Well, all I can say is 'I'm sorry'. I'm sorry these chapters take so long – despite my extraordinary track record with this, I never set out intending to be that person who only updates once every year. In my defence, I've spent the last year getting my degree, and sorting out my MA, but I know it's very frustrating to be left hanging for so long with no indication that a story is going to be updated again. And really, I am very sorry about that, I know it's a stupid amount of time to be left waiting for an update – but this last year has been a bit nuts, and I suspect all the years of my life from now till retirement (should I ever manage to get a job) are going to be a bit nuts. Let me just assure you now that, even though it takes me approximately four thousand years to get a chapter out, none of my fics are abandoned. Not even the ones that haven't been updated since 1833. They're all planned out in my head, and one day (one day!), they will be written. I can promise you that much, even if I do seem to be writing at a speed which will mean the last chapter of my last fic will only be posted at the last syllable of recorded time.

I don't enjoy leaving you all hanging the way I do, and I know it's irritating. But until someone can pay me to sit around and write fic (sadly illegal D:), I've got to continue on doing the things which might, in the fullness of time, get me a decently paid job (ha!). There are people out there who can lead full and busy lives and still update regularly, and I admire them with a reverence normally accorded to spiritual leaders, but I am sadly not one of them – so, please accept my apologies, and continue on being the awesome, understanding, supportive people that you are. I've loved getting your reviews, and loved hearing that people still enjoy this fic, and been more grateful than I can say to those of you who've told me that you understand how much RL can take over and take precedence, and that you've enjoyed reading anyway, despite the stupidly long waits. You are awesome. I adore you.

Enjoy the fic, I'm writing it for you. (VERY VERY SLOWLY. ARGH.)

But first, for one night only – THE DISCLAIMER!: We've talked about this.

"I agree completely," Roslyn said wearily, "but we are in no position to take on MI6, and the boy is their operative. And I can't take the risk that if we make things uncomfortable for them, they will make things uncomfortable for Rider."

"It is ridiculous," Manning said again. "More than ridiculous, it's obscene. He's fourteen years old and he didn't sign up for this. Even if he had, he couldn't have properly consented to it. Because he's fourteen."

"I know, Doctor," Roslyn said. "And if there was anything the SAS could do, I promise you, we would be doing it by now. But believe me, there isn't."

"Not even petition to extend his training?" Manning suggested, hope tingeing his voice.

"Why would you want to do that?" Roslyn frowned.

"Alex needs to see a psychiatrist," Manning said bluntly. "He needs to talk to someone about this mess they've caught him up in, and a week isn't going to cut it."

Roslyn sighed. "I can't do it, doctor. I told you, if I could, I would, but the fact is, Alex Rider is not our operative, and we can't get into this mess with MI6. However," he held up a hand when Manning opened his mouth, "I will strongly suggest to them that he should be given a full psychological evaluation."

"Are you telling me you believe that MI6 will pay a blind bit of notice to such a request?" Manning asked, one eyebrow raised.

Roslyn sighed heavily. "No, I'm not. And unfortunately, I suspect the only way to get them to pay attention will be to point out that inot/i doing so will lose them a valuable operative."

Manning shook his head. "Then don't do it," he said firmly. "I'm not going to ask you to make a suggestion which will get that poor boy even more tangled up in this nonsense."

"Then what would you have me do?" Roslyn asked heavily.

"Who are his parents? Can you get in touch with them?"

"If he had parents, do you think he would be in this position?" Roslyn returned. "He has a guardian, I think. But MI6 are understandably close-mouthed about this boy, I've no idea who it is."

"I'll ask Alex," Manning said, standing. "Thank you for seeing me, Colonel."

Roslyn stood also and nodded, once. "My pleasure, doctor. Feel free to refer Rider for whatever help you think he needs, but remember that we can't keep him here. Once he leaves, he needs to be prepared for whatever's after these children."

"It shouldn't be his job," Manning said again, with just a hint of bitterness.

"I know. But while it is, I can't in good conscience let him be unprepared for it."

Manning left without another word.

Alex himself was still with Snake. "Look, I just – I freaked out, OK? I just – had a bit of a moment. But I'm fine now."

Snake gave him a long look. "I think you're lying," he said simply.

"That's not my problem!" Alex snapped. "Just – get the rest of your lot in here, and we can continue."

Snake paid no attention to him and sat down in one of the chairs by Alex's bed. "What's going on, Cub? You don't strike me as the kind who just 'freaks out'. So what's up?"

Alex glared at him. "I freaked out," he repeated firmly. "This is way outside my jurisdiction, OK? The stuff I do is totally separate from my school, and I don't like having them here, and I don't like knowing that they're in danger. So I'm sorry if I shouldn't freak out, but I did, and that's all. It's over now."

"Bollocks it is," Snake returned. "What if you freak out when there's clear and present danger? What if your desire to keep what you do a secret stops you from helping your classmates?"

"That's different," Alex said hotly.


"Because then I'm – I'm doing my job, I'm – it's just different!" Alex knew what he wanted to say – that when he had something to do, when there was an obvious threat, he got things done. The added element of his classmates was something new, though, and he knew it. He slumped a little. "I can't keep my classmates safe and in the dark," he said finally, defeated. "It's one or the other."

"And which are you going to choose?" Snake asked quietly.

Alex narrowed his eyes. "You know which one I'm going to choose," he snapped. "I only really have one option, don't I?"

"Cub, what I want to know is this," Snake said, leaning forward. "You'll save your classmates, I respect that, truly. But I'm worried that you'll let yourself get killed to save them and protect your secret. That's the third option I'm seeing here, and I don't like it."

Alex looked away. He hadn't thought of that before, but it left him with a nasty taste in his mouth; it was the perfect way out, except he didn't want – and never had wanted – to die. "I'm not going to do that," he said quietly. "I won't."

"Prove it to me."

"How am I supposed to do that?" Alex snapped. Snake shrugged.

"Walk me through it. Why aren't you going to do it?"

"I don't want to die!" Alex said heatedly. "This mess isn't my fault, and I'm not going to conveniently let myself get killed to clean it up for people who've never done anything except – treat me like shit!"

Snake sat back and nodded. "Good," he said quietly. "That's good, Cub."

Alex frowned. "What?"

"Way I see it," Snake said quietly. "You've got to accept two things-"

"No," Alex said, really angry now. "I don't have to accept anything. MI6 got me into this mess, this isn't my fault, and I don't have to do anything to get myself out of it."

Snake frowned back at him. "What?"

Alex thought back on everything Tom and Manning had been saying and bit his lip. "This isn't my problem," he repeated, letting the words fall heavily. "And I don't have to fix it. I can tell you right now what MI6 are going to say: that if I follow it to the source, then it'll be over and done with. But why should I have to? If it were any other group of schoolkids, they'd have armed guards around them the whole time, they'd be safe and protected." He paused, and huffed a laugh, more tired than bitter. "Actually, that's a lie. Why would they send armed guards when they could just send me?" He shook his head. "But why do I have to be the first line of defence for people who hate me anyway?

Snake took a deep breath, then let it go again. "I don't know, Cub. How are MI6 even getting you to work for them in the first place?"

And that was the problem. "Jack," Alex said tiredly. "They'll threaten to deport Jack."


"My guardian." Alex lay back against his pillows, all the fight draining out of him.

"I thought MI6 were your guardians?" Snake said slowly.

"It's complicated," Alex said, and had to swallow down the insane urge to laugh. Nothing about this was funny. "She's looked after me ever since I was little. She's American, her visa's expired. They'll deport her and put me in a home."

Snake, who had come in with the full intention of getting Cub back on his feet and back into the right mindset, found himself suddenly and firmly on Eagle's side. "I don't know what to say," he said finally, after the silence had stretched out uncomfortably.

"And I don't want my classmates to die," Alex said woodenly. "Which they will, if I leave this up to MI6. I mean, no one knows better than me that MI6 won't lift a finger to help anyone if it isn't in their interests." He sat up and shook his head. "Call 'em back in," he said, and Snake wished he knew what he could say to get the weariness out of the kid's voice.

But he didn't, so he stood and went to the door without looking back.

Snake paused in the corridor for a moment before going to fetch the rest of his unit, considering. The doctor had told him to 'exercise some judgement', which had stung, but faced with how Cub was actually doing, he had no idea what the options were anymore. On the one hand, Cub clearly wasn't doing so well. Physically, maybe, he was getting better, but mentally? That was a whole different ball game, and Snake wasn't sure how to react. Cub probably shouldn't be memorising urban warfare tactics at that moment, but then, he shouldn't be doing any of the things he was doing, and that clearly hadn't given anyone a moment's pause before. Then again, leaving him to stew also wasn't an option, so.

Snake huffed out a breath and went to brief his unit.

"So," he said, addressing himself almost solely to Wolf, "this is fucked up."

Wolf raised an eyebrow. "What gave it away?" he asked bitterly, and Snake gave him a look. "What is it this time?" Wolf asked, backing down after a moment's silence.

"That kid's head is all over the place," Snake told him bluntly. "He's been screwed six ways to Sunday and back again, and I don't think lessons are what he needs right now."

"Thank you!" Eagle burst out. "Jesus, I've only been saying that for-"

"Maybe it's not what he needs right now," Fox cut across him, "but he won't be thanking us in a week's time when he's faced with protecting-"

"Shut up," Snake said firmly, to both of them, already foreseeing them hashing it out for the rest of the day. "Look, all I'm saying is, right now, he needs help sorting shit out, not the good angel and the bad angel perched on his shoulder, playing comforter and devil's advocate, OK? So unless you two can keep quiet, you can leave now."

Neither of them moved, and Wolf, after glancing between them, turned back to Snake. "What are you suggesting?" he said, with surprising calm.

Snake shrugged. "Honestly, I don't know," he admitted after a moment's pause. "But shit, the kid's messed up, Wolf. He's gotta know that these things aren't normal."

"Oh, he knows," Eagle said bitterly. "He knows that as well as we do. Knowing it's not normal doesn't mean he can stop, though."

"And we've got our orders," Fox said quietly. "Oh, don't give me that bollocks, Eagle," because Eagle had drawn himself up and was glaring at him, "I think this whole thing is a shitfest from start to finish, but the fact is, we won't be there when his class gets attacked again. I've got a vested interest in making sure he comes out of it alive."

Eagle deflated. "Shit," he said miserably. "Shit. There isn't a right answer, is there?" For a split second, he didn't look anything like the competent, professional soldier his unit knew him to be – then he gathered himself in, standing a little taller. Of all of them, Snake thought, Eagle had got closest to the kid, and of all of them, this mess was hitting him hardest. "OK. So, what do we do?" He was looking at Snake, who could only shrug.

"Whatever's going on with that kid is wrong," he said slowly, "but he's got to get through this, at least, and that we can help him with."

"And after that?" Wolf asked, drawn in to caring about the kid apparently against his will. "What then?"

Snake shrugged again helplessly. "I don't know. We haven't got the clout to go up against MI6 – I'm not sure the SAS as a whole has the clout to do that. It's pretty likely that if we try, we'll only succeed in making life worse for the kid; they're holding his guardian over him, threatening to deport her if he doesn't-" he broke off. "Perform," he finished, after a brief but horrible pause. "I can see them deporting her and spiriting him away if they think it's necessary."

"Which they will," Cub said from the doorway. "They will absolutely think it's necessary if you go digging, so let's not try that, OK? I'm feeling pretty underprepared for this nonsense, though, and that's something we can fix. Shall we?" he disappeared back into his room, leaving K-Unit staring at each other.

"Brave little shit, isn't he?" Eagle said, impressed.

"Colonel Roslyn," Snake said quietly, to Wolf, as they filed out. "We need to go and see the Colonel."

Wolf glanced at him and nodded. "Alright. But you're doing the talking."

The second session with Cub was wildly different to the first. After grilling him on their earlier information dump – and being pleasantly surprised at just how much information the kid had retained – Wolf hadn't tried to pump anymore information into the kid. A flicker of a glance gave away his intentions to his team, and they slid effortlessly into a series of scenarios, designed to test the kid's knowledge and how well he could adapt the information he'd been given to fit any situation.

It didn't surprise them that Cub was a natural – there had to be something about the kid to make MI6 so very desperate to hang onto him – but Snake actually found himself enjoying the whole thing, twisted as that was. Cub had a natural flair for this kind of tactical planning, and was clearly enjoying the mental exercise in a way he hadn't enjoyed the earlier flow of rather dry information Wolf had monologued at him. It was equally clear, however, that he was pushing away all thoughts of having to apply this to his classmates in the near future.

The doctor finally interrupted their session with Cub nearly three hours later, just as Cub looked to be starting to flag.

"Right, out," he said peremptorily, staring Wolf down before he even began to protest.

Wolf wasn't even trying – they had maybe twenty minutes before the Colonel went off-base for the night, and every minute would count.

"Rest up, Cub," he said absently, and Eagle ruffled the kid's hair.

"Try going over the stuff in your head," Fox advised. "We'll drill you on it when you're back on your feet."

Snake glanced at the doctor. "Any ideas when that will be?" he asked, not letting himself glance at Cub.

The doctor shrugged. "Within the next couple of days," he said carefully. "Ideally, I'd keep Alex here in for a little longer, to be absolutely sure, but I'm told that we don't have that kind of time. I'm not having him return to his classmates, though. He'll be sleeping here, where we can keep an eye on him, and keeping decent hours." He gave them all a long, hard look. "That means no training before nine, and none after six," he added firmly.

"That works just fine, doc," Eagle said easily. "It'll keep him out of the way of his classmates, and out of the way of any awkward questions."

Cub cleared his throat. "I do enjoy it when you all plan my life for me," he said sweetly, and the doctor laughed a little, while Eagle looked taken aback.

"Sorry," the doctor told him, and Cub shrugged it off.

"It's all true," he admitted, "I just thought I'd remind you I am actually here."

"Difficult to forget," Eagle said, forcing a smile.

Cub looked bleak for a brief half-second before forcing a smile of his own. "Oh, you'd be surprised," he murmured, and Eagle's smile vanished.

Snake spotted an opening and took it. "We'll be off," he said, half to the doctor, and half to Cub. "We'll see you in the morning, Cub – doctor, if we don't see you, leave us instructions and we'll listen to them."

"I'd expect no less," the doctor said gravely, and turned away, already dismissing them.

Snake met Wolf's eyes, and jerked his head at the door. Nodding, Wolf offered Cub a gruff goodbye, and led his unit out.

"Rider seems to have a gift for making champions out of those who work here," Colonel Roslyn said, his voice impressively non-committal. The four of them were standing at ease in front of his desk; Snake had laid out their concerns as clearly as he could, trying to find a decent balance between decently respectful and firm. It had been a hard battle, and one he wasn't entirely sure he'd won – particularly since the Colonel seemed more amused than impressed. "You're the second lot I've had in here petitioning for him."

"Sir, SIS shouldn't be doing any of this," Snake began, when it looked as though the Colonel wasn't about to say anything further.

"Oh, I agree entirely," Roslyn nodded. "I'm just not sure what you expect me to be able to do about it. The SAS only overlaps with the SIS on assignments where they need trained muscle. Rider's trained, but he's not muscle, and he's not our soldier. This is out of our remit."

"Surely Command-"

"Command serves its country, as do you," Roslyn said quietly. "Rider has, in the past, been an indispensable asset to that country. I doubt Command is feeling philanthropic enough to go into a battle with MI6 over him when they're nominally working for the same goal."

"I don't like their methods, sir," Wolf said, speaking up for the first time, and Roslyn turned surprised eyes on him.

"I don't recall them asking you to, Lieutenant," he said simply, looking down at some paperwork on his desk.

"Excuse me, sir," Wolf said, quiet but firm – Snake allowed himself to be impressed. "But I've been proud to serve my country, and proud to be part of the SAS. And now I find that I've been serving a country that's happy to use a child to do their dirty work for them. I understand that sometimes the ends justify the means, but I can't see what ends justify these ones – I won't believe that an adult can't do Cub's job. Perhaps not as easily, perhaps not even as well, but anyone who's signed up to serve knows that it won't always be easy, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that SIS has taken easy route when it's also so – wrong. Sir."

Roslyn was looking at him, eyes calm and steady. "And as I said, Lieutenant, I agree entirely. Do you think I don't? To find that SIS have been using a child shook me. To realise that there's nothing I can do about it stung. But those are the facts, and we have to face them."

"Is there nothing we can do, sir?" Eagle asked, eyes front.

"Keep in touch with the boy," Roslyn said very quietly. "You understand, if anyone asks you about this, I will deny it, but make sure to touch base with him every so often. If he needs it, you can be a safe place for him. I'll turn a blind eye – to an extent – to whatever methods you need to use to do that, but I have a feeling that pretty soon, that boy is going to need somewhere to turn, and he might as well turn here. If nothing else, we can offer protection." He shrugged. "I'm sorry to tell you, though, that officially, our hands are tied. If we meddle with MI6, there's a high chance that they'll meddle back. We haven't got the clout or the government support to deal with that."

Wolf nodded; Snake sighed. Even Eagle was silent. To Snake's surprise, however, Fox didn't let it go. "Of course, sir," he said, due respect in every syllable. "But Cub's training is significantly out of date, wouldn't you say?"

"Excuse me?" Roslyn asked with a faint frown.

"He's an asset to our country," Fox explained politely, "but as far as I'm aware, he had less than two weeks of training at the beginning and none since. He's fourteen, he's growing. He needs a lot more training, possibly specialised stuff – and aren't there school holidays coming up soon? Perhaps Command could liaise with SIS over his instruction, arrange for him to come to us for, say, a month? Over the summer? For further – training. We could arrange for him to be drilled in night ops and standard interrogation techniques, I'm sure he'd find that useful – particularly since the SAS has dealt with him twice now. It would only be appropriate. And perhaps the doctor-"

"Dr. Manning?"

"Yes, sir – perhaps he might like to give his medical opinion as to whether or not Cub might not benefit from updated training."

Roslyn looked thoughtfully at Fox. "So long as we don't make it seem too – bleeding heart, I suppose it's possible," he conceded.

"As you said, sir," Fox said, copying Eagle, eyes straight forward, "Command don't make a habit of bleeding-heart philanthropy."

Roslyn paused for a bare second before nodding. "I'll see what Command say," he said, and gave them all a long look before speaking again. "I want to hear that Rider has survived for long enough to make this worthwhile," he said finally. "I'm trusting you to make that possible, and I have every faith that you can do it, so don't disappoint me." Another second's pause, then he nodded again. "Dismissed."

They filed out, and Eagle clapped a hand on Fox's shoulder as the door shut. "Inspired," he said simply, but he looked relieved. "Seriously, inspired."

Fox shrugged. "I've been trying to tell you," he said quietly. "I don't like what they're doing, but there's nothing we can do to stop them. All we can do is make things better for Cub, and we can, so let's try."

Wolf shifted. "We're going to miss evening meal if we chat any longer," he said irritably, and turned down the stairs, followed by his unit.

"And you," Eagle added, addressing the back of Wolf's head, "I didn't know you had it in you, mate. All that about serving your country and feeling betrayed? Heartwarming."

"Shut up," Wolf said gruffly. "It's true, anyway."

"Oh, I know. I just didn't think you'd be the one to say it."

Left back in the infirmary with Manning, Alex tried to freeze him out, with very little success.

"Everything alright?" Manning asked, checking his chart.

"Fine," Alex said a little shortly, then sighed. "Sorry. I'm fine."

"Well, you seem to be doing well," Manning said, hooking the chart back onto the end of the bed. "Physically, that is. How were that lot?"

"They were fine." He stretched and swung his legs over the bed. "Can I have a shower?"

"Of course you can," Manning told him, giving him a piercing look. "Are you sure you're alright?"

"Better after a shower," Alex said quietly.

"Anything to say other than 'I'm fine'?" Manning asked, turning away to examine Alex's drip, unused now.

"Nothing else to say," Alex said, looking down at his knees. He wasn't going to risk saying anything more that had to be unsaid.

"Come on," Manning said very quietly, sitting down on the empty chair. "You've got feelings, thoughts. Tell me."

"I don't need a shrink," Alex said firmly.

"I disagree, Alex," Manning returned. "I want you to get a psych eval, if nothing else. I think you could use one. And I think if MI6 can be convinced to give you one, you'll end up benched for a good long while."

"That bad, huh?" he said, trying for levity.

Manning gave him a long, sympathetic look. "You're fourteen, Alex, and you've seen horrors most grown men haven't. I'd say you need a good long period of recuperation, and a great deal of counselling."

"Which I won't get," Alex said quietly.

"Look at it logically, Alex-"

"You're dreaming," Alex interrupted, without heat. "They don't care that I'm underage and it's illegal. Even if I'm as bad as you think I am? They're not going to care that I'm not psychiatrically sound."

Manning was silent. "I think you could use the help anyway," he said. "They might not bench you, but they will want you to be mentally sound. You could use that."

"I think you've got some pretty hefty misconceptions about MI6," Alex said firmly. "And I don't want anyone digging around in my head. I don't want to go digging around in my head."

"That might be the point," Manning said quietly.

"I'm not interested," Alex told him. "I'm not going to let you get in between me and MI6."

"How do you propose to stop me?" Manning asked, his eyes kind. "You're not going to go to them and tell them that I'm digging around, because that would get me fired, possibly killed or removed some other way, and I think you like me enough not to want that."

"I'm a spy," Alex said, looking up and meeting Manning's eyes for the first time. "I'll do what I have to."

"You're a child," Manning countered, "and I don't believe that. You don't want me digging around, that's fine. You don't want a psych evaluation, I'll agree. But you need someone to help you, Alex. If you don't want me to do anything official, well, I think you're making a mistake, but fine. But I think I could be some help, someone to turn to, if you want."

"Alright," Alex said, without meaning it. Manning had been nice; he didn't intend to get him dragged in any further than he already was. Manning had two young kids, and a good job, and Alex knew the price people who tried to help him paid.

Manning didn't look particularly convinced, but he stood and smiled. "I'll see about getting you a towel. The shower's along the corridor."

Between Eagle's rather forced levity and Wolf's increasingly relaxed replies, K-Unit were practically cheerful by the time they made it to the mess hall.

Having got their slop and sat down, Wolf was all for thrashing out their plans with Cub further, but they were stymied when Jackal tentatively placed his tray down. "Hi," he said carefully. "You mind?"

"It's not the school dining-room, Jackal, sit down," Wolf said shortly, applying himself to the mush calling itself mashed potato.

The rest of B-Unit sat down, all wearing a variety of awkward looks. The only one who looked calm was Bear, and there was tension around his mouth, for all he looked at ease.

"We've got a proposition," Jackal said, after a couple of minutes of awkward silence. Wolf raised an eyebrow, and Jackal settled a little more comfortably into his chair to hide his awkward shift.

"Oh?" Eagle said, when Jackal said nothing.

"You've got Cub's training now, right?" he said finally.

"And?" Fox asked, bristling a very little.

"And we think we could help," Jackal said firmly, not letting himself betray any uncertainty.

Wolf snorted. "Really."

"Look, I like the kid – no, listen to me," Jackal said quietly when Wolf scoffed. "I do, and we want to help. We'll leave Hawk out if you like, though I don't think he's any danger to Cub-"

"He put the kid in the infirmary," Wolf said, and hid his own wince, remembering just how badly he'd failed Cub in that respect.

"He's in therapy for it," Jackal pointed out sharply, and took a deep breath. "I'm not here to talk about that. I'm just saying, we want to help. We've got a lot of making up to do to the kid, we fucked up, and-"

"If this is about getting into MI6's good books," Eagle began, and Jackal waved an impatient hand.

"Of course it isn't," he started, and Bear took over before things could get any more heated.

"Our unit specialises in urban close combat," he said simply, taking advantage of the relative newness of his return, the slight reserve his fellow soldiers still treated him with, nearly two months after his retrieval. "We're best suited to help Cub deal with this, and we want to. You can say no, and that's fine, but just think about letting us help, OK? We want to. I liked Cub. I think he's scary as hell, mind, but I liked him, and we owe him, so we'll help out if we can and you want us to."

K-Unit was silent for a couple of seconds before Wolf glanced at Eagle, a look that very clearly said it was Eagle's call. Eagle, in turn, glanced at Snake, who nodded.

"Alright then," Eagle said gruffly, in the novel position of talking for his unit, still remembering his last serious run-in with B-Unit; he and Hawk had clashed significantly over Hawk's treatment of Cub, and his lingering resentment, mixed with his growing remorse, was an uneasy mix. "Cub'll be staying in the infirmary, but he should be cleared for duty pretty soon; we'll let you know."

"No combat," Snake said firmly.

"Some combat," Wolf countered, flicking a glance at him. "Slowed down and safe, though."

"He's weak with weapons other than guns," Cobra began, but they were interrupted when a group of the other brats stopped by their table.

The leader of them was the tiniest teenager Eagle had ever seen, and slight into the bargain, but his eyes were bright and his face set – the kid who'd followed him halfway to the infirmary when Cub had taken his tumble off the zipwire. It was difficult not to admire the kid's nerve, even as Eagle geared up for a truly epic bitchfit from Wolf.

"What?" Wolf asked gruffly, ever true to form. "You want F-Unit-"

"We want to know how Alex is," the ringleader said firmly. "You said you'd keep me informed." This last was addressed to Eagle, who actually had to hide a grin – he'd never been called to book by a teenager before.

"Eagle wasn't authorised to make that decision-" Wolf began stiffly, but the kid actually interrupted him.

"I don't care who's authorised to make decisions," he said, looking a little scared by his own daring, but resolute nonetheless, "and I want to know how Alex is. We all do." He jerked his head at the two kids standing behind him – a girl and a boy, both a little pale but standing their ground.

Wolf put down his cutlery very carefully, and leant his elbows on the table, evidently gearing up for some kind of sinister speech, when Snake got there first. "He's fine," he said evenly. "A little shaken up, and he's got a bad concussion, but he's going to be absolutely fine. He shouldn't be here, of course, with his asthma-"

"And his dodgy heart," Eagle put in, getting into the spirit of things and receiving a kick under the table from Snake for his pains.

"Or his weak immune system," Fox added, shooting a look of unholy amusement at Eagle, and presenting the kids with a bland smile.

"-but he'll be just fine," Snake finished, giving both his teammates a look which promised death.

"Can we see him?" the other boy asked, and Snake gave them a considering look.

"I'll give you directions to the infirmary," he said finally, after a long pause. "It's up to his doctor."

The tiny ringleader shrugged. "I already know how to get to the infirmary," he said, pointedly careless. "Just wanted to check it was OK." And, Eagle realised, to flag up that they'd broken a promise.

So when Wolf drew himself up, irritated by the boy's dismissive tone, Eagle jumped in. "Of course it's OK. You want to visit your little friends, you go right ahead."

The kid treated him to an incredible bitchface – Wolf should have taken notes – and shrugged again. "Thanks," he said, packing as much disdain into one syllable as possible, then giving Eagle a half-wary, half-defiant look.

Eagle didn't react. He'd found it difficult to come to terms with Cub's injury, and he'd been given up-to-date intel – though he had also been more to blame than this boy, so maybe it weighed even, in some strange way. He had to admire the kid's nerve, if nothing else. "You're welcome," he said calmly, and none of these kids would know that it was as damn near to an apology as they were ever likely to get from a soldier in the SAS.

It interested him, in a distant way, that the boy even knew where the infirmary was. Despite all their bitching and moaning, none of the other kids had been injured in anyway – over-tired, maybe, and possibly some of them had sprained things, but nothing that required more than the most basic of field first-aid. Cub was the only kid who'd ended up in the infirmary, so this boy – his friend – had clearly been to visit him already.

Maybe they were putting something in the water at that school, he thought, and turned back to his fellow soldiers as the kids filed away, job done.

"You were saying?" he said to Cobra, who was watching the three children leave thoughtfully.

"Pity they're not all like them," Cobra nodded at the kids. "From what F-Unit's said, most of them are a bunch of entitled brats. Think they can't be touched, Mummy and Daddy won't let it happen. We could use more like them."

Wolf shrugged, not particularly interested in any of the children who weren't Cub – which was possibly where they'd gone wrong. F-Unit might have had a point when they said that K-Unit couldn't be objective about any of the kids; they were far too used to Cub, Cub's standard of expertise and bound up in keeping Cub alive and up-to-scratch. "They're not my concern anymore," he said bluntly. "What was it you were saying about Cub?"

"He's weak with long-range weapons," Cobra said, and Eagle shook his head, leaning forwards.

"From what I've heard, he's lethal with a gun," he disagreed, and Cobra gave him a look.

"Yeah, because SIS are gonna hand him one of those," he said, disbelief in every word.

"How do you figure?" Fox asked. Just because they'd heard it from the horse's mouth – or the Cub's – didn't mean that B-Unit, who'd had only the briefest and most disastrous interactions with Cub, should know it.

"If they were going to give him a gun, they wouldn't have sent him here with instructions to train him in group combat," Jackal pointed out, all too used to speaking for his unit.

On some level, it bothered Eagle that B-Unit had clearly been discussing Cub and his training amongst themselves. It wasn't so much that he felt territorial over Cub's training, and more that he was conscious of a kind of unwilling protectiveness – he didn't want to feel protective of Cub, and god only knew that it was mainly pointless. He shrugged off the feeling as best he could and took a deep, grounding breath. "What other weapons do you think he'll be able to get his hands on?" he asked pointedly. "In an inner-city school? It's not like they're going to have much useful stuff lying around for him to use."

"Maybe your best bet is teaching him how best to disarm an armed opponent," Jackal said thoughtfully. "He is good with a gun, I've seen him use one, it's phenomenal for a kid his age, I mean, seriously impressive work."

"As sick as that is," Bear murmured to himself, and Eagle looked down to hide just how much he agreed.

"Do we really want to put him in a situation where he can actually kill people?" Cobra asked quietly. "I mean," he turned to his unit, "you saw how he was when Bear went for him. I don't scare easy, and that scared me. He didn't even see us, what if we teach him how to get a gun in his hands and he goes for his classmates?"

"MI6 trusts him," Wolf objected, and Cobra shook his head.

"Clearly not with a gun," he said, slow and deliberate.

"If he doesn't get his hands on some kind of weapon, his class is done for," Fox said bluntly. "I don't think Cub's going to go for his classmates-"

"Trust me, he's not," Snake said, remembering his conversation with Cub earlier that day. "He's dedicated to this shit. Saving them, I mean."

"Either way, it's a risk we're going to have to take," Wolf said briskly. "I don't think it's likely-"

"When he was with us," Jackal began to object, and Bear shook his head.

"When he was with us, Hawk goaded the kid beyond all belief." He held up his hands when Jackal gave him a sharp look. "I'm not saying he didn't have an excuse for it, and I'm not saying that Cub's reaction wasn't fucking terrifying, but I don't think that's a common thing."

"And the kid was exhausted," Eagle added abruptly. "We were piling shit on him like it was going out of fashion, looking back on it, I'm surprised he was thinking straight. They both had some excuse for how they acted, let's just leave it at that, OK?"

Jackal looked taken aback for a brief second, before nodding. "OK," he said slowly. "When's Cub going to be cleared for duty?"

"The doctor said a couple of days," Wolf said, immediately all business. "Until then, we're going through theory with him." He exchanged a look with Snake, and shrugged. "You could maybe come up and start going through some of the things you lot want to teach him. It's probably best that we start on half-speed when he's back on his feet, so if he knows where it's going in theory, we don't have to worry that we're leaving things undone if we don't get through everything before he has to leave."

Bear nodded slowly. "That makes sense," he agreed, and met Jackal's eyes squarely. "Come on," he said quietly, to his team-leader, "the kid's fourteen and injured. Do you really want to throw him in at the deep end with the stuff we'd be teaching him? Way I remember it, that didn't work out well for anyone last time."

K-Unit applied themselves to their meals, pretending not to listen, though Snake was interested to note the difference in the unit dynamics. Bear was clearly the one to watch, out of those four. Jackal was one of the best tactical thinkers Snake knew, Cobra an astonishingly good marksman, and Hawk was pretty unhinged last time Snake saw him, but Bear was clearly the cement in B-Unit. It was always useful to have that kind of knowledge.

Jackal nodded once at Bear, clearly deferring to Bear's opinion – maybe, Snake thought, Bear was the people person? He was, if Snake remembered correctly, their comms-man, it would make sense, and it would make sense of Jackal's easy agreement with him. If Bear was the one who dealt with people's motivations and reasoning, it was only sensible for Jackal to defer to him in this.

"We should get a couple of other units in on this," Jackal said suddenly, turning back to K-Unit without actually replying to his teammate. "D-Unit, maybe. Wasp had some good ideas, didn't he?"

"You're taking an awful lot of interest in Cub," Eagle said lightly, but Snake tensed beside him. That tone of voice was never good from Eagle. "Discussing his training, wanting to help. So sweet."

Jackal grimaced. "We have a debt," he said shortly. "And the kid's been fucked up enough without you guys skewing him any further."

"Not like that," Bear said quickly, seeing Eagle's expression darken into a scowl. "You're close to him, we get that. You're his unit. But maybe you're too close to him to see that – that, this whole thing, is about getting him through the next couple of weeks alive and as whole as possible, and nothing more. You want to save him, full stop. We want to save him from this. We can be more objective about his training, and so can D-Unit. And we liked him, we want to help."

Eagle backed down. It hurt, hearing the truth laid out like that, but he could at least recognise that it was the truth – it would be good to have someone there to make sure they, K-Unit, didn't get bogged down in this whole nightmare situation.

"Alright then," Wolf said setting down his cutlery and staring fixedly at his half-eaten mulch. "Talk to D-Unit, yeah? We'll have a meeting, talk some ideas over."

Jackal nodded, meeting Wolf's eye. "Good," he said simply, and turned back to his food while K-Unit, almost as one, stood and left.

The rest of Alex's class were, as usual, gathered in one of the barracks set aside for them during their stay, and while they'd pretty well thrashed out the Alex Rider topic by now, the conversation eventually drifted back to him anyway. It seemed like there was always something new to say about Alex, but there were only so many ways to reword complaints about overwork and aching limbs.

"Oh, please," Hartford said, breaking in on one of the girls, who'd been waxing lyrical about how 'fit' Alex was, "we all watched him going over the assault course, he's not that fit."

Joe, who'd always backed Will up before, frowned. "I don't know," he said quietly, "it doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?"

Hartford frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Well, you can fake being bad at things," Joe said slowly, "but it's hard to fake being good, and Alex is sometimes really good at stuff he shouldn't be."

"Like what?" Hartford tried for a sneer, but he sounded more uncertain than scornful.

Joe shrugged. "Karate? I mean, he's supposed to be asthmatic and weedy, and he's a black belt in karate?"

"Why would the SAS be talking down to him, if he's so good at everything, then?" Will asked belligerently.

Joe shrugged again, rather helplessly. "I don't know – it's like they didn't get their story straight, maybe."

"He basically got us over the assault course one time," a girl piped up. "But Wolf and the others shouted at him and told him he had to stay behind."

"One time," Will said, but he didn't sound so sure. "I never said he wasn't clever – he used to get pretty good marks, didn't he? – but even if he can think his way round the course, he can't do it, can he?"

"Then why do they keep him back, and make him do it again?" Joe asked reasonably. "Most of us are bad at it, but they only use it as a – a warm up for us, really. They don't make us do it over and over again, there's no point."

"He'd slow the rest of us down if he came with us to do the other stuff we're learning," Matthew said, and Will pointed at him.

"Yeah, what he said," he agreed triumphantly, but there were more sceptical looks than sounds of agreement. "Fine!" he said roughly. "If they are keeping him behind for super-spy-training, why did he fall off the zip wire? Even Maddy stayed on!" Maddy was the smallest girl in their class, and a self-proclaimed PE-hater, who grinned rather than bother taking offence.

"He looked really bad when Eagle pulled him out of the water," Katie said softly. "I mean, really bad."

"What if," Joe said, slowly, "he fell off because he couldn't stay on anymore?"

Will wasn't the only one who laughed at that, and he wasn't the one who spoke up next either. "Oh, well done, Joe, you've got it," Matthew said, still grinning. "Dead on."

"Don't be stupid," Joe said impatiently, "not like that. But Rider's not a deadweight in PE, is he? I mean, before he started getting 'sick' all the time," he sketched air-quotes round the word, "he was on the football team and everything. He could do everything we could, and that zipwire took, what, two minutes? If that? Seems to me, the only reason he should have fallen off is because he was too tired to stay on."

"So you think Alex Rider – Alex Rider," Will said carefully, grinning in a way which would have made Tom long to punch him just one more time, "is being pulled aside by the SAS for training when we're not around?"

"No," Joe sighed, "I don't, but only because I don't think anyone would let kids like us be spies. But come on, it makes way more sense than some of the other things we've heard. Like I said, Rider was on the football team, he's not totally useless at PE, and he never seems sick when he gets back to school. I just don't know what the hell he's doing, and you've gotta admit, it's weird, the way he's always getting singled out and shoved to one side by the SAS."

"If he was getting really sick all the time, it might have made him – a bit weak," Katie said reasonably, but was shouted down, everyone eager to reaffirm their disbelief in Alex's cover story.

"Well, we all agree on that, anyway –he's blatantly not 'getting sick'," Maddy said, finally, when a little of the hubbub had died down.

"Then what the hell is he doing?"

"What do you think he's doing, then?" Katie and Joe spoke almost in tandem.

Maddy shrugged. "I think he's in and out of juvie the whole time. My mum says she wouldn't know what to do with my brother if it wasn't for Dad, and Alex has only got his housekeeper. I bet she let him run wild after his guardian died, and didn't know how to stop him."

"Maybe he learnt his karate off the other inmates," Siobhan said wickedly, and the conversation moved on, though it occasionally cycled back to Alex and his oddities.

Only Joe noticed when Will stood and left a few minutes later, and when he followed him out, he found him sat on the entry steps to the barracks, staring out into the camp without appearing to see anything.

"You alright, mate?" he asked, a little awkwardly. Theirs wasn't a friendship based on heart-to-hearts, but Will was Joe's oldest friend, and stuff was clearly getting to him – Joe could suck it up for a little bit if that was what Will needed.

Will shrugged. "Yeah, fine, just couldn't listen to any of that bollocks about Rider anymore."

"Waste of time," Joe agreed, only a little awkwardly, sliding down the wall to sit next to Will.

"Totally," Will nodded, but he seemed a little off, still. "We're kind of shits to him, aren't we?" he said, next, and Joe frowned.

"What d'you mean?"

"Well..." Will trailed off awkwardly. "I dunno," he said finally. "I was just thinking about it, you know? I don't think he's a spy. But whatever's going on with him is totally weird, and all he gets from us is-" he broke off again, and shook his head. "Doesn't matter, mate," he said finally, standing. "I can't wait to get back to home, s'all. This place is doing my head in."

He went back into the barracks, leaving Joe wondering where on earth that had come from.

In the infirmary, a very different scene was being enacted between Tom, Ben, Charlotte and Alex.

"We asked the soldiers," Charlotte said, just a little nervously, when they first came into Alex's room. "They said it was OK for us to visit."

"I'd have come anyway," Tom said pugnaciously, sticking his chin out the way he always did when he'd decided to defy authority – Alex recognised it well.

"I wouldn't," Ben said, casually appropriating the chair at the end of Alex's bed. "They all scare me way too much. How are you?"

"Yes," Charlotte agreed, "how are you feeling?"

Alex shrugged, a little bemused to find them all in his room. Tom, he'd expected – Ben and Charlotte were a surprise, and Alex wasn't sure he enjoyed being surprised anymore. Still, it was, as Ian used to say, better than a kick in the teeth. "Not bad," he said slowly. "I hit my head, got a bad concussion – nothing to worry about."

"You looked pretty bad when Eagle dragged you out of the water," Ben said noncommittally, and Alex shrugged.

"Yeah, well. I'd half-drowned, hadn't I?" he said flippantly. He'd never come into contact much with Charlotte, even though she'd been in various of his classes since he started at Brooklands – he knew of her vaguely, quiet, shy and clever, a bit of a teacher's favourite, without an ounce of malice and equally little courage. It seemed he'd misjudged her a little, at least, but he wondered what brought her here as she shifted under his gaze, glancing at Ben.

Ben, he knew better – he'd been captain of the football team when Alex was still normal, though it felt like years ago. They'd had classes together; Alex had been to his birthday parties over the years, hung out with him at the weekends, and for a little while there, he and Alex had been vying for the captainship. Then Alex's life had gone to hell in a handcart, and Ben's had stayed the same – they'd barely spoken for nearly a year. Why would they need to? Ben was well-liked, intelligent, doing well in his classes and didn't need to hang around with Alex Rider, unanimously, if unofficially, voted most likely to drop out after GCSEs.

But Ben, like Charlotte, had turned up in Alex's room at the infirmary, after a year of no contact. What was it that brought them here? He glanced at Tom, who was watching him carefully. "How's everyone else?" Alex asked, just to break the silence.

"Still bitching and moaning," Tom said bluntly. "Everything's 'too hard' or 'too unfair', it's a pain."

"We just want to get good at these things," Charlotte said quietly, "but they're always saying we need to work as a team, we need to work together, and it's not easy when no one else will take it seriously."

"I wish I could help," Alex said carefully, "but I'm not very good-"

"Alex, it's OK," Ben said frankly, "I don't know what's going on with you – I don't know if you're a spy, or a juvenile delinquent, or whatever the latest rumour is – but you're good at this stuff, you don't have to pretend you're not."

"I'm not a spy," Alex said, not needing to feign his discomfort. "Why would you think that?"

"Well, firstly, Tom told us," Ben said easily, and Tom shifted uncomfortably, casting Alex an appealing look, which he brushed off with half a smile, "but I wouldn't have believed him if I hadn't been watching you."

"You don't add up," Charlotte said simply, and Alex glanced back at her, seriously re-evaluating her for the first time. Not much courage, perhaps, but plenty of observance. "Not since your uncle died. Before then, you were just another clever kid, like the rest of us, mad on sports like most of the boys, exactly the same as all the others. And then he died, and I thought maybe you were just grieving, I know how that feels, my grandma died about the same time." She was gabbling, clearly nervous, and just as clearly determined to say her piece. "It's not the same, but all grief is kind of the same, isn't it? But then you didn't change back, and you were away for so long, and – and then Tom said you were a spy, and I thought, well, it makes sense, doesn't it?"

"Does it?" Alex said, trying to sound amused. "I didn't think-"

"You never 'don't think'," Ben said, with no regard whatsoever for grammar, but a painful accuracy.

"Not a very good spy, am I? If I get rumbled by two of my classmates," Alex said, aiming for jocular.

"Well, I wouldn't have thought of it if it wasn't for Tom," Ben said candidly, and didn't notice Tom practically writhing with guilt in the corner. "I guess telling him is what made you a bad spy, but we're only fourteen. If you are a spy, it's sick, I don't blame you for telling Tom. I'd have wanted to tell someone. Can't the police help?"

Alex's estimation of both Ben and Charlotte rose. Most of the others had wavered between frank disbelief and grudging excitement – being a spy was cool, dangerous, James Bond. It wasn't exploitation or traps or blackmail. Ben had cut right to the heart of it, and Charlotte was nodding along as if she agreed with every word – it was oddly pleasant, a relief not to have to play a part again.

Still: "I wish you didn't know," he said bluntly. "And I didn't think I was being that obvious."

"I know how good you are at sport," Ben shrugged. "You and Tom are the best, and you're just too bad at everything now. I knew that wasn't true, I just didn't know why you'd bother pretending. I thought maybe it was to get back at everyone, drag everyone else down, but the soldiers just separated you from us, so it couldn't be that. And if I were you, and I was so good at sport, I'd want to show off – everyone's so nasty to you, I'd want to show them. I wondered why you weren't, and then Tom said you were a spy, and I thought, well, that makes sense, doesn't it? You're keeping your cover."

Alex shrugged, and Charlotte smiled weakly. "We're not going to tell anyone, if that's what you're worried about," she said simply. "We know it'd be dangerous for anyone else to know."

Ben and Charlotte had been talking about him, Alex realised, and not with Tom, who looked as surprised at Alex by that revelation. Clearly, they'd approached Tom, told him they knew, and Tom had been feeling guilty ever since – he'd never wanted to betray Alex's secret permanently, after all, and he'd been hoping that it would all blow over, more grist to the rumour mill that would die down in a couple of weeks. Ben and Charlotte meant that wasn't going to happen, and even if they were being sensible about it, there was only so far a sensible attitude could take them.

"It's dangerous for you to know," he said, and both children frowned. "Come on, why do you think we're being targeted and shot at? You think it's coincidence that terrorists are attacking the only class – as far as I know – in the whole of England with a teenage spy in it? I'm the reason we're being shot at, I'm sure of it-"

"We guessed as much," Ben said, though he looked a little uneasy now.

"Did you?" Alex said coolly, "well done. What happens if they're not trying to kill us? Because they're not. If they wanted to kill me, my house has windows, I'm out and about in London a fair bit, they could kill me without having to get you lot involved. They're after something else. If they kidnap you, d'you think you can withstand torture? If they think you know anything, you haven't got a hope." Charlotte was looking a little pale, and Ben's lips were pressed tightly together. "I'm glad you're not going to tell anyone," Alex said, a little less curt, "and I'm grateful that you're not going nuts over this, but you've got to pretend you didn't know. Pretend you don't believe it, whatever."

"You could use some friends," Ben said determinedly. "We can pretend we don't know-"

Alex sighed, dragging a hand over his face. "Come on, think it through," he said tersely. "I dropped off the radar, and I've got three friends left in this place? Who would you target, if you wanted to get close to me?"

"Oh," Charlotte said, distressed. "You can't even have friends?"

"It's less fun even than you think, this spy nonsense," Alex said heavily, and Ben frowned.

"What about Tom?"

"Tom's already screwed," Alex said bluntly, and Tom grinned back blithely.

"Being friends with Alex isn't the worst thing I've ever done," he said simply, "and it's too late for me now. I've already written my Will."

"I don't like it," Ben said, biting his lip, and Alex laughed without humour.

"That's a shame, I just love it," he said, hiding his resentment in sarcasm with only a little effort, and Ben met his eyes for a long moment.

"For the moment, we'll hold off," he said firmly. "But when it's over, if you need a friend-"

"I'm touched," Alex interrupted, with a rather bitter smile, "but what makes you think it will ever be over?"

Alex Rider, it seemed, was the order of the day, and over in K-Unit's barracks, his chances and his training were being dissected yet again, with rather more thoroughness and rather less hearsay. Wolf was nominally in charge of the meeting, but he was soon swapped out for Eagle, who was both better acquainted with Cub and less likely to snap at half-thought-through suggestions.

"Right," he said early on, cutting through Wolf's rather confused opening speech, a mixture of advice and threats. "This is ridiculous – we all know why Cub's here, we all know he's a head-and-shoulders better than the other kids, and we're all here to help. F-Unit, why don't you tell us what you've got planned for the others? Then we know where to keep Cub away from."

Leopard shrugged. "We'll fit in with whatever you need," he said easily. "The way I see it, the Rider kid's the best hope of getting them through it, so we'll facilitate his training however we can."

"There are some good kids among the dross," Asp said fairly. "They're not all useless. It's just hard to get them to take it seriously."

"You're telling me," Wolf said dourly.

"The way I see it," Jackal said, making no attempt to defer to K-Unit's better knowledge of Cub, "the kid's potentially dangerous-"

"We've been over this," Eagle put in, more for the benefit of the other units than for Jackal. "But if you like, we'll talk to Dr. Manning, he can set you straight."

"Do it," Jackal said shortly, and Bear gave him a look.

"He needs training in urban combat," he said, taking over for his acerbic team leader. "How to disarm an armed opponent, and using a gun on moving targets in a crowded area."

"He's good with a gun," Cobra said idly. "We were with him on the range one time, he hit everything, prone or standing. We don't know how he'd do against moving targets-"

"He's got pretty good aim," Eagle said ruefully, "but it'd be different with the other kids there – that's a lot of people he's got to aim to miss."

"That's what worries me," Jackal muttered, and Wolf frowned at him.

"Look, Jackal, have you got anything more to go on than your own half-cocked opinion?" he said heatedly, and Snake jumped in before he could burn any more of that particular bridge.

"Wolf, leave it. And Jackal, the kid's more likely to be traumatised than criminally insane, and you're not helping. He's not going to shoot his classmates, OK? We'll see about getting him checked out by Manning, have him look at some of Rorschach's blots or whatever. For the moment, leave it be."

Jackal subsided, and Wolf took a deep breath. "Right, so we've got three concrete things to teach him."

"What I don't understand," Wasp said idly, "is why this class is being targeted at all. I mean, why this class?"

"Well, it's obvious, isn't it?" Bear said quietly. "It's Cub. He's fourteen, he's an agent, he's clearly naturally gifted. Whoever it is is trying to get their hands on Cub-"

"And going about it all wrong," Viper pointed out quietly. "We were talking about this. If they want Cub, they can get him any number of ways – take him off the streets, grab him from his house, even fake a call from SIS, they don't have to target his class, not even if they want to kill him."

"So what's the class for?" Wasp asked, leaning forward. "If you ask me, they want Cub, and they want Cub to work for them, and what better way than to get a little leverage?"

"What are you saying?" Leopard asked, frowning over at Wasp.

"I'm saying we should take the other kids through the basics of RTI," Wasp said heavily. "Because I think they're gonna need it."

"What about Cub?" Eagle said, never one to stray all that far from his teammate's particular plight.

"Cub should get the full works," Viper said wearily. "I'm not saying I like the idea!" he held up a hand to forestall Eagle's inevitable protest. "I don't wantto torture a fourteen year old, credit me with some morality, but we plan for every contingency. If this goes wrong – well, Christ, guys, that kid is not a weapon I want in someone else's hands."

"That kid is not a weapon!" Eagle snapped, and Hawk shook his head.

"Sorry, Eagle," he said dully, "but he is. I know I goaded him into it, I know I fucked up, but do you know any other fourteen year olds who can take down a fully trained soldier? I don't. It was a hard fight, but he won it – in the right hands, played the right way, he's definitely a weapon."

"Whatever else he is, he's a child," Snake said. "I don't think he needs help pressing that advantage-"

"He's not going to have that advantage with whoever's after his class," Wasp snapped. "They know who he is and what he's capable of better than we do, and they've gone to a lot of effort to get a hold of him-"

"And why isn't SIS doing better than this?" Adder wanted to know. "He's their operative, you'd think they'd protect him better than just shipping his class off to us and crossing their fingers."

"Look," Wolf broke in firmly, "we've got to accept two things: we're working on less than half the information we need, and arguing about it isn't going to help. So, like Viper says – we plan for every contingency. One: he succeeds. What does he need to know to succeed? Two: he fails. What does he need to know if he fails?"

"Three: he wins but his classmates are killed or wounded," Jackal continued. "Oh, don't give me that look, Eagle, I'm not saying he'd have done it. He needs to know how to get help for them, basic field medicine, tourniquets, basic shit."

"Four: he fails and his classmates are taken hostage with him," Snake nodded at Jackal. "He'll need more than basic field medicine for that, too."

"If he's kept with them," Eagle muttered.

"He'll need first aid for himself, I bet you," Fox said, half to Eagle, half to Snake.

"But this doesn't help," Rat objected. "Sure, these are basic scenarios, but we've got too little information to go on. He wins, he fails, sure, but we don't know when or where the enemy are going to strike, or how they're going to act, or even what they want him for. We're totally in the dark."

"So we need to make sure we're thorough," Viper nodded at him. "In all our plans."

"And we've only got a week. Anyone got ideas on how to be concise, but thorough?" Eagle asked, only a little ironically.

"Let's start at the beginning," Bear said firmly, "and work our way through. Right, contingency one..."

It was another two days before Manning could be persuaded to let Alex take part in any of the physical activities the soldiers had planned for him. Nothing daunted, Alex's one-bed room in the infirmary saw a constantly shifting group of soldiers, all focused on teaching Alex the theory of their particular area of expertise. Manning checked on them every so often, shooing the soldiers out at regular intervals to give Alex a break under the guise of 'checking his chart' or 'changing his IV bag' – and no one commented that Alex wasn't actually on an IV anymore, or that his chart hadn't been updated in days.

The soldiers themselves – from all the units Alex had ever come in contact with – were grim-faced and focused, and they seemed to have worked out a plan of action over the last few days. Alex was drilled in all kinds of areas, from the weak points of the arm to the theory of urban camouflage, and although he'd have preferred not to have to learn any of it, he rather enjoyed coming to grips with the totally new material. It was a different exercise to schoolwork – he was never sure how much time he'd have at school, never sure what was worth doing and what wasn't. This required an entirely different kind of focus, an entirely new kind of attention – and it was all worth learning.

And learn it he did. Not all the soldiers were good teachers – Jackal in particular had a fairly short fuse and clearly didn't suffer fools lightly, but he and Alex learnt to rub along fairly well – but they were all intimidatingly thorough tutors, taking Alex over the same ground as many times as necessary to make sure he got it, drilling him on it until he couldn't forget. It was intensive and tough, but somehow clean, unsullied and uncomplicated in a way that Alex's life never was these days.

He noticed, too, that Eagle rarely left any member of B-Unit alone with him. It was easier not to say anything, and it was mostly pointless too – Alex was sure none of the soldiers were a danger to him, not even B-Unit – but he felt oddly touched by it all the same.

K-Unit were a constant during the days before Alex was allowed out of the infirmary – whichever other unit happened to be with him, a member K-Unit was always there, and they were the ones who finished up Alex's teaching hours, regardless of what he'd been doing that day. It might not have been his area of expertise, but some sadist somewhere had told Wolf that the best way of learning something was to teach it – so the end of every individual session saw Alex teaching K-Unit the basics of disarming an armed opponent, urban guerrilla tactics, even marshalling untaught civilians away from a fight.

When the soldiers disappeared for the night, Tom normally turned up, though Ben and Charlotte didn't come with him again. He usually stayed for at least half an hour, sometimes more, and between Tom and the soldiers, Alex went to sleep each night completely tired out, but no longer straying over the line into the horrible exhausted, worn-thin feeling he'd had just last week. It was an oddly pleasant, reassuring couple of days, and by the time Alex was cleared for light active duty – despite Manning's increasingly disapproving frown – he felt almost completely back together, himself again at last. Different from the others in his class he might be, but at least now he felt like himself.

All the same, he could understand the grimness on his new teachers' faces. It was Wednesday, and he had all of three days to get up to scratch on the techniques he needed to be taught before he and his class were shipped back to London and left to deal with whatever came next. He felt it too. He knew from Tom that his class were improving, slowly, but it would take weeks, if not months, to get them anywhere near half-competent, and those who were taking it seriously were totally outnumbered by those who refused to do so. He was his class's best hope, and he had three days.

This isn't a solution, he thought grimly to himself, as he made his way down to Barracks 11, where he'd been ordered to meet K-Unit, it's a farce. We haven't got a hope.

Still, all he could do – all he could ever do – was try.

"Your class are out of the camp," Wolf told him tersely, while Alex warmed up under Eagle's watchful gaze. "F-Unit scheduled an activity outside the camp to give you time to get down here. You'll go back to the infirmary while the rest of your class are in the mess hall – we'll keep them there if we have to."

"And what's today?" Alex asked, stretching out as much as he could, trying to get the stiffness of inactivity out of his muscles.

"We're going to start with the practicalities of disarming an armed opponent-" Eagle began.

"Which is why I'm here," Cobra interrupted, nodding at Alex.

"-Which is why Cobra's here," Eagle agreed. "Once you've got that, we'll break for lunch, then you'll be with D-Unit for RTI."

Alex paused. "RTI?" he said, as casually as he could, and Wolf nodded, though even he looked uneasy.

"RTI," he agreed gruffly. "You're good, Cub, but this could all go wrong. You need to know what you're doing."

Alex took a moment to himself to digest that. It made sense – it made perfect sense, in fact – but something about the idea of a simulated scenario of torture and interrogation made his blood run cold. He couldn't get out of it, he couldn't tell them anything, he couldn't know when it would end – the whole thing was nightmarish. And he wouldn't have the comfort of adrenaline or fear to get him through, to cushion him from the worst of it, as he normally did.

"D-Unit, you said?" he said finally, mainly to make sure that it wasn't going to be B-Unit. He didn't want to think how that would go down.

"D-Unit," Eagle confirmed. "And me."

"Bear volunteered," Cobra said, apparently disinterested. "But we didn't think it was a good idea for him to – yeah."

"God, no," Alex agreed quickly. He couldn't think of anything worse than making Bear relive his own experiences with torture.

Cobra brushed the issue aside. "Let's get started," he said briskly. "We haven't got any time to waste on this. We're going to be using this," he held up a handgun, carefully removing the magazine and checking the chamber, "and here's what I want you to do..."

Cobra was a thorough teacher, not precisely patient, but not willing to rush through areas of potential error. He drilled Alex thoroughly on three different ways to disarm his opponents armed with hand-guns – "because you don't want to get your hands on anything bigger – we'll take you down to the range tomorrow morning to practice with side-arms" – then stood back while Alex demonstrated them on Eagle, watching them with critical eyes.

"Good," he said simply when they were done, and Alex had turned back to him. "Very good. Now, try it on me – and I'm going to fight back."

Alex eyed Cobra warily while the other man picked up Eagle's unloaded gun; he remembered Eagle saying Cobra was the best he knew at unarmed combat, and he wasn't looking forward to trying to disarm him. Not for the first time, he spared a moment to be grateful that Cobra had stayed out of his fight with Hawk – he was pretty sure he'd have been paste by the time Cobra had got through with him. His fluidity as he demonstrated moves to Alex earlier spoke of total control; his confidence was a warning in itself. He was too self-assured to be falsely modest, particularly about such a useful skill.

"Right," Cobra said, having checked once again that the gun was unloaded, and exchanging a lightning-quick glance with Eagle. "Remind me again – what's your main concern?"

"To come at them from behind," Alex repeated dutifully, feeling oddly light and focused. He knew he could do this – Cobra was a good teacher. An intimidating opponent, no doubt, but he'd taught Alex how to do this, and Alex could improvise if need-be, and he didn't need to beat Cobra – he was pretty sure he couldn't beat Cobra, not when the advantages of height, weight and experience were against him – he just had to disarm him. And Cobra had just taught him how. He could do that. "Come at them from behind, or they'll shoot me, and this whole thing will have been a waste of time."

That got a flicker of a smile from Alex's dour-faced teacher. "They might not, of course," he pointed out though, instead of commenting. "They might have specific instructions concerning you. Make sure not to bring attention to yourself before you have a gun in your hand, though, or you might find that your classmates end up being targeted before you have a hope of evening out the playing field. So you need to remember to...?"

"Come at them from behind," Alex said carefully, "not draw attention to myself – angle myself on their dominant side, but give myself room to manoeuvre if I screw up and give them time to pivot."

"Alright then," Cobra nodded, and turned away. "This isn't a fair representation," he added without looking back, "because I'm expecting you- oof!"

Alex brought the knife-edge of his hand down hard on the main nerve in Cobra's bicep, taking advantage of the momentary distraction to twist the man's arm round behind him and press, hard, onto the weak point of the wrist. With his arm half-numb and at an awkward angle, Cobra's hold on the gun weakened, and Alex pulled it out of his fingers with a triumphant grin.

"Well, I see you're a pro at taking your opponent unawares," Cobra grumbled, turning back and gifting Alex with a rare half-smile. "And I take your point," which was impressive, since Alex hadn't been intending to make one. "I want you to practise against an opponent who's fighting back though, so – again."

This time, Alex approached more warily, careful to keep slightly to one side of Cobra, but out of his line of vision. If he gave Cobra time to fight back, he was also giving him time to shoot him, which would cause a problem – not to mention, there was every likelihood that if he didn't get a gun out of his opponent's hand within the first few seconds, he'd end up with a bullet in him whether they were meant to shoot him or not – startling someone armed in the middle of a fight was a sure-fire way to end up shot.

He wished, not for the first time, that he could guess when and where they'd be when their attackers struck – he'd know if there was anything he could use to simply knock someone out and grab their gun which would, frankly, be his first choice if he had one. Still: no time for wishful thinking now.

Alex grabbed at Cobra's elbow, but the man held his arm tense, wheeling round frighteningly fast to face him. Alex hung on for grim death – "always make sure they can't aim the gun," Cobra had said, and Alex didn't intend to give him the chance – and searched for a nerve, any nerve, in the fleshy part of the wrist. One – "the median nerve" – was better than the others, but if he could find any of them, he could get the gun out of Cobra's hand.

Cobra struck him a glancing blow across the face with his free hand, and Alex, with no hands free, retaliated by kneeing him in the groin. Cobra doubled over instinctively, and froze as Alex wrenched the gun out of his hand and rested it against the base of his skull.

"Well done," Cobra said, straightening up, the only sign of his recent debilitation a slight waxy paleness to his skin. "Very well done. Good to see you're adaptable, and you didn't let me bring the gun up – good." It was the most praise Alex had ever had from any of the soldiers, and for a second, he didn't know quite how to react. In lieu of saying anything, therefore, he simply nodded. "We'll do this again sometime, make sure it's not a one off," Cobra continued, either pretending not to notice or oblivious to Alex's pleased surprise, "but I think you're good to go. Eagle will arrange the range for you for tomorrow morning – we'll need to make sure you can use that thing."

With a nod at the gun in Alex's hand and a brief smile, he turned to K-Unit, nodded once again, and was gone.

Contrary to Wolf's information, RTI didn't come next, and Alex was shipped off to B-Unit (with Eagle, as ever, in tow) for instruction on close urban combat. Cobra was missing, and Alex wondered irreverently whether he'd gone to ice himself down somewhere private – but he wasn't given much time for personal jokes before Hawk and Jackal were putting him through his paces, asking him to remember everything they'd taught him over the past two days.

Throwing him in at the deep-end seemed to be everyone's new favourite pastime, and it was only when they'd run through two or three scenarios that B-Unit stopped the simulations and started actually instructing him. Though they did it by dissecting his performance in their mock-ups, Alex found he didn't mind – he didn't even mind Jackal's rather biting asides. They expected something of him – they expected him to be good, to take information on board, to be competent. There was no implicit assumption that he would fail. That kind of confidence, even though it was couched in the driest and most biting of language, was surprisingly motivating, and Alex found himself trying his hardest to take everything on board and to succeed – it had been a very, very long time since anyone who'd shown any interest in him at all had expected him to do well.

All the same, by the time he got back to the infirmary that night, while all of his classmates were safely in the mess hall, he was absolutely exhausted. It had been a longer day than he'd expected, and though he no longer felt stretched-thin and worn down, he was looking forward to a good sleep and some peace and quiet.

Dr. Manning threw a wrench in the second part of his plans by turning up in Alex's room after Alex had showered and clambered back into his too-big standard-issue pyjamas.

"Just checking up on you," he said cheerily, sitting down on the uncomfortable plastic chair and watching as Alex perched himself on the edge of the hospital bed. "Are you alright?"

"Fine," Alex said, meaning it for the first time in days, "but shouldn't you have left by now? I mean, I thought you went off base at the end of the day."

"Oh, I do," Manning agreed, "but the girls know I work late sometimes, this isn't exactly a steady nine-to-fiver, is it? They won't be worried."

"The girls?" Alex asked, pulling his feet up under him to sit cross-legged on the bed. He looked a ridiculous enough picture without the legs of the pyjama trousers hanging down over his bare feet.

"My wife and daughters," Manning said, smiling. "Don't worry, I don't have pictures – I gave up carrying photos of them round with me when the girls started growing up. They change too quickly."

"I didn't think my uncle even had any photos of me," Alex said, wondering as he did why he was even being so honest. "But he had one of me in his office."

"He must have been proud of you," Manning commented blandly, and Alex shrugged. His feelings about Ian were complicated at the best of times, and this in no way qualified as the best of times. "I'm proud of our two, they're good kids."

"How old are they?" Alex asked, wanting to make sure they were safe on factual ground. It always hurt, hearing about other people's happy homes, and strangely it hurt even more to hear about it from the parent's point of view. Perhaps that was why he and Tom got on so well; both of them had miserable home lives.

"Lizzie's seven – Sally's ten. They're both going to go to my wife's school."

"She's a headmistress?"

Manning smiled. "Child psychologist. She's the on-call school counsellor for Jesus College two days a week."

Alex paused. "Right," he said, after a second or so of silence. "Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?"

"Yes," Manning said, making absolutely no attempt to conceal it – Alex appreciated that. "In part, at least. I've talked to her about it, and cleared it with Colonel Roslyn – if you want, she could come up here tomorrow night and talk to you. We'll square it with MI6 if it comes to light, but she has an idea of what's going on and she's not attached to an agency of any kind, so she'll be unbiased if you do decide you want to talk to her."

Alex thought about it for a minute. His gut instinct was to refuse outright, and immediately, and though his gut instincts were usually right, he wasn't quite prepared to listen to it now. And wasn't that answer enough? Wouldn't it be good to talk to someone, who could understand or who would try to understand? It would be a relief, if nothing else. On the other hand, could he justify dragging both of the Mannings into the mess of his life? They weren't SAS – MI6 could tamper with them whenever they wanted, ruin their lives even. Was it worth the risk, just to talk to someone?

"I can't," he said finally. "It's kind of you, but I can't."

"Why not?" Manning asked reasonably, his eyes kind.

"If MI6 found out-" Alex began, but Manning shook his head.

"Alex, MI6 don't even know you're in the infirmary," he said. "We filed an accident report, of course, but Roslyn didn't send it on to them. Maybe he would have done," he added fairly, "but then you popped up to see him, and he held off. Then I went to see him, and we decided it wasn't a good idea to let them in on this. As far as SIS are concerned, you're still with the rest of your class, and even if they did find out you were here, me bringing my wife into camp-"

"Your wife who just happens to be a child psychologist," Alex objected. "They will find out when I go back, and my class don't shut up about me being in the infirmary-"

"Even so, where's the danger?" Manning asked. "We're not planning to tell anyone – neither of us can. It breaks patient confidentiality if we do. We're only a danger to MI6 if we decide to publish anything, and we're not going to-"

"Do you want MI6 popping into your wife's work, or coming to your house, and demanding you sign the Official Secrets Act? I wouldn't," Alex retorted. "Not with two small kids."

"It's sweet of you to worry about that, Alex, but I don't think we need to worry about that until it happens. If they find out, they find out – and Colonel Roslyn will cover for us as long as we need. The important thing, though I know you won't believe it, is making sure you're alright."

Alex subsided. He couldn't argue his point too long when he would much prefer not to have to. Talking to someone who understood – because Mrs Manning (or was she Dr Manning too?) would understand, Dr. Manning would have told her his situation already – sounded good. He could only be self-sacrificing for so long. "Alright," he said finally, "tomorrow night?"

Manning smiled at him, rather relieved. "Tomorrow night," he confirmed. "I'll go and pick Gilda up, and we'll be back here around seven. How does that sound?"

It sounded like Alex had been talked into it for his own good – but Alex could at least recognise it was for his own good. "That sounds OK," he said noncommittally, and Manning smiled.

"Good, I'm glad," he said, and stood, patting Alex on the shoulder, and letting his hand rest there for a long moment. "Sleep well, Alex," he said gently, and was gone.

Alex was left staring after him, wondering what he'd let himself in for.

After evening meal, by silent consensus all four units had assembled again in K-Unit's barracks, breaking up into smaller groups while they waited.

Despite the faint underlying tension, they were a cheerful group, switching round, a couple of games of cards springing up – Snake was a surprise contender for Snap! champion – while other settled down to talk or read. The general consensus seemed to be that it was better to be alone in the group than actually by themselves.

After about two hours, Wasp sat down next to Viper. "Oh, I do not want to do this," he muttered to him, and Viper nodded, giving up all pretence of concentrating on his book.

"We've not got a choice though," he muttered back, and nodded over to the corner. "Just be grateful it's us. It could be worse."

In the corner, Bear was playing poker with Eagle and Leopard. He looked totally at ease, but his knuckles were white and the cards were bending slightly as he gripped them.

"We should have got F-Unit to do it," Adder said in an undertone, pulling his boots back on and lacing them tightly. "Isn't Leopard supposed to be good at this shit?"

"Mm, I really want him practising that skill," Wasp said, sarcastic.

"What time is it?" Viper asked, ignoring this by-play.

"Coming up for eleven," Adder said, looking out over the group, his face blank.

Viper squared his shoulders and nodded once. "D-Unit," he said, his voice carrying effortlessly over the assembled units, all of whom fell silent. "Time. Let's go."

That's all she wrote! (for now)

For Your Information:

K-Unit: Wolf (team leader), Snake, Eagle and Fox

F-Unit (now in charge of training Alex's class): Leopard (team leader), Rat, Crow and Asp.

D-Unit: Viper (team leader), Adder, Wasp and Lemur

B-Unit: Jackal (team leader), Cobra, Bear and Hawk

OK, so if anyone noticed, I may have been somewhat, er. Scraping the bottom of the barrel when it came to F-Unit? The DEFRA Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 was handy for names, though. I'm aware that it's unlikely, given its similarity to 'ass' when said out loud, that anyone would actually give someone the codename 'asp', but goddammit he had to be called something. (And most snakes are dangerous, and give themselves neatly to the code-naming the SAS.)

Also, with Lemur? He ain't no gentle lemur. He's a Leaping Lemur. A Ring-Tailed Lemur. I've been to the Durrell Wildlife Trust, I know my lemurs. And those fuckers are LOUD. And totally dangerous. Seriously. Totally dangerous. Just try not to think of him as small, cuddly and addicted to fruit. He's like a – a dangerous lemur. A rabid, feral lemur. Yeah. ¬_¬

Look, Anthony Horowitz only had to think up four of these guys, it is WAY HARDER thinking up, like, sixteen or twenty. At the end of the day, you just have to accept that you're gonna end up with some cuddly ones. Dammit.

Anyway, that's your lot - I have some vague hopes that I may get the next chapter up before the end of the year...? *sigh*

hope you liked it, ami xxx