So this must be a Christmas miracle, right?

Important warning: this is probably not super great Christmas reading? It includes a fairly unpleasant scene, involving the caning of a child. (bolded to catch the eye!) I am really very sorry, because it's actually pretty horrible and it was nasty to write too, but there is a certain plot necessity to it. It isn't necessary to actually read it to understand the chapter, though, and I'll mark it with a double line at the beginning and the end so you can skip it if you want to. Also it'll be marked with a IIII sign, to be doubly sure.

In a lot of ways, it's far more unpleasant to read than the torture scene in Chapter 18 - my beloved xrysomou told me so, and so1said didn't enjoy it over much either, so please read with care. (On a happier note, I owe both of them an enormous debt of thanks for holding my hand through this chapter and listening to me ramble about it whenever inspiration struck, so please send some love their way!)

Disclaimer: Unless my Christmas stocking includes a real surprise, I don't own Alex Rider.

Hanley had been having an unpleasant few hours. He'd been extracted from Brooklands just a couple of hours after Alex's disappearance – the official cover story was a nervous breakdown, the attack coming so shortly after his recent injury – but his handler had been pressingly interested to know why he hadn't been on the scene during the actual attack and subsequent capture of one of their agents.

"Rider told me to go and call for help," he said, for the fourth time, as the meeting edged further towards an interrogation than a debrief. It had barely been a couple of hours before he found himself back at the Bank, the confusion and destruction at Brooklands still a vivid memory and painfully at odds with his handler's small, stuffy office.

"Help he knew wouldn't be available," his handler, Marie, retorted.

"But I didn't know that," Hanley countered, careful to sound just a little aggrieved. This had been one of his first solo assignments. He'd decided early on in the meeting that it was best to sound a little petulant, a little annoyed that he'd been kept out of the loop, and he was selling that lie for all he was worth. "I was told to keep my interventions to a minimum. I assumed that was because back-up was on hand."

Marie hmm'd, but let it drop. "And the calls to the police?" she asked, with apparent mildness.

"Oh, yes." Hanley arranged his expression into one of slight embarrassment. "I was assigning easy tasks to frightened civilians. It was the first one that came to mind, and I had a lot of people I needed to calm down. I didn't think."

"You didn't think," Marie repeated, and sighed. "George, you've got the makings of a good, solid operative, but you can't let something like that slip through. You're just lucky we got there in time to slap a DA-notice on the whole thing, or we'd be looking at a nationwide manhunt for those kids."

Hanley swallowed down the retort he wanted to give. "Would that be such a bad thing?" he asked quietly. "I mean, I know the Rider boy is trained, but the other four…"

Marie shook her head; for the first time in the interview, she looked off-balance. "This whole business has been a cock-up from start to finish," she said, and heaved a sigh. "And – look, this doesn't go beyond the two of us, alright? But I can't make head nor tail of this assignment. I've been working for the Bank for damn near seven years, and this last one of yours is the strangest I've ever come across. First there's this kid no one knew about who's got to be looked out for, but we can't talk about him without being left out in the cold, literally. Then the kid disappears for reasons that no one knows. And now we're supposed to forget all about it and pretend it never happened, even though there's four other kids involved who weren't planned for, and who don't have any training at all – though how the Rider kid got trained, god only knows. But there's no rescue mission being planned that I've heard of, and you know this place can be like a sieve for gossip when something like that's in the works."

Hanley considered his options for a moment, then nodded. "So no one even knew about Rider?"

"Oh, there's been gossip," Marie shrugged. "For the last eight months or so. Someone dealt with Sayle, and that madman in Switzerland, Sarov, Cray…" she paused. "And Scorpia," she added, at last. "But no one really knew anything. We all assumed – I mean, they were big operations, with the SAS being called in… we just thought they were top-drawer secrets, you know? Strictly need-to-know, the big assignments and the long-cons always are, even if bits and pieces tend to leak out. If this kid was involved, well. Now I know why they were so secret." She met Hanley's eyes, and her mouth twisted with distaste. "We're spies, but most of us have managed to cling onto some morals."

Hanley didn't think he'd lost enough of his to keep on being a spy. He nodded all the same.

Marie shuffled her papers. "Look, I'll cover for you about the police," she said, looking a little unhappy. "But I'm going to have to put a mark in your file about being absent while the attack was going on."

"Yes," Hanley said simply. "I know."

"You were supposed to observe and protect, and you weren't there to do either," she persisted.

"I really do know, Marie," he said again. "I just – the chain of command out there was confusing, you know? Alex – Rider, he's a kid and I'm an adult so apparently I'm in authority there, but then he's got more operations under his belt than me, and – I mean, from what little I've heard, his assignments have been way above my pay-grade. So technically he's the senior agent. He told me to call for help because he couldn't; it was difficult to know how to play it. I thought it was the right thing to do – I thought I could get back in time. And I thought I was following the directions of someone better-placed than me to know, someone with more experience. Even if he is a fourteen-year-old."

Marie nodded, and tapped her pen awkwardly on the file for a second. "I can make a case in my report for your brief being at fault," she acceded. "You didn't have enough facts to make the right call; you did the best you could. Get this whole mess written up, and I'll make sure the stories tally." She paused. "Look, it was a tougher assignment than either of us knew – for my money, you did a good job."

"Not good enough, though," Hanley said, with unfeigned misery.

"I don't know," Marie said honestly. "Your brief said protect and observe, but one operative – two, with the kid… those are pretty stiff odds. If anything, I'd say you were assigned on the bare-minimum principle."

Hanley couldn't have agreed more, and he took a moment to wonder whether he should tell Marie he was thinking of leaving – prepare her for the blow, because he knew himself right down to his bones that he wanted no part of MI6 anymore after this clusterfuck of a job. But until Alex was recovered, the job wasn't done yet, and it might be useful to be inside the system until then. And he didn't need to unsay anything he hadn't said.

"I don't speculate," he said instead, a wry twist to his mouth that would let her know he was joking. "I don't even think. I just go where I'm told."

"Then go where you're told now and get out," she said, offering him a weary smile. "You're pretty much on medical leave anyway, you crock. Officially you're on standby; I'll let you know if you're wanted to give any reports in person. Email me your write-up from home."

He stood, more than ready to escape the overheated office and get back to Jack and Alex's London house. But there was just one more thing. "I know Rider's guardian a little," he said diffidently. "Has anyone got in touch with her? If not, I might be best placed to break it to her."

"I'd assume she was told with the rest of the parents and guardians, and God, I don't envy whoever had that job," Marie said, eyeing him shrewdly. "But get over there, if it'll make you feel better."

"I couldn't do anything for Rider," Hanley said simply, and that still stung. "But I can do this."

"Go play knight in shining armour, then," she agreed easily. "Pretty, is she?"

Hanley gave her a look. "Even if she is, it's not really the time to be making a move, is it?" he said pointedly, and she had the grace to look a little ashamed.

"Oh, hell, this job kills off all your finer feelings," she said. "Sorry. That was uncalled for. Go and do the right thing, then. God only knows chances to do that will be rare enough if you stick around here for too long."

Hanley made his escape with a sense of relief.

The hardest part of the day was yet to come, though. It had been bad enough to come back and find Alex missing – bad enough to deal with the aftermath of an attack on a class of schoolchildren – bad enough to deal with a nerve-wracking debrief, where he didn't know how much he could trust his handler and how much he could safely say. But telling Jack that her fourteen-year-old ward had been kidnapped… that was going to be the worst yet. He just hoped, in a way, she didn't know yet. He didn't want to have to tell her at all, but he wanted it to be him rather than someone else, someone who wouldn't care. It wasn't as though Jack didn't know exactly how much worse it was for Alex than it would be for all the other kids, and Hanley understood that, too. He was probably the best placed to break it to her.

He let himself into the townhouse, and paused for a few moments to collect himself. Jack pre-empted him, appearing in the doorway to the kitchen looking worried and hopeful.

"Oh, George," she said, deflating. "I thought you might be Alex. He's normally home by now."

"Jack…" he said slowly, and trailed off. "Jack, I'm so sorry."

She was already pale, but for a second, her entire face froze, and what little colour she had drained away. "What happened?" she whispered.

Hanley shifted, wishing he could soften the blow but knowing it wouldn't help, even if he could think of a way to do it. "There was an attack," he said, feeling frozen and disconnected. "Alex sent me to call for help – he knew no one would come if he called. I was gone five minutes, ten at the most, but when I got back, Alex was gone. They took him."

"Who's 'they'?" she asked dully, looking down at her hands.

"I don't know," he admitted.

"Where have they taken him?"

"I- I'm sorry, I don't know," he said again, helplessly.

"Well, what do you know?" she flashed, whipping her head up to glare at him. "Why the hell did you leave him, even for a moment? You promised me, you said you'd be there whenever he was off school grounds, and you left?!" The question hung in the air for a moment, and Jack shut her eyes tightly, dragging a hand through her hair. Finally, after a second's awful silence, she opened her eyes again. "What's being done to get him back?" She asked, more softly, but with no less anger. "You saw how he looked when he got back from that godforsaken camp, and that was their – whatever they want to call it, their training. How the hell is he gonna look when I get him back this time? And all you can do is stand there and tell me you don't know and that you're sorry."

She was being unfair, and they both knew it. More than anything, Hanley wanted to be able to say something to comfort her, to be able to make things better in some small way, but there was nothing to be said. Her fourteen-year-old ward had disappeared, was in grave danger, and Hanley worked for the people who'd put him there. There was nothing he could say right now that would make anything better.

"I'm sorry," he repeated weakly. "Jack, you know I'll do anything – anything I can, and I'm- I'm just so-"

"Yeah, I know," Jack agreed numbly. "You're sorry. I'm going upstairs." He let her pass him on her way to the stairs, stepping back to give her room, and she paused on the bottom step to look back at him. "I don't blame you," she said quietly. "And I know it's not fair. But if anything happens to him," her mouth twisted wryly, "anything worse than normal, and God forbid if he – he – if he dies, I will never forgive them. I will never forgive any of them. I'm not sure I'll be able to forgive even you. All of you let this happen. And I will never forgive it."

She left him there in the hallway. For a few moments, Hanley stood there, feeling drained. He knew that when she'd calmed down – when the initial shock was over – Jack would feel bad about what she'd said; the parts where she blamed him, anyway. It wasn't in Jack's nature to misplace blame and not feel bad about it, even if she was more than human enough to be angry with the nearest available target. In some ways, Hanley was just grateful he'd been that target. He wouldn't hold any of it against her.

All the same, he thought, as he made his way into the kitchen and dazedly set about the well-worn routine of making tea, it had caught him on the raw. He knew he wouldn't have been able to help; he was sure that the poor kid had been set up to fail. But he wasn't sure he could forgive himself either, and if anything particularly dreadful happened to Alex, he wasn't at all sure he'd be able to live with it.

Tea helped. The mundane routine of it grounded him, and once he'd finished his own, Hanley made another mug and took it up to Jack. He had promised Alex two things, and one of them was to look after Jack – not that he'd have needed Alex's prompting on that front. The other was going to require a little more than tea.

He knocked on her door and waited for a few moments, but only silence greeted him. When he poked his head round the door, Jack was lying on her bed, but she wasn't asleep. She was staring blankly up at the ceiling, her face a mask, and he felt an odd kind of respect for her silent, terrified misery.

He eased himself into the room, and set the mug down gently on the bedside table.

"I brought you some tea," he said quietly. Jack didn't respond – she didn't even acknowledge his presence in the room. From the look of her, she'd been crying, but clearly the storm of emotion had worn itself out; she looked exhausted and numb. "I have to go out for an hour or so – will you be alright?"

She flicked her eyes at him, and nodded jerkily, once.

He nodded back. "I won't be more than an hour. I've got my mobile on me if you need me."

She went back to staring at the ceiling, and he let himself out of her room as quietly as he had come in.

It didn't take long to find an internet café near the Rider house, and Hanley carefully took the strip of paper Alex had given him out of his paper, laying it on the table in front of his keyboard as he set up a new email address, making a careful mental note of the details before he logged in.

Carefully, doggedly, he began to type.

Dear Dr Manning,

My name is George Hanley. I was asked to get in touch with you by a mutual friend of ours, who I believe you met during his stay at the camp in the Brecon Beacons, should anything happen to him. I'm sorry to have to tell you that Alex was abducted two days ago by an unknown group. I have very little information to offer you. I don't know the name of this organization, nor what they want with Alex. All I can tell you is that Alex was abducted on Wednesday and so far we have been unable to trace him – or the four of his classmates who were taken with him. I'm afraid we are in the unenviable position of having to be grateful for the abduction of his classmates. If the intention was to murder Alex, I doubt his captors would have provided themselves with hostages. So far, at least, we can be relatively sure that he is at least alive.

Alex was worried that you might respond rashly if you were to find out suddenly. I'm sorry that I can't soften the blow, but I would ask that you do not react too hastily. My employers would not respond well to being challenged over this business. I will be in touch as soon as I have more information, but I doubt I'll be able to respond quickly to any emails. Please do not do anything without consulting me or your employers. Alex may need your help in the fullness of time, and the best thing you can do, for him, yourself and your family, is to maintain your position.


George Hanley

It had been a long day. The flu that had been going round the base had been indiscriminate, and Manning had been examining prospective patients for the last two hours – and he hadn't been joking when he told Alex that military men made the worst patients. It was almost a relief to find that the flu had made its way into the ranks of the auxiliary staff; at least the cooks and the admin staff didn't argue that they were much better off than he thought, or, worse, ignore it until they needed urgent medical attention.

So it was with relief that he sat back down in his office at four to update his patients' records and check the prescriptions against their supplies with an eye to re-ordering anything they were running low on. It was the tedious, mundane side of being a doctor, no matter where one worked, but today, at least, it was a blessed reprieve from the endless rounds of insisting to men used to peak physical fitness that they would have to be coddled for a little while unless they wanted to end up hospitalised. He only wished, he thought with a wry smile to himself, he could tell them that it would hurt him more than it would hurt them.

Alex would have appreciated the joke, he thought.

Thinking of Alex, he absently checked his emails. He'd long since given up expecting a reply – he didn't know why Alex had stopped responding, though he and Gilda could both make a pretty shrewd guess – but it was second nature by now. He could still hope against hope that Alex might get back to him, reassure both Richard and Gilda that he was alright. Manning glanced through the usual slew of spam and junk mail, deleting most of them, and he almost deleted one from an unknown address, titled only 'AR' – but the brief preview of the contents didn't look like spam mail. When he caught the name 'Alex', he couldn't open the message fast enough.

Barely two lines into it, his heart was pounding. The vague sense of relief that he'd brought into his office disappeared instantly as he read and re-read the short email again, willing it to make more sense, to give more information, to be, in fact, anything other than what it was.

It had been bad enough to read the stark truth of Alex's situation from Alex himself, in such terse, desperately miserable words; it was worse to have it confirmed.

He'd never fooled himself that Alex's position was anything other than dangerous – he was too much a scientist, too much a doctor, to believe in sticking his head in the sand. He would always rather have the facts immediately. But until he had read that strange, stilted email, he had managed to cling onto some hope. Alex was obviously horribly talented at his so-called job, and surely, surely, no organisation tasked with protecting the nation would set out to abuse one of its citizens the way Alex was being abused.

But if this new email was to be believed there was no hope now for preventative protection. Alex had disappeared – had been swallowed up by some mysterious group, and Manning's throat tightened. He was half-furious, half-terrified; it was a feeling he recognised, as a parent. And though it wasn't at all the same as his feelings for his daughters – how could it be, after knowing Alex for very little more than a week? – there was definitely a shade of the same desperate, protective fear in his reaction.

He indulged it for a few brief moments, then clicked print. There was, after all, the important consideration of whether or not he could believe the information he'd been given, and either way he'd been warned against direct intervention himself.

He needed a second opinion.

"Dr Manning," Colonel Roslyn greeted him wearily. "How many is it now?"

"You've got sixteen men on bed rest, not including those of the support staff who've picked it up," Manning told him shortly. "No more than when I updated you at midday. I'm here about this."

He handed Roslyn the print-out and waited while he scanned it through. Roslyn glanced at him once, then read the email again with greater care.

"Do you know this Hanley?" he asked sharply, and Manning shook his head.

"Never heard of him before," he said promptly. "Alex – Rider never mentioned him, that I can remember. But he's well-informed: Alex was worried about my involvement in his… affairs. The message itself didn't ring any warning bells for me. I've not been told to do anything – I've just been told to keep out of it if I know what's good for me, but it doesn't read like a threat or a bluff to me."

Roslyn was reading the message for a third time. "I hate the intelligence services," he said fervently, handing the paper back to Manning. "We were strong-armed into taking those children, and I have a feeling we'd come out much the worse for wear if we were to try and take on MI6 by ourselves." He shook his head helplessly, and met Manning's eyes. "This whole damn business leaves a nasty taste in my mouth," he told him frankly. "And I don't even see how we can help the poor bloody kid."

Manning gave up on every pretence of neutrality and let his nervous energy out in the form of pacing. "I'm assuming the top brass wouldn't be willing to go out on a limb against SIS for him," he said slowly.

"Not on my say-so," Roslyn admitted. "I don't have that kind of clout. We'd have to make a pretty watertight case just for it being any of our business, and frankly, it isn't. I can't just say I hate it and want it solved and expect them to fall in." He pulled a face. "It's a vile business, but apart from his training here, Rider isn't our operative and we haven't got the shadow of a right to interfere. Not," he added ruminatively, "that any kind of formal complaint could be made. He's not our operative, but he's not MI6's either. Technically, he's not an operative at all."

"I see," Manning said, heart sinking.

Roslyn nodded crisply, as though that resolved matters, but he was frowning thoughtfully. "We might be able to get a bit of mileage out of this Hanley fellow, though," he said slowly. "He seemed pretty willing to be helpful."

Manning looked at him, unable to tamp down on his hope completely. "What do you suggest?" he asked.

"Pump him for information," Roslyn advised. "Ask him for anyone else he could talk to, or put you in touch with. Make a big song-and-dance about your concern for the boy's health – exaggerate, outright lie, if you have to. It may not get us anywhere, but if he wants an excuse to tell us more, he'll jump on it. Let's bait a hook and see what bites."

Manning nodded, a little stiffly. "I'd better get back to the infirmary," he said, folding the print-out and going to put it in his pocket.

"Leave that with me, would you?" Roslyn asked politely. "It might come in useful. I'll do some digging with my SIS contacts, and put out feelers with Command, see what we can do. And Richard," he added, when Richard was almost out the door. "I'm sorry. I know you were close to the boy."

Manning debated for a moment. "If it had been the SAS who exploited him like this," he said, quietly and very deliberately, "every man who'd ever condoned it, even just by not doing anything, would be vomiting up their own lungs by now."

"Give me a doctor for pure ruthlessness every time," Roslyn retorted. "Don't waste your threats on me – save your nasty little potions for the bastards who deserve them. I don't like this anymore than you do," he added, in a quieter tone, and met Manning's eyes steadily. "And for once in my career, I'd like to do something unambiguously decent. We'll skewer the bastards."

Alex wasn't given the chance to see his other classmates before they were dragged up out of their basement cell and into the sitting room with him, Hartford and Andrei, and when they appeared, all he could see was how frightened they were. Charlotte's face was fear-pale and drawn, Joe's eyes were huge with fear and although Tom's mouth was stubbornly set, he was white-faced. Next to him on the sofa, Hartford was maintaining a frightened, baffled silence, but every line of his body was tense with nerves.

"Ah," Andrei said expansively. "Our other guests. You forgive our roughness? We are moving you somewhere more comfortable."

Tom looked instinctively at Alex. He'd given him a worried look when they first came in, then focused his attention on Andrei as the more likely threat – academia was not Tom's strong point, but he'd always been quick on the uptake – and now he looked to Alex for reassurance and confirmation. Still feeling raw and defeated, Alex pulled himself together for long enough to nod once, slow and deliberate.

Somewhat to his surprise, it was Charlotte who spoke. Her voice was tiny and shaking, but she met Andrei's eyes squarely and pulled back her shoulders, and Alex was terrified for her.

"What do you want with us?" she asked simply.

Andrei bowed a little. "Forgive me – I want nothing with you. It is your friend I need. You are our guests only to ensure his behaviour." Charlotte gave him a confused, terrified look, but Andrei simply clapped his hands. "Now, we move you upstairs, to a more comfortable room. Alex, we will talk more soon, you understand? For now, you rest. There is nothing for you to worry about now."

Alex stood, and had to almost pull Hartford to his feet after him. He wanted nothing more than to get out of there and have some time to think and regroup; he had a great deal to think about, after all. In some ways, Andrei's little request had raised more questions than it answered, and while he was sure he could get to the bottom of it, he was going to have to think long and hard about what it was he was supposed to be doing here, why MI6 had sent him, what Andrei's motivations actually were.

"Not yet, anyway," he agreed politely, offering Andrei an empty smile. Andrei returned an answering smile that had a nasty edge to it.

"Take time to rest," he repeated simply. "We will tell you when there is necessity for you."

Alex allowed himself to be manhandled out of the room and up three flights of stairs to the top of the house, letting himself notice the details of the lay-out and design of the place as best he could. Most of the doors were shut, but Alex could imagine a rough blueprint if he had to – if he wasn't given any more opportunities to scout it out. They were clearly bound for the attic. Judging by the rest of the house, they were in what should have been a fairly standard Victorian townhouse, even if it did seem to have been enlarged somehow, and there were a limited number of floors that that kind of house would have. If, of course, they went any higher, Alex would have to re-evaluate.

They didn't, however. They came to the final landing, and the stairs stopped, just in front of a plain wooden door. While the door was plain, it was well-set-up for security – there was a jimmy-proof deadlock and a mortise lock in plain view, and Alex couldn't even be sure that those were the only security mechanisms on the door. When they were ushered through into the room, he made sure to automatically hold the door open for the person behind him – Joe – and instantly registered the weight of it.

The room they were ushered into was plain but large and comfortable, with sloping ceilings and two double beds on either side of it. There were four skylights – Alex would wait until their sheepdogs had left before he examined the windows closely, but he could see at a glance that they were barred and fitted with locks of their own. Apart from the beds, there was a sofa over on the far side of the room, against the one flat wall, and the space could clearly be divided in half, by means of a deceptively flimsy sliding screen. A bookshelf stood next to the sofa; there was even a TV mounted on the wall. There were wall-cupboards set into the base of the sloping ceiling-walls to either side of the beds, and a large chest of drawers stood under the TV. Directly to their left as they were pushed into the room was another door, presumably leading to a bathroom – Alex would check that when they were alone.

Taken all-in-all, the place looked like nothing so much as a rarely-used spare room, or a room in a cheap hotel – clean, functional and comfortable, but somehow uninviting.

Somewhat to Alex's surprise, Andrei followed them into the room a few moments later and clucked his tongue once.

"I give Ana Maria such careful instructions," he sighed. "The sofa bed, it must be pulled out. Call her to me." He turned to the five children and gestured to the room. "You see, you will be comfortable here. If you should need anything, it will be brought, but we have been most very careful. I am not thinking you will be bored here."

Boredom certainly wasn't Alex's main concern, he had to grant that much. Instead of quibbling, he inclined his head a little. "Thank you," he said gravely, and if he sounded perhaps a tinge ironic, no one would know that but him.

And maybe Tom, he realized a second later, as Tom darted a glance at him and looked away just as quickly.

Andrei didn't seem to have picked up on it. He bowed his head back at Alex. "Now, you sleep, perhaps – food will be brought soon, and Ana Maria will – what do you say? Create the bed?"

"Make the bed?" Alex suggested politely, and Andrei's face cleared.

"This is it," he agreed. "She will make the bed."

Alex glanced at his still-terrified classmates and decided to take the plunge. "When are you likely to need me?" he asked, still maintaining the façade of easy politeness. He couldn't forget that the consequences of screwing up would almost certainly not be borne by him. "I'd like a little more information before I'm committed to anything, and I would have thought you'd want to get started as soon as possible."

Andrei nodded. "True," he agreed. "Information you will be given today, but a part must be played, you understand? And you must be comfortable in that part before we move. I apologise, but we cannot give you more than three days to learn this part. And you must be perfect."

"I'm a quick study," Alex told him sweetly, eyeing him. There was something off about the way Andrei had insisted on his 'perfection' that made him somehow nervous. "I'm sure I'll pick it up."

"Yes," Andrei nodded. "And you have four such good reasons."

It was a threat, and everyone in the room knew it. Alex gritted his teeth against the wave of helplessness that threatened to overwhelm him, and smiled back with everything he had.

"Exactly," he agreed. "When can I expect this information?"

"You will be called for later," Andrei told him. "Now, I go to Ana Maria and leave you. We will speak again, soon. I must know how you are learning."

He swept out, taking the guards with him – and though Alex was instantly at the door, trying to hear how many people went back downstairs, and how many had been left outside the door, he could only hear the faintest of sounds. Clearly whoever had reinforced the door had done a sterling job.

Turning back to the room, he met Tom's eyes and shook his head.

"I can't hear anything," he said simply. "And the door's reinforced."

Tom nodded, his mouth pressed into a grim line, his teeth clenched. It was a look Alex recognised from the times Tom had appeared at Alex's house after one of his parents' worse fights – it meant Tom was upset and worried and perhaps a little afraid, but determined not to show it. In any other circumstances, Alex would be worried about his friend, but Tom was a known quantity to him – he knew more or less how he would react. It was the others who bothered him. He knew he could rely more or less on Charlotte, but Joe, and Will Hartford – particularly Will – he had no idea how they were going to take things.

Reluctantly, he turned to look at them. Charlotte looked very white still, and rather shaky – Joe actually had his arm around Will, who looked more lost than afraid or upset.

"Is it true, then?" Will asked Alex. "You – you actually did all that stuff?"

Alex considered his options, then simply nodded. Will swallowed hard and went to speak, but Tom got there before he could do more than open his mouth.

"What stuff?" he demanded sharply. "What were you told?"

Joe glared at him, and Alex held up a hand, feeling weary and very old as he tried to stave off any kind of row between the four other children. "Andrei decided Hartford needed a potted history of my – um. Extracurricular activities."

"He said you'd stopped a nuclear holocaust," Will said, almost accusingly. "He said you destroyed a bunch of terrorists."

Joe and Charlotte turned as one to stare at Will, and then at Alex. If Alex had been in any mood to be amused, he might have smiled. "Actually, he said I destroyed their reputation," he said, as casually as he could. "I didn't destroy Scorpia. I'm not as lucky as all that." Seeing that Will wasn't going to stop questioning him, and not wanting to dwell on past pyrrhic victories when they had bigger things to deal with, he went on. "Look, it wasn't a choice and I'm not trying to be some kind of action hero. I'm not pretending to be James Bond, or whatever. I got told I had to do what they wanted, or go into a children's home. They'd ship my guardian off if I didn't cooperate. So." He shrugged. "I did what I was told. And I got lucky a few times. But we can't rely on me being lucky again, so maybe we could focus on the here and now for the moment?"

Predictably, both Joe and Will ignored him. "Who's 'they'?" Joe asked, and Will nodded eagerly.

Alex returned the favour and ignored them right back, turning to Charlotte. "Are you OK?" he asked her, and she nodded.

"I'm hungry," she said, and gave him a wan smile. "I know it's silly, but…"

"It's not silly," Tom said stoutly. "I'm starving. I hope they bring us something soon."

"We'd better work out where we're going to sleep," Alex said, considering the room again. "I think we can divide the place in two? So, Charlotte, you'd better sleep over there, in the bed by the bathroom, and the four of us can share the main bed and the sofa bed. Joe and Will, you can share – and Tom, I'll share with you?"

Tom nodded, but Charlotte was frowning a little. "Are you saying that cos I'm a girl?" she asked suspiciously, and Alex shrugged. Terrorists, he could deal with – gender politics were a much harder to parse.

"Well," he said, a little uncomfortably. "Yeah. I didn't think you'd want to share with any of us."

Charlotte's face cleared. "Oh," she said slowly. "I thought it was because it was further away from the door."

To his surprise, Alex hadn't even thought of that. He hadn't considered any of the others as much help against whoever this group was, and he certainly hadn't bothered to rank them according to their gender, let alone to the point of placing Charlotte further away from danger than the others.

One part of it, however, he had considered. "I think it'd be best if I were nearest the door," he said, nodding at Charlotte. "But the rest of you can go wherever. It's just that the sofa bed's this side of the divide, so you have to go in that bed, and I should be in this one."

"So Joe and I share the sofa-bed," Will summed up, and Alex braced himself for disagreement, only to glance at Will and receive a surprisingly brisk nod. "Alright then."

Alex didn't quite heave a sigh of relief, but he did let himself relax a little. "OK," he said. "Great."

"So what now?" Tom asked. "Do we – search the room, or something?"

"Well, I don't know about the rest of you," Alex said, glancing at Tom and deciding to keep things on a practical level for the time being, "but I want food and a shower. Then we'll have a think."

Once the ubiquitous Ana Maria had made up the sofa bed and brought up a tray of sandwiches and orange juice, Alex took himself into the bathroom, and turned the shower on. It was a little unfortunate, he thought wryly, that his search of the room had shown that every inch of it was covered by a camera – including the bathroom. He was pretty sure that no one would actually be paying much attention to what was going on in there, so long as they could see that there were five children in the room at all times.

He really hoped no one would be paying attention, anyway.

All the same, it was uncomfortable, knowing that someone could be watching him, and he didn't even begin to undress until the shower had filled the room up with steam and he could snatch at a little privacy. At least the thorough examination he'd given the room had also turned up several sets of clothes in the chest of drawers – since they'd been caught during PE, they were all still wearing their PE kit, a maroon horror of nylon and polyester. Alex had no idea how long they were going to be kept here, but he was pretty sure they'd all have ended up with a skin disease if they'd had to keep their gym kit on for the duration of their stay, and while the clothes he'd found were nothing fancy – cheap, plain T-shirts and equally cheap but serviceable jeans for the most part – they were better than nothing.

That was the only bonus though, he thought grimly, reaching for the shower gel and wincing as the defensive bruising on his arms really started to make itself known. The problem was, the clothes were all in his size. They swamped Tom and Charlotte, were tight on Joe, and the jeans were ridiculously short on Will, but they fit Alex perfectly. Even the boxers were the right size.

And that meant something, Alex thought tiredly. It meant – it meant that he'd been being watched. He'd been being watched for a while. He'd known that there was a long game being played here, but he'd stupidly, stupidly assumed that it was mostly on MI6's part – that Andrei's interest hadn't extended beyond getting hold of him. But Andrei had had him watched. And MI6 had let him. He knew he wasn't Alan Blunt's priority by any stretch of the imagination, but he also knew that they didn't just leave him alone when he wasn't actively working for them – one way or another, they normally kept any eye on him.

But it wasn't news that MI6 had let this happen, that for whatever reason they'd decided to let it be set up and played out. It was news that Andrei had put so much work into it. And why? Why go to so much effort for something that didn't actually need Alex's skillset? His age was a bonus, of course, and his experience wasn't exactly going to hurt his chances, but threatening someone – even threatening someone without letting them know who the perpetrator was – didn't require a spy. Even if Andrei really couldn't find another teenager to do the job – and Alex wasn't sure he believed that – how difficult would it really be to slip an adult into this girl's life? As someone innocuous: a teacher, or someone who worked for her father, or auxiliary staff at her school. Background checks could be faked, after all, and identities could be forged. Why did Andrei need him for this?

Which of course meant one thing, Alex thought with a shudder of something like dread. Andrei didn't need him for this. Andrei needed him for something else, almost certainly something worse, and this was a test. If he did this, if he succeeded in this almost-easy task, then Andrei would get him to do something else, something probably unimaginably worse – whatever that might be. And Alex couldn't fail.

There was something strange about Andrei, too, something he couldn't put his finger on. Obviously he was outside the law in some way – terrorist, mobster, tax avoider, Alex didn't know, but that part didn't matter. It was something about Andrei as a person that unnerved him, something about him that somehow wasn't right.

What was it? What had he seen? He tried to think back over his interactions with the man, and yes, there were the moments where the mask dropped away and he switched from the urbane host to the ruthless criminal, but it was something more than that. He was ruthless, he was vicious, but so were a lot of the other people Alex had met in the course of his time with MI6. What was it?

It didn't matter how many times he went over it in his head, examined every second of the meeting he'd just been through, something eluded him. Worse, he felt it was something important.

And worse still, it wasn't his only concern. Alex had so much he had to work out, and so little to work with. He was trapped in this room for the foreseeable future, with no way out that he could see just yet, and no idea what was waiting for him when he was allowed out. He didn't know what MI6 wanted from him – he didn't even really know who Andrei was, or what his endgame could possibly be. How long were they going to be here? He hadn't believed Andrei when he'd hinted that they might be let go once Alex had done what he wanted, but how did this end? How could this possibly end? They couldn't be allowed to leave, so Andrei's solution probably involved five shallow graves whenever he felt he'd got everything that he wanted from Alex.

Unless Alex could escape, and take his classmates with him. Unless he could make himself so useful to Andrei, so unbelievably good, that Andrei was willing to keep him on indefinitely. Unless MI6 came for them.

Frankly, it was more likely that Andrei would see the light and let them go with a smile on his lips and a song in his heart.

And what if Alex screwed up? He'd been told that a refusal on his part would result in his classmates being tortured, so it seemed likely that any mistakes would be taken out on them as well. He had to be perfect. He had to do whatever he was told, and he couldn't afford a mistake. He could almost feel the stress and fear tightening around his ribs, and for a minute it was hard to breath, the world swimming a little as he struggled to deal with the instinctive panic.

He took a couple of deep breaths, leaning a hand against the wall of the shower while he ruthlessly calmed himself down. He would act when he had instructions. He'd do whatever they wanted because the alternative was unthinkable.

As he turned the shower off, reaching quickly for his towel, Alex reflected that at the very least he could look for a way out so long as no one realised he was looking. They'd be watching him, of course – that was a given. But he was certain he could look for escape chances without anyone realising what he was doing, if nothing else. Actually effecting an escape would be a damn sight harder, but once he had the bare bones of a plan, he could refine it until it was workable.

All the same, he couldn't help but feel afraid as he hastily scrambled into clean clothes. But that was alright as long as he didn't let the others see how afraid he really was. They at least needed to feel that he had everything under control, because he couldn't deal with their panic and fear on top of his own.

For himself, though, he felt that he might just have been dealt a losing hand. He was off balance, on edge and – to all intents and purposes – very much alone.

Hanley managed to get Jack out of her room the next morning, but she just sat at the kitchen table with a plate of toast in front of her, not so much refusing to eat as completely unwilling to try.

"It's my fault, you know," she said dully, interrupting his brightly brittle monologue on the weather. "That Alex ends up in situations like this. It's because of me."

"What?" Hanley said dumbly, startled. "No, it – what?"

"My visa," she said, shoving the toast away from her. "It expired like two years ago. I don't know. I just never got it renewed. And they threatened to deport me if Alex didn't do what they wanted, I'm sure of it."

Hanley floundered a little, feeling very much out of his depth. "That can't be right," he said weakly. "Surely Alex didn't say-"

"Oh, Alex didn't tell me," she said, looking up for the first time since she'd sat down. "He'd never. I mean, he wouldn't want me to know. But he suggested one time that I should look into getting my visa renewed, and what fourteen year old thinks about someone's visa? Even one who's – well. Alex. So I tried to get it renewed, but my application got rejected practically before I could even send it off. And I started wondering why they didn't just deport me if they knew I didn't have a valid visa, and that's when I worked it out. It's funny, isn't it?" she went on blankly, and Hanley was so shocked he thought he might never find anything funny ever again. "They don't want to give me a visa, and they don't want me gone. If I go, how else are they going to control Alex?" she ended on what sounded like a sob, and gritted her teeth against anything more.

Hanley paused, completely unsure how to deal with any of this. He'd thought this assignment was strange, but he hadn't expected it to be upsetting. "I'm so sorry," he said helplessly. He really liked Jack, and lately it felt like all he did was apologise to her. "Why don't you just leave?" he tried. "Just – take Alex and go?"

She looked up at him, one eyebrow ever so slightly raised. "What, you think they'd let me leave the country with Alex? You think they'd let me leave the country at all? I don't think so."

"Well, no," he admitted. "We'd need to get you fake names and fake papers, but it wouldn't be too hard. I know a guy at work who can do it and he owes me a favour."

"And you can be sure he wouldn't tell anyone?" She said heavily. "Anyway, even if he didn't, and even if we actually managed to get out the country, they'd be coming after me for kidnapping. And I'm pretty sure they could get me extradited from the US if they tried hard enough. Which they would. Come on, all of this nonsense? After all this, do you think they'd be willing to give Alex up without a fight?"

"But – but you're his guardian," he began blankly. "Legally, they couldn't-"

"No," she said, sounding tired and defeated. "I'm not his guardian. I don't even know who his guardian is. When Ian died, he left everything in trust to Alex, but the lawyer told me there was a fund available to me for his care 'at the discretion of his guardian', so it can't be me, can it? I'd have been told. Anyway, even if I were his guardian, I'm hardly the most powerful person in his life, so it doesn't matter."

"And they wouldn't let you get proper custody of him," Hanley realised, beginning to feel as defeated as Jack sounded.

"Not in a million years," she agreed with a laugh that was a long way from sounding amused. "Anyway, even without the Big Bad getting involved, it's unlikely I'd get it. I looked into it, you know? Before I knew about any of this bullshit. Like, there are points in my favour and everything, but it's blue-moon rare for an overseas citizen to be given custody of a British-born child without the previous guardian's consent." She saw his eyebrows rise and managed a wry smile. "Yeah, I got legal advice. I was thinking about nationalising as a Brit, but even then, it's not all that likely. Ian could have done it – he could have named anyone he liked as guardian – but he didn't. And that was before I realised I'd never get a citizenship application approved, and I'd never be given custody of Alex no matter what."

"But we could do it," Hanley said, grasping at rapidly-vanishing straws. "Get you a new name – a whole new identity, both of you. Get you out of the country, anywhere-"

"I've thought about it," Jack admitted. "Fantasised, I mean. Like, how would I know how to go about doing that? But, I've also gotta think, is that what's best for him? Believe me, I know that this isn't a good situation for him, I know he needs to get out. But where do we go? If we settle anywhere, we risk being found, and I can't just drag him all over the world, running all the time. For one, I wouldn't know how to do it, and for another, that wouldn't be that much better than this." She laughed again, without humour. "Alex is better at that kind of thing than I am. He'd end up looking after me – that's not how it's supposed to go. I couldn't do that to him." She stopped for a second, and for just that second, Hanley could see what hell she'd been going through since everything about Alex's situation became clear to her. "I don't know what to do, George," she admitted quietly. "Sometimes I think the best thing I could do for him would be to leave – no me, no leverage, right? But what would they do to him if I did that? He sure as hell wouldn't end up in the system, they'd just spirit him away somewhere and do whatever they liked with him. And- and I can't do that to him. I know he's amazing, I've always know that, but he's still just a kid, and he's had a lot of people leave him. He needs me, and I love him." She shrugged, a little embarrassed. "He's such a great kid, and I love him so much, and they've made me a bargaining chip with him. And I…. God, I just don't know what to do."

He reached out then, and she let him take her hand, let him try to offer what comfort and support he could. "I'll do some digging for you," he offered. "At work. See if there's any record of who his guardian is, OK? And I'll try and find out what's going on, see if I can find anything out."

She offered him a weak smile. "Thanks," she said softly. "You're a really good friend. I- look, I'm really sorry about what I said yesterday, you know that, right? I didn't mean it, I was just-"

"I wouldn't have been anything like as restrained in your shoes," he said simply. "It's OK, Jack. I understand, really."

"Thank you." She took a long sip of her coffee, and pulled a face when she realised it had long since gone cold. "I shouldn't have dumped all this on you, either," she said finally. "But I've never been able to talk about it to anyone." Another long pause, and eventually Jack looked up at him, her face tortured. "I'd leave him," she admitted painfully, "if there was someone I could trust to look after him – someone who actually had a hope in hell of keeping him safe from those assholes. Someone who didn't have a weak point to be exploited. Then I'd leave, so they couldn't hold me over this head. But there's no one."

There was nothing Hanley could say, so he just squeezed her hand. "Anything you need," he promised, wishing he could do more. "I'll do anything you need."

"Thanks," she said dully. "But there's nothing anyone can do."

It was after midnight when a couple of guards came and dragged Alex out of the room, to the very vocal, very frightened protests of his classmates, who were thankfully completely ignored. Having figured that they were using the situation as a test, Alex shouldn't have been surprised that they were more than willing to stack the deck against him, but somehow he still was – he'd thought that they'd want him to succeed enough that they wouldn't actively make things harder for him.

Apparently that wasn't the case.

They pulled him down two flights of stairs and into another blandly decorated room, possibly an office or a meeting room, and pushed him down into a chair. Andrei wasn't there – one of life's little mercies – but he had left very clear instructions for Alex to read the innocuous manila file that was waiting for him on the table, and if Alex had been tempted to disobey the presence of the obviously-armed guard who stayed in the room with him was enough to discourage him.

For a long moment, he stared down at the photo on the first page of the folder. He'd snapped fully awake the moment the door had opened, but he still felt exhausted, and somehow the photo wasn't making sense.

She looked so ordinary.

Her name was Chloe Osmond. Alex knew of her father, of course – Sir Christopher Osmond, high-flying financier, dyed-in-the-wool true-blue Conservative, close friend and unofficial advisor to the Prime Minister. He was always in the broadsheets for one reason or another, and it was very strongly hinted that when he said 'jump', the Prime Minister asked 'off what'. For a man who didn't run the country, he did a very good impression of a man who ran the country.

Alex hadn't even known he had a daughter.

She wasn't exactly ugly – but then, Alex was more broadminded than most teenage boys and he wasn't sure he'd ever met anyone ugly. When she grew up, she'd probably be called 'striking'; at the moment, her long, narrow eyes and high, prominent cheekbones rather overpowered her face, distracting from her engaging smile and the pretty copper lights in her dark hair. She had acne, Alex noted absently, and hadn't quite got the hang of make-up yet, and she was a little overweight – more the remnants of childhood than anything else, he thought distantly – but she looked nice. Friendly. Intelligent. For some reason, she wasn't quite what he'd had in mind. He'd been expecting a miniature Julia Rothman, a perfectly turned out beauty-to-be, and what he saw was an adolescent schoolgirl, barely even old enough to know what attractive really was.

Then there was the picture itself – a candid shot, slightly pixelated from being zoomed in on, and she was wearing a school uniform. Someone had been waiting outside her school, taken a photo of her, and had put it in a file for leverage over her father.

It was awful.

And right now, it was Alex's job to look through it.

Feeling faintly ill, he turned the first page, and began to read.

By the time he'd finished reading through the file, it was three in the morning, and he was so tired he would have begged for just a few moments' sleep. It was a painful effort to shut the folder and turn round to look at the ever-present guard, and he felt as though he'd been in the uncomfortable chair, sat at the empty table in the silent room, for years. When he spoke, his throat was clogged, and any sound at all felt out-of-place and strangely painful.

"I've finished," he managed, after clearing his throat.

The guard looked at him for a long moment, and Alex wondered if he'd have to beg, or if the man didn't speak English. He was so tired, he could barely remember the words he needed in English, let alone in any other language – he didn't have a hope of making himself understood.

He couldn't remember being this tired before. Not at the camp, not during the whole mess with Damian Cray, not during his first bout of basic training. He just wanted to sleep.

After an agonising pause, the guard knocked twice on the door, and called out something in a language Alex didn't recognise – Estonian or Hungarian maybe, but then possibly Farsi or Kurdish – Alex was too tired to even begin to pick out individual sounds and try to break down the linguistic pattern. He didn't speak it anyway, whatever it was, and while he'd normally be able to tell the difference between an Iranian and a Uralic language, he was so tired that the words were slipping past him like white noise. It was frustrating, but he reminded himself knowing that one guard spoke whatever language wouldn't affect the situation.

He was fixating anyway, he knew – it just wasn't important, even if his panicked, sleep-deprived brain was telling him that it was vital. He couldn't let one issue get to him. He had bigger things to focus on. God, he just wanted to sleep.

Alex could have cried with gratitude when he realised that they were taking him back upstairs to the room, and he wondered briefly whether this was some kind of conditioning – making him so grateful to be in the room at all that he wouldn't try and escape. Not that it would work, of course, but just at that moment he didn't care about conditioning, he didn't care about poor Chloe Osmond, he didn't even care about his classmates. He let himself be pushed back into the room, fell into the bed, and was asleep almost before he knew it.


He got five hours of sleep.

At eight the next morning, he was dragged out of bed again and pulled downstairs to the sitting room for another meeting with an urbanely smiling Andrei.

"Your friends are making something of a habit of this," he said lightly, trying not to feel the disadvantage of being barefoot in thin cotton pyjamas, which did not contrast well to the civilised armour of Andrei's well-tailored suit and smart leather shoes. There was a well-cared-for leather brief case by his feet and a silver-topped walking stick resting against the arm of his chair, and Alex had never felt so exposed or vulnerable.

"Ah, yes, I heard about this," Andrei said ruefully. "They did not understand. I said you were to read it, and it is known that I am an impatient man. I did not mean for you to be disturbed so late."

Alex didn't believe that for a minute. "Apology accepted," he said wryly, and gestured to the sofa. "May I?"

"Please, please," Andrei nodded graciously. "I hope you are not too tired? I know that children are needing a great deal of sleep."

Alex, whose head was pounding and whose legs felt like lead, managed a passable smile. "Not a bit of it," he returned politely. "I slept very well."

"I am so pleased," Andrei nodded. "Because now I have to test you on your homework. Ha! Homework! I have never run a school – I wonder whether it is always so very fun?"

Alex had to forcibly remind himself that attempting to smother an evil mastermind with a cushion would probably result in a violent, messy death. "I've never found attending school to be all that enjoyable," he said instead.

"Well, I do not think you will enjoy this so much as I," Andrei agreed, picking up his walking stick and rolling it thoughtfully between his hands, an abstracted look in his eyes. Finally, he looked up, focusing on Alex again. "Now, come. I must see how much you have learnt, and then we will begin on your role in this."

So, it was a test, Alex thought and managed not to shift nervously. What would happen if he gave too many wrong answers? Would his classmates have to pay because he'd been too tired to remember some detail of Chloe's life? Or would he be able to argue that it didn't matter if he didn't remember something-or-other, because he wouldn't be supposed to know it anyway? Somehow, he didn't think he'd be given the chance to argue his point.

He managed ten minutes before he got an answer wrong. For a moment, he stared, desperately trying to remember the days when Chloe had after-school maths lessons and coming up blank.

"Wednesdays," he said, trying to sound confident, and Andrei sighed regretfully.

"Alex, Alex," he said sadly. "These details are important. Hold out your hand, please."

For a moment, Alex stared at him, wrong-footed. "What- why?" he asked, then wished he hadn't. Andrei sighed again, twisting the silver top of his walking stick to produce a long, thin cane, and Alex just stared at the bizarre thing, certain he had to have read the whole thing wrong. "Did you – did you have that thing specially made?" he asked, feeling oddly hysterical. "How do you even ask for something like that?"

Andrei shook his head, frowning a little, the picture of disappointment. "This is not a time for questions," he said sternly. "Hold out your hand, Alex."

"No," Alex said, trying to sound firm, but Andrei had already lost patience with him.

"Mahdi!" he called, and the guard who had pulled Alex downstairs appeared in the door. "You will hold the boy's hand out for me."

For a bare second, something that looked like pity flickered over the man's face, and Alex felt a brief surge of hope – but then it was gone. Woodenly, the guard advanced on him, grasped Alex's wrist, and pulled his arm out in front of him, ignoring Alex's struggles completely. Alex balled his hand into a fist, and froze as Andrei's voice, incongruously gentle, reached his ears.

"Please, Alex. You will cooperate. It will hurt more than is necessary on the knuckle."

"This is necessary?" Alex demanded, an unfamiliar curl of panic twisting in the bottom of his stomach.

"Of course it is necessary," Andrei said, still gently. "I would not do something that is not necessary. Miss Osmond's maths lessons are on Tuesdays, Alex. Now, please, hold out your hand."

There was nothing he could do, and it was the hardest thing he had ever done. Slowly, hoping that he would be granted a last-minute reprieve, he uncurled his hand.

Then there was a line of burning heat across his palm, and he was crying out almost before he knew it had happened, and Mahdi was letting go of his wrist. He pulled his hand in, cradling it against his chest, grateful that at the very least he wasn't crying – but it was a cold comfort.

"When are Miss Osmond's maths lessons?" Andrei said, nodding a dismissal at Mahdi, his voice hatefully calm.

"Tuesday," Alex gasped, and shut his eyes, pulling into himself to reorient against the sharp sudden pain.

"Very good. And what is the name of her oldest friend?"

Five strokes of the cane later, and Alex could feel himself shaking apart. Andrei was careful, he had to give him that – the cane never landed in the same place twice, and he never hit hard enough to leave a permanent mark, he didn't even break the skin, but it hurt like hell all the same and Alex could hardly concentrate against the pain. It was different to almost everything else he'd experienced – a premeditated violence, one he had to steel himself against and one he knew was coming, and there didn't seem to be a reprieve in sight.

He felt shocky and cold, except for his hand, which seemed to be on fire, smarting and burning like nothing he'd felt before. He flinched every time the cane whistled down, every time Andrei asked him a question, and the more panicked and pained he got, the more questions he got wrong. This was a kind of torture no one had ever tried to prepare him for.

Worst of all, he realised with a sudden burst of clarity, Andrei was enjoying it.

He'd realised, of course he'd realised, that Andrei was pretending to regret it because that was another way to manipulate, another way to freak Alex out and keep him thoroughly wrong-footed. But he'd imagined it was torture, that Andrei was doing it to prove a point, to make Alex feel a certain way, to act a certain way around him. It wasn't that – or at least, that was only a by-product. Andrei was doing it because he liked it, because he was the kind of man who enjoyed other people's pain, who enjoyed the power to cause other people pain. That was what he'd seen before – the way the man had talked about hurting children, pretending shock at the very idea, even as his face lit up at the mere thought of getting to inflict pain. That was what he'd noticed, but he hadn't actually seen it, and even if he had, he wasn't sure he could have done anything differently. Andrei had wanted to hurt him – or had wanted to hurt someone, Alex didn't think the man was all that discriminate, and Alex was readily available. There was no way he could have avoided it, because Andrei was always going to want this.

And right now, while he was hurting Alex and enjoying every moment of it, that knowledge wasn't of any use. But at some point, knowing what kind of man Andrei was could come in useful. And Alex was good at this, he was good at it, and he stored the knowledge away and he didn't let Andrei see for a moment that he was anything other than terrified, anything other than off-balance and frightened and in pain. And in the other part of himself, the part that was watching it all and wincing with every flick of the cane but not feeling any of it, he made a mental note.

It didn't help. Three wrong answers later and he was crying, actually sobbing over his red-striped, throbbing hand. Two wrong answers after that, and when Andrei said, with regret in his voice and a spark in his eyes, "hold out your hand, please, Alex," Alex couldn't make himself do it.

Dumbly, he stared at the man, and that other part of himself was noting the pleasure in the set of Andrei's mouth, the satisfaction in his eyes, but the rest of him was trembling, and he just couldn't make himself straighten his arm.

Very, very softly, he said, "I can't."

Andrei tutted sadly. "I think you can, Alex," he said, just as softly. Alex tried. There was no part of him that wanted to and he wasn't sure he was capable of it, but he tried. And Andrei watched with patience, a slowly rising glee in his eyes, and Alex had never hated anyone the way he hated him. "You are very brave," Andrei continued gently, after watching him for a minute or so, just watching the way Alex struggled against every instinct he had. "I am sure you prefer it was you here than anyone else."

Alex stared at him, utterly defeated. There was no way he could make himself do this; there was no way he could let his classmates be beaten instead.

In the end, he had to push his arm out and physically prise his fingers back with his other hand. It still wasn't enough – almost automatically, his fingers curled back in towards his palm, and Andrei's cane came down bitingly hard on his knuckles.

Alex choked on a scream, biting down hard to stop himself from crying out to loudly. His hand was in agony, he was exhausted and humiliated and crying in his pyjamas while a sociopath tortured him, and he had no idea where any of this was going to end – but he was damned if he'd give the madman the satisfaction of hearing him scream.

To his deep and enduring relief, Andrei seemed to have had his fill of fun for the day, sliding the springy rattan back into its walking stick casing.

"Another couple of hours with the file, yes? Then we will start you on your own story, the one you will tell Miss Osmond." He smiled kindly. "I think you will be much more attentive this time, do not you?"

Alex bit down every sarcastic rejoinder he might have come up with, all-too-aware of the possible – probable – consequences of saying anything. "I'll do my best," he mumbled. Better by far to let the bastard think he was cowed and broken by this. Let him think whatever the hell he liked. Alex hurt – oh, God, he hurt – but he had endured worse. This was different. It was novel. But it wasn't the worst thing that had ever happened to him, and if he could just get away, if he could just have a chance to regroup, he'd get through it.

He would.


It was as much as Alex could do to let the guard – Mahdi, his name was Mahdi, and he forced himself to remember that because it might be useful at some point – haul him up off the sofa and push him towards the door. He couldn't force himself to be an active participant; he could barely force himself to put one foot in front of the other so he wouldn't be dragged up the stairs.

In a twisted type of comfort, Mahdi was careful to grip Alex's right arm, to avoid his left hand, which was still burningly, agonisingly sore. It even hurt to feel the brush of air against it as he moved, like a brand, too tender and raw to bear being exposed to the open air.

He wanted ice. He wanted to lie down. He wanted to be anywhere, anywhere but here.

But while he was here, Alex had a role to play. And he had done this before, so it couldn't be too hard – he could do this. As Mahdi paused in front of the same door from last night, Alex surreptitiously took a deep breath, letting himself for one moment feel all the pain, acknowledging it then pushing it away to another corner of his mind, to be dealt with at a later date. He'd look at the memories later, when he was somewhere safe, he'd deal with the injuries when he had some privacy, when he could deal with it properly. Not now. Not while he was still in front of people who could take any example of weakness and use it against him. He'd already given Andrei enough for one day – he wasn't going to give him an inch more.

So Alex let himself to herded into the room and pushed down in front of Chloe Osmond's file, and although it was agony, he made himself reach out with his sore, swelling left hand and flip it open. And he began to read it all over again like nothing was bothering him.

And inside somewhere, he was screaming.

By the time Alex was taken back up to the room he was sharing with the other teenagers, he'd managed to regain some kind of equilibrium. His hand was still a constant agony, but his eyes were no longer swollen from crying and he'd fought with the pain until it was something he could manage, and if he couldn't really use his left hand just at the moment, he didn't have to let the others know that yet.

They were all dressed, and Alex managed to hide his flinch at that. Grabbing his clothes, he gave them a nod and headed instantly for the bathroom, thinking longingly of cold water against his burning hand, and he'd nearly made it when Charlotte's tentative voice stopped him.

"Alex?" she said nervously. "Are- are you OK?"

Alex turned to her and sold the lie with everything he had, offering her a reassuring smile. "I'm fine," he told her calmly. "Just need a shower. Something about that guy brings me out in a cold sweat."

He shut the bathroom door and sagged back against it, letting the clothes he'd grabbed fall to the floor. For a moment, he couldn't find the energy to do anything more, then he forced himself upright and almost fell over to the sink, turning the tap on as cold as it could go and very tentatively putting his hand under the stream of water.

He almost thought he might scream again. Having anything touch his hand was torture, but the cold would help, he knew it would. It was still a struggle to make himself look at it. Somehow, he'd got it into his head that if he didn't have to see it, it wouldn't be as bad – it would be painful and perhaps it would hamper him for a little while, but it would be something he'd built up in his head, something minor. But when he looked down at his palm, it was a mess of raised red welts. It had swollen, too – not too much, but enough that it looked ungainly and alien.

The cold water would bring down the swelling, he reminded himself, and forced himself to keep his hand where it was.

It was OK. He was OK. If he could just keep telling himself that, if he could just keep himself together, they'd get out of here and he'd be OK. This hurt, but it wouldn't be the first time he'd been hurt while he was on an assignment, it probably wouldn't be the last, and he'd done more impossible things while in worse pain than this. Everything was going to be fine.

His hand went numb after five minutes – he kept it under the tap for nearly fifteen before he felt he could take it out. Even then, he couldn't bear the idea of touching it with anything, and he waited for it to air-dry, counting his blessings. It would probably bruise nastily, but Andrei hadn't broken the skin. It hurt, but the swelling was already going down. His hand wasn't much use at the moment, but he'd regain full use of it soon.

He could hardly believe that it had happened, but as ever, the mantra of Alex's life was 'it could have been worse'.

He turned the shower on cold – because the idea of hot water against his hand made him flinch in anticipated pain, and he cared more about that than hiding himself from the camera – washed briskly to get the feeling of dried fear-sweat off, and dressed as quickly as he could without using his left hand. Then he took a deep breath and stepped out into the room with his classmates.

Offering them an easy smile, he looked round. "Is there any food?" he asked, as cheerfully as he could. "I missed breakfast." Thank God – he was pretty sure he'd have been sick if he'd eaten anything. Now that he could almost think clearly, he was almost certain he should be hungry, and he knew for a fact that he needed to eat.

"There's some sandwiches," Charlotte offered carefully. "And salad. And you should have some water, you look – thirsty?" Alex was certain that wasn't what she'd been about to say.

Tom was staring at him. "What's wrong?" he asked. Sometimes Alex hated that no one had ever taught Tom tact.

Alex shook his head. "Let me eat something first," he said easily, and Tom's frown deepened as he checked him over.

"Alex," he breathed, "your hand! Oh my God, what did they do to you?"

Alex imagined it did look bad – red and swollen and hanging limp because he couldn't bear to move it – but it couldn't look anything like as bad as it felt, and he was all out of patience. "I want food and sleep," he snapped. "Let's do this later, OK?"

Charlotte silently fetched him a plate of sandwiches and salad, and poured him a glass of water, while Tom gave Alex one look and clambered off the bed where he'd been sitting, in favour of rummaging through the chest of drawers. Alex didn't have the energy to wonder what the hell he was doing when he disappeared into the bathroom with a pyjama top, not even when he heard ripping noises and angry muttering floating through the doorway. Instead, he focused on eating. Everything tasted like cardboard, but he made himself chew mechanically, eating one-handed and casting up thanks to whoever might be listening for the invention of the sandwich. It might have been a little embarrassing to eat individual salad leaves with his fingers, but Alex was long past the point of caring about niceties like table manners.

Will and Joe were huddled on the sofa bed, talking in low voices and casting him occasional glances, which left Charlotte by herself. She watched him eat for a minute or so, then sat herself down on the bed next to him and offered him a rather forced smile.

"We don't have TV reception," she said, her voice determinedly bright. "We checked this morning, after they – after you left. But there are DVDs, can you believe that? We've been kidnapped, but they've given us a DVD player and the box set of Blackadder." She actually managed to laugh. "It's kind of funny, don't you think? And there are books in the bottom drawer. I mean, they're all books like my aunt reads, Jeffrey Archer and stuff, but they've actually given us books. There's even an old Physics textbook in there. I don't think I'm ever going to be bored enough for that!"

Alex could have kissed her. They might have been boring, trivial things, but she was being so determinedly normal at him. While he felt on the brink of being overwhelmed, her monologue gave him something to anchor himself to while he ate. The most he could do was give her an encouraging smile around a mouthful of cheese sandwich, but she looked heartened and continued until he'd finished eating.

"Thanks," he said quietly, just as Tom reappeared in the bathroom door.

"Wet bandages," he announced grimly. "For your hand." He brought over a pile of sodden strips of material, and laid them out over his lap as he perched on the edge of the bed. "Let's see it, then. You can't do this yourself."

"I really don't want to talk about it," Alex told him in a low voice. He wasn't sure he'd be able to talk about it without something in him cracking open.

"You don't have to," Tom told him. "Just let me help, OK? I'll be careful. I remember all that first aid stuff they taught us at the camp."

"That's such a relief," Alex said dryly, and Tom managed a tense smile.

"Alex. Your hand."

For what felt like the hundredth time that day, Alex unwillingly held out his left arm, and felt the room still as everyone stared at him.

"Wow," Will said, sliding off the sofa bed to get a better look. "What the hell happened?"

"He said he doesn't want to talk about it," Tom said fiercely. "Leave him alone."

If he kept it short and factual, he could probably say something. Anything, really, just to get them to leave him alone. "Andrei likes canes," he said steadily, and was proud of the way his voice didn't break on an echo of remembered fear.

Will actually physically jerked back, a look of horrified realisation on his face. Charlotte bit her lip, looking sickened, and Tom's entire face darkened.

"The bandages will help," he said, rather than comment, and Alex nodded. Personally, he wasn't sure whether they really would, but he knew that Tom needed to feel like he was helping. "But I think you'll have to wet them again before you take them off. Otherwise they'll stick." Alex just about managed to hide his wince at the idea, and just nodded again. "It looks like it's just these – ridges? The red ones?"

"Think so," Alex nodded, doing his best to disassociate as much as possible from what was actually happening to him. "It'll bruise, but nothing's broken."

"OK. OK," Tom nodded, taking a deep breath and laying the first strip of damp shirting over Alex's palm. He waited until the others had backed off a little, very carefully wrapping the wet material around Alex's hand. "Are you alright?" he asked, and Alex had to remind himself that he had to be careful to give the others hope and confidence, even if he didn't have much himself.

So he made himself smile and meet Tom's eyes. "Yeah," he said, with a shrug that hurt more than Tom would ever know. "I mean, it sucks. But honestly, Tom. I'm fine."

To Alex's relief, they weren't disturbed for the rest of the day. He spent most of it asleep, only waking to take the bandages off his hand – which was still achingly sore – and eat the ready-meal macaroni cheese that was brought up to them for dinner. He slept until he was woken the next morning by one of the ever-present guards, allowed to dress, and pulled downstairs to the meeting room where, to his horror, Andrei was waiting for him.

"Good morning, Alex," he said cheerfully. "I think you have slept well now, no?"

"Very well, thank you," Alex said politely, and very carefully didn't hide his hands behind his back the way he wanted to.

"How well have you learnt about Miss Osmond?" Andrei asked with deceptive lightness, and Alex knew he had to take this moment.

"I remember everything I read," he said honestly. "But yesterday can't happen again."

"I am not so fond of being told what I cannot do," Andrei told him with a lightning frown, but Alex stood firm.

"I'm not saying it because I don't want it to happen again, though obviously I don't," he said, trying his level best to sound calm and reasonable. "I'm telling you because you want me to do this for you, and I can't if I've got to come up with excuses for injuries. And I need to be able to focus."

Andrei eyed him for a moment. "But you do not have the choice," he said slowly. "You will do this job in whatever condition I say you will do it in."

"Why make it harder than necessary?" Alex asked. "So you want to know how good I am, whether or not everything you've heard is actually true, I get that. But you do still want this job done, even if I'm not actually the only one who can do it for you, so why not let me get on with it without making it even harder?"

They watched each other across the table, and Alex wished he could bite his lip, desperately hoping that Andrei would go for it, that he'd believe him, and he had no idea whether or not Andrei would take the bait. Letting the man know that he'd realised there was a long game going on here was just the risk he'd had to take – hopefully that would be impressive enough that the mind games could stop and the beating wouldn't have to happen again. On anyone else, he could have been almost sure it would work, but Andrei's sadism was a disrupting factor, and he couldn't be certain that the man would want the job done more than he wanted to have someone to hurt.

After an agonising pause, Andrei gave him a shark's smile. "I think perhaps you have not been praised too much," he said, a tacit agreement that had Alex heaving a deep, internal sigh of relief. "But if you do not behave as I wish, I have many ways of motivating you. Now!" He tossed another manila folder onto the table and slid it across to Alex's side. "This is your cover story, yes? You will read it, learn it and report back to me on it. Is that understood?"

"Perfectly," Alex nodded, and waited until Andrei had left the room before he collapsed into the chair and took a few moments to himself to calm his racing heart. He couldn't believe it had actually worked. His hand was throbbing in time with his hard-beating pulse, and he cradled it in his lap for a moment before reaching for the file.

It was just one little success. It was one tiny piece of ground that he'd won back for himself. But it was the first success he'd had since this whole nightmare had started, and for half a second, he allowed himself to smile.

Hanley gave it two days before he headed back into HQ. Waiting was agony for both him and Jack – he'd explained that going back into work when most of his immediate colleagues knew he was on a medical suspension from fieldwork would look suspicious. He knew she understood, but they both wanted to be doing something, not waiting around for the opportune moment.

Still, 'hurry up and wait' was the catchphrase of the intelligence industry, and Hanley had learnt that lesson well.

He stopped by Marie's office with his carefully written report, sticking his head round the door with a rueful grin.

"Sorry," he said cheerfully. "I was going stir-crazy stuck on bed rest. Thought I'd come and bother you. Got anything for me?"

Marie smiled back at him. "You have a cast-iron excuse not to come into work and you come in anyway. You're insane. That your report?"

"The very same," he nodded. "Since I was coming in, I thought I'd deliver it personally. Is hard copy OK, or do you want me to email it to you as well?"

"Yeah, send it through," she nodded. "Just in case. Stick it on the pile, would you?"

"Nice to know I'm high priority," he joked, and she quirked a grin at him.

"You're always at the top of my list, you know that," she agreed sweetly.

"So've you got anything for me, then?" He gave her a hopeful smile. "Maybe something on the Flaxman job…?"

Marie gave him a sharp look. "You're not still hung up about not being put on that, are you?" she sighed. "I told you it wasn't my decision." He said nothing and eventually she sighed again. "Alright, fine. Since you're here, I've got a load of surveillance tapes from the job that need going through. D'you think you could give them a look? I'll email you the brief so you know what to look for."

Hanley made himself frown a little. "Well, I'm not gonna say no," he said slowly. "But I think you'd need to give me a temporary security pass for that. Wasn't that the reason I wasn't put on that job? Not cleared for sufficient clearance or something like that? And no, before you say anything, I'm really not still bitter. Not much. Rarely ever. Honest."

"Come off it, it's security tapes," Marie retorted, smiling unwillingly. "And it's not like the brief's really all that secret, even in this place."

He shrugged easily. "OK, then. On your head be it."

She sighed, giving him a long-suffering look. "Too by-the-book, that's you – that's why they wouldn't give you the clearance, for sure. Fine, I can give you temporary access to Level Six files, since you're so worried about it – don't let it go to your head. It's just for the look of the thing."

"Ooh, Level Six," he teased. "That's, what, the canteen staff's real names?"

"Please. Only Mr Blunt knows what Avril's real name is," she snarked back with a smile. "Get out of here and start going through security tapes, you idle git. Milsom's got 'em at the moment, over in Tech, but I need her to do a contact run."

"Yes, ma'am," he nodded. "Jo Milsom, Tech, Flaxman job, I'm an idle git, got it."

"You'll have the brief by the time you get there. How's the shoulder, by the way?"

"Yeah, fine, y'know. Sore. Got another round of physio tomorrow, for my sins."

"Don't stint on it," she told him, and went back to her piles of paperwork.

"Hey, Jo," Hanley said, rapping smartly on the open door of the third vid room in the Tech department. "Marie sent me to take over on checking the surveillance footage?"

She smiled up at him. "Angel," she said gratefully. "So've they finally upped your clearance after your big hush-hush job, then?"

"Chance should be a fine thing," he laughed. "Nah, s'temporary. Just so I can do you a favour."

"You seriously have no idea," she told him fervently. "I swear to God, all the bastards do is pop outside to smoke and do coffee runs."

"Aww, is the spying not exciting enough for you?" he teased, and she gave him a weak glare.

"Not all of us get shot in the line of duty," she said primly, grabbing her handbag as she stood up. "Some of us are good at our jobs."

"Harsh, Jo," he said with a mock frown. "Harsh."

"You asked for it," she retorted, then softened. "How is the shoulder, anyway? I thought you were still on medical leave."

"I am," he admitted. "But honestly, if I watched one more re-run of Jeremy Kyle I was going to go mad."

"Well, you're the flavour of the month round here," she said, patting him carefully on his unwounded arm. "Most exciting thing that's happened since Tariq sprained his ankle." She considered that for a moment. "Or maybe since Ellie broke the coffee machine. Either way."

"Jo," Hanley said, pained. "We work for MI6. I am not the most exciting thing that's happened round here."

"Not in the Bank," she said patiently. "For us. Everyone knows we're the baby-steps division. I've gotta run, love – I'm Tariq's contact while he's inside, he's expecting me at one." She turned to the computer, ready to log out, and he moved fast, careful to make it look as casual as possible.

"Hey, can you just stay logged in? I know you're going to say I'm milking it, but typing is a real pain in the arse at the moment. And you got bumped up to Level Six for this job, right? So it's all one at the moment." He grinned at her. "I promise I won't go looking for anything I shouldn't, and I promise not to send spam emails from you to everyone we know."

Jo dithered for a moment. "You know we're not supposed to do that," she pointed out. "Bad practice and all. George, I really don't think I should-"

"No," he agreed slowly. "You're right – just – could you type my email in for me? I can manage the password one handed, but I'll be here all day if I've got to cope with the sodding email address on top of that. Swear to God, they have them specially generated by Satan or something."

She wavered still further, checking her watch. "Look, just this once, alright? And only because you got yourself all banged up. I'm gonna expect the good gossip from you as payback – and don't tell anyone I did this, because Marie'd have my head as a paperweight if she found out."

"You're a proper lifesaver, Jo, seriously," he told her, giving her a quick one-armed hug. "Say hi to Tariq for me, yeah?"

"Will do. I'm gonna be late – tell me if you find anything useful, OK?"

"Be good," he nodded, responded to her backwards smile, and let the door to the tiny private room swing shut.

Level Six clearance, he thought, as he sat down in front of the frozen screen, showing a front drive, empty except for the expensive car parked outside the front door. It almost certainly wouldn't be enough, but it was somewhere to start.

He had put the waiting days to some use – enough to learn that short of a court order or some seriously illegal hacking, which was above his skill level anyway, nothing was getting him access to guardianship papers or Ian Rider's Will. Jack knew the name of the lawyers it had been filed with – Snellgrove and Wilcox – but a tentative phone call by Jack on behalf of Alex had presented them with yet another dead end. Even if it was legal for Alex to see it, Alex wasn't on hand to request it, was a minor, and the lawyers would probably throw so much red tape in their way that Alex would actually be eighteen by the time they got access to it.

But just because they couldn't access the information in the outside world didn't mean that the Bank might not have something he could use. He wasn't going to risk doing it from his own account – not when he didn't want to face any questions just yet – but now he had Jo's, open on the computer in front of him, and it could probably be passed off as idle curiosity over water-cooler gossip if anyone asked. He'd drop hints later about his latest assignment, and let the gossip machine take over. In the meantime, he sent up a silent apology to Jo for any trouble he was about to get her into. He regretted it – but he was still going to do it.

Bringing up the shared file drive, he typed 'Rider' into the search bar and waited while the results loaded.

Keeping one eye on the unchanging footage of Flaxman's front door, he scrolled through the hundred plus documents that'd come up, disregarding anything more than ten years old. Bringing up anything that looked even slightly promising, and thanking god for the preview option, he was soon out of options – this might be the most espionage thing he'd ever done, and it was looking like he hadn't had enough of a plan. Goddammit, what would Alex have done?

Searching for 'Alex Rider' was risky, but a dead end all the same – there was nothing on the server. He'd expected that, though. Ian Rider was a bona fide employee, and was referenced in passing in any number of reports and case studies that were available to anyone with a log-in and sufficient clearance. Alex Rider, though – he was a completely different story. There was no way anything about him would be left lying around on one of the public folders for anyone to find.

One more option – Starbright.


Hanley sat back, disheartened. Where else could he look? It had been a long shot anyway, but he felt like he was hitting blank walls wherever he turned, and he just didn't have either the experience or the knowledge to be able to dig deeper or look anywhere else. All he had was his MI6-tailored training, which wasn't likely to help him against MI6 itself, eighteen months of starter experience, and the goodwill of his equally wet-behind-the-ears immediate colleagues. None of that was going to help him find a secret that had the entire weight of the Foreign Intelligence Service sitting on it.

He had contacts, and he wasn't planning to work here any longer – as soon as Alex was safe, he was out, he knew that. But could he risk the kind of attention that asking questions was going to bring?

He thought of the look on Jack's face, the way she'd sounded as she talked about Alex a few days ago.

Yes. Yes, he could.

He spent an hour or so spooling through some of the footage, more for the look of the thing than because he was really paying any attention to it, then let himself out of the dark vid room to fetch himself some coffee. Grabbing two cups and balancing them awkwardly in his one good hand – since he was supposed to be playing up his injury – he made his way over to Emmanuel's desk to drop the other off.

"Hey, man," he said easily. "Thought you could use it."

Emmanuel, as Hanley had known he would, grabbed eagerly at it. "What'd I do to deserve this?" he asked. "Didn't think you'd be paying attention to us lowly techs now you've hit the big leagues."

Hanley wished that hollow laughter wouldn't give him away completely at this point. If only Emmanuel knew how big the big leagues were really turning out to be. "What can I say," he retorted instead. "I knew I'd have an admiring audience in you, so I picked my moment?"

"Get out of it," Emmanuel told him, and took a slurp of his still painfully-hot coffee. "So, c'mon then. What's up?"

"To be honest? I need a favour. Huge favour, really. But I can pay you in coffee? And I'll pay you back next time you need something."

Emmanuel gave him an assessing look. "I'm listening…?"

"Also, there's gossip in it for you," Hanley pressed, letting himself seem over-eager and playing up his role as the news du jour among the newbies.

"OK, seriously, do you want me to assassinate someone or something?" Emmanuel demanded. "Just spit it out, mate."

"It's the latest job," he said in a rush. "There's something I can't get my head around, you know? And you've got access to way more stuff than I do." If in doubt, flattery. It didn't take a spy to know that. "Can you just run a name for me? Ian Rider. His private life, I think – if it's in his cases, it'll be a dead end anyway. We might get clearance for the code names in a decade or so." He added a grin, just to be sure Emmanuel didn't think too much of it. "But I think there might be something in the standard stuff I can follow up. Can you get me any documents on his private life? I don't know – I know he's dead, so his Will, maybe, Land Registry entry for his house, medical records, that sort of thing?"

Emmanuel paused. "I don't even know if we keep any of that stuff on our system," he said slowly. "I mean, medical records for sure, but I don't know if I can get access to them – I doubt it, honestly. But I'll have a look, if you're really sure?"

"Yeah – just run his name and see what comes up, would you? I'll owe you big time."

"What's it about, anyway?" Emmanuel asked, eyeing him interestedly. "Your latest, you said?"

"Can't give any details," Hanley said, and made sure to look as smug as possible, before deliberately ruining the effect by quirking a self-deprecating grin at his colleague. "Nah, but seriously, there's something in my head that says this Rider bloke might be connected – I don't know."

"And you need his private files for that?" Emmanuel frowned a little.

Hanley shrugged. "Call it a hunch," he said, letting just a little of his very real frustration seep into his voice. "There's something there, I know there is."

"I think you've let it go to your head, to be honest," Emmanuel shrugged, clearly willing to take it at face value. "But sure. I'll run the name for you, but you're going to owe me so much coffee, you have no idea."

"I'll make it the good stuff," Hanley promised. "I'm in vid room three, if you find anything."

When the door opened nearly two hours later, Hanley had just noted down the latest movement on the seemingly endless Flaxman footage, and waved a hand at the intruder. "Gimme a second," he said absently, and finished making his note before pausing the video. "Hi," he said, turning to whoever it was.

He wasn't expecting a stranger, let alone the put-together brunette who was standing just inside the closed door.

"Mr Hanley?" she said, with a cool smile. "My boss wanted a quick word with you, if you've got a minute."

Hanley could feel his palms beginning to sweat, and he hoped he looked and sounded relaxed, that his confusion didn't look too overdone as he frowned a little and cocked his head to one side. "Your boss?" he said, puzzled. "I mean, sure. Let me just log out here? I'm – look, I'm really sorry, do I know you?"

"I'm Miranda," she told him, with a slightly friendlier smile. "Can you come now, then?"

"Of course," he said, and his voice definitely sounded husky and nervous. He cleared his throat as easily as he could as he logged out of Jo's account and killed the screen with the tapes. "Do I need to lock the door, d'you think? Only I don't have the keys-"

"It'll be fine," she said easily. "Follow me."

He let her lead him through the corridors of the Tech department, down a flight of stairs, and into a frankly bewildering chaos of corridors, crammed with what appeared to be labs or testing rooms. He was grateful for the time their journey took, desperately rehearsing his pre-prepared cover story. He'd been expecting – hoping, really – that there'd be some more time between having to answer questions and the actual searches he'd made. He'd been banking on there being at least an element of confusion over timings, enough that it would make it a little harder to parse what had actually happened. Hopefully – dear God, hopefully – he could pass it all off as idle curiosity. Stupid, thoughtless, perhaps something he'd get fired over, but not something that would lead to any further reprisals.

His fears only increased when Miranda led him into a small office, furnished with only a desk, a sleek computer and a dying potted plant. All of it served to highlight the door opposite the one they'd come in by – the one marked 'Smithers: Q Section'.

God, this was the big leagues for sure, he thought, and hoped he wouldn't do anything too embarrassing. Like laugh hysterically. Or beg for mercy.

He watched with mounting panic as Miranda knocked on Mr Smithers' door, and poked her head round it.

"George Hanley, sir," she said, with smooth professionalism. "Tea with two sugars, is it?"

"Please, Miss Pennyweather," a man's voice agreed. "But don't hurry back."

"No, sir."

"Send him in, then."

Hanley managed a weak smile at Miranda as she ushered him through into the office. It was about all he could manage – even walking seemed suddenly difficult.

He had heard the rumours about Mr Smithers, of course – no one who had worked for MI6 could avoid them. The man was rumoured to have his finger in every single Intelligence pie, even the ones that didn't fall under MI6's jurisdiction, and his technical expertise was legendary, but he didn't do much hands-on work. He was the head of Q Section, after all; his time could be better spent than on briefing agents on how to use the latest gadget dreamt up by the vast, silent network of techs and scientists that made up Q Section.

His absence made him an irresistible source of gossip and conspiracy theories. Hanley had heard all the most favoured and all the wackiest – that Mr Smithers was actually an android, that he was a front for a committee of mostly ex-pat scientists, that he was actually a field agent under deep cover investigating MI6 itself – and had dismissed them all. A month or so of actual field work had taught him what two years of intensive training had not: that spies, however cool and aloof they might seem, were terrible gossips when it came to in-house information, and most of them couldn't resist a good conspiracy theory. But the one thing everyone agreed on was that Mr Smithers was terrifyingly good at his job and insanely quick off the mark.

And Hanley had never heard any serious theory that questioned his loyalty. So. Whatever Mr Smithers had to say to him, whatever Mr Smithers had found out, he was probably in for the high jump. He just hoped that he could protect Jack from it, and that whatever retribution might come his way wouldn't be too awful. He didn't care if he got fired – he hadn't cared about that since his talk with Alex a couple of days ago – but he didn't want to be disappeared. It was rumoured that Mr Smithers could make a person vanish like they'd never existed.

All the rumours, however, did not prepare him for the reality of Mr Smithers.

The enormously fat, beaming man the other side of the desk didn't look all that threatening; he looked better suited to playing Santa than outfitting MI6 field agents. Of course, Hanley wasn't stupid – he wasn't about to assume that not looking threatening was the same as not being threatening, but he certainly hadn't expected the man to wave him into a seat with a fat hand and smile like he'd been given an early Christmas present.

"It is George Hanley, isn't it? AD Section?" The deep, plummy voice was a surprise too.

Since Hanley had heard Miranda tell Mr Smithers his name, and since she seemed nothing if not terrifyingly efficient, it seemed like there was something else going on here. Maybe an attempt to put him off his guard? "Yes, sir," he said, cautious and trying not to seem cautious. "Can I help you?"

"Well, now, I rather think I can help you," Mr Smithers said, still with that unnervingly genuine smile. "You've been causing me rather a lot of bother, you know."

"I'm sorry, sir," Hanley said, trying for honest confusion.

"Oh, it's nothing I couldn't handle," Mr Smithers said airily. "Just a case of covering your tracks, you know – you should really leave the computer nonsense to us."

"Computer nonsense, sir?" Hanley said frowning. "I've been watching video feeds all afternoon."

"Yes, you have," Mr Smithers said approvingly. "After looking up Ian and Alex Rider and Jack Starbright on someone else's account. A little basic, perhaps, but not bad work. I was particularly impressed that you managed to get your own clearance temporarily bumped up as a distraction – that was a rather nice touch, I thought. And, of course, getting your friend in general tech support to run a search for you. Good use of proxy, by the way – some really very solid work. Still, it would all lead back to you eventually, you know."

Hanley tried to look shamefaced when all he really felt was a dawning terror. "Yes, sir," he said slowly. "The passwords are difficult to type with only one arm, you see, and I was curious about my last assignment."

"Now, I find it very difficult to believe that a man who's been cleared for light duty can't type in a simple password," Mr Smithers told him.

"I haven't been-"

"Not with the Bank, dear boy, by your doctor."

"I thought my medical records were private, sir," Hanley said, attempting a dignified hauteur he thought had probably fallen rather flat.

"Oh, almost everything's private unless you go looking for it," Mr Smithers agreed. "But I was rather interested, you know."

"I'm sorry I caused you any trouble, sir," Hanley said, persisting. "All I wanted to do was try and understand my last assignment. It was a bit of a clusterfuck, excuse my language."

"Yes, I know about that," Mr Smithers said thoughtfully. "The thing is, old chap, I'm interested in your interest. I've covered your tracks electronically speaking, but you've brought other people into it, giving that friend of yours in GT a name to go looking for, and I'd rather Alex Rider didn't become a topic of general conversation round here." He tapped his fingers against his desk, eyeing Hanley meditatively. "No, that wouldn't do. After too long in this game, old boy, you start to play it all the time. And I've been in it for a very long time."

"I asked Emmanuel to look up Ian Rider," Hanley said, frowning.

"Your handler knows it was Alex Rider you were assigned to protect," Mr Smithers said dismissively. "And everyone knows you were on a hush-hush job – which of course means everyone has at least a vague idea of what you were up to. Spies talk more to each other than old ladies at a bridge party, when they can talk at all, and they all know it was something involving children, at any rate. It's a hop, skip and a jump across from asking for Ian Rider's details to finding out that Ian Rider had a nephew, and I don't want that happening. We're flying seriously under the radar here, you know. I've given your friend Emmanuel something to find, anyway; he'll pass it on to you, you can look vindicated, take it to your handler, and then you'll never hear about it again."

"I see," said Hanley, who didn't. "Is that all?"

"Not entirely," Mr Smithers said, still watching him closely. "The thing is, dear boy, what is it that's got you looking into Ian Rider?"

Hanley felt a kind of shock go through him. This was the test, the moment when he could screw it all up, and he didn't know if he could trust the man opposite him. "Like I said," he tried. "I had some questions after my assignment, and-"

"No," Mr Smithers said, looking annoyed for the first time. "That's not it. Now, don't misunderstand me, I'm sure you'll grow into a very decent operative, but you don't have the kind of intuition to go from watching Alex Rider to looking into Ian Rider. That sort of thing gets taught by experience, and you're not one of the one-in-a-million types who come by it naturally." Not like poor Alex Rider, then, Hanley thought, and kept his mouth shut. "Something, or someone, got you thinking along those lines, and I want to know who or what it was."

Hanley shook his head. "I'm sorry you don't think my work's up to scratch, sir," he said stiffly. "But-"

"Ohh." Mr Smithers puffed out a sigh, and leant back in his chair. "Protecting someone, are you? So it'll be the Starbright girl, then." Hanley stared at him mutely. "Oh, stop looking like a deer in the headlights, old chap. Whatever you've got planned, one well-intentioned art student and a wet-behind-the-ears junior agent aren't going to pull it off. With me on your side, you've at least got a hope. So what is it?"

"Well, sir, I don't even know that you are on my side," Hanley said, deciding that since his actions were apparently an open book to the man he might as well go for broke.

Mr Smithers blinked, then nodded slowly. "I see," he nodded slowly. "Well, only time will prove that, I'm afraid. All I can tell you is, I've given years of my life and some of my best work to this job, and I don't like outfitting children so someone – or many someones – can take potshots at them."

"So you're…?"

"I'm working on getting Alex Rider out, of course," Mr Smithers said, with just a touch of impatience.

Hanley sat back in his chair and stared at him. "For how long?"

"It must be about six months now," Mr Smithers said thoughtfully. "About that, I'd imagine. But I'm afraid I rather discounted our American friend, Miss Starbright. She's the boy's guardian, of course, but-"

"Is she?" Hanley asked, taken aback. There was the answer to the question he'd been trying to answer, and he hadn't even had to ask. "She doesn't know that."

Mr Smithers looked equally surprised by his interruption. "Oh yes. Has been since Ian's death. It's in his Will."

"Who's the Will with?" Hanley asked, dry-mouthed. Suddenly, he had an idea of where this was going.

"The in-house legal team," Mr Smithers said, frowning at him.

"Otherwise known as Snellgrove and Wilcox?" Hanley asked, with a sinking feeling.

"That's them," Mr Smithers agreed slowly. "Who – well, who clearly lied to her, lied to Alex, and let them think his guardian was some shadowy figure, or possibly the Bank itself. Get them thinking the situation's precarious, legally speaking. Well, that makes a horrifying kind of sense."

"Alright," Hanley said, "so she's Alex's guardian. But you discounted her?"

"Well, she hasn't got any clout to speak of," Mr Smithers said apologetically, regaining a little of his earlier aplomb. "And even if she could get him out of the country, which I doubt she could manage even with my help, Alex has enemies from whom she couldn't protect him. What we need is someone with contacts and an in-built defence available to them – not something Miss Starbright can provide." He eyed Hanley, who was still reeling a little from the sensation of having rings run round him. "I understand that you don't trust me," he said, rather more patiently than Hanley would have expected. "I know that you're expecting me to run to the top brass with this. But I am telling the truth. And as it happens, I could use your help."

Hanley pulled himself together a little. "My help, sir?"

"Yes. I can't do any of the legwork myself, you see," Mr Smithers said quietly. "I can do a lot of things from my computer here, but when it requires being out and about… well, let's just say, a very fat man can draw attention to himself. Whereas you…"

"I'm nondescript," Hanley nodded. He'd heard that before.

"Exactly," Mr Smithers agreed, looking pleased. "Now, you're going to need to bring me up to speed on things your end, and I'll let you in on the ground floor of my plans, so to speak."

"Richard," Colonel Roslyn said, sticking his head round the door of Manning's office. "Have you got a minute?"

Richard looked up, taken aback. "Colonel," he said, standing and opening the door properly for the man. "Come in. What can I do for you?"

"It's about the Rider boy," Roslyn said, taking a seat uninvited and waiting while Richard reseated himself. "I've got some intel that might interest you."

"Oh?" Richard asked carefully. He didn't know whether to hope or be very, very afraid. "Is he alright?"

"Oh – ah, not news, you understand," Roslyn said, a little uncomfortably. "He's still missing with no word, I'm afraid. But a contact of mine at GCHQ has been in touch with someone on the inside of MI6, and we think we might have something to work with, at long last."

Richard kept quiet for a long moment, unsure where this was going. "What do you mean?" he said finally. Long talks with Gilda after the girls had gone to bed had left him fairly clear on his own stance on the whole mess surrounding Alex, and he knew Roslyn's own feelings on the matter, but he was still more or less in the dark about what was planned. He'd been too caught up in his own feelings on the matter – and Roslyn knew he was too caught up in his feelings – to have been in on any planning that might have been going on.

"Well," Roslyn said slowly. "I've got something that might get the brass onside, at least. It seems the head of SIS – Blunt, I think his name was – has been throwing his weight around too much. He's made enemies inside our own intelligence agencies, muscling in on other people's turf, riding roughshod over people – and they're itching to get rid of him. Alex Rider's testimony could help with that."

"So they want Alex to testify against this Blunt person," Richard summarised. "What if he doesn't know anything about him?"

"According to the intel we've had, he does," Roslyn assured him.

"And how far can we trust that intel?" Richard asked. He might have been nothing more than the SAS camp doctor, but he wasn't stupid, and he knew the importance of trustworthy intelligence.

"That's where it gets interesting," Roslyn said, with a small smile. "Apparently, the insider at MI6 is a friend of yours – the mysterious Hanley who got in touch with you. Claims he's working for someone called Mr Smithers, whoever the hell that is. Whoever he is, Smithers checks out, and he's willing to vouch for Hanley."

"I see," Richard said slowly. "So what's the upshot on this?"

"MI5 and GCHQ are liaising with Command," Roslyn said bluntly. "They want Alex Rider's testimony to get rid of Blunt, which means they want Alex Rider. We're the means to that particular end."

"Why?" Richard asked with a frown.

"Presumably because we actually know the boy," Roslyn shrugged. "MI5's got their own muscle for heavy work, but Rider's not likely to trust any of them, so they want us in on it. And since MI6 has been pretty free with their demands on us, Command's likely to go for it."

"So that's SAS Command, GCHQ and MI5 onside," Richard summarised. "And we're likely to get the go-ahead for some kind of rescue mission?"

"Once we work out what's actually going on," Roslyn agreed. "Once we can get an idea of where they're likely to be holding the boy. And the other children, of course." He shifted a little, looking rather uncomfortable. "The thing is, Richard," he said carefully, "getting the boy out and getting his testimony, that's not the endgame for us, is it?"

Richard didn't even pretend not to know what Roslyn meant. Of course it wasn't the endgame – the endgame was getting Alex safely away from MI6 and any more situations like this one. Everything that had been put in motion so far, from their perspective, was a means to that particular end, and while it was good to have allies for their cause, no one else (as far as they knew) was approaching it quite the way they were. "No. No, it isn't."

"So you and I have to make plans for what happens after we get the boy back." Roslyn paused for a moment, and pursed his lips. "Look, Richard, I'd take him in myself, but that's easy as hell to turn over," he said finally. "I'm not married, my job's dangerous, I don't have any claim to the boy, relationship wise, and I can't provide him with any sort of consistent home-life. Half the time, I don't even leave the base and go back home at night. Whereas you-"

"-I'm married, I'm home regularly, my wife and I are committed parents, and my job doesn't present a significant risk," Richard completed for him. "I know. Actually, Gilda and I have talked about it, in a hypothetical sort of way. But there are complications, Mark. We've got to think of our two girls, and Alex – I mean, I like the kid, seriously. If it were just me and Gilda, this would be easier, I'd take him in a shot, but it's not, and Alex is going to be dealing with significant trauma. I'm not worried he'd hurt our girls, God knows, but it's still a significant disruption for them, and Alex is going to need a lot of care and attention. Which as parents to two other children, we might not be able to give him consistently. And doesn't he have a guardian? I'm sure whoever they are, they won't be happy at him just being given away to people who are, to all intents and purposes, complete strangers."

"You really have put some thought into it, haven't you?" Roslyn said. "It doesn't have to be a permanent thing, you know. We just need to be able to give him a safe, secure place for a bit, and then we can re-evaluate things. And maybe you're right – maybe his guardian is the best person for him, in which case, no harm, no foul. But we need to look into his life and find out about his guardian, see if it's all above-board there. Whether or not whoever they are can protect him, and can deal with everything he's going through."

"I'll talk to Gilda," Richard said, not giving any ground. "We'll see about being your interim stage, at least. And if she thinks it's alright, we'll talk it over with the girls."

"That's all we wanted," Roslyn said, offering him a small smile and standing up. "I'll keep you abreast of everything else that's going on, alright? Once we've got a concrete plan, I'll take you through it. Oh, and keep the lines of communication open with this Hanley chap, would you? I don't want to have to go through GCHQ or MI5 every time we need to get information on what's going on in MI6."

"I'll email back," Richard promised, and nodded at Roslyn as he left. "Thanks for dropping by, Mark."

"Keep on keeping on," Roslyn responded, and left him to think.

He had a hell of a lot to think about, after all.

Toby was nervous and angry, and angry with himself for being nervous. They'd only just moved to London, and this stupid after-school club was just a way for his parents to feel better about moving him across the country, and he didn't have any friends at school yet, and he missed his old school. He missed Bristol and his friends, and he didn't want to do any stupid language clubs with other stupid kids who'd probably be just as stupid and unfriendly as the ones at his new school, which he hated.

He kind of hated his mum, too, and his dad, for getting this new job. Toby didn't care about his dad's new job, or the extra money or anything. He wanted to go home.

He threw himself into a seat next to some stupid girl, and ostentatiously played with his phone. His mum had threatened to take it away from him when he wouldn't stop texting his friends at dinner, but at least he had friends to text, they just weren't here, and then there'd been a row, and now he wished his parents had just left him where he was happy and he just hated everything.

He glared at the girl when she offered him a tentative smile, and she turned away as if she'd been slapped. He felt a little bad about that. It wasn't her fault she lived in London and probably had loads of friends at her school and her parents didn't drag her around the country for new jobs.

"Здравствуйте, ребята," the teacher said cheerfully. "Today we're going to be looking at possessive pronouns in Russian. Now, Russian possessive pronouns agree with the nouns they modify, in gender and number. So, who can tell me what pronoun I would use with карандаш?"

Toby didn't know and he didn't care. This wasn't anything like as much fun as Russian lessons had been back home, with Harry and Zuzanna, and he didn't care.

The girl next to him put her hand up tentatively. "Um, мой?" she asked, and Toby glanced at her.

"Very good, Chloe. Why?"

"Because – it's a singular masculine noun?" she offered, and the teacher smiled.

"Well done. Now, how about these?" She went through a list of nouns, taking answers from the class as to what possessive pronoun it would take, and Toby didn't try to answer any of them. They'd already done possessive pronouns at his old classes, and this was boring. He already knew this stuff.

"Right, class, I'm going to hand around this worksheet," the teacher told them, smiling at them. Toby didn't like her. "And you're going to fill it out. Those of you who get over fifteen of them right get to go to the language labs and listen through to the tapes to identify which pronouns are being used in the listening exercise. Anyone who gets less than that will stay behind to go over it again, alright? And if you feel you'd like to stay for the refresher, feel free."

Toby blitzed through the worksheet in ten minutes flat and glared balefully at his teacher. She wasn't anything as nice as Miss Kozyrev, and Miss Kozyrev had been a better teacher, he was sure.

"All done, Toby?" she said, checking his name on the register and apparently not caring that he was glaring at her. "Why don't you come up and I'll go through the worksheet with you?" He stomped up to the front of the class and shoved the worksheet in front of her. She affected not to notice, checking through his work while he fidgeted in front of her desk. He only just managed not to start rearranging the detritus she had littered across it.

Finally, she looked up and offered him a smile. "Well done, that's full marks," she said, and he absolutely didn't notice that she was really pretty. "If you can just hang on a few minutes, I'll take you and the others through to the language lab. Would you like to read through the next chapter of the textbook, or would you prefer to do the advanced sheet in the meantime?"

OK, Miss Kozyrev would never let a student work ahead of the rest of the class. It was kind of nice, feeling like he was better at this stuff than everyone else, and he couldn't quite resist a small smile. "I'll go through the advanced sheet," he said.

"Alright, then – this one's on the correct use of 'whose'," she told him, handing it over. He glanced down at it – this was all stuff he'd done before, back home.

"We covered this," he said quietly. "At my last language club."

She smiled at him again. Didn't she ever stop? It didn't matter that it was a nice smile. "I thought you might have. Don't worry, the refresher won't do you any harm, and the listening exercises will be different. We'll get onto new material for you soon enough."

"Yes, miss," he agreed, and went back to his seat.

This time, when the girl next to him offered him a smile, he smiled back.

The girl – Chloe, he thought her name was – led the way through to the language labs, and after pausing for a few moments, took the desk next to him, pausing before putting on her headphones.

"I'm Chloe, by the way," she said, tentatively friendly, and Toby nodded back at her. He still wasn't sure he wanted to do with any of the other kids here in London, but that didn't mean he had to be rude.

"Toby," he said simply, and that was that.

But when they'd gone through the tapes and Mrs Green had marked their results, she divided them up into pairs to practise conversation using possessive pronouns, and Toby ended up with Chloe because they'd been sitting next to each other.

"Alright then," Chloe said, with another of her nervous smiles. "Um, do you have your passport?"

Toby checked the sheet in front of him. "Yes, I have my passport. My passport is here. Oh, no, that is his passport. This is my passport." He fidgeted a little, bored, and pulled absently at a loose thread on his fingerless gloves. They'd been a present from Zuzanna when he went away, and he wasn't taking them off unless he absolutely had to.

"Yes, that is your passport," Chloe parroted back at him. "It does not look like mine. My passport is green. Please take your passport back."

"My old Russian lessons were much more interesting than this," Toby muttered, startling a laugh out of Chloe.

"I am sorry you do not like your Russian lessons here," she said, rather stiltedly. "I am liking my Russian lessons. Your Russian is very good."

Toby preened a little. "I like languages," he confided, then sat back, wishing he hadn't. He didn't want to like anyone here, or be friendly with anyone. If his mum or dad found out, they'd go on about how they knew he'd make new friends, and they wouldn't even pretend to care that he didn't want new friends.

Chloe, though, lit up. "Really?" she said brightly. "Me too. That's why my dad lets me come here. It's supposed to be one of the best language schools in London."

"Yeah, I heard that," Toby said, and he did try not to sound dismissive. "You guys are kind of behind where we were at my old one, though."

"Really?" she asked again. "Where had you got to?"

"We were, like, a chapter ahead in Colloquial Russian," Toby told her. "We were doing the nominative case for adjectives."

"Oh, I'm looking forward to that," she gushed. "I kind of want to be able to actually talk about stuff, you know, not just repeat stuff about passports so we get the basics." She paused. "I mean, I know you've got to go through it all to get to the fun stuff. But I'm looking forward to it."

"How long have you been learning?" Toby asked, slouching back in his chair and trying not to sound too interested.

"I've been coming here for about six months?" Chloe said, looking down at her notes. "It was a birthday present from Dad."

"Huh," he said vaguely. "We only just moved here. Pretty sure Mum and Dad only let me come because I kicked up such a fuss about moving."

"Don't you want to be here?" she said sympathetically. "When my Dad spent, like, a year in Dubai, I had to go with him, and I hated it. I was sure everyone would have forgotten me when I got back."

"I don't get to go back," Toby told her moodily, kicking at the table leg. "It's permanent. Mum's all like, 'it's only Bristol, Toby, we'll go back a lot', and I'm like, yeah, but we're not living there anymore. All my friends are there, and-"

"Are you sure this is your suitcase?" Chloe interrupted him suddenly, and he glanced up to see that Mrs Green had come back into the room.

"Yes, this is my suitcase. Do you have your suitcase?" he asked quickly, and they shared a conspiratorial grin when Mrs Green gave them a smile and left. Toby didn't regret it quite as much as he would have done earlier.

"I'm sorry about your friends," Chloe said sincerely, when Mrs Green had disappeared. "That sucks."

"Yeah," Toby agreed with a heavy sigh. "I guess. My new school's rubbish, too."

"Which are you at?" she asked curiously.

"Hatcham College," he said gloomily. "Everyone's already got friends, and I don't know how to get to know anyone."

"No way!" she said, sitting up. "I'm at Habs' Girls, next door."

Toby looked up, frowning at her. "Seriously?"

"Yeah," she said, a little more shyly, tucking her hair behind her ears. "I guess we must live kind of near each other. That's why I'm here. Otherwise I'd have to take someone with me."

"Huh?" Toby asked, confused.

Chloe looked a little embarrassed. "My Dad's, like, super paranoid," she confided. "Makes me go everywhere with a bodyguard if it's too far away or whatever. And this place is near home, you know? Just like school."

"Wow," Toby said, eyes round with astonishment. "A bodyguard? Seriously?"

"Yeah," she sighed. "It sucks so much. No one wants to deal with the kid whose Dad made the school put extra security in place so she could come."

"Wow," Toby said again. "OK, that sucks way more than having to move."

Chloe laughed a little. "Yeah, I know, right? Sorry. I didn't mean to make this, like, all about me."

"No – it's cool," Toby said sincerely.

"Maybe – the schools do mix sometimes, you know," Chloe said, going rather shy again. "Maybe we could eat lunch together or something? If you don't find anyone else with the boys to eat with. I mean, you probably will. But, like, just in case."

Toby sat back, instantly on the defensive. He knew that everyone would say that Chloe was his girlfriend if he sought her out to have lunch with her, and he didn't want that kind of attention. Not while he was new, anyway. But Chloe seemed kind of cool, and she was the first person who'd actually listened to him at all. So. "OK," he said, trying to seem cool and aloof. "Maybe. We'll see, yeah?"

"Oh, yeah, of course," Chloe said, rather flushed, and looked down at her textbook. She had really pretty hair, Toby noticed distantly. "Um, we'd probably better go through some more of these exercises?"

"Yeah," Toby agreed quickly. "My turn to ask questions, right?"

By the time the lesson ended, Toby thought he might quite like Chloe, albeit reluctantly. She was nice – she listened to him, and she was good at Russian, and she was just in general about the only thing that didn't really suck about London. He kind of liked her. Maybe. Whatever. He wasn't telling Mum and Dad anyway.

"I'll see you sometime at school then, yeah?" he offered tentatively when they were waiting outside for their respective lifts.

"Yeah," Chloe agreed, with another of her shy smiles. Toby quite liked those smiles. "I hope so. Don't forget the homework."

"Oh, um, yeah," Toby agreed, flushing, and fiddling with a scrap of paper. "Look, I've done this bit before, right? So, I thought, like, um. If you wanted any help or anything. Here's my number. If you want it. You know." He held out the bit of paper – he'd written the number down like half an hour ago and had been trying to work out how to give it to her.

She flushed brightly. "Oh, thanks," she said, rather awkwardly, but then gave him a blinding smile. Toby really liked that smile. "I'll text you, OK?"

"Yeah," he said, sure he was almost as flushed as she was. "See you around, Chloe. Thanks. My Mum's here, I gotta go, but – thanks."

Toby climbed into the car, smiled at Chloe again, and shut the door.

And Alex let the mask wash away from him.

"She's got my number," he told the woman in the front seat, the one who was supposed to be his mother for this horrifying charade.

"Good," she grunted. "I will tell Andrei. If she texts you, you will be allowed the phone."

"Oh, thanks," Alex said ironically, and leant back against the seat of the car. It had been an exhausting few days. First, there had been all the information on his cover to read and assimilate – he couldn't allow himself to tell Chloe Osmond one thing then contradict it later by accident – and then he had to actually create the cover character. Toby was, as far as Alex was concerned, kind of a little shit, but he seemed more or less like most other teenage boys, and God only knew Alex had enough practice being one of them. He was a bit bratty, a bit image-conscious, and kind of self-centred, but basically a decent guy.

Decent enough that Chloe Osmond liked him, anyway, and Alex hated himself just that little bit more.

He was all but thrown back into the room with the other kids, but Tom and Charlotte greeted him with outright relief, and even Will and Joe looked a little reassured by his return. They were all piled onto the bed nearest the bathroom, where they'd piled up sofa cushions, pillows and duvets to make a pillow fort, and they all seemed to have been reading in there.

Alex offered them a tired smile. "One day down," he said, and didn't let any of them see how drained he felt. He had to hold everything together. "How's it been? Nice blanket fort, by the way."

"Thought you'd like it," Tom said cheerily. "There's room for one more, if you like?"

"Yeah," Alex agreed. "I'm just going to take a shower. Gimme, like, fifteen minutes? I'll be right out."

Tom frowned a little, but let him go, and Alex made his way into the bathroom without any further questioning. It was a relief to have some time to himself – to be allowed a little time to deal with everything without having to answer questions or put on a front.

God, he was tired.

And his hand still hurt like hell.

Once he'd showered he felt a little better, even if it did nothing to ease the grimy feeling his interactions with Chloe had given him, or to ease the throbbing pain in his hand. He felt dirty in a way he never had before, and he hated it. Still, he felt at least a little and better able to face the other kids, if nothing else. And they had, at least, caught onto his suggestions about the blanket fort, and that was good too.

Taking a deep breath and steeling himself a little, he stepped back out into the main room. The other kids were still inside the surprisingly spacious blanket fort – it looked as thought pretty much every piece of soft furnishing in the room had been used to construct it, and Alex smiled a little.

"That's a seriously thorough piece of work," he said lightly, and Tom preened just a bit.

"Thanks," he said smugly. "Took us hours. You coming in?"

"Didn't anyone come into check on you when you all disappeared inside?" Alex asked, pausing to glance round the room, careful not to stare at any of the cameras.

"Nah," Will said simply, his voice rather muffled by all the cushions and blankets that made up the blanket fort. "We made such a fuss over building it, they pretty much knew where we were."

"We'll get it down to an art eventually," Tom said confidently. "We're going to build another tomorrow."

"S'more fun than anything else we can do," Joe agreed gloomily. "Are you coming in or not?"

Alex climbed into the blanket fort and let himself get comfortable. "It's really good, guys," he said again, admiring it from the inside this time. "You should try building it on the floor, though – less chance of things falling off the bed." It was a clumsy sort of code, but since they didn't know if the cameras could relay sound as well as visuals, they couldn't risk being too overt about it. He hadn't even told the other kids what he was planning – he'd just told them to build a fort of some kind.

Charlotte gave him a sharp look, but said nothing; it fell to Will to speak up. "Yeah, but the floor's less comfy," he pointed out. "And it's not that big a room."

Alex nodded. "Yeah, but you could always try the corner over between mine and Tom's bed, and yours, Will. Build it against the wall, you know? Then you've only got to worry about two walls. And it won't fall apart as easily. You could always put some of the things on the floor. Tom, you know what I mean. The place I mean, that is."

Tom caught his eye, nodded, and very deliberately shoved at one of the sofa cushions that made up the wall.

The fort fell apart around them, and in the scramble to get out that followed, Alex managed to hiss at Joe and Will not to give away that Tom had deliberately sabotaged their fort.

"Oh well," he said, as they all stood back and surveyed the wreckage that had been their fort, shrugging and trying not to make his movements look too staged. "I guess it wasn't really made for five people."

"Yeah," Tom agreed slowly. "But if we – I mean, I guess you're right, if we didn't have to worry about building all four walls, we could make it bigger, you know?"

"Yes, Harris, we know," Joe said, long-suffering and condescending in a way that made Alex itch to slap him. "Rider pretty much already sai-"

Alex shoved him. "Shut up," he hissed, low and threatening and careful to keep his face shielded from the cameras. "He's doing what I asked. Now shove me back, make it look like a school fight, OK?"

Joe didn't need to be told twice, and shoved Alex back. He clearly didn't get what Alex was talking about, but he was just as clearly very willing to get into a fight.

Charlotte intervened, quicker on this particular uptake than either Will or Tom. "Stop it, both of you!" she said sharply. "Don't we have enough to worry about without the two of you beating each other up? God!"

They parted, glaring at each other but shamefaced. Alex was pretty sure Joe wasn't faking it – he wasn't all that good an actor.

Tom cleared his throat, glancing between them. "All I was going to say," he said rather uncertainly, "was that if we build the new one over there, we've got two walls already in place, you know?" He gestured at the corner Alex had mentioned earlier.

They all turned and looked at it.

"I s'pose that'd work," Joe said ungraciously.

"Good thinking," Will agreed, and Charlotte just nodded briskly.

"Come on then," she said. "We've got hours before any of us get tired – let's build a new fort."

It took forty-five minutes of conflicting ideas, brief spats and in-fighting before the new blanket fort was complete, but by the time it was up, Alex was pretty sure it had to be one of the solidest ever created. It was vast, too – easily big enough for five teenagers.

More importantly, though – most importantly, in fact – it had been built right over the entrance to one of the cupboards set into the room's walls.

Alex had given a lot of thought to those wall cupboards.

They were set low in the wall, beginning at the floor and ending where the slope of the roof began. The doors were wood – solid, as far as Alex could tell, but with no additional fancy work that he could see, no reinforcements or alarms of any kind – and they had been padlocked shut, with a hefty lock that wouldn't budge in the face of violence.

But they weren't pickproof. If a prisoner could get their hands on something they could use to pick a lock with, the padlocks could be dealt with.

Of course, in the normal run of things, any attempt to pick one of the locks would be seen by the cameras and dealt with early – and anyway, it wasn't likely that anyone held in this room would be able to find something to use to pick them with. But no one had bargained on the behaviours of children. The people watching them might know not to underestimate Alex, but they wouldn't think much about the other kids building a fort and camping out in it.

Of course, building a fort right over the cupboards just minutes after Alex got back might look suspicious, but Alex had a plan for that.

"I'm going to need you to push me away," he muttered to Will under the guise of picking up a couple of books that had fallen off the bed during one of the pillow fights. "No, don't look like that – the cameras really can see you, you know. Just shove me, tell me I can't come into the fort, alright?"

"Seriously?" Will mumbled back. "What are we, five?"

"Just do it, OK?" Alex sighed, and turned round to choose his own book for the night.

When he tried to get in, though, Will grabbed his arm, glaring at him. It was a surprisingly convincing performance.

"You can't come in," he snapped. "Joe and I pretty much built this by ourselves, and it was our idea anyway. I don't want you in there."

"Hey," Tom began, instantly firing up in Alex's defence, and Alex held up a hand to stop him, raising one eyebrow at Will, looking amused.

"Seriously?" he said, smiling a little. "You're really going to get territorial over a pillow fort?"

Will flushed a little but held his ground. "I don't want you in there," he repeated obstinately, and Alex shrugged.

"Jesus, fine," he said simply. "Whatever. You really think I care?"

Tom glanced between them, then glared at Will in his turn. "I don't want any part of your stupid fort anyway either," he declared, and threw himself onto the bed. "But I want our pillows and duvet back!"

Joe threw them at him. "Have them," he sneered. "God, even if this wasn't, like, the worst thing that's ever happened to me, I'd be looking forward to getting out just to get away from your whining, Harris."

Tom shot upright, about to respond, and Alex dragged a hand over his face. "Oh my God, enough," he said wearily. "I'm sorry the idea of blanket forts ever even came up, seriously. Let's just all shut up, alright?"

He threw himself onto the bed and opened his book.

For ten minutes silence reigned.

A low murmur told them that Will and Joe were chatting in the blanket fort. Charlotte put her book down to go to the loo, leaving Tom and Alex more or less alone in the room.

"Wanna tell me what that was about?" Tom asked Alex, in a low murmur, his lips hardly moving.

Alex didn't look at him. "Suspicious, if I get in there tonight," he said in the same low voice. "Tomorrow. I'll start on it tomorrow."

"How are you, really?" Tom asked in a more normal voice, and Alex pretended he didn't notice the sudden lull to the murmur of conversation between Will and Joe. "I mean. You've been pretty tired and off the last few days."

"I know," Alex agreed. "It's been – hard. But it's OK. I'm OK, Tom. Really." He let his voice drop again, careful to keep his face shielded from onlookers. "I'm going to get us out of here."

"You know it's not your responsibility, right?" Tom said, taking his cue from Alex, volume-wise. "And we're going to be being searched for. We'll get rescued."

Alex highly doubted that, but he didn't want to destroy Tom's illusions – god only knew it was important that the other kids had some hope, at least, or they'd go mad stuck in the room for days on end. "Yeah," he said instead, even though the words felt heavy in his mouth. "Yeah, maybe."

In a warm kitchen nearly two hundred miles away, a very different conversation was taking place.

Richard had mentioned to Gilda that at some point they'd need to have another talk about 'the Alex thing', but what little free time they'd had over the last few days had either been spent with their daughters, or trying to recoup and relax, and there had never been a moment. Thankfully, at least, their days weren't normally like that – Gilda had had a series of end-of-term reviews to sort out for the school she worked at, and the flu at the camp had kept Richard late almost every day for the last couple of weeks. Normally, they had more downtime together.

But Gilda was on top of her reviews now; the flu was dying down at the camp; they'd had a family tea and the girls had been put to bed. Neither of them was particularly stressed or tired.

In effect, they'd run out of excuses. Or Richard had, at least.

He knew academically that he'd been putting off having this conversation with his wife. He knew that he'd spent far, far more time around Alex than she had – he had had far more of an opportunity to bond with the boy. For his own part, he liked Alex a great deal and wanted to help him, and if becoming his guardian after a week's acquaintance with the kid was perhaps going a little further than he'd anticipated, it wasn't actually a step he was unwilling to take.

But as he'd told Roslyn, it wasn't a decision he could make by himself. So he'd been avoiding the conversation because he wanted to take Alex in, and he was almost certain that Gilda wasn't going to go for it.

Worst of all, he certainly couldn't blame her for that.

"Alright," Gilda said when he reappeared in the sitting room with the tea. "We should probably have that talk you've been putting off."

He gave her a guilty look, handing her her tea and taking a seat next to her on the sofa. "It's just that what I want and what's sensible are two very different things in this case."

"OK," she said encouragingly, tucking her feet up under her on the sofa and turning a little to look at him. "What do you want, then? Let's start there."

"I should have known marrying a psychiatrist was a bad idea," he said, smiling at her. "What I want… what I want is to help the poor boy. I liked him."

"Well, so did I, for that matter," Gilda agreed. "But I only met him for an hour or so. You were in close contact with him for a week. And you liked him?"

"I really did," Richard admitted. "He's a good kid."

"Mm," Gilda nodded slowly. "So you want to help him. But what is it that you're wanting to do?"

"Well," he said slowly. "The thing is, love, there's a chance – just a chance – that he could end up without a guardian and at the mercy of the bastards who're taking advantage of him. I mean, I don't know what his current guardianship is – he might have parents for all we know."

"But if he doesn't?" she asked, pressing him to actually get to the point.

Richard took a deep breath, and came out and said it. "It's been suggested that we take him in. And I'd like to do it." Gilda was silent for a long moment, and he returned his gaze to his tea. "Like I said," he went on, "I don't think it's sensible. But it's what I want to do."

"I knew you were a good man when I married you," Gilda said thoughtfully. "But you're not a bleeding heart for every sob story that crosses your path, so this is serious. Thing is, pet, it's a hell of an upheaval for our girls, don't you think? If it were just the two of us, it'd be doable. But add another child in, a severely traumatised child at that… I just don't know."

"I know," Richard said, frustrated, more with himself than with Gilda. "I know all that, that's the problem. I can't make sense of this. I keep going backwards and forwards on it, it's driving me mad. I know all the reasons why it's a terrible idea, and I still want to do it. What does that say about me? When Sally was born, we both said we'd always do what was best for any child of ours. How is this what's best for them?"

"Seems to me, the problem is you already think of Alex as yours, in a way," Gilda said wisely, smiling gently at him. "It's natural enough, you know. The week you spent looking after him at the camp was very intense, after all, and you were the only one trying to protect him the way a parent or guardian would – the way you'd protect Sally or Lizzie. So your brain's telling you that this child is someone you want to look after the way you look after our kids."

Richard acknowledged the point with a nod, leaning forwards with his elbows on his knees. Gilda put a hand supportively on his back, and left it there. "You're not wrong," he admitted, warmed by her calm support and acceptance, as he always was. "But that's how I feel. It's not how you feel, and I can't ask you to parent him with me when you've got no – no bond with him yourself."

Gilda took time to consider the point, the way she always did. "You're right; I don't have a bond like yours with him," she agreed slowly. "If anything, I see him more as a patient of mine right now than anything else. But I wouldn't be against taking him in, you know. I liked him, and we can at least be absolutely sure that he would never do anything to hurt the girls – he's fairly obviously torn up about what he's been made to do."

"If I was worried about that, I'd never have brought it up," Richard nodded.

"I know, love," she said, with a quick smile. "So we don't have to worry about him being violent, or anything like that – provided he's stable enough, mentally. At a guess, he could well be traumatised enough to lash out at you or me. Not the girls, I don't think, but that'd be upsetting for them to see, and upsetting for him to deal with afterwards." She paused again, considering it. "You want to take him in, right?" He nodded, knowing that going over old ground like this was one of the ways Gilda liked to work her way through things. "And you're worried that's not a good decision for our family, and you're worried that even asking's going to upset me."

"Well. Maybe not upset," he corrected thoughtfully. "But it's a hell of a thing to ask. More than I'd ask of anyone. It doesn't seem fair on you. Saying no to taking in a kid like Alex makes you the bad guy, when it's a perfectly sensible decision."

"Mm, I can see why you'd think of it like that," she agreed, shifting on the sofa so that she could lean against him companionably. "So let's think about it. I don't know the boy, that's a problem. It's difficult for me to agree either way when I only met him once. But I did hear a lot about him from you when he was up at the camp, so he's not exactly a stranger to me."

"Not really the same, though, is it?"

"No," Gilda agreed slowly. "But then, you know, I don't know that it'd ever be the same, would it? I mean, if he comes to live with us and we end up as his guardians, it's not going to be the same as Sally or Lizzie, you know?" She caught the look on his face, and knocked her shoulder against his. "I don't mean it like that, you idiot," she said firmly. "I mean, our experience of parenting so far has been with two kids who've been ours from birth. Alex has a whole history – parts of it difficult and traumatising – from before he even knew us. We've got to take that into account so we can look after him as best we can, if we end up doing this."

"That's true," he admitted. "And in a lot of ways, you're better suited to this than I am. I like the kid – I mean, it's far too early to tell, but I could see myself loving him the way I fell in love with Sally and Lizzie from the moment I saw them. But it is different, isn't it?"

"Whole different way of building a relationship," she nodded. "The bonding experience is completely different. Alright then, pros and cons."

"Well, cons: we've only known him a week."

"That is a sticker, isn't it?" Gilda said thoughtfully. "Particularly for you, love, no offence. But at a guess, that's more because you feel bad about how little time I've spent with him, rather than about how you feel, hm?" He nodded, not in the habit of lying to his wife. "And I'm guessing time isn't exactly on our side when it comes to arranging guardianship, if it comes to that."

Richard had already brought her up to speed on everything Roslyn had told him – she'd been as worried as he had when Alex's emails had stopped, and she'd been silent for a whole half-hour after he'd told her about Alex's abduction, a sure sign that she was both worried and furious and was trying to talk herself down. "I wouldn't have thought so," he hedged.

Gilda had a strangely endearing knack of laughing at him with her whole body without ever making a sound, and she was making full use of it. "Cautious bastard," she mocked fondly, and turned back to the problem at hand, her posture relaxing again. "Well, if it comes to it, we can get to know him. I mean, you think he's a good kid, and all my professional and personal instincts agree with you, so I don't think we have to worry that we'll take him in, get to know him and then find that we actually dislike him. That would be a real shitter." She actually managed to surprise him into a laugh at that, and she grinned, triumphant. "So what we've got is a good kid who you like and I really think I could like who might need a home in a hurry."

"Well, basically, yeah," he agreed. "But let's be honest: Alex isn't the problem here. He's a nice, kind, thoughtful kid – we both agree on that. The problem isn't with him, it's whether or not it's practical for us. I mean, we've got two other kids to think about it, and that's not the only problem, after all."

"Sure," she agreed. "If we do this, we've got to prepare Sally and Lizzie for a stranger coming into our house – their home. We've got to get them used to the idea of sharing their parents with another child. And we've got to work out how to deal with Alex's needs on top of the normal day-to-day parenting our two need."

"And that's without even thinking about any of the real nitty-gritty of it," Richard said, sighing. "I mean, obviously he'll sleep in the spare room, but when he's ready for it, he'll need to go to school – probably Jesus College, I'd have thought, he's definitely bright enough, but that's got to be factored in. We've got to see whether or not they'll give him the same fees discount that our two get, even though we'd only be his guardians."

"And whether or not the school would be a good fit for him," Gilda said thoughtfully. "He might need the comfort of going somewhere nearer home for the time being, even if it's not going to push him as much, academically. We don't even know what sort of standard he's at, school-wise – his schooling's clearly been disrupted over the last year or so."

"Can we afford another child?" Richard asked thoughtfully. "I mean, I know money's not exactly tight, but there's always ten things to do with every pound we earn."

"I don't think we need to worry too much about that," Gilda said comfortably. "We can make it work, if it's what he wants, and what we want. But we need to decide that sooner rather than later. If nothing else, we've got to start prepping the girls for someone else to be in our family."

Richard stared at her for a moment. "You'd really be OK with this?" he asked slowly. "You're really alright with the idea of taking in a deeply traumatised fourteen year old on my say-so?"

"Not just on your say-so, boy-o," she countered. "I've met him too, remember? And I think we could really help him – be a grounding point for him. If we can do it, I want to. I really don't think it's such a stupid idea, or as impossible as you thought."

Richard lent over and kissed her. "You are the best person I know," he said simply.

"Don't you forget it," she grinned. "But I think you're pretty great too, you know."

"We could always give it a trial run," Richard offered, keen to make sure Gilda didn't feel pushed into anything or end up resenting him for their decision at a later date. "You know, if it doesn't work out, look into finding something else?"

She shook her head. "That's the one thing we can't do," she said firmly. "This isn't a normal fostering arrangement, is it? And I think what Alex really needs right now is some permanence, some stability. We can't pretend to offer it then take it away if it doesn't work. He's too bright not to realise what we're doing and he'll be walking on eggshells around us." She shook her head again, decisively this time. "No, if we do this, we've got to be prepared to do it for the long haul. If it's not working out, we'll take steps, but we can't go into it thinking it's only a short-term solution."

He leant over and kissed her. "I love you," he said sincerely. Even after twelve years of marriage, he wasn't sure he could ever say it enough.

"I love you too," she told him with a smile. "Now let's talk specifics while you do the washing up. And tomorrow, when we've worked everything out, you can tell Roslyn that we'll take Alex in if it's necessary."

So there it is! All 27 000 odd words of it. (And what odd words they are.) I really am sorry about that scene with Andrei and the cane, though. It was seriously unpleasant to write it, but though this be madness, yet there is method in't. Sorry to do that to y'all at Christmas, though.

Also, I don't recommend taking in a child you've known for a week, or, in Gilda's case, an hour. However, the joy of fiction in this particular instance is that I can tell little things like logic to fuck off. (This is not true in the general run of fiction, where logic is really very important. In this instance, however, I wanted a thing to happen and so it will happen, because this is my story and I am its god. Also, I will hammer you over the head with where this is going, because subtlety is overrated.)

(This isn't where I intended this chapter to end, but once again like Topsy it just growed... to 27241 words. So it's now going to be split into two chapters, and god knows how many we have to go before the story ends. I would have said about three, but honestly, this was supposed to be like half a chapter so it'll probably be about 18 more chapters before we're done - and then there's epilogues...

So many epilogues.)

All that aside, I hope you enjoyed it! And a very merry Christmas to everyone who celebrates it, and I wish every single one of you the very best of times in 2016 - may it bring you many every-day joys.

amitai xxx