Alex's estimate of getting to sleep barely past dawn turned out to be accurate. Eight o'clock the next morning found him in Yassen's temporary penthouse apartment in Abu Dhabi. There were guards outside and much heavier security than the first time Alex had been there but it was still familiar. Still soothing.

They were alone, even Ivey and Mace left outside. Alex wondered if he would ever get used to security like that. He felt bad that they had to tag along for everything he did, like a team of particularly well-trained guard dogs.

Sit. Stay. Follow. Alex felt like a grade-A jerk, leaving them in the hallway to just wait while he spent however long with Yassen. At least there was air conditioning.

It made Alex feel torn between just leaving because of that horrible, overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, and doing his level best to make the job as easy for them as he could. Stay somewhere nice and safe and not make them feel like they were the victims of his whims.

Maybe Yassen had planned it like that, the slight guilt to make him behave. Alex wouldn't be surprised.

Just to make Alex feel extra bad about it, there was a generous breakfast waiting in the living room. Mostly healthy – thank you, Yassen – but Alex spotted a chocolate croissant and a strawberry pastry of some sort in-between scrambled eggs and fresh bread and artistically arranged fruit. The scent alone was enough to make his stomach rumble.

Alex remembered the nausea from the evening before. He hadn't thought he would ever be hungry again and he had settled for a bland sandwich for breakfast, not in the mood for much else. His stomach, on the other hand, swiftly decided that mental trauma was good and all, just not if it got in the way of that kind of food, the traitor.

Yassen had probably planned that, too. He certainly looked a little too amused by the way Alex's attention kept drifting to the breakfast spread.

"That looks like bribery," Alex said. "Or a reward."

"I believe it's normally referred to as breakfast. You did not eat much this morning. I expect you have realised by now that this was somewhat of a mistake. It seemed sensible to keep food around with a teenager present."

Yeah, definitely amused to Alex's experienced ear. It sounded like someone from Sagitta had tattled, though if that was the result, Alex couldn't say he minded. He was sure there was some sort of ulterior motive, there usually was, but that could wait until later. A glanced confirmed that Yassen meant it and for a while Alex cheerfully ignored everything from security issues to Crux's lesson in favour of piling as much food as he possibly could onto the stupidly small plate that came with the breakfast display. So he could get seconds and thirds, sure. That wasn't the point.

A good half an hour and a somewhat demolished breakfast later, Yassen finally broke the silence. All he'd had was a civilised cup of coffee. That was pretty much the only thing on the table that Alex hadn't touched. That, and the chocolate and avocado gloop that tried to masquerade as some sort of healthy Nutella. Alex wasn't falling for that one.

"Your impressions from the interrogation," Yassen said and continued before Alex could answer. "I have seen Crux's report. I want a report in your own words."

The essential parts of it, then. Yassen had no patience for needless details. "The sniper said he had been hired by Robert Warren, one of the people whose territory Yu took over. Crux thinks Warren could be a scapegoat. I agree."

"And your reasoning?"

Alex took a deep breath. "It makes no sense. I looked him up last night and it looks like he pretty much just reclaimed his territory when Yu died but he's never shown an interest in expanding beyond that. There's been the usual things, a couple of assassination attempts and one attempted kidnapping of his son by a rival, but that's it and that's nothing that hasn't happened before, either. I was there with Yu but I was just security. I had nothing to do with it. All I did was look mildly intimidating and agree with him at the appropriate times. Warren would have no reason to target me, no reason to target SCORPIA, but all the reason in the world to want to avoid that sort of thing. He knows what happened last time one of the executive board took an interest in his business."

Yassen nodded slightly. "That leaves, of course, a number of other motivations. Warren could have acted on false intelligence, planted by his own enemies, yours, or SCORPIA's. It could be a false flag operation; an assassination attempt arranged for by his enemies as a way to bring SCORPIA down upon him, by our enemies as a way to test SCORPIA's response to an attack, or by some of our own people in an attempt to make room for promotions."

He made it sound so logical, like that sort of convoluted politics was the most natural thing in the world. As a member of the executive board, Alex supposed it was. He thought he had left behind all the headaches of spying – disguises and deception and questioning absolutely everything – when he had left MI6. Apparently not.

"That sounds like a lot of effort for someone to go through," he said.

Yassen shrugged slightly. "Not as much as it sounds. I have been paid well to arrange for such things in the past. A convenient assassination attempt, one or two hired assassins fed false information and conveniently too inexperienced or unskilled to get away, and a surprising number of people will question it no further. Sometimes, it is desirable for the assassination to succeed. Sometimes, it serves the situation better should it fail and the target be suitable incensed not to look too closely once the scapegoat has been found and eliminated."

Like the bombing that hadn't been anywhere near as well-organised as it could be but which Alex had figured was because of a lack of time. Like the sniper, of mediocre skill and little experience, the sort one might hire if they had no local assets and no way to get some there in time.

A couple of people supposedly hired to carry out an assassination but really only hired as bait. Meant to die, probably gruesomely and after prolonged torture, whether the assassination succeeded or not. The sniper fit that profile perfectly.

"So whoever's really behind it wanted me to survive," Alex surmised.

"Perhaps," Yassen agreed. "The competence shown was not what it could have been. Time may have played a part. It could also have been a matter of simply letting things happen. Perhaps you lived, perhaps you died. If they had no personal stake in things, it may simply not have mattered, and your reaction – SCORPIA's reaction – would be the important part."

That sounded just delightful. Alex could vividly imagine Marcus and the rest of Sagitta's reaction if anything had happened to Alex, or to Ivey or Shale in the car with him. He could just as vividly imagine Yassen's response as well. Yassen would have been patient. He would have made sure he had all the information. He would have made sure he did not overlook anything. But he would have gotten even, one target after the other until every last person somehow involved with the assassination was dead.

Something in Alex felt oddly warm at the thought that someone cared enough to do that for him. MI6 never seemed to care much if he got injured or almost killed. Just … patch him up and send him right back in. Yassen cared enough to get even. Something about that made Alex feel kind of warm and fuzzy for all that it was a completely inappropriate reaction to mass murder.

"You will have ample opportunity to question Warren about it, however."

That was what Alex had expected. It didn't make it any easier to hear it out loud.

"Why go after him at all, then? If he's only a scapegoat, I mean."

"Because he may still have valuable information and the chance exists, however slight, that he was indeed responsible."

And SCORPIA intended to make a statement. Yassen didn't have to say that one out loud. It wouldn't matter if Warren had just been caught in the crossfire; a convenient bit of bait to hide the real mastermind. SCORPIA had to prove it was every bit as strong as before Yassen took up his habit of killing executive board members, and that was it. If that required burning everything to the ground; Warren, the people behind it, whoever leaked the intel, everyone … well, the statement would just be that much stronger. SCORPIA did not care about fairness and had never hesitated at indiscriminate murder if it served their purpose.

The breakfast settled heavily at the thought. Alex's mouth felt uncomfortably dry but he left his half-finished tea where it was, unwilling to risk aggravating his stomach any further.

"… Yes, sir," he finally said. Yassen hadn't said as much but at that moment he was Alex's superior, not his mentor or weird sort of parental figure.

Yassen nodded slightly. "I want a preliminary plan of attack by tomorrow evening. Use what resources you need to. You have some degree of practical experience by now."

"Yes, sir." There wasn't much else he could say to that.

"On a somewhat more welcome note, I'm sure, the last of the rewards for Kurst's demise has been paid out. There were a number of people with a financial interest in his death. Some required more incentive to pay out than others. Accounting for exchange rates and the small percentage kept by SCORPIA as payment for handling those issues, the total came to just under one and a half million American dollars."

Alex swallowed. That was – a lot of digits. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. He hadn't killed Kurst for money. He had killed him to save Jack, nothing else. He probably shouldn't have been surprised that the man had a significant bounty on his head, or the SCORPIA handled it for him like it was the most natural thing in the world. A hazy memory of Singapore drifted by. One of the people Yassen had killed back then had had a bounty on him, too, and SCORPIA had handled that one as well.

"That's a lot of money," he said when he couldn't think of anything else.

Yassen shrugged slightly. "Significantly less than some terrorists are worth. Significantly more than most of the rest of the executive board could have bragged about."

Yu had probably been worth the same. Mikato, too, maybe. Chase, Kroll, Duval … Alex doubted it. They had enemies but probably not anyone willing to pay that much money to see them dead. Had anyone claimed the bounties for them? Yassen and Dr Three had made it quite clear that it would work wonders for his reputation that he had killed Kurst. With everyone else, Yassen had done his best to make sure no one knew the truth behind it. Had Yassen laid claim to Mikato's bounty? Would the headache from the Yakuza be worth it? Alex didn't ask.

What sort of bounty had been put on Dr Three's head? Or on Yassen's? The thought came unbidden and unwanted. They were in charge of SCORPIA now; lethal and intelligent enough to have managed to take out every last bit of competition they had faced. They were dangerous people any way you looked at it.

If the bounty on Yassen wasn't larger than Kurst's already, Alex would be surprised. At the very least it would be the moment Dr Three retired and Yassen took over completely.

Yassen Gregorovich, in charge of SCORPIA, with none of the flashy tendencies or internal politics that had kept the old board reasonably in check, and with the full resources of the largest freelance terrorist organisation in the world at his beck and call … there would be a lot of people who would want him dead.

"… How much am I worth?" Alex had voiced the thought before he could stop it, his mouth acting before his brain could kick in. He could look it up. He had the clearance for it. He never had.

Yassen watched him for long seconds and when he spoke, his voice was little more than a murmur, the voice of someone talking to a skittish colt. "Are you sure you want to know?"

It would be useful to know. It would tell him how much effort someone might put into seeing him dead. It would give an idea of whether the attack in Johannesburg could in any way have had something to do with money. It was something he really should keep track of in their sort of world.

"… No," he admitted.

Yassen didn't comment but he had obviously expected that reply.

One and a half million dollars. Alex's mind couldn't quite grasp the number. One and a half million, along with whatever else he had earned that hadn't gone to paying off his student debt from Malagosto … which, from what Yassen had told him, had been most of it. He had made it a priority to make sure SCORPIA lost that hold on Alex as soon as possible. It was still a lot of money. Not enough to retire on, but more than most people would ever own, and all he'd had to do for it was murder seventeen people in cold blood and look the other way with a number of other murders.

And now he would have to do it again. He would need to find a way to target Warren without killing the man or destroying important potential evidence in the process. He would need several combat teams beyond just Sagitta. He would -

Combat teams. The term made his mind grind to a halt. Combat team, which was really just SCORPIA's slightly more politically correct term for mercenary team. They were SCORPIA's but put enough money on the table, and they would be available for whatever a client would need, too. It wouldn't even need to be some large operation. SCORPIA had combat teams permanently stationed several places in the Middle East and Central America; support for security companies and drug lords and whoever else could pay for it.

SCORPIA had mercenaries. Alex had money. Even if Yassen wouldn't sign off on the order, Alex had money of his own now. The thought alone made him feel somewhat dirty, like he needed a shower; the fact that his mind went so easily to that sort of solution, but if it meant he didn't have to get involved himself, didn't have to risk Sagitta, didn't have to kill his eighteenth or nineteenth or twentieth person -

"No." Yassen's voice cut through his thoughts, almost amused.

The man was a mind-reader, Alex wasn't even joking about it any more.

"I didn't say anything," Alex objected.

"You considered it," Yassen said, "and while I appreciate your ability to adapt to SCORPIA's approach, the task of ensuring this does not happen again falls to you. Not whoever you would hire to act in your place."

Your ability to adapt to SCORPIA's approach. Something about that really made him want a shower.

"… Yes, sir." Alex squished the neglected teenage part of him that wanted to say whatever instead. Yassen probably knew, anyway, but politely ignored it.

"Now …" Something shifted in Yassen's expression, an indefinable thing that Alex couldn't explain but which made him sit a little straighter and sent every instinct on high alert. "Would you like to tell me exact what you thought you were doing, arguing with the good doctor?"

That was not a question. That was a demand for an explanation, and Alex had the reason for the generous breakfast display right there. A trap. Get him relaxed and comfortable and then spring the surprise on him. He should have known something was up. The chocolate croissant had tasted suspiciously like whole grain.

Alex was quiet for long seconds. Considered several approaches and discarded all of them. In the end he settled for blunt honesty.

"… that I wasn't going to torture someone, that I wasn't going to agree just because he said so, and you can both very politely go fuck yourselves if you think you can make me. That's what I thought."

"Alex." Yassen could put a world of meaning into one single word.

"No." Alex couldn't, but he could put in the one meaning that really mattered.

For a long while they just watched each other, Yassen's expression utterly unreadable and Alex utterly unwilling to back down.

"I told you to convince the good doctor," Yassen finally said. "I had hoped I had taught you enough common sense that it would not be necessary to remind you not to argue with the world's pre-eminent expert in torture. You are valuable to his plans. You are not irreplaceable."

Was that concern? It sounded like it. Maybe Alex had pushed it a bit too far, even he would admit that. He could still remember the electric feeling of actually standing up to Dr Three, the terrifying mix of defiant elation and bone-deep dread that he was going to spend the rest of his short, miserable existence as the doctor's research subject … and, just as vividly, the minor panic attack he'd had afterwards, in the privacy of his own bathroom. However private anything really was at Malagosto. There were probably cameras. Creeps, the lot of them.

"So I should just roll over and do as he says? He wouldn't have let me borrow Crux if I hadn't argued. You're the ones who wanted a successor," Alex said. "Someone to take over SCORPIA. I'm not going to be a very good successor if I roll over the first time someone says no."

"A successor," Yassen agreed, "when you are of the appropriate age and level of training."

Alex fell silent, the next argument stuck in his throat before he could voice it. Yassen was not the type to show emotion. The emphasis alone was enough to tell him that this was something unusual and that made him shut up and listen.

"It could be another decade," Yassen continued. "When you are twenty-five, perhaps. Certainly well past your twentieth birthday. You have much to learn. To rush the matter would be to do both of us a disservice. Your training as an assassin and spy will do little to help you. You will need to understand how SCORPIA works and her place among her clients and competitors. You will need a solid understanding of politics and history. You will need training in psychology, to understand not merely your clients and enemies but your employees and operatives as well. You will need a solid foundation in economics and administration, in military strategy, in languages, in warfare, in science. You proved to the doctor that you have the stubbornness to succeed but you have years of training still to come. You are valuable but you are not irreplaceable. The good doctor has calmed down over the years. This matters little. The wrong word on the wrong day has still seen individuals – students, soldiers, valuable operatives – kept as research subjects."

So don't push it, Yassen didn't need to say. Alex got that just fine. He had known it was a risk to argue with the doctor. He would still have done it, even with Yassen's words in mind. He supposed he would just have to be a little more careful about it next time.

"I know what he's capable of." Alex couldn't help the small bit of annoyance. He had been alone with the doctor for months, thank you. He knew exactly what that man could do.

"Do you? You refused to watch the evidence of Grief's dissection. It will only take me a minute or so to find the recording again, perhaps along with Howell's demise." Yassen's words were ruthless. There was not a drop of cruelty in them, just cold, merciless matter of fact and Alex swallowed hard at the reminder.

Julius Grief, who had been fifteen, who had worn Alex's face, who had been taken apart because MI6 had used him, because Dr Three liked his research, and because the doctor apparently liked Alex. Ash, who had been a traitor – to Alex's family, to MI6, to ASIS, to SCORPIA, to Yu, to everyone – and had paid the price for it; who had probably been wrung dry of information over hours and days until he begged for death -

"The good doctor," Yassen continued mercilessly, "found the state of Howell's internal injuries quite fascinating. It was a severe injury and he lived with it for fifteen years. It is not often one has the chance to see the effects of time on such damage to the human body."

Alex didn't speak. He could vividly imagine it, graphic lessons at Malagosto and at Crux's hand had ensured that, and he wanted to throw up again. It was too easy to imagine Ash instead of the sniper from Crux's little lesson in practical interrogation, too easy to imagine his face and his voice and -

Alex took a deep breath. Forced the images aside and tried to get the nausea back under control.

"People have vanished before," Yassen said when Alex remained silent. "I can do nothing to protect you if I cannot find you. Do you think the doctor cannot simply make any evidence vanish? Do you believe that there are not rooms in his building unseen by outsiders? That he does not have contingency plans? Do not antagonise him. His favour is still fickle. He merely hides it better these days."

Definitely concern. Alex wasn't sure what to say. He would try not to be reckless about it but … he couldn't promise anything. He would argue again if he had to because however hard Yassen had worked to wear down his morals, Alex still had limits. He still had those points, however rare, where he went this far and no further, and he would cling to those. Even against Dr Three. Even with the horrible reminder of just what the man could do.

Was that why Yassen had left his tracker in place? Dr Three had to know it was there, though. Maybe a small bit of added security? Even Dr Three couldn't take everything into account. He might forget about it if he did target Alex one day. And the tracker transmitted in real-time. Maybe the information it would send before it was disabled would give Yassen enough to find him.

Sometimes it felt like his life was nothing more than a long series of questions with random breaks of second-guessing himself.

Yassen still wanted an answer. Alex still wasn't sure what to say.

"… All right," he settled for. It wasn't really an answer and definitely not a promise he knew he would break later, anyway, but it seemed to be enough. Short enough that his nausea allowed it, too. Yassen had to know it, but he didn't mention it.

"You inherited your father's luck." Yassen's comment was little more than a sigh.

Something about the reminder made Alex bristle. "His ran out."

"Did it?" Yassen's voice gave nothing away.

"My parents were murdered, in case you forgot."

"But you lived. The most precious thing in their lives and, I suspect, the reason Hunter wanted out of his undercover assignment. For fourteen years, SCORPIA never even remembered your existence. Had Ian Rider not insisted on an MI6 career, you could have lived the rest of your life out of SCORPIA's sight."

"Or I could have been dead from a genetically modified smallpox virus."

Yassen shrugged, ever pragmatic. "The possibility exists."

Sometimes Alex really missed how simple life had been before MI6, when his most pressing worry had been when Ian would be home and if – when – his entire life would be uprooted for months or years again. There were a lot of things about the world he had slept better not knowing.

Alex fell silent. Fiddled with his mostly-empty teacup but didn't refill it. He didn't think his stomach felt up for it yet.

"Why me?" he finally asked. "We have people in Australia. They know the area and local organised crime. The assignment should have been passed on to them, maybe with an operative to keep things in order. I'm supposed to delegate. That was my first lesson."

I don't want to do it, Alex didn't say and didn't need to. Not with Yassen.

"Because you need the experience. Because it is a long, slow process to make a name for yourself. Because you were the target. And because you are my second in command and such are your orders."

Sometimes Alex almost forgot that part. Sometimes it was impossible not to remember. He got the impression that Yassen preferred his willing cooperation but that didn't mean Yassen was above that sort of order.

It didn't make it any easier for Alex, though. He had expected that explanation but had to try, anyway, just for his own peace of mind. That didn't mean he had to like it.

"I don't think 'Because I said so' is supposed to be good parenting," he said, just a little snarkily. Maybe it wasn't the best idea but he would blame teenage hormones. Teenage hormones and Rider genes.

Something flickered through Yassen's eyes, so brief that Alex had no chance to identify it.

"I think," Yassen murmured, "that I have committed significantly worse parenting sins than that, should anyone keep count."

Alex swallowed. The jab suddenly felt a lot more serious than he had intended. He rarely ever thought about their relationship, if only because he had no idea what Yassen even was to him. Mentor, superior, commanding officer, protector, older brother, occasional father-ish figure … it was easier not to have to put words to something he wasn't even sure how to describe.

"… You've kept me alive. You've taught me to survive."

"Yes," Yassen agreed, and the word sounded impossibly heavy to Alex, "I have."

Almost two years. Did Yassen ever regret it? Alex wondered now. Yassen had been all set for a nice, quiet retirement. Without Alex, the board would likely never have taken that much of an interest in him. Yassen might even have retired before they could. Had his house in Saint Petersburg long before Miami and the board's attention ever became a problem. And now he had Alex to deal with, the sixteen-year-old son of his former mentor, and Alex would be the first to admit he wasn't always the easiest person to handle. Was it worth it? Trading a peaceful retirement for an alliance with Dr Three and future sole control of SCORPIA? Yassen didn't want power. Mostly, he just wanted to be left alone.

Alex looked down at his hands that had suddenly become the most fascinating thing in the world.

Did Alex himself regret it? He wished he could say yes. He wished he could say no, too. Most days, he simply wasn't sure. What had the alternative been? He would never know. All he could do was make the most of what he had now, for himself and Jack and Yassen and Sagitta.

"Alex."

Alex looked up and met Yassen's eyes. Sometimes his brain seemed like it never shut up. Sometimes it seemed like if it didn't have enough to worry about, it would find something on its own. Yassen probably knew. He looked … faintly sympathetic, Alex supposed. Faintly.

"I do not give such orders because I delight in your struggle with them. You need to learn, and this is an opportunity to gain such experience in a reasonably safe situation. Warren is likely a scapegoat; you are unlikely to face highly-qualified resistance. This is part of your education. You may still back out, but I think we both know that you would not take that option. Is it still a risk? Yes. Could we have delegated the assignment to another operative? Certainly. That is not the point. The point is to allow you to gain the experience you will need later, and gain it in such a way that when you face a far more dangerous foe, you will be better prepared. Listen to your commander. Use combat teams familiar with such assignments. Perhaps bring in a local operative to assist. Then carry out your orders and hunt down those responsible."

It was more of an explanation than Yassen normally bothered to give. Still cold and clinical but it made sense and Alex needed to hear the words. He had been around Dr Three for too long, he realised. He had started to see that echo of sadism even in Yassen. Even in someone who might have put Alex through hell at times but had only ever done so to see him survive.

Alex waited a heartbeat. Let the explanation settle and ease the knot in his chest a little.

"… Yes, sir."

The words came easier this time. Yassen must have noticed, too, because there was a flicker of faint, fond approval in his expression.

"You have a check-up this afternoon," he said. "A precaution after everything. The rest of the day is your own."

An actual, legitimate almost-day off. Alex had a lot to do. A plan of attack to work out, an endless list of homework he was always behind on, but … maybe that could wait. Just a little.

"Thank you."

This time the amusement was obvious in the slight twitch of Yassen's lips. Maybe he knew Alex planned to waste his afternoon entirely and obviously didn't mind.

"Dismissed."

Alex was out the door before he could change his mind.


Next: Skipping school for fun and profit. Well, mainly fun.