suggest I do?” Eagle shrugged. “I dunno – tell someone, or... something...” he suggested vaguely. Fox sighed. “I would, if I thought it would do any good. If I made a fuss, threatened to reveal information, blew the whistle, whatever – they’d shut me up as fast as possible, which, if I was lucky, would mean losing my job and having my reputation utterly destroyed – if I was lucky. They wouldn’t stop using Alex. The only way they would, would be if I managed to go public somehow. Then Alex would become a liability. Too many people in too many high places are involved with him. He’d have to be taken care of. Everything about him would be destroyed. If he’s lucky, they’d put him into deep cover essentially and send him away someplace, until they thought it was safe to use him again. If he’s unlucky – he’d be eliminated.” Alex shuddered. They wouldn’t actually kill him – would they? They might treat him like shit, but they wouldn’t actually go that far. They hadn’t even tried when he’d defected and tried to kill Mrs. Jones. They were on his side. But then Alex thought of Blunt sitting at his desk, coldly ordering agents off to their deaths, and he knew. If the time ever came when Alex became a risk, he wouldn’t hesitate to take him out. He shivered, suddenly freezing again. Fox was still talking. “...I did manage to get him pulled out – what then? He can’t just go back to normal life. This life – it changes you. Think about how much you’ve changed and you’re adults. Look at the difference between him and his classmates. They live in a different reality from him. He can’t just forget and revert back. He’d never fit in. Because if there’s one thing you can’t do, it’s go back.” Alex wondered what Fox would say if he knew how much he sounded like Blunt in that moment. It made him feel sick. It was one thing to know you were permanently damaged at the age of 14 and another thing to hear it from someone you liked and trusted.
  • 102. There was a moment of solemn silence in the room. Alex watched Fox walk over to the bed and sit once again. He glanced around the room, his eyes landing on the open door. Alex tensed knowing it was too late to run...Fox’s eyes locked with his. Alex froze. Damn, he was caught. What now? He hoped Fox wouldn’t get angry. They had been talking about him. He waited for the other man to make a move, fully expecting to be called out then and there. But Fox surprised him once again that night. He didn’t react outwardly at all to his presence, but kept their eyes locked. “So Wolf should be back anytime now from that meeting with the sergeant. He’s bound to be in a foul mood after meeting with authority,” he remarked, seemingly to his comrades. The meaning was clear – get the hell out of here before an angry Wolf finds you. Alex hesitated for a moment, giving Fox a grateful nod. He was sure he caught a hint of a smile before he turned, hurrying away, not at all wanting to confront a pissed off Wolf. It was only when he was back at the barracks, safely in bed, that he allowed the conversation to replay in his mind. Fox – he was shocked really. He’d known Fox liked him well enough, but he hadn’t realised that he felt so strongly. He felt heartened by this new knowledge. He could trust Fox as much as he could trust anyone. The man was ready to stand against his teammates for him. That, more than anything, showed how strongly he felt. SAS men didn’t just do that on a whim. Almost immediately Alex felt guilty. He’d put him in that position. It wasn’t fair to Fox... though he didn’t seem to mind overly much. And Snake at least would support Fox in this. He’d been surprised at how angry they’d all seemed on his behalf. He knew MI6 was crap, but he didn’t understand why Snake or Eagle would care. It’s not like they knew him. And they didn’t even know half the shit his ‘employers’ pulled. It was almost disconcerting. And then there was the possibility of MI6 murdering him if things went south. They’d do it – he knew they would, just like they never hesitated to take out any obstacle that stood in their way. In that respect, all the sides were the same. It was their goal that made them what they were, not their methods. The intelligence community was very much subscribed to the idea that the ends justify the means. It really
  • 103. was the only way they could operate. Intelligence work was dirty, messy, and immoral, but, as Alex had seen, it was a necessary evil no matter how distasteful it was a times. He just had to remember that first and foremost, MI6 protected Britain and if Alex stood in the way, he’d be removed just the same as anyone else. It was a chilling thought. He needed to make himself indispensible – it was something to think about anyways. However, tonight – right now, he needed to sleep. He yawned, closing his eyes, and allowed the problems of the world to dissolve into black. Alex did not dream again that night. The next day, Alex was woken up with the others before dawn by an over-enthusiastic Eagle who seemed to take wicked pleasure in provoking deep hatred from the teenagers by robbing them of their precious sleep with exaggerated cheerfulness. Alex always knew he was a sadist. It must’ve been an SAS requirement. He could see it now – somewhere on the evaluation, a little check-marked box next to ‘likes to cause pain’. Groaning along with the others, he rose, moving quickly to dress and get outside. He remembered Fox’s warning from the day before. It was all too probable that Wolf would still be in a foul mood and Alex had no desire to cross that. Wolf had been surprisingly civil to him since he’d got here. The man wasn’t being friendly of course, but he hadn’t acted nasty at all the day before. Brusque and businesslike, yes, but Alex suspected that was just Wolf. Consequently, Alex hurried his friends along, ensuring they were some of the first out. The boys Eagle had fetched the day before were also out quickly. Alex again wondered exactly what Eagle had done. Whatever it was, it’d been effective. Alex made a note to never underestimate Eagle. Emma was also out quick, with about half the girls – the ones with sense. Unfortunately, some of his classmates were not as astute, and took their time as Wolf and the others stood waiting. Alex watched Wolf surreptitiously. The man’s shoulders tensed and his scowl deepened minute by minute as he waited for the stragglers to show up. Alex winced in anticipation of the imminent explosion he was sure Wolf was balanced on the brink of. It would be spectacular, he supposed, if the anger, frustration, and impatience practically exuding from their fearless leader was anything to go by. Finally, after what seemed like an hour, the last students arrived, thoroughly oblivious to the approaching storm...well apocalypse, really. Wolf waited another minute before speaking. His tone was harsh, quieting the students
  • 104. instantly. “I hope you enjoyed your lie-in,” he growled dangerously. “That was an absolute disgrace. Forty fucking minutes since you were woken up. Unacceptable!” Alex could tell some of his classmates were shocked by the profanity. “Tardiness costs lives,” Wolf spat. “And beyond that, it’s disrespectful. And I sincerely hope you aren’t disrespecting me. Believe me, that is not something you want to do.” A shudder went through the crowd at the implied threat. Wolf definitely had everyone’s attention. “I gave you warning yesterday, but it seems that didn’t sink in. So we’ll just have to try something else. No study period today. You’ll have to do your homework on your own damn time. Instead, you’ll train straight through. Consider it make up for the time you’ve wasted this morning. You’d better work damn hard if you want your break back any time soon.” A groan went through the crowd. “Shut up,” Wolf snapped. “If you want to fuck around, it’s your own fault. Now move it.” Unhappily, the group slowly began to move off at a jog. “I said move!” Wolf yelled. “And you’d better hope you perform better than that embarrassment yesterday.” Wolf looked at Alex and jerked his head in a come hither motion. Alex read the silent command and obediently trotted up to him. “You’re running with me,” Wolf informed him, eyes back on the departing mass. “We’re taking the Black Devil.” Alex nearly groaned out loud. It was one of the most treacherous short routes, not to mention difficult. Steep grades, sharp twists, and even sheer walls to scale. It was every SAS man’s nightmare. “Any day now, Cub,” Wolf said sharply. He was standing a few paces away looking at Alex impatiently. “Sorry,” Alex muttered, jogging towards him, resigned.
  • 105. The run was terrible. Alex suspected it would be miserable even with your best of friends – it was just that demanding. But with a moody Wolf ready to go off at the slightest provocation, it was bloody unbearable. They ran in a tense silence punctuated only by their breathing and the fall of their feet on the trail. Alex was exhausted, but knew they still had a ways to go. It was about then he started to wish he’d gotten more sleep. Any sensible person would have stopped for a breather by now, but Alex was running with Wolf. The man pushed on like a tank, barely slowing for the most treacherous parts, and Alex would be damned if he fell behind Wolf. But the truth was he was not so used to this. He hadn’t pushed himself this hard since leaving the camp the first time, whereas Wolf probably ran this regularly. They finally reached the last rock face they had to scale. Alex nearly gave up just looking at it. But Wolf never faltered, simply moving forward and beginning to climb, and Alex grudgingly followed. Still, he couldn’t help but slow while climbing. He’d rather reach the top later than fall and not reach it at all. Wolf could be as reckless as he liked, but Alex rather liked his neck, thank you very much. He finally, finally, reached the top, all of his muscles screaming, and was very much surprised to see Wolf standing there, offering his hand. Stunned, Alex automatically grabbed it, allowing Wolf to pull him up. Wolf dropped his hand immediately, and turned, walking off. Alex followed, a bit dazed. What the heck just happened? First Wolf was pissed off as hell, and now he was helping Alex. And he hadn’t snapped at Alex once though he was ready to implode. This was the second time now Wolf had helped him when he’d least expected it. He glanced up at Wolf in front of him, noticing that most of the tension had left him. The man seemed ... lighter almost. Alex just shook his head, bemused, and followed along. Breakfast was a subdued affair. The morning’s dressing down combined with what Alex expected was a strenuous run for the others left them quite quiet. And he suspected that some of his classmates still weren’t awake, Nick especially. His normally ADD self was barely talking at all. By the end he had woken up to add some of his drawl to the meal. Thank god for coffee. He was certainly awake enough to make a scathing comment about the girls at the next table complaining about their makeup coming off. That at least got the table laughing.
  • 106. After the meal, Alex walked outside with his friends to were those who had finished were congregating. Alex did his automatic cursory scan of the area, landing on Fox, who made a beckoning gesture when he saw Alex looking. Alex frowned and excused himself from his friends. He had no doubt Fox was going to ask about the night before, and he really didn’t want to explain exactly what he had been doing eavesdropping. He wasn’t disappointed. “So, had fun last night?” Fox asked by way of greeting. Alex looked at him carefully. He didn’t seem upset. “Oh, loads,” Alex replied carefully. “Do I want to know what you were doing out of bed, listening in?” Fox asked. Alex shrugged. “I couldn’t sleep, so I went for a walk,” he said, instantly deciding to leave out the nightmare. Fox didn’t need to know about that. “I was going back when I walked by your cabin. I overheard my name and went to investigate.” “Ah,” Fox replied neutrally. “And how much did you hear?” Alex considered. “Enough,” he said at last, not entirely sure what he meant by that. Fox seemed to accept it though, nodding. “So... you’re not mad, then?” Alex asked. Now it was Fox’s turn to shrug. “You’re a spook. I’d expect it out of habit if nothing else - and we were talking about you.” Alex nodded. “What was up with Wolf this morning?” he asked eventually. “Oh, we’re getting called in to HQ tomorrow. Wolf’s just pissed off about having to talk to the brass. He hates it. With a passion,” Fox explained. “Yeah, but then he seemed ok after the run. He helped me up,” Alex added. Fox grinned. “A good run always de-stresses Wolf. Plus, it was the Black Devil, right? That’s his personal favourite. It calms him down faster than anything.” “Ah,” Alex replied, and they fell into a contemplative silence.
  • 107. “Did you mean it?” Alex finally blurted, his mind on what he overheard. “Mean what?” Fox asked, raising a brow. “That...I was like your little brother?” Alex asked starting at the ground, feeling exposed and stupid. “Oh. You heard that?” Fox asked. Suddenly his hand shot out, gripping Alex’s shoulder tightly, focusing his eyes up. “Yes,” he said quietly, but firmly. “I meant it. I’m here for you. I promise.” They shared an intense, searching gaze for a moment, evaluating each other. After a long moment, Alex swallowed and nodded. “Thanks,” he whispered. Fox squeezed his shoulder, before letting go. “Now let’s go join the others. Snake and Eagle have some fun planned for you today,” he said with a smirk. Alex stuck out his tongue at him and Fox just laughed. The fun turned out to be a lesson on location and navigation skills with his friends. It really wasn’t that bad, except that Alex already knew the material. Still, he supposed it was useful review. Map reading was a vital skill, after all. They started out with compasses and maps. Eagle though, added a bit of motivation. “If you do good, we might let you play with this,” he said, holding up a wicked-looking GPS unit. They spent about an hour listening to Snake talk about compass and map basics. It would have been boring, except that Nick, who had navigation down cold, kept up a steady litany of comments. Even the men were amused if the suppressed smiles were anything to go by, though Eagle did eventually tell him to just shut up already. Nick responded by saying Eagle was just jealous of his multi-tasking ability. Eagle replied that he had excellent multi-tasking ability – he could target practice while punishing Nick for talking back at the same time very easily. That shut Nick up. For about ten minutes anyways. After becoming confidant they could at least passably read a map, Snake sent them off on a scavenger hunt of sorts individually. Alex was the last to receive his map, and suspected it was less detailed and longer than the other ones. Having done this sort of
  • 108. thing many times, he finished rather quickly. Emma was the last back, a little more directionally challenged than the rest of them. She’d managed to get lost, and Snake had to go find her. When they were all back, Eagle took over. “And now for the real fun,” he said, reverently pulling out the GPS units. With a cautioning of ‘Break this and die,’ he passed them out. Eagle was obviously in his happy place as he instructed them in their use. Snake just looked on in amusement as Eagle did what was clearly his thing. It was funny. He knew Eagle had always been the signals man in K-unit and that he was always in charge of the radio, but he’d never really pegged him as being much of a tech freak. Thinking back, there was that hacking comment the night before, and before that Fox’s talk about Smithers... He grinned. Oh, this was too good. Eagle was a geek. Even Alex had to admit though the GPS units were quite cool. They were newer models than the ones he’d used, and he found it hard not to get drawn in by Eagle’s enthusiasm. Sometime later, the lesson ended at last and Alex found himself vaguely disappointed. Playing with techie toys was certainly more fun than your usual SAS training. Sighing as he trudged off after Snake to the shooting range, he wished that all of his training could be as innocent and entertaining as his survival training with his friends.