So here's the next chapter. I wrote the bulk of this over a year ago but couldn't submit it until Alex and K-Unit were in a better place.
I enjoyed writing this section, though I did struggle massively with it, because I firmly believe that nobody could come through what Alex has without help.
I've been sitting on this chapter for a long time now so I'm worried that I rushed through the proof read. So I apologise for any mistakes and promise to correct them if I ever gather the energy to find them.
The universe of Alex Rider is the property of the most excellent and bodacious Anthony Horowitz.
Things were different after that. To say that relations between K-Unit and Cub were perfect would be an exaggeration, but the situation was much improved.
Though Cub had been placed firmly on restricted duty, he no longer balked at Snake's attempts to care for him. The pair had argued over the duration of Cub's imposed rest, but these arguments held more a tone of fond exasperation now than any real resentment, with Snake always coming out the victor. It was funny, really, that it took only the mention of the intimidating Captain Davis for Cub to back down now. And with the assigned 5 weeks rest coming to an end, things had improved exponentially between K-Unit's medic and the resident enigma.
Eagle had swallowed his pride, such as it was, and had decided to embrace Cub's impressive knowledge of firearms as a challenge rather than an offense. The pair could often be found debating the finer points of rifle maintenance over meals.
Fox remained much as he'd always been; good-natured with a habit of speaking before thinking, but Cub had learned to let one of the others swat him over the head when they noticed him becoming uncomfortable. In return the spy slowly became less reticent about his early days as an MI6 agent, sharing some of his more outlandish stories. He still avoided discussions about his personal life like the plague though.
And Wolf, ever the man's man, had taken a sabbatical from deep discussions about Cub's existential crises. It amused Cub to no end that Wolf had turned out to be the most insightful of the bunch. He found the man's reaction to his own insight even more hilarious. Wolf had taken to lovingly polishing his Fairbairn-Sykes knife and doing an obscene amount of push-ups in an effort to re-establish his indomitable image.
Elsewhere, for whatever the reason – whether it was at Snake's insistence or Captain Davis's – the sergeant had decided that is was time that Cub's position in the SAS to become more solidified. And by that, he meant that SAS policies were now Cub's policies. Sergeant Manson however, was not going to deprive Mrs. Jones of the chance to inform the spy of these changes. That honour was for her and her alone. So when Cub was called to the sergeant's office for an urgent meeting with the Deputy Head of MI6, he was prepared for the worst.
"Alex, as you may know, Sergeant Manson has been petitioning for some alterations to our contract with the SAS, as it pertains to you and your residence here." Mrs Jones stated, popping a mint into her mouth, her impassive expression flawlessly maintained. This was not what Alex had been expecting, and he tried to hide his surprise as she continued.
"It appears that your presence is viewed as a bit of a distraction for the soldiers, which is the cause for this meeting."
He felt a pang of disappointment. The SAS were kicking him out?
"Where am I going?"
"I beg your pardon?" her eyebrows twitched, but her expression didn't change.
He didn't have time for this. They were screwing him over, again, and he had no interest in platitudes.
"Well, you're here, Mrs Jones, telling me I'm a distraction. Clearly I'm being sent somewhere new, so where is it?"
Mrs Jones observed him for a moment, the mint clicking quietly against her teeth. "I'm afraid you've misunderstood me Alex. These alterations to your contract all revolve around you remaining at Brecon Beacons."
Sergeant Manson, who had remained silent until now, seemed to finally take some pity on Alex.
"You're not a distraction, Cub, so much as your situation is."
"My situation?" Where were they going with this?
"Yes. My men are no strangers to bruises Cub, but your arrangement with MI6 is taking this to a whole new level." the sergeant stated, glaring pointedly at Blunt's deputy.
Mrs. Jones's cheek twitched.
"SAS soldiers are trained to be observant. K-Unit may have been slow off the mark but they're not entirely useless. They, amongst other soldiers on the camp, have grown concerned with the unusual nature of your arrangement with the SAS and MI6."
Here Mrs Jones jumped in again. It seemd she was keen to get the meeting back under control before Manson gained any more traction with her asset.
"As of now you must be cleared for duty by a medical professional before undertaking any missions. In order to ensure this, Sergeant Manson's on-base medical staff will draw up preliminary reports, which will then be reviewed by one of our medical practitioners, who will have the final say."
Alex noted the Sergeant scowl at this. So the man was at least aware of how redundant this charade was; if MI6 want him to go on a mission they'll run circles around the SAS.
"In addition to this you are required to attend regular sessions with a psychologist, who will be cleared by us." Jones's voice grew brittle with her next words. "The Sergeant has requested that your therapist be given complete clearance."
"And that's not up for debate Jones." Manson growled. "Absolute clearance or you'll get no cooperation from the SAS."
"Yes, you mentioned that."
The two discussed the contract further, both oozing animosity, but Alex wasn't interested in the particulars. He was preoccupied with general bullshit she had just spouted.
"Mrs Jones, I thought I had made it clear that I have no interest in therapy." he bit out through clenched teeth.
"Yes, you did, but unfortunately this was a non-negotiable term of our agreement with the SAS."
It was Sergeant Manson however, who leaned forward, stabbing the desk emphatically with his finger as he spoke. "Every soldier is required by SAS regulations to attend therapy Cub. If you're in my camp, you're a soldier. If you're a soldier, you see a shrink."
"Brecon Beacons employs three full-time psychologists. However, due to the particular nature of your work, you will be provided with an external therapist." Mrs Jones said, "I am aware you have no interest in speaking to a therapist, but as we have already agreed, Brecon Beacons is the only viable option for you at the moment. I think you'll agree that therapy is a small price to pay."
Alex ground his teeth together, but a glance at the sergeant's impassive face had him holding his tongue. He was reminded of K-Unit, and all the effort they had been making for him lately. He was reminded of Snake's voice cracking as he spoke about his brother, and he was reminded of his own desire for change.
"I get to veto them."
"You get to veto one."
In the end Alex only used the one veto.
Matthew Carmichael was a good man. He was middle-aged, married and extraordinarily empathetic. He would have made an excellent therapist, were it not for the set of his jaw which was far too similar to that of General Alexei Sarov. Every time the therapist opened his mouth all Alex could see was blood and grey matter and a gun slipping from dead fingers.
The rejection of Matthew Carmichael is what led Alex to where he was now, three weeks later.
"Can I be brutally honest with you here Alex?"
"When aren't you?"
"I'll take that as a yes."
Alex grinned lightly at the man in front of him.
"You're being a – what's the British way of saying 'gobshite'?"
As far as psychologists went, Liam Callaghan was good. A former military man, the Irishman was honest, blunt, and he laughed from his gut. Everything about him was genuine and Alex had taken to him straight away.
"Prick I think."
"Right, well you're being a bit of a prick."
"Because that's not harsh." Alex scoffed sarcastically.
"You are – no, listen –. K-Unit can be gobshite's too; thick as planks when they want to be. But at least they're trying. They're doing everything they can to make you happy and you're still stone-walling them. They earned the right to the truth long ago."
"Calm down. I didn't say you needed to give them your full angsty autobiography all at once. I just mean that trust goes both ways and they've already walked their miles. It's your turn now."
Alex shifted uncomfortably at that. He wasn't unaware of K-Unit's efforts; to apologise, the make him feel safe; to reconcile. They were persistent, much like the man before him.
"Look, you've taken the first steps, but I'm well aware that those early days working for MI6 aren't what keep you up at night. But Scorpia, the Pleasures, and all the shit that came after..." Liam paused here. They both knew that that list could have gone on a lot longer. "What's bothering me is that I'm pretty sure it's not an issue of trust. Honestly I think all their blundering is why you do trust them. They're not capable of the kind of shite MI6 likes to dish out. Why do you think they sent Fox back?"
"Look, Liam – "
"Don't "Look Liam" me! You're forgetting that I know everything Alex Rider. I know how you play your games!"
"You are!" the Irishman exclaimed, throwing his hands up. "You're playing Two Truths and a Lie in reverse, only you don't want the game to end!"
"Game? Liam, what the hell are you going on about?"
"Fine! The metaphor's dead, but my point still stands. You lie all the time Alex –shut up, that wasn't an insult! – You lie because, for years, that was survival tactic Numero Uno, but now you're in a situation that isn't purely about survival and you're completely out of your comfort zone. So, instead of adapting, you stick with what you know, right? You isolate yourself to protect yourself; physically, mentally and emotionally. You can only trust yourself, so alone you are safe, right?"
Liam leaned forward in his chair, his expression open and earnest. Alex sighed in defeat. Had it been anyone else telling him these uncomfortable truths he would have been out the window already, but Liam somehow didn't count. He was a relatively young man, maybe in his late thirties, and though he often seemed like an old soul, he didn't always have the patience of one. He pushed and prodded, questioning like a curious child, but was still absolutely and unequivocally on Alex's side.
He was also absolutely and unequivocally right.
"Fuck." Alex breathed, slouching forward to mimic the Irishman's posture. "I hate when you go all psychologist like that."
"I am a psychologist."
"God knows what you are, but it's definitely not a psychologist."
"Good. I hate shrinks."
There was another silence; comfortable this time. Liam waited patiently whilst the spy tried to organise his thoughts.
"Logically I know that keeping my past from them does me no good." Alex huffed, "I know I can trust them. I know they'll understand, better than others have at least. It's just..."
"Just what, Alex? What's holding you back?"
"Nothing's holding me back-"
"Don't try and bullshit me Alex. If I want bullshit there's a camp full of testosterone-fuelled eejits waiting outside that door. Something's making you hesitate and until you get off your arse and deal with it, you'll never be comfortable with K-Unit. And I know that's not what you want."
"Shouldn't you be asking me about my dreams, or my childhood, or my feelings?" Alex quipped, a reflex more than anything.
"Alex, I grew up with seven brothers and four sisters, so I know all the tricks. And I don't give a crap about your dreams. I want to talk about what's real, like K-Unit."
Alex scoffed loudly but Liam didn't take the bait. They had been playing the light hearted banter game for a while now, but it would seem that the Irishman was in the mood for progress today.
"I know you've been lonely, since before America. I know that the Pleasures had no idea what they were taking on when they invited you to live with them. I know it hurt when they sent you back like a defective toy, and I know that until recently you had given up on the idea of having a family ever again."
"What do you mean "until recently"?" Alex frowned. Liam was a shrewd man and his insight often had Alex on the back foot.
"Oh, come off it Alex. Those four soldiers are a family and they've essentially adopted you. You're all uniquely screwed up and dysfunctional, which makes you perfect for each other. Nobody else could possibly understand what you've been through so get your head out of your ass and accept it."
"I don't have to do anything!"
Liam rubbed his neck and gave and exasperated chuckle. "I'm going to let that one slide, simply because it's the first genuine teen-moment I've seen from you, ever."
"Look, take a drink of water, and try to settle yourself."
Alex's scowl deepened but he did as he was asked. He breathed deeply through his nose.
"Now, I want you to do your best not to answer impulsively ok? I know you like to be witty and sarcastic, but here I want you to think about your answer."
There was another pause as Alex settled himself. Then he nodded.
"Given the time that you've spent here, how do you feel about K-Unit right now?"
As requested, Alex did his best not to be smart. He tried to focus, but it was such an open question.
"I don't know. I mean, I just..."
"Ok, let me rephrase then." Liam interjected, recognising the stress in his patient's face. "When I suggest you speak to K-Unit about – well let's say about how you got shot – how does that make you feel? Do you feel more or less anxious? Or does the whole idea just seem ridiculous?"
"No, not ridiculous, but I don't necessarily feel good about it."
"You're an excellent judge of character Alex." Liam said gently. "Do you feel like you can't trust them with the harder truths?"
"No. It's not that. They're good men." Alex defended quickly. "Honestly, by now, it has nothing to do with K-Unit."
Liam quirked an eyebrow but Alex jumped in again before the psychiatrist could say a word.
"That's not what I meant. I'm not phrasing this right..." Alex heaved another breath and rubbed his face before trying again. "I like K-Unit. I like being with them, and I want to stay."
His chest loosened a fraction. Liam smiled lightly.
"I think that's the first time you've ever admitted that out loud."
"I know." the spy said, a little thrown by his own revelation.
Liam gave him a moment before pushing further.
"So what else is there Alex? You trust these men, care about them. You know they can handle whatever you throw at them. So why not let them in?"
Alex looked up, and finally spat it out. "Because I want a fresh start!"
"Alex, you have one." Liam urged.
"No I don't!" Alex cried, frustrated at his own inability to articulate his thoughts. "I told you what K-Unit and I talked about when I got back from Qatar."
"When you were in the med-bay, you mean. When the five of you made up."
"Yeah, then. Wolf was right. Because of my... history..., I can never start over."
Liam frowned at this.
"I think that statement warrants its own discussion, but for now, how does this relate to K-Unit?"
Alex's shoulders slumped in exhaustion. He was utterly drained, but he'd already gone this far down the rabbit hole. So with decidedly less energy, he continued, his tone subdued.
"The reason I don't answer their questions, despite all that's changed, is that, with them, I can pretend things weren't as bad as they were – or are. Talking about it makes it real. I tried last time, with the Pleasures. But when I told them about how it all started, it was like I was right back in that doorway listening to those officers telling me Ian was dead. I remember every word that passed between me, Blunt and Jones, and I remember every decision that led me to this situation, and it hurts. It hurts to talk about my godfather murdering my parents and it hurts to talk about my uncle training me to be a spy from the day I could walk. It hurts to even think about all the people I killed and it hurts to know that I'm responsible for Jack's death."
"Alex, aside from your ridiculous guilt-complex, everything you just said is true, and no matter how much you want to, you can't just pretend it isn't." Liam had scooted his chair forward to catch Alex's tired confession. "It is real. You're parents did die. You did become a spy. You did kill people. It isn't all in your head, it's out there in the real world and you need to deal with that. The Pleasures weren't prepared for the reality of your life, but they were civilians. K-Unit and I, we're not. It'll be rough, but we want to help you. You just need to talk to us."
"But don't you see? They're not just memories anymore! Every time I talk about getting shot or stabbed, I can feel it on my skin." his throat tightened even at the thought of it. "When I talk about almost drowning my lungs burn, and when I talk about people I've killed -"
"You talk to Wolf though." Liam interrupted.
"Yeah, but I don't mean to. It just slips out!"
"But that's good Alex! Don't you see?" Liam smiled widely, relaxing back into his chair, inviting Alex to do the same. "The reason you talk to Wolf is that you know, deep down, that you can trust him. And the fact that you didn't consciously decide to trust him should tell you that it's real. K-Unit, and all they're offering, are real. You can tell them the truth and they can handle it. You don't have to deal with everything on your own."
He allowed a moment for this to sink in before reaching out to gently grip Alex's arm.
"This life Alex, being a part of a team – a family – you can have it. All you have to do is ask."