The cell they left Dembe in was pitch black. The single moment of illumination before the door slammed shut behind him revealed cinderblock walls, a filthy floor, and a single occupant in the far corner.
His hand brushed along the wall as he moved to the opposite side as his cell mate, settling himself into the corner and preparing for the potentially long wait. Raymond would come, he was sure of it, but how soon… that was impossible to say.
Dembe closed his eyes and breathed steadily. What did it say about him, his life, that his breath could be deep and even, even in a situation like this? He found himself unable to even care much about what this particular group of men wanted from Raymond. They came, they tried, they failed, they died. The pattern had repeated time and time again. It would continue to repeat, of that Dembe was sure. The only thing that marked this iteration as unique was the presence of the other man in the cell. It had been years since Dembe had had a cellmate, not since he was a child, before Raymond had found him.
The man in the corner was breathing raggedly, his occasional coughs ringing wet and unhealthy to Dembe's ears. From the single glance he'd gotten, the man had seemed small, his chest bare, his dirty hair falling across his pale face. He hadn't spoken since Dembe entered the cell, just struggled to pull air into his lungs.
"My name is Dembe," he stated plainly. "Dembe Zuma."
The cell's other occupant shifted, the sound of a rattling chain stirring up old memories. The other man's breath hitched and he coughed, the harsh noise echoing in the small space.
"Alex Rider. Pleasure."
The voice was young and the chain rattled again and Dembe felt fury stirring in his gut.
The cell door didn't open again for what felt like weeks but Dembe knew was less. He had tried counting heartbeats to keep the time but kept getting distracted by Alex's fight for air.
"Don't worry," the man—boy—had assured him a few hours in. "I don't think it's contagious. Just blood in my lungs."
This did not make Dembe worry less. Alex's words had a tendency to blur together at the end of his sentences, like he was running out of air.
Light pooled in when the door opened, painting the boy's blood-stained arms and bruised torso in yellow light. His hair looked to have been blond, once, before it was coated in a layer of blood and grime. His face was young. So young. There was a ring of ravaged flesh around his left wrist, a metal cuff clasped around it. The fingers of his other hand were mottled black and purple and he held it carefully behind his leg, out of view of the guard that stepped through the door first, his nose recently broken and poorly set.
Said guard dropped food and water by Dembe, then immediately started laying into the boy.
Alex just curled into a ball and took it. The second guard twitched a gun into Dembe's line of sight when he made to move.
Dembe eyed the gun warily and settled back into the corner with his food. After a moment, he said: "Could I have a light to eat by?"
The guard sized him up, then called to the other one. "Morrison. Can he have a flashlight?"
The first guard threw one last savage kick at Alex's head, then said: "No."
"A candle, then," Dembe insisted.
"Fine," the guard responded absently, staring at Alex's tense, balled form. He spat in the boy's direction. "A candle."
The moment they left, Dembe moved to Alex's corner.
"Easy. Sit up. Drink this." Dembe held a bottle of water to Alex's lips, holding the back of his neck, partially to find his face in the dark and partially to steady him: the boy leaned heavily against the wall, his breathing even worse than before. He managed a few sips of water before heaving it all back up.
"I'm fine," he mumbled as Dembe felt his head for injuries. "Fine. I'm fine."
The door creaked and a guard (not Morrison, thankfully) set a candle and Bic lighter by the door.
He left without a word.
The Bic lit easily and the low light of the candle made the room feel smaller, somehow, the ceiling lower, the walls closer. Alex shielded his eyes with his unbound arm.
Definitely a head injury.
"What is the worst?" Dembe asked gently. "Your head? Ribs?"
Alex just breathed, slumped like a ragdoll against the cinderblock.
"'m fine," he answered eventually. "It's nothing. Morrison can't kick for shit."
Dembe carefully removed the boy's arm from over his eyes.
"I said I'm fine."
"You are not fine. Open your eyes." Dembe moved the candle in front of the boy's face, then away, watching his pupils. "You have a concussion."
"No shit," the boy breathed. "That must be why there's two of you."
Dembe ignored the sarcasm, reaching for his unbound hand instead. Alex moved it away.
"Not the hand."
"Your fingers are broken."
"I know. Not the hand."
Dembe reached for it anyway and found Alex's heel in his solar plexus instead.
He didn't find his breath again for a while.
By the time he did, Alex was sunk deep into the corner. Dembe met his eyes and the boy tensed.
"Come near me and I'll break your fucking neck," the boy growled, his eyes wild.
"I will not hurt you," Dembe said slowly, moving towards him anyway.
"Fuck you, get the hell—" Interrupted by his own damaged lungs, Alex struggled to breathe.
Dembe placed a hand on his shoulder.
"If you don't let me help you, you are going to die in this room," he said plainly. Alex continued to wheeze. His was so very young, so small. Dembe's hand took up his entire shoulder. "Do you want to die in this room, Alex?"
"No," he managed. "No, God, no, I don't want to die here."
"I don't want to die here," Ressler slurred, his gaze slipping in and out of focus.
Liz wanted to punch a wall, to scream. She said: "You're not going to die here."
Dembe was driving fast, his face hard as stone. "We can't go to a hospital," he said lowly.
"We have to!" Liz shot back. "We don't have a choice."
"If we go to a hospital, we all die. They are watched."
Dembe swerved quickly, narrowly avoiding driving off a curve on the moonlit road. He had turned the headlights off as soon as they'd left town, Liz didn't know how he could even see the road, but Dembe seemed to have a knack for impossible things.
He was right. The cartel that controlled this area would be looking for them, and they knew
Ressler had taken a hit. They couldn't go to the hospital.
"I don't—Keen, I don't want to die here."
"You're not going to die here," she responded automatically.
"There is somewhere we can go. Will he last a few hours?"
"Does he have to?" she asked, desperation tinging her voice.
Dembe drove faster, careening down dirt roads, kicking up clouds of dust behind them.
Liz held Ressler's hand against his side in an attempt to stall the flow of blood, trying to ignore the passage of time. Over an hour passed before Dembe slammed the stolen car to a stop at the end of mountain road and opened his door.
"Stay in the car."
Liz's heart pounded in her throat.
Dembe returned minutes later with another man, around average height, blond hair that looked almost white by the light of the moon. The blond man slipped into the driver's seat and drove deeper into the mountains.
"Who is he?" Liz asked, baffled.
"A friend," Dembe stated.
The blond man laughed.
Alex had three cracked ribs, four broken fingers plus one thumb, a concussion, and a broken wrist.
"The ribs and concussion are from Morrison," Alex had informed, his words measured out like gold dust, slowly and carefully, maximizing a precious commodity. "I knocked him out before they got me. Broke his nose. He's bitter."
Dembe looked pointedly at his hand. Alex didn't meet his gaze.
"They said they'd work their way up," he answered plainly, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. "The arm will be next."
"Why?" Dembe asked, aching for this little boy, a casualty in someone else's game.
"It's my shooting hand." Dembe closed his eyes, but he wasn't surprised. This was no ordinary boy, he'd known that already. "I killed their leader's son. Shot him before he could set an explosive in a courthouse." He turned to look at Dembe. "I don't regret it."
"This is the reason you're here."
Alex nodded, then smiled wryly, blood staining his teeth. "What can I say? Part of the job."
You can say 'no,' Dembe thought. You can say 'I'm only a child.' You can say 'none of this is my fault.'
Dembe just continued to clean the raw wounds from the cuff.
He didn't know exactly who Alex worked for, but he knew most of the players in these sorts of games by now. Alex's London accent and lack of self-preservation spoke volumes. He grieved that MI5's use of child soldiers didn't surprise him.
"Why are you here, Dembe?"
He shrugged. "Raymond—the man I work for—has many enemies. They do not often catch up with him, but sometimes they get close."
"And you're close."
"Wasn't expecting Reddington. Thought he'd be a bit too much of a loose cannon for you," Alex mused. Dembe looked up, surprised. Alex tried to laugh, half managing it. "What? I know people."
"Have you met?"
"Once," Alex answered. "He wouldn't recognize me."
Dembe studied the boy carefully. Maybe he had been too quick to judge. Maybe this wasn't MI5's work after all. To have seen Raymond… This would require some thought.
"They'll come in a few hours. Don't fight them," Alex said, more of a request than an order.
Dembe obeyed regardless.
They dropped an unconscious Alex on the floor of the cell three hours after they'd taken him, locking his mangled wrist back into the cuff. His hair and chest were bathed in sweat, causing the dirt from the cell floor to stick.
A pit formed in Dembe's stomach the moment he saw his arm. There were hand prints from shoulder to wrist where they must have held him down, but the worst was the mottled skin around the break, already darkening.
His left eye was blackened and there was swelling around his jaw, evidence of further head injuries.
Dembe set the arm as best he could, made a makeshift sling out of his shirt, and waited.
Alex woke with a start minutes later, a scream in his throat. Dembe held him against the wall as he fought, speaking lowly and making sure he didn't move his arm.
"Yes. Sit still. You will damage your arm more."
The boy slumped against the wall, panting. He closed his eyes. "How bad is it?"
"It appears to be a clean break. I am more concerned about the blows to your head."
He huffed a laugh, then regretted it as he was thrown into a coughing fit. "I can't even tell which feels worse, right now."
"I set the arm while you were unconscious."
"Thanks," Alex exhaled, sounding spent. After a long moment: "Is there anyone coming for you, Dembe?"
"Raymond will come."
"I don't think anyone's coming for me," the boy mused, his voice more weary than disappointed or scared; unsurprised.
"Raymond is coming for you, too."
Alex looked at him without turning his head, a brow cocked.
"Why would Reddington give a shit about me?" he asked quizzically.
"Because I do," Dembe answered steadily, meeting the boy's gaze.
Alex didn't speak for the rest of the day.
The next day, they broke his humerus.
They carried Ressler into the cabin and set him down on the couch according to the blond man's direction.
"Let me get the med kit," he said, and disappeared into another room.
"Dembe, who is he?"
He ignored her. "Keep pressure on the wound."
"I am, but I need to know who he is!"
"That is not my story to tell. He is a friend and he will not harm us. That is enough." Dembe met her eyes firmly.
The blond man returned to the room with a duffel bag full of medical supplies and a bag of blood.
"Where did you get that?" Liz asked.
"Do you know how to set up a transfusion?" he said, ignoring her completely.
"That's a no. Dembe?"
The older man picked up the supplies without a word and started working.
"The bullet is still in his side," he informed the blond man, who tugged on a pair of surgical gloves and started examining Ressler's injury.
"He got lucky," he concluded after a moment. "Nicked a minor artery, missed everything else. Get the transfusion going."
"You're sure you know what you're doing?" Liz questioned.
He looked at her bemusedly. "Digging bullets out of other people isn't hard, once you've done it a few times. It's the ones in you that are a problem." She stared. He cocked his head, looked at Dembe. "Was that a weird thing to say?"
"Yes," the older man replied without looking up.
"Damnit. Sorry. Yes, I know what I'm doing. He's your partner?"
"Yes," Liz answered, feeling like she was going to be sick.
"He'll be fine," the man said. "I promise." His face softened when he spoke, and Liz noticed for the first time just how young he looked.
Then he started digging a bullet out of Ressler's side and she didn't much care anymore.
"Got it," he exclaimed several tense minutes later. "He'll want this, right?"
Dembe chuckled. "No, my friend, I don't think he'll want it."
"I'll never understand you people," he said with amused disgust, dropping the bullet in a small dish. "Throwing away the bullets you take. Jesus."
The man gestured with one hand, sweeping the whole room. "Everyone, I suppose."
He made tight, careful stitches across the wound, sewing muscle and skin back together with practiced ease.
"How many times have you done this?" Liz asked.
"Don't know. A lot? At least six. Can't think of any others off the top of my head."
"Who are you? Dembe won't tell me."
The blond man's gaze swiveled to Dembe, searching. "Huh. I—Thanks." He turned back to Liz.
"Alex Rider, MI6. Pleasure."
"Liz Keen, FBI. Can't say I was expecting MI6."
"Yeah, yeah, I have 'unconventional allies.' My SO never lets me hear the end of it. Red's not going to show up here, right?"
"He does not know we keep in touch," Dembe responded.
"Thank God. You know he sent me a Christmas card last year? To my house. Had to have a very uncomfortable conversation with Jones about that," Rider said crossly.
"He doesn't really get boundaries," Liz commented wryly. Rider laughed. "Thank you," she added. "I don't know what we would've done if you hadn't been around."
Rider flushed bright pink. "What can I say? Part of the job."
Raymond came on the third day, while Alex was out of the cell.
"Let's go," he said.
Dembe said: "Not yet."
The father of the man Alex had killed was long gone by the time they got there, but Alex was still tied to a chair. Morrison had a hand clamped against the boy's broken collarbone, his thumb grinding against the break.
Alex's teeth were bared, hair in his eyes, a growl sounding from deep in his throat. He looked feral, more animal than boy.
Dembe shot Morrison dead where he stood.
Alex's eyes were wild and his whole body shook jerkily, whether from pain or fury, Dembe could not tell, but there was no recognition in his gaze. Dembe wasn't sure if he even knew Morrison was dead.
He took a swing at Dembe as soon as he had his good arm free.
"Easy, Alex. Easy now," Dembe breathed, catching the boy's fist easily. "It's me. It's just me."
Slowly, his eyes cleared, his breath slowed. He shook his head once, twice, as if to clear it.
Dembe finished untying him.
"Fuck," the boy breathed, closing his eyes. "Fuck."
"Easy. We're going home," Dembe started to help him up, slinging his good arm over his shoulder.
"Dembe," Alex panted. "I don't think I can walk."
"Then I'll carry you," the older man said simply. And he did.
Alex fell unconscious almost as soon as he settled into Dembe's arms.
"Do you know who that is?" Red asked sharply, an affronted look on his face.
"His name is Alex."
"That's Alex Rider. MI6's war dog."
"He's a child, Raymond," Dembe answered, unfazed. MI6, then. Not MI5 after all. "It doesn't matter who he is. He is coming with us."
Raymond shook his head but kept walking. "I wasn't saying we should leave him."
"He will take months to heal. You will have a head start, if he decides to come after you."
"You think he won't?" Red scoffed.
"You were in the same room once and he let you go. I don't think he will change his mind."
Red rocked back as if he'd taken a physical blow. "He what?"
Dembe just smiled and kept walking, existing the building and basking in the sunshine bathing his skin.
When they got into the van, Raymond sighed and said: "St. Dominick's Hospital, London."
Ressler woke to a man's voice humming a tune he didn't recognize, the world around him blurred and faded like damaged film.
"Easy, pal," the man said. "You're high as a kite."
"You're at a safe house. Your partner is fine, she's just outside."
The man's face entered his field of vision, but all Ressler could make out was blonde hair and pale skin.
"I'm MI6. Happened to be in the area, happened that Dembe apparently has a fucking tracker in my neck, for which I did not give consent," the man grumbled. He didn't really seem upset, though, almost… happy? "Go back to sleep, you need it."
Ressler wasn't sure he could've stayed awake if he'd tried.
The next time he woke, the world was clearer, and so was the pain in his side.
Keen was next to him though, so he didn't mind.
"You got shot," his partner said as she checked his bandage. "Dembe had a friend in the area."
"Yeah," she confirmed, sounding troubled.
"What's—" he coughed weakly and shit don't do that again. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Keen lied, shaking her head. "He's just not what I expected, Dembe's friend."
"No," Keen huffed a laugh. "Young. Said he's 21. He's gone, though, so I guess it doesn't matter. Took off about an hour ago."
"He's the one who stitched me up?" Ressler asked, frowning.
Keen nodded. "Red's sending a jet to pick us up. The rest of the case went perfectly, we got him."
"Good," Ressler replied slowly, feeling the world fade out around him. "I think I'm going—"
He didn't know how or if he finished that sentence, but the next time he woke up, he was in an actual hospital, so he didn't mind.
Alex Rider woke up in St. Dom's, in the same room they always put him in. He was starting to wonder if they kept it just for him.
The right side of his body was pretty much one big cast-sling-splinted mess.
He wondered what day it was.
He wondered how long he'd been there, how long he'd been out. They hadn't started breaking bones until a week or so in, so two weeks? Three?
He wondered if he was sixteen yet.
Catching something in the corner of his eye, he started, then looked closer. Written on the back of his unbroken hand was a phone number.
Removing his IV, he swung his legs off the bed and moved to the corner of the room. Sure enough, his emergency bag was there, as he'd requested in his medical files.
Boxers and a pair of jeans later, money stuffed in his pocket and a protein bar between his teeth, he stepped through the door, glad that he'd had t-shirt on already as he had no idea how he'd have gotten one on himself.
Quickly, before Jim could show up and ruin everything, he strolled to the end of the hall, ducking into the stairwell. He bumped into a nurse on his way out, mumbling apologies as her phone slipped out of her pocket.
Huh, he thought as he checked the date. Happy birthday to me.
He sent a quick text to the number on his hand, then circled back to the lobby.
A nurse dropped her phone. Just doing what anyone would do, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am.
Flash the dimples enough and no one notices the broken bones. That, Alex had learned long ago.
He took a moment to breath in the London air before catching the Tube to Chelsea.
A particularly bad patch of track almost made him regret leaving the hospital without meds, but he made it home in one piece.
Just part of the job, Alex, he reminded himself. Just part of the job.
Dembe's phone buzzed in his pocket and he excused himself, stepping outside.
thanks for the assist – AR
Dembe smiled at the screen, not bothering to respond. He didn't hold any illusions that Alex would give him his actual number, but he was grateful for the sign of life.
He had a feeling this wasn't going to be the last time he saw the boy.
He hoped he was right.
A/N: Okay, it has been a Very Long Time since I added anything to this 'verse, but I guess it wasn't done with me. I polished up this half-written story I started years ago and figured I'd post it. The two timelines are set pre-Houseguests and post-everything-so-far, respectively.